Some Highlights of American Scientific Affiliation 2015 Meeting

A group of American scientists who were evangelical Christians founded the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) in 1941. Their interest was in the whole faith-science arena, not just in creation, and they did not specify any particular position on interpreting the Genesis narrative.  The intent is to provide a forum where Christians can discuss the various issues where science interacts with faith, and to produce and share accurate information in this area. Members are required to possess at least a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field, and to subscribe to the following statement of faith:

We accept the divine inspiration, trustworthiness and authority of the Bible in matters of faith and conduct.

 We confess the Triune God affirmed in the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, which we accept as brief, faithful statements of Christian doctrine based upon Scripture.

 We believe that in creating and preserving the universe God has endowed it with contingent order and intelligibility, the basis of scientific investigation.

 We recognize our responsibility, as stewards of God’s creation, to use science and technology for the good of humanity and the whole world.

This statement of faith affirms the authority of the Bible in matters of faith and conduct, which is a position supported by scriptures such as II Tim 3:15-17, but it does not transgress these scriptural bounds by claiming that the Bible was also intended to speak authoritatively in matters of astronomy or geology. By affirming the integrity and intelligibility of the physical world, it allows for an honest investigation of the world as it is, instead of filtering out evidence which does not fit a particular interpretation of scripture.

Recently I attended the 2015 Annual Meeting of the ASA, which was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma on July 24-27 using the campus of Oral Roberts University. The overall theme was “Hearing God’s Voice in Nature”. Here I will share my takeaways from some of the sessions I attended. I will mainly report what was said with minimal commentary, using my notes, the slides from the talks if they are available, and occasionally drawing on other internet resources to supplement or clarify. The levels of detail here reflects my personal level of interest and comprehension. I trust the speakers will excuse any mistakes or major omissions on my part.

Here is a link to the meeting brochure, which describes the meeting in general and has bio’s and photos of the plenary speakers and the Friday workshop leaders. Here is a link to the schedule of all the sessions.

There was typically one plenary lecture per day (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday), along with hours of three parallel sessions. The themes of these parallel sessions ranged from the fairly abstract (e.g. Revelation; Philosophy; Theology) to the applied (e.g. Ethics; Sustainable Development; Creation Care), and lots in between. A snip of the meeting schedule, for just Saturday morning, is reproduced below to show the rhythm of things.

Part of schedule for 2015 ASA Annual Meeting

Part of schedule for 2015 ASA Annual Meeting

Copernicus, Columbus, and Quantum Action: Friday Workshop

The Friday workshop was “Christianity and Science: An Introduction to the Contemporary Conversation”. Edward B. (Ted) Davis, author of many helpful articles on the history of science from a Christian point of view, led the morning session. He spoke first about the notion of a pervasive conflict between science and Christianity. This motif was popularized by John Draper and Andrew Dickson White in the late Victorian era. White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) was widely read and believed by the American intelligentsia in the early 1900s.

Ted pointed out that White’s thesis is simply incorrect. White scoured the ancient literature for any traces of conflict between church teachers and natural philosophers and deceitfully presented these exceptions as though they were the norm. This deception is now recognized by academic historians, but the warfare motif remains embedded in popular opinion. (The Wikipedia Conflict Thesis article provides a number of quotes from modern historians that support Ted’s contention that Draper and White have been discredited among scholars ). Modern science was born and flourished within a thoroughly Christian culture in the Europe of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Several specific instances of White’s inaccuracy were noted, including a supposed passage by John Calvin attacking Copernicus which Calvin did not in fact write (the word “Copernicus” appears nowhere in Calvin’s writings), and the bogus notion that Christopher Columbus was opposed by Bible-quoting flat-earthers. The Greek knowledge that the earth is a large sphere with a circumference of about 25,000 miles (40,000 km) was never wholly lost in even in the “Dark Ages”, and in 1492 essentially every educated European knew that the earth was round. The notion of a heroic Columbus setting sail in defiance of those who claimed he would fall off the edge of the world is without foundation, yet it has persisted in the popular imagination and even in public school textbooks into this century.

It is true that the experts (who were, of course, Catholic) consulted by the sovereigns of Portugal and of Spain opined that Columbus’s voyage to Asia was not feasible. They noted that with a 25,000 mile circumference of the earth, the trip from Europe to Japan would be about 12,000 miles, which was far longer than ships of that day could travel without re-provisioning. Columbus maintained that the earth’s circumference was 18,000 miles, and he thought that Asia was about twice as wide as it actually is, so he estimated that he could reach the eastern edge of Asia with a voyage of only 3000 miles. In this case Columbus was wrong and the Catholic scholars were right about the distances. If the New World did not intervene between Europe and Asia, Columbus would never have been heard from again.

Ted went on to offer a brief historical overview of some other faith/science issues, such as creation, contingency, methodological naturalism, divine action, and design. At the start of the nineteenth century, the gaps in human understanding of natural history were so large that William Paley successfully used them to argue for the necessity of a divine Designer. If we found a watch with all its gears lying in a field, Paley wrote, it would be silly to think such a thing could have been assembled by blind natural forces, apart from an intelligent agent.

By the end of the nineteenth century, these knowledge gaps were disappearing at an accelerating pace. Geologists could largely explain the development of surface features of the earth in terms of known physical processes, and biologists were starting to understand how today’s complex animals might have evolved from simple cells. This led thoughtful Christians like the Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond to caution

If God is only to be left to the gaps in our knowledge, where shall we be when these gaps are filled up? And if they are never to be filled up, is God only to be found in the dis-orders of the world? Those who yield to the temptation to reserve a point here and there for special divine interposition are apt to forget that this virtually excludes God from the rest of the process. [The Ascent of Man, 1894]

One of today’s most influential authors on faith and science is John Polkinghorne. A physicist and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Polkinghorne researched elementary particles, playing a role in the discovery of the quark. At age 47, feeling his best mathematical work was probably behind him, he resigned his Cambridge chair to study for the Anglican priesthood. He argues that, while theism cannot be proved from nature, theism makes better sense of nature than atheism can.

Robert J. Russell is a former physics professor, now Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences  at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), Berkeley, CA.   In the Friday afternoon session, Bob covered a number of contemporary issues. Out of all possible universes, ours has many physical constants tuned to narrow values which permit matter and human life to exist. This “Anthropic Principle” is sometimes urged as evidence of a divine Creator. A non-theistic response is the “many worlds” hypothesis, where many (perhaps an infinite number) of universes exist, such that we should expect to find at least one universe like ours. A multiverse is consistent with string theory and cosmic inflation. However, there is no empirical evidence for such a multiverse, so its existence remains an article of faith. There is controversy over whether the existence of the multiverse requires that every possible world is actualized, even inherently bad worlds.

Bob suggested that God could impact affairs in this world while remaining hidden, by influencing events in nondeterministic processes. Quantum mechanics is inherently statistical or indeterminate, so (for instance) if a specific bond were occasionally caused to break, creating a particular mutation at a particular time, that would not be detectable as an aberration from normal physical laws.

All sorts of unpleasant events occur in the natural world, such as Darwin’s example of the wasp larvae which eat their way through living caterpillars. Thinkers do not agree on whether such “natural evils” are an inevitable part of any complex world where physical beings can evolve to embody agency. Creatures with meaningful freedom, rationality, and moral capacity seem to fit best in a universe characterized by some contingency and indeterminism. Some specifically Christian, not just theistic, notions are that God (as exemplified in Christ’s death) enters into the suffering of the creation, and that the universe (as foreshadowed by Christ’s resurrection) will ultimately be transformed into an unambiguously good new creation without pain or grief. This would imply that the long-term freeze-or-fry prediction of Big Bang cosmology will not in fact be the end state of the universe.

PLENARY TALKS

Bethany Sollereder: “Blood, Fire, and Fang: Listening for God in the Violence of Creation”

Bethany Sollereder, currently a Research Coordinator at Oxford, spoke on the subject of natural evils. She noted that in historic Christian theology, the creation was thought to be initially free of death and suffering, with these aspects being later introduced as a consequence of human sin (“The Fall”). Modern geology and biology demonstrate, however, that death and suffering are part of the natural order, long antedating the appearance of humans. Animal suffering and death was generally not considered as a problem before about the 1500s. Prior to that, people just accepted that animals ate other animals. Now it looms as a major issue of theodicy.

All is not vile in the animal kingdom: cooperation and symbiosis exist as well as competition and parasitism. The death of one creature often gives life to another. Evolution can create all kinds of desires in humans and other animals, but only humans are capable of and accountable for transcending natural desires. If God has certain desires for how some creatures are to behave, but those creatures have the capability to resist his will, then God has chosen to give the world some power to affect him. The Christ-event reveals God’s nature as radically self-giving; God is not detached, untouched by the trials of his creatures.

Short, painful lives seem to call out for eschatological redemption of the whole creation, which is suggested in the New Testament, e.g.

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.[Colossians 1:19-20, NIV]

and

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God .[Romans 8:18-21, NIV]

Alister McGrath, “Natural Theology: Seeing God’s Fingerprints in Creation”

Alister McGrath is a Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. In this plenary address he noted that earlier natural theology (e.g. 1700-1800) was often concerned with trying to prove God from nature, culminating in William Paley’s arguments from design and from knowledge gaps as we discussed above. McGrath cited quotes from various later Christian thinkers rejecting the god-of-the-gaps approach. John Henry Newman stated that Paley’s approach would produce a dry, dull, unworshipable God. Charles Coulson, noted theoretical chemist and a Methodist lay preacher, wrote that either God is in the whole of nature, or he is not there at all.

Christian faith does, however, provide an intellectual framework conducive to doing science, in particular supporting the belief that reality is regular and intelligible, and the belief that human thoughts signify more than just the firing of neurons in our brains. The intelligibility of the universe may seem self-evident, but it is not. Why is it that many of the pleasing abstract mathematical relations which the mind of man devises also describe specific physical phenomena? Coulson noted that the fact that we can explain anything, itself requires explanation. Albert Einstein put it, “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” C.S. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

For an honest materialist like physicist Steven Weinberg, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” In the Biblical worldview, no matter how small humans seem in comparison with the universe, we matter to God and we belong as part of his creation (cf. Psalm 8). We also know whom to thank for its beauties.

In the Q&A session, the question was brought up as to whether we must have 100% absolute cognitive certainty before we can trust or believe something. No, that is simply not how life works. Natural theology (as defined by McGrath) does not aim at producing that sort of proof. Rather, it often provides a retrospective affirmation of the rationality of faith: after someone (for other reasons than natural proofs) trusts in Christ and the associated Biblical revelation, one finds that it makes more sense of the natural world as well.

Esther Meek, “Covenant Realism: How Love Is at the Core of All Things”

The medium was part of the message here: Esther’s joy in her material was evident, and rubbed off, I think, on her audience. Love underlies all of reality, since it is the creation of a loving God. Reality is the fecund overflow of the exuberant generative conversation among the Trinity. God’s employment of long processes over time to shape the physical and biological world is consistent with his slow unfolding of revelation in Biblical times (Torah, prophets, Jesus, Pentecost, etc.).

Her thinking builds on that of Michael Polanyi, who taught that all knowing, no matter how formalized, relies upon personal commitments. We believe more than we can prove, and know more than we can say (cf. Wikipedia).

This is perhaps most evident in scientific discoveries, where the scientist follows hunches and is excited by the prospect of deeper integration of knowledge, often before he knows exactly what form this integration will take. The personal involvement of the scientist, motivated by some measure of joy and of faith, is a crucial part of the process of discovery. Merely grinding along with a mechanical application of the scientific method rarely produces great discoveries. Exuberance is typically a core component of the process of discovery, not just an add-on.

Esther, following Polanyi and other authors such as David Bentley, Wendell Barry, and Paul Davies, contends that human knowing in general (not just scientific discovery) involves such personal engagement with reality. A familiar example is learning to ride a bicycle.

We in the West have inherited a stunted epistemology, which values only that which can be objectively proven, and foments a sense of isolation between the knower and the physical world. She argues that our epistemology should make sense of discovery as well as of that which is already known. A hallmark of reality is that it surprises us, showering us with hints of things we’d like to further explore. This perspective can change our anxious quest for certainty into a delightful adventure of continuous learning. Absolute certainty for anything is not attainable, but we can have a reasonable degree of confidence in what we know. Loving aids us in knowing.

For those interested in learning more about Esther’s insights, the text of an earlier (2013) talk of hers is here.

Amos Yong, “The Breadth of God and the Life of Nature: Toward a Pneumatology-Science Dialogue”

I missed this plenary lecture, since I had to skip the final day of the conference.

Regular Talks

I attended many fine talks beside the plenaries. These regular talks ran for about 20 minutes, with 10 minutes for questions and discussion. I’ll describe six of these talks below.

Keith Miller, “The Present Impact of Global Climate Change: Creation’s Call to Action”

Many lines of evidence were presented which show that the earth’s climate has been warming for at least the last few centuries. These include direct and indirect measures of temperature itself, the decline in Arctic sea ice, the retreat of alpine glaciers, and rise in sea level. While there can be decades-long pauses in temperature rise or ice loss, the longer-term trends are of warming. As continued warming releases methane which has been trapped in Arctic permafrost, warming could greatly accelerate.

Some negative consequences of warming include displacing humans living in low-lying areas such as some Pacific islands and Bangladesh, more-severe weather, bleaching of coral reefs, and the poleward spread of insect disease vectors and other pests. For instance, the pine beetle which is devastating forests in the American west has been there all the time, but is no longer being killed off by cold winters. Christians have a moral duty to respond.

Edward (Ted) Davis, “Is Christian Belief Conducive to Doing Good Science?”

The program abstract for this talk summarized its main theme: “The Christian doctrine of creation helps us to understand more of reality than science alone can study—including the very possibility of science itself as a form of knowledge about nature.”

Natural science is limited to discovering regularities among the succession of physical phenomena, answering a plenitude of little questions, but unable to address the big questions. In the words of Nobel laureate Peter Medawar (not a believer in God):

The existence of a limit to science is made clear by its inability to answer childlike questions having to do with first and last things, questions such as, ‘How did everything begin?’ ‘What are we all here for?’ ‘What is the point of living?’… It is not to science, therefore, but to metaphysics, imaginative literature, or religion that we must turn for answers to questions having to do with first and last things.

Eugene Wigner wrote of “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”, noting, “The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.” As Einstein put it, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” He is implicitly referring to the regularity of nature, and the fact that our minds can delve deeply into it.

The Christian doctrine of creation provides a basis for expecting the universe to be uniform and comprehensible. The phrase “Laws of nature” has been commonplace among Christian thinkers since at least the time of Ambrose (4th century). Astrophysicist/theologian Christopher Kaiser writes:

The basic idea of creation in Scripture is that the entire universe is subject to a code of law which was established at the beginning of time. This idea has two major implications for our view of the world: (1) nature functions with a high degree of autonomy (meaning literally, “having its own laws”); and (2) the natural world is comprehended by God and therefore comprehensible to human beings created in the divine image.

Cornell historian L. Pearce Williams describes how Michael Faraday’s faith influenced his scientific investigations:

Faraday drew more than strength from his religion. It gave him both a sense of the necessary unity of the universe derived from the unity and benevolence of its Creator and a profound sense of the fallibility of man. Both are worth stressing…

The origins of field theory are to be found in Faraday’s detailed experimental researches on electricity, but the speculations and imaginings which led him to publish physical heresies owe something to his unquestioning belief in the unity and interconnections of all phenomena. This belief, in turn, derived from his faith in God as both creator and sustainer of the universe.

Ted discussed the dispute between the rationalists like Descartes, Leibnitz, and Spinoza who thought it was more efficient and more certain to sit in one’s armchair and make deductions from first principles, and the empiricists like Bacon, Boyle, and Newton. The latter insisted that, instead of speculating on what God could do, we should humbly and diligently investigate what he actually did do in setting up the universe.

Thus, being a Christian can help one to do good science. Conversely, doing science can enrich one’s life as a Christian. In the words of pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler, “For it is precisely the universe which is that Book of Nature in which God the Creator has revealed and depicted His essence and what He wills with man, in a wordless script”, and, “Since we astronomers are Priests of the Most High God with respect to the Book of Nature, it behooves us that we do not aim at the glory of our own spirit, but above everything else at the glory of God.”

Kenneth Wolgemuth, “God’s Voice in Geology: Earth Engineered for Discovery”

Ken is a speaker with Solid Rock Lectures , an organization of professional geologists who give talks at Christian colleges and seminaries to share what the physical evidence shows about the age of the earth. This talk started with an animation of the Indian crustal plate bashing into the southern edge of Asia and thrusting up the Himalayan Mountains. This thrusting continues today, as the Himalayas rise several inches per year. Prior to this collision, there had been an ocean between India and the rest of Asia. Limestone and other sedimentary rocks were deposited on the floor of that ocean. This tectonic collision over ten million years ago shoved these oceanic rocks atop the Asian plate. Thus, we know when and how Mount Everest came to be formed of sedimentary rocks. These rocks were deposited millions of years ago, then thrust up by well-understood and clearly-dated crustal movements. They were not deposited six thousand years ago by a world-wide flood which covered all the highest mountains.

The 6,000 kilometers (3,600 miles) plus journey of the India landmass (Indian Plate) before its collision with Asia (Eurasian Plate), from Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Himalayas#/media/File:Himalaya-formation.gif

The 6,000 kilometers (3,600 miles) plus journey of the India landmass (Indian Plate) before its collision with Asia (Eurasian Plate), from Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Himalayas#/media/File:Himalaya-formation.gif

The cosmos was designed for discovery, and God built into it many “data recorders” which retain information about sequences of events which occurred over thousands or millions of years. These data recorders include tree rings, ice cores, varves (annual deposits in lake floor sediments), and banding in coral reefs. These data recorders tend to agree with one another about key events in geological history. For instance, cores drilled from the ice of glaciers in Greenland and glaciers in South America all show the same date for the end of the last ice age about 11,000 years ago. Tree rings match with carbon-14 dating. (See Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth  for more on these evidences.)

There are also radioactive “clocks in rocks”, where the timer starts when the rock solidifies from molten magma or lava. For instance, the radioactive dates of rocks from the various islands and underwater seamounts in the Hawaiian island chain get older and older as one moves westward along the chain. This is consistent with these islands having been formed as the mid-Pacific plate slowly slides westward (we can currently observe this motion) over a narrow hot spot in the mantle which spews up lava to form a new volcanic island every few million years.

In the Q&A after this talk, someone cited a study by Steven Austin of Answers in Genesis (a young earth creationist organization) regarding rocks formed by a 1986 lava flow at Mt. St. Helens in Washington State. In 1992 Austin sampled some of these rocks and sent them to a laboratory for dating analysis by the radiogenic K-Ar method. The dates returned by the laboratory on these samples ranged from 0.34 million years to 2.8 million years. This, of course, is much older than the actual age (less than ten years) of these rocks. These discrepant results have been widely touted by young earth creationists as demonstrating the general unreliability of radioactive dating of rocks.

Ken pointed out some basic errors made by Austin in his study of Mt. St. Helens rocks. First, it is well-known to geologists that the lava that comes to the surface can contain grains of much older still-solid rock, carried along with the liquid melt. Austin did not take proper measures to separate out these older grains. Also, because of the long half-life of the K-Ar system, it is impossible to do meaningful dating on rocks that are very young without specialized apparatus. The laboratory to which Austin sent his samples stated at the time that their equipment could not accurately measure samples less than two million years old. Thus, Austin was guaranteed to get erroneous results on the samples he sent in. His results, therefore, have no bearing on radioactive dating routinely done by geologists with normal methodology.

(A more detailed discussion of the Mt. St. Helens lava dating by geologist Kevin Henke is here.  Old Earth Ministries lists many articles here, mainly by Christian geologists, which rebut the attacks by young earth creationists on the reliability of radioactive dating of rocks.)

Randy Isaac, “The Uniqueness of DNA Information”

Randy is a retired VP of Science and Technology at IBM’s Thomas J Watson Research Center, and currently executive director of ASA. In this talk he examined the differences between DNA information and other information systems, showing why DNA information does not require a conscious mind like other information systems do.

The meaning of information in human-designed information systems is abstract, independent of its physical embodiment. This abstract meaning, which can be comprehended by other conscious beings, is a hallmark of the intelligent design of these information systems. [I don’t recall if Randy used this sort of example, but among humans the meaning of the English word “red” can be expressed as “rot” in German or “rojo” in Spanish or some very different symbols in Hebrew or Chinese, or as “electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of about 700–635 nm”. This shows that the meaning of “red” is a concept which does not depend on the letters “r”, “e”, “d” being present in that sequence. ]

In contrast, in its native state the meaning of DNA information is its biochemical function, which is utterly dependent on its physical embodiment and environment. Specific sequences (triplets) of nucleotides, known as codons, physically bond to matching sites on specific transfer RNA molecules which cause specific amino acids to be placed into protein chains. Thus, there is no evidence that DNA information requires an intelligent agent for source or function.

[Randy was addressing a limited issue here, namely, whether the information-bearing function of DNA would require an intelligent agent to input that information. The talk did not directly address the question of how the first cells arose which utilized this physical genetic translation system. We have discussed elsewhere how new information can arise in the genome by plain physical mutations in the genome.]

Jennifer Gruenke, “Christian Faith, Biological Reductionism, and Consciousness”

To convey the first part of this talk, I’ll quote from the abstract in the printed program:

Biology is hierarchical, in the sense that organisms are made of organs, which are made of cells, which are made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms. Because of this biology might be sent to reduce to chemistry, and chemistry to physics.

This reductive approach works well for explaining the function of many biological systems, for example a kidney. Once you understand the kidney at the cellular and molecular level, how it produces urine becomes clear.

 But one aspect of human biology, the relationship between the brain and consciousness, is difficult to explain from the point of view of biological reductionism. It is clear that certain parts of the brain are necessary for consciousness, but it is less clear that these parts of the brain are sufficient for consciousness, or even what sort of mechanism would allow physical neurons to create consciousness.

 This creates what cognitive scientist and philosopher David Chalmers calls the “hard problem” of consciousness. How do qualia, experiences such as seeing the color blue or hearing a melody, come about given that light and sound waves seem like such different things from experiences themselves?

Jennifer displayed this cartoon relating to conceptual hierarchies, which I thought was too good not to reproduce:

Neuroscience keeps progressing in showing how mental events like perception and decision-making are correlated to specific physical events in the brain. There is a range of opinions on how the mind and the brain are related. Eliminative materialists solve the mind-brain problem by denying the existence of mind. There is nothing but matter, and there is nothing to mental functioning besides electrochemistry. From the fact that your brain can trick you they conclude that consciousness itself is an illusion. Your beliefs that you have beliefs, desires, and sensations (e.g. of pain) are incoherent and mistaken.

There are less-extreme positions, including those held by Christians, which would still be classed as materialist or physicalist. For instance, Calvin College philosopher Kevin Corcoran is a constitutional physicalist: “I’m a physicalist when it comes to human persons. I believe, in other words, that we are wholly physical objects. I don’t believe there are non-physical souls in the natural world. So I don’t believe that we are or have such non-physical souls as parts… A non-physical soul doesn’t explain anything about consciousness that cannot be explained without it, and it is furthermore a wholly unnecessary hypothesis for many religious doctrines…I believe that I am constituted by my body without being identical with my body. I stand in the same relation to my body as a statue stands in to the piece of bronze (say) of which it is composed.” [ quotes taken from Corcoran’s Biologos articles here and here ; emphases in the original.]

Thomas Nagel posed the question, “What is it like to be a bat?”, claiming that if you did not have the subjective experience of echo location, you would not know all there is to know about a bat, even if you knew all the external data about the atoms in the bat’s body. This is an argument against reductive materialism.

Dualism is the position that mental phenomena are, in some respects, non-physical, or that the mind and body are not identical. Mental sensations (qualia) and intellectual concepts seem to have a reality which is not reducible to neurons. This position, again, comes in many varieties. There are differing opinions on whether the mind can have causal influence on the brain.

Panpsychism claims that everything is conscious to some degree. A number of secular thinkers have come to the conclusion that the “hard problem” of consciousness is so hard that it cannot be resolved by humans. This position is called mysterianism. Colin McGinn claims that we are just not built to solve the problem: it is cognitively closed to us. Humans trying to understand consciousness are like squirrels trying to understand quantum physics.

Jennifer seemed to find value in the views of medieval Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas and modern Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart regarding mind and brain. These thinkers, following Aristotle, do not separate the physical and spiritual aspects of humans. To let Hart speak for himself on the subject, here is an excerpt of an article of his which approvingly describes Pope John Paul II’s Thomistic views on the nature of man:

…at the heart of its anthropology is a complete rejection — or, one might almost say, ignorance — of any dualism between flesh and spirit.

It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul — whether we believe in the soul or not — as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. … But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks, as John Paul makes clear in his treatment of the creation account in Genesis, is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit. John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion.

George Murphy, “Clarity About Divine Action: Prayer, Causal Joints, and Kenosis”

With a PhD in physics plus theological training and pastoral experience, George was well-equipped to treat his subject matter, which has both intellectual and practical aspects. The abstract in the program book summarizes this talk:

How to speak of God acting in a world whose processes are described by scientific laws is a basic question for theology-science dialogue. Many answers have been suggested but are not entirely satisfactory. Beginning from the theology of the cross with its implications of the hidden inside God, I make three points here.

1. We do not need to God as an element of scientific explanations for what happens in the world. But Christians are told to pray for “daily bread.” The old adage that “the law of praying is the law of believing” that implies that theology must speak of God acting in the world to provide food and other needs.

2. Such theology must, however, not try to specify a precise “causal joint” between God’s action and that of creatures. Theology is not physics. We must be content with analogy. The traditional concept of God’s cooperation with creatures in their actions, like a human working with some instrument, provides an analogy that can also account for the preservation of creatures.

  1. Scientific explanations of natural phenomena in terms of rational laws indicate that God does not work with creatures in arbitrary ways. This is best seen as an aspect of divine kenosis (Philippians 2:7): God limits action in the world as Christ limited himself to the human condition in the incarnation. Kenosis is often misinterpreted. It should not be understood to mean that God is sometimes absent or inactive.

“Kenosis” is from the Greek word meaning “to empty out.” It is used in Philippians 2:7, where it is said that Christ “emptied himself.” In the incarnation Jesus limited himself to the human condition. This illustrates how God may choose to limit his cooperation with his creatures according to their capacities, i.e. according to “natural laws.” Kenosis is about what God does not do.

According to Luther, created things are masks of God, in which He hides Himself, as God was concealed in Christ at Golgotha. Pascal wrote that what meets our eyes is not a total absence or presence of the divine, but a God who conceals Himself.

On mode of (hidden) divine interaction with the physical world might be for God to influence some individual events at the quantum level (e.g. a DNA mutation), as long as the larger ensemble of quantum events is not perturbed.

I’ll close here with a quote from George’s scholarly essay at Biologos which may convey his thought better than my notes do:

The approach that I have taken to relationships between Christian faith and scientific knowledge of the world is to view them in the context of a theology of the cross. God’s fundamental revelation is in the event of the cross, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and the resurrection of the crucified one. (These two aspects must be kept together.) This was not only the means God used to solve a problem but the most profound revelation of the true God’s identity. It is a paradoxical revelation in hiddenness, for nothing is less like our expectations of God than a man dying the humiliating and God‐forsaken death of a criminal.

 If the event of the cross is God’s self‐revelation, we may expect it to be a clue to God’s general modus operandi in the world. The incarnation and passion of Christ are marked by the “emptying” (kenosis), or self‐limitation, of Philippians 2:7. In creation, where (to use an old image) God works with and through creatures as “instruments,” God limits that action and works within the capacities of creatures, in accord with what we call the laws of physics. God could display absolute power and “violate” those laws, but our experience shows us that if such events happen at all, they are extremely rare.

 Because what we observe scientifically is the behavior of God’s instruments and not the one who uses them, they are also “masks” of God. Just as God is concealed from direct observation in his supreme work of salvation, he is hidden in his ongoing work in creation: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isaiah 45:15). The regularity of natural processes that results from this is a gift that makes it possible for us to understand our world on its own terms.

Some Reflections on Hearing God’s Voice in Nature

I was glad I attended this meeting. I enjoyed meeting fine people, and heard a lot of interesting talks. And the food was good.

I’ll add one small observation: it seemed to me that there was relatively little actual natural theology discussed, at least in the lectures I attended. That was a bit surprising, considering the overall theme of the conference was “Hearing God’s Voice in Nature.”

There were a number of presentations which dealt with the theology of nature: given our understanding of God, how should we understand and treat the natural world?  But classic natural theology is the other way around: given our observations of nature, how does that enrich our understanding of God? This was definitely discussed by some speakers, but it seemed on the sparse side.

For instance, Romans 1: 18-25 (…For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse…, etc.) is probably the most weighty passage in the New Testament on this subject. (I have treated this passage, including its implications regarding the ingratitude of unbelievers, in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology ). However, I do not recall any mention of these verses from the podium.

This is not a complaint or criticism, just an observation. This trend may just reflect the concern of the good speakers here to distance themselves from the efforts of modern Intelligent Design proponents who try to identify gaps in our understanding of natural history into which they can insert some Intelligent Agent capable of tweaking genomes over the past billion years. I respect the scholarly standards of our speakers, who were careful not to claim any naturalistic proofs of God. On the contrary, the hiddenness of God was repeatedly emphasized.

Taking a strict reading of Romans 1, and Psalms 19 and 104, perhaps that all we can firmly conclude about a Creator from observing the creation is that he is very powerful and long-lasting (the universe is big and old) and very smart (love the way all those quantum fields add up to complex functioning physical systems). It’s not clear from Scripture that other characteristics of God, such as his justice, are unambiguously displayed in creation. Regarding interactions among animals, for instance, conference speakers spent much more time on the defensive (answering attacks on God’s goodness) than on the offensive (demonstrating God’s goodness). It may be that there is not much more to be said in the way of natural theology, so that the podium should properly belong to theologians of nature. But maybe not. I will keep tuned in to the ongoing conversation within ASA among scientists and theologians who deal with these issues.

Advertisements

About ScottBuchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, folding scooters, and composting toilets. Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 80 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas.
This entry was posted in Natural Theology, Suffering, Sustainability and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Some Highlights of American Scientific Affiliation 2015 Meeting

  1. tuftsflyer@comcast.net says:

    Thank you, Scott! I have just spent 20 minutes reading your highlights. I’ll ask Ros to read and then re-read and discuss with her. We have a dozen Canada geese this Am strolling on our lawn. Life is good (for us) that I know. We are amazingly fortunate to have you and Grace, and your children, in our lives/Love, Nate

  2. Pingback: Brain, Mind, Faith: 2016 American Scientific Affiliation Meeting | Letters to Creationists

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s