Tag Archives: Naturalism

The importance of having a narrative when confronting the assumption of naturalism

How do you present theism as a rational belief to a person who thinks that the progress of science has removed the need for God?

Canadian science writer Denyse O’Leary writes about the history of cosmology at Evolution News.

Excerpt:

What help has materialism been in understanding the universe’s beginnings?

Many in cosmology have never made any secret of their dislike of the Big Bang, the generally accepted start to our universe first suggested by Belgian priest Georges Lemaître (1894-1966).

On the face of it, that is odd. The theory accounts well enough for the evidence. Nothing ever completely accounts for all the evidence, of course, because evidence is always changing a bit. But the Big Bang has enabled accurate prediction.

In which case, its hostile reception might surprise you. British astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) gave the theory its name in one of his papers — as a joke. Another noted astronomer, Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), exclaimed in 1933, “I feel almost an indignation that anyone should believe in it — except myself.” Why? Because “The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.”

One team of astrophysicists (1973) opined that it “involves a certain metaphysical aspect which may be either appealing or revolting.” Robert Jastrow (1925-2008), head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, initially remarked, “On both scientific and philosophical grounds, the concept of an eternal Universe seems more acceptable than the concept of a transient Universe that springs into being suddenly, and then fades slowly into darkness.” And Templeton Prize winner (2011) Martin Rees recalls his mentor Dennis Sciama’s dogged commitment to an eternal universe, no-Big Bang model:

For him, as for its inventors, it had a deep philosophical appeal — the universe existed, from everlasting to everlasting, in a uniquely self-consistent state. When conflicting evidence emerged, Sciama therefore sought a loophole (even an unlikely seeming one) rather as a defense lawyer clutches at any argument to rebut the prosecution case.

Evidence forced theorists to abandon their preferred eternal-universe model. From the mid 1940s, Hoyle attempted to disprove the theory he named. Until 1964, when his preferred theory, the Steady State, lost an evidence test.

Here is a quick summary of some of the experimental evidence that emerged in the last few decades that caused naturalists to abandon the eternal universe that they loved so much when they were younger.

The importance of having a narrative

Now I want to make a very, very important point about Christianity and the progress of science. And that point is that it is very important that Christians present the evidence in exactly the way that Denyse presented it in that article – in its historical context, featuring the conflict between naturalists and the experimental evidence.

All Christians should be familiar with the following basic pieces of evidence which fit the war between science and naturalism narrative:

  1. The origin of the universe
  2. The cosmic fine-tuning
  3. The origin of life (biological information)
  4. The sudden origin of the Cambrian phyla
  5. The habitability/observability correlation

When you talk about these evidences as a Christian theist to non-Christians, you have to have cultivated a genuine interest in reconciling your beliefs with science. You have to accept that there are two books that reveal God’s character and attributes. The book of nature, and the book of Scripture. And you need to be flexible about getting these two books to fit together. The book of nature gives us natural theology (see Romans 1). It tells us that God is Creator and Designer. The book of Scripture tells us that God stepped into history as a man to save us by taking the punishment for our headlong rush away from God, which the Bible calls sin. Science is one way that humans can recover some of basic knowledge about God. Knowledge that is only possible because God created and designed the universe (and us) in such a way that we are capable of making discoveries, and that the universe is capable of being explored and understood.

It’s very important to present these five basic evidences to non-Christians in the historical context. And here is the story you must tell: “In the beginning, there was the naturalism, and the naturalism tried to argue from ignorance that God was not Creator and God was not Designer. And then came the science, and now people have to give up their naturalism in order to account for the science”. That’s the narrative you use when talking to non-Christians about science.

In the beginning was the naturalism:

  1. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the universe was eternal
  2. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that a life-permitting universe was as likely as a life-prohibiting universe
  3. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the cell was a simple blob of Jello that could spontaneously emerge in some warm pond
  4. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the sudden origin of the Cambrian phyla would be explained by subsequent fossil discoveries
  5. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that there was nothing special about our galaxy, solar system, planet or moon

But then science progressed by doing experiments and making observations:

  1. Scientists discovered redshift and the cosmic microwave background radiation (evidence for a cosmic beginning) and more!
  2. Scientists discovered the fine-tuning of gravity and of the cosmological constant and more!
  3. Scientists discovered protein sequencing and exposed the myth of “junk DNA” and more!
  4. Scientists discovered an even shorter Cambrian explosion period and the absence of precursor fossils and more!
  5. Scientists discovered galactic habitable zones and circumstellar habitable zones and more!

And now rational people – people who want to have true beliefs about reality – need to abandon a false religion (naturalism).

Now naturally, science is in a state of flux and things change. But you have to look at the trend of discoveries, and those trends are clearly going against naturalism, and in favor of Christian theism. No one is arguing for a deductive proof here, we are simply looking at the evidence we have today and proportioning our belief to the concrete evidence we have today. People who are guided by reason should not seek to construct a worldview by leveraging speculations about future discoveries and mere possibilities. We should instead believe what is more probable than not. That’s what a rational seeker of truth ought to do. Proportion belief to probabilities based on current, concrete knowledge.

Atheism, as a worldview, is not rooted in an honest assessment about what science tells us about reality. Atheism is rooted in a religion: naturalism. And the troubling thing we learn from looking at the history of science is that this religion of naturalism is insulated from correction from the progress of science. Nothing that science reveals about nature seems to be able to put a dent in the religion of naturalism, at least for most atheists.

It falls to us Christian theists, then, to hold them accountable for their abuse and misrepresentation of science. And that means telling the story of the progress of science accurately, and accurately calling out the religion of naturalism for what it is – a religion rooted in blind faith and ignorance that has been repeatedly and convincingly falsified by the progress of science in the modern era.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

What’s the best explanation for the origin of life for atheists?

I just ordered the newest edition of “The Mystery of Life’s Origin“, which is a classic book on the origin of life by pro-design authors. The new edition has several new chapters. It reminded me of my interest in the origin of life when I was a younger man, just starting full-time work with a hot Internet start-up in the big city.

Back then, I liked to listen to debates about the origin of life (e.g. – Walter Bradley versus Robert Shapiro, etc.), as well as lectures and interviews. I ordered tons of academic lectures and debates, especially from Access Research Network. Two of my favorite interviews from ARN featured Dr. Charles Thaxton and Dr. Dean Kenyon.

Let’s start with Charles Thaxton’s interview.

And here are the questions:

1. How did you first get interested in the origin of life?
2. How did you come to write The Mystery of Life’s Origin with Walter Bradley and Roger Olsen?
3. Was there an advantage to having the three of you collaborate on the project?
4. What is the primary argument of your book, The Mystery of Life’s Origin?
5. Have scientists come close to developing a plausible naturalistic explanation to the origin of life or do you still consider the origin of life to be a mystery?
6. Do you see a particular irony in the timing of Stanley Miller’s experiments and the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick?
7. How does the emergence of modern genetics tie in with the Darwinian scenario of life going from simple to complex?
8. What are the major problems with origin of life simulation experiments?
9. Isn’t it rather impressive that amino acids were produced in the Miller experiments?
10. How close is the development of amino acids to the threshold of life?
11. What are the steps involved in producing proteins from amino acids?
12. Why are amino acids isolated during this process?
13. How can the investigator affect the outcome of a simulation experiment?
14. How did you evaluate the different chemical evolution experiments?
15. Are the initial conditions in the simulation experiments plausible?
16. What did the earth’s early atmosphere contain?
17. Will the simulation experiments work with this atmosphere?
18. There seems to be an underlying assumption that the origin of life resulted without any intelligent input whatsoever yet the simulation experiments appear to rely upon intelligent guidance. Could you comment on this irony?
19. Are there any natural processes that would have filtered out destructive ultraviolet light?
20. What additional steps beyond creating amino acids would be required to develop life?
21. What is so difficult about making proteins or nucleic acids?
22. In addition to the energy problem in protein synthesis isn’t there a sequencing problem?
23. Are DNA sequences analogous to a written language?
24. Has Hubert Yockey made similar claims?
25. In The Mystery of Life’s Origin you refer to order, randomness, and specified complexity. Could you give us an overview of these concepts?
26. What do you think the presence of specified complexity in a living system indicates about its origin?
27. In inferring the necessity of intelligence to produce life haven’t you ventured from the realm of science to religion?
28. Could you summarize the reasons why you believe intelligence was involved in the origin of life?
29. What are the major objections to your current point of view?
30. How was The Mystery of Life’s Origin received by the scientific community?
31. What was Dean Kenyon’s response to your critiques of his book, Biochemical Predestination?
32. What was Dean Kenyon’s response to The Mystery of Life’s Origin?
33. Were you a bit apprehensive about meeting Kenyon after writing a book which was quite critical of his views in Biochemical Predestination?
34. Are self-organizational theories plausible?
35. Would you comment on the work done by Prigogine and Eigen?
36. What is your assessment of RNA scenarios?
37. What other problems do you see with an RNA world?

You can learn more about Charles Thaxton here.

And here’s the interview with Dean Kenyon:

And here are the questions:

1. What first interested you in biology and the origin of life? What is your academic background in this area?
2. What was your viewpoint on the origin of life when you wrote Biochemical Predestination?
3. How have your views on the origin of life changed since you wrote Biochemical Predestination?
4. Do many of your colleagues support your new position? If not, why not?
5. What are the general presuppositions that scientists make who study the origin of life?
6. What is the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis, and what role does it play in current research and teaching on the origin of life?
7. What are the major underlying assumptions of the Oparin (chemical evolution) hypothesis?
8. Are there any other important assumptions in origin of life theories?
9. How well are these assumptions supported by currently available scientific data?
10. What is your evaluation of the Miller type of simulation experiment? What do these experiments tell us about possible chemical events on the prebiotic Earth?
11. Is it possible that interfering cross-reactions might prevent life from arising naturalistically?
12. Stanley Miller’s pioneering work in the origin of life assumed a reducing atmosphere of methane, ammonia, water vapor, and carbon dioxide? Is there sufficient empirical support for this assumption?
15. How large a gap is there between the most complex “protocell” model and the simplest living cell?
16. What is the biologically relevant information content of the simplest living organism known to exist? What are estimates for a theoretical minimum information content of the first living cell?
17. How probable is it that such complexity could arise by undirected chemical processes?
19. What are the major unsolved problems in research on the origin of life?
20. What is the relevance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to the origin of life?
21. Is it plausible that an “RNA world” was the precursor of the first living cells?
25. If life did not originate by chemical evolution on the primitive Earth, what other possible scientific explanations exist?
26. What do you mean by your statement that “perhaps scientism is more widespread than we like to think”?
27. Is it possible that natural processes are insufficient to account for the origin of all biological information?
28. Can science rule out the possibility that most biological information had an intelligent cause?
29. What alternatives are there to pursuing purely naturalistic explanations for the origin of life?
30. What do you mean by “intelligent design” as it relates to the origin of life?
31. Why is an intelligent design or creationist interpretation of scientific data bearing on origins not acceptable to many scientists?
32. What criteria could be used to determine if the information content of living organisms had an intelligent or natural cause?
34. Does academic freedom allow you to discuss the difficulties of scientific naturalism and origin of life theories? If not, why are they protected from criticism?
35. How should the origin of life be taught in light of the California Science Framework policy which states that “nothing in science or in any other field of knowledge shall be taught dogmatically”?
36. How is scientific progress impacted when critiques of current theories are suppressed?

You can learn more about Dean Kenyon here.

The challenge for naturalists posed by the origin of life makes it well worth your time to learn and understand. I used to explain this argument to my entire IT department on white boards when I was a young man. It’s fascinating, and more convincing than personal testimonies or abstract philosophical arguments. Although I read books on the origin of life, I learned how to present the information as an argument by watching the interviews above over and over.

People sometimes ask me how I was able to survive 22 years in IT with my theism intact. It turns out that there are no shortcuts to a theistic worldview. You have to support it with evidence. You have to be able to show your work about how you reached your conclusions. I’m a theist today because I never found a single atheist in any software development job who could even begin to challenge the evidence that I collected from listening to all those lectures and debates that I started from in my early 20s. It was as easy to defeat them as taking candy from a baby.

If only Christian parents and Christian leaders understood the importance of scientific facts when they talk to young people about Christianity. We need to be less worried about hurting the feelings of young people by making them “feel dumb”. Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s not a bad thing to ask people to work hard at learning how to rationally ground it with evidence. If we want to stop our young people from being lazy, ignorant and cowardly, then the right way to do it is to make them work. Make them learn. Make them fight.

Dr. Walter Bradley lectures on scientific evidence the creation and design of the universe

This lecture is special to me, because I bought a VHS tape of it just after I started working full-time, and watched it a million times. A lot of people come to their convictions about God’s existence because of parents or church or intuitions, but for me it’s all about the scientific evidence. This lecture changed my life. I wish more people taught their children about this evidence! This lecture was delivered at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

About the speaker:

Dr. Bradley received his B.S. in Engineering Science and his Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Texas in Austin.

Dr. Bradley taught for eight years at the Colorado School of Mines before assuming a position as Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in 1976.

During his 24 years at Texas A&M, Dr. Bradley served as Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University and as Director of the Polymer Technology Center, and received five College of Engineering Research Awards. He has received over $4,500,000 in research grants and has published over 140 technical articles and book chapters. He has also co-authored “The Mystery Of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories. He is a Fellow of the American Society for Materials and of the American Scientific Affiliation and serves as a consultant for many Fortune 500 companies.

He currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Baylor University.

The lecture: (63 minutes lecture, 25 minutes audience Q&A)

Summary slide:

This slide summarizes the content of the lecture
This slide summarizes the content of the lecture

Introduction:

  • At the beginning of the 20th century, people believed that the progress of science was pointing away from an intelligent Creator and Designer, and towards naturalism
  • A stream of new discoveries has shifted the support of science towards theism, and away from naturalism
  • Richard Dawkins, an atheist, says that nature only has the appearance of design, but that if you look closer, naturalistic mechanisms can account for the appearance of design
  • When deciding between design and apparent design (“designoid”), it matters whether you think there is an intelligence there to do the designing

Evidence #1: The Big Bang:

  • an eternal “steady state” universe is more compatible with naturalism, but a created universe is more compatible with a Creator
  • In 1929, Hubble used telescopes to observe that the light from distant galaxies was redshifted. The further away galaxies were, the faster they were moving away. Therefore, space is expanding in all directions, suggesting an explosive origin of the universe
  • In 1965, the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation matched a prediction of the Big Bang cosmology, and of the creation event
  • In 1992, the COBE space telescope allowed us to test four specific predictions of the Big Bang model, especially the predictions for light element abundances (hydrogen and helium), which matched the predictions of the creation model

Evidence #2: Simple mathematical structure of the physical laws

  • the simple mathematical structure of natural laws allows us to understand these laws, make discoveries, and engineer solutions to problems
  • early scientists saw the mathematical structure of the universe to mean that nature was designed by an intelligent to be understood
  • the fundamental equations of the laws of the universe can be easily written on one side of one sheet of paper
  • Eugene Wigner’s famous paper, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences” makes the point that this simple structure is an unexpected gift that allows is to do science

Evidence #3: fine-tuning of the physical constants and quantities

  • in order for any kind of complex life to survive, we need stars that provide energy within specific ranges for long periods of time
  • in order for any kind of complex life to survive, we need planets with stable orbits that will not suffer from extreme temperature swings as it varies in distance from its star
  • in order for any kind of complex life to survive, we need stable atomic structure
  • in order for any kind of complex life to survive, we need to have chemical diversity and correct relative abundances of each element
  • organic life has minimum requirements: process energy, store information, replicate, and you can’t fulfill those functions if there is only one element, e.g. – hydrogen
  • the energy level from the photons from the sun have to match the energy levels of the different elements in order to drive the chemical bonding needed for life
  • These requirements for life of any imaginable type depend on the values of the constants and quantities. The constants and quantities cannot vary much from what they are, or the universe will lose the characteristics (above) that allow it to support complex life of any imaginable time
  • For example, ratio of strong force to electromagnetic force:
    – if 2% larger, then no stable hydrogen, no long-lived stars, no compounds containing hydrogen, e.g. – water
    – if 5% smaller, no stable stars, heavy hydrogen would be unstable, few elements other than hydrogen

Evidence #4: initial conditions for habitability

  • Universe: expansion rate of the universe must be fast enough to avoid a re-collapse, but slow enough to allow matter to clump together and form stars and planets for complex life to live on
  • Planet: right distance from the star to get the right climate
  • Planet: right mass to retain the right atmosphere

Evidence #5: origin of life and information theory

  • It’s possible to explain every process in an automobile engine using plain old naturalistic mechanisms – no supernatural explanation is necessary to understand the processes
  • But the existence of engine itself: engineering all the parts has to be explained by the work of an intelligence
  • Similarly, we can understand how living systems work, but the existence of the living systems requires an intelligence
  • Even the simplest living system has to perform minimal function: capture energy, store information and replicate
  • Living systems are composed of objects like proteins that are composed of sequences of components complex such that the order of the components gives the overall structure function
  • Developing the components for a simple living cell is very improbable – even given the large number of galaxies, stars and planets in the universe, it is unlikely that complex, embodied life would exist anywhere in the universe

Evidence #6: more initial conditions for habitability

  • Location within the galaxy: you need to be away from the center of the galaxy, because the explosions from dying stars, and excessive radiation will kill life
  • Location within the galaxy: you need to be close enough to the center in order catch the heavy elements you need for life from the explosions of other stars
  • Location within the galaxy: the best location is between two arms of  a spiral galaxy, where you can get the heavy elements you need from dying stars, but without being hit with explosions and harmful radiation
  • Star mass: determines rate at which the sun burns, determines the energy level of photons that are used to drive chemical bonding reactions, determines the length of time the star will be stable
  • Star mass: star mass must be the correct value in order to allow liquid water on the planet’s surface, while still preserving stable orbit

I wish there was more curiosity about science in churches, and young Christians understood how critical science is for grounding the rationality of the Christian worldview. We need to be training up more scientists who think about the big questions, like Dr. Walter Bradley.