Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Finding Darwin's God II

Miller, Ken. Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution.New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN: 978-0061233500.

Part I

In Chapter 2, after stating that his stance as a believer in the scientific field places him outside of the norm, Miller sets out to discuss what science can investigate and how is can be investigated. He is responding to the following critique:
There is a school of thought that rejects the very idea that any theory about the past can be scientific.  Science, the argument goes, is based on experiment and direct, testable observation... Since there were no human witnesses to the earth's past, the argument goes, all statements about that past, including evolution, are pure speculation (emphasis original, p. 22). 
Miller answers this critique giving several examples of how science can investigate events that the scientist did not directly witness.  The first is that of forensic science.  The police do not have to witness a crime to scientifically investigate a crime scene and find scientific evidence that can lead to an arrest and conviction.  The second is the investigation of the sun.  No human has ever been to the sun and directly observed it in a laboratory.  Yet, one can investigate the effects of the sun and make scientific conclusions, such as the elemental makeup of the sun. His third example is somewhat whimsical, but deals with pop-top beer cans produced between 1962-1975.  These pop-tops can be found in trash deposits.  They are evidence left over from the past.  This leads to Miller's last example, which is that the past has left literally mountains of evidence buried in the earth.  It is this evidence that science can investigate and led scientists in the 19th century to conclusions that ended with Darwin's theory of evolution.

Miller wraps up chapter two by discussing the creative power of evolution.  He points out clear examples of evolution in the modern world such as the evolution of bacteria to become resistant to certain antibiotics.  He notes that scientists can actually witness this evolution in process because of the high reproduction rates of bacteria.  He also notes that scientists are beginning to use evolution in their research to create organisms with certain characteristics.  Evolution and natural selection, Miller contends, is a fantastic and creative tool that can bring phenomenal change in living organisms.

Miller concludes his chapter with the following quote:
It is high time that we grew up and left the Garden.  We are indeed Eden's children, yet it is time to place Genesis alongside the geocentric myth in the basket of stories that once, in a world of intellectual naivete, made helpful sense.  As we walk through the gates, aware of the dazzling richness of the genuine biological world, there might even be a smile on the Creator's face--that at long last His creatures have learned enough to understand His world as it truly is (p. 56). 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Finding Darwin's God I

I continue in my reviews of the books that I am using in my Religion and Science course this semester.  You can view my serial review of Scripture and Cosmology by Kyle Greenwood here (Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VII, Part VIII).

The second book that I will be reviewing is Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth R. Miller.

In Chapter 1, Miller lays out as starkly as possible the potential conflict between religious (Christian) views of creation and Darwin's scientific theory of evolution.  He sets side by side a question from a Christian Catechism with a parallel question from an imaginary scientific catechism as follows: 
Question: "Who made us?"
Answer: "God made us."
Question: "Who made us?"
Answer: "Evolution made us." (p. 1-2).

Miller lays out what he calls "Darwin's dangerous idea" as follows: "Evolution displaced the creator from his central position as the primary explanation for every aspect of the living world" (p. 14).
or as Richard Dawkins has put it, "Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist" (p. 14).

Given the mountains of evidence that have been compiled over the past 150 plus years that support Darwin's original theory, Miller ends his chapter in the following way:
Is it time to replace existing religions with a scientifically responsible, attractively sentimental, ethically driven Darwinism--a First Church of Charles the Naturalist? Does evolution really nullify all world views that depend upon the spiritual? Does it demand logical agnosticism as the price of scientific consistency? And does it rigorously exclude belief in God?
These are the questions that I will explore in the pages that follow.  My answer, in each and every case, is a resounding no. I do not say this, as you will see, because evolution is wrong. Far from it. The reason, as I hope to show, is because evolution is right (p. 17) 
Miller, himself a Christian and a Scientist sets out to explain how, at least according to his point of view, both Christianity and Darwinism can exist together and how they can in fact have a fruitful relationship.  Stay tuned for further chapter reviews ahead.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology VIII

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VI, Part VII

In the eighth and final chapter of his book, Greenwood lays bare his overarching agenda for writing: namely, to combat many Christians' war on certain parts of science, specifically the theory of evolution.  No, the book has not been about evolution at all, but in the final chapter he urges Christians to be consistent with regard to the relationship between science and religion, or science and biblical interpretation.  Inasmuch as modern cosmology is not controversial to most Christians, Greenwood uses this as a foil for his real agenda.  He shows that Christians accept the findings of modern science (i.e., modern cosmology), even when they directly contradict biblical evidence (i.e., ancient near eastern three tiered cosmology), and then calls Christians out for inconsistency of opposing the science of evolution. He also lists other examples where Christians hold to modern science over biblical teachings. The most prominent is modern medicine.  Very few people eschew modern medicine in favor of biblical remedies, such as putting a leper outside of the camp and waiting for it to go away.

In the end, I think that Greenwood's book is successful at bringing to the fore the cognitive dissonance that exists for many Christians who inconsistently oppose portions of science when they seemingly contradict the Bible, yet have no problems accepting other portions of science that also contradict the Bible.

I'll end with the following quote from Greenwood's conclusion:
Sincere Christians with sincere questions are not helped by artful interpretations of scripture that ignore the realities of the world God created.  As humanity presses on to unmask more and more mysteries of the cosmos, let us consider Calvin, Aquinas, Maimonides and Ambrose, who entreat us to let those trained in studying the natural world speak on matters pertaining to such. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology VII

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V, Part VI

Chapter VII is what I would call a "pastoral chapter."  After having spent six chapters laying out the evidence that the biblical cosmology follows the ancient near eastern cosmology and that this view is untenable with the modern scientific cosmology, Greenwood feels the need to reassure his readers who might feel that the book is an assault on the authority of the Bible.

Greenwood lays out the problem like this:
If someone's only experience with the bible is one in which the ancient cosmological evidence is either disregarded--whether by overprotective teachers or by willful neglect--or dismissed as not applicable, what happens when these issues are brought to their attention? The response, all too often, is either continued ignorance or willful abandonment of the entire Christian enterprise... In the case of the former, ignorance leads to a shallow faith, where sincere questions are given pat answers, theological complexities are brushed aside with blind faith, childlike faith never matures to a vibrant faith with deep roots that can withstand storms and droughts, and God is barely smarter than a fifth grader... In the case of the latter, the tragedy is that having been seemingly duped on this issue, believers wonder where else they have been led astray by their trusts Christian leaders.
Most of the rest of the chapter discusses the doctrine of divine accommodation. This doctrine expresses the view that when God speaks to humans (as in the Bible), God does so at the level of the humans understanding.  He likens this to parents talking to young children.  For example, when a parent is asked by a toddler why a pebble sinks in water, but a much larger boat floats, the parent does not give the toddler a lesson on water displacement and fluid dynamics.  He or she simply explains that it is because of the shape of the pebble and the boat. The explanation comes in terms the toddler can understand.  In a similar way, God accommodates his language to humans understanding at the time of the Bible's writing, which, in this case means, God speaks according to an ancient near eastern cosmology.

In the end, this chapter left a little bit wanting in my mind.  First, Greenwood seems to assume a fairly facile and non-nuanced view of biblical inspiration.  He seems to assume that all biblical material is direct communication between God and humans.  Yet, since this is not a chapter on biblical inspiration, perhaps I am expecting too much from Greenwood at this point. Second, his analogy about a parent is helpful in some respects, but, it may introduce some problems Greenwood did not expect.  If a parent tells a child a boat floats because of its shape, that is a simple but factual answer.  Of course there is a more complex and more complete answer, but it is nevertheless not demonstrably non-factual.  If God tells humans that the world is flat, that is a simple but non-factual (or perhaps I should say, alternatively factual answer). Maybe I am being unfair because analogies can always be pushed too far.  Nevertheless, I am not sure that Greenwood has really teased out accommodation in most helpful way, perhaps because of his too-facile assumption of divine inspiration of scripture.  If you have read the book, what do you think?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology VI

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV, Part V

In chapter 6, Greenwood lays out the massive paradigm shift that is often labeled the Copernican Revolution. The three major players in this paradigm shift were Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler.  Copernicus, unsatisfied with the ability of the Ptolemaic system to account for
celestial phenomenon, posited the earthshaking idea that the sun, and not the earth, was the center of the universe.  Instead of the heavenly bodies revolving around a fixed earth, the heavenly bodies revolve around the sun, while the earth rotates on its axis.  Galileo confirmed Copernicus' new model of the universe with the help of the newly invented telescope. Nevertheless, Copernicus' new model was not perfect and the problem lay in the fact that he posited circular orbits for the planets around the sun.  Kepler, a contemporary of Galileo, solved this problem when he posited elliptical orbits for the planets. This world view with the planets revolving around the sun and the earth rotating on its axis are common sense today, yet at the time, these findings were simply astonishing. Yet, these three astronomers and mathematicians revolutionized humans' understanding of the cosmos and forever changed human history in the process.  

Greenwood then goes on to discuss the effects of this scientific paradigm shift on the religious communities of the time.  Copernicus was spared much difficulty as he did not publish his work until shortly before his death. Galileo was not so lucky.  The Roman Catholic church brought Galileo before the inquisition and charged him with heresy.  He was forced to recant. 

Both Protestants and Catholics had a difficult time accepting the new paradigm as it seemed to go against he "plain sense" of many biblical passages. The Bible clearly states that the earth is set on firm foundations and does not move (Ps 104:5), and further, the sun, not the earth, was commanded by Joshua to stand still and it did (Josh 10:12). These statements are hard to reconcile with the new Copernican model. 

Nevertheless, the Copernican model, though imperfect, won the day.  It's scientific and mathematical explanations of the cosmos were impossible for biblical literalism or Papal authority to overturn. Kepler improved on Copernicus with his elliptical orbits, Newton improved on it further with his laws of motion, and Einstein improved it further with his theory of relativity.  Now, no one seriously disputes the finding of the Copernican revolution and its subsequent improvements through science, It was left to Christians of all varieties to adjust their biblical interpretations to match the new scientific discoveries.  Most Christians today have no difficulty believing in biblical authority while also holding to a modern scientific understanding of the cosmos. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology V

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV

In chapter five, Greenwood lays out the development of what he calls the Aristotelian cosmology. This cosmology began with pre-Aristotelian Greeks and was driven by philosophical and metaphysical concerns, rather than scientific or mathematical concerns: namely, the idea that a sphere is the most perfect shape, and therefore the earth should be represented as a sphere. Aristotle developed this idea and then completed his cosmology by envisioning the earth as a fixed sphere, orbited by seven other spheres, one for each of the visible celestial phenomenon (Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the fixed stars). Beyond the sphere of the outermost stars lay the Unmoved Mover (UMM), Aristotle's conception of God. The UMM set all of the spheres in their orbital motion around the earth.

While the Aristotelian worldview was an improvement from that of the Ancient Near Eastern cosmology (see parts I-IV linked above), it still did not account for some celestial phenomenon, such as the retrograde motion of the wandering planets in the night sky.  It was Claudius Ptolemaius, AKA Ptolemy, an Egyptian mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria, who attempted to mathematically model the Aristotelian cosmology. He accounted for the retrograde motion of the planets by positing epicycles in which the planets had smaller orbits within their specific sphere. These epicycles could explain, at least to some degree, why some of the planets seemed to move backward (retrograde) from their normal orbit around the earth.

It is at this point that Greenwood's book becomes tremendously valuable. Greenwood not only explains paradigm shifts in humans' understanding of the cosmos, but he goes on to investigate the religious responses to those shifts. For example, in this chapter, Greenwood points out that the Aristotelian cosmology caused some consternation among some early Christians in their attempts to interpret certain Bible passages.  Both Augustine and Lactantius found it absurd to think of people living on the opposite side of a spherical earth. Luther and Calvin readily accepted the Aristotelian cosmology, but had difficulty reconciling that worldview with passages of scripture that spoke of the firmament or the waters above the firmament.

I do find interesting that though the authors of the New Testament post-date Aristotle and his cosmology by more than 300 years, and were largely hellenized, the cosmology of the New Testament lines up almost entirely with an Ancient Near Eastern worldview with few signs of any familiarity with the Aristotelian conception.  It is as if the New Testament authors were stuck in an Ancient Near Eastern bubble with regard to cosmology, while being thoroughly influenced by Greek language and thoughts in many other respects.

I'll end with this quote from Greenwood:
The most notable trait we see among Aristotelian-era interpreters is the willingness to adapt their interpretation of Scripture in light of new understandings of the physical universe.  It was assumed that the cosmos was composed of seven spheres that rotated around the earth. This had implications for all sorts of biblical interpretations.  The foundations of the earth could no longer be thought of in terms of physical columns, but were conceived as a metaphor for God's sustaining power.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology IV

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

Part I, Part II, Part III

In chapter four, Greenwood systematically surveys every passage in the Old Testament that he views as treating the topic of creation.  This of course includes Genesis chapters 1 and 2, but also many other passages that are often overlooked in the investigation of the biblical view of creation.  Here is a list of passages that he treats: Gen 1, Gen 2, Ex 20:8-11, Neh 9:6, Job 38:2-11, Psa 8:3-8, Psa 19:1-6, Psa 74:12-17, Psa 95:1-7, Psa 104:1-17, Psa 136:1-9, Prov 8:22-36, and Isa 40:12.

After systematically exploring all of these passages, Greenwood draws the following conclusions:
First, a seven day creation week is only present in Genesis 1, although an allusion to the week is also found in Exodus 20:11.  Second, aside from Genesis 1 the order of creation is more closely related to the ancient cosmological structure than it is to the structure of a week.  Third, the various biblical creation accounts are poetic in nature, using metaphors, anthropomorphic language and other literary devices to convey concepts that would otherwise be foreign to human understanding.  Fourth, the various creation accounts conform to the notion that God is the author of all aspects of the created order.  Fifth, each of the creation accounts emphasizes God's sovereign power over the cosmos.  God is not locked in an epic battle with the forces of nature, but has subdued them and commands them to submit to their assigned purpose.  Finally, the general guiding principle for the authors of these creation accounts is the three tiered cosmological structure. God is the maker of the heavens, the earth, and the seas. 
These conclusions provide several important insights.  First, there is a decentralization of the 7 day week of creation.  Second, the poetic nature of the creation narratives is a genre marker that informs us that we should not primarily be looking for historical/factual material in these passage. Third, the ancient three tiered conception of the cosmos was the backdrop and worldview of the all of the ancient biblical passages that treat creation.