The Shallows and the Deep: The Democratization of Truth

15 04 2013


I found myself in one of those awkward situations yesterday where I was leading a discussion that was getting sidetracked by sincere questions that I knew from experience would lead to nothing but a series of tangled dead-ends, all of which begin with the implied qualification, “For what it’s worth,” to which the answer in each case was, “Not much.”

Okay, let me get more specific. It was about evolution and whether humans are simply the product of natural selection, or whether, perhaps, there’s a little more to it than that, like… say… God.

(*Qualifier: I’m no fan of creationism or any other religious attempt to usurp the basic theory of evolution. Nor, however, do I buy into the naturalistic assumptions of Darwinian theory, given that I believe that somewhere along the path to full humanity, God saw fit to establish a loving relationship with his creation and did so by giving us spirits, which I consider to be a basic element of our humanity, and likely the place where our species began. How, when, and where, exactly, did he do this? Ummm… January 1st, 10,000 BC, 6am local time? Humans are irreducibly spiritual beings, which entails the simple fact that our core selves cannot be reduced to the effects of naturalistic evolution.)

Okay, right? So boring as hell, so pre-2008. But please note: this wasn’t a discussion at a local chapter of the Society of Skeptics. No, this was an after-church discussion group at my local parish made up of five people plus myself: three college students from the school where I teach, all of whom happen to be wicked smart and traditionally conservative believers (no, not an oxymoron); our priest; and a graduate student from Caltech. You get three guesses who my interlocutor was.

And no, it wasn’t my priest. Or my students.

Let me get specific-er. Caltech guy was saying (arguing) that 1.) the process of evolution in no way presumes that God could not be a part of such a process and that 2.) humans are in no way qualitatively different from other species of animals but only quantitatively so, due to the evolutionary advantage of coming late to the party called existence, which has the wonderful fringe benefit of a measurably larger prefrontal cortex. Ergo, there’s nothing terribly unique about us that can’t be traced back to the circumference of our brains.

I was saying (arguing) that 1.) the process of Darwinian naturalistic evolution, to which my Caltech friend was referring, actually does presume both that God is not a part of the process and that the totality of our existence can be explained by simple reference to naturalistic causes; and 2.) that contrary to this, I believe humans are qualitatively different from other species of animals due to the fact that we were created imago Dei and have thus been endowed with spirits, which I take to be an uncontested fact in a setting of Christian believers (the fact, that is, that we are bodies and spirits and not merely bodies).

Caltech guy was incredulous at this, “this” being my position that we are qualitatively different from other animals due to our being the only ones created in the image of God, a point which I take to be one of the least sexy points I’ve made in probably, oh, three or four years. He was incredulous not because what I was saying contradicted scripture, which it does not, but because it contradicted his view of evolution, which he takes to be a theologically value neutral proposition, which it is not. No matter that what I was saying is implied (or explicitly stated) from Genesis to Revelation, and that Jesus makes repeated assertions throughout the gospels of our being unique by dint of our unique relationship to God, or that Paul insists again and again on the ontological priority of the human-God relationship vis-a-vis the rest of creation (Martin Buber’s I/Thou idea). Is it even prudent at such a point to start trotting out texts that speak directly to this issue (Romans 8:29, 1 Cor. 11:7, 15:49, 2 Cor. 3:18, Colossians 3:10, etc.)?

Regarding the whole idea of the biblical meaning of imago Dei, I refer you to this careful study by John Piper:

A few years back I did a talk for a local church on the biblical evidence for animals having souls (nephesh in the Greek), which I gathered was a good enough reason to treat animals with respect and care, and I was practically run out of the church by my own species. My point then, as now, is that the bible makes distinctions between animals and humans, bodies, souls, and spirits; and this is but one reason why hard-core evolutionists have such trouble with the Christian position, because we insist there is a God in whose image we humans are created, which is a complete non-starter for them (and understandably so).

But it isn’t just our position anymore. Even among scientific ranks there is division. Ian Tattersall, paleontologist and curator emeritus with the American Muesum of Natural History in New York and a noted expert on evolution, has argued that humans represent a “totally unprecedented entity” on the planet, and that “Homo sapiens is not simply an improved version of its ancestors – it’s a new concept” (from his book Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness, [1998]). It’s important to note that Tattersall is not coming from any particular religious perspective in saying this. He’s simply making the point that, scientifically speaking, “the notion of human evolution as being a linear trudge from primitivism to perfection is totally wrong” (from his Wikipedia page).

But back now to my Caltech interlocutor and our sabre rattling at yesterday’s church discussion. I found the whole give and take disheartening for a few reasons. First, I know precious little about what my Caltech friend is studying in the field of quantum mechanics, and given that he is the far more trained person than I in this area, I’d fully expect him to begin rolling his eyes if I started to put up too many objections if he happened to be leading a discussion on, say, whether light is a particle or a wave. So yesterday I tried to keep my comments civil and not roll my eyes as he continued to press me for answers to questions that, to be quite honest, betrayed any real familiarity with the issue beyond a casual grasp of basic concepts that could be gleaned from a close reading of one or two books on the subject. But secondly, and even more depressingly, was the tenor of his questions, the rank presumptuousness with which he questioned my position and the utter incredulity he expressed over rather basic and time-honored suggestions such as, for example, that human beings are unique in creation.

Why is it that when any topic related to theological concerns comes up, everyone thinks themselves an expert? Why? Because theology is, by design, accessible even to children. We begin asking deep theological questions at the age of five. The mistake comes in the presumption that its very accessibility allows anyone, regardless of training, to somehow master the more complicated ideas — which theologians have been thinking over and wrestling with for thousands of years — in a single afternoon’s discussion over Chinese food. It would be like my assuming I could question a physicist’s foundational assumptions about photons because I can wire a light switch.

This kind of presumption is rife in today’s know-it-all “scientistic” culture, where gigabytes of information can be gathered in a single minute’s Google search sweep. But information is not knowledge, and so the truth — of anything — is not subject to majority rule or the principles of democracy or the hegemony of the scientific method. There is nothing inherently democratic (or, for that matter scientific) about the truth. It is entirely autocratic, even despotic, it its exactitude, by which I mean that even though our knowledge of any truth may be partially or even entirely limited, the truth still stands on its own as is, willy-nilly. And yes, this means that I believe in objective truth. And for those who think this a trifle bit naïf, I offer this bit of wisdom from philosopher Roger Scruton who said, “The man who tells you truth doesn’t exist is inviting you not to believe him. So don’t.”

In our age of democratizing claims to truth, it seems that anyone can question anyone any time about anything. Self-critical scrutiny of one’s own position, on the other hand, is a scarce commodity. How sometimes I wish theology was not accessible to children. But then, what would it be? The provenance of scholars only? Indeed, St. Jerome was right when he said about scripture, which I extend here to the task of theology, that it is “shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for theologians to swim in without ever touching bottom.”

And, if I may add, deep enough for quantum physicists to drown in.


0.00729735253 and Divine Providence

17 11 2012

Randomness or divine Providence. Which is it? It can’t be both, can it?

Or can it?

Though I am no trained scientist by a good stretch, questions of divine purpose and its relationship to indeterminate processes has been an on again/off again interest of mine for a long time, stretching back to my days at Princeton Seminary in the early 90s and to my many conversations with students (including then newcomer Bill Dembski) and faculty, such as T. F. Torrance who, fortuitously enough, I had had occasion to meet several times while he was studying at the Center for Theological Inquiry. Dr. Torrance and I spoke at length about his book The Christian Frame of Mind and about the convergence of the rational and moral orders and, as the subtitle of the book states, reason and openness. I also had an ongoing five-year conversation on this and related matters with my academic mentor, Jim Loder, while I was at PTS and which continued after I graduated in 1994. Jim introduced me to his friend Jim Neidhardt (with whom he co-wrote The Knight’s Move), and the three of us had some animated discussions about such things as the work of the Spirit in logic and transformation. My class with Diogenes Allen on the theology of Austin Farrer, and in particular Farrer’s provocative book Finite and Infinite, was another catalyst in my interest surrounding divine Providence and indeterminate processes.

My interests have continued since then, though in a strictly amateur capacity. For the last couple of years I’ve been intrigued with the question of the fine-structure constant and its relation to divine Providence, and whether such a conflict actually exists between what we understand to be indeterminate processes, on the one hand, and the monotheistic doctrine that God is omniscient and omnipotent, on the other. A recent paper (2010) published in the area of α (the fine-structure constant) suggests some pretty provocative ideas that have received little to no attention in the ongoing questions surrounding randomness and providence, and which, if the speculations the paper makes are true about the inconsistency of the fine-structure constant, would revolutionize the fields of both physics and theology. If the fine-structure constant isn’t so constant, then divine Providence and the scientific idea of randomness are not incompatible in any linear sense.

Randomness assumes there is order. The entire field of physics is based on the fundamental premise that certain physical laws are inviolable: the speed of light, the “law” of gravity, the conservation of mass-energy and momentum, the laws of thermodynamics, and so on. Each is a bedrock of physics. Recent work in the field of physics, however, has raised questions about these laws’ inviolability. A paper published in 2010 by John Webb and Julian King from the University of New South Wales in Australia, which examined the properties of what Richard Feynman called “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics,” casts a shadow over the hegemony of physical laws as science currently understands them.

The fine-structure constant is a number so precise that even the smallest deviation would create an environment unsuitable for carbon-based life forms. The reason for its precise value, however, remains a conundrum to scientists, even though the working assumption up to now has been that the entire universe operates within its exacting parameters. The Webb/King study’s findings appear to challenge this notion, leaving some to wonder if the fine-structure constant may not be so constant after all. There is still much work to be done in this area and far more studies to be conducted, to be sure, before an entire field of science does an about-face, and many theorists are dubious, to say the least, of the study’s findings, but IF the Webb/King study is right, the entire field of physics will be turned on its head and the assumptions we now have about the physical laws of the universe would have to be reassessed. They would no longer be inviolable laws, for starters. They would be, cosmologically speaking, temporary and localized conditions.

The theological implications of such an idea, were it to be proven, are profound. If the properties of α only pertain to this tiny corner of the universe, for example, then human beings can claim, with scientific confidence, a unique status for life. Nowhere else in the universe would such suitable conditions necessarily exist. Life is a one-off, in other words. Perhaps even a miracle. Such a finding would also mean that the whole idea of randomness would be moot, since there are no laws to violate in the first place. That is to say, God’s divine providence cannot be assumed to either mirror or violate the laws of nature since no such laws (given their now temporary and localized status) exist.

When God declares in Revelation 22:13, “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last,” his words take on new resonance in light of these provocative, albeit tentative, new findings. Perhaps God wasn’t being figurative after all, and the entire concept of randomness could be subsumed under God’s other imperial and cosmic declaration in Isaiah 55:9, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” What we see now as either randomness or the inscrutability of God’s providence is but a reiteration of God as α, which is (to quote Mr. Feynman) the greatest damn mystery of life.

See a fuller article on this in the Economist Sept. 2010 issue, entitled: “The fine-structure constant and the nature of the universe. Ye cannae change the laws of physics. Or can you?”