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Origins + Science

Origins and Science

Pascal’s Fire

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In Pascal’s Fire, Keith Ward reflects on the relationship between faith and the findings of modern science, treating topics such as — among others — chance and necessity, quantum physics and the mechanistic universe, the evolution of order in the universe, leading to life and ultimately to self-awareness and responsibility, the origin and future of the cosmos etc. The existence of an ultimate mind who chose to create a rationally intelligible universe which functions through laws that can be expressed in mathematical terms, but who also freely intervenes in the context of an otherwise autonomous progress of self-organisation of the universe, for which it was originally set up and by which it reaches goals of intrinsic value, are presented — and, in my view, convincingly so — as a rational and coherent explanation for the universe. In other words, the observation of the universe suggests such a mind. The argument progresses to show that this ultimate mind can also be viewed as personal, loving and compassionate, though in a way far beyond anthropomorphic projections. A purely scientific approach, however, is blind to the personal side of God, Ward argues — this is where personal experience, feeling and intuition come in, and may legitimately be taken seriously.  All in all, Keith Ward’s holistic approach, integrating faith and reason in his intellectual quest, is inspiring and reminded me of the "two wings" of faith and reason by which man strives toward the truth, of which John Paul II wrote. ~ Xiangmao at Amazon.com

Lynn Margulis on the Tree of Life

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But many biologists claim they know for sure that random mutation (purposeless chance) is the source of inherited variation that generates new species of life and that life evolved in a single-common-trunk, dichotomously branching-phylogenetic-tree pattern! ‘No!’ I say. Then how did one species evolve into another? This profound research question is assiduously undermined by the hegemony [of those] who flaunt their ‘correct’ solution. Especially dogmatic are those molecular modelers of the ‘tree of life’ who, ignorant of alternative topologies (such as webs), don’t study ancestors. Victims of a Whiteheadian ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness,’ they correlate computer code with names given by ‘authorities’ to organisms they never see! Our zealous research, ever faithful to the god who dwells in the details, openly challenges such dogmatic certainty. This is science.

The Selfish Gene

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Inheriting the mantle of revolutionary biologist from Darwin, Watson, and Crick, Richard Dawkins forced an enormous change in the way we see ourselves and the world with the publication of The Selfish Gene. Suppose, instead of thinking about organisms using genes to reproduce themselves, as we had since Mendel’s work was rediscovered, we turn it around and imagine that "our" genes build and maintain us in order to make more genes. That simple reversal seems to answer many puzzlers which had stumped scientists for years, and we haven’t thought of evolution in the same way since. Why are there miles and miles of "unused" DNA within each of our bodies? Why should a bee give up its own chance to reproduce to help raise her sisters and brothers? With a prophet’s clarity, Dawkins told us the answers from the perspective of molecules competing for limited space and resources to produce more of their own kind. Drawing fascinating examples from every field of biology, he paved the way for a serious re-evaluation of evolution. He also introduced the concept of self-reproducing ideas, or memes, which (seemingly) use humans exclusively for their propagation. If we are puppets, he says, at least we can try to understand our strings. ~ Rob Lightner of Amazon.com

In the Beginning Was Information

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Powerful evidence for the existence of a personal God! Information is the cornerstone of life, yet it is something people don’t often think about. In his fascinating new book, In the Beginning Was Information, Dr. Werner Gitt helps the reader see how the very presence of information reveals a Designer: Do we take for granted the presence of information that organizes every part of the human body, from hair color to the way internal organs work? What is the origin of all our complicated data? How is it that information in our ordered universe is organized and processed? Gitt explains the necessity of information — and more importantly, the need for an Organizer and Originator of that information. The huge amount of information present in just a small amount of DNA alone refutes the possibility of a non-intelligent beginning for life. It all points to a Being who not only organizes biological data, but also cares for the creation.

The Evolution of Morality

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Moral thinking pervades our practical lives, but where did this way of thinking come from, and what purpose does it serve? Is it to be explained by environmental pressures on our ancestors a million years ago, or is it a cultural invention of more recent origin? In The Evolution of Morality, Richard Joyce takes up these controversial questions, finding that the evidence supports an innate basis to human morality. As a moral philosopher, Joyce is interested in whether any implications follow from this hypothesis. Might the fact that the human brain has been biologically prepared by natural selection to engage in moral judgment serve in some sense to vindicate this way of thinking — staving off the threat of moral skepticism, or even undergirding some version of moral realism? Or if morality has an adaptive explanation in genetic terms — if it is, as Joyce writes, "just something that helped our ancestors make more babies" — might such an explanation actually undermine morality’s central role in our lives? He carefully examines both the evolutionary "vindication of morality" and the evolutionary "debunking of morality," considering the skeptical view more seriously than have others who have treated the subject. Interdisciplinary and combining the latest results from the empirical sciences with philosophical discussion, The Evolution of Morality is one of the few books in this area written from the perspective of moral philosophy. Concise and without technical jargon, the arguments are rigorous but accessible to readers from different academic backgrounds. Joyce discusses complex issues in plain language while advocating subtle and sometimes radical views. The Evolution of Morality lays the philosophical foundations for further research into the biological understanding of human morality. ~ Product Description

Francis S. Collins on Unveiling the Human Genome

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The human genome consists of all the DNA of our species, the hereditary code of life. This newly revealed text was 3 billion letters long, and written in a strange and cryptographic four-letter code. Such is the amazing complexity of the information carried within each cell of the human body, that a live reading of that code at a rate of one letter per second would take thirty-one years, even if reading continued day and night. Printing these letters out in regular font size on normal bond paper and binding them all together would result in a tower the height of the Washington Monument. For the first time on that summer morning this amazing script, carrying within it all of the instructions for building a human being, was available to the world.

Intelligent Thought

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Writer and editor Brockman (What We Believe but Cannot Prove), who publishes the online magazine Edge, has assembled sixteen short essays by prominent scientists on current thinking about evolution. A few of the contributors, such as Jerry A. Coyne and Daniel C. Dennett, use close readings of Intelligent Design (ID) advocates’ claims to argue that ID is a political or ideological movement without scientific legitimacy. These arguments are concise and persuasive, if sometimes familiar; strong evidence and wide acceptance in the scientific community have made evolution central to biology and related branches. The most fresh and interesting essays essentially ignore ID to explore aspects of evolutionary biology, including paleontologist Tim D. White considering evidence for Homo sapiens’ evolution, psychologist Steven Pinker on the compatibility of evolution and ethics, and geologist Scott D. Sampson proposing primary science education that links evolution and ecology. As a whole, this sampler makes a powerful cross-discipline case for teaching evolution as an accepted biological consensus-as opposed to "teaching the debate"-and offers glimpses into how the science behind the theory continues to evolve in a range of fields. ~ Publishers Weekly

Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction

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Scott, a physical anthropologist, runs the National Center for Science Education, which defends the teaching of evolution in high schools. (She advised the parents fighting the Dover school board.) Scott could be said to be the one doing God’s work as she patiently rebuts people who make most other scientists spit gaskets like short-circuiting robots. Her book is both a straightforward history of the debate and an anthology of essays written by partisans on each side. Its main virtue is to explain the scientific method, which many invoke but few describe vividly. Scott also manages to lay out the astronomical, chemical, geological and biological bases of evolutionary theory in unusually plain English.” ~ The New York Times Book Review * At last a book that both Henry Morris, of the Institute for Creation Research, and Niles Eldredge, a prominent scientist, can agree upon! Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, is an articulate and engaging author. She has written a book suitable for a wide audience: high school and college students, teachers, and nonspecialized general readers. The book is comprehensive, treating scientific evidences for evolution, religious views, and a history of the so-called evolution-creation controversy. ~ Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Scientific Explanation and Religious Belief

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The science-and-religion dialogue has become an established part of the wider cultural conversation about the respective roles of science and religion within democratic societies. By reflecting on the matrix of science, religion and politics, this volume constitutes a major contribution to the science-and-religion dialogue. It is not only required reading for philosophers, scientists and theologians, but will be of interest to all those engaged in the larger cultural conversation about the relationship between science and religion. ~ Product Description

Claudia Walls on Evolution and Science Education

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Darwin’s theory has been a hard sell to Americans ever since it was unveiled nearly 150 years ago in The Origin of Species. The intelligent-design movement is just the latest and most sophisticated attempt to discredit the famous theory, which many Americans believe leaves insufficient room for the influence of God. Early efforts to thwart Darwin were pretty crude. Tennessee famously banned the teaching of evolution and convicted schoolteacher John Scopes of violating that ban in the “monkey trial” of 1925. At the time, two other states — Florida and Oklahoma — had laws that interfered with teaching evolution. When such laws were struck down by a Supreme Court decision in 1968, some states shifted gears and instead required that “creation science” be taught alongside evolution. Supreme Court rulings in 1982 and 1987 put an end to that. Offering creationism in public schools, even as a side dish to evolution, the high court held, violated the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. ¶ But some anti-Darwinists seized upon Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion in the 1987 case. Christian fundamentalists, he wrote, “are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools.” That line of argument — an emphasis on weaknesses and gaps in evolution — is at the heart of the intelligent-design movement, which has as its motto “Teach the controversy.” “You have to hand it to the creationists. They have evolved,” jokes Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., which monitors attacks on the teaching of evolution.

Time Magazine on Irreducible Complexity

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Who Designed the First Eye? The eye couldn’t possibly be the product of accidental mutations, say Darwin’s critics. Sure, a bird with sharper eyes might catch more prey and have more offspring, but where did the first eye come from? How could a process of gradual improvements produce a complex organ that needs all its parts—pinhole, lens, light-sensitive surface—in order to work? It’s no accident, says Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, that the eye resembles a camera, which everybody instantly recognizes as a product someone designed. “If it looks, walks and quacks like a duck,” Behe writes, “then absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrent to conclude it’s a duck.” ¶ Who Needs a Designer? Nonsense, says biologists. It’s easy to imagine how a random mutation might have produced a path of light-sensitive cells that helped a primitive creature tell day from night. You can also imagine how another mutation might have bent this patch of cells into a concave shape that could detect the direction a light or shadow was coming from—helping creatures with the mutation stay clear of predators. Simple structures that enable an organism to do one thing—follow the light—can easily get co-opted for a different and more complex function, like sight. The fact that there is no fossil evidence of the interim steps cannot be taken as proof that a designer—intelligent or otherwise—deliberately skipped them.

Charles Townes on the Reality of Intelligent Design

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I do believe in both a creation and a continuous effect on this universe and our lives, that God has a continuing influence — certainly his laws guide how the universe was built. But the Bible’s description of creation occurring over a week’s time is just an analogy, as I see it. The Jews couldn’t know very much at that time about the lifetime of the universe or how old it was. They were visualizing it as best they could and I think they did remarkably well, but it’s just an analogy. … People are misusing the term intelligent design to think that everything is frozen by that one act of creation and that there’s no evolution, no changes. It’s totally illogical in my view. Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real. This is a very special universe: it’s remarkable that it came out just this way. If the laws of physics weren’t just the way they are, we couldn’t be here at all. The sun couldn’t be there, the laws of gravity and nuclear laws and magnetic theory, quantum mechanics, and so on have to be just the way they are for us to be here.

Eugenie Scott on Methodological Naturalism

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My position is to distinguish between philosophical and methodological naturalism, but of course, the leaders of the ID movement reject this distinction and conflate the two. I think the distinction is real, it should be appreciated, and it is one of the keys to solving the problem of the rejection of evolution. And a lot of scientists agree with me, even those who are nonbelievers. But it’s much easier for the leaders of the ID movement to keep flogging Dawkins and Provine than to reflect the philosophical reality out there. ¶ I think much of the antievolution sentiment in the public is because anti-evolutionists have sold the public a bill of goods that because science CAN explain through natural cause, it means that science is saying that therefore "God had nothing to do with it."  Evolution, like all science, explains through natural cause. It tells you what happened, and nothing about ultimate cause. If a religious position makes a fact claim, like special creation of living things in their present form, at one time (the YEC view), science can propose that there are no data to support this view, and much against it. But if God wanted to create that way, but make it look like living things appeared sequentially through time, science of course could not refute the claim. The claim — like all claims about God’s action in the natural world — would in fact not be testable (and therefore not scientific) because ANY result is compatible with God’s action (assuming God is omnipotent.) ¶ The blame lies partly with science professors and partly with the public. In defense of science professors, students rarely challenge them for making atheistic comments when discussing, say, cell division ("Prof. Jones, you just said that ‘enzymes A & B make chromosomes  line up on the equator.’ Are you saying that therefore God had nothing to do with it?") When they are discussing evolution, scientists treat it the same way as they treat cell division: here are the natural processes that result in the splitting of a lineage, or whatever. Students are more likely to read philosophical naturalism into methodological  naturalism when the topic is evolution than when the topic is cell division — and we can’t blame that on professors. It would help if students would be a little more reflective on this issue! But professors can be more sensitive to this issue, certainly. And I find that once the difference between philosophical and methodological naturalism is pointed out, they "get it", and few argue that this isn’t a good idea.

Evidence and Faith

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Emphasizing shifting views of faith and the nature of evidence, Taliaferro has written a dynamic narrative history of philosophical reflection on religion from the 17th century to the present, with an emphasis on shifting views of faith and the nature of evidence. The book begins with the movement called Cambridge Platonism, which formed a bridge between the ancient and medieval worlds and early modern philosophy. While the book provides an overview of different movements in philosophy, it also offers a detailed exposition and reflection on key arguments, and the scope is broad from Descartes to contemporary feminist philosophy of religion.

Charles Taliaferro on the Cambridge Platonists

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I kept thinking of the ancient Roman pictures of the keeper of doorways, Janus, the god of beginnings. He has two faces, one looking to the past, the other to the future… The Cambridge Platonists occupy an important middle ground in the history of ideas. They understood the power of modern science… and yet they worked in allegiance with an important Platonic philosophical and religious heritage spanning ancient, medieval, and Renaissance philosophy. They forged an extraordinary synthesis designed to incorporate modern science while retaining what they believed to be the best of Greek and Hebrew wisdom. Like Janus, the Cambridge Platonists invite us to adopt that double vision of looking both to the past and to the future… Some artists, scientists, and religious practitioners complain that philosophy of art, science, and religion utilize misleading pictures of the way art, science, and religion are actually practiced. For better or for worse, the Cambridge Platonists were philosophers of religion and, at the same time, committed to the practice of religion. They practiced the very thing they were studying and philosophically reflecting on, and in that respect the Cambridge Platonists were like artists or scientists working out a philosophy of art or science. They also thereby raise questions about the roles of detachment and religious commitment in the course of philosophical inquiry.

D. Z. Phillips on Theories of Everything

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What kind of theory is a theory about the structure of the world? If by “the world” one wants to mean “everything”, there is no such theory. Certainly, science has no such theory, nor could it have. “Everything” is not the name of one big thing or topic, and therefore, there can be no theory concerning a thing or topic of this kind. To speak of a thing is to acknowledge the existence of many things, since one can always be asked which thing one is referring to. Science is concerned with specific states of affairs, no matter how wide the scope of its questions may be. Whatever explanations it offers, further questions can be asked about them. It makes no sense to speak of a last answer in science, one that does not admit of any further questions. Science is not concerned with “the structure of the world”, and there are no scientific investigations which have this as their subject.

Antony Flew Finds Evidence Leads to “God”

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The recent conversion to deism of well-known atheist Antony Flew has been widely reported. As he tells the story, his recent considerations of apparent design in the universe, and in particular of the complexity of DNA, have led him to believe in the existence of a God who is at least intelligent and powerful. The best account of Flew’s new perspective can be found in an interview with Gary Habermas in the upcoming issue of Philosophia Christi. The interview is available online on Biola University’s website. Richard Carrier has also corresponded with Flew about his recent thinking and commented on it at The Secular Web. One could conclude that Flew’s story illustrates the persuasiveness of current arguments for the existence of God from design even to a person who one can assume was predisposed against them. One of the best details of the story, however, is the collegiality it reveals between Flew and the late CS Lewis as well as with the Christian philosopher Gary Habermas. Understandably, Flew has been somewhat circumspect in his comments so far, pointing instead to the forthcoming edition of his seminal work, God and Philosophy.

Debating Design

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William Dembski, Michael Ruse, and other prominent philosophers provide here a comprehensive balanced overview of the debate concerning biological origins — a controversial dialectic since Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. Invariably, the source of controversy has been “design.” Is the appearance of design in organisms (as exhibited in their functional complexity) the result of purely natural forces acting without prevision or teleology? Or, does the appearance of design signify genuine prevision and teleology, and, if so, is that design empirically detectable and thus open to scientific inquiry?

David Quammen on Evolution as Theory

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Evolution by natural selection, the central concept of the life’s work of Charles Darwin, is a theory. It’s a theory about the origin of adaptation, complexity, and diversity among Earth’s living creatures. If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science, and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that it’s “just” a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is “just” a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory. Continental drift is a theory. The existence, structure, and dynamics of atoms? Atomic theory. Even electricity is a theoretical construct, involving electrons, which are tiny units of charged mass that no one has ever seen. Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact. That’s what scientists mean when they talk about a theory: not a dreamy and unreliable speculation, but an explanatory statement that fits the evidence. They embrace such an explanation confidently but provisionally — taking it as their best available view of reality, at least until some severely conflicting data or some better explanation might come along.

David Quammen on Darwin’s Agnosticism

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Charles Darwin was shy and meticulous, a wealthy landowner with close friends among the Anglican clergy. He had a gentle, unassuming manner, a strong need for privacy, and an extraordinary commitment to intellectual honesty. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, he had studied halfheartedly toward becoming a clergyman himself, before he discovered his real vocation as a scientist. Later, having established a good but conventional reputation in natural history, he spent 22 years secretly gathering evidence and pondering arguments—both for and against his theory—because he didn’t want to flame out in a burst of unpersuasive notoriety. He may have delayed, too, because of his anxiety about announcing a theory that seemed to challenge conventional religious beliefs—in particular, the Christian beliefs of his wife, Emma. Darwin himself quietly renounced Christianity during his middle age, and later described himself as an agnostic. He continued to believe in a distant, impersonal deity of some sort, a greater entity that had set the universe and its laws into motion, but not in a personal God who had chosen humanity as a specially favored species. Darwin avoided flaunting his lack of religious faith, at least partly in deference to Emma. And she prayed for his soul.

Agents Under Fire

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Philosophical naturalism is frequently advocated as the only doctrine that a scientifically informed intellectual of our time can possibly consider. Angus Menuge has shown, however, that a wide range of powerful considerations can be brought forward against this philosophy. Menuge provides a close examination of leading naturalists such as Dawkins, Dennett and Churchland, and draws upon a wide range of critics from C. S. Lewis to Michael Behe, to provide what is arguably the most comprehensive critique of naturalism yet to appear. People who are interested in the Argument from Reason should be especially interested in Menuge’s disucssion. A must read for naturalists and for their opponents. ~ Victor Reppert

Intelligent Discussion of Intelligent Design

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With yet another volume bearing his name, Debating Design (422 p.), one has to wonder if William Dembski ever sleeps. His recent publications also include Uncommon Descent (366 p.), Signs of Intelligence (224 p.), and The Design Revolution (330 p.). But, especially in light of Antony Flew’s recent comments about the force of arguments from Design, his latest project may win an audience his previous works missed. Bearing the weighty imprint of Cambridge University Press and co-edited with Michael Ruse, Debating Design hosts a discussion between leading advocates and critics of Intelligent Design. William, nice work. And get some sleep.

Scott D. Sampson on Interpretive Paleontology

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The bones were the same, nothing had changed. But people started to look at the dinosaurs differently. Same fossils. New ideas… People keep forgetting that paleontologists are really limited. We have a bunch of bones and teeth — for the most part — to work with. So really it’s the ideas that drive the science. The ideas, of course, are driven by the biases of that particular moment. So we went from a lizard bias to a bird bias, and now the pendulum is actually swinging, once again, back to the middle.

Survival of the Rhetoricians

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For any of you nostalgic for your days sparring for your high-school debate team, here’s a spirited argument of the point-counterpoint variety that is sure to please. A while back Jonathan Wells, author of The Icons of Evolution, shot off the salvo, “Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher about Evolution“. The National Center for Science Education has offered its own defense in lieu of your own local “high school biology professor”. And now, to counter that counterpunch, Wells has written “Inherit the Spin” wherein he countenances each of the NCSE’s answers and finds them unsatisfying. With this most recent contribution Wells has elevated the debate considerably and one hopes that the NCSE will return for round four.

The Divine Lawmaker

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John Foster presents a clear and powerful discussion of a range of topics relating to our understanding of the universe: induction, laws of nature, and the existence of God. He begins by developing a solution to the problem of induction — a solution that involves the postulation of laws of nature, as forms of natural necessity. He then offers a radically new account of the nature of such laws and the distinctive kind of necessity they involve. Finally, he uses this account as the basis for an argument for the existence of God as the creator of the laws and the universe they govern. The Divine Lawmaker is bold and original in its approach, and rich in argument. ~ Product Description • "John Foster… uses his philosophical background to analyze the question of the rationality of belief in God as a causal agent for nature’s regularities… Foster is writing for the philosophically literate; The Divine Lawmaker will appeal to the specialist and professional philosopher of science or religion…" ~ Science & Theology News