“Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” Part 4

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This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Darwin's Gift?


Book Review

In this, my fourth and final post on Francisco Ayala’s book Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, I wish to examine very briefly his views on knowledge as related to science and religion. I am addressing the same primary audience that he does in his book: believers in God. For the sake of brevity, and because Ayala seems also to have accepted them himself, I am going to work on the basis of two starting assumptions: there is a God, and he has revealed himself through the Scriptures. I ask readers who contest those assumptions to recognize that this is not the place for me to defend them. This is a blog, not a book, and to do the job properly would run very long. Even as it is, my treatment here can only be an introduction to issues of religious versus scientific knowledge, but I trust it will at least open up some good discussion.

Fences Around Religious Knowledge
Ayala devotes an entire chapter to showing there need be no contradiction between revealed religion–Christianity, to be specific–and evolutionary theory. Clearly he respects Scripture. He would like Christians to understand that Darwin has been a gift to religion as well as science. If it is a gift in the Ayala takes it to be, however, it comes to us as a horse once did to Troy with dozens of armed men hidden inside. The problem is most clearly expressed on page 172 (emphasis added):

The scope of science is the world of nature, the reality that is observed, directly or indirectly, by our senses. Science advances explanations concerning the natural world, explanations that are subject to the possibility of corroboration or rejection by observation or experiment. Outside that world, science has no authority, no statements to make, no business whatsoever taking one position or another. Science has nothing decisive to say about values, whether economic, aesthetic, or moral; nothing to say about the meaning of life or its purpose; nothing to say about religious beliefs (except in the case of beliefs that transcend the proper scope of religion and make assertions about the natural world that contradict scientific knowledge; such statements cannot be true).

When there is a conflict of knowledge or opinion between science and religion, science always wins; religion’s statements “cannot be true.”

Now, is this necessarily so? Why would it be? One could muster several plausible reasons, I suppose: science is evidence-based, its conclusions are open to public challenge and revision, it follows a near-universally trusted method for determining what is true, and its results have been wildly successful in helping us understand and control nature.

Why Would This Necessarily Be?
Let us, however, recall the assumption we have made for present purposes, and that Ayala seems to hold: that there is a God who has revealed himself through the Scriptures (an assumption that I hold to be quite true, but again, it is not my purpose this time to defend it). This God is revealed as the omniscient and omnipotent Creator, faithful and reliable, certainly able and eager to reveal himself to humans. He speaks with complete authority: he knows what is true. He cannot lie. Therefore what he speaks through the Scriptures is true, and if I may paraphrase, when science makes assertions about the natural world that contradict Scriptural knowledge, such statements cannot be true.

Given our assumptions, why would that conclusion not follow? Why would Ayala (who appears to have respect for God and Scripture) say just the opposite? We can never trust any Christian beliefs except as science allows, he says. It’s tantamount to saying we can only trust God as far as science allows; but who forced God aside and enthroned science in his place?

Religious knowledge has its obvious difficulties. Agreement is hard to find, and from a human perspective there is no universal method for testing religious truth. Let us not overstate the problem, however. Ayala is not speaking of comparative religion, or the conflicts of belief between Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and secularists. He speaks as one who believes in a Christian conception of God, to others who believe in the same God.

Interpretation: It’s for Both Science and Scripture
Ayala takes the position that the Bible just isn’t intended to speak to the same questions as science. It’s not a book on natural history or cosmology. Therefore if science contradicts the apparent teaching of theology on these subjects, then theology can gracefully bow aside and say, “A thousand pardons; I didn’t mean to be intruding on your territory.” This opens up the matter of interpretation: how literally (for example) are we to take the Genesis creation account? That’s a valid question. But interpretation is a valid question for science as well. How do we interpret nature and its evidences? Theologians have been wrong; scientists have been wrong too. Scientific knowledge is fluid, sometimes adjusting in minor ways, sometimes completely being overturned. A few years ago it was scientific knowledge that stomach ulcers were caused by stress; now it’s scientific knowledge that about 90% of them are caused by H. Pylori bacteria, and most of the rest by certain medications. Why then should “assertions [by religion] about the natural world that contradict scientific knowledge” necessarily be false?

Historic Christian theology teaches that God has spoken through nature, through an internal witness in human hearts (conscience, for example), and most clearly and unambiguously through Scripture. Psalm 19 expresses all three of these sources of revelation. Some theologians point out that God has written two books: the Bible and the book of nature. Both “books” may be understood correctly or incorrectly; both need to be interpreted. For a Christian, then, there is more than ample room for discussion about interpretation: Are the early chapters of Genesis intended to be taken literally or figuratively? Great question! Let’s work on it. The book of nature is open to similar discussion. Properly understood and interpreted, the two sources of knowledge must agree.

Necessary Agreement
If God is indeed God, the Creator of all, who speaks only truth, there is no need to ask which source of knowledge trumps the other, for in the end there can be no contradiction between them. Apparent contradictions are signals that our understanding or interpretation from one or both of these perspectives is wrong, and that we have more work to do. They do not automatically signal that science is right and that Scripturally-based knowledge is wrong. That view of knowledge is no gift at all.

Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, by Francisco Ayala. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2007. 256 pages. Amazon price $24.95.

Series Navigation (Darwin's Gift?):<<< “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” Part 3Postscript to the Series, “Darwin’s Gift?” >>>
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12 Responses to “ “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” Part 4 ”

  1. Apparent contradictions are signals that our understanding or interpretation from one or both of these perspectives is wrong, and that we have more work to do. They do not automatically signal that science is right and that Scripturally-based knowledge is wrong.
     
    Maybe.  But couldn’t these “apparent contradictions” simply signal that there are multiple struggling perspectives, interpretations and understandings at work in the world.  It seems that perhaps in seeing apparent contradictions, we are only warranted in inferring that there are multiple struggling perspectives.
    What warrants your additional claim that one or more of them is “wrong” and another presumably right?
    And what ultimately settles the line between “wrong” and right interpretations?  Is it empirics?  Some law of logic?  The Holy Bible?  Widespread agreement among people?
     

  2. It seems that perhaps in seeing apparent contradictions, we are only warranted in inferring that there are multiple struggling perspectives.

    We’re also warranted in inferring that one or both are wrong–which by the way answers your next question: I did not suggest that “one or more of them is ‘wrong’, and another presumably right.” It’s possible, on many topics, that none of our conclusions are right. I am not agnostic in that way about everything–the existence of God, the fact of Christ’s resurrection, and others–but certainly on many topics the fact of contradictory opinions may signal that nobody has the right answer. 

    And what ultimately settles the line between “wrong” and right interpretations?  Is it empirics?  Some law of logic?  The Holy Bible?  Widespread agreement among people?

    What ultimately settles wrong and right (without the scare quotes) is reality, and God in particular.

  3. I still don’t see how contradictory opinions signal one or both of the opinions may be wrong (or right for that matter).  To the extent that we value empirics, I think we can credibly infer that contradictory opinions on a given matter entail multiple interpretations are at work.       

    How do you decide on what issues you will or will not be agnostic toward?  How do you draw that line? 

    I would agree that God ultimately settles wrong and right.  That is one important reason why I think that we creatures just have contradictory opinions and no ultimate means to settle them.

  4. Stump says:

    What warrants your additional claim that one or more of them is “wrong” [reading error omitted] 

    and repeats/clarifies:

    I still don’t see how contradictory opinions signal one or both of the opinions may be wrong (or right for that matter).

    The dictionary warrants the claim.

  5. Well, I suppose there are two other options in the case of two contradictory opinions:

    Neither is wrong–which means the law of noncontradiction is false, which is an impossible assertion to make; 

    Or “right” and “wrong” are unnecessary terms, which has been Jacob’s position previously. What do you think – – is he right? 😉

  6. This discussion is tending already to move off the original topic of Ayala’s book and the relationship of science and religion. I’m opening up a new thread for discussion of Jacob’s question about how contradictory opinions might relate. Please go here for further discussion on that topic, and reserve this thread for further discussion on the primary topics of the blog post.

  7. Hi Tom, I’ve got a few comments, on your Ayala series in general (not just this post in particular).

    First, I notice that Ayala’s position is actually quite a bit different from what most people probably suppose that theistic evolutionists believe. Most people assume that theistic evolution is the belief that God planned or guided evolution to make man. This seems like a reasonable enough premise, and I think most people could accept it as such.

    On the contrary, Ayala believes that the direction of evolution is unintended, and this is the core of his theodicy. He would actually agree with George Gaylord Simpson that “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”. He thinks that man is a cosmic accident, and that Christianity is somehow true (or at least the parts that don’t say that man is intended)!

    So, I’ve got a few opinions on this:

    1) I imagine that most people, like me, would find Ayala’s premise too absurd to even take seriously. In essence, he’s trying to deny theism and affirm Christianity at the same time! But, he’s hardly alone here. I think both George Coyne and Kenneth Miller are basically in the same camp, for instance. I wonder what your average Christian (particularly a Catholic), who has no problem reconciling evolution and their faith, would think if they realized that this was what so many “theistic” evolutionists, who claim to speak on behalf on Christianity, were actually pushing?

    2) Alaya says, “Science advances explanations concerning the natural world, explanations that are subject to the possibility of corroboration or rejection by observation or experiment. Outside that world, science has no authority…
    Well, okay, but then what business does Ayala have using science to say that God did/did not intend man? Is this something that is subject to the possibility of rejection or corroboration by observation and experiment? If Darwinism does say that God didn’t guide evolution, as Alaya says, doesn’t this mean that Darwinism is outside of science, by Alaya’s own definition? Seems to me he’s saying one thing, but then making convenient exceptions for himself whenever he wants to use science to advance his metaphysics.

    3) It’s hard for me to conclude that this isn’t heresy. In fact, I think it’s an example of a particular heresy. Isn’t Alaya’s premise pretty much the same as that of Gnosticism? The Gnostics believed that God’s domain was the spiritual realm only, and the spiritual component of man. The physical, including the human body, was base and low – created by some lesser god, or perhaps no god at all. The only difference I can see is, it’s not clear to me that Alaya thinks God responsible for any component of man.

    4) In fact, meshing with point 3, Alaya has, in other venues, actually argued for an evolutionary foundation to morality itself. This is where things really break down for him, in my opinion. For instance, why do we even need a theodicy? If the whole concept of good and evil is just a subjective contrivance of evolution, then how does that apply to God? Why does God need to be “gotten off the hook” for creating “bad” things when “bad” is nothing more than an evolutionary construction?

    5) This also makes a complete hash of redemption. The whole idea behind redemption is that we need to be redeemed from our sin, because sin is a rebellion against and affront to God. But, under a Darwinian view of morality, “sin” is just a subjective, and relative, contrivance of evolution. What do we need redemption from? Acting against our genes? What does that have to do with God?

    6) It also makes a hash of the Incarnation. The Incarnation logically depends on the idea that man has a spiritual component. Otherwise, you’re saying that God was a material object, which makes no sense. And what does it mean to say that Jesus was perfect and never sinned, given that “moral perfection” and “sin” are relativistic evolutionary epiphenomena? Was this some sort of genetic condition? Did he have some kind of malfunctioning survival drive, which prevented behavioral patterns that we commonly associate with “sin”?

    7) This isn’t about Ayala himself, but about other trained theistic evolutionists who actually are theists and orthodox Christians. Why aren’t they out there calling out and debating guys like Ayala, and Miller, and Coyne? It seems to me that as experts in their various fields, they ought to be the first and best defense against those trying to leverage their expertise to sell heresy to the faithful. And yet it seems that political allegiance always trumps spiritual allegiance in these matters. Glaring theological matters can be overlooked in the name of teamwork when there are creationists to be debunked.

  8. Excellent, Deuce–especially points 1, 2, and 7. Aren’t there any honest-to-goodness theistic evolutionists out there who would be willing to stand up and point out how skewed Ayala’s version of religion really is? Or is it too dangerous for them to speak out?

    I’m not so sure Ayala’s position could be called Gnosticism, though. Gnosticism typically taught that matter is an impure or otherwise imperfect emanation from a pure spiritual source, and it would be a stretch to find that kind of thing in Ayala. Other than the “Gnostic” term, however, I agree with what you’ve said on that. The matter/spirit, upper story/lower story barrier is certainly there, as it also was in the NAS booklet for which Ayala had primary responsibility.

    I would be interested in seeing where (as you mentioned in 4) Ayala has argued for an evolutionary basis for morality. If he has done this, then he has solved the theodicy issue by declaring evil nonexistent. (I’ll grant that I jumped several steps of logic there, but they could be filled in, I assure you. Deuce hinted briefly at the same in his comment.)

  9. I would be interested in seeing where (as you mentioned in 4) Ayala has argued for an evolutionary basis for morality.
     
    Google for “Ayala” and “The Biological Foundations of Morality” (the name of a speech he gave). You should be able to gather enough information to get the basic idea. His view is that the moral sense itself (the whole idea of right/wrong and tendency to assign it to actions) is a product of biological evolution, and that particular moral codes are the product of cultural evolution. A transcendent source appears not to be anywhere on the radar.

  10. One thing that makes Ayala’s ideas interesting is that you can view it as a grand experiment; God in the role of a scientist running an evolutionary algorithm. Interesting results come out of EAs, which in a sense are “redeemed”–i.e. lifted out of the programmmatic crucible and into a permanent realm of application. So it could be with us. God could be looking for some quality in particular, which he then redeems. The rest is eventually jettisoned/erased from memory, so to speak.