July 19, 2003

SCIENTER

The spiritual shortcomings of the God of the scientist turned theologian. (Peter Sellick, 7/03/2003, Online Opinion)
I recently attended a lecture entitled "Cosmic Richness" at the University of Western Australia given by John Polkinghorne, one of the Cambridge scientists who, together with Arthur Peacock, left science to study theology and become ordained Anglicans. Polkinghorne and Peacock have both won the Templeton prize for their contribution towards the science/religion debate. Apart from which, I lump them together because, it seems to me, they are broadly on about the same thing.

I must admit that I attended the lecture with some foreboding because I have in the past found the arguments put forward by these two to be unconvincing and, indeed, to threaten the very thing they are attempting to prop up: Christianity besieged by natural science. [...]

My point is that the God we find in the bible, the God that Moses met before the burning bush and whose name was "I am", the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the God of Jesus Christ, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is so peculiar and so foreign to our natural theism that He cannot simply be joined with the scientist/theologians speculation about divine agency, a sort of force hiding in the shrubbery of the universe. What has this agency to do with the child in the manger, the man in despair in the garden and dying abandoned on the cross?

What happens to Christian theology when it finds its foundation in the sort of theism that comes from scientific arguments for the existence of divine agency? Karl Barth recognised that the God of natural theology is a far preferable creature than the one revealed nailed to the cross. The romantic mood will always discount the abundant examples of natural evil and concentrate on the spectacular sunset, the lovers' embrace or the child's smile. In the face of these the crucified God is bound to come off second best and be seen as a spoil-sport of the celebration of life. Likewise the God that is speculated to exist behind the fabric of the universe, especially when backed up by prestigious advocates of the dominant culture (natural science), looks a far better bet than the God revealed in the peculiar and haunting narratives of the bible. The latter is a dangerous God whose presence is fearful and life changing whereas the god of science/theology is an intellectual curiosity whose existence we can assent to but who will never call us and challenge us and dispose us.

A Christian theology that finds its foundation or warrant in the speculation of scientists is as fragile as scientific hypothesis...

Perhaps this overstates the problem with Theism. Judeo-Christianity is obviously not founded on science, but on revelation. What science can do is confirm, in an extremely rationalist epoch, that faith in that revelation is, if not justified, at least not contradicted by scientific reason. That the science--everything from the Big Bang to the Heisenberg principle to evolution to Fermi's paradox--is so consistent with our theology is entirely predictable to those of faith, but must disturb those who expected reason to eliminate the bases of faith. The God who is not disproved by science can not suffice for the faith, but does suffice for reason, as He must, since the latter is but a subset of the former.

MORE:
Darwin in a Box: Are you ready for computers that speed up the process of evolution and teach themselves to think? (Steven Johnson, August 2003, Discover)
On the screen, an animated figure takes a step forward and tries to walk. Instead it collapses immediately, falls on its back, and flails its legs helplessly. Then it reappears at the left of the screen, takes a few delicate baby steps, and falls again. Returning to the screen, it raises its knees, takes six or so confident strides, and drops on its side. After trying over and over again to walk, the figure finally marches successfully across the screen as though its motions had been captured directly from videos of a human walking.

This little film won't win an Oscar for Best Animated Short, but the software that generated it stands as a small miracle of computer programming. The figure was not taught how to walk by an offscreen animator; it evolved the capacity for walking on its own. The intelligence to do so came from some clever programming that tries to mimic nature's ability to pass along successful genes.

The idea is called a genetic algorithm. It creates a random population of potential solutions, then tests each one for success, selecting the best of the batch to pass on their "genes" to the next generation, including slight mutations to introduce variation. The process is repeated until the program evolves a workable solution.

Does Science Point to God?: Part II: The Christian Critics (Benjamin D. Wiker, July/August 2003, The Crisis)
In the Descent [of Man (1871)], Darwin offered an evolutionary account of the rise of morality and religious belief, solely in terms of natural selection. He also drew out the obvious moral implications. Since human nature is the product of evolution, as with any product of natural selection, it can be improved on by artificial selection. Just as a pigeon fancier takes what nature gives him and selectively breeds for traits he desires, so also human beings should take their own evolution into their own hands. It's no accident, then, that Descent's finale is a call to eugenics, a science to which Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, gave the name but to which Darwin gave the foundation.

Nor is it an accident, at present and for the foreseeable future, that evolution provides the support for genetic manipulation and the removal-via the combination of screening and abortion-of the genetically unfit. Once human nature is understood to be an accident of chance, it can no longer be the inviolable locus of moral claims. We, the clay, now lay claim to be the potters as well. To repeat, Darwinism inevitably leads to moral Darwinism. The lesson? NOMA is nonsense.

A sure sign that Darwinism knows no moral bounds is that nearly all the moral controversies we face today (and we will face tomorrow) hinge on a single disagreement: whether human beings are fundamentally distinct from all other animals or whether human beings are simply one more kind of animal; that is, whether we have an immortal, immaterial soul as created in the image of God, or whether we're one more indistinct and unintended form of animal life provisionally occupying the ever-changing evolutionary landscape.

To take a most illustrative moral quandary, if we're merely another kind of animal, then euthanasia should not be a moral issue at all. Rather, euthanasia would merely be the long-overdue application to human beings of a service long-available at all veterinary clinics for our pets. We don't let our pets suffer when they've contracted some painful, irremediable malady or are ravaged by old age. We consider it humane to put them down, and that's why advocates of euthanasia consider its prohibition not only irrational but inhumane.

Nor again do we become morally queasy when we only let the best horses, cattle, sheep, and goats breed. Further, farmers and breeders do not coddle retarded or malformed animals, supplying them with comfortable pasturage. They eliminate the unfit without delay and without remorse. Why should the biologically challenged be a drain on already strained resources?

Well, why not? The only support for the "why not" in regard to human beings is the conviction that we are indeed fundamentally distinct, created in the image of God, and not fashioned as an unintended effect of natural selection. This truth claim grounds our moral arguments against euthanasia and eugenics, and it is a claim about reality that directly overlaps [Stephen Jay] Gould's cherished evolutionary magisterium.
Posted by Orrin Judd at July 19, 2003 1:36 PM
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