Conference Report
Origins & Design 19:2
Issue 37

Science and Christianity: Into the New Millenium

Cambridge University, U.K. (2nd-5th August 1998)

David Tyler
Manchester Metropolitan University

A joint meeting of the organizations Christians in Science (CiS) and the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) was an opportunity to hear presentations from numerous leading figures on a variety of key issues in science and Christianity. This conference, with about 300 delegates, had an atmosphere rather like a showcase. In the main, papers were presented that had either been published or that were intended to be published later. There was little opportunity for discussion, but in the few minutes after each talk, delegates were able to ask questions of the presenters. One session only was devoted to discussion, following a day of controversial presentations on the nature of humanity. What then was on show? How are Christians grappling with the major issues of our day?

Opening Presentations

Two stalwarts of the CiS (U.K.) scene delivered plenary addresses on the opening (Sunday) night: Dr. Oliver Barclay and Professor Sam Berry. Dr. Barclay took the theme of God’s present relationship to the natural world. He spoke of God’s providence and the way natural laws describe the manner of God’s upholding of the Cosmos. God is an upholder, he emphasized, not an interferer. “Intervention” is, in Barclay’s view, an unhelpful concept. The word suggests that God injects force or energy into his creation, whereas upholding (the biblical term) emphasizes the immediacy of his influence and indicates that God operates in a different dimension to our physical world. Barclay’s concern came across as a clear challenge to a variety of contemporary views that have miraculous intervention as a common theme. However, the interventionists link these miracles to God’s creation and not to his providential government. Barclay did not elaborate on the doctrine of creation. Implicit in his talk was the thought that God created by providential means: a theological position that is by no means shared by those who hold to “interventionist” views.

Sam Berry noted that traditional Christianity has viewed the Fall as a historical event, when profound changes disrupted the earth that was originally created “at peace with itself.” Such a view leads to the idea that the earth is now in an abnormal state, not as it came from God’s hands. Berry sought to develop the alternative view that the state of the world is normal except for man’s place in it. The Fall did bring changes: man lost his relationship with God, his fellow man, and with creation. Berry’s attempt to establish whether the Fall was “fact, fantasy, myth or what?” was mainly an appeal to various biblical commentators with the tentative conclusion that there is present a mixture of history and symbolism. “Yes”, he said, “there probably was someone called Adam, at some point on the earth, at some time.” The talk served to show that numerous important areas of life are affected by the way the Fall is understood, and it indicated the need for more hard and clear thinking by Christians.

Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project (HGP), delivered the plenary address on the Monday. He started with a moving personal testimony of how he once had been a proactive atheist, but God had moved in his life and some 20 years ago he came to trust in Christ. Much of the talk was a popular presentation of the HGP and of its potential for helping with genetic disease and disorders. Collins took a strong line against genetic determinism (that is, our lifestyle is determined for us by our genes) by appealing to “free will.” Much of our behavior is shaped by other factors, he said, and particularly by our free will. We choose -- and biology will not take that away. However, as an interested hearer of this talk, I was left wondering how this view can be defended. How can we refute the charge that it involves an existential leap of faith? What is the rationale for “free will?” I also found it curious that Collins made no reference to the views of Watson (his predecessor) and others who are intent on manipulating the human genome to make it “better.” While it was good to hear what Collins had to say, his talk left me with more questions than answers.

Christian Ethics

Three papers followed, addressing ethical concerns related to the human embryo, cloning and the HGP. The speakers approached their themes in quite different ways and illustrated the extreme diversity of approaches manifest in the conference. Gareth Jones’s (Otago) subject was the human embryo, and he argued that the time has come to reassess theological approaches in the light of scientific developments. The “conservative” view (that human life begins at conception, and that the fetus should receive all the protection and care that we can give it thereafter) was suggested to have major deficiencies involving unsubstantiated leaps of logic. The most serious problem, he said, is that the conservative view is inflexible and unsuited to involvement in the debates going on in the scientific community. After reviewing various scientific arguments, Jones concluded that there is no cut-off point between the prehuman fetus and the human fetus, and that commitment must become more specific as the embryo becomes more recognizable as a living entity. The transition to humanity “may be closer to 20 weeks gestation than 2 weeks gestation.”

Donald Bruce (Edinburgh) spoke strongly of the need to address ethical issues in the area of human cloning. Many of his arguments were biblical, but two “general” arguments came to the fore in opposing human cloning. First, cloning people is exercising control over them (their genetic make-up and their entrance into the world), and this kind of control conflicts with our sense of human dignity and freedom. Second, cloning is a tool, an instrument, and a means to an end. But this in itself makes it ethically unacceptable as a means of bringing people into the world, because humans are not to be made to order like widgets in a factory.

Then Pattle Pun (Wheaton) looked at issues surrounding the HGP. His approach was explicitly biblical, based on describing the features of a “perfect” human being (a creature of God, created to enjoy and glorify God, in God’s image, etc). These features were then related to some current issues for U.S. legislators.

These three speakers illustrated three different approaches. The first appears to be an outworking of Baconian science: science must proceed without the injection of religious dogma or superstition; the Bible is not a satisfactory starting point for the scientist, but the findings of science can illuminate biblical texts and have an input to Christian theology. The second approach is to develop an apologetic position from within the framework of Christian revelation, but then advocacy of that position makes use primarily of general arguments that are thought to be attractive to most members of society. The third approach is to build an argument on biblical foundations, and apply it to contemporary issues as an overtly Christian perspective. One of these three approaches was displayed by every speaker, illustrating the diversity of methodologies existing in CiS/ASA circles.

Portraits of Human Nature

The symposium was introduced first by Charles Harper of the Templeton Foundation. A contrast was drawn between dualistic views of human nature (which were linked to Greek philosophies) and monistic views (which were associated with the Hebraic mindset). Current thinking in the neurosciences supports monism and emphasizes the naturalness of religious experience. This is an opportunity for Christians to rethink their own perceptions of human nature and there is good potential for “engagement” with the world of scholarship. Further introductory comments were then made by Malcolm Jeeves (Andrews University) and Warren Brown (Fuller). This is a three-year project based at Fuller, undertaken in the belief that a major “knotty problem” for the future will be concerned with the nature of humanity. It is becoming increasingly difficult to hold to traditional views of the “soul.” This is because more and more “soulish” traits have been linked to neurophysiological states and because there has been a complete failure to develop any insight into the mode of interaction between soul and body. The hypothesis explored in the project is that the soul (and mind) is physiologically embodied. This is a monist view of humanity which the project team describe as “non-reductive physicalism” (NRP). That is, every aspect of man is ultimately related to his 100% physical makeup, but human behavior is not amenable to reductionistic analysis because the soul and other distinctively human traits are “emergent” properties of his physical being.

Delegates were then presented with seven talks on different aspects of the project. Most of the talks were said to be in written form and would be appearing soon in a book: Portraits of Human Nature edited by W.S. Brown, N. Murphy and H.N. Maloney, Fortress Press, Minneapolis.

Elving Anderson (Minnesota) presented evidence that shows linkages between human traits and genes. Though not advocating genetic determinism, Anderson convincingly showed that genes influence and affect behavior. Malcolm Jeeves (Andrews) did a similar job with human cognition and brain activity, but his conclusions went further than Anderson’s. In Jeeves’s view, this neuroscience research does not support dualism. There is a clear link between neural processes, psychological states and spiritual awareness. Approvingly, he cited Francis Crick as someone who believes that the neurosciences have demolished the concept of an “immortal soul”--but, unlike Crick, Jeeves believes that the way forward is via a Christian monism: NRP.

Warren Brown (Fuller) then looked at cognitive contributions to soul. If man is a fundamentally physical entity, where can we look to see the image of God in man? Brown developed the concept of emergent properties: an evolving neurophysiological substrate has resulted in higher human cognitive capacities and has opened the way for people to enter into meaningful relationships with God. Cognitive “tools” necessary for such relationships include language, theory of mind, episodic memory, conscious top-down agency, future orientation and emotional responsiveness. Human dignity and soulishness is expressed through relationships: to other individuals, to communities and to God.

Nancy Murphy’s (Fuller) abstract indicated that she would be giving a philosophical defense of the concept of NRP. However, she departed from this and addressed the issue of whether physicalism was incompatible with human freedom. Her talk was concerned with conceptual models of the mind and what an architecture for understanding moral reasoning and choice might look like. Whatever might be said about the merits of such a model, I have to say that this (and the other) presentations did not answer a key question weighing on my mind: “Is the concept of NRP an oxymoron?”

Joel Green (Asbury) spoke on monism and the nature of humanity in the Bible. He said that word studies in Scripture are not going to help us resolve our questions, because Greek words are far more plastic and context-sensitive than people appreciate. He identified discourse analysis as the way forward. He also suggested that eschatology is not a helpful point of departure either--even though dualistic Christians take much comfort from the thought that although the body is dead, the spirit/soul is with Christ. According to Green, the New Testament allows a diversity of views and the writers do not all speak with one voice. However, his conclusions were that if we are open to this diversity of thought, we will say “no” to the concept of a disembodied soul, “no” to the mental image of soul flight after death, “yes” to holistic views of redemption, “yes” to freedom and free-agency, and “yes” to NRP. This talk was met with much questioning from the audience: it was clear that many were not convinced about not using “proof texts” and it was felt that many Scriptures do address the issue in a clear and direct way.

Stephen Post (Case Reserve) provided “A moral case for non-reductive physicalism,” suggesting that dualism has produced many bad fruits. Newton Malony (Fuller) wound up the presentations with “Counselling body/soul persons.” He discussed the question: “How does the view that persons are body/soul unities rather than body/soul dualities affect the way that counselling is offered.” However, both of these talks suffered from defining the controversy as monism vs. dualism, where all dualistic views (whether Greek, monastic, Cartesian, etc.) were lumped together. There did not appear to be an awareness that Christian traditions advocating man as both body and soul/spirit have also emphasized the unity of human nature.

The discussion session was introduced by Fraser Watts (Cambridge), who agreed with the presenters that the issue was an important one, but he for one was not wanting to adopt NRP too hastily. “It is not easy to be a physicalist and yet not be a reductionist. There is no consensus that this is a coherent argument.” He also commented that there was a mismatch between the emphasis of the presenters and church tradition: this was a recognition that the proposals being made for a changed perspective on human nature are radical and far-reaching in their implications. Watts identified many issues for discussion and concluded with a number of challenging questions. Is God also to be seen as an emergent property of the physical cosmos? Is “emergence” really incompatible with reductionism? Is the Fall compatible with “emergence” (as it was preceded by a substantial meaningful relationship between man and God)?

The general discussion did not reveal a groundswell of opinion behind the presenters, although it was clear that the whole issue was one which people recognized was going to be very important. The presenters were able to clarify points and explain why they were pursuing this particular emphasis of NRP. In particular, it was pointed out that the intellectual world is now monistic. We need to communicate the Christian message effectively and this means rethinking, especially where there might be unnecessary conflict. “We who work in the neurosciences are seeking to think through the academic issues.”

Intelligent Design

Turning now to matters of Intelligent Design (ID), it must be said that only three of the talks gave this an airing: two displaying hostility to the ID movement and one supportive of its emphasis. This relative lack of interest was a fair reflection of the CiS scene but it was not, in my opinion, representative of the ASA delegates.

Denis Lamoureux (Edmonton) was overtly confrontational in his talk “Evangelicals ‘Inheriting the Wind’: The Phillip E. Johnson Phenomenon.” The title was inspired by Johnson’s analysis of the film Inherit the Wind, concluding that it was a successful propaganda exercise. Could it be, asked Lamoureux, that Johnson’s books are also masterpieces of propaganda? The main part of the talk was an examination of three principal lines of argumentation used by Johnson. First, Johnson insists that naturalism is pervasive in the scientific community. In response, Lamoureux pointed out the results of a recent survey that found that 40% of scientists believe in a personal God. This, he said, is convincing evidence against the Johnson thesis. Second, Johnson argues that Divine intervention alone can account for certain features of creation: notably “irreducibly complex” structures as described by Michael Behe. This is a “God of the gaps” position, said Lamoureux, and it is not logically correct to rule out God-ordained natural processes as an explanation of design. Third, Johnson proclaims that the theory of biological evolution has failed. However, according to the speaker, Johnson has stepped out of his field of expertise and repeatedly made mistakes. Lamoureux focused on one specific case: in Johnson’s presentation of whale evolution, references to “rodents” as ancestors were wide of the mark and “not the view of palaeontologists.” The rest of this talk considered Johnson’s rhetorical moves, his theological assumptions and his divisive approach. It was concluded that while “The Wedge” is Johnson’s strategy, it will only “win the faithful.” Given the vehemence of Lamoureux’s critique, the conference organizers should have invited a reply from Johnson or from one of his colleagues. Perhaps this may occur at a future meeting; but condemnatory charges should be allowed a response, and the absence of any did not reflect well on the program.

Michael Corey (Charleston) took as his theme “Supernatural agency and science?” He set out to show that supernatural agency and intelligent design are not incompatible with science. He suggested that the Big Bang cosmogony could be perceived readily as ex nihilo creation, and that the evidences of finely tuned physical constants are corroboration of this. With many examples of intelligent design before us, he asked, how can we think that God can be excluded from science? Distinctives of the scientific method were then examined: the principle of objectivity, the practice of data gathering, the process of data interpretation, and the development of thorough explanations of phenomena. In each case, Corey suggested that supernatural agency is perfectly compatible with science. How do we avoid the “God of the gaps” mentality? Corey acknowledged the problems, but nevertheless suggested that it is better to keep supernatural explanations in the range of options rather than insist that all explanations must be natural. Despite considerable enthusiasm for his theme, I think Corey did not “scratch where people itch.” Oliver Barclay had spoken for many when he linked science to God’s providence and explained why the concept of “intervention” is out of keeping with science. To respond to this widely held view, Corey needed to explore the foundations of the scientific method, not just show how supernatural agency “fits” into the accepted practices of science.

Michael Roberts (Chirk) provided a critical look at contemporary arguments for design in creation: “Design Up To Scratch? A Comparison of Design in Buckland (1832) and Behe.” This historical study was based primarily on a lecture given by Buckland (reader in geology at Oxford) in 1832. Georges Cuvier had described Megatherium (an extinct giant sloth) as “the most monstrous of the monstrous kind” and an example of appallingly bad design. Buckland was a Christian and a believer in design. He rose to the challenge that Cuvier had presented. He started with the nose, moved to the teeth, went on to the foreleg, and so on. In every part, he found design. He called Megatherium “Old Scratch.” This animal could scratch and did scratch— otherwise he would have died from starvation. He was well equipped by his Creator for scratching, and he was covered with armour for protection. For Buckland, a belief in God as Creator led to an expectation of design. Roberts drew a contrast between this approach and that found in Michael Behe’s book “Darwin’s Black Box.” Behe’s argument appears to be: if a phenomenon can be explained by natural law, we cannot conclude it was designed. That is, the proof of design comes in the “not explaining.” Intelligent design is reserved for the unexplained. Roberts concluded that Behe’s ideas are not an improvement on the Paleyan design argument, nor a revival of the Buckland “argument-to-design” approach evidenced in his study of Megatherium. Roberts suggested that ID is a restatement of the “God of the gaps” position, rather than an affirmation of universal design.

Concluding Reflections

During the conference, it became apparent that most of the speakers were very anxious to avoid taking a “God of the gaps” position. There was a strong resistance to the idea of divine intervention in the past. While some of this aversion can be traced to some unfortunate episodes in the history of science, much of it would appear to come from a particular philosophical position. Some Christian scholars have used the term “methodological naturalism” to describe this position. A related concept is “functional integrity”, meaning that God has gifted the creation with properties that ensure that his creative purposes are realized. If there is to be any meaningful interaction between Christians taking a different stance on these issues, it is vital that we cease throwing epithets at each other and enter into a genuine dialogue about the philosophy of science and specifically what constitutes a Christian epistemology.

The whole issue of design brings quite different reactions from Christians. To some, design is experienced aesthetically (and sometimes mystically) and it is not amenable to scientific analysis. To others, it is an important feature of the Cosmos, and because it has to do with information, it is properly the subject of scientific analysis. As an example of the first approach, Francis Collins showed two slides: one of a cathedral rose window and the other a cross-section of the DNA molecule. Both evoked strong feelings of aesthetic beauty. Then Collins removed the rose window from view and stated that many scientists do much the same when they resist similar responses to the world around them. The inference was that Christians should be recognizing and responding to God’s design - but this belongs to the realm of faith, not objective science. When asked later about the genetic language carried by the DNA molecule, Collins said that it was created by God and visible to those who have faith.

Other Christians have pointed out that the marks of design are present whether or not we have faith, and that Christians, at least, should be incorporating design concepts into science. A failure to do this results in every “designed” feature being interpreted as some form of undirected adaptation which enhances “fitness.” Informal conversations with delegates, including several of the poster presenters, revealed dissatisfaction with the “platform position” on design. Design that is a matter of faith and outside the domain of science was perceived as emaciated and not a satisfactory way forward.

It appears to me that the most significant differences that exist between Christians involved in science must be traced to the roots of their thinking: their conceptual framework and philosophy of science. Earlier in this report, I referred to “Baconian science” when describing the approach of one speaker. In my opinion, the majority of presenters at this conference were working within a Baconian framework. Francis Bacon made a substantial contribution to the scientific revolution of the 17th century and scientists rightly hold him in high esteem. He was particularly concerned with the liberation of science from dogma and a deductive style of reasoning which plagued the scholarly world of his day and which had its roots in Greek philosophy. Unfortunately, Bacon tried to replace “dogma” with a blank sheet of paper upon which could be written data and from which, using induction, science could develop. The subsequent history of science has confirmed suspicions that the blank sheet of paper is a myth and that all scientists start with a (personal) conceptual framework or template. However, the myth lingers on, and many continue to associate the Baconian approach with what they regard as the authentic Christian tradition.

Hence, these Christians do not see biblical revelation as having any input to science; that would be the intrusion of dogma again! They regard the “Book of Nature” as a revelation from God and the findings of science can therefore complement the Bible and sometimes correct erroneous traditions within the Christian community. Oliver Barclay sought to do this with his treatment of Creation and Providence. Sam Berry attempted it with his contribution on the Fall. Gareth Jones is an example of it with his reassessment of the status of the human embryo as is also the “portraits of human nature” team with their contributions on human nature.

If, however, scientists always build on a template of fundamental beliefs, it is most necessary for Christians to enquire whether the underlying belief system is consistent with biblical revelation. I want to take this further in the specific case of the neurosciences. MIT Press published The Cognitive Neurosciences in 1995. It has about 100 contributors, all of whom are active researchers in the neurosciences. Before finalizing the content of the book, the contributors participated in a three-week conference to clarify and refine their thinking. The general editor, Michael Gazzaniga, wrote in the Preface as follows: “At some point in the future, cognitive neuroscience will be able to describe the algorithms that drive structural neural elements into the physiological activity that results in perception, cognition and perhaps even consciousness . . . The future of the field, however, is in working toward a science that truly relates brain and cognition in a mechanistic way. That task is not easy, and many areas of research in the mind sciences are not ready for that kind of analysis. Yet that is the objective.” (p. xiii)

The belief system, therefore, of these scientists is that of materialism and reductionism. They have adopted naturalism as their foundation; this is their conceptual framework.

The “portraits of human nature” team rightly inform us that the world is monistic and that research has failed to reveal anything other than man’s physical nature. They have concluded that physicalism should provide the framework for Christian research in the neurosciences, and have proposed that man’s soulish qualities be viewed as emergent and non-reductionistic. However, if their research framework is fundamentally naturalistic, their position is fatally flawed. Yes, the academic world is monistic about human nature, but this monism is an inevitable outcome of naturalism. And there can never be a harmonious integration of naturalism and Biblical revelation.

The primary thesis of Phillip Johnson, that naturalism has effectively become the working belief system of the academic world, provides a major challenge to advocates of NRP and to all who work under the umbrella of Baconian science. In my opinion, the Cambridge conference demonstrated that the CiS and ASA communities have a fundamental problem. That is, many of the leaders cannot see that they are deeply affected by naturalistic thinking. They consider that they are genuinely contributing to a Christian perspective on science, but contributions that are drawn from naturalism cannot be the way forward.

Is it possible that some of the “insights from science” which are suggested to warrant a revision of our understanding of biblical revelation are actually “insights from naturalistic science”? There is urgency about reaching an answer to this question. If there is to be a meaningful dialogue in the future, this must address the issue of how Christians build in the sphere of science, and how we can ensure that we are not importing alien philosophies into our Christian worldview. To this end, it is vital to establish the principle that all scientists should consciously seek to identify the presuppositions and belief systems that they bring to their work.

Copyright © 1999 David Tyler. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 6.1.99