Tuesday, May 15, 2007

More olive branch than slap

kw: author dialog, religion, science

In my post "An olive branch, or a slap in the face" I reviewed David Sloan Wilson's book Evolution for Everyone. I subsequently Emailed Dr. Wilson, and a brief exchange ensued. David is an enjoyable fellow, and I'm pleased to have made his acquaintance. His stance is relentlessly scientific, yet he is congenial and courteous, as you'll see in the text below. At his suggestion, I include nearly all our communication from a pair of Emails each in late April and early May, 2007. My name begins with L, so I'll shorten references to it thus: L—. Needless to say, Dr. Wilson and other correspondents know my name, but I obscure it in my blog.

From David to L— 4/30/2007:

Dear L—,

Thanks for your message and review on your blog. Here is a brief response, which you are welcome to print on your blog if you like.

1) First, I'm delighted that you like 90% of the book! Now let's get to that 10% that you don't like.

2) Your review is a nice complement to Natalie Angier's review in the New York Times. She also liked 90% but thought I was too soft on religion in the other 10%.

3) The parable of the prodigal son is not owned by Christians! It is found in other religious traditions and available to anyone who finds it metaphorically appropriate.

4) You say: "Religion and Darwinism enjoyed a century of amicable
relations, until the sudden resurgence of "biblical inerrancy" views seventy years ago. The earlier, more reasonable Evangelical viewpoint was that the Bible tells us what God wants us to know about relationships, both horizontal and vertical, and that poetic language is not intended to convey exact knowledge of the natural world." You're right that the creationists of Darwin's day were often not biblical literalists, but that doesn't mean that they were comfortable with evolutionary theory. Read Janet Browne's recent 2-volume biography of Darwin for details. First and foremost, almost everyone back then thought that God's existence could be proven scientifically by studying his creation. It turned out that creationist theories, even when they were not based strictly on the bible, failed again and again to explain the facts of the world, culminating in Darwin's theory. Creationists of all stripes were not happy about this.

5) You say: "David, to eliminate the "certian kinds of religious faith" that you wish people to abandon would remove every genuine Christian from the planet." I enjoy discussing these issues with religious believers of all sorts. I know many who call themselves Christians and who would disagree with you. Are you saying they are not "genuine" Christians?

6) I think that a religious believer who is also a committed scientist must take very seriously the fact that creationist theories have been abandoned for all aspects of the material world, from astronomy, to physics, to biology, to human psychology, sociology, and medicine. You are willing to do this for the fossil record, but you still hold out hope for the cosmos in your discussion of astronomy. I don't see any warrant for this, other than wishful thinking. You appear to be a smart person and a good scholar, so you are presumably familiar with the phrase "God of the gaps," which is a particularly weak theological position.

7) My "Prodigal Son" chapter explores what it means to think of ourselves as 100% a product of evolution. That is a perfectly fine conjecture and I don't insist that everyone goes along with it. For those who do, it requires abandoning the notion that special qualities were breathed into us by a higher power. That is like believing that the power of God accounts for 85% (such numerical precision!) of the universe. It just doesn't have a place in scientific inquiry, however central to some (but not other) religious belief systems.

8) In closing, I'd like to introduce you to Michael Dowd, a former
born-again Christian who now preaches about evolution in the Evangelical style. His evolutionary christianity website is Evolutionary Christianity

Michael, I wonder if you have time to comment on L—'s review of my book?



I wrote back the 27th, and he replied the 30th, including the substance of my message, so here is his full reply. He preceded his responses with **. I've entered a few editorial comments, italicized and in brackets.

Thank you for your measured and enlightening response. I must touch on the last point first. You describe Michael Dowd as a "former born-again Christian". This implies that evolutionary understanding and born-again faith are incompatible. They are not. I've been telling my overly-anxious fellows for a generation or more that by denying evolution they are committing intellectual suicide ("God gave you that mind, brother...Use it!"). I hope Michael is still born again, by which I mean, still thinks of himself thus. Any comment, Michael? [Michael replied separately, and is indeed still born again. Have a look at his web site, referenced above]
**I stand corrected.

I'll tackle several points by reiterating that I consider religion and faith as distinct. Religion is universally human. It is what we do, the emotional foundation of human hope. Emotion is bigger and more ancient than cognition (take time to think, and you'll get eaten).

Atheism and science are typically carried out by their most ardent practitioners as religious activities...though some would hotly deny this (those most guilty, typically). It is due to a religious, not a reasoned, reaction by my dissertation committee that I was denied a PhD in 1985. I sighed, and passed the work on to others, who being in more favorable environments, were able to get every one of my discoveries into print and eventually into "established Geology". That same work and its further development went on to "make" my career at Conoco for the following decade.
**As a veteran of 30 years of the group selection controversy, I can vouch for the religious character of science, complete with the use of terms such as "taboo", "heresy", "high priest," etc.

Most people's religion consists almost entirely of sentimentality. Faith is another matter entirely. I contend it is not natural, and thus not amenable to scientific study.
**I might disagree...let's see.

As you state in your reply, the province of science is "the material world." For those who think the material universe is "all there is," science is the only reasonable path to knowledge. A proper Christian view is that science is indeed "all there is" for understanding the material universe...all of it, including human bodies and minds (although mental and psychological "sciences" have so far proven a tragically inept tool; psychologic medicine is a bit better in certain cases). But if any of the Bible is to be taken as revelation, the material world is simply not everything there is. The human spirit, breathed into men (or the first man, for those who think Adam was singular, not corporate) by God, is our organ for contacting divine things.
**I, personally, find it implausible that this does not result in anything that can be measured.

[I wonder if it can be measured, when the only instrument currently known is the human person. On no more substantial foundation than human experience Psychology has been erected; why not Pneumatology also? One professor of Psychology—his name currently escapes me—has written that there must be a human spirit because of phenomena that show something in addition to mind, and internal conflicts of conscience that do not reflect dissociative disorders.]

OK, let me clear up my cosmological paragraph. I don't think God accounts for Dark Energy or Dark Matter. I was pointing out that some do think so. Perhaps my levity got the best of me. My bigger point was that we have yet to produce tools that can interact with 85% (Stephen Hawking's number, not mine, and others state 95%...as you say, such precision!) of the universe. On one hand it is encouraging...there is a lot left to discover! That is exciting. On the other, let us remember to be humble. If we don't yet know even within a few orders of magnitude the mass of the hypothetical "Higgs Boson", let us consider that our understanding of human mental and emotional internals, studied by much coarser tools, is just a little too mysterious to make strong statements about the impossibility of certain experiences.
**I agree with you entirely about the need for scientists to be humble, as I hope I made clear in my book. However, this doesn't necessarily leads to an "anything goes" attitude about the likelihood of the various alternatives. .

Concerning "genuine Christians": how is a Christian defined? The pervasive corruption of the term by generations of writers, with all kinds of agendae (including someone who called Voltaire a Christian!!!), has made me reluctant to use the term for most of my life. I just follow Jesus. How do I know about him? Without the Bible, it is impossible. I don't claim I can always discern where the Bible is literal and where it is poetic, but the many times the apostolic writers wrote of things "we know", do seem to carry literal authority. A favorite passage states "the Spirit (i.e. God's Spirit) witnesses with our spirit (the human spirit) that we are children of God." Those who have this inner witness are "geniune Christians." Otherwise not. I was once one who thought himself a Christian, but knew nothing of my spirit. Something happens to some people, something many call "being born again." It activates a slumbering spirit. These are Christians. Those who follow a "Christian religion" may or may not be. As an old song says, "Ev'rybody talking' 'bout heaven ain't goin' there."
**The scientist in me wants to say--an intense psychological experience, that is impossible to ignore and completely re-orients one's life, can still have a purely naturalistic explanation--even a plausible adaptationist explanation, since many a culture has been founded maintained by such folks.

The "gap theory" of the first two verses of Genesis is quite different from the "God of the gaps." The latter is, as I think you properly understand, a last-ditch effort to put God into every gap in human knowledge. We do have an irritating habit of filling those pesky gaps!
**This is what I meant.

"The Gap" as first elaborated by Pember is rather the gap in the Biblical record that specifically leaves room for eons and eons of natural processes to bring about an earth that God spent a few days working on (many Biblical commentators write of the 6 days of restoration. There's a lot of theology attached!) prior to putting a spirit in a person, or some persons. Those persons already existed, for a long, long time. I think they were the product of evolution. God intervened to produce "living souls" in creatures that were previously simply smart apes with no divine yearnings.

Pember was offended by evolution, but he laid the groundwork for Bible believers to understand an ancient earth, and eventually, that even humans are evolved. The evolution-creation controversies of the 1870-1925 period were largely driven by a few oversensitive souls who mostly exposed their own insecurities. Most folks weren't much bothered, and were mainly amused if they thought of it at all.
**I haven't made a proper study of the history of creationism, although I would like to. Have you read "The Creationists" by Ronald Numbers? What else would you recommend? [I did not yet recommend a book. I intend to do so.]

As I wrote, I wonder if spiritual experiences could really be studied scientifically. It is experience one must tackle. You may think being born again is a sudden attack of insanity. My brother does, but he's usually too nice to say so in my presence. Those of us with this experience consider it an attack of sanity. Now what?
**I do not think of it as an attack of insanity. I do think that it can potentially be studied scientifically. At the beginning of your message, you correctly say that emotion is bigger and more ancient than cognition. When we study all forms of mentality in terms of what they cause people to do, conversion and "born again" experiences become intelligible scientifically, by enabling a wholesale change in behavior without requiring reason (I do not mean this disrespectfully). This intellectual description doesn't begin to describe the subjective experience, but that is also expected on the basis of the proximate-ultimate distinction described in Chapter 29. Similarly, the straightforward evolutionary explanation for falling in love does not remotely describe the subjective experience.

I reiterate: you ask for all the compromises to come from my side. I ask for just one: your willingness to take an agnostic rather than an anti-theistic stance.
**I think that I can make this concession, but I wonder if you judged what I say in my book too harshly to begin with. In my "Prodigal Son" chapter, I say that we will explore what it means to be 100% a product of evolution. I don't say that it is proven or insist that everyone agree--that makes me an agnostic. On p 261, I say: "I do not have an answer to my dilemma, much less one that can be validated scientifically, but slowly and after much thought I am gaining a conviction that I can have my cake and eat it too." That is a private opinion that I am not forcing on others. Other than having a personal commitment to a 100% science-based belief system, in what sense am I anti-theistic?

I might not always have time to continue this dialogue, but I have enjoyed it so far.

I replied briefly. I'll contact him again as I see the need. I do intend to find reference material for him.

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