Topical Essays - archives only

Science versus the Bible: A Response

In a 1989 New York Times article Richard Dawkins declared, with characteristic directness, that anyone who denied Darwin’s theory of evolution was either ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked. Rarely a model of diplomacy, the Oxford zoologist reserves his most biting rhetoric for those who question the secular explanation of life’s origins.

Which is not surprising. There’s a lot at stake in the creation-evolution debate, and negative stereotyping has long been a weapon of choice for both sides.

To the disinterested outsider the conflict is a tired slugging match between hardcore atheists and swivel-eyed fundamentalists, and anyone seeking a compromise can expect haymakers from both sides.

That’s why I’m loathe to criticise events such as Grosvenor Road’s recent panel discussion on Science vs. the Bible. By all accounts it was very well run and important issues were considered without the rancour that’s often generated when those two topics collide.

Nevertheless, I must criticise. Not the event, but the philosophy behind it, a philosophy that seems to be taking many Christian minds captive (particularly educated Christian minds). The philosophy is naturalism – the assumption that the existence of all life can, and indeed must, be explained without reference to any supernatural agency, i.e. God.

The three participants on the panel – a chemist, microbiologist and geologist – were of course Christians, and none of them would deny God’s existence. But as scientists they are also naturalists (or, as the microbiologist helpfully refined it, methodological naturalists). They are committed to the method of explaining the world with the naturalistic assumptions that underpin contemporary science. In Geology, this presents itself as uniformitarianism, Charles Lyell’s idea that the processes we observe in the present, such as erosion, are the main causes of all geological formations; and its equivalent in Biology is the creeping, stepwise, unconscious and undirected Neo-Darwinian process.

The panellists would doubtlessly contend that it’s perfectly reasonable to be methodological naturalists – to adopt the assumptions of naturalism when doing science – while rejecting metaphysical Naturalism. They see no conflict in being theistic evolutionists, for they believe in two books with different purposes: the book of Nature tells us how the world works; the book of Scripture tells us why the world exists.

I believe this division is unnecessary, philosophically and theologically incoherent, and leads to a diminished view of Scripture.

I’ll begin with my second objection. The panel’s chemist, when challenged to explain Christ’s transformation of water into wine at Cana replied simply that it was a miraculous act which ‘was not part of the regular, normal behaviour’. I quite agree. God interrupted the normal course of events to produce results immediately that would naturally have required many months.

But allow me now to run a quick thought experiment. If one of the panellists was transported back in time to that wedding feast, presented with a pitcher of the miraculous wine and challenged to explain its creation, what would be his reply? As a committed methodological naturalist, he would be bound to explain that grapes ripened on a hillside, were picked, crushed, fermented and finally brought to the wedding feast in wineskins. His explanation would be quite reasonable, naturalistic, and wrong.

You might reply that the scientist’s Christianity would trump his methodological naturalism, that he’d simply believe apostolic testimony on this issue. I’m sure he would, but that’s not the point. Our little experiment shows that methodological naturalism would have been clearly incapable of explaining at least one historical fact in the natural world; it simply couldn’t have answered the how question of the wine’s provenance correctly. (Remember, once introduced, the wine was chemically no different to its non-miraculous counterpart – although it did taste much better!)

So if God can compress the natural processes of many months into one instant in first-century Cana, why do many Christian scientists object on principle to His intrusion at other times, such as at the creation of Adam and Eve and the flood? I believe it’s because they’ve chosen to be bound by the naturalistic assumptions that currently govern science. This naturalism is assumed a priori and is not a necessary conclusion of scientific observation – instead, it determines how scientists view the evidence in the first place. If the history of all material phenomena must be explained through a naturalistic lens, then there’s no place for a literal, historical interpretation of, for example, the early chapters of Genesis.

And, logically, there’s no place for Christ’s New Testament miracles. However, the panellists believe in those miracles as strongly as I do, but only by arbitrarily suspending their naturalism. Their faith comes at the very heavy cost of logical inconsistency.

I think it’s very important to recognise the commitment of so many Christian scientists to naturalism because it is this commitment that determines their response to any attempts to challenge Darwinism. And their allegiance is very strong, maybe even stronger than that of their non-believing colleagues. The microbiologist claimed, for example, that he was uncomfortable with Intelligent Design (ID) because he was a methodological naturalist and therefore suspicious of invoking any non-natural agent to explain natural phenomena; he was scared of anything that seemed like a God-of-the-gaps argument.

But the argument offered by ID advocates is the opposite of the God-of-the-gaps approach: they claim that our increasingly sophisticated knowledge of life’s complexity – not our ignorance of biology – points to the existence of a Creator.

An interdisciplinary approach, such as the application of information theory to the interpretation of DNA, has yielded some very strong arguments for ID. For example, William Dembski has proposed specific criteria for detecting intelligent causation in his book The Design Inference, an academic monograph published by Cambridge University Press in 1998.

Designed systems demonstrate what he terms ‘specified complexity’: objects and messages produced by an intelligent agent consist of seemingly random yet specifically ordered components or symbols. For example, the repeating string abcabcabcabcabcabc is specific but not complex or random enough to contain much information, and the string xjmfernidheosnbyt is a complex collection of random information but its lack of specification means it communicates nothing we would identify as a coherent message. In contrast, the string methinksitislikeaweasel is both random and specific, indicating an intelligence behind its composition. (In this case, the intelligence of a famous 16th century playwright).

ID theorists maintain that it’s reasonable to apply the criteria of specificity and complexity to biological systems, and in particular to the messages encoded in DNA, and draw the same conclusion of design by intelligence. This is simply the logic of Romans 1:20 applied to microbiology.

Given these criteria, they argue, standard evolutionary thought, with its emphasis on the classic combination of chance and necessity, is inadequate in explaining life’s complexity at the information-rich microbiological level. Chance produces meaningless disorder (the xjmfernidheosnbyt of the above example) and necessity can merely account for the mindless repetition of that disorder.

Nevertheless, theistic evolutionists prefer to cling to Darwinian orthodoxy because they simply believe that it’s taboo to speak of an outside Designer inferred from the apparent design of a closed natural system – they would call it ‘bad science’. But remember that the closed natural system is an assumption (and one that they themselves often feel compelled to suspend).

I used to have some respect for this philosophical nicety until I realised the following irony: theistic evolutionists – the party within the Darwinist movement that should be the most open to detecting God’s handiwork in nature – are arguably the most committed opponents to detecting design in God’s creation. The following example should be enough to demonstrate this claim.

In an interview with Ben Stein for the film Expelled, Richard Dawkins conceded that ‘a signature of some kind of designer’ might be found if scientists looked hard enough in the details of biochemistry. Dawkins’ putative designer could, he claimed, be no more than an earlier alien life form that may have seeded life on earth in the distant past. But he at least recognised that it was not philosophically illicit to infer a higher designer from complex biological systems. Incredibly, Christian Darwinists, who believe that God created the universe and everything in it, are even less open-minded than Richard Dawkins in this respect.

So theistic evolutionists are in a very difficult position, theologically and philosophically. They share the methodological naturalism of their secular colleagues but are forced to ignore it when its inadequacy becomes clear in the context of Christ’s miracles. Nevertheless, it guides their understanding of other miraculous accounts, particularly in the book of Genesis. What is the reason for this inconsistency? And why do these scientific believers deny the possibility of inferring design in nature while the world’s most notorious atheist is happy to allow it?

Those questions should be enough to keep your minds busy this week. Next Sunday we’ll examine why theistic evolution is unnecessary and leads to a diminished view of scripture.