The Mystery of Ourselves

This is the 3rd Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  In the previous blog, Christianity and Science, we looked 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.   With this blog we begin our look at some of the claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.   Part of Le Fanu’s criticism of science is that it is so focused on materialism that it misses the greater mysteries which are visible in the science itself.

“We have lost that sense of living in an enchanted world. We might now, thanks to science, comprehend the universe of which we are a part, only to discover that its properties, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, ‘are precisely those we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good – nothing but blind, pitiless indifference’. We have lost, too, sight of the most significant factor of all – the exceptionality of the human mind.”   (Kindle Highlight Loc. 4195-98)

Some scientists who reject the idea of a Creator are hostile to Le Fanu’s thoughts as they are to theists who embrace many of the claims of science.   I, however, do not think that believers should feel so threatened by atheistic science.  According to modern physics, a little less than 5% of the universe is made up of matter,  about 25% is dark matter, and about 70% is dark energy.  So when we are looking at biology, we are to begin with looking only at that 5% of the universe which constitutes matter that we can study through the biological sciences.  And then we realize that the total percent of the matter in the universe which is properly the realm of biology and evolution is a much smaller portion of the total matter in the universe.  On the grand scale of things any theory of evolution is talking about a disproportionately tiny part of the known universe.   So for all the bluster evolutionary theorists like to muster against theists, they are talking about a small fraction of the universe anyway.  Theists are holding to ideas that take the entire universe into consideration not just that that miniscule portion of our planet that is the limit of evolutionary science.  Evolution at best describes a small fraction of the entire matter of the universe.  Of course it is the matter that is important to us, because it is our story and our history which is being discussed.  But for those who embrace scientific theism, there is a whole lot more to the universe than is being described or accounted for by evolution.  As Harvard science professor Lisa Randall says in her article on dark energy and matter, “If the history of science has taught us anything, it should be the shortsightedness of believing that what we see is all there is.”  (DISCOVER, November 2011, p 59)

Nevertheless, the fight between faith and reason, science and religion is mostly led on the religious side by fundamentalists and biblical literalists  as is obvious in such articles as the 17 October 2011 NY Times  The Evangelical Rejection of Reason by Christian authors and college professors Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens.  They belong to an evangelical tradition but distance themselves from those fundamentalists who reject science and reason.

“Americans have always trusted in God, and even today atheism is little more than a quiet voice on the margins. Faith, working calmly in the lives of Americans from George Washington to Barack Obama, has motivated some of America’s finest moments. But when the faith of so many Americans becomes an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas, we must not be afraid to speak out, even if it means criticizing fellow Christians.”

So while the anti-scientific and anti-reason rhetoric belongs mostly to fundamentalists and literalists, the rest of Christianity cannot just look askance and avoid the discussion.   We have a responsibility to make the effort to bridge the gap between those who claim to embrace Christianity but who fear and oppose the claims of science.  It is the same science which made computing possible which measures the age of the universe.  While some people’s faith rests on the claim that Genesis is literally true, Genesis itself was not written to be a modern scientific study.   Namely, it doesn’t present claims that can be verified by tests of falsification.   It is a document that rests on faith, and doesn’t itself require that it be read literally.

James Le Fanu takes on the atheistic claims of some scientists and basically charges that some scientists have lost sight of their objectivity and the limits of science.  These scientists make atheistic assumptions about the universe and then try to conform the facts and reality to their assumptions, which is the opposite of the intellectual rigor which the falsification process in science demands.  Rather scientists should follow the facts to whatever truths can be derived from them.

“But that Fall of Man, toppled at last from his pedestal to confront the meaninglessness of his existence, has resulted, as we have seen, first in the most grievous social policies and, second, in his being deprived of his freedom, to become no more than a plaything of his genes. The source of all this mischief lies in the necessity to portray man not as he is, but as he has to be in order to incorporate him into an evolutionary theory that requires him to be different ‘only in degree but not in kind’ from his primate cousins.”  (Kindle Highlight Loc. 2947-50)

So Le Fanu claims to set out what man is, not what evolutionary theory needs him to be, and thus he reads the scientific evidence in a way different from the atheist.

Next:  The Genetic Side of Being Human

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

Beyond the Limits of the Scientific Method: Ethics

Albert Einstein once commented that science can tell us what we can do but not what we should do.   Some might think that generally science, engineering or technology are just about the facts, and so nothing more than the scientific method ever has to considered when measuring the validity of an experiment, invention, discovery, new technology.   But science and technology do not exist in a vacuum.    The scientific world is not a closed system separate from the rest of the universe.   Science and technology reside within the matrix of all human experience, of the environment, and of the known universe.   The facts are often not inert, but have the potential of changing, improving of damaging the matrix of life itself. 

Thus science and technology are not just limited to the empirical universe, they exist in a bigger context, which is not limited by hard, cold facts – the universe of humans and of ethnics.  And for believers, science exists within the realm of creation and God’s reign. 

Keeping science and technology within the framework of human ethical discourse is the subject of the 12 August New York Times science article “Handle With Care.”   One of the troubling issues of technological advancement is the “technology might be useful, even life-saving. But it would inevitably produce environmental effects impossible to predict and impossible to undo.”  The great example of this is the setting off of the first atomic bomb – scientists feared possible catastrophic collateral damage and suggested many scenarios, but despite the prodigious minds working on the project they did not foresee that “the bombs would generate electromagnetic pulses intense enough to paralyze electrical systems across a continent.”   Science is neither omniscient nor infallibly prescient, something which scientists who reject religion might do well to remember.  “Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems, cited the bomb in a famous 2000 article in the magazine Wired  …  He said it was common for scientists and engineers to fail ‘to understand the consequences of our inventions while we are in the rapture of discovery…'”

In other words scientists are often so involved in the details of their work that they forget the bigger context in which science occurs – life itself.   The TIMES article suggests that scientists are increasingly waking up to this concern especially as technology progresses and the inventions are ever more powerful and represent greater threats to all humanity and the global reality.

Scientists have other fears – the public might misunderstand their work and come to foolish conclusions about what is being done, the scientists  might lose control of their project if ethical oversight is required,  and the bottom line the scientists might lose the monetary benefits and rights to their work if public or ethical control is demanded and their patentable discoveries must be revealed.

Of course, religious leaders have for years raised ethical questions about science, but the Enlightenment spawned separation of faith and reason, science and religion, has created such antagonisms that the ethical questions from religion are often dismissed as alarmist.   “‘There is no one to say “thou shalt not,”‘ said Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist at Oregon State University and a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.”  No one she means from the scientific community.  There is no moral authority that science recognizes, which is part of the problem of a system that has no higher authority then human rationality.   We need only remember that Fascism and Communism, the two philosophical systems which wreaked havoc and death on the Twentieth Century were both the full grown children of Enlightenment human reason and fully in agreement with atheistic scientific rationalism and used this reasoning with massively fatal effects.

For Christians, I think this article means that we have to far more fully understand and engage the science and the scientists involved in advancing technology.  I don’t think this will be accomplished by rejecting scientific discovery and advancement in the name of biblical literalism.  We need to think about Einstein’s comment – science is determining what can be done, we should be engaging scientists about what should be done.  To continue to make the only discussion with science over the literal truth of Genesis is to abdicate our responsibility in the things that science is actually doing by engaging in a philosophical argument that cannot be resolved by science or religion.

Science, however, not only tries to keep religion at bay, it also endeavors to keep democracy far from its doors and does not want to have to respect the wishes of the majority (it sees this as allowing “politics” to interfere with science).  Some scientists want no influence from religion or politics or public concern because they want nothing but human reason (and generally their own personal opinion) to govern what they do, invent, insert into the world).  They want not only God but humanity itself to keep out of their work.   And having watched Fascism and Communism operate without concern for God or mankind in the 20th Century, why do these scientiest find public concern so offensive?  No religion has been able to inflict the death and suffering on humanity that science has.