Birthday Presents

Earlier this week, I celebrated my thirty-first birthday. It was a good one. It wasn’t the flashy kind of good. It was more like the spreading warmth in your chest from a hot drink on a cold day good.

This morning, after finishing a presentation at a job that I enjoy, I was thinking about how blessed I am, and how many presents God has given me. My plan is to live a very long life, as in, I will live in a sky apartment like the Jetsons. But if I were to be taken home today, I would’ve already had a lifetime’s fill of adventure at thirty-one.

In no particular order, I have:

  • Traveled all over three continents and more than a dozen countries.
  • Graduated from high school, college, grad school, law school.
  • Passed a bar exam.
  • Seen the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night.
  • Seen the sun rise over the ocean in the morning.
  • Jumped out of a plane.
  • Rafted the Nile River.
  • Eaten a crepe in Paris.
  • Saw a play in Shakespeare’s Globe.
  • Met my dream girl.
  • Planted a kiss on my dream girl.
  • Married my dream girl!
  • Knocked up my dream girl!
  • Grown a circle of close friends I’ve had for more than a decade.
  • Worked as a legislative staffer.
  • Been to the top of the Texas Capitol dome.
  • Written human rights briefs for the highest court of a country.
  • Taught classes for my favorite university.
  • Moonwalked!
  • Grilled a steak.
  • Completed a triathlon.
  • Known God.
  • Through God’s grace, transitioned from a state of anxiety to a state of peace and contentment.
  • Through God’s grace, escaped from an island of isolation into becoming a member of a family.
  • To Be Determined

I feel humbled, loved, and lucky. Everything feels like icing on my birthday cake. Except that I didn’t have a birthday cake, I had birthday chocolate chip cookies stuffed with Oreos.

  • Ate chocolate chip cookies stuffed with Oreos.

Anyway, this is a love letter to God, to you. Thanks for the birthday presents. There’s only way to describe them:


Theology Talk with Brett and David: On Science (Part 6)

Brett and David have given up completely on any sense of decorum and now sit on coolers in the garage chugging down beers and throwing darts.

Brett: I would like to bring this conversation to your field of expertise and explore how it affects you and your work. How do you deal with doubt in the context of a counseling theory? What if some theory you find to be good and rooted actually turns out to be ineffective or even harmful to some client? Are there examples of old counseling ideas that have now been discarded as untrue, or are there competing schools that argue over the effectiveness of different approaches? If these are questions you think about, how do you continue to do the essential work you do in the face of doubts?

David: I’m probably not the best person to answer this question since I don’t adhere strictly to therapy models, as some do. My personal view is that models are theories that have approaches that can be helpful. I see them as tools in a toolbox that can be used at will depending on the needs of the client. My guiding rule in counseling is “whatever works for the good of the client”, which is intentionally vague. However, much of my underlying approach to people is based on my understanding of the Bible and relationship with God. So “true” “untrue” and “right” and “wrong” are hard to apply to this situation. As a real scientist I’m sure you’re aware that therapy and counseling, perhaps even psychiatry are much softer sciences than what you do.

There is certainly competition between schools of thought, but in my experience, almost every theory works for somebody but no single theory works for everybody. So my answer is a big IT DEPENDS. Many of Freud’s theories were at one point foundational and even helpful, but have since been largely discredited and have fallen out of use. However, they were used as a jumping point for other good things since then.

On a personal and internal level, I really do incorporate my faith into my work. This means that my doubts about my treatment approach or the work that I do is filled in easily with the knowledge of God’s sovereignty.

Brett: So I see that something similar happens in your field as has happened with science, that knowledge is built progressively over time. Speaking of, what do you think about the idea of progressive revelation, that is that God is revealing himself more and more (or perhaps just differently) throughout history? Does this bear on the question of scientific knowledge and theology?

David: This is tricky. I do think that God progressively reveals himself. While I’m no humanist, I do believe that God has allowed us to progress, become collectively more intelligent, or even- dare I say it- EVOLVE, in a sense, over time. But God does not change, so the way you phrased the question is important, and accurate. God is not changing, but rather our scope of knowledge about him is expanding, as he wills it. That will of course have an impact on both our theology and our scientific knowledge. But no new knowledge will ever be able to change the bedrock truths of God, and I feel that’s what some scientists wrongly try to accomplish. “We found fossil evidence that contradicts the Bible, so obviously God doesn’t exist!” Well, not exactly. Perhaps we’re just finding evidence of HOW God created us, not proof that he wasn’t involved. God gave us our curiosity and so a progressive way of learning about him seems to make sense.

Brett: On that note, let’s discuss Biblical revelation in terms of objective studies. For example, what if the creation story in Genesis is not historical? Does this make it not true? Or could it be true in a different sense than historical?

David: Again, your question provides important wording for my response. Truth is key here. We must first and foremost not lose sight of the fact that TRUTH is TRUTH. None of this mamby pamby postmodern “truth is relative” or “it may be true for you but not for me” nonsense. If we’re those compromised definitions of truth, then we’ve completely diluted the very concept of truth. Is the Genesis creation account true? Absolutely. Is that a literal depiction of what actually happened? I honestly don’t know. But then, is that what the text is intending to portray? Is that the question it’s attempting to answer? There are many factors here for me, a few of which are as follows:

1) This is a holy revelation given to an unholy person with a limited understanding of science or….anything really. If God is really GOD then how could he possibly describe his great pre-Earth work of forming a planet to a single mortal mind? I think the Genesis account was the best way he could describe creation without blowing Moses’ mind, while still speaking the complete truth.

2) This has been said a lot, but here goes: the Bible is not a textbook. It’s not intended to convey scientific fact. That goes for both scientific detractors and the most ardent young-earth literalists (<–made-up word). Again, the creation account is absolutely true. But it is true in the way that music or poetry describes something that actually exists. Because of this we can get into the tangled web of semantics: “what does it mean by ‘day’? what is this ‘expanse’ that he’s referring to?” We can conjecture till the cows come home but it’s ultimately a narrative designed to tell people about God, not instruct a science class.

3) The point of this passage is not to answer our questions about our various sciences, but to point us to God. “In the beginning, GOD…” Did God literally create the Earth in 7 days? For me, the better question is, “Do you believe that God could have done it in 7 days?” Personally, he could have done it literally how it said and compressed millions of years worth of fossil records in our dirt for whatever reason, or he could have used our planet as a giant sandbox for millions of years before reforming it to what we know today and creating humanity. Either way it doesn’t really matter. What matters to me is that God is the one who did it, and he could have done it any way he wanted. Our feeble scientific constructs, formed thousands of years after earth’s creation, have no bearing on the truth of the one who put us here to begin with. It is that far-reaching perspective of God that causes me such angst when some use science as a blunt object with which to flippantly club God out of existence.

Brett: Dramatically put, but I think you speak truthfully. I have many other thoughts and responses but I believe we will end on that note.

David: This is by no means the end of the matter, but I agree that this is a good place to stop for us. For our loyal readers, the conversation can continue in the comments! We look forward to much rigorous discussion in the future and I certainly hope to engage you in a conversation on another topic in the future Sir Brett.

Brett: I hope for that as well.

Theology Talk with Brett and David: On Science (Part 5)

Having enjoyed the comforts of the indoors, our hosts have now retired to the back porch. Sir Brett enjoys a long island iced tea while Lord David sips frequently on a rum and coke. They are comfortably seated on the finest outdoor seats that Wal-Mart has to offer. The night is cool, the breeze is light, and the conversation continues.

Brett: As one who studied the Bible in college, allow me to ask you some questions. Should scientific knowledge ever bear on religious knowledge? That is, should a scientific theory ever be weighed in order to modify a theological stance? Surely not new scientific theories, since most have such a short half-life. But old ones, well-accepted by the community? For example, Darwinian Evolution: if it still stands as successfully describing the origin of species in 200 years, should Christians begin to look at what that means for our doctrine of imago dei? What about after 1000 years?

David: The short answer is yes, scientific can and sometimes should have bearing on religious knowledge. But then I’ll come back and say “no, it shouldn’t” because scientific knowledge and religious knowledge are inherently different and it would take an epic work of science and discovery to prove otherwise.

Let me attempt to explain that (forgive me if I’ve said some of this already in this discussion). Science provides the “how”, it (as of now) does not and cannot provide the “why.” Darwinian Evolution, for example, does describe the origin of the species. Or rather, Darwinian evolution provides one possible theory for HOW our species came to be. Science, through a Darwinian lens, provides a description for a process that may or may not have occurred. It cannot, under those conditions, also make a claim for why that process occurred in the first place or even perhaps who or what initiated that process.

Evolution may be a very good explanation for how things happened, but just because we have an explanation for life that makes more “scientific” sense, doesn’t mean that it automatically disqualifies a creationist explanation. (Quick side-note: It seems as if Darwinian evolution is a symbol of man’s arrogant attempt to find a more “logical” or “rational” way of explaining our existence that doesn’t rely on a higher authority that we would have to submit ourselves to.) If we build on the previously accepted assumption that science is treated as a religion, then it’s no different than saying “Hinduism’s creation account makes more sense than that of Christianity, so of  course that one must be true.” Science has no greater bearing on the existence of God than any other religion because evolutionary theory does not in any way conclusively rule out the existence and influence of God. In that way, no, science does not bear on religious knowledge UNLESS it allows us to eventually build time machines and go back to witness the evolution of man firsthand, or discover a malevolent alien race that has been pretending to be God by manipulating our minds and history.

Alternatively, there have been points in history where religious knowledge wrongly attempted to wrest control of scientific knowledge, for example in the debate between a heliocentric and geocentric view of the solar system. (Quick side-note follow-up: Things like the church’s insistence on a geocentric solar system also shows man arrogance as we’ll even use religion to show that we’re at the center of the universe.) Science rightly called out religion for being intellectually dishonest and making claims about reality outside the scope of the Bible. While the Bible speaks to foundational truth, it does not contain all specific truths, which is where science becomes so important.

To sum up: in theory, yes it is distantly possible that science could have a meaningful and course-changing impact on religion, but that’s a tall order that we’ll never see.

About imago dei: My understanding of the Genesis account is that it’s intended to be more abstractly descriptive rather than scientifically precise. That is to say that it is inherently true, but the main point is not exactly how God created man, but that God was the one who created man. The means by which this happened is largely irrelevant and explaining the specifics of our creation was not the intended goal of the creation account. Maybe God took an afternoon to form man out of dirt and mud, maybe the dust is a metaphor for some evolutionary process, who knows.

Brett: You bring up some interesting points, particularly in how doubt affects any given field of study. I will be most interested to discuss this more, but it must wait until next time.

Theology Talk with Brett and David: On Science (Part 4)

Our hosts have just finished enjoying a small helping of raspberry sorbet in a luxurious dining room decked with the most exquisite furnishings. The two gentleman toss their crumpled linen napkins on the table and lean to continue conversation while enjoying glasses of fine wine.

David: Our previous encounter was a very enlightening course of conversation which I’m sure could be given much more attention. However, I would like to go back to the issue of group consensus in scientific certainty. How much of the acceptance of a scientific theory is dependent on popular consensus?

Brett: Popular consensus is huge in the scientific community. Einstein’s theory of relativity (perhaps the most successful, most beautiful, and most disruptive physical theory ever) was so unpopular for the decades following its publication that he actually never won the Nobel prize for it. He got it for some other work which had to do with the development of quantum mechanics. His theory was unpopular both because it was extremely subtle (Sir Arthur Eddington was once at a loss, 4 years after the theory’s publication, to name to a reporter another physicist besides himself and Einstein who understood it), and because Einstein was Jewish.

Science is a human enterprise. It’s not an abstract set of principles or an algorithm. It’s like theology, medicine, philosophy, history in this way. It comes with its own traditions and culture. I guess that’s why I feel like a lowly apprentice to my advisor. He’s doing more than teaching me rules. He’s inducting me into a community. The community’s got flaws and virtues.

David: As I have said before, I believe absolute truth by popular consensus to be problematic at best, even if there is long-standing historical support. But I like how you compare science to theology, philosophy, history, etc. I think that’s appropriate. However, comparing science to those things almost seems belittling, as if science is not really as absolutely objective as some claim.

Brett: Yes, I think you read me spot on, although perhaps I’m saying it too strongly. But of course as I said before, I precisely want to bring science down a notch. Not out of some feeling of humility, but out of a desire for aesthetic knowledge, traditional knowledge, and ‘relating’ knowledge to flourish over positivism (or Religious Science). One of the burning errors that you and I have both pointed out in modern discussions of science and religion is the assumption that scientific knowledge is somehow neutral and above.

David: That is indeed the main issue that I take with science. I will still maintain that science is a very important endeavor and it is certainly the most objective field of human society. It is vital for many practical parts of our lives and it can also tell us things about God. Your Fundamental Assumption provides a mandate for us to freely explore the limits and functions of the creation in which we live. The scientific community is the group tasked with fulfilling that mandate. That would make me excited to be a scientist.

Allow me to ask one additional question about certainty in science. How will you and your colleagues ultimately be able to be certain that what you have found is actually happening? I want to qualify this question by stating that I’m not trying to use doubt to completely crush science or your line of work. I think it’s fascinating what you do even if I don’t fully understand it.

Brett: Considering everything I’ve said, do I think my colleagues and I can ever know what is actually happening during a gamma ray burst? Well, now you’ve walked me into a corner. But I think the answer is no, we won’t. No matter what precision of measurements, or what agreement our observations make with our models, we can’t be certain that some new events won’t arise which invalidate the model. Nor can we be certain that some alternative theory won’t come along that fits the events better. Scientific knowledge is just always shaky ground.

So that makes me ask- what’s the use of scientific knowledge? Can we really even call it knowledge? Actually, I think that all knowledge can be described that way. It’s shaky. What I know about God, myself, my deepest beliefs, are all tinted with a hint of doubt. That’s what has led me to appreciate virtue epistemology, something Joey and I studied in Fred Aquino’s class after he ground our sweet beliefs down into powder.

David: I think that doubt can be very healthy. I see doubt as a negative space, a vacuum of sorts. Where we find doubt we are pulled towards it’s source, like a black hole. As we’re pulled along we learn more and confirm what we already know. I think the same applies to knowing God.

As for virtue epistemology, I am not familiar with such an idea. What is it and what does it mean to you?

Brett: Okay, I might warp this badly. But I think the classic approach to the question “how do we know what we know is true?” is to formulate a rational system of tests and standards. Virtue epistemology answers the question in a more ambiguous way, rooted in various traditions of virtue. It says we can trust that what someone knows is likely to be true if the knower is a virtuous person. The *virtuous* part sounds awfully hoity-toity, but a virtuous person in this sense is one who practices things that encourage virtues related to truth: love of truth, willingness to face doubt (or intellectual courage), rational discourse, perseverance through intellectual tedium and fatigue. My friend Dan married Michaelanne who runs a Philly art outreach for kids from rough homes called Orange Korner Arts. A lot of the kids find it easier to lie than tell the truth, it’s what they’ve practiced growing up to stay safe. This is a problem when trying to paint pictures about their lives or when telling stories about their neighborhood. So Michaelanne is trying to teach them the virtue of honesty, for their arts’ sake (and their lives’). When she talks about their approach at the OKA she says, “What we’re doing here is practicing. We practice. We come here every day and practice telling the truth. Tomorrow we’ll do a little better.” To me that’s an example of virtue epistemology. These kids are becoming better knowers. We can trust scientific knowledge when it comes from communities of scientists that display the intellectual virtues in all of life.

David: My inner Calvinist reminds me of human depravity and our tendency to muck things up, but I must agree that there is a baseline of honest human curiosity that we can rely on to learn more about the most basic aspects of how our world works, as described by virtue epistemology.

In our next installment we will look more closely at the religious response to the claims of science and how we can conceptualize some of those discrepancies. Do let us know your thoughts and we very much hope to see you next time.

Theology Talk with Brett and David: On Science (Part 3)

Our hosts have migrated from the study to the den to enjoy cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Plush armchairs sit among priceless works of art and the room is filled with the smoky haze of expensive foreign cigars. The scene is set for the conversation to continue.

David: We left off talking about the role of scientific theories and the consecutive building up of scientific ideas over time.  But surely group consensus isn’t the whole story in terms of determining scientific truth, what else can you tell me about the ideology behind how assertions are verified?

Brett: Your question about assertions is a good one to follow the previous, because even some basic assertions have turned out to be false. For example, until quantum mechanics came along everyone assumed that if you take a bunch of particles, and you write down their positions, their masses, and their velocities at a given time, then you will know what the system of particles is doing at any other time. (That’s a long-winded version of “particles behave in a deterministic way.”) Thus you could figure out the future of any physical system if you had enough information. But then, because of some completely unrelated phenomena, quantum mechanics arose as the dominant theory of particles. It took a few years for scientists to realize it, but the deterministic assumption was completely incompatible with quantum mechanics. And new precise experiments continue to support this: systems of particles just don’t behave in a deterministic way. So what was once thought of as a certainty, turned out to be an assumption, and an incorrect one at that. (Well, as far as we know right now.)

Furthermore, I want to talk about one assumption that’s built into all scientific theories. I’ll call it the Fundamental Assumption, because that gives it heft. The Fundamental Assumption is this: God isn’t doing it. That is, if God exists, he doesn’t move things around to make the events I’m examining occur. He isn’t pushing and prodding the universe. The universe has its own functional integrity–with respect to the events I’m examining. Why is this essential? Because science doesn’t work otherwise. A scientific theory which invoked God’s hand at any step of the way would fail to be testable. The causal chain of “A always leads to B always leads to C” breaks down the moment we say that B was done by God; this is because God, by *my* definition at least, is the un-caused being. A can’t cause him to do B every time.

This sounds pretty sweeping. How can I live as a Christian with such an assumption built into my daily work? Because I don’t believe it’s true of all events. I believe there are plenty of events that are caused by God (namely the crazy happenings bookending Jesus’ life, the creation of the universe, and who knows what else, maybe gamma ray bursts). So The Fundamental Assumption may be entirely wrong about the types of events described by the theory of quantum mechanics, or those described by evolution.

But let me point out the remarkable fact that the Fundamental Assumption seems to work most of the time. (I say most of the time because there are lots of unexplainable events littering the field, that’s what keeps science going.) It’s an extremely powerful assumption. It has produced a rich sphere of knowledge about our world and ourselves. Despite all this, it’s also the achilles heel of scientific knowledge. Because of the assumption, scientific knowledge is essentially limited. This is what a lot of scientists (really a lot of modern people) miss. Scientific knowledge can’t speak to God’s existence, it can’t speak to God-events (if he exists and does things in the world). Because of the Fundamental Assumption, scientific knowledge is properly defined as the sphere of knowledge that has to do with naturally explainable events. Science cannot speak to other types of events. Notice I do not say it cannot speak to God’s nature or to our meaning or purpose. A little boy’s birthday toy says something limited about the mother who gave it to him. Just so, I think, the scientific knowledge describing our physical world can tell us some limited things about God.

David: Your description of the Fundamental Assumption was extremely helpful and it has helped me better understand a possible relationship between God and science. Our scientific construct does indeed rely on consistent cause and effect. Without that we can’t really be sure of anything, I wouldn’t trust the food I eat or the time of day or even dare to get in an airplane.

The concern now is that we’re potentially talking about deism. As you know, the view of deism is the clockmaker illustration wherein God made our world, set it into motion and stepped away. Therefore, according to this theory God is either absent or impotent, or perhaps even non-existent. The Fundamental Assumption sounds very much like deism, but the way you described it makes it seem as if the clockmaker is still present. If God were poking and prodding the clock constantly then we would have no stability and indeed no way of verifying anything about our existence.

Brett: This is tricky for me. I agree, the Fundamental Assumption coupled with belief in God leaves one with no other choice than Deism. That is, if the Fundamental Assumption becomes a philosophical stance. But I suppose I’m encouraging Christians who read science and scientists themselves to think of the Fundamental Assumption as a tool applied to a very local project: figuring out what causes this repeated event here in front of us. For example, a scientist appropriately applies the Fundamental assumption when examining the natural causes of birth & inheritance, lightning, supernovae, etc., but inappropriately applies it when examining the existence or characteristics of God. Perhaps you see me dancing here, but that’s because it’s a very subtle thing, and I am always wrestling with it.

David: I see the distinction you made there and that makes good sense. Allow me to go back to this deism idea. In my mind, we have God, an uncaused being, watching over an isolated bubble in which there are set rules and assumptions that we can test and rely on. This allows science as we know it to function, since our cause and effect model is one step removed from the uncaused element. The created order that we observe and interact with functions based on rules and constants, whether it be gravity, time, or gamma ray bursts. God CAN intervene and adjust things, but it seems that that is more the exception than the rule. As an analogy, it’s like if I were to give my son a very fancy mechanical toy. He plays with it, experiments with it, dissects it, etc. It would be cruel of me to take the toy every night while he sleeps and dramatically alter how it functions, because then all of his exploratory work the previous day would mean nothing. God’s creation is a giant, constant toy. We can learn from it and manipulate it and God will as a general rule, NOT change the rules on us.

Brett: I will stipulate that to me there seems to be more at stake here than whether or not science works. We’re discussing how God interacts with and sustains his creation. I see in this question the idea of free will and therefore also the idea of love at stake. I also want to assert that you and I didn’t get here through scientific reasoning. Science can say nothing to this hypothesis. We got here from religious/traditional reasoning, and that seems to me to be the valid route.

David You speak truly, good sir. If you notice, I’m still leaving room for God to fiddle with things in this illustration and I’m sure that makes a scientist nervous.

Brett: No, not at all! That’s precisely what I want to do too. I want to clarify the limits of scientific knowledge so that it doesn’t overstep its bounds to speak authoritatively (and incorrectly) about religious knowledge.

David: That is a wise approach to this topic and any conversation concerning God must inherently also deal with the idea of relationship with the person of God. I want to emphasize that, using the above illustration, I am more concerned with my son than I am with the toy, just as God is more concerned with us than creation. God has set us over creation and we are above it as he meant it to be. While he will not change the rules of science in his creation, he will change us. I believe in a relational God and as far as science is concerned, the material world is just a toy that God has provided for us. It’s like you pointed out, the toy says something about the one who gave it,  just as science tells us something about God.

Science can and should focus on learning about the world, but I have a difficult time seeing how scientific findings are by nature opposed to the existence of God. Just because we learn everything about the toy doesn’t mean that we can make generalized assumptions about what exists outside the toy. It’s like we focus on the toy and deny it’s creator while the creator of both us and the toy are standing by trying to get our attention.

Perhaps this is my therapist people-focused side coming out, but I believe that God created us for His joy and created everything else for our joy (but not to be enjoyed above him, that’s where idolatry comes in, but that’s a different conversation entirely). We should be more concerned with taking joy in the gift-giver rather than the gift. I don’t want us to become that bratty kid in Wal-Mart who screams at his caring parent just because he doesn’t get the toy he wants.

Brett: I like your analogy. I agree with part of your conclusion from it, that the father is more concerned with relating to the boy than with any toy he made to teach him about himself. But I find it difficult to draw clear lines between boy and toy, us and creation. Is there an us separate from creation? Can we imagine a human life severed entirely from the rest of the natural world? I can’t. Breathing plants’ oxygen, eating animals, firing electrons neuron to neuron: creation and humans are inextricably tied together. Conversely can we imagine a natural world without humans which is still precious to God, to whom God desires to relate? I can. I imagine the universe’s first 14 billion years like this, during which the Universe nevertheless somehow ‘explored’ its possibilities of cosmic evolution and ‘knew’ God and his love. I can’t really formulate how this might look outside of consciousness. But then we arrived on the scene, tied to the rest of creation. Are we humans members of a very complex creature, the universe, which God loves, cares for, sustains, and withholds from manipulating or coercing? I don’t know. I think along those lines. What do you think of the analogy if we say that we are the boy AND the toy? By the way, I also agree with another part of your conclusion: that we are set over creation. This is a theme throughout scripture, the theme of hierarchy. And it’s a very angsty one to modern minds like mine. But I think we lose something very essential and good when we throw it away. It’s just that one part of creation being placed over another part of creation (human over beast, priest over congregation, parent over child, husband over wife) doesn’t imply a hierarchy of value but of responsibility.

David: Well put, good sir. At this juncture we will break to allow for reader comments and a brief break. Until next time, good day to you.

Theology Talk with Brett and David: On Science (Part 2)

The fire has calmed within the hearth, but still provides the room with a soothing warmth. Its soft light spills upon the our dapper hosts who are adorned in smoking jackets, the left breast of each embroidered with emblems both distinguished and mysterious. Soft jazz plays in the background as our two hosts return to their conversation.

David: Welcome back, friends, and thank you for joining us. Let us now dig deeper into the subject at hand. I have this idea to present you, a scientist, to hear your thoughts. It seems to me that there are people who discard any notion of God and turn wholly to science as the foundational construct for obtaining truth. Furthermore, they then treat science as if it’s their religion, holding firmly to their choice of theories, tenets, and sacred texts. Science for them is then no longer just a structured means of learning, but a holistic worldview that seeks to find an explanation for life outside of any concept of God. What do you think of this “science as religion” theory?

Brett: I believe that your theory is right, that science plays the role of religion for many people. That is, that a scientific stance toward the world becomes, for some people, a worldview. For such people, science makes final statements about what’s valuable, who we are, etc. What’s especially insidious about this is that the scientific worldview is assumed to be a neutral one. I think the direction you may be leading with your questions is spot on, namely that the scientific process isn’t some neutral high ground from which we can discover the truth about the world. It comes with it’s presuppositions just like any other system of thought (Christian theology, Humanism, Marxism). When any system of thought becomes a totalizing system then I think we run into trouble. For the new atheists, the scientific system becomes a totalizing system. All things are judged through it.

David: One central issue seems to be how religion and science each arrive at their respective centers of truth and reality. Let us focus more for a moment on the science side of things. How does a scientist become sure of something? What evidence or test is required?

Brett: An intriguing query indeed! If you mean ‘sure’ as in, “such and such theory is true”, then I say he or she never can become sure of something. There is no test or evidence that has proven watertight for such assurance. The history of modern science is littered with one theory after another that the majority of the community was “sure” of. But new evidence arose, and the theory fell under its weight. Take for example the theory that light propagates through some medium (call it “ether”). Our understanding of other wave phenomena (sound, water waves) strongly supported this theory. But then toward the end of the 19th Century two physicists devised a clever way to measure the speed of the ether with respect to the Earth. They found that either the ether wasn’t moving or it didn’t exist. For fundamental reasons, the community eventually rejected the first conclusion. Now, physicists are fairly certain that light doesn’t propagate through a medium. (Actually, there are still some hangers-on to the ether theory.)

David: Your response highlights something I’ve observed listening to various scientific voices. There seem to be two basic approaches to science in terms of larger worldview (and these are very generalized of course): Skeptical Science and what I’ve mentioned before that I’m calling Religious Science.

Skeptical Science sees science as an intellectual endeavor where everything is tested and questioned and nothing is fully taken for granted. This view will continue to seek and ask questions and challenge both the known and the unknown. The view of truth is either that there is no absolute truth, or that it exists but is very far removed from our immediate grasp, and so persistent science will always continue searching. From a Christian perspective, this is favorable since you can view God as absolute truth to be sought, and science as a way of seeking him and learning about what he has created.

Religious Science is what I tend to grate against. This perspective views science as not necessarily just a means to an end, but an end in itself since science is the only way of accessing any kind of objective truth. Therefore, what science labels as fact is considered true and factual. My issue with this is that, as you point out, it’s not an absolute since it often relies on popular consensus and is sometime debunked eventually by time and advancements. I think this is where I see many of the militant atheist evolutionists landing and it frustrates me. They accept evolution as scientific fact when it is still labeled as a theory, and essentially the creation of one person. In fact, evolution is often referred to by means of asking if one “believes in the theory of evolution.” Theory? Belief? That doesn’t sound absolute and it certainly doesn’t sound scientific.

I favor Skeptical Science as a means of learning, not as a means of determining my absolute truth. However, in order to avoid constantly living in an existential crisis, there must be some absolute confidence we can take from the certainty of the Religious Science approach.

Brett: I think your categories of skeptical and religious science are great, and that is interesting language: “believe in evolution”. I agree that the wording ‘believe in evolution’ is very common, and odd. It’s a phrase I myself use. I’m glad you pointed this out. ‘Believe’ to me implies whole-soul orientation toward something. “I believe in you”, “I believe in God”, “I believe in the virtue of hard work.” Perhaps when someone asks me if I believe in evolution I’ll now answer, “No. I think it’s true; but I could be wrong; and I certainly don’t *believe* in it.”

I must disagree with your statement about evolution being “essentially the creation of one person.” Evolutionary theory, like all scientific theories, was a monumental team effort. Long before Darwin, there was Linnaeus classifying species in structures that looked like family trees. And there was Mendel cross-breeding peas and thinking about how heredity worked. And there was Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather, I think), who had some strange ideas about the genesis of all species from a single source, or something. And around Darwin’s time and afterward there was the unearthing by many scientists of dinosaurs and huge numbers of creatures that lived before us. Then, after Darwin’s theory began to take hold there was an explosion of research. For example, Barbara McClintock laying the groundwork for the field of genetics or Watson and Crick on the chemical structure of the DNA molecule, and how it might replicate itself and pass hereditary information. I think there must be many more significant contributors. My point is that some theories seem to be built by a single genius (structure of the solar system, by Kepler; gravity, by Newton; space-time, by Einstein; evolution, by Darwin). But in fact they’re usually a gathering together of many previous ideas by one exceptional thinker. And then they’re usually cast out by that thinker to the scientific community in a very basic form. The community then grabs hold and fleshes it out over many decades. Evolution, as presented in Darwin’s Origin of Species, is really only a seed of a theory. Today, I think, it is much more developed. By the way, another striking thing is that it seems to be one of the longest-standing scientific theories. It’s about the same age as the current theory of electricity and magnetism. It is 3 times as old as our current theory of what matter is made up of. It’s remarkable to me that evolution has not only withstood 150 years of scrutiny (think of how much energy many brilliant minds from our religious community have put into debunking it) but I think it has actually been enriched by such careful examinations.

David: It appears that I was mistaken in my understanding of how scientific theories are formed. I supposed it is common for us to ascribe an idea to one person rather than recognize the collective effort. Thank you for such astute illumination as to the nature of the scientific process. I believe this to be a good stopping point for now. Let us adjourn and we will see you, dear reader, in the comments and in our next installment.

Theology Talk with Brett and David: On Science (Part 1)

[The following is an actual (slightly dramatized) email conversation between the Corner Boothers David and Brett]

Our scene opens with our hosts comfortably settled in plush high-backed leather chairs, casually sipping bourbon and smoking pipes. A roaring fire crackles on the far wall which is lined with shelves filled with many leather-bound volumes.

David: Good evening, dear readers and welcome to Theology Talk. I’m your host Lord David Fortuitous of Fort Worthington and this is my co-host Sir Brettworth of Deaton Abbey.

Brett: Greetings, friends! I wish a pleasant evening to you all. And to you as well good sir. Are you ready to begin our conversation?

David: Indeed I am Sir Brett! Tonight we will be discussing theology and the complex dynamic between faith in God and science. Brett is currently an astrophysicist student. Would you kindly begin by telling us about yourself and your work?

Brett: Certainly! I’m currently studying gamma ray bursts (GRBs). These are super luminous flashes of light from very, very far away. On average, astronomers see one a day, and we don’t know what’s causing them. I’m studying one idea: a neutron star gets shredded into a massive, hot accretion disk swirling around a black hole, and then it gets sucked down the drain. Here’s a simulation. This all happens in less than a second–which is just about how long these flashes of light last. But this may not be the cause of these events. A lot of things have to happen just right for a neutron star shred to lead to a bright flash of gamma rays. For example, if the black hole is too large or if it’s spinning too slowly, the star gets sucked down whole and never forms a hot accretion disk. There are a number of other fine-tunings that have to occur having to do with subatomic particles and magnetic fields. The particle interactions are specifically what I’m studying. By ‘studying’ I mean I’m writing code and running simulations.

David: Quite fascinating good sir! How glorious it must be to witness the incredible goings-on of the deep parts of the universe! Although I must admit, ol’ chap, that my main point of interest from your introduction is how long into this study it will take for you to become a real-life gamma-radiated Hulk! Astrophysicist smash!

Brett: Astrophysicist smash indeed!

The two gentlemen then share an uproarious manly chuckle.

Brett: And how about your, good sir. Tell us how your many talents will be contributing to our discourse.

David: I am a crisis counselor by day and I merely moonlight as an amateur armchair theologian from time to time. I have recently been quite consumed by the relationship between science and Christianity and how they conflict and can (hopefully) work together. There’s the evolution vs. creationism debate as well as the slow rise of seemingly militant atheism and a general sense of skepticism towards religion in favor of science. I have many thoughts about God and evolution, but I realize that I really know little about evolutionary theory and the scientific view of our beginnings. You certainly have more insight into the science side of things than I do. Where do you stand, sir?

Brett: Let me begin with a clarification: My knowledge of evolutionary biology is pretty close to yours. I know the fundamentals, and I think it’s beautiful. But I can’t speak knowledgeably beyond those fundamentals. I can speak more easily about the scientific worldview and the practice of science. I think about those things a lot. I will admit that there’s some dissonance between my view of humanity’s origin and the central idea of imago dei in Genesis. I tell you this because I don’t want to start this discussion with you thinking I’m an authority, and because I want you to know that I’m not settled on some of these issues.

But alas, here is where I am coming from. I believe God created the universe, and that he’s still creating and sustaining, that without his loving presence here, everything would die. I also believe macro evolution will eventually provide a full natural explanation for how all life came about. Clearly, those conflicting statements need some explaining. Although I do admit, my good friend, that I could be wrong about all of that.

David: Quite right my good man. We shall indeed be stumbling along together.

Brett: And what are some of your foundational views on this issue, good sir?

David: Where I stand right now is that God created all of the universe and maintains full presence and control over what he has created. I believe that God personally created the Earth and everything in it. He created humanity to be unique in that only humanity reflects His image. I believe in some form of evolution and I do believe that science is important and can lead to the truth. I do not believe that evolution, science, and God necessarily have to be in conflict. I believe that any evolutionary or scientific stance that seeks to disprove or ignore God tends to be intellectually dishonest or logically inaccurate.

I believe that some parts of evolutionary science are helpful and true, but some parts overstep their bounds to make assertions about our existence that are not valid (typical for the “militant atheist” camp, for example). The evolution that I believe in is more like adaptation, i.e. one flower can “evolve” to be a different kind of flower. However, I don’t hold to the idea that a complex creature like humanity came from something simple like an amoeba in an ocean. I don’t care how many millions of years you throw in the middle, it just doesn’t seem plausible. Besides, that would violate the Biblical view that man is intentionally created in the image of God. So, I can buy microevolution, but not macro evolution. That’s where I’m starting from but I’m certainly hoping to be challenged.

Brett: Good, it sounds like we disagree on some things, which will make for a fruitful discussion.

David: And a fruitful discussion it shall be indeed! With our introduction concluded, we will adjourn for now, dear reader. We hope to hear your reactions and further observations in the comments, and you can expect part 2 very soon.