Science Needs a Creation Story

Every once in a while, the average guy or gal needs closure. I speak here not of “getting on with life” after a breakup, loss, or what have you. I mean by way of logical understanding. It has been said that the point of the journey is not to arrive. And yet, if we never arrive at any firm conclusions in our intellectual lives, the journey begins to look like the life of Phil Connors (from Groundhog Day); we’re just not getting anywhere. An individual reading the New York Times each morning will be bombarded by claims. They will not have the time (nor skill) to track down all of the claims, examine their proofs, and explore the validity of counter claims. Sure, we try to stay appraised of “what’s really going on”, as described and explained by the intellectual cognoscenti. But really, we have to take (or not take) their word for it. As applied to secular science, the public needs a reliable creation story. A metanarrative of life. That is, a telling of the unfolding of history. One might think that the skeleton of such a structure already exists. But this is simply—and inconveniently—not true. Worse, the more one gropes down into the rabbit hole, the more confused one gets.

Let us start at the beginning. In the beginning was the Big Bang. Mind you, I’m no physicist, but it sure seems messy. For example, many seem to be arguing that, in the beginning, there was no beginning. In a recent article, announced, “Quantum equation predicts universe has no beginning.” This is based on a paper recently published in Physics Letters B (Ali and Das, 2015), but we’ve heard similar things from prominent physicists and mathematicians (for example, Stephen Hawking also argues for a curved beginning of space-time, such that there is no “beginning”). So, what does one think when reading this over a cup of coffee? This matters, because it represents the fundamental grounding of known reality. If there is no beginning to the universe, then does this mean that the universe is eternal or that time doesn’t really exist? And, even if devoid of a time component, what caused the universe? Or is self-causation an (il)logical possibility?

[As an aside, it turns out that the model used in the Ali and Das (2015) paper relies on “Bohmian fluid” corresponding to a quantum mechanical wavefunction. As a colleague explained it to me, “But since Bohm’s wavefunctions don’t have points, space-time contracts down to a quantum mechanical blob, and then stays a blob for eternity.”]

Okay, now let’s flash forward some minuscule sliver of time. At the moment of the Big Bang, apparently space-time was actualized. Time began. But what is space-time? Well, it’s relative. First off, the singularity (the point from which the Big Bang expands outward) would need to have an immense density. But, as Einstein’s General Relativity teaches us, the larger the density, the greater the gravity (or, in his mind, the larger the distortion of the time dimension). Take a black hole for example. It is essentially a super-dense object, that’s gravity is sufficiently large to produce an “escape velocity” that even light cannot manage (black holes are black holes because not even light can escape them). At the Big Bang, what was gravity like, why didn’t matter collapse, and how did the expansion happen (i.e., why not have everything pulled back towards this point of immense density?). By now you’re all already getting bored, so I’ll try to move along. Just be aware that we still don’t really know if particles have ever actually moved faster than the speed of light (say, out of the Big Bang or into a black hole), what such a phenomenon would “look” like, and what it would mean with respect to time. We also don’t really know what gravity is. [this is not to say that there aren’t educated opinions out there].

I also won’t spend time this morning discussing the brain-melting applications of relativity and quantum mechanics (the latter of which still exists as a theoretical hotbed, rife with conflicting interpretations). But the take home is that we can’t assume a common time frame with any other object (apparently not even for planes moving in opposite directions or for people in space stations orbiting earth). Heck, we might even be “actualizing” history that exists only as a possibility until we observe it (effectively allowing us to make the past real). This is about the time one wonders if they need a strong drink and a moment to think…or if they’re had too many already, and can’t think.

Okay, so the past—if it exists—is indeed mysterious and apparently not a static feature of reality. Let’s try to find our footing in some things nearer to us. The origin of life represents yet another serious stumbling block. Not only do we have no clear demonstration of a progression from chemistry to biology (life from non-life), but there are dozens of competing hypotheses, most of which will be entirely resistant to empirical testability. Worse, it’s not as if we have some nested set of hypotheses that all share common denominators. How many origins of life are there? Did life arise spontaneously on earth, or did it come from outer space? Did “life” (that is, replicating molecules) gradually increase in complexity in some step-wise Darwinian fashion, or is life an emergent property? If it happened here, did life arise in a hydrothermal vent, mud bubbles, the backs of crystals, or on some ancient shoreline? The answer to all of these questions is, it depends on which scientists you ask. Once again, we’re off to a bad start.

What about the evolution of life? Here, I am pleased to say that we at least have some basic areas of consensus. Even if we did have multiple origins for life on earth, the consensus view is that none of those origins looked like anything near complex multicellular life. Such forms seemed to have evolved over long epochs of time. There is a fossil record, and—to the extent that they’re helpful—there are molecular data which reveal a basic pattern of life’s unfolding. So, most of us can get a bit of closure in knowing that the earth (and life) is old, and that it has evolved over time. On that timeline, lions, tigers and bears (and people) are recent. The patterns seem to indicate that our species falls within the primate lineage, though no direct ancestor has been unearthed as of yet. Again, there may be some uncomfortable implications therein, but at least we can feel some degree of confidence in knowing this much (at a minimum, a logical statement that it is more probable than not).

But then, what of the mechanism? There, some would have you believe that there is consensus, but the cracks in the proverbial dam have now leaked water into the mainstream media. Too many reputable scientists, with no religious bent, have raised concerns about the “consensus” form of evolution; Darwinian evolution. First, that fossil record telling us of the general pattern of evolution unfortunately displays anything but a gradual increase in complexity. Linked to the problem of life’s origin(s), there is the absence of a viable mechanism for creating information-rich genetic code. Again, I won’t bore people with the details here, but there is the issue of explaining self-referencing systems (where the output of a reaction is also the first input) or why there is external referencing and context among things, even when there is no physical necessity for those relationships. [For example, a major hurdle is to explain why the ordered code of the DNA molecule should correspond to the ordered sequence of a protein. There is no physical mechanism or law that necessitates such a relationship].

Per the usual, one can see all manner of explanations in popular media outlets. While the gradualistic form of Darwinian evolution is largely debunked among biologists, it retains mainline status in the public. But, things like “evo-devo” (“evolution and development”), which attempts to offer large-scale changes in small time increments, have become widely accepted (even while largely unverified as a viable mechanism). Add to this epigenetics (the “extended synthesis”), nearly-neutral evolution, stochastic drift, emergent processes and even “front-loading” or “facilitated” adaptation. One gets the feeling that we are on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Taking stock then, our cosmic origins are a complete and utter mystery. The nature of “real” reality is also enigmatic. Our temporal place in the history of life is fairly well established, but we have no clear mechanism as to how life came to be, nor how we (or anything else) emerged. This is unsettling, because we derive both meaning or purpose (or the absence of those things), as well as the teleological arrow of the future from the mechanism(s) involved in our past. If we were seeded here by aliens, our sense of meaning and purpose would be more like that of the movie Prometheus than the hopeless account offered by Dawkins et al. If there is frontloading, then there may be a teleological target yet ahead of us. You get the idea. I haven’t even broached the uncomfortable issues of objective observation, human consciousness, free-will, etc. Here, science either flatly doesn’t know, or denies the phenomenon in question. Not particularly helpful. How then do we ground our sense of being in the absence of any concrete structures upon which we could fasten ourselves? The common mantra among the scientific community is “give us more time. We’ll figure it all out.” But, in practical terms, this is no different than believing that Jesus will explain everything to us in the end. What do we do in the meantime? At a minimum, what science needs is a creation story, an ontology of existence, that is broadly agreed upon, and salable to the public. At least Jesus offers a concrete account of how we get to the present. Science keeps writing the past in pencil, and erasing it before we can read it.


Critique of The God of Evolution, by Denis Edwards

There are a number of authors and thinkers that I did not include in my book, Shadow of Oz. In some instances, I decided not to include them because their contributions to the conversation were redundant. In other cases, I was simply unaware of their work during the time I was writing. At any rate, I intend to offer a series of reviews (or critiques) of these individuals as their work pertains to theistic evolution. I have several in mind, but I have just finished Denis Edwards’s The God of Evolution, and thought I’d begin with it.

In general, if one is hoping for a positive review, you should go ahead and stop reading at this point. The  book offers almost nothing new, and its most glaring problems are things I’ve already addressed. However, I think it’s worth pointing out where these mistakes in thinking exist, and how they relate to my overall impressions of the theistic evolution program.

Beginning on the first page, Edwards makes clear that “A theology of God for today must attempt to be faithful to the insights of the ‘good news of God’ from the context of  an evolutionary view of the world.” So, it’s clear that we will begin with the assumption of God (no argument for the existence of God is offered), and then attempt to recreate our conception of God in the context of evolutionary theory. As he puts it, “Christian theology always needs to be done again.” Now, Edwards is a theologian, not a scientist, and he makes the standard non sequitur I’ve found part-and-parcel with mainstream theistic evolution. He leaps from the term “evolution” (which he doesn’t ever really qualify), to the full efficacy of a Darwinian account of biological evolution, which assumes a universal common ancestor and a mechanism driven by the sorting of random mutations by natural selection. Like God, Darwin’s theory is assumed, not demonstrated in the book. (remember, such a demonstration would require more than the pattern of evolution. It would require validation that Darwin’s mechanism is capable of producing this pattern.) I will just point out that all forms of theism have an evolutionary account, and that there are dozens of supplemental (if not entirely revisionist) forms of biological evolution outside of Darwin’s framework. One can accept “evolution” while rejecting the power of Darwin’s rendering of the process.

So, once again, if we assume God is the creator, and we assume Darwin’s theory explains creation, then we must seek compatibility. Since God is not detectable (we’ll get to that momentarily) and Darwin’s theory is a proper science based on empirical facts, then it is quite obvious which side of the ledger will be modified; God. The first cut is the deepest, as Edwards clears the table of any serious interpretation of the history provided in biblical creation accounts. “The salvific truths [of Genesis] have revelatory significance for Christian theology today, but the historical order of events and the cosmology of the ancient world do not.” But this is a virtue of necessity. One cannot square modern scientific understanding with the Genesis account, so we dismiss it. Conveniently, Edwards keeps the “salvific truths” (whatever they end up being), only because science cannot speak to them.

Edwards’s salvific truths are God’s transcendence over creation, ongoing relationship between God and His creation, humans in the image of God, human stewardship, human sin, and the enduring promise of salvation.

Of all examples in making his case for the relational aspect of evolutionary theory vis-a-vis Christian theology, Edwards chooses Richard Dawkins’s description of a body being “a community of a hundred million million mutually dependent eukaryotic cells.” Each cell being “a community of thousands of tamed bacteria.” Dawkins finds these nested communities to be more inspiring than any story of the Garden of Eden. Of course, he’s seeing all of this through the lens of selfish gene theory, where each body is a lumbering robot, slave to the gene and perishing in servitude to these “immortal coils” (i.e., genes). So Edwards is clearly picking and choosing which aspects of Dawkins’s understanding of life to claim. Where Dawkins would see life “red in tooth and claw”, within a nature that represents “pitiless indifference”, Edwards writes, “I find this communal picture of the evolution of life beautifully congruent with the way a communal, relational God might create.” (p26) He adds, “This theological view of the fundamental character of reality fits with key insights of evolutionary biology. Biology suggests a world of cooperative, coadaptive, symbiotic and ecological relations.” (p28)

Notice, first of all, that Edwards is working hard to recast the findings of biology into a theologically palatable interpretation. Darwin’s theory (as Dawkins rightly sees it) is derivative of Malthus’s “dismal theorem” (Darwin directly attributes his breakthrough to having read Malthus). This is a worldview in which all compete, losers die, and only the strong survive. Only from the wreckage of competition, death, and failed evolutionary attempts, does the fitter emerge. And, we must note that the theory depends solely on this fitness term. That is to say, the Darwinian process does not care how fitness advantages are gained. Cheating, stealing, poisoning, pillaging, or simply holding fictitious conceptions of reality (delusions); So long as they increase fitness, they are selected for. Edwards says “communal relations” but what he means is predation, competition, disease, parasitism and environmental catastrophe. Hardly the stuff of benevolence from an all-loving God. How many of us have ever witness a trematode devour the gonads of a host snail,  hijack its brain and use its body for mass producing parasite progeny, and then thought, “Wow, that’s just how I see God interacting with His creation”?

Edwards then moves on to his conception of God’s action:

“God (usually as a unipersonal individual being) and the universe are understood as two realities, more or less over against each other, with God reaching into the world to act at particular moments. This common way of imaging the God-world relationship results in an interventionist view of divine action. God is imagined as intervening to create and to move creation in the right direction at certain time.” (p30)

Edwards rejects this view entirely. Instead he favors the view that “The universe can be seen as unfolding ‘within’ the trinitarian relations of mutual love” (p30) and, “. . . the ‘place’ of the universe is within God. . . Creation, including the evolution of life, occurs within the ‘space’ of this divine life” (p31). Note that Edwards’s rejection of a God who directly intervenes to create requires the complete abandonment of any direct intervention by God at any point in the Bible. No burning bush, no angels surrounding Gideon, no fire upon the alter, nor angels freeing Peter. Oddly–but completely consistent with other theistic evolutionists–Edwards does claim Jesus as a supernatural being (God), performing miracles and rising from the dead. I’m yet to hear a satisfying response as to why the theistic evolutionist will suspend scientific naturalism for Jesus in the stories of the Bible, but for no other.

Amid the copious quantities of theological gobbledygook and verbal diarrhea that follows in Edwards’s book, he seems to be contradicting his own position. On the one hand, he doesn’t see God directly acting at any time to guide evolution. On the other, he writes,

“Things only exist because God, absolute being, conserves them in their being and in their action. All creatures owe their existence at every moment to the ongoing creative activity of God. . . [God] is always present as dynamic absolute Being, which enable creatures not only to exist but also transcend themselves and to become what is new.” (pgs 88 and 90)

Edwards goes so far as to say, “At the heart of the vision is the idea of Christ the Omega, who is not simply identified with biological evolution (as Moltmann seems to suggest), but who is the transcendent source and goal of evolutionary movement,”(p111) and that Jesus “represents a new stage in evolution.” (p118)

So, apparently, in some way (clearly unseen and undetectable by us), God is indeed not only intervening here or there to guide the process, but is intimately involved at all stages for all things at all times, and has provided teleological goals for the process of evolution to achieve. These views are maddening. In the face of a science that suggests absolutely no divine intervention or purpose to anything we see, people like Edwards make the insane leap to supposing that all we see is representative of the divine creative process, entirely unfolding with ultimate purpose. Worse, he holds both views simultaneously.

(As an aside, it occurs to me that all theistic evolutionists see creation as emerging from some lower state of relationship with God, to some higher state of relationship. Ala Teilhard, they see Christ as the fulfillment of evolution, and as some kind of realization of God’s full relationship to creation. Said more plainly, they hold that the world is “evolving towards God”. I wonder how they square such views with two important facts: 1) secularism and atheism increase wherever modern science flourishes. This is a global pattern of permanent decline in faith. 2) Accordingly, For most who accept it, Darwinian evolution has dissuaded belief in God.)

It is at this point that we start seeing the unjustified eroding of God’s power. Edwards writes,

“If one’s view of God is of a being who is absolutely omnipotent, unencumbered by any limits of any kind whatsoever, then it is difficult to reconcile such a God with the pain of death that accompanies natural selection and still affirm divine goodness. . . . If God acts in a relational way, then God will not coerce the response of the other, but will respect the freedom of the other.”(pgs 39-40).

Here, “other” means “the creation”. He adds to this, “A God who respects human freedom is vulnerable to the misuse of that freedom, and a God who respects natural processes is vulnerable to the limits of those processes. . . . Such a God will be understood as a God who freely accepts limits of the process of emergence, a God who creates through the losses and gains of evolutionary history. It suggests a God engaged with creation, a God who respects the process, and a God who suffers with and delights in the unfolding of creation.” (pgs 43-44)

I will just point out a few problems with this view. First, in order to make sense of God in the context of biological evolution, Edwards argues that we must limit God’s omnipotence. He’s a bit clumsy with it, but I would wager that he’s going for something like Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” argument, wherein the assumption is that this way of creating is the best of all possibilities (even if it is unclear to us). The unfortunate problem with the argument is that it could be made for any possible universe that is actualized (i.e., actually comes to exists). There is no state of affairs over which Edwards (or Leibniz) would reject the God hypothesis.  It is a claim that absorbs any and all possible scenarios, and is thus unfalsifiable. Therefore, it is not a functional hypothesis.

Following up on the limiting of God’s omnipotence, Edwards makes no justification as to why we must choose to limit God’s power in this way.  It is not something we would naturally (willingly) conceive of. Instead,  this again  looks like a virtue of necessity. Given that evolution is true (in the way Edwards sees it), Edwards must make this concession if he wants to retain the idea of God. But notice how quickly such theistic evolutionists turn on a dime. Edwards writes,

“. . . for biblical faith, divine omnipotence is really the divine capacity for love beyond all human comprehension.” (pg 41)  He also argues that biological evolution “does not rule out a theological principle of purpose. It is quite possible to think theologically of God as working purposefully in the universe through processes such are random mutation and natural selection, which when investigated empirically do no reveal purpose at all.” (pg 47)

So, God is not powerful enough to have a creation in which He is free to directly intervene. Nor is He powerful enough to create an equally “good” universe devoid of the massive suffering caused by evolutionary processes. We apparently must explain to a suffering and brokenhearted mother that her two babies were born conjoined and doomed to an almost immediate death because, this is how God had to create. On the other hand, we can rest securely in the knowledge that God’s ways are completely antithetical to our understanding of reality. His love is beyond our comprehension, even though it appears that His methods are cruel and capricious. His ability to act in everything at every moment is somehow beyond our ability to detect His purposes. This is an important observation. What we have is both an appeal to absurdity and an appeal to ignorance. The form of the position boils down to something like the following:

premise 1: Logic and empiricism informs us that evolution is both driven by death and suffering, and is devoid of purpose or foresight.

premise 2: God is all loving and is the creator and sustainer of all things.

conclusion: Therefor, God must act in ways that are antithetical to our experience of reality.

I have heard many distinguished and thoughtful Christians commit this blunder. They conflate “transcendent” power with “contradictory” realities. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I may observe that it rained last Tuesday. A meteorologist’s knowledge of such a phenomenon transcends my own. But, the meteorologist’s understanding will not contradict my understanding. It will reinforce and deepen it. When we say, “God’s mind is beyond us” this seems so obvious that it is a truism. Necessarily God’s mind is beyond ours. But we should not conclude from this truth that ultimate reality contradicts our perceptions of it. If it does, then existence in absurd, and we are utterly ignorant of it (i.e., we are left with a God that is illogical and no rational argument can justify our position).

To pull this back into Edwards’s contradiction, he seems to know an awful lot about how God must act (in being a non-coercive lover, vulnerable to the creation’s unfolding), while then claiming complete ignorance about other features of God’s creative action (e.g., that He can somehow love in spite of appearing careless and that He can somehow work through a mechanism in which He appears entirely absent).

A second problem arises, and I’ll just quickly flag it. Edwards (like so many other process theists or theistic evolutionists) feels that it would be counter to God’s nature to coerce outcomes or decisions made by the creation. But the creation is inanimate. I cannot have a relationship with a rock or the tires on my truck. They are not responsive in any free-willed sense of the term. Likewise (and Bill Dembski’s pointed this out already), a star or galaxy is not free to choose its unfolding. So, a major problem here is the assumption of some strange form of pantheism, in which Edwards acts as if God’s letting the creation decide what it wants to be. I think a second major problem follows; Edwards equates the contingency of chance + necessity with “choice”. But chance is not choice. If the unfolding of creation is driven by a combination of stochastic and determinant processes, God has secured no more freedom for it.

There are other serious concerns with Edwards’s logic, but these hit the high notes. In closing, I would add one more problem; as Richard Dawkins put it, “Why bother when you’ve got a perfectly good explanation that doesn’t involve guidance?” Greg Koukl has made a similar analogy to demonstrate the point. Suppose a man you how to boil water. You tell him that he must get a kettle of water, take it to sea level, and heat it to 100C, and then add a leprechaun. He asks, “what if I don’t have a leprechaun?”, to which you answer that the water will still boil. So why add the leprechaun? If we don’t need God to explain any of the workings of the universe, why insert Him in it?

Likewise, when a theistic evolutionist makes such a claim (that God is in and of all things, yet is entirely undetectable and never directly intervenes), isn’t this also available to all other faiths (or even nonfaith)? Couldn’t the Hindu say that Vishnu’s really there in the background? Or, couldn’t someone argue that Greek gods really do exist, and are worthy of our praise, even though we cannot detect them? That’s an easy kill shot against theistic evolution. If you ask them why they believe in the Judeo-Christian God over an above the others, they must (if they’re attempting to be rational) offer you a reason. But, in offering a reason, it will necessarily be some piece(s) of evidence gleaned from material existence (either in logic or empiricism). But, if such an evidence can be offered, then their view (that God is entirely undetectable) is false. With that, I’ll let Edwards out from under the interrogation light.



Ayala’s mistake, and the validity of Dembski’s universal probability bound

I was listening to an old debate between William Lane Craig and Francisco Ayala on the topic of Intelligent Design, and found one argument to be particularly disturbing. Noting that Ayala is one of the most prolific biologists on the planet, I was surprised at the silly error in his argument against Dembki’s universal probability bound.

“You don’t need to argue with professor Dembski because, by his own argumentation, he does not exist. His genetic makeup has a mother component and a father component. The mother during  her life will produce about 500 eggs, each one with a different genetic composition. The father produce about 10^12 sperm, each with a different genetic composition. The probability that he will get the two right compositions is 10^-15. . . . Going one generation back, the probability that Dr. Dembski exists, by his own argumentation, is 10^-45. If I go one more generation the probability that he exists is smaller than the reciprocal of the number of atoms in the universe. Those arguments have no seriousness for any serious scientist.”

The great error in Ayala’s thinking is that he either ignorantly or intentionally misses the essential piece of Dembski’s argument. Dembski explicitly describes any probability bound as a limit in the probabilistic resources needed to randomly find a specified outcome. If we consider a series of ten digits in a code (ranging from 0-9 at each position), and then ask what the likelihood of getting any of the possible arrangements would be. The answer is one. We have not specified any particular outcome, but instead have simply asked for one of the possible outcomes. If we asked a random drawing to produce a specified outcome like 1783748325, the probability of getting it would be one in 10^-10, or one in ten billion. If we drew a new randomly generated ten digit code once every second, it would take us (on average) about 2,740 years to get the correct target sequence of numbers.

As a second analogy, suppose we had 10^15 people all playing the same lottery. What is the likelihood that, upon drawing a winning number, somebody will win? Again, the answer is one. Somebody will win. Now, what is the probability that I would win? One in 10^15, or one in a trillion. If we were to randomly draw a new winning number every second, it would take approximately 274 million years for me to win. That is to say, it is true that, if we randomly drew egg and sperm combinations from his parents once every second, it would take that long to get the another DNA composition like Dembski’s. The critical oversight in Ayala’s analogy is the specification of outcome, and for this reason it fails entirely. If there is no target specified, then one cannot calculate the probability of an event. Not to name a target is to simply say that something will happen. Which, barring the end of time-space, the probability of something happening is one.