Christianity and Science

 

 

 Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe

**** “And that’s if he’s wrong”

 

Some of the arguments below against Behe's thesis appear strong on some points; I'm not a biologist, and they don't give anything like the kind of detail Behe offers.  But even if Behe were wrong, I would give him four stars. First, for the apt metaphors, wit, and sardonic story telling by which he makes his argument.  Second, for the excellent biology lesson he gives along the way.  I think I would enjoy his classes, for he explains the functions of the cell in an extraordinary way.  Far from "wearing the reader down," he illustrates biological systems in a step-by-step manner that I think most intelligent readers will find fascinating. (Though a few parts are difficult.)  Third, even if he's wrong, evolutionary scientists can take his challenge as a homework assignment, a list of "some riddles that still need to solved."

If he's right, five stars would be too stingy.

Nor is it a serious argument to complain, as a couple reviewers do below, that Behe talks about molecular biology more than gross anatomy. The former is his field, after all.

Some seem upset that the scientifically illiterate masses might be led away from the true faith by Behe. "This people that knoweth not the (natural) law -- a curse is on them!"

I feel a little more detached from the argument, because my faith depends less on the prehistoric record of the earth that on the fact that God does act in history. Human life itself, I think, is a kind of "punctuated equilibrium." It is clear to me that on occasion, God interferes in the "normal" course of human events. Whether or not He did so in the past lives of animal species is, I think, a lesser question.  Behe argues that that question is not as settled as many believe.  I think to prove him wrong, a detailed and dispassionate refutation is in order.  And if the counter-argument is successful, doesn't that make it all the more helpful of Behe to have issued the challenge? We'll all learn a great deal about God's creation in the process.  So my advice is to read the book, and keep an open mind.

 

The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, Michael Behe

**** “Read it with an Open Mind”

 

Just as a massive star bends light, so emotion warps thought when we approach the question of origins. An eminent professor who takes the wrong position on this subject can lose tenure. A less eminent researcher may lose his job. Despite his forty-some peer-reviewed articles and a tenured faculty position, and the careful, measured tone in which he writes, Michael Behe will be called an "ID-iot," his honesty disputed, and anyone who agrees with him dismissed as an ignorant, red-neck hick who can barely muster the cognitive powers of a good high school student.

In such an environment (and if you doubt my appraisal, read some of the reviews below), it takes conscious intent to ignore manipulative appeals to the "argument from sociology" and attend to substance.

For the record, Behe is not an "ID-iot." He is a sharp and thoughtful biologist who doesn't think evolution can work on its own. In this book he argues for common descent, but argues that naturalistic evolution is limitted. He thinks the mechanisms suggested for powering the massive creativity and innovation in nature could not come from mutations alone.

His primary tool for advancing this argument is the evolution of the malaria bug, and of human immune defenses against it, over the past several thousand years. Behe shows that while microbes can and do evolve resistances to medicine, they generally do so by breaking down in some way, as does the human body. Touching briefly on the evolution of e coli and HIV, then on other critters, he makes the case that bugs that evolve rapidly, and through huge communities, demonstrate the limits to naturalistic evolution. The mathematical arguments he brings in to explain and support his more theoretical argument against the power of mutations, which some reviewers take issue with below, are not his main line of persuasion, nor, I admit, do they seem fully persuasive as developed here.

This book is not about Irreducible Complexity (IC). Behe defends the concept, and his examples of it, briefly, but that is not the main line of discussion, critics to the contrary. He's offered a lenghthier defense of IC elsewhere. (While I've read some of his Dover testimony, and some of the summary given in a critic's book, and agree he could have done better at some points, I think carefully considered written articles provide a better forum for ideas than a courtroom drama. As someone who has been known to stutter himself in interviews, I'm not inclined to judge a person's intelligence or argument on how well he holds up against hours of verbal examination by a well-prepared and clever attorney. In Debating Design, he seems to me to do well vs. Kenneth Miller and his famous Type III Secretory System.) But here Behe comes at the question from below, rather from above, looking at the actual known history of recent evolution among well-studied microorganisms. The book is, therefore, a good compliment to Darwin's Black Box.

Read it, and the discussion that will follow (both sides), and make up your own mind. Don't let the raw emotions so in evidence sway you. Behe is right or he is wrong, but he is not a fool. For me, the primary issue remains the frequency and character of beneficial and creative mutations. Looking into the question a bit myself recently, I found a pattern very like what Behe describes. Ironically, it seems to me the best argument against the position Behe stakes out here that I have seen so far is theological. Why would God create the malaria bug? I am still not satisfied that anyone really has the history of life pegged.

 

 

The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions,” David Berlinski

**** “Like Socrates, Berlinski knows he doesn’t know.”

 

I love writers who make me laugh and think at the same time, and have long enjoyed Berlinski's rapier wit, not having ever served as its target. At first here, however, he seemed to pummel the reader with almost too many aphorisms and clever punch-lines. This sort of joke is only funny if one is sure the author knows what he's talking about, and Berlinski's minimalist approach to evidence (is that French influence peaking through?) seemed to leave room for doubt. His Commentary articles on, say, the origin of life, are far more detailed than his discussion of the same subject here. But laughing my way through this rather brilliant little book, I came to appreciate Berlinski's austerity. He uses details to illustrate, not prove, just as the Song painter called "One Corner Ma" used empty canvass to project space and grandeur onto the viewer's imagination.

Fritz Ward has described the contents of the book well. Let me just add a few sample comments:

"Western science is above all the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

 Faith in the Christian sense is part of a continuum of rational belief, which underlies all rational epistemologies. Science is a very valuable, but not uniquely valuable, means of finding certain kinds of truth; all of which depend ultimately on rational trust.

"What is essential is not what has been distilled but what has evaporated. That is, everything of interest in the Iliad."

"We who are heirs to the scientific tradition have been given the priceless gift of a vastly enhanced sense of the miraculous."

Here I disagree slightly with Dr. Berlinski. The laws of nature, as uncovered by properly amazed scientists, do indeed add to our feeling for the remarkable and mysterious character of creation. But the miracles of Jesus (to give the best example) do the same thing, I think, in a similar way. That is to say, miracles are not a part of Nature, but reflect the character of Nature's Creator in a way that compliments what we can know of Him through Nature.

Read Berlinski, and enjoy him. But be aware of the limits he places on inquiry -- roughly the limits of that particular, limited epistemology called science. (As does another equally excellent response to Dawkins & Co, by John Lennox.)

A broader approach might answer some of the arguments made by one intelligent hostile reviewer below. I try to offer this, in some of my books. (On the shoulders of greater writers like Pascal, Chesterton, Lewis, Wright, and others.) Over the past few weeks, I've been planning a book that will integrate more fields of knowledge, within a Christian framework of science and history -- an answer to AN Wilson's Consilience, by means of a Christian story of the universe.

Pasteur said, "The more I know, the more does my faith approach that of a Breton peasant." Berlinski begins to show -- with wit and insight -- that this is also a rational response to more recent growth in knowledge.

 

 

How Blind is the Watch-maker?  Nature’s Design and the Limits of Naturalistic Science,  Neil Broom

** “Too Much Blather, not Enough Evidence”

 

There are some good things in this book: the appendix, in which the author retells the story of science through the lives of Bacon, Descartes, Brahe, Pascal, Kepler, Galileo, and the rest; the illustrations, including the authors own photos and cartoons (the fossilized Spitfire was pretty funny); and even an occasional telling argument.  But unfortunately, specific, detailed evidence to back up the main points is one of the things the book is short on. Broom contradicts the first principle of expository writing: show it, don't just say it.  He repeatedly asserts that natural selection doesn't make sense in a materialistic world, that early life experiments are unrealistic, and so on, but gives few specifics.  He blathers on with philosophy and repetition of his main points when he should be backing them up with hard scientific facts, figures, and specific evidence.  His overall argument may be right, (though I'm not quite sure I know what it is, exactly) and certainly some of his points make sense to me, but they are poorly developed.

I wish you well, Dr. Broom.  But you'll need more than cartoons and bald assertion if you want to overthrow a theory of origins as widely accepted as Darwinism.

 

Belief in God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Francis Collins

****  “Good Memoir; Stronger Arguments Available”

 

Perhaps some readers were expecting too much from this book. What Collins is doing, I think, is giving his story, then explaining what arguments he finds persuasive. As the head of the human genome project, his perspective on genetics, and on how science does (or does not) relate to his Christian faith, is worth reading. The story is well-told, and most people I've talked with have found his ideas interesting -- as do I.

As someone who studies the relationship between Christianity and other religions, I especially like his term "biologos" as a substitute for "theistic evolution." This implies that, for a Christian, natural history can be part of a larger story, (as Augustine and Matteo Ricci and C. S. Lewis made pagan traditions part of the redemptive story). This is a lot like what EO Wilson did in Consilience, uniting knowledge from a Christian, rather than atheistic, perspective.

I didn't find all his arguments persuasive. The case he makes for, on the one hand, common ancestry, and on the other, design in the universe, do it seems to me "click." His argument against ID didn't seem to take the best ID arguments (which assume common ancestry) into account. In fact, as Michael Behe points out in response to his nemesis, Kenneth Miller, the line between ID and "biologos" is probably thinner than Miller or Collins admit. Who's to say, a priori, that there's no evidence in biology for the work of God? And do we really know enough to assume we can rule that out yet?

As a recent thoughtful critic points out, also the shrill review from Scientific American, Collins does not adequately back up his assumption that morality and religion cannot be explained by evolution. Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell is the best-known attempt (or summary of attempts) to do so. For a response, and a bit more an argument on the Christian side, see the chapter "Did God Evolve?", in my new book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism.

Collins is, indeed, an amateur in some of the fields he discusses. In a way, that's an asset. Unlike Richard Dawkins, he recognizes the limits of the scientific method. A lot of the best evidence for faith lies in history, in human experience (miracles are not "unscientific" just because some scientists have failed to see them!)
and in philosophy, anthropology, and (yes) psychology. None of us is an expert in all these areas. Collins is humble enough to learn from scholars in other fields (like Lewis), and human enough to recognize that his own field does not have a monopoly on wisdom. Thank God for scientists like that!

Let me recommend a few books that lead one deeper into some of these issues. On the historical Jesus, NT Wright's blockbuster series is not to be missed. (For a different approach, see my Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could.) On physics, Stephen Barr, John Polkinghorne, and John Lennox are good. On the first life, Fazale Rana's Origin of Life is fascinating. On ID, read both Behe and his critics . . . The argument takes concentration, both because of the technical issues involved, and also because so many people seem to think calling people names is more fun than talking turkey. For philosophy, try Plantinga and William Lane Craig. For a Christian take on comparative religion, see my Jesus and the Religions of Man.

 

 

Kepler’s Witch: An Astronomer’s Discovery of Cosmic Order During Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother, James Conner

“A Small World, but a Big Cosmos”

 

The critic who says Conner is telling two stories at once is right: this is a "life and times" biography. That is, the author finds the life of Johannes Kepler and the polarized, tumultuous, superstitious, expanding world he lived in equally fascinating. He made both subjects interesting for me, too. And unlike some readers, I think he joined them in a well-written, sometimes impish, sometimes melancholy, and always intelligent story.

Conner spices the narrative pot with pungent observations and quotes: "(Kepler's mother) was a little mad, but only a little, which was far more dangerous than being (like her rival) an abortionist and prostitute." "Kepler argued that astronomy is natural to humanity, as natural as singing is to songbirds." "The harmonies were arranged in phalanxes of ever more complicated patterns coalescing into a great cosmic symphony, a music so profound that it harrowed the heart and set fire to the soul." Kepler: "'It hurts my heart that these three great blocs have ripped at the truth so terribly that I am left collecting it piece by piece, wherever I can find them . . . God already has rewarded our warring Germany with lamentation.'"

Kepler was born a Lutheran and a "catholic" Christian, and remained faithful all his life. Yet the Lutheran church excommunicated him, and the Catholics chased his family from town to town. The 16th Century being the time for witch trials as well as science (see Stark, For the Glory of God, for helpful ideas about how the various goings on in Kepler's time related to Christianity), Kepler's mother was tried as a witch, while he set science on a course to the stars. Conner tells both stories well and I think connects them well too.

It is obvious Conner likes and respects his subject. Kepler was a scientific genius, and more, a kind and sensible Christian in a world where religious professionals forgot the virtue their Lord said was the soul of the Law and the Prophets. "My conscience commands me to love an enemy and not harm him . . . I ought to be an example of moderation and mildness for my enemy . . . then at last may God send us the dear desired peace." Growing up in a rather harsh and loveless home, a settled family life collateral damage to every new fad in social perversity, he managed to love God and man, and cultivate a cheerful curiosity at the world and our mysterious fellow-travelers that dance across the night sky. As Chesterton said of another Medieval figure (Francis?), Kepler lived in a small world, but a big cosmos.

 

 

The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems, William Dembski

*** “A Real Review of the Actual Book!”

 

Halfway through this book, I was thinking, "maybe three stars." I dropped by Amazon, and what did I find?  Three stars was average -- apparently a lot of people agreed with me!  But I looked closer, and laughed. Every single review was either five stars, or one!  (Except for another "three star" reviewer -- and he hadn't read the book!)

What a remarkable statistical fluke!  (Heh, heh)

Now, having read to the bitter end, I still think three stars is about right -- for reasons I'll give in due course.  But first, stop and survey this bizarre landscape: thirty five star reviews, thirty-three one star reviews.  Zero four or two stars reviews. And now, a second three star -- by someone who has actually read the book!  (Though I salute my contrarian predecessor!)

I hope I'm not the only other person on Amazon with a sense of proportion, or who dislikes the smell of rat.  But frankly, I find the inanity of many reviews on both sides (but especially the side with the most votes), and the open-armed welcome those who vote correctly receive, amusing but also repugnant.

Someone says he hasn't read the book, but KNOWS ID is nonsense. He gets 216 out of 267 "helpful" votes -- about 80%!  Someone else mocks the book with a five-star satire, and "only" gets 65% "helpful" votes.  Does that mean 80% of "readers" here will vote for anything one star, but about a fifth are too stupid or too lazy to recognize a joke?  Or did he get some "plus" votes from the smaller, pro-ID faction, and even more "minus" votes from the anti-ID faction?

And here's another bizarre phenomena. Almost none of the critical reviews point to anything specific that Dembski and Wells get wrong. By my count, only two out of thirty four (including the satire) even try to point to any errors in this book. The rest mostly just mock Dembski and Wells, forecast the end of American civilization (the inimitable John Kwok, of course), and rake in "helpful" votes.

If I'd lived in Stalin's Soviet Union, they might have had my head for laughing at phony voting. So I'll cheerfully take this opportunity to give the whole ernest crowd a belly laugh. What a herd of ninnies.

Now for the book.

It's actually a pretty good overview of the ID position, by and large. I was surprised to find it came in the form of a sort of textbook, with study questions at the end of each chapter -- I was hoping for something more on the order of original research and arguments. Strangely, though, at times the authors explain very elementary terms, then later will use several technical terms in short order, without explaining them.

The book is well-illustrated. The chapter on the origin of life sets the issues out particularly well. I'm wary, though, of the post hoc view of chemical evolution (230) -- what's the chance of lucky combinations of amino acids forming a certain protein, for example. The real question is, what structures would they form, and would those structures prove useful? But the authors make some good points about chemical barriers to biogenesis.

As reflected by the reviews, it seems to me the authors often take positions that are too argumentative. "Analyzing existing species to support one or another theory of speciation, however, is not the same as observing speciation in action." (98) Of course not, but come on -- you can't just ignore the similarities. "The fossil record doesn't support the Darwinian claim that the major taxonomic groups are connected to one another by biological descent." Doesn't support at all? Such a sweeping generalization strikes me as folly. Or have they found a rabbit in the Cambrian?

I'm also tired of the ID argument that similarity in living things could be explained just as well by a common designer as by a common ancestry (140); this seems terribly ad hoc to me. God could just as well be entirely original with each new species.

The authors say evolutionists engage in circular reasoning when they use homologies for both "defining and explaining common ancestry." (126) They don't consider what might be the best resolution: to recognize that there are two sources of homology -- environmental or adaptive, and ancestral -- to discount the first and THEN use remaining homologies as evidence for common ancestry.

The arguments against mutations as a mechanism for NDE seem more convincing to me. I've studied some of the evidence, then begged NDE proponents for instances of mutations that produce helpful biological innovations -- without much result.

Finally, the "monkeys typing" analogy is getting tedious: could both sides come up with something new, please? We all know monkeys have no interest in Shakespeare. Couldn't someone ask them to type, say, the screen play for King Kong vs. Godzilla?

No, it's not such a terrible book. A pox on both houses, though. Be honest, reviewers. Read the book you claim to be reviewing. Really read it, with an open mind, before you tell us what you think -- that's something you do with that grey stuff inside your skull. And enough of this black-and-white, doomsday, Hatfield vs. McCoy, "I ain't read it yet but I KNOW it's from the devil" nonsense. The world won't end if you think for yourselves, folks: this isn't supposed to be Joseph Stalin's Russia. And your "vote" means nothing at all: what you're really voting for (or against) is your own integrity. Does that mean so little to some of you folk?

 

 

The Design Revolution, William Dembski

*** “A Pox on both your Lecture Halls”

 

I have been reading the ID debate over the last year, and getting increasingly impatient with both sides. This book, and negative reviews of it below, show why.

About a dozen people give one-star reviews, several describing themselves as scientists. Why do few address Dembski's actual arguments? Why the petulant sneers, irrelevant cheap shots, and sheer road rage? Three complain much about Charles Colson, who wrote the preface; Colson worked for Nixon and repented 30 years ago, for heaven's sake! Others affirm loudly, "Evolution is a FACT!", dismiss Dembskis' work en toto as "dreck;" (I wish my dreck would get published by Cambridge U Press!) or remind us that ignorant Christians long believed the world was flat. (Actually, ignorant skeptics long falsely claimed this; serious historians know better.) Pigliucci, whom several reviewers recommend, savagely attacked Dembski in a review of The Design Inference which, as one "internet infidel" impatiently pointed out, barely mentioned the book he was attacking. Some scientists seem to think they should not only abuse or ostracize proponents of ID, but hound them from their jobs. But even by refusing credit where credit is due, such critics squander their most persuasive argument: the claim to consensus among biologists for evolution. When a fair-minded reader gets hit by such a blast of viceral hostility, he is tempted to turn from biology to sociology or psychology, to explain that consensus.

Unfortunately, Dembski does not much further his biological argument here, either. As the most recent (and reasonable) of the critics admits, Dembski is bright. He usually presents his opponents views in what seems a fair light, and readily admits weaknesses on his own side. But his arguments here are almost entirely theoretical, logical, and philosophical. Design Revolution is a series of 43 answers to what I see as the wrong questions. This is not necessarily because Dembski cannot give such answers. I have found pretty good scientific answers by Dembski on-line, even addressing some objections below.

Perhaps this book is simply ill-conceived. Dembski has doctoral degrees in philosophy, theology, and math. Given that (a) too much math makes a book opaque to most readers, (b) many objections to ID are in fact philosophical and theological, and (c) Dembski is not a biologist, I think I can understand how this book came to be. (And the value it may hold for some.) But Discovery Institute, and Dembski, too often get the cart before the horse. They ought to tone down the philosophy (and ditch the trash-talking endemic to both sides altogether, maybe ask Philip Johnson to take a vacation), forget education and politics, ignore favorable reviews from journalists and academics in other fields, and get to work on showing that ID makes scientific -- that means biological -- sense.

This book actually does answer many non-scientific objections to ID pretty well -- at least as Dembski understands it. ("Is intelligent design a cleverly disguised form of scientific creationism?" "Didn't David Hume demolish any sort of inference to design . . . " "How does specified complexity function as a criterion for design?" etc.) But since my only question is whether or not it is true, the book was largely a waste of money. Had Intervarsity added the word "philosophical" to the subtitle, I probably wouldn't object -- but neither would I have bought the book.

 

 

The Pleasures of Finding Things Out, Richard Feynman

*** “A Grab-bag of a Book”

 

This book is a hodge-podge of personal and professional reminiscenses and interviews. Feynmann tells stories about building the A-bomb, his Dad, teaching his children, curiosity, learning, "the big picture," and how he learned that different minds work differently.  I enjoyed parts of the book, particularly the parts most related to the book's title, like how his Father taught him scientific curiosity.

It is obvious that a lot of people have respect for Feynman, and I don't doubt he earned it. But as a story-teller, while he is sometimes interesting, frankly a lot of the time he is rather incoherent.  The interviews are especially inarticulate, fumbling for words.  I guess you had to be there.  Elsewhere, Feynman comes across as another famous scientist piddling in other fields in his spare time.  As an educator he is interesting, though not always fully syntactical.  What he teaches well is his own infectious enthusiasm for "finding things out." Like some other scientists who are not very familiar with other fields, he tends to depict that pleasure as an almost exclusively scientific one.  But of course Confucius, Origen, and Augustine knew the same pleasure, as do we in the contemporary humanities.  As a teacher myself, I agree that enthusiastic curiosity is itself the greatest lesson.  Feynman communicates that well, among other things.

Feynman admits that "in a field that is so complicated that true science is not able to get anywhere, we have to rely on a kind of old-fashioned wisdom."  It would be truer to say that science is one in a continuum of epistemological methods, from the most direct (and limited), like math, to "hard sciences" like physics and chemistry, to "soft sciences" (paleontology) and up through history to psychology and finally theology. Like many scientists, and antagonistic philosophers (Rorty), Feynman confuses epistemological "hardness" with rationality, in the sense of finding out what truly is, and being reasonably certain about it.

The odd thing about Feynman's excursions into other fields is that he admits, "I'm still a very one-sided person and don't know a great deal."  His editors think he's just being modest, I guess.

Most of the time Feynman treats religion with formal respect (one gets the feeling he's been scolded before and doesn't want to pour oil on the fire).  He is, in fact, rather ignorant on the subject, refuting silly heresies, and thinking he has got to the heart of the matter.  At one point he compares the "Catholic religion in the Middle Ages" to Hitler and Stalin.  I'm not Catholic, but in my opinion that reflects poorly on his understanding of the historical roots of science and democracy.  For all Feynman's love of science, it's a pity he should be ignorant of where it came from.

That such a grab-bag of a book would inspire the loyalty that is revealed in reviews below, is something I have great sympathy for.  But it also demonstrates what many observers have commented on, the priest-like status that scientists have attained in Western culture. Books like this make me mourn for the sins of modern thought: over-specialization, the cults of celebrity and science, and philosophical confusion about how we know things.  The book did make me think about how to teach, however, and introduced me to an interesting scientist.

 

The Design Matrix, Mike Gene

***** “Intelligent Design, a Preliminary Study”

 

This is probably the first book on Intelligent Design, on either side, to which I've given five stars. I'm not sure it's a brilliant book, and it's certainly not a satisfying one: "Mike Gene" hardly even pretends to begin to answer the main question, whether there is good evidence for purposeful, conscious design in the biosphere. In fact, Design Matrix is best understood by analogy to C. S. Lewis' Miracles: A Preliminary Study, in which Lewis discusses the philosophy of miracles for most the book, then looks briefly at a few examples once he has explained why he thinks they're possible, in theory. There's a big chunk of philosophy here, too. (Though also enough science both to persuade me that Mike knows what he's talking about, and to illustrate basic concepts.) It is only at the end that he feeds a few critters into his "Design Matrix," for a taste test, nothing more.

The Design Matrix is a preliminary study to a full and fair-minded scientific study of the evidence for design in biology. Unlike Lewis, Mike does not so much interogate the theoretical rationality of "miracles," (or rather intelligent intervention) as prepare a methodology for finding it. He seeks to place the question of ID on a really scientific footing -- which of course makes this primarily an exercise in the philosophy of science.

This he does quite well. Mike cites a broad range of mostly primary literature. His discussion of Irreducible Complexity is open-minded and illuminating. Logically, in a step-by-step manner, he takes us down different evolutionary pathways, showing dead-ends, detours, and "go" signs. He should win fair-minded readers on both sides over with his even-handed discussion -- if (I am tempted to add) there are any.

There's lots of good stuff in the book, but two things I don't miss are hype and hysteria. Once the jihadists find this volume, they will no doubt find nits to pick (harder hunting than usual), and issue fatwas, anathamas, and excommunications. Don't buy it. Mike is competent, underspoken, careful, fair, informed, and very much worth reading. Some parts of the book are a bit technical, but he also adds a touch of whimsy from time to time. He shows what an open mind might look like, studying biological forms in the light of design. The question seems broader and more open when he is done. This book is a challenge to pat answers on both sides. Still, this is a preliminary, and it can be frustrating to talk methodology when the real question is substance. I look forward to more filling entrees in the future. But this is a thought-provoking and mouth-watering hors d'oevre.

 

 

The Self-Aware Universe, Amit Goswami

** “Fails to Establish Credibility”

 

When I read books on subjects I am not very familiar with, such as subatomic physics, I tend to access the reliability of the author by his accuracy on subjects I know more about. That's one reason I wasn't able to work up much confidence in Goswami's physics. He throws out too many low-wattage ideas on language, philosophy and history that distract me.

To begin with, he uses "paradox" as a synonym for "self-contradiction."

According to Goswami, religions are all founded by mystics who believe in monism, a trancendant Brahma, divine play, the whole Upanishadic kit and kaboodle. Later, disciples dumb the "real teachings" of the Master down for the masses. This is doubtful historically in almost every actual case of which I am aware -- and I study the origins of religions for a living. In the case of Jesus, still less Mohammed, only massive falsification or at least wishful thinking can save the paradigm. I realize this idea is not original with Goswami. But I am a little tired of people making a case for monism from the NT by quoting a few teachings that seem to agree with it out of context, and ignoring the rest.

As for philosophy, Goswami's ideas about love seem shallower than those of theistic thinkers like C. S. Lewis, Lin Yutang, or even Scott Peck, to me. He thinks love is best when based upon the premise of monism. "How can you not love when there is one consciousness and you known that you and the other are not really separate?" A silly question; there are categories of neurosis that work precisely that way. On a philosophical level, the question is meaningless. On a historical level, if monism is the True Path to love, and if the culture that has embraced monism the most enthusiastically is India, then why did it take a foreign religion (guess which one) to challenge the cruel and inhuman institutions of caste, widow-burning and confinement, human sacrifice, etc? (See J.N. Farquhar, Crown of Hinduism; Vishal Mangalwadi.) Given that history, it is a bit bizarre for a Hindu to accuse Christians of a "world-negating" faith.

Again, "If we could single out one historical concept that has propelled humans and their societies towards much violence and warfare, it is the concept of hierarchy." This kind of statement may sound good to many readers, but it strikes me as facile and historically incomplete. (Though his idea of "tangled hierarchy" is interesting.) Actually, some of the bloodiest movements, like early Islam and Marxism, have preached radical equality. And the Sisters of Charity are hierarchical, I believe. Goswami makes sweeping historical generalizations that sound good, but it seems a hit-or-miss proposition whether they are in fact true.

I am less qualified to debate Goswami's science. I assume he's getting his basic facts right, and don't see any too obvious errors in that regard.  But another way to access a writer on unfamiliar topics, is to see how he engages opposing points of view.  Those who know more about physics than I do (I'm thinking of John Polkinghorne for one) have objected to the interpretation of quantum facts Goswami offers.  It doesn't appear to me that Goswami really engages such views well.

Back to philosophy, when Goswami argues that, given the facts of physics, Descarte's famous statement should be re-written as, "I choose, therefore I am," an alternative phrasing, "God choses, therefore I am," seems to me equally valid, on Goswami's premises. Why prefer his interpretation? He offers no good reason. It appears he hasn't really thought the question through from anyone else's point of view but his own.

The diagrams are good; the writing clear and colloquial, the subject interesting. I think the best thing Goswami could do would be to read a lot of good books he doesn't agree with. The book would be more interesting to me were it part of a dialogue, rather than a monologue by Schrodinger's cat alone a box. But maybe that's one of the dangers of monism.

 

A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking

**** “Then as do, can sometimes teach”

 

A leading quantum chemist said that during a trip to Australia he had been told, "Everyone in Sydney has bought a copy of A Brief History of Time, and some claim to have read it."  I borrowed this book from a colleague heading back to his home in Sydney, who didn't claim to have read it.  It is an ambitious book: a cutting edge scientist explains the history of physics and the universe to ordinary folks.  Hawking more or less pulls it off: while there were a few stretches that I can only pretend to have read, overall I found it understandable and often humorous.  (I loved the 2-D dog with the bone in this stomach and the digestive tract that cuts him in two.)  It took longer to read than books twice its size, which suggests that modern physics theories themselves can warp the fabric of space-time.

Despite Hawking's conclusion that philosophers "have not been able to keep pace" with physics and have nothing left to do but play word games, some still have interesting things to say about the Big Questions. William Lane Craig, for example, is full of suggestions about how Hawking can improve his metaphysics, if not his physics. We're all so used to hearing strange things from physicists that when Hawking tells us we may be living in imaginary time and real time is imaginary it seems par for the course . . . But I know of at least one top physicist who finds it as far-fetched as it sounds to the naive layman. Hawking's is a more genial and attractive agnosticism (or deism) than that of his childhood hero, Bertrand Russell. (Who said, "There is no evidence of design about the universe.")  It would be hard for a physicist to maintain that, anymore, thanks in part to Hawking's own discoveries.  So Hawking tries to slip down the rabbit hole with his watch into the Wonderland of "imaginary time" at the end of the book.  I have to think Somebody Up There has a sense of humor.

Francis Bacon, who did quite a bit to set this grand scientific enterprise in motion, was fond of quoting the Biblical passage, "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but it is the glory of the King to find a thing out."  The history Hawking gives here is indeed glorious.  But the reader should also consider Bacon's prayer that from "the increase of natural light" there arise no spiritual "darkness."  Hawking's understanding of the universe, while useful and instructive, seems to be, in a sense, a matter of attention strongly focused in one direction.

 

The Savior of Science, Stanley Jaki

** “Crotchety and Unsatisfying” 

 

As a Christian historian, I tend to agree with many of Jaki's points. He also owns a certain intellectual brilliance -- I found myself ear-marking many pages, to return and write down juicy quotes. The problem is, Jaki refuses to support his arguments with enough facts. The book often comes across as crotchety, dismissive, and even egotistical. Jaki is brilliant perhaps, but he doesn't give critical readers a chance to be persuaded. Instead, he rambles relentlessly, skipping from Justice Bork to Darwin to Arianism to sollipsism. Not always does he explain his point clearly, and seldom does he back it up with enough solid facts. Part of this follows from attempting two thousand years of history in 230 pages. But like G. K. Chesterton, Jaki also seems to feel an actual aversion to detail, though without Chesterton's humor, good-naturedness, or psychological acuity.

I found Jaki's point about the rise of science weak as an argument, though possibly true. Are wrong worldviews to blame for the stillbirth of science in ancient non-Christian civilizations? That is a provocative thesis, worth exploring. But a few paragraphs of dismissive and elusive discussion (6 for Egypt, 10 for India, 15 for China, 4 for Babylon, 8 for Greece, 5 for Islam) should not be enough to satisfy even fellow believers. Given that science did in fact happen to rise in the West, of course one can find post hoc reasons why this should be so; but to prove that it HAD to be so would take a far more in-depth and detailed argument.

I was even less satisfied when I noticed that, while he got some things right (about ancient theism, for instance), he made a few errors about one civization I know fairly well, China. I think Jaki overstates the influence of Confucianism and Taoism on public Maoism; of all the books Mao sold as a young man, only one came from traditional China; all the rest were Marxist and foreign. Jaki is just ignorant when he asks, quoting Bertrand Russell, "if . . . this youthful vigor in the Chinese mind was in fact very old, why was it 'often very difficult to interest even the most reforming Chinese in afforestation?' And if the answer was that . . . reforesting vast tracts of bare hillsides was 'not a subject for ethical enthusiasm,' how could Confucius . . . be presented as a model of modern, reform-minded Chinsese?'" In fact Confucius' greatest disciple, Mencius, wrote passionately about protecting the environment, including forests. (Taoists also described the stripping of the environment as a sin.) If modern Chinese have not followed their example (and they haven't, until recently), neither did many other early industrial societies. Jaki's attempt to reduce this question to theology is either simplistic (if I understand him) or vague (because I am not sure that I do.) Marx and others reduced civilizational causation to material forces, and that is wrong; but we should not respond with an equally simplistic argument reducing everything to spirituality.

Jaki's take on modern science is also titillating as an appetizer, but unsatisfying as a full meal. His discussion of Buridan, a name I did not know, is interesting, when he finally comes to it. But his grumpy discussions of Descartes, Darwin, Einstein, etc, seem longer on invective (and on airy and sometimes insightful assertions) than on convincing evidence.

All in all, I doubt anybody who did not already agree with Dr. Jaki would be persuaded by this book. It is probably worthwhile to read, if you hold Jaki's many insights in your hand without grasping. But if we're going to persuade the world of the life-giving value of the Gospel, I think we need to speak more generously, and in more detail. Stephen Barr's Modern
Physics and Ancient Faith, and Peacey and Thaxton's The Soul of Science, fill in some of the missing detail, though admittedly with less flair. On the larger cultural argument, see also the works of Vishal Mangalwadi, and (also very brief) chapter 7 of my Jesus and the Religions of Man, entitled "How has Jesus changed the world?"

 

 

Miracles and Physics, Stanley Jaki

****  “Good sense, little physics”

 

This short book is a good introduction to the philosophical question of whether evidence for miracles can be allowed. (Another book I recommend is C. S. Lewis' Miracles: A Preliminary Study.) The difference between the two is this one is shorter and more polemical -- Jaki likes to cut his foes down in contempt. (One wonders he's not French!) The sentences also sometimes give the impression of having been written in a language structured differently than English.

Miracles and Physics is not a work of science, though Jaki is a scientist. The author sees beyond the bluster of some scientists, and hangers-on, and shows that science has not and cannot undermine miracles. Jaki's argument is eloquent, pithy, and brief -- the book is only a hundred pages. But in the process, Jaki describes the nature of science and reason in such a way as to illuminate both natural and supernatural phenomena. In the end, his is a voice of reason and good sense. He finds a Golden Mean between intellectual nihilism and naivite -- the mutual cooperation between faith and reason that I compare in my book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, to the use of two chopsticks to pick up a morsel of food (analogous to truth), and that Pope John Paul II compared to the two wings of a bird.

Jaki's emphasis on Lourdes is a bit hard for me to swallow, not just because I'm not Catholic (¨Protestant¨ would put it too strongly), but because the difference between miracles and magic. (Which I also discuss in Jesus and the Religions of Man.) One of the weaknesses of Miracles and Physics is that Jaki does not clearly define what he means by ¨miracle,¨ or discuss (as Lewis also does) the ¨fitness¨ of specific reports of miracles.

Jaki thinks for himself, and does not lack self-confidence -- most of his recommendations seem to be of his own books! But I was delighted and a little shocked to find Jaki recommending ¨The Ethics of Elfland¨ in G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy as ¨the most incisive pages written on the laws of nature.¨ That's high praise indeed, for a book I've long loved. Indeed, the rhetorical similarity between the two men is marked -- so much so that I compared him (not always favorably, but who would be?) with Chesterton the other time I reviewed one of his books.

Lots of sense, condensed in a small space -- what will physicists accomplish next?

 

 

The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism, Philip Johnson

** “Overheated Rhetoric, Underlit Facts” 

 

One of my goals this year is to decide whether biology provides a good argument for God -- in particular, to evaluate the claims of the Intelligent Design movement. I just read Robert Pennock's Tower of Babel, which purports to give evidence against ID, but doesn't, really. Pennock offers arguments from analogy of doubtful relevance, and trash-talks his opponents, Johnson in particular, with a sophistication that seems primarily rhetorical. In one sense, this volume turns out to be a good book to read next, since Johnson replies to some of Pennock's arguments. (He easily refutes Pennock's argument from linguistic evolution, and pokes a hole or two in his computer analogy as well.) But all in all, the book further confirmed my growing skepticism about Johnson's role in the debate.

First of all, I am weary of all the trash-talking on both sides. Shut up and argue, already! Show your opponents the respect they deserve -- all these men are intelligent, informed, and in some regards at least informative. Give facts and evidence, showing by the balance of your presentation that you care about truth above all. (A good model of how such a debate might look is Rana and Ross' Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off.)  Like Pennock, Johnson too often hits below the belt. Neither so much argues the other side wrong, as assume their error, then explains the deviant psychology that led into such sins of the intellect. (Along with Pennock, Johnson's main targets are Dawkins, Gould, Kenneth Miller, Daniel Dennett, and an unknown scholar of yesteryear named Philip Wentworth.)  Johnson is not attacking a straw man: he does get in some good licks on his targets.  But it often has the feel of an angry game of rhetorical ping-pong, rather than an earnest search for the truth.

It seems to me that some on both sides believe their theories because they honestly think the evidence favors them. And others, like myself, want to know which the evidence does favor.  To such folks, this book is likely to prove extremely frustrating.

Wedge of Truth
also seems to confirm Pennock's observation that Johnson is influenced by a post-modern view of truth. This may be why, rather than showing why his view is true, he dishes up psycho-political explanations of why the evolutionary
"establishment" has such warped thinking on the subject. It may also be why he is so coy about what ID is not, playing footsy with Young Earth folks, etc, with whom he probably does not really agree. No doubt there is some truth in post-modernism, and that truth is embodied in Christian skepticism about the human heart.  But the Gospel teaches us to be skeptical of our own hearts, too. The two forms of apriori skepticism cancel one other out, and we come back to the neglected problem of evidence.

I have written three books arguing for the truth of Christianity, including from the occurrence of miracles and from the life of Jesus, so I am not one of those Christian scholars Johnson rebukes for caving in to methodological materialism . And as another cantankerous Dr. Johnson put it, "the greatest part of our knowledge is implicit faith."  But if this Johnson wants a scientific revolution, he needs to explain exactly what he thinks happened, make an explicit and detailed case for it, and refute (with some generosity of spirit, if possible) arguments for evolution, such as those given by Mayr in What Evolution Is
, rather than merely taking pot shots at the most fallacious reasoning on the other side.

 

 

**** God’s Undertaker, John Lennox

“Elegant and Delightful”

 

John Lennox, who teaches mathematics and philosophy of science at Oxford University, comes out of the closet as a "creationist" (some will say) in this incisive and readable book. That is to say, not only does he place theoretical limits on the "magisteria" of science, he also finds positive empirical limits to what physics and biology can in fact explain about our strange, glorious, troubling cosmos.

I haven't read Lennox' previous books, so I don't know how far he has gone this way before, but it seems a gutsy move. (When he begins the section on biology, aware of the acrimony that has surrounded the evolution debate, he taps out his own tongue in cheek epitath: "Here lies the body of John Lennox . . . ") Oxford was once the home of Wesley and Boyle and Lewis, but Richard Dawkins casts a shadow there now -- one member of the science faculty told me maybe 60% of his colleagues agree more or less with Dawkins, whether they've read him or not. And unlike Alister McGrath (who however has the class and good taste to recommend this book), Lennox is more in the Intelligent Design camp than "theistic evolution" or "biologos." But the term "camp" here is misleading: to Lennox, the search for truth seems less a "darwinian" competition between fortified and hostile foes lobbying shells at one another, but as a genial and informed dialectical journey among pilgrims.

The book covers all the main questions: the nature of science, origin of the universe, anthropic "coincidences," origin of life, mutations, fossils. Lennox dialogues with Dawkins, as one would expect, and with many leading scientific thinkers. The prose is clear as a mountain creek tumbling over stones.

The main weakness of the book, in my view, has to do with Lennox' discussion of Intelligent Design. Here he quotes a number of people -- Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, Hugh Ross -- who are in the eyes of many skeptics highly controversial. I don't mind that -- I spent a couple months defending Behe against some rather savage and unfair attacks, so I appreciate his ability to shrug off the jihadist strand of evolutionary apologetics. But I do think Lennox needs to interact with more serious critics at this point a bit more, to establish his arguments. Still, he goes into far more detail than Dawkins on this issue.

In short, this is an excellent contribution to the "God" debates. Readers may also enjoy my new book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism, which responds to Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens on a variety of topics, including some covered in this book.

 

 

The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Nancy Pearcey, Charles Thaxton

**** “A bit ponderous, but worth the read”

 

This is a pretty good, fairly balanced discussion of the role of Christianity in science. The authors discuss the influence of philosophical ideas on science, and vice-versa, from the ancient Greeks to modern DNA research. Their approach is primarily historical, in that they discuss scientific theories in the context of the people who developed them, rather than striking out on their own into research, or even discussing much that remains scientifically controversial until the final chapter. The history they are giving will be new to many, especially skeptics who have been trained to think that science escaped from Christianity like Odesseus from the cave of the Cyclops. This book should be in every church library or pastor's study precisely because that argument is so popular among modern skeptics.

Some of the ideas Thaxton and Pearcey introduce in this book were new to me -- the idea that there is some problem about mathematics "working," for example -- and I am still mulling them over. I suspect they may at times be obscuring the difference between "What is true?" and "What can be proven to be true from first principles?" just a little bit.

I also had some problems with the last chapter. Their discussion of information theory and the formation of the first cell was too long-winded and short on details. They also relegated what appeared a strong counter-argument -- that primitive RNA may have been able to make use of evolution even before the cell was formed -- to part of a footnote, and then failed to answer it. Perhaps that's what you get when historians pronounce on topics that scientists are still picking over. Still, in that chapter they do give a healthy challenge to materialistic science: "Several decades of origin-of-life experiments have already revealed consistent trends. . . Today we can say quite definitely what atoms and molecules will do when left to themselves. . . and what they will not do is spontaneously organize themselves into the complex structures of life. . . The contemporary design argument does not rest on gaps in our knowledge but rather on the growth in our knowledge . . ." This may not be the final word, but it whets my appetite to continue following the discussion.

 

Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism, Robert Pennock

*** “Mostly Fluff”

 

One of my goals this year is to read both sides of the ID debate and decide whether or not biology furnishes an argument for the existence of God. (I have found evidence for Christian beliefs in other fields, some given in my books, Jesus and the Religions of Man and Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus and Grandma Marshall Could.) Naturally, I expected this book to provide arguments against ID, since that is what the subtitle promised.

It doesn't, much. Pennock (and some of his readers) seems to be under the impression he has written a book full of evidence against ID. In fact, very little shows up. He takes Philip Johnson, not Behe or Dembski, as his chief protagonist, and in a sense he is Johnson's doppleganger. What the book mostly offers is arguments on various philosophical issues related to old and new "creationism," along with quite a bit of sophisticated name-calling and mud-throwing. (Much of which could easily be tossed back.)

Something about Philip Johnson's writings had bothered me; perhaps it is a "post modern" lack of seriousness about the truth, as Pennock claims. But I wish Pennock himself had focused on the more substantial ID arguments. Given the subtitle, the book seemed like a long series of digresssions, along with weak and highly questionable arguments from analogy.

Pennock begins with a heavy caricature of "creationists." He offers us an extended, disparaging, and I think weak metaphor about the "evolution of creation." At first I wondered if Pennock could't tell the difference between changes wrought by natural forces and those brought about by intelligence; but in the last few pages of the book, after he has squeazed the last drop out of the metaphor, he tosses it and admits that new creationist "memes" appear "by design."

After this introduction, Pennock goes on to suggest an analogy between the evolution of language and of the species. This is interesting but cannot really be construed as evidence for anything; for one thing, Genesis doesn't even say all languages were created at Babel, and for another (as Johnson points out in reply, and despite the Amazon reviewer) proponents of ID don't start with the Genesis account, anyway.

Pennock's claim that ID is determined by theology is weak even given the evidence he choses to focus on.  But if you read the autobiographical accounts of say Hugh Ross or Michael Behe, this is quite false: for better or for worse, Behe and others did NOT come to ID through religion, but through science.  Pennock repeatedly obscures that plain historical fact.  His attempts to show that ID is "really religious," which distract us again into politics and education, become tedious if the real issue is (as it is for me, and the cover led me to believe it would be for Pennock) scientific evidence. The author is, I think, cheating.  (The Amazon reviewer, as usual, proves himself incapable of providing a balanced review of a book on religion.  He readily accepts Pennock's claim that ID is "more about biblical inerrancy than scientific evidence.")  Also, if ID is the issue Pennock wants to pursue, as the subtitle further suggests, he is just mucking up the issue again by wasting several chapters on Henry Morris and other "Young Earth Creationists."

Pennock also spends a lot of time and energy describing the "evolution" of creationists tactics, and of language.  Aside from the limits of these analogies, which Pennock admits late in the game, another problem is that anyone can play that game.  One could equally well describe the increasing sophistication of evolutionary explanations, from ancient Greece on, in terms of "evolution" or "design;" another distraction from issues of substance.  So, too, his protracted argument about the New Age Raelian sect.  Pennock shows that the Raelians and creationists both argue against evolution; so what?  Stalin and (I guess) Hitler both believed in evolution: does that make it false?

Yet again, Pennock takes on creationism in the classroom.  He goes so far as to say people who disbelieve in evolution are "ideologues" who should not teach kids.  This seems a little unfair, given that the university as an institution was invented by "creationists," and that thousands of excellent schools around the world were founded by these folks.

A few months ago I substituted in a middle school biology class in which a film on evolution and the Galapagos was being shown.  The film calmly showed how the booby chick murdered its sibling, explaining the wisdom of this evolutionary strategy.  If any child of a Columbine aura happened to be sitting in on that class, would Dr. Pennock feel entirely at ease with the possible implications he might draw?  Would it really be so terrible, at a point like this, for students to be affirmed in any faith they may have that gives even non-scientific reasons not to "go and do likewise?"

Finally, when Pennock got to actual scientific arguments (which took a while), I found myself only mildly impressed.  I am not sure he quite gets Dembski's concept of complex specified information, or the argument against the prebiotic assembly of proteins, etc. (See Rana and Ross, Origins of Life
, in particular.)  Pennock's "wrong number" reply does not answer Dembski's real argument on the point.

His computer analogy was well stated and emotionally persuasive, but one needs a stronger basis than argument from analogy.  Also, one might conclude from that example that organisms ought to all "devolve" into simple bacteria.

In addition, Pennock's assumptions about faith and reason (274-5) misunderstand Christian thinking on the subject. I can state that emphatically, because I just completed a historical study of what key Christian thinkers have said on the topic. Anyone who agrees with Pennock that it is a Christian virtue to "hold on to faith come what may" (like the reviewer who says "religious belief is a matter of faith not proof") does not I would suggest understand the mainstream, nuanced Christian view on this issue.

Most of Pennock's logical points seem reasonable.  (Though he misstates what is and is not ad hominem on page 363.))

All in all, I found the book worth reading, though often misleading. Pennock did not deliver what he promised, but provided a good challenge to Johnson, in particular. Hopefully other evolutionists will offer more scientific substance; I will continue to look.

 

 

Faith of a Physicist, John Polkinghorne

**** “Rich Food for Thought”

 

For a volume that contains less than 200 pages, this book is certainly rich with interesting ideas. Furthermore, the author has mulled them over until they came to intellectual ripeness. Within an outline drawn from the Apostles' Creed, Polkinghome gives his view of the anthropic principle, the relation of body to mind, the nature of God, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and other subjects, in a thoughtful manner. He strikes a good balance between authority and personal opinion. He refers frequently and in humility to what well-known thinkers on all sides of the questions at hand have said (he has obviously done his homework), but is confident, bold, and smart enough to pick his own path across the fields of fact. He argues, at one point, that "The titles assigned to Jesus play the role that models do in scientific investigation." In other words, the New Testament does not appear as a mass of dogmas artificially superimposed upon stories of Jesus' life. Rather, terms like "Son of God" show the early Christians groping for a way of coming to grips with remarkable facts. That is the kind of "bottoms up" approach Polkinghome appreciates.

I have three caveats. First, Polkinghome slips into theological jargon too often. Second, his idea that we do not have souls, but that at some point in the future, God will make copies of us from His perfect knowledge, not from the same bits of matter though, seemed weak to me. I mean, presumably God could do the same now -- there could be copies of us running around on other planets. But what does that have to do with you or I or the promises of Scripture?

Third, what Polkinghome primarily seems to give here is a cautious explanation of his faith, rather than a strong argument for it. His initial caution lends his ultimate conclusions about the resurrection of Jesus, for example, a great deal of weight. But while agnostics and atheists who make this book their token foray into Christian apologetics could do worse, they should be aware that the author is passing over some very strong areas of evidence for Christianity. Please do not put the book down saying, "Well, I survived that; I guess I'm safe." I suggest you also consider the psychological truths G. K. Chesterton discusses in Everlasting Man, the history Don Richardson relates in Eternity in Their Hearts, and the many testimonies of modern Christians on how God answers prayer. (Miracles are the most "bottoms-up" kind of evidence for God.) You might also find my new book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, worth a read, especially if the question Polkinghorne raised about spiritual alternatives to the Christian faith is of interest.

 

Quarks, Chaos, & Christianity, John Polkinghorne

***** “Honest, Lucid, and Persuasive”

 

Simplistic and erroneous thinking about "religion" and "science" is rife in our era. John Polkinghorne sets himself the task of accurately describing the relationship between them. He refutes the usual lazy assumption that the two belong to completely unrelated categories, like walruses and carpenters. Polkinghorne is convinced that in fact science and religion (at least Christianity) both require a similar method of truth-seeking. He believes that the search for truth in science was influenced by the Christian belief in God, and that the logical connection between believing in a Creator and studying the creation still holds. He thinks scientific metaphors shed light on theology, and vice-versa. Thus, not only is there no conflict between being a scientist and a follower of Christ, the two disciplines inform and supplement one another.

Polkinghorne's words seem to carry a special gravitus. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that he knows his stuff: he was a first-class scientist, physics prof at Cambridge, before getting into theology. Also, in this book, he writes with the kind of restrained simplicity that is good style for scientists writing for the masses, that strongly suggests great intellectual power, sheathed as it were. But probably what gives his argument greatest force is his honesty. The more I read Polkinghorne, the less believable it seems to me that his argument for Christianity might be given either in ignorance or in defiance of the evidence. He might concede too much at times, and he tends to be cautious, but he does not seem to put more weight on an argument than the evidence can bare.

I especially liked what Polkinghorne said about faith and reason. "Many people seem to think that faith involves shutting one's eyes, gritting one's teeth, and believing X impossible things before breakfast . . . Not at all! Faith may involve a leap, but it's a leap into the light, not the dark. THe aim of the religious quest, like that of the scientific quest, is to seek motivated belief about what is the case. . . " While a lot of people (both Christians and skeptics) seem to prefer to define faith as believing something contrary to the evidence, I don't think that is either the Biblical or the historically usual Christian point of view. Polkinghorne's argument on this point stakes out the mainstream of Christian thought, in my opinion.

Origin of Life, Fazale Rana

***** “Absorbing”

 

Origin of Life gets off to what seems to me a slow start; the least persuasive part of the book for me was chapter 3, which gave a "RTB (Reasons to Believe) Biblical Creation Model" that seemed to stretch exegesis to the breaking point in places. Does the Bible really require that life must be "complex in its minimal form?," or that the first life in particular be complex?

Rana and Ross kick it into high gear though when they turn to science, which they discuss almost exclusively for the remainder of the book. In fact, I have read few books as fascinating and illuminating as this one in the past few years: I learned a great deal about cell biology and the past history of the earth. In addition, as many reviewers point out, the authors are scrupulously fair and respectful towards other scientists, even those with whom they disagree: no politics, cheap shots, or merely rhetorical victories are on display here. You can tell they really love science; the book is fascinating because the authors are themselves caught up in the mystery and wonder of life history. They make it crystal clear when the evidence is not yet conclusive, and what questions are currently under investigation. (Michael in Pasadena could have followed their example and been more specific in his criticism, I think.)

One point I wish they had explained more thoroughly, though, is why we should consider 100 to 300 million years a short time for early biotic evolution -- how many generations of bacteria can come and go in that period? A trillion? Also, though I am a Christian apologist myself, I find the Cambrian explosion argument a bit of a non-sequitor. It seems to me that it is precisely when a new form appears that you expect most variety; compare the many phyla of the Cambrian period to the variety of early car manufacturers, or even evolutionary schemes in all fields after Origin of the Species. (Many of which have been weeded out.) But this is a minor point; usually when Ross and Rana seemed to overlook an objection that occured to me, they would bring it up later, and then answer it. Whether or not their thesis is correct, it is one of my goals this year to figure out; but the book fascinating, in any case.

Origin of Life
is written for a general audience, and there's a very useful glossary in the end of the book, but it wouldn't hurt to have a chemistry text handy, too.

 

 

 

Who Was Adam?  A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Man, Fazale Rana

*** “Honest, Unconvincing, Interesting”

 

I am a Christian scholar who for the past year has been trying to figure out whether biology provides evidence for God. I like Ross and Rana because, unlike some critics (see below) they show a real love of science, and speak of those with whom they disagree with respect. Augustine noted that if Christians give bad evidence to defend the Gospel, educated non-believers will assume Christianity lacks evidence. Reviewers who insist that the world must be a few thousand years old fall into this trap, in my opinion. Evidence for an ancient universe is overwhelming; if that destroys your faith, I find that both surprising and sad.

But while I was rooting for Ross and Rana, I did not find their primary argument, against the common descent of man with hominids and chimps, as convincing as their previous book, Origin of Life
. (Which was a series of sharp, knock-out blows to materialistic explanations for the origin of first life.) Sometimes they were so honest in explaining the facts, and the evolutionary interpretation, that the opposing argument seemed to win.

Some really bad arguments sneak in here, too. Isn't it nice (they say) that earth has more land in the northern hemisphere than the south, since life is easier in upper latitudes? (But is life really so intolerable in Tahiti or Sydney?) People in Genesis lived longer, because they don't live near cancer-causing igneous rocks! (Then why do Japanese, in their volcanic islands, have among the world's longest lifespans? And why do Hawaiians live longest among Americans?) "The geographical distribution of these first hominids was also quite extensive (Chad, Kenya, and Ethiopia." (Why should it surprise us if ape-men traveled a few hundred miles in a million years?) Rana and Ross offer an interesting discussion of anatomical changes needed for the first creatures to walk on two legs. But then they make the bare assertion that bipedalism appeared suddenly -- without a word about whether the first two-leggers met all the criteria they laid out. (Probably no one knows, since they point out that most hominid finds consist of only a few bones.)

Many sections of the book are great. R&R give a good description of various hominids. What they say about early human migrations is fascinating; I have notices similarities between peoples in some of the areas they trace. The chapter on "junk DNA" is highly informative. (But for how much of the "junk" has a use been found? It would be helpful to put the research they discuss in clearer context.) The origin of man does appears somewhat mysterious, as they argue. I am not sure mutations and selection have the powers ascribed to them, to create new orgins, assemble living systems, and induce specified complexity.

For me, the question is not, "Was God involved?" The evidence for miracles (modern and ancient) is strong. The Gospels have withstood the most determined attempts to explain them away. (As I show in my new book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could
.)

But while R & R do show interesting differences between men and munks, in the end their argument against common descent fails to focus on the big picture. Modern man follows Neanderthal, who looked a lot more like us than a koala or a kettlefish. That overall ascending pattern of hominids, with increasing cranial capacity and shared anatomy, is hard to gainsay. God, presumably, could have made man right after the first camel -- was He trying to fool us? After a talk by Rana, I heard a Christian biologist challenge Dr. Rana at precisely this point -- "Show us a fossil radically out of order in the evolutionary order, and you'll have a case." I didn't hear an answer. So while their arguments on cosmology and first origins seem strong, this one, I think, needs work.

I am not sure Rana and Ross prove their case. They do, however, give an excellent education on paleontology, human biology, DNA, and the enigmatic origin of man. Some arguments seem fairly convincing. Just as importantly, they model a fairness, honesty and charity that are refreshing and rare on this topic, that one would wish for from all apologists.

 

 

Creator and the Cosmos, Hugh Ross

**** “Overplays his hand a bit, but it’s a good hand”

 

I read this book (on the suggestion of an astronomer) about the same time as Bertrand Russell's Why I am Not a Christian, in which Russell baldly asserts that "There is no evidence of design" about the universe. Creator and the Cosmos lays that idea to rest, with a thud.

One possible loophole in Ross' argument, however, may be as follows. In order to calculate the probability of an event, (such as the birth of life, or a bio-friendly universe) you need to be able to calculate not only all the possible outcomes (which can be done, Ross shows, producing very big numbers). You also need to be able to calculate the number that are favorable. (All the possible bio-scraps that can reproduce, what life might be possible under other conditions. If other fundamental constants were different, for example, might there be more boron,? Or might some other element attain characteristics that allowed it to take over where carbon left off?) To calculate how all the possible outcomes might affect life in some other form, at least at this stage, seems impossible, but that does not mean the question is absurd. When John Maddox of Nature suggests something like that, Ross dismisses him too quickly, in my opinion.

Still, the evidence Ross offers is at least powerfully suggestive. He certainly does show that the old complain about a "God of the gaps" has now been turned on its head.

I agree with reviewers who think Ross overreached in arguing for Christianity from evidence that merely suggest the existence of God. I believe in Jesus, but not because of the Big Bang! To a certain extent, I think Ross might be copying the error of his opponents, making "new scientific evidence" into a fetish, as if it cancelled out all prior human experience -- as if God's existence and character were knowable only to 21st Century astronomers and their readers! I have found strong evidence for the existence of God, and for specific Christian doctrines, in many other sources: history, prophecy, answered prayer, (including in my own life), miracles, and even in my study of some lesser-known (yet very important) currents in so-called eastern thought and beliefs. It seems to me a tad parochial to discuss ultimate questions about the cosmos without noting the cosmological evidence right under our noses. (Planet earth, after all, is part of the cosmos.) The Absent-Minded Professor syndrome, I guess. One can't fault Ross for getting exciting about his discipline. This is a truly amazing book about a remarkable subject; and if you can relate to the story Ross tells about his childhood, when he pointed a telescope his father gave him at the stars, and all the neighbors gathered around to look, it's even better.

I've just written a book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, that gives more down-to-earth, and sometimes less-familiar, evidence for the Christian faith. For those interested in how Christianity relates to other beliefs, and some of that evidence, you may find my book a good complement to The Creator and the Cosmos.

 

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan

*** “Dr. Sagan’s Big-Tent Revival”

 

This is a book I feel like applauding or booing, depending on whether I'm in the mood to count virtues or vices.  Let’s start with virtues.  Sagan is not only a good writer, he comes across as a likable human being.  The book is personal and warm, passionate, thoughtful, and well-written. It is full of interesting anecdotes, the point of which is well-stated.  One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry when reading Sagan's mail from alien abductees. Maybe that's a test of our humanity. (Or humility.)

Sagan's "baloney-detecting kit" is a useful set of principles for separating fact from fiction. As a Christian scholar and skeptic of skepticism, I found myself breaking it out and using it, and related principles, right away.

For example, when Sagan emphasizes how prone memory is to error.  "Our memories (like many preachers, Sagan is fond of saying "we" when he really seems to mean "you") are almost never challenged. They can, instead, be frozen into place, no matter how flawed . . . or become a work of continual artistic revision." Some of Sagan's protegies, repeating these arguments, almost had me convinced. (Skeptics, too, can avail themselves of the power of suggestibility.) So I conducted an experiment with my students, and found short-term memory extremely accurate. I also had a chance to test long-term memory on a family trip to my boyhood home, and found no evidence of "artistic revision" at all. So it seems to me Sagan improperly generalizes about memory from fringe cases.

I also find myself skeptical of the priority of skepticism itself. "Look at all the foolish things people fall for!" is the basic argument here, "People are so gullible, so willing to believe!" Sagan gives many examples, the point of which is "Be skeptical!" Seems a bit like stacking the deck, to me. What about the harm that comes from an overly-critical view? What about the admiral who can't believe the Japanese are really attacking, or the parents who refuse to buy their children's story about a trusted uncle? Two human propensities -- foolish credulity and foolish incredulity -- are both common. But they cancel one another, and we're left with a problem -- what's the evidence? Sagan is against one, but hustles us towards the other -- because he buys it himself. Thus, he writes glibly of the "Copernican Insight" and the scientific illiteracy of those who doubt it, even as top-notch astronomers discuss the strong challenge anthropic discoveries seem to pose to that principle.

Most of Sagan's arguments are directed towards the fringe -- alien abductees, satanic abuse -- but he jabs inwards towards "mainstream religion" with frequency. Many of these jabs are directed at Christianity, but with only occasional accuracy. About the witch trials, for example, he overstates the number of victims on the order of 10 to 100, and makes all the old mistakes in linking them closely to The Church that even one fair-minded Wiccan historian has expressed embarrassment about. I don't think Sagan is being malicious, and often he does get his facts straight. But he is a professional scientist, and an amateur historian or political scientist. He simply over-estimates the intellectual magic and breadth of "science," and under-estimates the gullibility of his own and other scientific minds. And he clearly has not read good opposing arguments -- in science, history, or philosophy.

Again, Sagan writes as if Democracy and Science, his favorite values, appeared POOF! Like a puff of smoke during the Enlightenment. This is historically naive. Serious historians have traced the slow growth of free institutions and scientific thought to origins in the Middle Ages and Christian thinking. (Treadgold, Davies, Dawson, Landes, etc.) Sagan points out: "If we only know our side of the argument, we hardly know that." Good advice, but when it comes to religion, it is clear he has not taken it. He seems only to have read very skeptical historians, and not always the best of those.

Sagan encourages scientists to sail out into political waters. He does not seem to see the danger (obvious to me, having met with many examples) that historically and politically naive scientists will play upon the prestige of their fields to muck in matters of which they know less than they think. "To know what you know, and know what you don't know, this is knowledge," said Confucius. But Sagan castigates Americans for flunking an adult science test, holding up Japanese and others as models by comparison, apparently not aware that Japanese adults did far worse on the very same test. He implies the Bible speaks of a flat earth, or the inferiority of blacks. (It does neither.) Nor, on a more complex topic, do I think any fair historian would agree that Christianity subjugated women. I have offered an historical argument (in Jesus and the Religions of Man) that, on the contrary, nothing has liberated women more around the world than the teachings and example of Christ. In the spirit of Sagan's call for criticism, I welcome fair-minded rebuttal.

 

Why Science Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, Michael Shermer

**** “Intelligently-Designed Atheism”

 

Writing a response to Richard Dawkins and his allies (The Truth Behind the New Atheism: Responding to the Emerging Challenges to God and Christianity) I immersed myself in arguments for the falsity and dangers of religion. So far Shermer has seemed, if not the most intelligent, the most open to contrary evidence, and the most likeable, of those I've read.

Shermer's arguments helped persuade me of the truth of Common Descent. (Along with those of Francis Collins and other Christian scientists.) He does not as directly challenge the ideas of ID proponents like Lee Spetner or (in his latest book) Michael Behe, who grant common descent, but argue that mutations can't explain it.

One of the most interesting sections of this book is Shermer's discussion of his survey of the basis for religious beliefs. Shermer asked 10,000 Americans why they believed, and why they thought other people believed. He found that most people think others believe for non-rational reasons, but themselves saw reason (design of universe, experience of God, etc) as the grounds of their own faith.

My own, more limited, study of people in conservative churches, underlined the point. When I asked smaller groups of people who had been Christians for many years, "why do you believe in God?" the least popular responses were those farthest removed from facts. ("You have to believe in something;" "I enjoy the fellowship in church . . . ") A large majority gave responses that had at least some intellectual component, such as "The evidence seems good" (62%), and "I have had supernatural experience that taught me the reality of the spiritual world."

What this reflects, I suggest, is just how far wrong the Dawkins crowd are, in their uncritical assumption that Christianity demands "blind faith." Shermer seems to have assumed that, but then to begin changing his mind when the evidence undermined his assumption. I respect that. He should go further, and study what Christians have said about the subject down through the years.

Shermer's book is moderately persuasive until he begins talking about the law and the philosophy of science. At that point he discredits himself a bit, to me anyway. He warns us that ID proponents want to "get government to force teachers to teach it," (not I think the position of the Discovery Institute at all). Then in the following chapter says not only that teachers should be forced to teach evolution, but that it should be illegal even to say God was behind it! I prefer the Shermer who writes, "In the freemarket of ideas, turning to the government to force your theory on others -- particularly children -- goes against every principle of liberty upon which Western democracies are founded."

"Science knows no religious or political boundaries," Shermer says. This is more reasonable than when, a few pages earlier, he calls Philip Johnson's Wedge a "religious war against all of science." While I am not a big fan of Johnson, it seems to me his proposal is at heart pretty conservative: he wants us to do science as the inventors of science -- Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Boyle -- did it, within the context of a life infused with the glory of God. The founders of modern science were hardly at war with the discipline they founded; neither need be people who do science in the same spirit today.

In short, there are claims in this book one can argue with. (I could add others.) But unlike some of his allies, Shermer gives the impression of one with whom one can civilly disagree.

 

 

Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?  Why Much of what we teach about Evolution is Wrong, Jonathan Wells

**** “Howlingly Interesting”

 

If the evolution debate has itself become an arena for "survival of the fittest," Jonathan Wells is a predator. He makes a specialized living by picking off weak, aged, and lame arguments for evolution. For the most part, he dispatches them with grace. Like a timber wolf keeping Sitka blacktail deer from overgrazing the forests of Southeast Alaska, in a perfect world, his rebuttals would be recognized as acts of mercy. Every view needs its critics. If Dawkins did not exist, we Christians might have to invent him. The evolutionary reviewers who have the confidence to recognize this are far more persuasive than their shrill colleagues, who find nothing of value in this book.

Icons is well-written and unfailingly interesting. Whether Well's own views are defensible (a question I am still considering, as perhaps the only reviewer who had not made up his mind about ID yet!), it's always fun to puncture pretentious pieties among opponents. Well's send-up of Kevin Padian in particular is hilarious.

The question is whether Wells and his pack take down any big game, or threaten the survival of the Darwinian tribe. In some, but not all, chapters he seems to give them a run. The chapter on moths is interesting, but does Wells really dispute natural selection? The evolutionary tree and human evolution chapters were mostly philosophical postering, it seemed to me: he does not attempt to take the evidence (paltry as he claims it to be in the latter case) head-on. (Ross and Rana at least try to do that -- though see my review.) His chapter on Haeckel's embryos (Haeckel was the Dawkins of the 19th Century) seemed more substantial. The chapter on Archaeopteryx was interesting as well as humorous, and with the Cambrian Explosion, helpful as far as it went, but did not offer enough context to evaluate its meaning. The most interesting chapter to me was on the futility of fruit fly mutations. It is, I confess, hard for me to believe such a lame source of innovation created all of life, and Wells does a good job of stoking my doubts.

Still, the question that comes up as I read both sides of this debate is, "How much of this is play-acting and posing, and how much honest argument?" There is an unhelpful zero-sum dynamic between radical evolutionists and the ID camp. While Wells is polite and professional, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between criticism that is carefully directed because his topic is limitted, and criticism that picks out loser arguments because they're easy targets. It would be easier to trust both sides if they would concede good arguments -- at least as interesting challenges -- within the opposing camp. For example, Wells might admit that the general pattern of fossil evidence does roughly, if not in detail, support the ascent of species. And his opponents might at least admit that the criticism in this book often hits home. Those who love truth can only benefit by their most ferocious and wolf-like opponents, because the prey is not people, but error.

Dr. Kwok, I think, needs to read more carefully: he appears to have overlooked two chapters.