Book Review of “The Language of Science and Faith:” Scientists Tackle Theology and Philosophy

About a year ago, my father gave me a book titled The Language of Science and Faith.  I finally got around to reading it recently.

The book is written by two Christian scientists: Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, the latter of which led the Human Genome Project.  The authors aim to tackle the topic of natural science and faith, two spheres of knowledge that are often thought of as incompatible, and they particularly focus on the issue of evolution.  They argue from the perspective of professional scientists that natural science and the Christian faith can be compatible without rejecting current scientific theories.  It is an interesting book because their perspective is unique; it is rare for open Christians to be so respected in the scientific community due to the heavy bias against them, and their level of expertise in their respective fields certainly deserves attention.  However, while they largely do a good job explaining current scientific methods and theories and reviewing some history, their handling of Scripture is rather mediocre and their grasp of philosophy is even less impressive.

Evolution and the age of the earth

The authors probably spend most of their time defending the modern theory of evolution and a 2.4 billion year old earth.  In chapter 1, they go ahead and tell the reader that they hold to theistic evolution, the position that while the current theory of evolution is largely true, it is consistent with the idea that it was God’s chosen means of creation.  The current theory, in a nutshell, is that all life on earth descended from common ancestors due to small changes over a long period of time, changes that come from natural selection and genetic mutation.  They debunk claims by critics of Darwinian evolution that the scientific community is moving away from the theory; if anything, the theory is as strong as ever.  In this regard, I don’t see any reason to doubt them.  Of course, they agree that truth isn’t decided by popular vote; in natural science, it is decided by observational evidence.

What evidence would that be?  Genetics.  For example, human beings and other primates need vitamin C in their diets because they have a “broken” gene that should be responsible for synthesizing it.  They argue that it would make no sense for God to insert a broken piece of DNA into the human genome, but if it were a leftover from humanity’s evolutionary past, it would make perfect sense.  DNA comparisons, especially with the Neanderthals, shows a great deal of similarity.  Clearly, small changes over a long period of time gives us “macroevolution,” the evolution that gives us speciation.  They argue that the distinction between microevolution and macroevolution is arbitrary, for the latter is simply the former over millions of years.  The evidence from genes is so strong that the authors boldly argue that it “proves common ancestry with a level of certainty comparable to the evidence that the earth goes around the sun (49).”

Of course, the age of the earth is not an uncontroversial topic among Christians, so they spend  time on that as well, explaining carbon dating and how accurate it is.  For the universe, they discuss modern big bang theory and how that supports a universe that is several billion years old, as well as how the light of some stars would need to take millions of years to reach earth to be even visible.  While God certainly could have created the light in transit, they see no reason to think this.

History of Interpretation and Arguments for God’s Existence

As stated above, the authors do a decent job reviewing the history of interpretation of Genesis in particular, correctly pointing out that it was not universal in church history to read Genesis 1 literally.  In fact, non-literal readings date way back to the likes of Augustine and Aquinas, so contrary to what many critics think, it is not an interpretation that is new or in response to Darwin’s theory.  If anything, they argue that it is actually newer that the literalist interpretation is so widespread, attributable to the book The Genesis Flood that came out in the 1960’s.  Before then, many Christians had no issue with an ancient earth.  They have some moderately helpful tips in interpretation, advocating basic hermeneutical practice such as reading passages in context, with the right genre in mind, and with as much understanding as possible of the culture and time.

The authors also briefly tackle some arguments for God’s existence, and while they caution against putting too much stock into them, they think that together they give a certain plausibility to the existence of God.  Furthermore, they talk a bit about how science can relate to religion and how each can inform one another in some helpful ways.

Critique:  Logical Leaps and Elementary Philosophy

Again, when it comes to explaining scientific concepts, the authors do well, and they help clear up some misconceptions people have such as that the second law of thermodynamics necessarily contradicts evolution.  However, when it comes to justifying all of them, they often fall short.  For example, it is simply misleading to say that evolution is as sure as the fact that the earth revolves around the sun.  This is a common refrain from defenders of the theory, but it’s simply not true.  There is direct observational evidence of the earth revolving around the sun, not only in our own sky but also by our ability to go up in space and observe.  This kind of direct observation is simply not possible for the massive scale of evolution that is purported.  Does that make it wrong?  No.  But it’s not the same thing, as conclusions on evolution are inferences about the past based upon what evidence we have rather than something we can see so clearly, like gravity.

In addition, the authors mistake the cause of skepticism about macroevolution as a lack of imagination rather than questions about the vehicle of change.  We have seen changes in organisms, such as bacteria and even dogs, but we’ve never seen speciation.  Can one extrapolate that, over a very long period of time, small changes can lead to large ones?  Sure.  However, is it reasonable to think that natural selection plus random mutation can get us from single-celled organisms to the great variety of life we have?  That’s where the issue is.  In our observations, limited in time as they may be, species are highly stable and most mutations are either harmful or simply not that advantageous.  Furthermore, while natural selection is not purely random, there is a significant amount of chance involved; after all, not only is mutation largely random, on the off chance that an organism has a beneficial mutation, it could get killed in a myriad of ways (for example, if a dog gained the ability to see color due to mutation, it could still get hit by a car and would not pass along its genes).  In our hundreds of years of breeding dogs, we’ve never gotten anything but a dog, and in our many experiments with bacteria where we can observe many generations in a short period of time, we’ve never gotten anything but bacteria.  And this is with people actually trying to enact change.  To brush that aside and appeal to huge amounts of chance and time as if that’s the obvious answer is not terribly convincing.

This misunderstanding comes out in their example of the evolution of the car.  They claim that the transformation of the Model T to the modern car is amazing and could scarcely be imagined by the original creators.  Similarly, evolution can enable huge changes in organisms through incremental steps.  However, as I said, the problem isn’t imagination; I can easily imagine in my head that a horse could even become a tank.  The problem is that critics find it implausible that the main proposed vehicle, natural selection and random mutation, can achieve those effects.  First of all, their example doesn’t make sense because even though a Ford F-150 is much different than the Model T, it’s still a “car;” they would need to find an example where something like the Model T was incrementally modified into something like a space station (or, say, an oven).  Secondly, the reason that incremental changes brought out all of these modern cars from the Model T is precisely because engineers were aiming and working for changes and improvements.  This kind of directed evolution is a far cry from undirected natural selection.  Even appeals to genetic algorithms fail to impress because, at the end of the day, they are designed by programmers to gear towards a solution.  Is evolution completely irrational?  I don’t think so.  But it’s hardly self-evident and purely the product of observation, as there is a great deal of inference involved that is fair game to critique.  Then it’s not purely natural science; we’re in the realm of philosophy and history.

Furthermore, they make further philosophical mistakes when talking about arguments for God’s existence.  They show rather elementary analysis of the arguments and a lack of familiarity.  For instance, they caution against relying too much on these arguments because the problem of evil is a big problem for theists, but they show no awareness of the fact that Alvin Plantinga basically put the logical of problem of evil to rest.  They do give a rather interesting theory that incorporates evolution into explaining natural evil (though they resort to open theism there, which would make many evangelicals bristle), but the problem there is that it’s hard to see how it absolves God from evil when he unilaterally decided to use such a mechanism for creation; it’s not like he needs to preserve the free will of the planet.  In addition, Christians for ages have talked about how sin not only warped man’s spirit but damaged nature itself, which is a possible answer to the “imperfections” in living things that they do not bring up.  In their defense, they rightly emphasize the fine-tuning argument, showing how so much of the characteristics of the universe needed to be a certain way to allow the possibility of life.  Still, they curiously brush away problems with the genesis of life, something that evolution does not address.

Overall, while they do try to emphasize Scripture, their methodology leans more towards adopting current scientific theory than good exegesis.  They are correct in stating that, contrary to popular belief, science and religion rarely intersect; it’s not like most religions care about the vast majority of published scientific papers.  Nonetheless, while they are also right that a myriad of resources should go into good interpretation, they fail to stress that, at the end of the day, God’s Word stands above all.  If clear biblical interpretation goes against modern scientific understanding (like the resurrection), then we obviously stick with the Bible’s history.

Conclusion

I’m largely in agreement with the Giberson and Collins that Genesis 1 need not be read literally, and therefore I have no problem with a very old universe and earth.  I don’t think the Bible has a position on the age of the earth, and if scientific evidence says it’s either young or old, so be it.  I also do not question current Darwinian theory simply on Genesis 1, though I tend to lean towards the fact that Adam and Eve were real people.  That said, I think the level of certainty they have on evolution has some logical leaps that they are unwilling to examine, and I believe their grasp of philosophy to be unimpressive.  And contrary to what many people believe (especially biologists), there is a great deal of philosophy that goes into formulating Darwinism.

Is theistic evolution acceptable?  Broadly speaking, yes.  I wouldn’t question someone’s salvation over such an issue, and they can certainly be devoted followers of Christ.  However, I think theistic evolutionists need to be careful not to value professional or cultural esteem over fidelity to Scripture.  Have they done the hard work to examine how to interpret Genesis 1 and beyond?  Have they looked into the philosophical issues?  Are they open for critique?  If they were convinced that the literal interpretation was the best one, would they be brave enough to say so among the scientific community?  The status of evolution has almost become dogma in the natural sciences, and it would be quite ironic for Christians to unquestionably follow that and then listen to the rhetoric of academia about the big bad dogma of religion.

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