10/27/17

Ability to Choose … Within Limits

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It’s not too difficult to discover where Sam Harris stands on whether or not humans have free will. We unequivocally don’t. “Free will is an illusion.” In a lecture Harris gave for Skeptic Magazine that was based on his book, Free Will, he added that if the scientific community were to publically declare free will to be an illusion, “it would precipitate a culture war.” Science has revealed that we are “biochemical puppets” and “The universe is pulling your strings.”

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simple not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

This illusion of free will is based on two false assumptions, according to Harris. The first is that we can behave differently than we did in the past. But since we live in a world of cause and effect, our wills are determined by a long chain of prior causes, “and we’re not responsible for them.” Alternately, what we perceive as free will is the product of chance; and again, we’re not responsible. Or there could be some combination of chance and cause and effect, but still no personal agency. Whichever way we conceive it, free will is an illusion in a world ruled by chance and cause and effect.

The second false assumption is that we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions. “We presume an authorship over our own thoughts and actions that is illusory.” There is no self, no ego, no soul to generate thoughts and actions, according to Harris. They just emerge in our consciousness. And if we cannot control our thoughts, if we don’t know what our next thought will be until it consciously emerges, where is our free will?

How can we be free as conscious agents, if everything we consciously intend was caused by events in our brain, which we did not intend, and over which we had no control?

Sam Harris is an author, philosopher and neuroscientist who has written several popular books in addition to Free Will. Along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, he has been referred to as one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism.” The reference draws on the title of a 2-hour unmoderated discussion between the four that is available here on the website for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. They discussed the public reaction to some of their books critical of religion, and some common misrepresentations of them and their beliefs.

Harris’s position on free will assumes the universe is a closed system of cause and effect. Since there are no creator gods, everything that now exists is the result of what has come from “a long chain of prior causes.” The theologian Francis Schaeffer referred to the understanding of science that comes from this view of the universe as modern, modern science—science rooted in naturalistic philosophy. The uniformity of natural causes, which is an essential starting point for scientific investigation, must be understood as occurring entirely within the natural order of the universe. Nature is closed to any causal intervention from outside.

There is no Creator; no First Cause. There is only chance or cause and effect. Not only physics, but psychology, social science and human nature must be explained within the confines of this closed system. The biologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky believes that every bit of human behavior has multiple layers of causality. He said what we call “free will” is simply biology that hasn’t been discovered yet. “It’s just another way of stating that we’re biological organisms determined by the physical laws of the universe.” See “Ruling Over Our Genes” for more on Sapolsky.

In Escape From Reason, Schaeffer concluded this materialist unity of all things leaves us afloat on a deterministic sea with no shore. The only way this unity can be achieved is by ruling out freedom. “The result of seeking for a unity on the basis of the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system is that freedom does not exist.” Free will is therefore an illusory cognitive construct.  The nonmaterial mind or soul is also an illusion.

However, Harris and Sapolsky aren’t the only neuroscientists to ever consider the possibility of free will. Harvey McMahon is a staff scientist and group leader at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. He is also a member of The Royal Society, the world’s oldest independent scientific academy. Past members of the Society have included Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. Current members include Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.

McMahon discussed free will in: “How Free Is Our Free-Will?” He opened his essay by noting science has provided evidence that free-will may be an illusion. Yet free-will was fundamental to our sense of wellbeing, and underwrote our sense of morality, our judicial system, and our Judeo-Christian faith. “We may not be as free as we would like to think, but within boundaries shaped by our individual histories, our genetics, and our environment we can make decisions that determine our character, relationships and future.”

He noted the paradoxical nature of freedom. For example, if we marry we limit the relationships we will have with others, while at the same time opening up new avenues of freedom from being settled in our choice of partner. This principle, McMahon said, applies to all our choices. We change our future possibilities by the choices we make today. “Thus freedom is not unconstrained choice, for with each choice we limit our freedom, and in so doing shape our environment and ourselves.”

These constraints are from our culture, our relationships, our jobs and our families, and other influences. Added to these is the subconscious working of our brain, processing cues of which we are not aware. “Thus the brain may even be making decisions for us.” Do we really have a choice? Here McMahon acknowledged Harris’ above noted argument (and book), that free-will was an illusion. But rather than an illusion, he thought it better to say it was constrained by many factors.

Free-will, McMahon thought, “is a cognitive concept, involving the mind.” It is the ability to choose deliberately between options. “It cannot be regarded as the opposite of determinism, where events have cause and effect outside human control.” He illustrated what he meant with the following diagram. Free-will only applied to cognitive processes where we use our minds to make choices—in between the two extremes. Although not stated by McMahon, I’d say completely free choice is only possible within the mind of God.

Human free-will is then not completely determined, nor is it completely free. McMahon suggested free-will occurred within the boundaries of predetermined factors, where there was little or no freedom to choose. These factors could be biological or genetic. They could also be family, culture, or environmental factors. See the diagram below.

Within an outer sphere of predetermined boundaries, lies a continuum of interaction between prior free-will and proximal free-will. Prior free-will is where an immediate decision is constrained by past decisions and history. Going to work on a given day is more the result of a past decision than one made when you woke up that day. You can re-assess the decision and not go to work for some reason, “yet the choice does not have to be constantly re-evaluated.” In-the-moment or proximal decisions can be inconsequential, like choosing between tea or coffee, or involve active cognition, as when we weigh our options. “Both of these give a strong sense of free-will in the moment.”

Plasticity refers to the fact that our brains are moldable. “We are constantly learning new information, meeting new people and acquiring new skills, which all require that our brains are ‘plastic’.” New synapses can be formed or existing synapses can be modified or lost. “At a molecular level there can be changes in the expression of various proteins which in turn influence the excitability of a given synapse or circuit.”

The choices we make influence the behavior patterns we develop, which are laid down as neuronal pathways. In turn, these pathways influence other choices. “So in this sense we are masters of our own destiny… all because we have a ‘plastic’ brain (i.e. not completely preprogrammed).” Although there is difficulty in the process, we can change. If we make certain choices repetitively, they lay down neuronal pathways and turn into learned behaviors.

Plasticity is thus key to the possibility of free-will [see the above diagram]. While memories of past experiences may not be completely eradicated, they can be scaled back by the new experiences that occupy our minds as we choose to dwell on other things.

Jeffery Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding coauthored You Are Not Your Brain, a self-help book that applies the principles of neuroplasticity discussed above. Like McMahon, Schwartz and Gladding affirm the reality of the human mind and the existence of free-will. Dr. Schwartz is one of the world’s leading experts in neuroplasticity. You can read more about him and his books on his web page here.

McMahon said the relationship between this conception of free-will and intentionality is complex. To the extent we willfully choose and can foresee certain outcomes, ”we can be held responsible for the outcome.” However, if we could not foresee the potential consequences of decisions, to what extent can we say their outcome was intentional? Furthermore, what about when reason has been suppressed for some reason, or if it has been erroneously applied (if we haven’t reasonably weighed our potential thoughts or actions), and non-intended consequences result.

Despite the caveats, in general each of us is responsible today for what we did yesterday because these were acts of free-will, or actions resulting from an absence of self-control. The responsibility for evil can be lessened by considering our circumstances but it never excuses us because at some point in the past we have actively participated in shaping who we are today.

McMahon goes on to describe how he believes our brains and free-will interact with each other. He suggested that while individual neurons do not have free-will, “it is an emergent property of neuronal networks.” He suggested free-will sits upon a tripod of past memories, present inputs (combined with the ability to compute and learn) and future predictions and aspirations within the plasticity of the brain.

There is more to read and think about in his article. McMahon also shares his thoughts on how God constrains us and yet frees us. He wrestles with the question of whether free-will is compatible with divine sovereignty. Read more on how he applies the above discussion to this theological dilemma. His conclusions are worth repeating here.

With the above in mind the following definition of free-will can be offered: Free-will is the ability to choose intentionally within limits placed by a sovereign God, with resulting human responsibility. Free-will is not the opposite of determinism: one can have free-will within the limits set by determinism. Indeed our relationships and our decisions are not absolutely predetermined, and this is a reflection of the freedom given to us by being made in the image of God. So, we have the best of both worlds, where we have freedom to make decisions and yet our personal future and that of the world are secure.

The above understanding of free-will indicates we are less free than we may like to think we are at any given moment, because of prior decisions and predetermined factors. And while neuroscience hasn’t extinguished free-will, it does help us see why we do the things we do. So we are not biochemical puppets, but biology constrains us. “We are not determined by our past, but certainly influenced by it.”

08/25/17

Enslaved by Freedom

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In the early 1980s, a Christian friend waxed eloquent about the writings and thought of Francis Schaeffer to me. I was a young Christian then and respected this friend’s endorsement, but didn’t think I was up to tackling his five volume collected works which had just been published in 1982. So I bought the smallest book I could find by Schaeffer in the bookstore instead, Escape From Reason. It was so full of thoughtful theology, apologetics and philosophy that I have been reading, re-reading and referencing it since then.

In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer developed a helpful way of conceiving how the modern understanding of humanity came about. But unlike other modern thinkers, he went back to the thought of Thomas Aquinas, over three hundred years before Descartes. See “Not a Ghost in the Machine” for more on Descartes. Schaeffer thought the real birth of modern humanistic thought began with Aquinas’ distinction between nature and grace. According to Schaeffer, Aquinas thought grace was a higher level of existence that included God the Creator, heaven and heavenly things, the unseen and its influence on the earth and the human soul. The lower level of nature contained every thing created—all earthly things, all that is visible, and what nature and humans do on the earth, including the human body.

Similar to the Cartesian mind-body distinction, Aquinas did not see a complete separation between nature and grace—between the human body and soul. However, he had an incomplete view of the biblical Fall, according to Schaeffer. Aquinas thought human will was fallen, but human intellect was not. “From this incomplete view of the biblical Fall flowed all the subsequent difficulties.” In Aquinas, one realm of human existence could potentially be independent of God. Human intellect wasn’t entirely non posse non peccare— not able not to sin—to use Augustine’s description of human nature after the Fall. According to Schaeffer, this meant there was a potential for us to act as if human reason could be autonomous from God.

From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore, philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to Scriptures. This does not mean this tendency was never previously apparent, but it appears in a more total way from this time on.

When nature was made autonomous by Aristotelian thought in Aquinas, it began to annex grace. Schaeffer stressed that when nature is conceived as autonomous from God, it becomes destructive and it will ‘eat up’ grace. “Nature gradually became more totally autonomous. . . . By the time the Renaissance reached its climax, nature had eaten up grace.” But the Reformation was a counter balance to this autonomy of intellect.

In the Scriptures, God spoke truly about the upper level and the lower level. He spoke truly about Himself and heavenly things, and He spoke truly about nature—the created order of the cosmos and humanity. This is known as the two-books theory of God’s revelation—special revelation in Scripture and general revelation in nature. This was incidentally the starting point for many of the first modern scientists. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an English philosopher and scientist, is generally seen as the father of empiricism. He said:

God has, in fact, written two books, not just one. Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture. But he has written a second book called creation.

Scripture also says we are made in the image of God, but fallen because “at a space-time point of history,” humanity sinned. Although the people of the Reformation knew they were morally guilty before God, they were not nothing. “These people knew they were the very opposite of nothing because they were made in the image of God.” And when the Word of God was listened to, the Reformation had tremendous results—in culture and in people becoming Christians.

The Bible tells us God is “both a personal God and an infinite God.” This personal-infinite God is the Creator of all things. Therefore, everything else is finite; everything else is created. This Creator-creature distinction places a chasm between God and all created things—humanity, animals, plants, and the machine. Yet when you come to the side of humanity’s personhood (Descartes’ mind-body composite), we were made in the image of God—created to have a personal relationship with Him. So humanity’s relationship is upward with God and not merely downward with the rest of the created order. Schaeffer pictured this relationship as follows:

On the side of God’s infinity, humanity is as separated from God as the Cartesian sense of machine and the other aspects of the created order. This is the Creator-creation distinction. However biblically, there is a different story on the side of human personality. Being made in the image of God, we were created to have a personal relationship with Him. Here our relationship is upward and not just downward; and there is a difference between humans and the rest of the created order.

If you are dealing with twentieth-century people, this becomes a very crucial difference. Modern man sees his relationship downward to the animal and to the machine. The Bible rejects this view of who man is. On the side of personality you are related to God. You are not infinite but finite; nevertheless, you are truly personal; you are created in the image of the personal God who exists.

Schaeffer said there is nothing truly autonomous from God; not the human mind or reason. There can be nothing apart from the lordship of Christ and the authority of the Scriptures. God made the whole person and He is interested in the whole person. While the modern humanist may have been conceived during the Renaissance, the Reformation provided the corrective to his dilemma. Although dualism in Renaissance thought has contributed significantly to the modern world’s sorrows, there is still hope in Christ. In another of his works, A Christian View of the Bible as Truth, Francis Schaeffer said:

The ancients were afraid that if they went to the end of the earth, they would fall off and be consumed by dragons. But once we understand that Christianity is true to what is there, including true to the ultimate environment—the infinite, personal God who is really there—then our minds are freed. We can pursue any question and can be sure that we will not fall off the end of the earth. Such an attitude will give our Christianity a strength that it often does not seem to have at the present time.

What happened is that rationalism evolved and became entrenched in science. The uniformity of natural causes in creation or nature was gradually closed to any intervention from outside, from God. Nature became a closed system devoid of any intervention from God. The distinction of nature and grace no longer made sense. “There was no idea of grace—the word did not fit any longer.” There was no room for revelation, so the problem was redefined in terms of freedom and nature. “Nature has totally devoured grace, and what is left in its place ‘upstairs’ is the word ‘freedom’.”

At this time we find that nature is now so totally autonomous that determinism begins to emerge. Previously determinism had almost always been confined to the area of physics; to the machine portion of the universe.

This autonomous freedom is one where the individual is at the center of the universe. It is a freedom without restraint; without limitations. Descartes’ conception of the mind as a thinking thing, the person as a fundamentally rational, mind-bound individual, fits well within this freedom. And here we can see the fulfillment of the promise of the serpent in the story of the Fall. Eating of the forbidden fruit opened human eyes and made us like God, with the freedom of knowing good and evil independent of Him. As Blaise Pascal observed: “Original sin is foolish to men” who seek to be autonomous beings.

If interested, you can watch Francis Schaeffer unfold more of his thinking in several YouTube videos. Here is a link to one on “The Flow of Materialism.”

11/25/16

Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution

Editorial cartoon of Darwin as an ape (1871)

Editorial cartoon of Darwin as an ape (1871)

In the mid 1990s I had the opportunity to attend a local community play in the Rhea County Courthouse located in Dayton Tennessee. This courthouse was where one of the most famous trials of the twentieth century took place, the Scopes Trial. The New York Times described what took place there as “one of the most colorful and briefly riveting of the trials of the century that seemed to be especially abundant in the sensation-loving 1920s.” Every July local residents put on the play in the second floor courtroom, which has been restored to look the way it did during the July 1925 trial. In front of the courthouse is a plaque commemorating the place where John Scopes was convicted of violating a state law by teaching that humans descended from a lower order of animals.

In the basement of the courthouse is a museum, which contains memorabilia like the actual microphone used to broadcast the trial. When the annual play is put on, some of the museum pieces are used as props in the trial. The play’s dialogue is taken primarily from the transcript of the trial itself. The audience sits in chairs facing the judge’s bench. Members of the audience are selected to portray the jury, whose only task was to sit in the jury box and then leave the courtroom several times during the play when the real jury was excused.

Scopes was found guilty and he was fined $100, the minimum penalty. His attorney appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which threw out his conviction on a technicality. He went on to study geology at the University of Chicago (on a scholarship by his supporters) and became a petroleum engineer. But almost 100 years later, his trial still represents one of the seminal times in American history where there was a clash between science and religion. Clarence Darrow, the famous defense lawyer who was one of the lawyers on the defense team for Scopes, said in his closing remarks:

 I think this case will be remembered because it is the first case of this sort since we stopped trying people in America for witchcraft . . . We have done our best to turn the tide . . . of testing every fact in science by a religious doctrine.

That sentiment is still alive today, as is the perceived conflict between the scientific theory of evolution and the religious doctrine of creation. The public portrayal of the so-called evolution-creation “debate” has misconceptions similar to those evident in Darrow’s statement. One example of thie misconception is an article Rachael Gross wrote for Slate a couple of years ago, celebrating how “Evolution is Finally Winning Out Over Creationism.” A key factor in her analysis was pointing to how “a majority of young people endorse the scientific explanation of how humans evolved.” By scientific she means a purely secular evolution—something not directed by any divine power.

Her hope is there will be a continual shrinkage of those who oppose evolution. One way this would occur is through individuals “converting” to evolution, regardless of their political and religious beliefs. “For the movement behind evolution to triumph, younger Americans who have been raised to believe in creationism need to be open to changing their minds.” Another way is by “generational momentum,” meaning that the switch will happen as older adults who believe in creationism die off. This is not really simply a crass hope based on waiting for old people to die or that young people will switch their views with regard to the “doctrine” of evolution.

It also reflects the thought of science philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this seminal work on the history and philosophy of science, Kuhn said that normal science referred to research firmly based on one or more past scientific achievements that a particular scientific community “acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice.” The process of normal science takes place within a scientific paradigm—where research occurs within the context of a scientific community committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. “That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science.” Kuhn acknowledged that the notion of his term ‘paradigm’ is intrinsically circular: “A paradigm is what the members of a scientific community share, and, conversely, a scientific community consists of men [and women] who share a paradigm.”

Any new interpretation of nature, whether a discovery or a theory, emerges first in the mind of one or a few individuals. It is they who first learn to see science and the world differently, and their ability to make the transition is facilitated by two circumstances that are not common to most other members of their profession. Invariably, their attention has been intensely concentrated upon the crisis-provoking problems; usually, in addition, they are men [or women] so young or so new to the crisis-ridden field that practice has committed them less deeply than most of their contemporaries to the world view and rules determined by the old paradigm. How are they able, what must they do, to convert the entire profession or the relevant professional subgroup to their way of seeing science and the world? What causes the group to abandon one tradition of normal research in favor of another?

In answering these questions, Kuhn went on to observe that the proponents of competing paradigm are always at least slightly at cross-purposes. “Neither side will grant all the non-empirical assumptions that the other needs in order to make its case.” While each may hope to “convert” the other to his or her way of seeing science and its problems, the dispute is not one “that can be resolved by proofs.” Kuhn quoted the theoretical physicist Max Planck who said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Kuhn went on to say:

The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is more like a conversion experience that cannot be forced. Lifelong resistance, particularly from those whose productive careers have committed them to an older tradition of normal science, is not a violation of scientific standards but an index to the nature of scientific research itself.

Darwin’s theory now exists as a foundational paradigm for a secular understanding of human origins. Within this context, Rachael Gross hopes for a completed paradigm shift within evolution that denies the possibility of any intervention from outside of the natural order. Young adult believers in creation need to convert fully to a belief in secular evolution. There is no room in her sense of evolution for theistic evolution/evolutionary creation. At most, it exists as a way station on the journey to secular evolution.

From this perspective, evolutionary creation unscientifically combines religious belief and evolution. Its needs to be jettisoned within a sincere scientific conversion experience to evolutionary belief. Older adults who are committed to the unscientific tradition of creation need to die off. Gross is carrying the banner once waved by Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Trial: “We have done our best to turn the tide . . . of testing every fact in science by a religious doctrine.” The evolutionary revolution marches on.

Darrow and Bryan

Darrow and Bryan

However, there is an unacknowledged assumption with regard to the philosophy of science when Gross equates secular evolution with “science.” Basic philosophical assumptions necessary for science include that nature is uniform; and that observable patterns in nature provide clues to help us understand the unobservable patterns and processes in nature. Our knowledge of the processes and patterns in nature is limited since we have not yet examined all there is to see in nature, nor have we observed it throughout it entire existence. This uniformity in nature is then necessarily assumed to hold universally. We assume the uniformity of natural causes in creation, in nature, but cannot prove it is true scientifically.

Francis Schaeffer pointed out that while early scientists like Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton believed in the uniformity of natural causes, they did not believe this natural uniformity existed in a closed system. He said this little phrase constituted the difference between natural science and a science rooted in naturalistic philosophy. It was the difference between what he called modern science and modern, modern science. In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer said: “It is important to notice that this is not a failing of science as science; rather the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system has become the dominant philosophy among scientists.”

Secular evolution would then be the product of what Schaeffer called modern, modern science. It rejects the possibility of a god or transcendent power outside of nature utilizing the natural process of evolution to develop life on earth. From this perspective, the Scopes Trial was fundamentally a dispute over two different systems of scientific philosophy with regard to evolution. The ridicule of literalist biblical belief and interpretation, embodied in the exchange between Darrow and Bryan, was collateral damage in the exchange. The underlying structure of the dispute over evolution is over the philosophical basis on which science can be done.

Pitting religion and science against one another as Darrow, Bryan and others have done, not only sets up a false dichotomy between them, it gives a distorted view of what the evolution revolution is all about.

If you are interested in learning more about the Scopes Trial, try this page about the Scopes Trial Museum or the Wikipedia page on the Scopes Trial. You can also read: Summer for the Gods, a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Scopes Trial and “No Contest; No Victory.” Also, look at: When All the God Trembled, which discusses Darwinism and the Scopes Trial.

06/24/16

Genesis, Science and Creation

© Oleg Dudko | 123rf.com

© Oleg Dudko | 123rf.com

For conservative Christians holding to the authority of the Bible “as the only rule of faith and obedience” in the modern world, there is perhaps no more important question than whether science is a competing or complementary form of knowledge and authority to Scripture. In a way, this dilemma is traceable to the third chapter of Genesis. Genesis 3 contains the story of the Fall of humanity, where Adam and Eve fell into the trap of striving to be “like God” by knowing good and evil independent of God and his revelation. Ironically, they did gain knowledge independent of God; and the first thing they discovered was their own “nakedness” apart from God. Autonomous knowledge comes with a price.

We can see this compulsion for autonomous knowledge clearly within a short discussion of the encounter of God and His Word with science and nature. In Escape from Reason, Francis Schaeffer noted how early scientists shared the outlook of Christianity in believing that a reasonable God created a reasonable universe; and humans, by using their reason, could become knowledgeable about the universe. Early science was natural science, but it wasn’t naturalistic. There wasn’t an assumption that reason could be exercised independent of God; that nature could be known autonomous of God’s revelation.

Alister McGrath’s discussion of the relationship between science and religion in his book Science & Religion is helpful here. McGrath said there were three broad positions on the relationship between the natural world and the divine. The first is that the natural world is divine. This is certainly not a position that either Christianity or modern science would take. A second position is that the natural world is created and bears some resemblance to its Creator. The third is that the natural world has no relation to God. This third position underlies the view of what Schaeffer calls modern, modern science. And the second is necessary for a two books view of Scripture and Nature.

This idea (which is sometimes expressed in terms of the “two books” of Scripture and Nature) gave additional impetus to the study of nature. If God could not be seen, yet had somehow imprinted his nature on the creation, it would be possible to gain an enhanced appreciation of the nature and purpose of God by studying the natural order.

Science and the Bible were able to peacefully coexist for centuries. Nature was the “textbook” of God’s general revelation; and the Bible was the handbook of his special revelation. This “two books theology,” as noted above, was an essential foundation for the rise of modern science. Denis Lamoureux quoted Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a scientist and Christian, on the “two books” of God’s revelation:

Let no woman or man out of conceit or laziness, think or believe that anyone can search too far or be too well informed in the Book of God’s Works or the Book of God’s Words. Instead, let everyone endlessly improve their understanding of both.

A related issue concerns the order of nature within a doctrine of creation. “The doctrine of creation leads directly to the notion that the universe is possessed of regularity which is capable of being uncovered by humanity.” Encapsulated within “the laws of nature,” this was of fundamental importance to the emergence and development of the natural sciences. But how then do science and religion interact? Are they part of the same reality? Are the insights of science and religion contradictory or complementary to each other?

McGrath said one view of the interaction of science and religion sees them as in conflict or at war with each other. A second view sees science and religion as convergent; “all truth is God’s truth.” Developments in science should be welcomed and accommodated within the Christian faith. The third view sees science and religion as distinct. In other words, the natural sciences ask the “how” questions, while theology asks the “why” questions.

In his book, Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man, Bryan Applyard dated the birth of modern science to the time of Galileo. The moment that Galileo looked through his telescope in 1609 contained “all that was new and revolutionary in science.” He looked through his crude telescope and believed what he saw with his own eyes. The method of science (or wisdom, as Appleyard called it) that existed before Galileo was different in many ways from what ruled after 1609. “Its foundation was neither observation nor experiment, but authority understood through reason.” But from that time onward, “a new and unprecedentedly effective form of knowledge and way of doing things appeared.”

This science inspired a version of the universe, of the world and of man that was utterly opposed to all preceding versions. Most importantly, it denied man the possibility of finding an ultimate meaning and purpose for his life within the facts of the world. If there were such things as meanings and purposes, they must exist outside the universe describable by science.”

Francis Schaeffer called this the birth of “modern, modern science.” And he believed this was a radically different way of doing science than what Bacon and Galileo did. A necessary presumption for any scientific endeavor is the uniformity of natural causes. Early scientists like Bacon and Galileo saw this existing within the open system of nature, where God could and did have a sustaining influence on His creation. Christians were free to pursue science and maintain their belief in a Creator God who was still active within His creation.

But within modern, modern science, this unity of natural causes exists within a closed system of nature. There cannot be any intervention from forces or influences outside of nature. Science necessarily is done within the assumed closed system of nature. If it isn’t, then it is not science. In Escape From Reason, Schaeffer said:

That little phrase [the uniformity of natural causes within a closed system] makes all the difference in the world. It makes the difference between natural science and a science that is rooted in naturalistic philosophy.

So science as it is widely practiced today, what Schaeffer called modern, modern science, begins with a philosophical assumption that excludes the potential influence of a creative God, or a creative force. I think this is one reason why scientists today are so antagonistic towards Intelligent Design Theory. To them it feels and looks like cheating; an undermining of this basic philosophical foundation of the modern scientific method. Any attempt to accommodate the discoveries within the Book of God’s Works with the Book of God’s Word, as in the “two book” theory, is not legitimate science. Modern, modern science is autonomous from God.

So when interpreting Genesis 1, it matters which view of science you bring to the process. Is it the open system of nature within the two books theory, or the closed system of modern, modern science? If nature is open to God’s interventions, was it designed to exist independent or autonomous from God after creation, like a giant watch with God as the Watchmaker; or is creation sustained by a Creator? If creation is not independent of its Creator, can a study of creation tell us something about its Creator? Can knowledge of the works of God inform us about the Word of God? Will knowledge of the watch tell us anything about the Watchmaker? Is that knowledge independent, complementary and accommodating, or in conflict to what the Bible reveals to us about God and His creation? And if in conflict, does that mean that biblical religion and science are at war with each other?

In “Origins and Creation” I looked at several different ways to understand the Genesis account of creation. The categories were drawn from the web lectures and writings of Denis Lamoureux, an Evolutionary Creationist. The categories were: Young Earth Creation (YEC), Progressive Creation (PC), Evolutionary Creation (EC), Deistic Evolution (DE) and Atheistic Evolution (AE). Look at “Origins and Creation” for more information on how these views of creation differ from each other. Drawing on the above discussion, we can then suggest views of origins have the following relationships between nature and science, creation and God, and the interaction of knowledge found within science and the Bible:

Creation Origins

Nature as an Open or Closed System

Relationship of Creation to God

Interaction of Knowledge in Science & the Bible

YEC

Open

Creation is sustained by God

Accommodation conflict/war

PC

 

Open

Creation is sustained by God

Some accommodation; Some conflict

EC

Open

Creation is sustained by God

Complementary &

no conflict

DE

Open at first

Creation is autonomous of God

Some relationship

No interaction

AE

Closed

Creation is autonomous of God

No relationship

conflict/war

It’s not enough to select which of the three creation positions available to a conservative Christian (YEC, PC and EC) appeals to you. Each of the three positions carries interpretive decisions with regard to Scripture and with regard to science that have to be made. The views you hold with regard to the interaction of science and Scripture, nature and the Bible, influence your views on creation. They influence how you interpret both Genesis 1 and the other passages of Scripture. Modern knowledge of the works of God is not autonomous from the Word of God. So when God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, how do you think He did it?

For more articles on creation in the Bible, see the link “Genesis & Creation.”

12/24/15

A Not So Moral Molecule

© kentoh | stockfresh.com

© kentoh | stockfresh.com

In 2005 Paul Zak was one of five authors listed for a study published in the journal Nature titled: “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” They claimed that oxytocin influenced a person’s willingness to accept social risks that occur during interpersonal interactions. The results suggested “an essential role for oxytocin as a biological basis” of positive social behavior. But Zak was just getting started. By 2011 he had published a book about his further investigations of oxytocin and had acquired the nickname of Dr. Love because of his work on oxytocin and relationships. He claimed that oxytocin was the secret biochemical ingredient behind trustworthiness and human morality.

Be sure you get this. Zak is saying that trust, empathy and morality are causally influenced by oxytocin, a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain.  In a 2011 TED talk entitled: Trust, morality—and oxytocin?, he said: “Within our own biology, we have the yin and yang of morality. . . . We don’t need God or government telling us what to do. It’s all inside of us.” There is a clear reductionistic assumption on what it means to be human behind his interpretation of the various studies of oxytocin done by him and others.  In The Moral Molecule, Zak said:

We are biological creatures, so everything we are emerges from a biological process. Biology, through natural selection, rewards and encourages behaviors that are adaptive, meaning that they contribute to health and survival in a way that produces the greatest number of descendents going forward. Oddly enough, by following that survival-of-the-fittest directive, nature arrives at many of the same moral conclusions offered by religion, namely, that it is often best to behave in a way that is cooperative and, for want of a better word, moral. Nature simply gets to the same place by following a different, and perhaps more universal path.

Science writer Ed Yong has been a particularly vocal critic of Zak’s claims about oxytocin. Here’s a sample of just three of his critical articles. Soon after The Moral Molecule was published, Yong noted in an article for Slate that the problem with the moral molecule idea is that it is a fable. “A more nuanced view of oxytocin is coming to light—one that’s inconsistent with the simplistic ‘moral molecule’ moniker.” He linked to one study that suggested oxytocin boots envy and gloating.

In 2014, for his blog, Yong wrote: “Oxytocin: Still not a Moral Molecule.” He said the  “rose-tinted view” of oxytocin as the “love hormone,” “cuddle chemical” or “moral molecule” was a sham. He said it was of a general social hormone that motivates us to seek out social situations or draws our attention to social cues. “The results can be positive if we find ourselves in the right situation. Change the context, and oxytocin can reveal a dark side to its influence.”

In November of 2015, now writing for The Atlantic, Yong reviewed the history since the fateful 2005 paper on oxytocin was published. While noting that several groups or individuals have shown that sniffing oxytocin can make people more generous, empathetic and constructive, Zak has “repeatedly and misleadingly promoted the substance as a ‘moral molecule.’” He then went on to show where several scientists have shown that the evidence for oxytocin’s positive influence was built on “weak foundations.” He quoted the lead author of the original Nature article on oxytocin as saying none of the other studies cleanly replicated their original one. “We have no robust replications of our original study, and until then, we have to be cautious about the claim that oxytocin causes trust.”

Yong raised the concern that some individuals are now using oxytocin as a therapeutic agent with humans. He ended his article commenting that after decades of work, the so-called “moral molecule” is still more of a mystery molecule. “And that mystery needs to be solved before it finds its way into the clinic.”

Helen Shen wrote a good review of the research into oxytocin for Nature in June of 2015, “Neuroscience: The Hard Science of Oxytocin.” She raised a concern that some doctors are using oxytocin off-label to treat a variety of problems. Shen quoted one of the researchers, Sue Carter, a neuroscientist at Indiana University in Bloomington, as saying that we don’t understand how this hormone work yet; or what happens to someone with repeated use. “This is not a molecule that people should be self-administering or playing with.”

Ed Yong’s concerns with Paul Zak and his simplistic promotion of oxytocin as the “moral molecule” does seem to be well founded. But I wondered how Zak could take such a strong position that morality has a biological foundation. Perhaps his own description of his early years in The Moral Molecule gives us a clue.

Paul Zak’s mother was a nun before she was his mother. She spent four years as a member of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. He said she took him out of Catholic school because it wasn’t strict enough. He said his upbringing “left no doubt that we are all born in sin and driven by base passions that have to be tightly constrained and relentlessly monitored to keep us from behaving badly.” Zak called this the classic approach to governing human nature that has dominated Western history—a top-down approach full of “dos” and “don’ts.”  Supposedly his mother “based her child-rearing on the assumption that unselfish, moral behavior was impossible without the ever-present threat of punishment, and the more terrifying the better.”

Either Zak or his mother (perhaps both) had a very distorted sense of the theology of original sin. Following from this, was a rigidly legalistic understanding of how humans should morally govern themselves. It seems his portrayal of both his mother and the God he knew growing up was someone who was constantly watching in order to catch you in some misdeed. It would seem that “the ever-present threat of punishment” (physical abuse?) was used to instill an obedience based on fear. If Zak saw this approach as stemming from his mother’s belief in God, no wonder that as an adult, Zak turned to biology for the explanation of why humans are moral, empathetic and trustworthy.

In a powerful little book titled Escape From Reason, Francis Schaeffer described how science today is ruled by a belief in the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. God, if He exists at all, is outside of the closed system of nature with no influence on—or explanatory power for—what occurs within the closed system of nature. Early scientists believed in the uniformity of natural causes—a philosophical presupposition necessary for anyone to do science. “But what they did not believe in was the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system.” This is what Schaeffer referred to as “modern, modern science.”

The realm of nature is closed to (autonomous from) any nonmaterial realm. God, freedom, love, morals are either irrelevant to what happens in nature and science, or must be explained by natural, scientific means. So Zak believes everything about humanity emerges from biology. There is an evolutionary explanation for why we are moral. “Nature arrives at many of the same moral conclusions offered by religion, namely, that it is often best to behave in a way that is cooperative and, for want of a better word, moral.” Schaeffer took this sense of biochemical determinism to its logical extreme and noted that if humans are determined, then what is, is right.

If all of life is only mechanism—if that is all there is—then morals really do not count. Morals become only a word for a sociological framework. Morals become a means of manipulation by society in the midst of the machine. The word morals by this time is only a semantic connotation word for nonmorals. What is, is right.

This happens, according to Francis Schaeffer, when a non-Christian view of nature excludes the possibility of an absolute or God from having any influence on the universe. “Without an absolute one cannot really have morals as morals.” Everything is then relative. “There is no circle inside which there is right, in contrast to that which is outside the circle and therefore wrong.” Without an absolute standard, there can be no such thing as “right” and “wrong.”

But for the Christian, this is not true. “God does exist, and He has a character; there are things which are outside the commandments He has given us as the expression of His character.”

So what about oxytocin? From a Christian perspective, it cannot be viewed as a moral molecule.  Morality cannot be fully understood or explained within a closed system of nature. However, there appears to be scientific evidence that oxytocin does play a role in social cognition. If the science behind this evidence is done presuming the uniformity of natural causes in an open system of nature—one that allows for the potential influence of something outside of nature upon things existing within nature—then there could be a Christian perspective of oxytocin as a biological correlate to positive social behavior or morality. In other words, moral behavior wouldn’t be caused by higher oxytocin levels, but could be associated with it.

08/22/14

The Heart of an Evangelical

Sword On Old Bible

image credit: iStock

When I was in my early teens, my father went into the hospital because he was having heart problems, probably from smoking cigarettes. His doctors recommended what was then a radical surgical procedure: a coronary artery bypass. It wasn’t known if he would survive the operation, so he was permitted to come home for what could be his last Christmas. He survived the bypass operation and never smoked again.

The heart of evangelical, Christian thinking is the authority of Scripture. Belief that the Bible is the Word of God pumps the lifeblood of the Spirit within us. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) But there is an ongoing debate about whether this evangelical heart needs its own bypass operation.

The arteries of Genesis on Creation and the Fall, of understanding the relevance of Pauline statements on gender role (and others) are thought to be blocked by the plaque of traditional interpretations. It is believed that, as these arteries are less and less able to carry the lifeblood of the Spirit to the body of Christ, the church will eventually have a “heart attack.” So some evangelical heart specialists are recommending a kind of coronary bypass operation.

One of these evangelicals is Peter Enns, currently at Eastern University. In an interview with The Christian Post, Enns said people within evangelicalism desperately want to defend the Bible against its challengers by questioning the very foundations of evangelicalism:

What they’re saying is what some of the bad guys say about the Bible makes sense, whether its evolution, whether it’s Canaanite genocide, whether it’s human sexuality, whatever. They’re saying they want to rethink some of those issues, but they’re doing it from the point of view of having a deep connection with the tradition they were raised in. They don’t want to just leave it. … They want to transform and continue the evangelical journey.

Supposedly younger evangelical Christians want to rethink what it means to be an evangelical, but are being held back by the movement’s older leadership. According to Enns, this reluctance is out of fear of the repercussions. In other words, the leaders are afraid the bypass operation won’t take. “So much hinges on getting the Bible right that giving ground on issues like evolution runs the risk of upsetting the entire system.”

Returning to the heart metaphor, if we don’t maintain a healthy sense of the ultimate authority of the Bible, of its universal and eternal truth, then the evangelical church will have a heart attack and die. It’s not just a matter of the old guard holding on to its power. “Getting the Bible right” is a life-and-death issue for evangelicalism. Francis Schaeffer understood what was at stake. In a letter he wrote to a frequent visitor at L’Abri about the knife-edged balance required in the modern evangelical world he said:

What we must ask the Lord for is a work of the Spirit . . . to stand on a very thin line: in other words, to state intellectually (as well as understand, though not completely) the intellectual reality of that which God is and what God has revealed in the objectively inspired Bible; and then to live moment to moment in the reality of a restored relationship with the God who is there, and to act in faith upon what we believe in our daily lives. (Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer, p. 82)

So let there be a consultation among the evangelical heart specialists. Let us have a respectful hearing of the various procedures proposed to clear the blocked arteries. But let us not forget that an evangelical will always have the objectively inspired Bible as its heart. And if it stops beating, we die. We don’t want a success operation that ultimately kills the patient.

For further information on what it means to be an evangelical, see the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Alliance. Also look at: “What is an Evangelical?” on this website.

Is belief in the authority of Scripture the heart of evangelicalism?