Archive for September, 2007

“Rehearsal”: Writing the scripts for nature and faith?

September 26, 2007

Gavin says:

I may not have been quite clear. I think your goals are great, I’m trying to understand the strategy and I want you to understand how the strategy is going to look to scientists who are fending off well coordinated and well funded attacks on their credibility. When you make a comment like:

“And, okay, I’m sorry, but if energy is massless and if it fills “empty” space, in what sense then are we still saying that the science of physics is an empirical science?” [in “Thanks, Great Impetus for my work”]

We are going to flip out. I don’t think this is what you intend, but I’m saying that you start sounding a lot like a global warming denier or an advocate of intelligent design when you question the foundations of our field based on . . . I don’t even know what it is based on because I have no idea what that sentence is talking about!

Janet replies:

Oh, what a relief. I need people to tell me when I say things like that. This blog has helped me be much more sensitive to responses from the science side, but I still take these shortcuts and get in trouble. I need to make one long structured argument where I can make all the qualifications I need to make as I go along. (I work on this longer argument all the time.)

I’ve been thinking hard about this particular impasse you and I have hit. One thing is that a liberal art is supposed to be liberating. Learning a plurality of them is supposed to be personally, intellectually, and civic-ly liberating. So we can work for a good society and strive for good lives, as well as pushing back the frontiers of knowledge within our fields.

When I said that about “empirical” I was thinking of the science bloggers with their unthinking descriptions of what it is they think they are doing as scientists, when it should be uppermost in their minds, perhaps, how complicated and wonderfully unexpected it all has become. I was also thinking of Hume and my life-long battle with those philosophers who say that the only things we can know to be real are direct sensory impressions, when science is always working with theoretical constructs and the way those constructs as a whole point forward. Like the standard theory guiding you toward the HIggs boson when we don’t empirically know it exists at this point. That is such a good paradigm for scientific progress, isn’t it?

My concern with the science blogs — just those really ferocious ones — is that those kids aren’t liberated. They are in a lot of pain and they are afraid. They are really angry and out for blood. They remind me of some of the fundamentalist kids I’ve worked with over the years within Christianity.

I woke up this morning with the word REHEARSAL in my mind. Re-hearsal. I wonder if this metaphor or model might be made to help? Like every other discipline, perhaps, science is trying to write the script for how the natural world works. But instead of having the script in advance and rehearsing it for the final performance, you are working on developing the script piece by piece as you go along. Galileo and Newton worked on a script for physical motion and how objects move by rehearsing over and over again with pendulums and rolling balls and formulating the principles that they worked up a script to fit the phenomena. Their work was gorgeous and superb and solid, but of course when we got other parts of the script going and looked at larger sections of it, you had to revise the interpretations of the pieces and move to a deeper and more inclusive subtext. And now scientists realize that they will most probably always be doing that because the reality for which they are writing the script is so complex and studying parts of it are perhaps impossible and so on.

What makes the hard sciences different from other disciplines, and from the way jazz musicians develop the script of jazz improvisation or literary theorists write the scripts for how the textual motions of Hamlet correspond to large and deeper cultural subtexts, or how parents read and talk and try to piece together the best script they can for parenting their kids, is the nature of the phenomena they are dealing with, which can be studied through their methodology based on experimental verification of hypothesis (provisional scripts) — or rather experimental “falsification,” since the experiments can basically only disprove, but not prove, the hypothesis. This is so wonderful and so fundamentally creative and ingenuous, that it is sad to see it being talked about by some of its own defenders as though it was a matter of proving facts and then building them one and top of another.

Is this better?

The problem with biblical literalism is very much the same. If the scriptures might be a set of texts reflecting encounters with God and offering profound reflections and insights on subjects such as human sin and error and pride and the power of love, then those who respect these texts must be constantly engaged in finding their scripts and the deeper subtexts that might relate the scripts. The meanings aren’t sitting there on the surface ready to be gobbled up, any more than nature’s script is sitting on the surface self-evidently there for all to see.

We Christians have to get together in our various traditions and work on it by trial and error and learn from the history of our traditions and our developing scripts for these texts, and their deeper trajectories. We have to hold fast to our deepest insights and experiences over the centuries, and yet constantly seize the subtexts afresh. We have paradigm change with underlying continuitity just as science does, and we are even more concerned about interpretation because we have to live our lives by our best current interpretations, even though we know they are not absolute. These texts all point beyond themselves in a way that the script for the natural world was not designed to do. Science develops its script by looking at the natural world in purely naturalistic terms.

I’m an Episcopalian, and right now in New Orleans the American Episcopla Church is at loggerheads with parts of the world-wide Anglican communion, especially the African churches, over how to read the text of the Christian tradition and scriptures. They have a different script than most of us do. And we are trying to model how to remain humble and thoughtful and be ready to make respectful compromises and still move forward with what we in all conscience think the script ultimately has been pointing toward all along, an inclusive vision.

But we don’t claim to have a proven certainty that we can force upon others, or that our script has a lock on the truth. I totally understand why many scientists might question why we keep going with such a search for knowledge here, where the texts and their scripts are so much less readily determined than in the sciences. (I do think we are doing validity testing all the time, every hour of every day, but it isn’t the nice controlled experiments of science!) Lets just say that the nature of this knowledge, the experience of this relationship, however limited and uncertain, is for us worth the quest.

The Anglican tradition has always been the church of the via media — the “middle way” — and the one that has tried to refuse to go to one extreme or the other, but keeps on negotiating a thoughtful position in the midst of all the controversies, keeping in conversation with the Orthodox and with Catholicism and Protestantism and holding the radical middle, so to speak.

But I’m getting away from the central script here, which is the nature of the liberal arts and of human ways of knowing in general. Does this “script” metaphor seem helpful? For those who read the Wily Socrates posts on Plato’s Ion, the “scripts” here are the ikes, the epistemes, and there are many of them and they each formulate the elegant formalities of their own kind of thing. This is how medieval theologians worked on scripture and on their doctrinal fields, by the way. The creeds were scripts for where we were going and what we were trying to experience and understand, individually and collectively, not propositional statements to which we could “agree.” The truths of the creeds were what we were on a pilgrimage to try to understand, not propositions to be agreed to blindly for their own sake.

Augustine said that the one enduring subtext of all the scriptural texts was “to enhance the reign of charity,” and that every interpretation must be guided by that principle. The script is a script of love, in other words. In the natural world, the script science has been developing through its superb and ingenuous rehearsals has perhaps been guided by the principle of elegant formal causation, which may or may not amount to strict deterministic causation in various situations, but is always mathematical and elegant.

More guest posts…. The meaning of “randomness” in science

September 23, 2007

Faculty at my university have gotten into a lively discussion about the scientific notion of “randomness,” as in random mutation (as the first step in natural selection), set off by some criticisms of Michael Behe’s Edge of Evolution (Behe is in the Intelligent Design movement). As Christians, they are (like me, of course) in the strange position of personally believing in “an intelligent designer,” so to speak, but — except for two that I know of (out of 140 faculty members) — of supporting Darwinism and opposing the teaching of Intelligent Design in biology classrooms.

So I’m going to post (with permission) several of our facnet emails, partly to take Hi off the hot seat, and partly because these guest posts may bring new questions, from a theistic standpoint this time around, into our eclectic conversation.

First, here is Richard from our school of religion. Followed by one of our biochemists, named Ben. And finally, a contribution by Stamatis, a Greek Orthodox Christian, a physicist who has taught Western science to Buddhist monks in India several times, at the Dalai Lama’s invitation.

Rick says: At the risk of grinding my own axe, and perhaps of dulling everybody else’s, I would like to ask for an explanation of “explanation.” That is, does any given scientific hypothesis have “explanatory power” because, and only to the extent that, it is capable of “saving the phenomena,” i.e., of furnishing a plausible account of the material and efficient causes of what we can observe in nature? And would such a hypothesis ipso facto furnish “evidence for God”? And does “evidence for God” mean “evidence for God’s existence,” or “evidence of God’s purposes”?

All of which is to say that I am not convinced—but maybe nobody is claiming—that a scientific hypothesis which had great “explanatory power” with respect to the “how” of certain natural phenomena would thereby satisfy the religious question of “why” those phenomena are as they are. And lacking that, I am not convinced that such a hypothesis would serve the purpose of giving warrant either for the belief that God exists or, if God does exist, for the belief that divine providence in some way directs the course of natural and human history as a whole and of our individual lives.

Let me put this with embarrassing concreteness. I happen to know something about “random mutations.” My eldest daughter is the victim of one—a particular mutation to the gene which controls skeletal development in vertebrates, and a mutation which occurs, at least among humans, in about one in every two million births. (I don’t know the frequency of occurrence in other vertebrates, although I’m sure it is exceedingly rare— and probably always fatal. The people who are researching this condition have reported no naturally occurring instances of the condition in other species, and are busy trying to create a “mouse model” of the disease in order to develop treatments and a cure.) Now, suppose a baby is born with the condition and properly diagnosed. The parents will quite naturally ask their doctor, “Why did this happen?” Would the doctor be said to have given them an answer to that question if she gave a thorough explanation of how “random mutations” occur in nature, and of how nature “selects” (or God decrees) certain mutations for incorporation into the genomes of various species, and of how this particular mutation is likely to effect the life of this particular child? I doubt it. Such information would have no “explanatory power” whatsoever with respect to the existential and religious question of how the parents are to make sense of what, for them, is not a biological curiosity but also a human tragedy.

This is by no means to deny the importance of having answers to the questions of why mutations occur, or how they are “selected for” or “selected against,” or how they shape the life of the individual organisms in which they occur. It is only to say that for the parents of a child with a genetic disease, finding God in the midst of their tragedy is something more, and something different, from having an explanation, however powerful, of the etiology of the mutation.

Ben writes:

I’m really enjoying the fascinating back-and-forth here, and since I’m the person who teaches Biochemistry I suppose I should take this chance to do a little in-box-filling of my own.

First of all, Rick’s post is about the most poignant reminder possible of the limits to our conversation, and the meaning of the word “explanation.” If we’re talking about truly satisfying explanation, then some type of revelation has to be involved. There’s no such thing as fully satisfying explanation from the natural world. If I want to make a drug that might help Sarah, I’m going to want the best possible physical mechanism for how that mutation causes her disease. I’ll want an explanation for how it works now, and maybe if I understand some parts of how that mechanism came to be, I’ll be able to make a better drug. This is only possible because of the God-given rationality and consistency of the natural world, so even this mechanism would be a gift of grace. I pray that grace and insight will be given in this area, and I know there are scientists working on that as I type. I think a prayer for wisdom for them would be fitting.
If Michael Behe’s theory would help me understand Sarah’s disease, and if that understanding could help me make a drug that could heal in whatever small or large way, I would latch onto that theory no matter if every other scientist in the world disagreed with me. I’m already biased into thinking there is a Creator, after all, so why not find his hand in the gaps of protein assembly? I would love to be able to do that. I’ve tried to adopt Behe’s theories and get them to work. But I can’t. They don’t work at the level of helping me design experiments. They don’t help at a level of helping me teach biochemistry, or explain disease mechanisms.
Part of this comes from the very nature of Behe’s argument, that it really is a “God of the gaps” argument writ small. If he’s right, then perhaps there is no useful knowledge to be gained from studying the intricacies of protein assembly because it is all designed directly by something supernatural.
I just don’t think Behe’s right because I, as a potentially sympathetic biochemist, cannot get his ideas to work well enough to even design an experiment to go after them. And only a handful of other scientists have even joined him in the possibility, none with anything concrete enough to be called a research program. Nothing I can build on, at least. I do have an idea for an experiment — but one that would directly prove that one of Behe’s foundational claims is wrong. (I was thinking about the irony of trying to get funding from the Discovery Institute for an experiment that, if it worked, would prove Intelligent Design wrong.) This hypothesis is not directly done because I have other experiments to do and, you know, a few classes to teach and other demands on my time and resources — but I have not given up on the idea yet!
There are lots of details in this that I’m just glossing over for a general audience, but the bottom line is that as a scientist with a professional interest in Behe’s ideas, I simply cannot build anything on his assumptions. It always falls down before I can even come up with a decent research plan, because it’s based on what we cannot know rather than what we can.
This post is already long enough, so I’ll leave with one more very summarized thought: I just read about a group of scientists that made a million random proteins in the test tube. The only design given to these proteins is that they were guaranteed to be “good” proteins: well-folded, globular, not clumping together or doing annoying things that would get in the way of the experiment. Other than that, you had a set of proteins that the only constraint is that they could just sit around and be proteins. That’s kind of boring in itself, but they took this set and tested it to see if any of these proteins, which were entirely undesigned and random with respect to function, would be able to act as enzymes. And they did find many that actually had “accidental” enzymatic activity: some could cleave esters, some were peroxidases, ande offhand I forget what else.
I wish I knew the Latin word for randomness (where’s Owen when you need him); I would describe this activity as being “ex [randomness]” (i.e. “out from randomness”). It’s really an amazing result, that points out to me how much can arise from randomness. That doesn’t mean they’re meaningless, far from it. It’s just the understanding of the mechanism for how life works on the smallest level can work with a large dollop of randomness thrown in, even running things in a way.
I’m sure I’m leaving lots out, because there have been lots of fascinating points on all sides I’ve been itching to reply to, but hopefully this is a start for the “biochemist’s perspective.”


Finally, Stamatis says: As a community of Christian scholars, we have a responsibility to practice radical reconciliation between faith and science in our churches, our children’s schools, and our lives. For me, that reconciliation involves finding evidence for God (in Miller’s words) “in what science does understand” as opposed to what science does not yet understand.

As a faculty member involved in the preparation of science teachers, I was particularly impressed with the clarity of Miller’s response to a question, which I reproduce below. In some regions of the U.S., educators are being encouraged, sometimes forced, by their institution to teach “alternative” ideas to evolution. What is your response to this development?

Miller: Disappointment. If the ideas being offered were genuinely scientific alternatives, if they were ideas that had significant support within the scientific community or substantial experimental evidence, it might be interesting to include them in the science classroom.

Unfortunately, the ”alternatives” actually being offered are not scientific at all. The insertion of an idea such as young-earth creationism, which requires a rejection of astronomy, physics, and chemistry as well as biology, into the scientific curriculum makes about as much sense as teaching witchcraft in medical school. The other alternative often proposed, so-called “intelligent” design, doesn’t even rise to the level of being a scientific hypothesis. It has no explanatory power and approaches scientific problems by nothing more than an appeal to the “designer.” Since such appeals are not testable, they don’t amount to science and can only mislead students as to the nature of science and scientific evidence.

[see the review of M. Behe’s Edge of Evolution by K. R. Miller in Nature 447, 1055-1056 (28 June 2007) | doi:10.1038/4471055a; Published online 27 June 2007. Miller is an eminent biochemist who teaches at Brown University and is an observant Christian. He offers from a scientist’s perspective another reading on “random.” See also, which discusses his Finding Darwin’s God.]

What does “exist” mean? God, ether, Hamlet, and Endo’s Silence

September 18, 2007

I have wrung permission from the modest gentleman Hi to post his long comment (in reply to mine about God)  as a “guest post,” partly because it got buried in my spam filter for two weeks but mostly because it raises so honestly the most genuinely difficult issues this weblog was established to address.  I don’t know all the answers to Hi’s acute questions, but I do know that I’ve worked on these same questions most of my life. I also know that everybody in the world should read the book Hi mentions, Shusaku Endo’s Silence. (Go do that and then come back here to discuss it?) So here is Hi, a molecular biologist who has alerted us to lots of issues in the history of physics and to Reading Lolita in Tehran among other things


Hi writes: I have been having trouble posting my comment for the last several days. I try again, although it may be better if it doesn’t appear.

I see a parallel between god and ether. Ether was an idea that used to be firmly believed. But the simplest idea of ether was not compatible with Michelson-Morley experiment nor Maxwell’s equations. Something had to give. A seemingly nice solution would be to tinker the concept of ether, namely by introducing Lorentz transformation. Now they had ether that was compatible with the experiment. That was until Einstein pointed out that the modified version of ether was no longer meaningful.

So, on one hand there was the old version of ether that would have been meaningful had it been compatible with the experiments. On the other there was the new version of ether that was compatible with the experiments, but was reduced to be meaningless. It was not possible to be both compatible with the experiments and meaningful.

In many situations, there is a trade-off. In the uncertain principle, if you want to know the precise position, you sacrifice the information about the momentum. Likewise, it seems to me, that if you make your concept of god more compatible with science, you loose the “godness” of the god, the very appeal that you want to believe in god. Gods that frequently and actively intervene with human lives, answering the prayers and causing miracles along the way, are difficult to reconcile with science. You can’t have it both ways.

It seems to me that many scientists who are believers keep a delicate balance to make their gods as compatible with science as possible but still meaningful enough for them. For example, read what Rob Knop of Galactic Interaction blog wrote about his faith. But it is difficult keep all the attributes of god that are traditionally believed in religions this way. Einstein can be considered to be an extreme example. (Although I don’t think it appropriate to consider him among the believers any more when he himself explicitly said he was not religious.) When the concept of god is made as pure and neutral as Einstein did, I have little problem. (And I believe Dawkins said so, too.) I would have preferred if he had not use the word “god” as it is contaminated with all the other images associated with it. But Einstein made clear what his god was not. He did not believe “in a God who concerns himself with the fates and the actions of human beings.” If this is close to traditional Judeo-Christian concept of god, why was Spinoza a controversial figure? Are you willing to go this far?

I have also encountered a graduate student in biology who was a creationist. It is strange how her biology and creationism can coexist in her head. I also met a Jewish student who had no trouble believing in the god that gives a special favor to his people. It doesn’t seem like he understood what that would mean to the Indians and the Chinese and the Japanese who worked with him. I think these are examples of compartmentalizations of thoughts. These are opposite of what I think is great about science. Newton’s breakthrough came out when he realized that the same laws can describe the motions of the stars and the motion of a falling apple. (Not to mention that the same laws apply today as well as yesterday.) Likewise, a great advance in chemistry was made when it was shown that organic substances can be synthesized without the help of any “vital force”. At the chemical level, there is no difference between the living and non-living. There is nothing that is privileged. The earth is no longer the center of the universe. It is true that we have all these different disciplines, such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc. And I said chemistry is not merely applied physics, and biology is not merely applied chemistry. (And I would add that knowledge of acoustics won’t make you a better musician.) So, there is specialization. But that doesn’t mean that these different fields are independent to each other. Chemistry certainly binds what biologically possible. However excellent baseball pitcher you are, you cannot break the laws of physics. (And who says physics is superior to baseball?)

So, where do you fit? It seems to me that you want to have it both ways. And you seem to think you can have it both ways by defining the god as flexible as possible and making sophisticated philosophical arguments.

Statements like “God exists.” or “God is real.” are only meaningful if we agree on what we mean by “god,” “exist” or “real.” In what sense is “Hamlet” real? In a sense that “Hamlet” the man lived the life exactly like the way depicted in the story, or in a sense that the STORY of Hamlet exists in the minds of us who read the story? Likewise, it seems to me that it is the STORY of the god that really exists and not the entity you call god. We can make god exist depending on the meaning of the word “exist,” but that may also allow existence of unicorns and dragons. And what do we mean by “god”? Are you willing to limit the god the way Einstein defined it? Why do you care to call it “god” anyway? Isn’t is because the word “god” carries with it a flavor of traditional god that you are attached to?

(This reminds me of a character in a novel by the Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo. The character, a young Japanese priest suggests using the world “onion” instead of “god”. In the story, he is considered heretic. In real life, some of Endo’s harshest critics were fellow Christians. Being an atheist, of course my view is different from that of Endo. But I feel a sympathy for Endo who struggled with his faith in a country where Christians are minorities and who had to ask tough questions about his faith.)

What about emergence? I have a mixed feeling about the word emergence. On one hand, I genuinely believe it is a useful concept and that there are phenomena that can be rightly described as emergent. (And the examples were discussed.) So, I’m in no way going to join the people who want to purge the word. (See the link below.) But on the other hand, it is true that emergence is often used to conveniently categorize anything mystical and magical and not well-understood. And I suspect that’s the way you are using the word emergent. But I really don’t understand your use of the word emergent, except to think that it is different from the way I use it.

But let me try to make some connection. Here is a quote form the following discussion about emergence.

“Supposedly, in the early nineties when the Russians were trying to transition to a capitalist economy, a delegation from the economic ministry went to visit England, to see how a properly market-based economy would work. The British took them on a tour, among other things, of an open-air fresh foods market. The Russians were shown around the market, and were appropriately impressed. Afterwards, one of the senior delegation members approached one of his escorts: “So, who sets the price for rice in this market?“ The escort was puzzled a bit, and responded, “No one sets the price. It’s set on the market.“ And the Russian responded, “Yes, yes, I know, of course that’s the official line. But who really sets the price of rice?“”

Perhaps you could call the “invisible hand” that makes the market function as the “god” of the market. But what would you achieve by doing so? Would you achieve any deeper understanding of how the market works? Would you worship the god of the market? In fact it would be quite misleading to anthropomorphize the system that functions without a single central player giving the orders.

I don’t question that you are genuinely fascinated by science. But it seems to me that you are often cherry-picking the science and the scientists that conform to your world view and in some cases interpreting the science in such a way to conform to your world view. (Weren’t some of the earliest posts by David and Gavin objections to your interpretation of relativity?) I think that if there is something we can learn from the history of science, it is that the nature doesn’t care what human being thinks. Quantum mechanics and relativity are certainly examples. When the physicists found the their old world view was wrong, they didn’t commit intellectual suicides. They embraced the new reality and that made the science richer. I find it liberating that the nature doesn’t care what human thinks, because it means that the nature doesn’t favor anyone. This is the reason that I don’t feel disadvantaged to do science as a non-Westerner, even though the modern science originated in the West. (There was a time when Japanese scientists were considered to lack originality and all they could do is to imitate. And lack of philosophy was attributed to it. But I think it was mostly proven wrong, I’m happy to say.) We can all appreciate the beauty of nature. But why do I have to give the credit to the god, and Christian god in particular?           (written by Hi)

jlb — Remember the etiquette on this weblog.  Saucy is okay.  Respectful is required. Bigoted is not okay, either against science or against religion.  I will use delete, though I have scarcely ever had to do so.  Besides below, a couple of earlier responses to Hi are here and here (by the poet).