Faithful to Science

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Sleepy Dust

This post is about biological evolution, and about the abuse of education and the abuse of the public promotion of science.

This week I travelled to Birmingham and joined in a discussion event on questions in the area of Science and Christianity. It was a helpful event, organised jointly by Christians in Science Birmingham and the University of Birmingham’s Atheist Secular and Humanist society. You can find the text of most of what I said here.

The two speakers (myself and Prof. Peter Atkins) had three ten-minute slots, and owing to this time constraint I had to cut some of the things I had originally intended to say. Among the cuts was a point about the overall story of life on Earth. I decided to let it go, because I had already said a lot. But afterwards I wondered whether in fact it was something I should have included.

Here is why.

There was a chance to talk informally after the event, and I had a few interesting conversations. Among them I had a conversation with a young woman who said that she considered “the Bible” contradicted evolutionary biology. I asked her which part of the Bible she was referring to, or where it did that, but she didn’t want to say, so I did not press her. But I asked her to consider something that seems to me to be reasonable, and indeed, reasonably obvious, about the story of life on Earth, namely, that it has meaning. It is not just a sequence of events. She said that she considered that it had no meaning. I was surprised by quite how bluntly she was willing to say this, without much sign of uncertainty about it. I invited her to consider that maybe something meaningful had happened during the long process. After all, we were sitting having a meaningful conversation, but back about 4 billion years ago, you would only have found rocks and lava and so on: no conversations. So surely something meaningful had taken place. But no, came back the reply, it was all just meaningless; just one thing after another. This opinion was not expressed vociferously, but quietly. Again, I did not press her but left her with the invitation to try out the thought that there are other ways of being rational.

What I felt about this conversation is that the opinion I had heard did not seem to me to be one fully worked out in the mind of the young adult I was talking to. I think it was more an attempt by her to express what she thinks rationality implies. I offered the idea that there were other (and better) ways of being rational. But I suspect that a large fraction of the way of thinking that this quiet young woman had formed was owing to her upbringing. She had been brought up to think that way, or invited to think that way by her reading of interpreters of science. And that is a tragedy and a travesty.

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone image © Hans Hillewaert, from Wikimedia Commons

Here is the part of the text I had prepared for the discussion event, but did not find time to say:

“I will now give an example of Christian thinking that, in a modest way, helps to build the ground-work for a wise handling of technology and other things.

I said in the context of evolution that the natural world has mathematical harmony built into it at a deep level. Another thing that seems to be woven into our world is its ability to support and produce deeper and deeper ways of being in community.

Communities of bacteria led to and now live alongside communities of fish which led to and now live alongside communities of human beings. Some people say there is no meaning in this great process, no sign or writing in the sand. It is just the way the dice fell. Faithfulness to God helps us to realise that that conclusion is unwarranted.

I will argue that the emergence of life and death, and love and hate on planet Earth suggests that the universe is freighted with meaning. It is freighted with meaning in somewhat the same way that a written text is freighted with meaning. I want to say that it is quite reasonable to accept this.

This rich process is not just a line of tumbling dominoes, nor a whirlwind, but a story, a narrative. It tells a tale. But a weight of meaning in the very fabric of the world is unsettling for us. It is even, in some respects, frightening. And fear drives people to strange behaviour. So you will find otherwise highly intelligent people resorting to the strategy of sleepy-dust. They will stand before you and, eloquently, and at length, scatter the sleepy-dust. “No sign, no symbol here!” they will say. “Don’t worry! It is just dice and dominoes!” They will say it more subtly than that, of course. They will say “Darwin has shown us” or “science has shown us” that it is all just dice and dominoes – blind chance and necessity.

But that observation is beside the point. It is a category error. The fact that evolution is a natural process does not tell you whether or not it signifies anything as a whole, because the issue of its overall signification is at another level, in a different category. The argument advanced by Dawkins and others in this area is logically equivalent to the argument that the film “Toy Story” is not about friendship, because it is just electronics—just a sequence of electric currents in a silicon chip and glowing pixels on a screen. You see, the argument from physical process to absence of message is not an argument; it is illogical. Noticing this will, I hope, help to blow away the sleepy dust. It leaves us free to consider, in all seriousness, the message that evolution conveys.

It is not a message of pitiless indifference because we are in it and we are not pitiless. It is a message of growth and improvisation, pain and perseverance, diverse community, and a message of great creativity given to the world, and to us.


1 Comment

  1. Graeme Ritchie

    March 10, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    This is beautifully put. It is difficult to overemphasize the important of the point expressed in this line: “the argument from physical process to absence of message is not an argument; it is illogical”. Science educators take note! Thanks for posting these thoughts.

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