Posts Tagged ‘science’

The Unexpected Results of Global Warming

April 3, 2015

Let’s not argue about whether 98% of climate scientists are correct in predicting global warming. Assume for the moment that they are right and that at least some of their catastrophic predictions will come true. What will be the result?

I don’t mean economically or ecologically. There will be hard facts—sea levels, temperatures, storms—that will play out, and we human beings will make our responses. We will build sea walls, move away from the coast, migrate from hot areas, change our crop rotation, and so on. We will do our best to cope with change, often in surprising and unpredictable ways. Who knows just how successful we will be?

As I imagine it, however, one change will be almost certain. There will necessarily be a change toward revering science. If and when those predictions come true, scientists will gain a lot of credit. They predicted it, and we ignored it.

These days, appreciation of science is mixed up with a great deal of skepticism and even hostility, from people on all sides of the political spectrum. Lefties tend to despise GMO foods, anything with man-made chemicals, and sometimes vaccines. Righties fight to deny evolution and global warming. All sides include people who believe instinctively that alternative medicine (diets, supplements, naturopathic medicines) is better and safer than what scientific medicine recommends.

Most of these are small-scale issues, and the consequences of getting them right or wrong is hard to measure. With global warming, though, something really huge is at stake. We are making a global gamble that science is wrong. We’re letting skepticism about science have the decisive word. It will take some time to see how that gamble works out, but my guess is that our grandchildren will ask us, “How could you sit by and make no serious attempt to arrest climate change? Didn’t you listen to what the scientists said?”

Our grandchildren will grow up believing in science much more than we do. They will be a lot less tolerant of the science skepticism that animates so many people today.

There’s always this reversal after a national failure. The failure to address the Depression led to the New Deal and the government-enmeshed economy. The failure to face Hitler early led to the lasting popularity of the military-industrial complex after WWII. And the failure to address climate change will lead, I expect, to an era where science rules.

Whether that is a good thing is another matter.

The Adam Quest

December 16, 2013

Two weeks ago one of the scientists I profile in The Adam Quest, Mary Schweitzer, was featured in The Economist Magazine. Here’s the article. Do you know how rare it is for any scientist to get this kind of recognition? She’s certainly on top of the world in paleontology. And her research is really full of surprises! Very interesting stuff.

So is her life’s story, which I tell in The Adam Quest. She was a housewife raising three kids when she decided to take some courses at Montana State for personal enrichment. She took a class on dinosaurs because she remembered being interested in them as a child. (She was also a Young Earth Creationist who believed that the earth, and thus dinosaurs, were only a few thousand years old. And she had never taken science classes, because they were too hard.)

Mary’s story may be the most interesting and surprising of the scientists whom I profile, but they really are all quite fascinating people.  The theory behind the book is that it’s much harder to demonize people whom you get to know. It certainly worked that way for me.

The book comes out in two weeks. It features profiles of eleven scientists who are Christians and involved in creation-evolution discussions. They are all (or have been) working scientists, defined as science PhDs who have published papers in peer-reviewed journals. They come from different points of view regarding the age of the earth and whether God used evolutionary means to create. I think you’ll find it a very interesting read. Some of my pre-pub readers told me they couldn’t put it down.


October 12, 2012

Last week I traveled to Maine to talk to a group of pastors. It’s a group that meets approximately once a month, inviting in a speaker to stimulate dialogue. Usually they have an academic come, so I was a change of pace. I’m not saying they were slumming….

I wanted to talk about world views as they relate to the topic of my last book, Miracles, and my next book, The Search for Adam. I’ve become convinced that we get tangled up in the classic Enlightenment paradigm separating Nature from Super-Nature.

Regarding miracles, both believers and unbelievers look for something unnatural, something that breaks the laws of nature. Skeptics don’t see it and conclude the Super-natural doesn’t exist except in the imagination of naive believers. Believers claim to see impossible things and conclude that they have proof that God is real. Either way, the basic belief is that Super-Natural is in an entirely separate realm from Nature, the only realm in which you can see God at work.

Regarding evolution, it’s much the same. The New Atheists (such as Richard Dawkins) say that nature explains everything, and there’s simply no need to summon up Super-Natural explanations, which are superfluous or dangerously false. Critics of evolution, such as those promoting Intelligent Design, contend the opposite: nature doesn’t even explain itself. There’s no way that nature produces complex organisms without Super-Natural intervention! For either side, the basic belief is that Nature is one thing, Super-Nature another, and they agree that if you can explain everything by purely natural causes, then the Super-Natural is superfluous or nonexistent and we live in a directionless and pointless universe without God.

This division of Nature and Super-Nature is so natural to us that we fall into it without realizing it. But it’s not a biblical view. In the Bible, God is (to use theological words) both immanent and transcendent. We aren’t deists who believe God set the universe in motion and went off to live in his Super-Natural realm; we are theists who insist that God holds everything together–that without him, the world cannot for a moment exist. His presence and power are in everything he has made. He is both in nature and above nature at the same time. Or as I put it in Miracles, everything is natural and supernatural at the same time.

So, it’s an interesting scientific question whether evolution can explain complex life forms, but it says nothing about God’s presence and power. God could create through evolution or he could work through other means. Either way, faith is what enables us to know of his presence and power in creation. (See Hebrews 11:3)

Similarly with miracles: there exist no violations of the laws of nature, because it is God’s creation and whatever he does is, by definition, natural. As Augustine put it: nature is what God does. Do surprising and mysterious things happen? That’s a question of evidence. You can’t come up with a general answer, you have to ask the question one event at a time. God can do anything. Does he? Whether he does or doesn’t do a miracle, he is (we know by faith) present and powerful all the time.

Recognizing God’s immanence is hard work, because it’s so out of step with the presumptions of our time. If we could learn to think biblically about nature and Super-Nature–about the creation and God–we would avoid a lot of fruitless arguments.

Turning Away From Science

August 2, 2011

When I was in England I interviewed Denis Alexander, head of the Faraday Institute in Cambridge—an organization devoted to faith-science issues. Denis is a v biochemist who spent many years teaching in Turkey and Lebanon.

I knew he had an interest in Islam, so I asked him one of my pet questions: why did the Islamic world turn its back on science? Through much of the Middle Ages, Islamic scholars led the world in science and mathematics. But sometime around 1200 A.D. Muslims began to neglect science, or even repudiate it. Undoubtedly that has contributed greatly to the lack of economic and social development.

Denis had recently returned from a conference on that very subject. He said the consensus was that there is no consensus. Many possible causes are mentioned—though nobody questions that the Islamic world turned away.

One possibility, Denis said, and one he apparently thinks has merit, is a lack of institutional continuity. Throughout the Middle Ages an observatory or other place of learning might be set up by a local ruler. But when he died or lost power, the commitment to learning dried up—and so did the observatory. Its library neglected, its talent dispersed, it left hardly a memory. The Islamic world had nothing like the European universities to provide a stable environment for accumulating skills and knowledge.

As a child of the Sixties, I don’t much value institutional longevity. Denis started me wondering: what other quests are sustained by lasting institutions?

Science and the Enigma of Consciousness–Part 3 on John Polkinghorne

December 24, 2009

John Polkinghorne has a higher view of science than most scientists. He sees science not merely as a technique for understanding the physical world, but as the preeminent example of our human capacity for understanding.

Polkinghorne perceives a remarkable interplay between the human race and the rest of the created order—a dance in which humans seek ever-deeper knowledge, and the universe proves accessible to our seeking. It is not a given that humans would indulge themselves in this search, or that they would experience any degree of success.  We might, like all the other creatures, be without notable curiosity beyond what we need for survival; we might be curious and yet lack the capacity to go beneath the surface; and the universe might be mute, random, and impenetrable. The success of science is thus a reason for wonder, and (to those who believe in God) for praise. So this is who we are, and this is the world we live in!

For all his love of science, Polkinghorne does not see it as the last word (or heaven help us, the only word) in our search for understanding. In my previous post I pointed out that science has little or nothing to say about beauty, art, ethical behavior, or the practice of science. These are fundamental to our nature (and, as Polkinghorne notes, fundamental to the practice of science) but science knows almost nothing about them.

There is a habit of mind that treats such matters as froth. The Real Stuff, by this way of thinking, is matter and energy. What cannot be measured, tested, and replicated is like bubbles on champagne—appealing, ephemeral and non-essential. I suspect every one of us has been infected by this habit of thinking. Even we English majors are tempted by the thought that Shakespeare was a pretty writer but Einstein probed the depths of reality.

Polkinghorne sees that this is bunk. And nowhere does he point it out more clearly than when he writes about consciousness.

“It is a remarkable fact that our minds have proved capable not just of coping with everyday experience but also of penetrating the secrets of the subatomic world…. Yet where in that world described by science can we locate the mind itself? ….  There is an ugly big ditch yawning between scientific accounts of the firings of neural networks, however sophisticated such talk may be, and the simplest mental experience of perceiving a patch of pink.” [Beyond Science, p. 53]

Our awareness of pink—our consciousness of ourselves and our environment—is the most obvious and fundamental fact of our existence, says Polkinghorne. So are our awareness of making choices, our knowledge of our own beliefs, our experience of pain or pleasure, our perception of color or form or music. These are mental events that every child knows intimately. Yet they remain beyond the realm of science, simply because they are inherently wrapped in the individual’s experience. We may agree that cutting ourselves is painful, but we really have no way to share pain or to know whether the pain we feel is the same as the pain others feel. There is no object called pain, only my pain. Consciousness cannot be objectified.

Polkinghorne’s point is that science simply does not have the tools to explore a vast domain of obvious and fundamental reality. It is as though we were explorers who had traveled to the most remote parts of the world but lived next door to an off-limits park—familiar because we see into it every day, but nonetheless impenetrable and unmapped. The self-conscious scientist, meditating, deciding, experimenting, daring, loving his subject, makes sense of the physical universe—but he cannot by the same techniques make sense of what he himself is doing, feeling and thinking.

Much to his credit, Polkinghorne is not willing to throw consciousness in a bin labeled “impenetrable” and forget about it. He insists that any comprehensive account of the universe must put these obvious and essential aspects of daily life in a prominent place—especially so because they are so closely tied to our capacity to know anything.

“An account of reality without a proper account of mind would be pitifully inadequate.” [Beyond Science, 72] That is what concerns Polkinghorne—an account of reality. Science, more than any other field, has contributed to it. But the larger project takes us beyond science. “We have to be realistic enough, and humble enough, to recognize that much of what is needed for eventual understanding is beyond our present grasp.” [73] “It would have been impossible to understand superconductivity without the revolutionary discoveries of quantum theory, which so substantially modified the Newtonian account of what matter is like. Consciousness is surely a much more profound phenomenon than superconductivity and its understanding may be expected to call for correspondingly much more radical revision of contemporary thought.” [65]

Polkinghorne is thoughtfully dismissive of attempts to account for consciousness through materialist explanations. He thinks using computer processing as an analogy is hopeless. (Where, in these accounts, is the programmer?) He doubts that evolution fully accounts for the mind, since it is not clear that consciousness has any survival value, and at any rate it is very hard to account for the survival value of, say, music, or quantum mechanics. “Our scientific, aesthetic, moral and spiritual powers greatly exceed what can convincingly be claimed to be needed in the struggle for survival, and to regard them as merely a fortunate but fortuitous by-product of that struggle is not to treat the mystery of their existence with adequate seriousness.” [Beyond Science, 64]

At the same time, he believes that our bodies—our brains, our synapses, our neural networks—are intrinsically involved in thinking. Given what we know about the genetic basis of mental illness, the effect of mind-altering drugs, the bizarre effects of brain damage, we can hardly think of the mind as a substance sitting on top of the brain. The mind must be in the brain, even while the brain does not begin to explain the mind. Polkinghorne speculates, in very general terms, how we might integrate our understanding though what he calls “a dual-aspect monism.” By this he means something like the wave/particle aspects of light—two coexisting modes of a single substance. But Polkinghorne admits that he can offer no more than a glimmer of understanding.

Even when thinking “beyond science,” Polkinghorne remains a scientist—hopeful that by working together we can someday understand what seems impenetrable. Knowledge is not a matter of opinion. We reach it together, as a human community. To do that, however, will require more than science as we know it.

What Science Can’t Do: Part 2 on John Polkinghorne

December 14, 2009

As I noted in Part 1, “Why We Should Admire Scientists,” John Polkinghorne is very positive about science and scientists. He points out that science is the only field of human inquiry that seems to have reached universally accepted conclusions. Scientific knowledge seems real and dependable, and has led to many of the material improvements in our world. The stuff works! And the people who practice it work communally in (generally) quite admirable ways.

Some conclude that science is the only reliable guide, and they try to apply its methodology to all fields of knowledge. Further, some say that if science can’t grasp something, it must not be real. Polkinghorne calls this the hagiographic view of science, and he (politely) considers it nonsense.

He says science cannot be reduced to a methodology. He is greatly influenced by Michael Polanyi’s careful description of science as personal knowledge—that is, knowledge gained by persons, not by machines, in ways that we cannot fully specify. Scientists work in ways they cannot fully explain, pursuing “beautiful equations,” for example, or “elegant solutions.” The doing of science cannot be learned from a textbook but is only gained by participating as an apprentice in a scientific community.

Polkinghorne points out that “science is not radically different from other forms of human rational inquiry. It too requires the act of intellectual daring, of commitment to a potentially corrigible point of view. It too involves reliable but unspecifiable acts of judgment. Science’s superior power to settle questions lies, not in its invincible certainty, but in the openness to testing that results from its concern with aspects of reality sufficiently impersonal in their character to be open to repetitive investigation and consequent experimental checking.” [Beyond Science, 18, 19] In other words, science succeeds because it works on the easy stuff, the stuff that lends itself to the techniques of science. The same techniques on other subject matter may be perfectly useless.

For instance, science sheds little or no light on science itself.  (Measurements and mathematical calculations on scientists as they go about their work would yield very little information about what goes on inside their minds.) Science sheds no light on beauty, very little on music, art and literature, none on the purpose of human existence, none on the difference between right and wrong (even though the performance of science depends on ethical behavior among scientists). Most importantly (and this will be the subject of my next post), science has shed almost no light on the phenomenon Polkinghorne regards as among the most obvious facts of existence: our consciousness.

So Polkinghorne, while obviously loving science, knows that science has its limits. It doesn’t follow that human inquiry is constrained by those same limits. Instead, science’s success should encourage us to hope we can discover truth in other realms. After all, science is a human invention, working from within a human community. Its success says something about human capacities. Humans invented a way to understand the world that uncovered the astonishing and ornate mysteries of quantum mechanics (to use Polkinghorne’s favorite example.) Why not hope we can learn in other ways, as well?

The success of science also says something about the world: it is the kind of world that is susceptible to truth-seeking. For as Polkinghorne points out repeatedly, it is not a given that the world must be susceptible to our attempts to understand it, nor is it a given that we human beings have the ability to understand. The fact that it is and we do should make us hope that by working in skillful and dedicated communities we really can advance our understanding in realms beyond science. For understanding, impossible for most life on our planet, apparently lies very close to the heart of human nature.

As physicists hope to achieve a unified vision tying all forces together, so Polkinghorne aspires for a comprehensive understanding of life. “I actually believe that the grandest Unified Theory, the true Theory of Everything, is provided by belief in God.” [Beyond Science, 112] But that is a subject I will take up in a later post.

Why We Should Admire Scientists—Part 1 of a Series

December 8, 2009

One of the disasters of our times is the split between Christians and scientists. Evolution is the issue causing the disharmony, but that only defines the battle lines. Underneath are a deep lack of respect on the part of believers for scientists, and a deep lack of respect on the part of scientists for believers. And underneath that is a narrowness of view—an inability on both sides to see how wonderfully significant the other side is.

In my reading, two people have the kind of breadth of mind to bridge this gap and bring understanding—Michael Polanyi and John Polkinghorne. Unfortunately neither one is an easy read. Polanyi’s epic Personal Knowledge is as long as War and Peace, while Polkinghorne’s many books are very short, but it makes no difference. Most people won’t read them. They are the sorts of books that require concentration on each paragraph, and sometimes on each sentence.

This series of posts intends to bring Polkinghorne’s insights down to a lower shelf, and possibly tempt some of you to actually read him.

I like Polkinghorne because every page betrays a love of science.  Until he was 50 years old he was a working physicist at Cambridge University on a first-name basis with many of the greats of the post-war era—Paul Dirac, Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Feynman, and Stephen Hawking, among others. He participated in one of science’s most exciting eras, during which Newton’s physics were overturned, quantum mechanics became law and the quark was discovered at the heart of matter. When Polkinghorne writes about this, his pride and pleasure are unmistakable.

We all ought to feel such emotions. Of all the forms of discovery that humans have learned, none has produced such results. Science discovers truth that everyone can agree on, and that has proven itself productive in the world. We fly planes and broadcast football games because of what scientists learn about the world.

But scientists don’t do their work in order to make products. They work in order to understand. Polkinghorne makes this point through a wonderful mental experiment. Suppose, he says, a black box was discovered that could perfectly predict the weather two weeks hence. Into slot A you put information about current conditions; out of slot B came a slip of paper with infallible descriptions of the future.

“Do you think [the meteorologists would all go home?” Polkinghorne asks. “Not a bit of it! They would take that box to pieces to find out how it modeled the great heat engine of the earth’s seas and atmosphere so accurately. As scientists they know that prediction, however perfect, is not enough. They want to understand the nature of weather systems.” [p. 13, Beyond Science.]

Science is arguably the human endeavor of which we can most take pride, as members of the human race. Not only has it been astonishingly effective in advancing genuine, universally acknowledged understanding of an opaque and mute universe, but it has done it (by and large) in an admirable way. Scientists do not generally become rich, they do not gain fame. On the whole they are cooperative and generous with each other. They rarely lie, cheat or steal. Christians of all people should admire people who devote their lives with such care and perseverance to understanding a universe that we believe God made.

Polkinghorne, though, is no scientific chauvinist. While beaming with family pride when he considers science, he also sees its limits. As he points out, science cannot even explain science. There are no experiments to be done on scientists as they do their work that can discover how they do it. When Polkinghorne writes about his own scientific career he often mentions the search for beautiful equations, and the thrill and wonder of discovery. Science has nothing to say about beauty or wonder. They are inextricably part of science, but we need something more than science to explain and explore them. “Science should be part of everyone’s world view,” Polkinghorne writes. [p. 20, Beyond Science.] “Science should monopolize no one’s world view.”

I’ll take up the limits of science, as Polkinghorne sees them, in my next post.