Friday, July 29, 2011

Something to Crow About

Biologists who endorse neither intelligent design nor theistic acts of creation along the cosmic timeline may nonetheless marvel at the wonder of living things--their structure and their function. For those who are interested in science there are two levels of study. First, we observe the appearance and behavior of the life around us. Second, we study their biochemical characteristics, including their genetic makeup. Our inquiries trigger deeper questions about why the animals have their unique characteristics, how their inheritance is passed along, and the history of that particular species. Whether we are students of behavior or biochemistry, the living things around us provide plenteous fascination.

Residential neighborhoods provide an abundant supply of wonder-provoking creatures if we take time and effort to discover and study them. This spring I was reaffirmed in my admiration for crows, a bird some may despise. Even if we believe they are not the most beautiful members of the animal world, we may agree with the New World Encyclopedia claim: “With their intelligence and unique behavior, they add to the wonder of nature for humans.” In my youth I recall the distrust neighborhood farmers had for crows and their omnivorous penchant for consumption of some favored crops and seeds. In reality, their eating habits were probably more blessing than bane.

Last spring I observed a group of about a dozen crows in my neighborhood. They repeatedly swooped down from the taller trees in our yard and headed deliberately toward a single, unknown spot concealed in our back woods. I never located the exact spot, but I believe the area became their nursery. They were preparing a colonial nesting site. Older siblings sometimes assist in nest building and feeding of young. Over several weeks I listened to their diverse vocalizations and watched their playful mid-air jousting sessions. They were obviously entertaining themselves. We shared their joie de vivre. I observed their sedate search of our lawn and driveway for dietary variety, and watched from my office window while they tentatively drank at our birdbath. After a few weeks we heard adolescent crow vocalizations and later observed a few parental tutorials on our house roof.

Crows are an integral part of our ecosystem. They have been known to fashion and use tools and can be trained to imitate the human voice. Many years ago I captured a young specimen for a friend who wanted a unique pet. Fear of crows owing to their size and color is unwarranted. Their talents, intelligence, and usefulness should arouse our admiration instead.

Many animals manifest the quality of “soulishness.” Reasons to Believe founder Hugh Ross states, “Soulish life includes creatures in which God endowed mind, will, and emotions so that they can form relationships with members of their own species as well as with human beings. God designed soulish animals so that each kind serves and/or pleases humanity in its own distinct way.” In Genesis 1 there are three instances where Hebrew bara is used to indicate the performance of transcendent miracles. God originated something entirely new which did not exist before--the creation of the universe, the creation of soulish animals, and the creation of human beings in the image of God. Different categories of living things have one or more of these qualities: physical existence, soulish life, and spiritual being.

All living things have intricate structure and functionality. In addition, some animals have soulishness to enrich our lives and entertain us. Finally, only humans have spirit, the imago dei, the ability to discover and form a relationship with God. We are told of the transcendent creation of this quality in Genesis 1:26-27. We rejoice in the familiar verbal sequence “body, soul, and spirit” to describe humanity, the pinnacle of God’s creation activity described in God’s word.

Theologians focus on the nature of God and human efforts to relate to Him. Scientists are more interested in the physical universe and its life forms. They have difficulty grasping the nature of soulishness in animals such as our neighborhood crows. That quality is not reducible to simple descriptions of material matter and molecules in motion. Certainly, the quality of spirit, possessed only by humans, is beyond the ability of science to analyze or describe. We may, however, contemplate soulishness and spirituality and be persuaded of the reality of the origin of each in a transcendent, divine miracle.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Avian Ownership

Our Creator provides multiple occasions for worship experiences. Sunday church is but one of those opportunities. Many others present themselves to the alert, thoughtful observer.

Last summer a friend visited our northwest Illinois home with her three young boys. We live in a unique geologic area called the Driftless area, so named because it was not blanketed by ice during the last episode of continental glaciation. It is devoid of glacial “drift” -- material left behind by a past glacial event; hence, we call this the “Driftless area.”

I’ve referred to our neighborhood as “bird heaven.” My young visitors were curious about a songbird insistently repeating the same four phrases on a single dead branch above our garage. The male indigo bunting was one of “my birds,” I told the boys. In a real sense, I may claim all the joy-giving birds in my neighborhood as my own. Each species has its own set of behavioral characteristics as well as its own unique physical appearance, setting itself apart from all other avian species. Information from bird manuals and web search engines plentifully supplement our own personal observations.

“My” indigo bunting was not present and singing when my young friends visited again early this spring. But lo, after a few weeks, there he was again, perched on the identical bare hickory branch as last summer. I cannot be positive this summer’s bird was the same as last summer’s resident. But if it wasn’t, it is certain that particular hickory branch has a special appeal for male indigo buntings. Their vivid, iridescent blue is visible only in sunlight. Its apparent color results from light diffraction through their feathers, not from blue pigment. Males leave nest-building and raising of the nearly helpless babies to the females while they patrol the neighborhood defending their territory, using their relentlessly repeated vocalizations.

This species does not spend the winter in the Driftless area. These migrants take off in September or October for parts known: the Caribbean or Central America. The birds use stars to migrate by night. Come spring, they know what to do. They return to their nesting grounds. I have identified many dozens of other bird species in our neighborhood. One neighbor claims to have identified 153 different. Our local conservation foundation bird watchers have exceeded that number substantially.

My personal worship experiences triggered by my neighborhood Driftless area birds are not exercises in nature worship. Intuitively, I see these experiences as occasions to worship God--the Creator and Designer. He authored the variety and beauty of our physical surroundings, both living and non-living. Skeptics pronounce this type of intuition flawed, irrational, and unpersuasive. Even the brilliant case made by Stephen C. Meyer in his 2009 volume Signature in the Cell, which carefully establishes the intelligent origin of information in the DNA of every living thing, including my own neighborhood birds, does not generate credence in those who deliberately choose to doubt. Acceptance or rejection of design theory is more a matter of personal choice than of the quality of evidence. Meyer states, “None of the alleged logical errors involved in inferring intelligent design from DNA would prevent any reasonable person from inferring or detecting the activity of intelligent agents in any other realm of experience.”

No life scientist would disagree that the structure of DNA in an indigo bunting, or any living creature is related to its remarkably unique appearance and behavior. Scientists who reject creation and design often express wonder and enjoyment, even if they reject belief in design theory and the Designer. But if their wonder and enjoyment helped them appreciate the action of the Designer instead of a naturalistic process, their experience would be enriched. Instead of worship of nature, they could worship nature’s Designer.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Dual Denial

Theistic evolution (TE) is currently a hot button issue in significant circles of the evangelical community, particularly on college campuses. This could turn out to be a healthy phenomenon, or it could become a trigger for divisive strife. A healthy outcome is possible if all parties approach the discussion by committing themselves in Christian deference to a sincere search for truth.

What origins view must we abandon if we accept TE? Acceptance of TE means denial of direct agency in the design and creation process. There is strong evidence leading to the inference of direct, divine creative interventions of life on earth--fiat creation. This is a position TE adherents stoutly reject, deferring instead to a naturalistic account. Exquisite structures possessing obvious hallmarks of design, such as the basic unit of the living cell, are extraordinary for their design features alone. But in reality, every living thing on earth from simple bacteria to the human body manifests unique design structures accompanied by remarkable functionality.

It is difficult to overlook the marriage of structure and function in the world of living things. In light of the evidence, it is difficult to sidestep the conclusion of operative intelligent design. One prominent proponent of TE describes intelligent design as a ship “headed instead to the bottom of the ocean.” Intelligent design and supernatural creation have been described as irrational, or worse. Instead, what appear even more irrational are desperate statements of negativism and denial with respect to design and creation.

More troubling is denial of traditional interpretations of Judeo-Christian Scripture. Biblical creation passages explicitly use Hebrew verbs such as bara to indicate direct creative interventions by God. In many instances bara signals creation of something ex nihilo, out of nothing. But bara always signals the action of God Himself. In the view of most theistic evolutionists, passages describing creation events no longer need be viewed as God-breathed writings, but rather, as human productions. Accounts of appearances of new life forms, formerly regarded as creation events, may now be interpreted as the outcome of naturalistic evolution, they claim.

Books by self-proclaimed evangelical Peter Enns stress new concepts regarding the “problems” of Old Testament Scripture interpretation brought to light by modern biblical scholarship. Enns claims the new interpretations resolve “significant cognitive dissonance.” He refers to conflicts between consensus-driven evolutionary scientists and scientist/theologians who interpret ubiquitous design features and sudden innovations in the fossil record as instances of divine creative acts, in conformity with orthodox scripture interpretation.

Science thrives on its ability to amend its own conclusions based on new research findings and new scholarship. Evidence for design in the universe and its living things is becoming progressively stronger while evidence for organic evolution becomes progressively weaker. Nonetheless, biological scientists as a whole remain firmly committed to evolution. It is my judgment that the paradigm of naturalistic molecules to man evolution has not been shown to be true. Science historian Thomas Kuhn has written about paradigm shifts in science--gradual accumulation of anomalous data eventually resulting in the overturn of a long accepted, shared pattern of accepted beliefs within a community of scientists. We may be due for a paradigm shift in the coming years.

Most Catholics and mainline Protestants have long been on board with the evolutionary paradigm. Only in the last few years has TE become an issue in large segments of the evangelical church. The origins issue is a matter to be approached with sincere humility. What happened in history past is a matter of fact, not merely a matter of opinion. The agency of change in the past cannot be established by direct observation. Our blog has extolled the value of “inference to the best explanation” when we study the historical sciences.

We have two witnesses helping us to discover origins truth. One is the historical record of the rocks revealed by conventional scientific method. The other is inspired scripture. Pauline M. Mills penned one of the most popular worship hymns of all time in 1963, “Thou Art Worthy.” Its lyrics are based on Rev. 4:11 (KJV): “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Confronting Origins Issues

Two issues lie beneath the radar of the usual ministry thrusts of evangelical churches. Nevertheless, they are important both ecclesiastically and culturally. One is the earth time scale issue. Is Planet Earth billions of years old or only six to ten thousand years old? The other issue is potentially more divisive. Did God create all living things, including man, using the theorized mechanisms of evolution? Or were the actions of creation described in Genesis supernatural interventions producing living things, including man, in novel, original divine acts?

This blog dealt with the creationism time scale issue in several dozen posts during the first half of 2010. After this series concluded, I quoted a friend who stated the time scale issue made no difference to her with respect to her Christian faith, her belief in God, her embrace of Christ as Savior, or her daily experience as a Christian. However, I went on to explain why I am keenly interested in and care deeply about the origins issue. It is a matter of fact, not mere opinion. Likewise, the evolution issue, covered extensively in our posts beginning February, 2011, is a matter of fact and not opinion. In the last fifty years, many more origins questions have moved into the realm of discoverable fact.

What about the evolution issue? Are we comfortable proclaiming that our beliefs about evolution make no difference with respect to our Christian faith? I propose that the issue of evolution has far greater importance with respect to our faith than many Christian churches wish to acknowledge. Cultural pressure, and now even pressure from within our own ranks, aggressively thrust us toward the evolutionary belief framework. We live in a culture acclimated with a prevailing evolutionary haze, especially in the fields of secular science education. We are bombarded profusely with evolutionary jargon, as if to reinforce the truth of the concept by continual repetition of its terms.

Rarely do I recall a wide-ranging, well-researched sermon on the topic of evolution in the churches I have attended. We are blessed with plentiful commentary on virtually every other topic relating to Christian faith and practice. It is as though insulating ourselves from the topic will make it vanish, or perhaps we may, at least, pretend it does not exist. Perhaps this “missing link” in our church educational offerings is commentary on the intimidating nature of science topics among many church members, if not our evangelical clergy. We must recognize that the physical realm and the spiritual realm are mysteriously unified in human existence and that both realms cry out for our discovery.

Our secularized culture has succeeded in casting the natural and the spiritual as separate spheres of human existence. In particular, the science profession has insisted on the dichotomy of the natural and the supernatural. This dichotomy enabled early scientists to remove mystical interpretations from everyday phenomena and to help us focus on the efficacy of natural laws. This was a useful focus, moving science forward in its effort to describe how the natural world functions. Nonetheless, the usefulness of this movement has been overstressed. We have enhanced the reality of the natural at the expense of the supernatural. Consequently, in the field of science, the supernatural may never inform us concerning the unity or intersection of the two realms. Stephen J. Gould’s popular 1997 essay on “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) popularized this concept anew for our modern culture, but the idea had been aggressively promoted by secularists in science, sociology, and education beginning about 1870 in America. Our churches, therefore, do not fight only a modern battle. Rather, the struggle began with the foothold achieved by Darwinism in 1859.

The segregation of the spiritual from the natural in our culture has important implications. For example, in court cases such as Kitzmiller vs the Dover, PA school district in 2005, even the official suggestion that students may wish to examine a view other than evolution was ruled an unlawful constitutional infringement of religion on science.

For the scientist operating in our culture, there is no “interdigitation” between the supernatural and the physical events of creation in Genesis, even though secular paleontologists observe apparently sudden innovations in the fossil record ubiquitously. Moreover, clear examples of transitional speciation linking organisms in an evolutionary flow are not in evidence.

Andy Crouch, a senior editor at Christianity Today kicked off the Austin, TX Vibrant Dance Symposium in October 2010 with the imagery of “interdigitation” to illustrate the complementary relationship of faith and science. Many speakers at that conference expressed their vision that Christians should get on board (interdigitate) with science--evolutionary science. What comes to mind when we consider the pressure brought to bear on evangelical Christians to embrace theistic evolution? I propose the old saw, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

Philosopher/theologian Jay Richards, Program Director of the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture, has written a thought-provoking statement bringing into question the wisdom of marrying theism to Darwinism: “To the degree theistic evolution is theistic, it will not be fully Darwinian. And to the degree that it is Darwinian, it will fail fully to preserve traditional theism.” I call on evangelical pastors and college officials to examine the implications of this issue more deeply.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Sweeping Generalizations

The issue of evolution generates considerable angst in our day, especially as it seems to conflict with biblical views. We might describe some exchanges between evolutionists and creationists, even old earth creationists, as intense if not heated. Currently there is a strong campaign directed at evangelicals, especially on our college campuses, to accept the compatibility of theistic evolution with their Christian belief system. The BioLogos organization is at the forefront of this movement. Spokespersons for BioLogos make unwarranted claims for the evolutionary paradigm. For example, Francis S. Collins, BioLogos founder, pronounces Darwin’s framework of variation and natural selection “unquestionably correct,” and claims, “Evolution, as a mechanism, can and must be true.” (emphasis mine)

In freshman college English Composition class, my professor instructed his student writers to “avoid 100% statements.” This cautionary advice was the professor’s attempt to divert his youthful scholars from the fallacy of “sweeping generalization.” Are science professionals prone to generalization fallacies in reporting some of their findings? As in most human endeavors using the power of persuasion, yes, they are.

The common genetic information system among all living things bespeaks the relatedness and common ancestry of all life, evolutionists forcefully proclaim. There are similarities in the genomes of divergent species. At first blush this may seem to make sense if one finds all naturalistic explanations appealing as most scientists do, especially in bio-science. They perceive genetic commonality through the lens of naturalism, hence, evolution. Creation and design proponents see the commonality as evidence of the work of a designer repeatedly re-using common design strategies. It is certain that neither viewpoint offers a standard of proof acceptable to those holding the opposite belief.

Ultimately, origins questions yield primarily to abductive inference, cornerstone of the historical sciences: We must ask, “What is the best explanation for what we observe?” Does any operational (experimental) or observational science unequivocally provide examples of mutation, natural selection, genetic drift, and gene flow which result in examples of macro-evolutionary speciation, not merely micro-evolutionary adaptation? If not, should evolutionists tout their view as unquestionably correct, and further claim that evolution, as a mechanism…must be true?

The need for an open minded truth search takes precedence over the need to promote sincerely held belief preferences or philosophical commitments. We must commit to studying and understanding not only the evidence which supports our own view, but also the evidence produced by those who disagree with us. Without this pattern of action we merely talk past one another.

The Apostle Paul’s exchange with the Athenians on Mars Hill (Acts 17) is a model for our interactions with those holding divergent views. Had we been present for that conversation, it is unlikely we would have observed a rancorous approach by the apostle. He reasoned with them about matters of eternal significance, using his observations of their devotional icons and their knowledge of the universe as entry points for the discussion. We imagine the apostle’s gracious manner enabled him to confront his listeners in a meaningful search for truth. Instead of sweeping generalizations, Paul’s discussion was reasoned and respectful. The narrative records responses ranging from sneers to an expressed desire to hear more. Some even “joined him and believed.”

Monday, July 4, 2011

Belief Preferences

At the Vibrant Dance Symposium in Austin, TX in October 2010, one of the plenary speakers, a theistic evolutionist, stated there was likely a naturalistic explanation for one of the “big bangs” of biology, namely, the Cambrian Explosion. This geologically sudden proliferation of dozens of diverse body plans is a profound enigma to paleontologists. The same speaker expressed confidence that even the more remarkable origin of life question may be solved within a naturalistic scenario. Life’s origin remains a perplexing mystery to those looking to avoid consideration of a supernatural creation event. Some have posed a minimum requirement for a theistic evolutionist: belief in only two supernatural miracles--the creation of the universe from nothing, and the origin of life.

Within the spectrum of beliefs held by theistic evolutionists, many accept New Testament miracles, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some accept Old Testament miracles. On the other hand, many abrupt appearances of new life forms over past geologic eras are dismissed as naturalistic events.

Theistic evolutionists reverently describe science as if it were an entity of truth. Science is a divine gift which helps us to discover truth about our God-ordained natural world. But science is not an entity of intrinsic truth. Science is a complex and variable means of knowledge discovery subject to the effects of changing methodologies, diverse philosophies, various worldviews, and the power of consensus. This analysis may seem to smack of an antipathy toward science. In reality, my concern is the abuse of science. There are several categories of scientific investigation, including evolution, which are often overly driven by the power of consensus and particularly affected by biased methodologies, philosophies, and worldviews.

Literature on traditional scientific method describes inductive, deductive, and abductive reasoning, the framework around which scientific method is built. Written manuals describing scientific method do not include the variable factors mentioned above. Many laypeople are unaware how these factors affect the reporting of scientific consensus. They do not understand the powerful human element in science. The question is not only, “Is evolution true?” One must also ask, “How does the human element affect the scientist’s judgment?”

Theistic evolutionists encourage fellow Christians to “Get on board with mainstream science.” They claim the scientific community has pronounced evolution to be true and to permeate every sphere of our existence: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” the mantra drones. This belief preference, however, contradicts the guidelines of some very strong principles of scientific methodology. For example, evolutionary science, a historical science, depends primarily on abductive inference--selection of the best explanation from competing explanatory alternatives. The evolutionary literature presents many competing hypotheses to explain biology’s big bangs, described by evolutionary biologist Eugene V. Koonin as “sudden emergence(s) of diverse forms at a new level of complexity." A careful reading of evolutionary literature proposing the various competing hypotheses leaves the reader bewildered and confused. Clearly, no “best explanation” surfaces. Instead, many un-testable competing hypotheses emerge. Some are creative proposals, some are speculative, and some are bizarre and incredible. Most of them achieve the attentive praise of evolutionists and are often enthusiastically labeled “good science.”

Within the strict limits of scientific naturalism, theistic evolutionists may express pride that they are endorsing “good science.” But are they able to instill confidence that their beliefs are really true? Do they feel comfortable promoting their personal belief preference that hypothetical Darwinian mechanisms such as mutation and natural selection have generated the gripping beauty and functionality of our bio-diverse world?

Some of my theistic evolutionist friends lament the lack of “original research” by intelligent design and creationist scientists. Perhaps they hope to discover that fiat creation is somehow akin to a naturalistic process. In Matthew Jesus instructed the man with a shriveled hand to stretch it forth. The hand “was completely restored, just as sound as the other.” If we believe this miraculous account, we must believe the molecules and atoms in the man’s hand were supernaturally reorganized. In turn, if we believe in the reality of this miraculous healing, it should not be difficult to explain the miracles of the creation of the universe, life’s first appearance, the Cambrian explosion, or the creation of man in God’s image. From the standpoint of abductive inference, a foundational support pillar for the operation of historical science, supernatural miracles certainly meet the criterion of “best explanation.”