320 New Conversations on Faith and Science

Two months ago I attended a conference hosted by Faith Bible Church, a large church in The Woodlands, Texas, titled “Reasons 2019:  New Conversations on Faith and Science.  Four speakers were featured, so I read books by each of them before joining others to hear their presentations.  The first presenter was Michael J. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Leheigh University and one of the leading thinkers advocating the superiority of “Intelligent Design” over “Natural Selection” as the key to understanding the living world.  Nearly 30 years ago Behe published Darwin’s Black Box:  The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, arguing “that life was designed by an intelligent agent” fully evident in his own study of biochemistry, revealing the intricacies of molecular life, the actual basis of life on planet earth.

A decade later he developed his position in The Edge of Evolution, wherein he noted that current orthodoxy in the scientific community defends a Darwinism composed of “random mutation, natural selection, and common descent.”  Of the three, random mutation is most crucial for understanding the emergence of novel life forms, but “except at life’s periphery, the evidence for a pivotal role for random mutations is terrible.”  In fact, we need the kind of precise, empirical data evident in engineering and anatomy.  For this we must plumb the mysterious realms of tiny molecules, proteins, and DNA.  To do so Behe focused on malaria—“the single best test case of Darwin’s theory.”  Because of its widespread devastation, malaria has been carefully studied for a century, and we can see, in 100 years of malaria parasites’ development, what has taken 100 million years in other species.  Amazingly, “the number of malarial parasites produced in a single year is likely a hundred times greater than the number of all the mammals that have ever lived on earth in the past two hundred million years.”  And though mutations have occurred, rendering us less susceptible to the disease, only minor molecular changes distinguish the parasites.  The Darwinian theory simply cannot explain one of the best-documented stories in biology.

Behe has recently published Darwin Devolves: The New Science about DNA that Challenges Evolution (New York: HarperOne, Kindle Edition, c. 2019).  He begins by reflecting on the philosophical questions he began asking as a boy—where did we come from? why are we here?  And in a simple but deeply profound way there are only two possible world-views addressing such questions, for “the enigma of where nature came from goes back as far as there are written historical records and, with a few lulls, has continued strongly up to the present.”  And despite many variations, “all particular positions on the topic can be considered to be elaborations on either of just two general mutually exclusive views:  (1) contemporary nature, including people, is an accident; and (2) contemporary nature, especially people, is largely intended—the product of a preexisting reasoning mind” (p. 1).  Though the two positions were debated in the Greco-Roman world, the “epitome of science” in antiquity “was arguably the work of the second-century Roman physician Galen, who had a very definite point of view on the origin of nature.  In his book On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, . . . Galen concluded that the human body is the result of a “‘supremely intelligent and powerful divine Craftsman,’ that is, the result of intelligent design” (p. 3).  That ancient insight, Behe holds, has been confirmed by the latest scientific understandings of DNA, and he has written this book “to give readers the scientific and other information needed to confidently conclude for themselves that life was purposely designed” (p. 20).

He begins illustrating his case by discussing polar bears, who have evolved, Darwinists claim,  from black bears and are uniquely adapted to the stark polar landscape.  “Yet,” he says, “a pivotal question has lingered over the past century and a half: How exactly did that happen?” (p. 16).  Just recently new research techniques have revealed the polar bear’s genetic heritage, and the “results have turned the idea of evolution topsy-turvy” (p. 16).  Scrupulous studies have shown that the genetic mutations differentiating polar bears from nearby relatives were “likely to be damaging—that is, likely to degrade or destroy the function of the protein that the gene codes for” (p. 17).  “It seems, then, that the magnificent Ursus maritimus has adjusted to its harsh environment mainly by degrading genes that its ancestors already possessed.  Despite its impressive abilities, rather than evolving it has adapted predominantly by devolving.  What that portends for our conception of evolution is the principal topic of this book” (p. 17).

Only recently have scientists been able to study life on a molecular level, where, “it turns out that, as with the polar bear, Darwinian evolution proceeds mainly by damaging or breaking genes, which, counterintuitively, sometimes helps survival.  In other words, the mechanism is powerfully devolutionary.  It promotes the rapid loss of genetic information.  Laboratory experiments, field research, and theoretical studies all forcefully indicate that, as a result, random mutation and natural selection make evolution self-limiting.  That is, the very same factors that promote diversity at the simplest levels of biology actively prevent it at more complex ones.  Darwin’s mechanism works chiefly by squandering genetic information for short-term gain” (p. 38).  Rather than developing new, more vibrant life-forms, natural selection degrades those that already exist.

To Behe, this points out a fatal flaw in the Darwinian dogma.  In fact, Darwin never showed how “purposeful systems could be built by natural selection acting on random variation.  Rather, he just proposed that they might.  His theory had yet to be tested at the profound depths of life.  In fact, no one then even realized life had such depths” (p. 155).  But now we know something about such depths!  And the more we ponder the mysterious inner workings of molecular life the more we’re prompted to discern a Mind at work informing it.

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Following Behe’s evening presentation, the next morning’s session featured a Brazilian biochemist, Marcos Eberlin, who just published Foresight: How the Chemistry of Life Reveals Planning and Purpose (Seattle: Discovery Institute, c. 2019).  Eberlin is an internationally-acclaimed scientist, and his treatise has garnered “endorsements” from an impressive variety of world-class scientists.  Thus Sir John B. Gurdon, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012, recommends Foresight to anyone “interested in the chemistry of life.  The author is well established in the field of chemistry and presents the current interest in biology in the context of chemistry.  I am happy to recommend the work.”  One of his Brazilian colleagues, Rodinei Augusti, says the “book demonstrates that the currently available scientific knowledge increasingly points to the existence of a supreme being who carefully planned the universe and life.  This breakthrough will revolutionize science in the years to come.”

Listening to Eberlin speak, I was both pleased and amazed at his enthusiasm for his work.  As he described some of the intricate, complex processes evident in the natural world, he had an almost childlike joy in showing just how wonderful it all is.  On a cosmic level, it’s amazing that earth, a tiny planet amidst two trillion galaxies, each containing some 100 billion stars, is perfectly placed to nourish life.  Our sun is perfectly sized and exudes just the right amount of energy for earthlings.  Our atmosphere perfectly protects us from harmful radiation, allowing just the right amount of sunlight to reach the earth and promote life. The earth’s magnetic shield perfectly protects us from solar winds.  The moon stabilizes earth rotation, promoting the yearly seasons so needed for life to flourish.  Water itself is a most amazing substance, containing some 74 unique properties.  As Eberlin touched on these topics he obviously rejoiced to be alive and well—and able to understand a bit—on this wonderful planet. 

Much of Eberlin’s speech emphasized how much scientists have learned in the past decade!  Current technology enables them to probe both the vastness of the universe and the intricacies of the cell in novel and illuminating ways.  In Foresight, he begins by saying, “as plainly as I can:  This rush of discovery seems to point beyond any purely blind evolutionary process to the workings of an attribute unique to minds—foresight” (#118).  Such is evident, for example, in cell membranes, which must both protect it from external threats, allow nutrients to enter, and expel waste.  “Selective channels through these early cell membranes had to be in place right from the start.  Cells today come with just such doorways, specialized protein channels used in transporting many key biomolecules and ions.  How was this selective transport of both neutral molecules and charged ions engineered?  Evolutionary theory appeals to a gradual, step-by-step process of small mutations sifted by natural selection, what is colloquially referred to as survival of the fittest.  But a gradual step-by-step evolutionary process over many generations seems to have no chance of building such wonders, since there apparently can’t be many generations of a cell, or even one generation, until these channels are up and running.  No channels, no cellular life.  So then, the key question is: How could the first cells acquire proper membranes and co-evolve the protein channels needed to overcome the permeability problem?” (#144).

Were you to try and hire the best engineers in the world to make such a membrane, they “might either laugh in your face or run screaming into the night.  The requisite technology is far beyond our most advanced human know-how.  And remember, getting two or three things about this membrane job right—or even 99% of the job—wouldn’t be enough.  It is all or death!  A vulnerable cell waiting for improvements from the gradual Darwinian process would promptly be attacked by a myriad of enemies and die, never to reproduce, giving evolution no time at all to finish the job down the road” (#164).  Membranes merely protect the cell, of course, and when you study the inner working of the cell itself you behold wonders within wonders.  Scientists receive Nobel Prizes for describing tiny bits of cellular life, but it’s obvious to Eberlin that “if Nobel-caliber intelligence was required to figure out how this existing engineering marvel works, what was required to invent it in the first place?” (#272).  More Nobel Prizes were recently given scientists who discovered how cells repair damaged DNA by making tiny nanomachines.  Their incredible “research and engineering sophistication thoroughly deserved” world acclaim.  But, asks Eberlin:  “Are we then to believe that the marvels of engineering that these brilliant scientists discovered were themselves produced by a mindless process?  If discovering the function of these engineering marvels took genius, how much more genius would be needed to create them?” (#836).

Foresight contains Eberlin’s explorations through a multitude of revealing details—“the code of life,” “bacteria, bugs and carnivorous plants,” birds, “the human form,” etc.  He clearly understands and writes clearly, helping readers share his awe at the wonders of the world we live in, and it is clear to him that it’s all here because of foresight, which by nature requires intelligence.  “The need to anticipate—to look into the future, predict potentially fatal problems with the plan, and solve them ahead of time—is observable all around us.  It is clear from the many examples in this book that life is full of solutions whose need had to be predicted to avoid various dead-ends.  Put another way, many biological functions and systems required planning to work.  These features speak strongly against modern evolutionary theory in all its forms, which remains wedded to blind processes” (#2066).

So Eberlin concludes his book thusly:  “Nobel laureate J. J. Thomson—one of the giants of early modern physics, the discoverer of the electron, and the father of mass spectrometry, my field of expertise, beautifully conveyed this optimistic, open-ended view of science.  I can think of no better words for concluding a book about a world filled with evidence of foresight, words as true today as when Thomson penned them in the early twentieth century:  ‘The sum of knowledge is at present, at any rate, a diverging, not a converging, series.  As we conquer peak after peak we see in front of us regions full of interest and beauty, but we do not see our goal, we do not see the horizon; in the distance tower still higher peaks, which will yield to those who ascend them still wider prospects, and deepen the feeling, the truth of which is emphasized by every advance in science, that “Great are the Works of the Lord”’”( #2149).

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The third speaker at the “Reasons 2019” conference was Melissa Cain Travis, a young professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University.  She has recently published Science and the Mind of the Maker: What the Conversation Between Faith and Science Reveals about God (Eugene Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, c. 2018, Kindle Edition).  Citing Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, she says: “‘I do not deny that science explains, but I postulate God to explain why science explains. The very success of science in showing us how deeply orderly the natural world is provides strong grounds for believing that there is an even deeper cause of that order’” (#102).  She thus argues, developing what she calls a “Maker Thesis,” that “Christian theism uniquely provides a well-rounded account of both the findings and the existence of the natural sciences.  I will argue that not only do scientific discoveries have positive implications for the existence of a Mind behind the universe, they strongly suggest that this Mind intended for human beings to take up the noble project of rational inquiry into the mysteries of nature.  In other words, Christian theism, unlike atheism, offers a sufficient explanation of the observable features of the natural world as well as mankind’s impressive scientific achievements” (#107).

Travis thus begins by critiquing the philosophical naturalism and scientism so evident in many modern scientists’ worldview, citing as evidence evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, who dogmatically declared:  “‘It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door’” (#222).  Lewontin nicely illustrates what G.K. Chesterton noted: “I never said a word against eminent men of science.  What I complain of is a vague popular philosophy which supposes itself to be scientific when it is really nothing but a sort of new religion” (#132).

Countering this new religion, Travis directs us back to an ancient insight famously crafted by Virgil in The Aeneid:  “The moon’s bright globe, the sun and stars are nurtured / By a spirit in them.  Mind infuses each part / And animates the universe’s whole mass.”  And Virgil was just poetically phrasing Cicero’s philosophical position, set forth in The Nature of the Gods:  “What can be so obvious and clear, as we gaze up at the sky and observe the heavenly bodies, as that there is some divine power of surpassing intelligence by which they are ordered?”  Centuries later St Augustine would blend these Roman thinkers’ views into Christian theology, saying creation is “a great book” we should read carefully.  Indeed: “‘Look carefully at it top and bottom, observe it, read it.  God did not write in letters with ink but he placed what is created itself in front of you to recognize him in; he set before your eyes all these things he has made.  Why look for a louder voice?  Heaven and earth cries out to you:  God made me’” (#510).

Augustine’s philosophical position, Travis thinks, is forever true and can be sustained amidst all the details of modern science.  Thus she conducts a knowledgeable tour of both historical and contemporary astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, etc.  It’s important to note that “Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Boyle were key players in the scientific revolution, and all five of them saw the attributes of the cosmos as indicators of a wise Creator in whose image we are made” (#1210).  Their position, however, was significantly undermined by Charles Darwin’s evolutionary naturalism, effectively removing divine design from the universe.  But a growing number of contemporary scientists—such as Michael Behe and Marcos Eberlin—have effectively set forth evidence favoring Intelligent Design.

Thus there took place a “Revival of the God Hypothesis” in 20th century physics and cosmology.  For example, Max Planck (sometimes called the “father of quantum physics”), “was particularly fascinated by the congruence between the mathematical, law-governed structure of the material world and human rationality; he saw this correspondence as indicative of a designing Mind” (#2256).  Travis finds mathematicians particularly interesting, for they often conclude that inasmuch as the cosmos follows mathematical laws it makes sense to posit a Divine Mind responsible for it all.  To her: “The Maker Thesis has no difficulty explaining the objectivity of mathematical truth, how beautifully mathematics applies to physical reality, and mankind’s corresponding intellectual capacities.  If the cosmos is the creation of a rational Mind in whose image we are made, a Maker who desires our awareness of him, this deep interconnection makes perfect sense.  As Oxford mathematician John Lennox has said, it is ‘not surprising when the mathematical theories spun by human minds created in the image of God’s Mind find ready application in a universe whose architect was that same creative Mind’” (#2816).

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The fourth and final speaker at the “Reasons 2019” conference was a historian, Michael Newton Keas, who provided a brief survey of his treatise, Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion (Wilmington, Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, c. 2019, Kindle Edition).  As serious scholars know all-too-well, many “historical truths” are anything but true!  In part that’s because the past is a “story” made up of multiple stories.  And stories can be either true or imaginary!  Thus when scientists tell their stories, detailing their endeavors to understand the cosmos, their renditions “sometimes have implications for belief or disbelief in God or a spiritual heaven.  Too often, however, these stories are false.  They are nothing but myths.  And yet many leading scientists and science writers offer these stories as unassailable truth.   The myths make their way into science textbooks—which is a useful measure of a myth’s influence, as we will see in this book” (p. 2).  The myths further shape minds through science fiction, including Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series, and films such as the wildly popular Star Trek.  In fact: “The executive producer of Cosmos 2014 says that he has spent most of his professional life creating myths for the greater truth of atheism” and celebrated “his part in creating “atheistic mythology” in more than 150 episodes of Star Trek: Next Generation” (p. 153)

The myths Keas endeavors to deconstruct involve baseless stories about such things as the “Dark Ages” and pre-modern thinkers’ failures to understand the immensity of the universe and the global shape of planet earth.  Following Carl Sagan’s example, Neil deGrasse Tyson routinely invokes the “Dark Ages” to mock Christians, asserting they believed in the “flat earth” for five centuries.  Doing so, “Tyson, probably the world’s most influential public voice for science, is spreading misinformation about medieval views of the earth’s shape” (p. 43).  Tyson et al. tell demonstrably untrue but emotionally-evocative stories about persecuted scientists such as Bruno, Galileo, and Copernicus.  Keys describes how these misleading stories made their way into school textbooks and thence into the public consciousness.  He is particularly persuasive when pointing out how textbooks—so often taken as the final word on whatever they cover—serve as propaganda devices for the regnant worldview.  Doing so he provides needed clarity, refuting many of the allegedly “scientific” certainties pervasive in our culture.