Thursday, January 5, 2012

Notes on "Contending for the Truth" (Pt. 6)

[Series explanation and index here.]

The Challenge of Science
a talk by John MacArthur

MacArthur begins by pointing out that "whoever created the universe — and everything that exists in the universe — understands it perfectly." Furthermore: "Whoever is capable of creating and sustaining that, is certainly intelligent enough to write a relatively clear and accurate assessment of that, and insight into that, and a true representation of that, that is understandable to the frail human mind."

He goes on to say that we can know a book was written by God if it accurately describes nature in a way that doesn't depend on human discovery. We can also know that any book which inaccurately describes nature was not written by God.

I'm very much on board with this!

Instead of giving a play-by-play on this talk, I will give my own description of the issue, respond to some of MacArthur's arguments, and go beyond what he mentions.

Does the Bible accurately represent nature?

One major difficulty with answering this question is that Christians are divided on what the Bible claims about nature. I don't think anyone takes Psalm 98:8 literally as a claim that rivers have hands which they clap when they're happy. Other cases are less clear. Does Luke 4:5 imply that there was a mountaintop from which every first century kingdom was visible at once? And of course the big question is whether Genesis is straightforward history.

I agree with the speakers in this series that the best interpretation of the Bible as revelation involves taking Genesis as history. However, many (if not most) contemporary Christians take scientific understanding into account and conclude that Genesis was not all meant as history any more than Psalm 98 was meant as a literal description of rivers. Nor is this a new hermeneutic technique. St. Augustine struggled with the way the creation account mentions "evening" and "morning" because he knew there is always evening and morning somewhere on the globe. As I recall, he used this fact of nature to conclude that God wrote Genesis as a sort of stylistic dissection of what God actually created an instant.1

In the same book, Augustine wrote something worth quoting at length:
"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience.
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books."2
How Not To Correct Science (Or History)

At the risk of being mauled by atheists, I want to draw an analogy between Young Earth Creationism and the belief that Jesus never existed, even as a regular man. Both of these positions are far outside the mainstream of their respective fields. Both have passionate advocates who claim the evidence for their fringe position is being suppressed by mainstream ideological bias.

Now, disagreement is okay. Mainstream positions ought to be criticized if there is good supporting evidence. And it's true that mainstream ideas have the advantage of momentum. But this momentum can both in principle and in practice be defeated by a sufficiently strong alternative which provides a better overall solution. Scientists (and historians) dream of being such revolutionaries. But it isn't easy. You have to present something that can survive expert scrutiny. can claim to have an answer that the experts are unjustly ignoring and make your case, instead, to friendly audiences who don't understand the evidence for the mainstream position.

Before I make any specific responses to MacArthur's criticisms of mainstream science, I felt the need to put what he's doing in perspective. It doesn't mean he's wrong, but it does mean these kinds of criticisms have been considered and shrugged off by experts in various fields of science.

How Absurd!

Back to MacArthur's talk:
"Modern scientists [...] since Darwin have, in a very unscientific move, developed a totally irrational approach to reality: nobody times nothing equals everything. That is the ultimate stupidity. And we all understand that. Chance is the creator. Accident, coincidence, randomness, blind luck, coming out of nothing, producing the intricate systems and complex organisms and microcosms of the universe. That is just an absolute absurdity."
Biological evolution does not start from "nothing." It explains how reproducing organisms change over generations. The question of where reproducing organisms came from in the first place is outside the scope of Darwin's theory.

Now, evolution by means of natural selection does allow for some pretty amazing complexity to arise without personal intervention. If this is so offensive, it might help to know that evolution doesn't rule out some divine (or human!) intervention here and there; you can think of natural selection as the default. This should be no more troubling than believing that rain has a natural cycle, and — at the same time — believing that sometimes God intervenes in that cycle. And with or without intervention, you can believe that God set up the natural world to work this way. No conflict with science there.

Argument From Information

Referring to DNA, MacArthur says:
"Supposedly all that was necessary for evolution to function: matter and energy...we now understand that within the matter and the energy is this massive complex information."
It's the other way around. Darwin knew information was being transmitted from generation to generation, but he didn't know how. The later discovery of DNA provided a physical basis for hereditary information.
"Science cannot demonstrate that information can spontaneously occur."
The information in DNA does not appear spontaneously. Evolution isn't the claim that random genetic mutations just happen to produce useful patterns. Genetic information is built up by a long process of testing mutations for helpfulness or harmfulness.

MacArthur goes on to claim that computers prove his point because you can't just put randomness into a computer and get something useful out of it. Actually, computer simulations have provided some of the best evidence that complexity can arise in the ways skeptics have claimed it cannot.3 Even better: genetic algorithms — modeled on natural selection — are producing practical results across many disciplines.

Single Cells Are Complicated
"Behe calls it 'irreducible complexity'; and he is talking about the fact that all of this complexity has to exist simultaneously as a minimum for any integrated cellular system to exist. There cannot be any process by which it is finally achieved."
Yes, each cell is remarkably complex. But this isn't a problem for evolution for two reasons:

First, it's possible to grant that only an intelligent creator could be responsible for the initial existence of a reproducing cell...without calling into question what happens after that.

Second, what appears to be irreducibly complex today may well have developed by redundant natural means, followed by optimization which tidied up those intermediary forms. Natural arches are a common analogy; or scaffolding when it comes to human buildings. Claims of irreducible complexity tend to jump from “I don't see how” to “it is impossible!”

What I'm trying to convey here is that simplistic 'gotcha!'s may play well to certain audiences, but they aren't an adequate response to the high degree of support for mainstream scientific understanding; and I'm not just talking about Biology. Geology, Astronomy, Climatology, Physics, Linguistics, and probably a few other fields support each other but are in sharp conflict with Young Earth Creationism. Which is more likely: that a small group of discontents are distorting the evidence, or that most scientists in a variety of fields are part of a vast conspiracy to hide the truth?

[Continued here...]

1. See The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys theology or history of science. 
2. Contrary to my usual practice, I pasted this from Wikiquote. I intend to verify it when convenient, but I certainly remember a passage like this when I read Augustine's book.
3. Lenski, R.E., Ofria, C., Pennock, R.T., Adami, C. (2003). The evolutionary origin of complex features. Nature 423(8 May 2003). p. 139-144. [pdf]

1 comment:

  1. "We can also know that any book which inaccurately describes nature was not written by God."

    Wow, that's a really bold admission. Another problem is that Genesis records the creation order inaccurately, saying both the Earth and plants predate the Sun, among other absurdities -- see my essay

    Basically, if scientists have even the tiniest clue, by this guy's admission, Christianity is false. I'm personally not so sure what to make of the Genesis issues -- whether they make Christianity unreasonable or not -- but they certainly are embarrassing.


    PS: I'm still enjoying this series.

    PPS: I'm holding out on my opinion about mythicism until both Richard Carrier's books come in and I move to personally study the area. After reading something like or watching something like, I think that the theory shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, but I also don't think it's true yet, either.