Christianity and Science

This is the 2nd Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  In this blog we are looking at some of the comments of Dr. Gayle Woloschak in her article “The Compatability of the Principles of Biological Evolution with Orthodoxy” in the ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, Vol 55, No. 2, 2011.   Woloschak is upfront that she is in the science camp which accepts the basic assertions of evolution as enjoying firm support from scientific evidence.

“Despite recent challenges, there is an overwhelming body of support for biological evolution in the scientific literature that comes from protein and DNA data, from the fossil and geological records, physiologic and functional studies, and much more…  Theodosius Dobzhansky, the son of an Orthodox priest, a practicing Orthodox Christian, and a noted evolutionary scholar wrote the following:

‘Let me try to make crystal clear what is established beyond reasonable doubt, and what needs further study, about evolution.  Evolution as a process that has always gone on in the history of the earth can be doubted only by those who are ignorant of the evidence or are resistant to evidence, owing to emotion blocks or to plain bigotry.  By contrast, the mechanisms that bring evolution about certainly need study and clarification.  There are no alternatives to evolution as history that can withstand critical examination.  Yet we are constantly learning new and important facts about evolutionary mechanisms.’”  (Woloschak, p 212)

Dobzhansky when he was alive was an Orthodox Christian and a noted evolutionary biologist whose work is still highly respected in the scientific community.  He had no doubt about evolution and maintained his faith in God.  Admittedly his acceptance of faith and reason is unusual in the world of evolution.    Woloschak however defends this scientific avoidance of God:

“While many feel confused and even angered by the fact that scientists can discuss creation without putting God into the story, these same people do not appreciate that there is humility in not discussing God.  There is a limit to what science can define, and that limit is based on the objective scientific approach of performing hypothesis-driven experimentation.  God is not subject to such testing…”  (Woloschak, p 225)

Woloschack rejects a notion embraced by some theists that God is simply the ultimate cause of the endless series of cause and effect that we know of as the universe.  Those who hold to God as simply the original cause of all that exists in fact according to her play into the hands of those who believe in complete scientific determinism (such as Einstein did).

“For example, if all around us are ‘effects’ and God is the only ‘cause,’ then deterministic responsibility for everything lies with God—he is ultimately responsible (and perhaps blameworthy) for all that occurs in the universe, while our ability to cause any changes in or around us fades into insignificance. . . .  Bulgakov argues that the proper description of God’s relationship to the world is that of Creator and creation, and that this is not the same as ‘The One Who Causes.’ ”  (Woloschak, p 226-227)

God is not merely the original cause of all the effects that now exist.  Woloschak quotes Theologian Sergius Bulgakov:

“’In general, the idea of the Creator and creation does not need to be translated into the language of mechanical causality, for it has another category, its proper one, that of co-imagedness, since the creature contains the living image of The Creator and is correlated with Him.  … The world does not have a cause, since it is created; and God is not the cause of the world and not a cause in the world, but its Creator and Provider.  God’s creative act is not the mechanical causation through Himself of the world’s being, but His going out of Himself in creation…’   This co-imagedness fits well with the Genesis context of humans being made in the image and according to the likeness of God.  Humans bear the imprint of their Creator, the icon of God.  We acknowledge this liturgically by censing the people during all liturgical services, censing the image of God in each person.”   (Woloschak, p 228)

The world is not all pre-determined by an original act of God.  There is both free will in humans and the uncertainties presented to us by quantum mechanincs that free the universe from pure determinism.

A few final points from Woloschak on evolution:

“…denying evolution is impoverishing the understanding of creation, which is one of the few expressions of God that humans are all able to perceive while still on this earth.”  (Woloschak, p 231)

“’…individual organism do not evolve. … Biological evolution, then, does not act upon individuals but rather on populations.” (Woloschak, p 211)

“…there is no theological justification for a view of God as the direct cause of small individual events.”  (Woloschak, p 224)

We don’t need to look to God as the cause of every little event on the planet for God empowered creation itself with creativeness to bring forth life.  What is being worked out on our planet is we humans cooperating with God to fulfill His will.

Next:  The Mystery of Ourselves

Science and the Church: Are the facts in?

One reason why I became interested in theology was my own seeking for truth.  No doubt in my younger years I had a simplistic idea about truth – truth would be so obvious that no one could resist or refute it.  Probably the idea was based in my own self-arrogant notion that if the truth was convincing to me, then eventually everyone else would recognize it as well.   In my eyes both science and Christianity were interested in truth, and there was no difference between scientific truth and the theological truth of Christianity.  Truth is truth.  All truth, even scientific truth, is Christian truth.

Such naïve thinking hit a wall with the notion of evolution.  The topic of evolution was for many a divide pitting Christianity against science.  It confronted my own ideas of Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”   (John 18:38)      For many on both sides of the evolutionary debate, the truth of science and Christianity were irreconcilable.  Some on each side denied the other had anything to do with truth.

For my part, my ideas on the nature of truth kept evolving as I tried to incorporate in my thinking the issues raised by the debate on evolution.  While not abandoning the love of and pursuit of truth, I have come to recognize the complexity of the issue and that for some the notion of truth in science and religion will never be reconciled partly because some don’t want such a reconciliation.  They want either science or religion to be true.  (See also my blog Well Reasoned Words for further thoughts on the relationship between faith and reason, science and religion.)

Recently I read James Le Fanu’s  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves .  I appreciated the book’s critical evaluation of evolutionary theory.  It raised for me some of the most serious challenges to evolution that I have read.  On the other hand, I was unimpressed with the concluding chapters of the book as I felt he over reached on his conclusions which weakened the book.

At the same time that I was reading Le Fanu, I also read Dr. Gayle Woloschak’s “The Compatability of the Principles of Biological Evolution with Orthodoxy” in the ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, Vol 55, No. 2, 2011.   Woloschak as the article’s title implies defends both evolutionary theory and its compatibility with Orthodoxy.

In this blog series I want to explore  the ideas these two authors raised.  For my part, I am still at peace with the search for truth represented by theology and science. I continue to read the debate with interest even if I hold little hope that the debate can be resolved.   Evolution for a theist is  nothing more than the scientific description of the mechanisms at work in our world which describe the unfolding of life since God brought life into existence.  Once creation existed it follows properties and laws which can be observed – and that is the nature of science to test these observations against the theories describing how the empirical world works.

Woloschak’s article has no connection to Le Fanu’s book.  I bring them together solely on the basis that I happened to read them both at the same time.   Both accept many of the basic claims of evolution.  Woloschak’s take is that evolution is dealing with a discovered truth about life on earth which is heavily supported by scientific evidence especially DNA.   Le Fanu’s argument is that human life as can be understood through the study of genetics and the human brain is far more complex than can be explained by evolution alone.   He argues that evolution simply cannot account for some of the greatest wonders of the human brain and of how genetics actually works.  While his book raises in my mind serious questions as to whether the theory of evolution fully explains what has unfolded on planet earth, no doubt his questions are still in the realm of pointing out gaps in the theory – not completely refuting the theory, but pointing to pieces of the puzzle that just don’t quite fit (and some scientists would add an emphatic “YET!”).

First I will look at the thinking of Dr. Woloschak.

“Often in everyday language, people equate the world ‘theory’ with ‘speculation’ or a ‘conjecture.’  In scientific practice, however, the word theory has a very specific meaning – it is a model of the world (or some portion of it) from which falsifiable hypotheses can be generated and verified (or not) through empirical observation of facts.  In this way, the concepts of ‘theory’ and ‘fact’ are not opposed to each other, but rather exist in a reciprocal relationship.” (Woloschak, p 210)

Charles Darwin

For the sake of the discussion on evolution the implication is that evolutionary theory is not implying speculation but rather forms a way of seeing and understanding the world that is based in observable facts that have gathered and explanations that have been tested against the facts that come to form the best picture that can be offered to account for the known facts.  Theory is our best approximation of accounting for the known facts.  Science is that process by which hypotheses are tested against empirical data in order to determine which ideas are false and thus can be dismissed.  In theological terms one can argue that the falsification process of science is really an apophatic way to come to the knowledge of the truth.  Science is forever skeptical and works to deny hypotheses in order to form the best understanding of the truth.

As Corey Powell, Editor in Chief of DISCOVER noted in the magazines November 2011 issue:

“Science is relentless this way.  Its practitioners are fallible and often mistaken, but over time its process holds all ideas and hypotheses accountable to the same standard of proof.  It is a beautiful paradox:  Uncertainty as the optimal path toward certainty, or at least the closest thing to certainty we can get.”

That is the beauty and awesomeness of science – two descriptive words that might make some scientists cringe for their unscientific standards.  But they are words that continue to convince me that science’s own interest in truth is a pursuit worthy of God.  Powell’s emphasis on uncertainty as helping us get as close as we can to certainty is welcomed by theistic scientists.  The troubling issue for theists is when some scientists proclaims themselves absolutely certain, embracing a determinism not completely supported by the facts, and then push that certainty to rejecting theology as well.

Next:  Christianity and Science