Sunday, October 31, 2010

Vibrant Dance Symposium

Opportunities for gracious, Christ honoring dialogue related to the intersection of science and Christian faith extended over three days last week in Austin, Texas. I was privileged to attend. The mission of “The Vibrant Dance of Faith and Science” symposium was to provide pastors, church leaders, scientists, and interested lay people with quality, accessible explanations of the relationship between science and Christianity.

Gathering the best minds together in a single venue offers an unparalleled opportunity for exchanging ideas in the crucible of a lively and respectful personal exchange. Participants were able to discover each other’s personal paths to faith as well as their reasons for embracing various locations along the faith/science interface.

Three main positions were represented by the invited speakers: (1) Concordism, (2) Intelligent Design, and (3) Theistic Evolution. Intelligent Design and Theistic Evolution are generally well understood. Randall Isaac, executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), a diverse group of Christians in science professions, states that Concordism “seeks to equate the interpretation of biblical passages with scientific observations.”

Concordists were represented by Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana from Reasons to Believe. Intelligent Design proponents were Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer and William Dembski. Theistic evolutionists were represented by BioLogos Foundation president Darrel Falk and biophysicist/theologian Alister McGrath. There were at least twenty other well known scientists and theologians on the roster of speakers. Dinesh D’Souza spoke on a variety of related topics.

I find myself generally in agreement with William Dembski who had stated last summer, “It’s perhaps unfortunate that no young-earth creationists were invited to this event. Young earth creationism is a very widely accepted position among conservative Christians, so by not inviting any of its proponents, any attempt at theological unification will accordingly be limited.” Perhaps symposium organizers sought to avoid rancorous exchanges which sometimes characterize discussions related to creation time scales. All symposium participants accepted the responsible findings of mainstream science with respect to the vast age of our earth and universe.

Old earth, Day-Age creationists and Intelligent Design advocates respectfully disagreed with the theistic evolutionists on how changes in earth life have occurred over the geologic timeline. The former groups see occasional creative, transcendent interventions within earth history. Theistic evolutionists tend to view such changes as naturalistic events occurring under divine providence.

My judgment is that the goal of achieving collegiality and respect for one another as members of the body of Christ was successfully fulfilled. In particular, personal testimonies offered by several presenters were well received. The speakers are gifted, articulate communicators. Our moving, collective worship sessions were enhanced by music and visuals which heightened our love and awe for the Creator and Sustainer of all things. The same Creator and Sustainer is also the Redeemer of mankind (Isaiah 54:5).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Observing Is Believing

The universe we observe is a physical universe, created transcendently by God from outside our currently observed dimensions of time, space, matter, and energy. God is not confined to the dimensions we observe. He exists beyond them in dimensions we do not experience. But He also exists in our physical dimensions. Humanity observed Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity.

Since God created our universe with its time, space, matter, and energy, one would expect Him to leave behind observable, telltale signs of His work, just as we would expect an artist or artisan to do. New Testament disciples Thomas and Philip (John 14:11) had difficulty believing in Christ as the revelation of the Father. Christ provided a mundane “learning aid.” He implored them, “At least believe the evidence of the miracles themselves.” Observing the incarnate Son of God, what He said and what He did, helped them judge the truth of His divinity. Their conclusions were supported by physical evidence.

Those who perceive intelligent design (ID) in our cosmos and in our living systems base their judgment on observations of the physical realm. Even as Christ urged His disciples to believe based on His works, so we may observe the complex, ordered, functional systems surrounding us. It is not difficult to perceive plentiful and overwhelming evidence of design.

What is simple and credible to some observers does not seem simple and credible to others. They may, by an act of their will, reject the idea of a physical order intelligently designed by a supernatural agent. Others complain that ID is religion because God must enter the discussion. Some may grumble that we should not conclude the reality of ID based on scientific principles because ID is not legitimate science.

Objections to ID are not limited to secularists. Some thoughtful theists do not possess a vision of ID as an apologetic tool either within the church or outside its doors. It is surely true that the full message of God’s love and redemption for man is not revealed merely by inspecting the order and design of the cosmos.

The path to belief in God is traveled by scholars of history, philosophy, theology, and science, to name a few disciplines. The knowledge provided by each of these fields is God-gifted. The structure of our faith and belief system is supported in multidimensional ways. Observation of the design features of our universe and its life forms is one of the strong support pillars of that structure.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Politics of Intelligent Design

Political campaigns are both amusing and depressing. Ideally, different viewpoints on political issues and proposed solutions for the challenges of governing should be showcased. Instead, obscure past statements, beliefs, and actions of the candidates are touted as campaign issues; what the candidate would do to solve the problems of government sometimes becomes secondary. Outrageous charges often supersede the truth and coherent solutions to the day’s significant problems are not offered and considered.

So it is with the concept of intelligent design (ID) which posits that the order, design, and successful functioning of the cosmos and its life forms are best explained as the product of an intelligent mind operating at some time in the past, setting things in motion. Christian supporters of the ID concept would acclaim the Judeo-Christian God of scripture as the designer. Other religions could legitimately be considered proponents of ID, but their designer may not be the God of Christian scripture.

Consider the term “design.” Observing the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C., no one would deny that design is apparent. It has interdependent elements such as pattern, structure, arrangement, and function. Our conclusion of a past operational intelligence is inescapable, so the design is qualified as “intelligent.” By analogy, living systems manifest similar design features. Therefore, ID believers feel justified believing an intelligent agent acted in the past to design and create the systems.

Those opposed to the idea of ID in the natural world raise such points as (1) ID is a “cover” to promote supernatural creationism, particularly young earth, six-day creationism, (2) ID is a religious concept and, therefore, has no place in a scientific discussion, and (3) ID is not legitimate science. Other points have been raised with respect to ID, even by creationist Christians. There are issues worthy of discussion with respect to each of these points. Each one, when enthusiastically proclaimed by the media, repels segments of the population who might otherwise consider ID on its own merits, whether or not it fits under the definitional umbrella of modern science.

Just as a worthy candidate for political office could unfairly lose support by the revelation of a youthful indiscretion, so ID has lost favor due to the strident objections mentioned above. Other philosophical objections await discussion.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Affirming Divine Being

As we consider the history of the Jews described in the Pentateuch, we may experience frustration at the unbelief and unfaithfulness of the Chosen People. They witnessed many transcendent events including the miraculous parting of the waters during their departure from Egypt, the lengthy provision of manna, and the divine inscription of the stone tablets.

The New Testament era populace witnessed the transcendent miracles of Jesus and the apostles. Notwithstanding, there were relatively few believers. Some of us in the modern era may scorn such persistent unbelief in the face of these miraculous manifestations. Jesus himself said, “Believe the miracles, that you may learn and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (John 10:38 NIV). In the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:31) Jesus repeated the sad truth that many people will not believe “even if someone rises from the dead.”

Modern era people no longer witness the transcendent miracles experienced by the ancient Israelites or New Testament Palestine. Discoveries of reality in the realm of physical and biological systems, however, amount to “miracles” of a different order. Residents of several millennia past had no concept of the precision of physical constants, predictable operation of the laws of science, or the beauty and complexity of body cells in their structure and function. Had they been able to preview the future, perhaps they would also have concerns about us. Why do so many of our contemporaries fail to appreciate the role of a designer? And why are so many indifferent to searching for the Designer/Creator’s plan for mankind?

God has revealed himself in the flow of various events throughout history. These events have been recorded by reliable witnesses. Modern man possesses not only the trustworthy written record of transcendent miracles to affirm the reality of the Divine Being, but also plentiful recently uncovered scientific knowledge of the operation of the Creator heretofore hidden. If the Psalmist could exclaim, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me” (Psalm 139) when he considered God’s omniscience in knowing his thought life from afar, and recognized God’s ability to knit him together in his mother’s womb, how much more meaningful are such statements in light of discoveries of modern science?

Thoughtful reflection about design in our environment leads us to consider the various ways God has chosen to make his Divine Being and work known to man. Old and New Testament miracles and today’s knowledge of apparent design and function in the natural world can be (1) denied, (2) recognized but dismissed, or (3) accepted and embraced as one of many ways God chooses to reveal himself to humanity. The choice among these three options has been available to man from the day of his creation.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Inferring Design

Modern design arguments hark back to early proponents of design such as William Derham (1657-1735) and William Paley (1743-1805). Derham wrote Physico-theology, subtitled A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from His Works of Creation. William Paley presented an even more famous exposition of the teleological (design) proposal for God’s existence in Natural Theology. Even Charles Darwin, in his early years, professed to be convinced by Paley’s argument from design.

There have always been spirited objections to arguments for God’s existence and actions based on identification of apparent design. Some objections are thoughtful and reasoned while others are rooted in antagonism toward theism. Historically, it is instructive to look back at William Paley’s argument from design, illustrated by the Watchmaker argument, and study the sort of objections offered in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Philosopher/skeptic David Hume expressed doubt that causes could be inferred from effects. With the limited scientific knowledge of that day, analogical arguments did not resonate with him. This related to his commitment to empiricism, his doubt about the reality of miracles, and many other positions rooted in his skepticism. His beliefs flourished in the intellectual freedom of The Enlightenment.

The modern intelligent design movement has been with us formally for only about twenty years. But in reality, similar arguments in one form or another have been prevalent for centuries. Some believers in the principle that design points to a designer are pre-suppositionalists who hold “properly basic beliefs” (true intrinsic beliefs which demand no evidence). For such people, belief comes easy. The existence of apparent design is all they need to establish their faith in the reality of God.

Modern skeptics embrace many of the same arguments against design posed by David Hume and others during The Enlightenment. One could wonder how effective Hume’s anti-design arguments really are today. Empirical evidence is beyond plentiful and scientific skills of drawing inferences have been refined. Knowledge of the precision of the physical constants and the fine-tuning of the cosmos has increased a thousand-fold. Likewise, modern knowledge of the structure and function of bio-chemically complex life systems stretches our imagination.

We caution readers not to rely solely on scientific evidence to affirm the reality of God’s existence and acts, regardless of how strong such evidence appears to be. The truth of historical events, the credibility of special revelation, reason and philosophy, and yes, even the affirming quality of properly basic beliefs, all contribute to our belief system and affirm our worldview. We must make a diligent effort to be sure that our beliefs are true. Only then can we be sure we have acquired knowledge.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Questions on Common Ancestry

While secular scientists are busy attributing the apparent fine tuning of the universe to chance or the multiverse hypothesis, many bio-scientists are explaining the diversity of earth’s life in terms of common ancestry and naturalistic evolution. But traditional confidence in naturalistic mechanisms to explain cosmic design and earth’s biodiversity has been eroding.

Support for the notion of an evolutionary common ancestor has traditionally rested on anatomical similarities such as organ structure. This study is known as homology. Similarity in organ structure and function was inferred to indicate common ancestry. Biologists traditionally constructed branching tree diagrams suggesting common origin.

In more recent years evolutionary trees have also been drawn based on increasing knowledge of DNA sequences. Identical or similar nucleotide sequences in the DNA of different organisms supposedly indicate common ancestry in the distant past, even among creatures now physically dissimilar; the greater the similarity, the more recent the ancestor. Differences supposedly arose through the ages by the theorized processes of mutation and natural selection.

On paper, such ancestral genealogical trees appear convincing. Nearly the entire bioscience community has been convinced. Students are assured of the "fact" of common ancestry and of evolution, reinforced by ancestral tree graphics. Such tree diagrams prove nothing in themselves. Common ancestry concepts and graphics which illustrate them are not self-proving, whether they rely on old-fashioned homology or on more recent knowledge of DNA sequencing.

Several red flags of doubt concerning common ancestry have been raised in recent years. Two troubling mysteries for evolutionary biologists center in the terms convergence and horizontal gene transfer. According to biochemist Fazale Rana, convergence is the occurrence of “nearly identical anatomical and physiological characteristics” in otherwise unrelated organisms. According to theory, evolutionary outcomes occur by a succession of unpredictable, chance events. Virtually identical structural characteristics in unrelated species, therefore, should be exceedingly rare, but they occur with surprising frequency. The identical echolocation ability in bats and toothed whales, for instance, is highly unexpected, as is winning the lottery multiple times.

The evolutionary case for common ancestry is also weakened by the recent discovery of a phenomenon known as horizontal gene transfer. Rana writes, “Horizontal gene transfer refers to any mechanism that transfers genetic material from one organism to another, without the recipient being the offspring of the donor. Because of horizontal gene transfer (when viewed from an evolutionary standpoint), organisms unrelated by common descent will share the same DNA sequences." It appears the mechanisms of horizontal gene transfer are transposons, pieces of DNA able to move around or into the genomes of different organisms. There is good evidence that the shared transposons are transferred from animal to animal by parasites.

What is the meaning of such developing uncertainties in the “common ancestor” hypothesis? Creation scientist Rana proposes that common anatomical and physiological characteristics and common DNA sequences could be more convincingly ascribed to the deliberate work of a creator, the God described in Holy Scripture. The repeated use of identical, optimum, common design features and the multiple presence of the same DNA code sequences across various species, speaks more convincingly of the deliberate use of a common design template than a chance, undirected series of events.

The repeated use of optimum design features is a practice common to intelligent, human activity. Improving a system by inputting new information is also customary. When we look at the record of life on earth, past and present, the conclusion that a transcendent mind operates is far more rational than ascribing purposeless, chance events to explain what we observe.