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FAQ’s about my doctorate in mathematics

August 28, 2009 4 comments

People often ask me a standard series of questions about “what I do.” I don’t know where these questions came from, but their occurrence, and even their order, is fairly predictable. I have collected them, along with my standard responses, followed by commentary, here. Caution: if you read this, asking these questions to me in a future conversation may be rendered redundant, and thus you may find yourself short on ammunition if we find ourselves in a one on one conversation. This can be awkward.

Question 1: What do you do?

Standard response: I am in graduate school. I’m getting a PhD in mathematics.

Remarks: I have fine tuned this one quite a bit over the years. if I simply say “I am in graduate school” I am immediately met with the obvious question “cool, what are you studying?” If I leave out the PhD part, I often get the question: “are you getting your masters?” to which I reply, “no, PhD.” This usually provokes some sort of awed response, “oh wow, that must be intense.” The person then often follows this with a remark about their lack of ability in math. Or, the person simply assumes I am getting a masters, which creates an awkward moment on question 5 (see below).

Question 2: A. How long do you have left? OR B. When are you going to be finished?

Standard response: I don’t know exactly. I’m hoping less than a year. I could be finished soon, or it could take me a while. It all depends on how tough my problem turns out to be–it could take another month to solve, or several years. There’s no way to tell.

Remarks: I’ll confess, I despise this question. To draw an analogy, this is bit like asking someone, immediately after they tell you their job description, “Oh that’s cool. When are you going to get a promotion?” Would you find that annoying? It makes me feel like being in graduate school is an introduction, a prelude to my real life, which will begin after I get my degree. This is often despairing, because I don’t know when I will have my degree. I don’t want to think about it like this; as far as I’m concerned, what I’m doing now is what I do. I don’t have to keep doing it, though I don’t really have much else going on for me right now. When I graduate, I’ll either do more of the same as a professor somewhere, or I’ll move on to something else. The main difference between being a graduate student and being a professor is, well, about fifty thousand dollars.

Question 3: What are you going to do when you graduate?

Standard response: Well, if I stay in academia, then probably I will teach at a university somewhere, and do research. The balance between the two depends on the appointment itself–some schools are more concerned with teaching, whereas some are more research oriented. But I may do something else entirely.

Remarks: This response is a pretty honest assessment of my situation; it basically contains all the answers I’ve given to this question over the years, which have varied depending on my state of mind in regards to getting my degree. There have been times when I’ve felt like this definitely isn’t my calling in life, and I’ve strongly considered quitting–these moments are all captured by the “I may do something else entirely” response.

Follow up to question 3: You said you might do something else entirely. What would you do instead?

Response I’d like to give: What will I do if I give up on mathematics? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go to grad school for something else; maybe I’ll become a journalist; maybe I’ll move to Africa; maybe I’ll become a monk. Maybe I’ll just find something that pays the bills, and stay in that the rest of my life. I don’t know who decided that life is something you are supposed to have a plan for…they’ve been drilling that lie into our heads since kindergarten, and I’ve had enough of it.

Response I usually give: Uh…uh….uh.

Question 4: What do you have to do to get a PhD in math? Do you have to come up with a new equation or something?

Standard response: No, actually math isn’t really mainly about equations. It’s more like…[as I try to come up with an analogy, people often interject with their own suggestion, to which I either try to twist around enough to apply it, or frankly explain that it isn’t really like whatever they suggested]…looking for patterns or trying to solve a puzzle! Have you heard of prime numbers? Yeah, well suppose you noticed that there seem to be an endless supply of them, and wanted to show this. This is true, but how can one prove it? Mathematicians try to come up with true statements, and then prove them–or disprove them if they turn out to be false. Or we try to show something, and then make the correct statement afterwords.

Remarks: The last remark often provokes a puzzled expression. I suppose they are wondering how you can show something without first knowing what it is you are trying to show. Since I haven’t really done any original mathematics yet myself, I’m not quite sure how this goes yet either. But perhaps it is helpful to think of it like a process of exploration, after which one gives a tidy account what was discovered.

I actually like, however, the answer a student friend of mine gives to this question better: “we just make shit up.”

Question 5: How long have you been doing this?

Standard response: [Varies, depending on when the question was asked.]

Remarks: The answer to this question can be quite shocking if the person has been assuming that I am merely getting a masters degree. Please never ask a PhD student this question.

Question 6: Do you like it?

Standard response: Sometimes I like it, sometimes I hate it. It depends on my mood and prospects, at the moment.

Remarks: This question, like “how are you doing,” is one that is hard to give a sincere answer to. Giving the truth on this is painful…I usually feel like I’m lying when I answer this question.

Question 7: So when do classes start back up?

Standard response: Classes? Start?

Remarks: Although PhD programs in mathematics are, ostensibly, organized around taking classes, and this follows the standard two-semester yearly fall/spring cycle, I usually do not think of things in these terms at all. It’s more about focusing on getting the thesis done.

Question 8: So, like, do you see numbers everywhere?

Standard response: (awkward grin)

Remarks: (none)

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Categories: Uncategorized

Book Review: The Blind Watchmaker (Creation and Evolution, Part 3)

August 17, 2009 1 comment

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would, though I did think the earlier chapters were much more interesting than the later ones. Dawkins is a talented and vivid writer. Like most good science writers, he is especially good at finding analogies that give a clear picture of a complicated idea. He gave me a better understanding of how biologists understand evolution.

Let me begin with a note on the word “evolution” itself. As I noted in my first post, a certain amount of equivocation goes on in regards to this word. Sometimes it is used to describe the process by which living things have changed into other living things, and to the descent of all life from a common ancestor through a gradual and long process. Sometimes it refers to this, but also includes within it the notion that the main guiding force in this process has been natural selection. This latter definition was the one I gave in my first post, though now I’m thinking it would be better to give this the label of “Darwinism.” This is how I will be using the words from now on. I’m not sure if Dawkins himself commits any equivocation linguistically in the book–it usually seems like he uses the word “evolution” in the more general sense. But I think he is guilty of allowing the conflation to shape his own thinking about the matter, viewing the evidence for evolution in the general sense to serve as evidence for Darwinism. This, I think, is a consequence of his materialism. More on this later.

So let us turn to the book itself. The Blind Watchmaker is basically a defense of Darwinism, particularly against any form of creationism. I found the third and fourth chapters of this book, in particular, to be quite interesting. I think they provide the intellectual backbone for the way of thinking about evolution that is characteristic of Dawkins himself, and that shapes the rest of the book. In the third chapter, Dawkins describes a computer simulation that he invented. He views this simulation as a sort of (very) simplified model of evolution, giving the reader a more accessible picture of how it might have taken place. Dawkins describes how he wrote a computer program that would draw a “tree”: on the first “generation” it would draw a single vertical line segment. On the second generation, it would add to the upper tip of this line two new line segments, set at an angle to each other, on the third generation it would add two new segments to each of these, and so on. Thus after a number of generations, a complex tree is drawn. Now, Dawkins built into his program nine “genes”: these were parameters that influenced how the program would draw the tree. The parameters would influence the angle between the line segments, the length of the new line segments, and the number of successive steps branching that will occur when the program was run. For example, giving a positive value to gene number 5 would increase the angle between branches. This is all meant to be analogous to how a biological organism’s genes determine it’s development from the embryo onward.

By changing these parameters, Dawkins is able to create a myriad of complex and varying trees. Dawkins then introduces the notion of a “child” to a particular tree. This is simply another tree with almost the same genes as the “parent” tree. Dawkins wrote another program that would randomly introduce minor changes–“mutations”–to the genes of a particular tree, and then draw the resulting tree. Using this program, Dawkins is able to “evolve” a variety of different trees. He does this by running the program to create various different “children” of a given tree, and then selecting one of those based on his aesthetic preference. He then repeats the process. In doing so, he is able to push the appearance of the tree in a direction of his choosing–he is even able to make, to his own surprise, trees that bear a striking resemblance to insects.

In the fourth chapter, Dawkins argues that the simplified model described in the third chapter is analogous to what goes on in the reproduction of biological life. The main difference is that biological life is a lot more complicated: there are thousands of genes, rather than just nine. Dawkins pictures all of the different possible permutations of these genes as a sort of “genetic space”–each permutation represents a point in this space.  And, since genes largely determine the development of the organism, a particular point in genetic space basically represents a particular organism. Now, this space is many dimensional–it has as many dimensions as there are genes, so we can’t really picture it. But the spacial analogy is still quite helpful, from a intuitive standpoint: we can think of organisms that have similar genes as being “close” in genetic space. Genetic space is incomprehensibly vast but, in in each instance of reproduction, a minor move may be made within this genetic space. Dawkins argues that, in order for us to believe that it is plausible for complex biological systems (for example, the eye) to evolve, we must realize that while the two different states in question (an organism with no eye vs. as organism with fully functional eyes) are very far apart in genetic space, it is in principle possible to travel from one state to the other via minor changes in the gene sequence. There is nothing deep to this claim–it is simply a consequence of the fact that an organism’s gene sequence, contained in its DNA, is a concrete and definite string of data (A’s and T’s and C’s and G’s, as my biology teacher used to say) that can and does experience minor modifications (mutations) when the organism reproduces and passes it on to its progeny (this is ignoring, for purposes of simplicity, the additional variation that occurs as a result sexual reproduction). We must, if we are to accept Darwinism, also believe that each required step (for a given path between the two states) could provide a survival advantage to the new organism.

Dawkins goes on to defend the idea that all of this is possible–that such a process of natural selection could introduce the variation and complexity that we see in life today, and that even the origin of biological life itself, while unlikely, could be accounted for by natural selection operating on self-replicating entities that came about by chance in a vast universe. He gives convincing refutations of common objections regarding the fruitfulness of natural selection in producing certain types of complexity. Moreover, to Dawkins, Darwinism is really the only good way to explain the situation we find ourselves in. Hence near the end of the book, he makes this astonishing remark:

The theory of evolution by cumulative natural selection is the only theory that is in principle capable of explaining the existence of organized complexity. Even if the evidence did not favour it, it would still be the best theory available! In fact the evidence does favour it. But that is another story. (p. 317)

Reading this quote in isolation might lead one to believe that Dawkins is forgetting about the idea of a designer. In fact, Dawkins has already dismissed this possibility as superfluous: Dawkins argues that, to posit God as an explanation for the organized complexity of life, one is positing something that is already so complex that it must itself require an explanation more incredible than what we were trying to explain in the first place. Thus one accomplishes nothing in positing a designer. I will quote him in full here:

If we want to postulate a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, that deity must already have been vastly complex in the first place. The creationist, whether a naive Bible-thumper or an educated bishop, simply postulates an already existing being of prodigious intelligence intelligence and complexity. If we are going to allow ourselves the luxury of postulating organized complexity without offering an explanation, we might as well make a job of it and simply postulate the existence of life as we know it! (p. 316)

This is an ingenious variation of the “who made God” argument, but I think it is fundamentally flawed, at least as an argument against the existence of God. I think Dawkins is ignoring the fact that there are important metaphysical differences between God and the material world. What are those differences? Essentially, they boil down to the fact that is God is infinite and personal, whereas the material universe is finite and impersonal. Because God is infinite and personal, it doesn’t really make sense to talk about “how complex” he is. Complexity is an idea we can only apply to finite and (in principle) comprehensible systems, things that are by their nature describable. I believe that it simply does not make sense to look at such a God in terms of the categories of complexity that Dawkins has set up in his study of biological life. Anything that could be understood in those categories would not be God. I think that the reason God is conceived of in this way by Dawkins is because his materialism is so strong that he actually imagines God, if he did exist, would be pretty much like how he sees the universe–an “object” of some sort, which we could study.

But God is, rather, a being with a will, consciousness, and creativity–that is what I mean when I say that he is personal. These attributes are fundamental to who he is. They are metaphysically irreducible, so to speak. If we are to say that God is the cause of the design in the universe, we mean that he employed these faculties (and perhaps others) to create it. Life in the universe is ultimately derivative of his activity, as an autonomous agent, somehow. Even Dawkins would probably admit that such a being would be capable of creating life as we know it, by any number of means. But the deeper question of whether such a God exists hinges on much more than the question of how life came into being. It is more of a philosophical question than a scientific one (but to materialists like Dawkins, the only real questions are scientific in nature).

If we are using God simply as an explanation for the origin of life, then I agree with Dawkins that he would be a superfluous hypothesis. Thus Dawkins’ argument actually turns out, at best, to be not so much an argument against the existence of God, but rather an argument against the inference of the existence of God based on the existence of organized complexity. Perhaps he only means it as such. And actually I think Dawkins is right with this, that we shouldn’t “infer” a creator from the design apparent in nature, as the intelligent design theorists often say we should. But neither should we dismiss the involvement of a creator simply because we’ve discovered a mechanism (natural selection) that can create the appearance of design. This, I think, is where Dawkins goes fundamentally wrong in his own thinking: having dismissed the need to posit God as the explanation for every particular appearance of design, he totally dismisses the possibility of God’s involvement in the process of bringing about that appearance. This is an understandable move for an atheist, but I wish he would realize that it is his atheism that is what is driving the conclusion.

In the book Dawkins does make, I think, a strong case for the conclusion that all of life is ultimately related by a common ancestor. The fossil record and the study of genetics seem to indicate this, as Dawkins describes in detail. There may be, within a theistic paradigm at least, another explanation for this data, but I have never heard one that I have found convincing. I remain open to one, but right now I consider the arguments provided by Dawkins in this regard to be quite persuasive. Thus I think that the problem with materialist evolution turns out to be, not it’s view of the history of life, in terms of common ancestry, but rather it’s preoccupation with natural selection as the shaping factor. This does not seem to me to be warranted by the evidence. I stress the fact, however, that I am saying this from within a theist paradigm already. The most plausible view from this position, to me, seems to be one where much of biological life did come into being gradually, but where God was intimately involved in the whole process. Obviously there are a myriad of ways in which this could have happened. Dawkins, in his dismissal of divine involvement, gives very little space or credit to any sort of suggestion. He lumps all such theories together, and portrays each as a sort of lame concession, something that the most sensible theologians have adopted now because the previous consensus, instantaneous creation, has been refuted by the evidence. This is not even historically accurate–even Augustine (who lived more than a thousand years before Darwin), I’ve been told, had a sort of theory of evolution.

But I think that the reason that such a view–a “God guided evolution”–now seems like a lame concession to Dawkins, and to many others, is the affect that our tendencies toward materialism have had on our intuitive understanding of how God interacts with the world. In short, one with a bent towards materialism will inevitably view the activity of God himself as a series of interventions in what is essentially a mechanical universe. Thus God guided evolution can come to seem like a sort of haphazard and convoluted series of miraculous interventions. And I think that this sort of thing is rightly seen as an unnecessary hypothesis, and unworthy of any wise designer.

But this is not how the God described in the bible, the Creator God first worshiped by the Jews, interacts with his creation. The God of the bible is always intimately involved in his creation–he forms it, nurtures it, and sustains it. The bible suggests that life itself cannot go on without the constant activity of God. We cannot reduce the whole of God’s activity in the world to a sort “interference.” As Dawkins himself points out, we don’t even really understand exactly why or how an embryo develops into a fully formed animal. I don’t think it is unreasonable to believe, from a Christian standpoint, that “the Lord, the giver of life” is specially involved in this sort of thing. In the same way, God must have overseen, shaped, and nurtured the development of life on earth, from its beginnings until now, and onward. Thus I think that it should be stressed that theories of divine involvement in the development of life on earth need not reduce to the idea that God committed a series of interventions. Nor, I think, must it then reduce to the idea that God “set things up so that evolution would happen.” No doubt this is true to some extent in any such theory, but I think that this idea, taken to it’s extreme, boarders on Deism and concedes way more to the mechanism of natural selection than is warranted in a theistic paradigm.

Anyway, we should be grateful to Dawkins for his concise summary and defense of materialist evolution–he has show us what is possible from this viewpoint. But we should not, of course, be as quick as he is to dismiss God’s involvement in the history of life on earth. As I come to the close of this post, I’d like to make a note on where I’ll be going with all of this. In my next post on this subject, I would like to begin to consider things from a more biblical perspective. I will begin to consider the question of how we ought to integrate the bible into our understanding of the history of life on earth. The next book I will be reading, in this regard, is Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John Walton. One other thing I would still like to consider is, in addition to the involvement of God in the history of life, the possible involvement of angels as well–particularly “bad angels” (demons). I think that a consideration of their possible activity might shed light on how God is related to some of the more violent, and thus seemingly evil, aspects of evolution. Though I know of some who have considered this possibility (I think CS Lewis does so in The Problem of Pain; I don’t know if Walton does in his book), I feel like there is much potential here that ought to be explored.

Categories: Uncategorized

Creation and Evolution, Part 2: materialism and science

August 2, 2009 Leave a comment

In my last post on this subject, I gave definitions for some of the important ideas that I think I will be invoking a lot. This material can be found here.

In this post, I would like to first draw attention to what I consider to be a fundamental error made in popular thinking today in regards to the relationship between science and naturalism or materialism. See the previous post for the distinction between naturalism and materialism. I will mostly be using the word “materialism” for now, because I think the word better brings to mind the idea that is ingrained in the public consciousness. The error has to do with the perceived relationship between materialism and science. It is the the following: materialism is thought to be a conclusion of science, when it is actually a premise. So what do I mean by this? I mean that people today tend to think that materialism is established by science, when actually materialism is just an operating principle of scientific inquiry. People think that science proves that the world is a blind, impersonal, mechanism that goes on of its own accord. But actually this is what science assumes before it does anything else.

In all fairness, this isn’t quite accurate. The above sentence in bold is somewhat oversimplified. I actually don’t want to suggest (as some might) that one must be a materialist to do science, that one must deny the existence of anything besides nature to even begin to try to describe nature using mathematics and the scientific method. I only mean to say that, to do an experiment, and to search for the patterns and laws that explain the behavior of physical reality, one must first assume that the part of reality under consideration at the moment can be so explained. And this requires at least the assumption that the part of reality under examination operates according to fixed laws, that it’s behavior can be predicted in a describable way. And this requires, among other things, that the portion of reality under consideration is not being interfered with by a supernatural agent.

Now, the assumption of science–that patterns in reality can be discerned by observation and experimentation–has proved fruitful. It has lead to many amazing pieces of technology, and has literally transformed our world. One of the basic reasons the science has “caught on,” I believe, is because it works. It is certainly a huge philosophical leap, however, to conclude that, because science works in this fashion, a large scale materialism of the entirety of all that exists, throughout all time, is true. It is a huge leap to believe that, because we can model the patterns that exist within nature with mathematics, all that exists is an impersonal nature, governed by mathematical laws.

Perhaps the reader wonders if it is, indeed, such a leap. I would like to offer an analogy. This analogy will appeal, in particular, to anyone who has studied the area of mathematics known as topology. Suppose you are a tiny creature confined to the surface of a very large sphere–say, a sphere with a radius of about 4,000 miles (I know of one sphere with approximately such a radius…). You have a single tool: a pair of scissors. You begin cutting out pieces of the ground that you are walking on. Every piece that you cut out, no matter how big, appears to be, well, quite flat. Not totally flat–their are some irregularities, but you can smooth them out. You might, therefore, be tempted to conclude that you are stand on a basically flat surface, with some bumps, rather than a sphere. But you would be wrong (One interesting thing about this example, for those who understand the topology, is that this isn’t simply a matter of scale–the sphere really is an intrinsically “different object” than any of the flatten-able pieces that you can cut out of it, even the very large ones). So, to explain the analogy, cutting out a piece of the surface and flattening it is analogous to observing a part of reality and discovering the patterns that are there–this is what we do when we do science. We can apply this “local materialism” to whatever aspects of reality we study. But it is a genuine leap to move to a “global materialism.”

Now, I believe that this error itself forms part of the basis, for the secular world, for a rejection of the supernatural, and thus in particular of Christian revelation. It also plays into an entire mythology about the history of science in relation to religion, in which the ancient and superstitious and supernatural explanations for phenomena offered by the religions of our ancestors have now been overturned by scientific explanations. I will not go into detail about this here; perhaps I will do so in a future post. For now I refer the reader to this excellent article on the subject, from a slightly different angle. For the Christian world, on the other hand, the error forms the basis for an irrational fear of science. It thus causes many to adhere to a confused epistemology, in which the results of secular science are “trusted” in varying degrees, depending in large part on how conservative one is theologically. This, of course, is an irrational standard.

Now, if one gets into the academic side of things, including academic debates about creation and evolution, he will certainly find an awareness of this basic fact that materialism, under the guise of naturalism, functions as a premise in scientific study. Sometimes this is called “methodological naturalism” and is distinguished from “philosophical naturalism.” But I do not think you will find a real awareness of all of the different ramifications of acknowledging this, some of which I will try to get to in in this series. Thus I think the error is not simply “popular level”; I think it still functions strongly in the thinking of scholars and scientists and theologians who participate in this debate. I think that if people would really let an awareness of this error seep into their bones, to really accept and come to appreciate how fundamental it is and how it pervades the different worldviews that many of us subscribe to (and causes confusion within our own worldviews), and the very way we think about what science is doing, and how it progresses, then we might clear up a lot of our confusion.

In particular, I think we need to come to an appreciation of how the materialist assumption, though justified even for a non-materialist in one scientific setting, may not be justified in another setting, even if a scientific one. There may be settings in which the materialist assumption will do us no good, and may even be terribly misleading. This might be the case in the creation vs. evolution debate. I’d like to offer another analogy that I hope illustrates this.

Suppose a crime has taken place, let’s say a robbery. The police are called to investigate a robbery which took place in the middle of the night. Now, let us consider two possible scenarios. In the first, the robbery took place while no one was home, and the crime scene has not been touched since it happened. In this case, the police perhaps have a lot to work with. Anyone who has watched television police shows knows that often quite a lot of what happened during a crime can be deduced from the physical evidence left at the crime scene. The modern use of finger prints and DNA can establish with near certainty that a person was at the crime scene. And even without these means, often the more basic physical evidence left behind can be used to reconstruct a convincing narrative of what probably happened. It’s not hard to imagine how such evidence (signs of forced entry, footprints, mess left by the robbers, etc) could be used to deduce, for example, that the robbers entered through the back door, rummaged through some drawers in the kitchen, moved on the the bedroom, etc. Even if they got some of the details wrong, they’d have a pretty good idea of what happened.

Now let us change the scenario. Suppose the robbers entered in the middle of the night while people were home, but no one woke up. In the morning, upon realizing they had been robbed, the victims called the police. Then, deciding they have little hope of retrieving their possessions, they decide to clean up a bit in preparation for a party that they had been planning on having that night. Suppose further that the police, being especially busy, were unable to come and investigate the crime scene until the next day, after this party had taken place. The party, of course, leaves the house a total mess. What do you think the police will conclude when they arrive? If they have any sense, they will decide that the crime scene is basically worthless now. So many things have happened in between, so many people have been in and out, so many objects have been moved, misplaced, broken, etc. Whatever evidence there was for the original crime has probably been forever lost in a sea of other alterations to the environment.

Now I’d like the reader to consider a third possibility. Suppose the police, in the scenario just described, investigated the crime scene as if it were untouched since the event of the robbery. Never-mind why they would do such a thing, or that to do so they would have to completely ignore the testimony of the victims. What would they conclude? Well, who knows what sort of bizarre scenarios they might concoct in order to describe what happened! Maybe we were dealing with a large and particularly messy group of thieves. Or perhaps the thieves themselves invited their friends over for a party…I leave it to the imagination of the reader to come up with other scenarios. But, depending on the state of scene, some of these scenarios might even seem plausible. This is an important point.

If it’s not clear already, in the analogy just given, the police investigation of the crime scene is analogous to the use of the scientific method to investigate the history of life on this earth. The “crime” is whatever took place before recorded history. The first scenario is analogous to the situation in which materialism is true, and so science is perhaps able to reconstruct a plausible history of life on earth. The second scenario is analogous to what would happen if materialism is false, and the evidence of the past has been influenced by the activity of supernatural agents–the supernatural agents are the people who thew the party, and those who attended the party. When I further imagined that the investigation proceeded as if the crime scene had remained untouched, this is akin to investigating the history of the earth under the materialist hypothesis when, in fact, materialism is false, and that evidence is “tainted” by the activity of supernatural agents. Thus I want the reader to have clear in his head that our initial philosophical assumptions will affect how we read the evidence, and that if these philosophical assumptions prove false, we are in danger of misreading the evidence.

Another point I would like the reader to get clear in his head is that evolution by natural selection is meant, by its strongest proponents, to be a description of the actual history of life on earth, which is a very concrete thing: cells, and plants, and flesh and blood creatures, all living and dying, changing, thriving, and going extinct. This whole gigantic history is what is being proposed and described. It may be admitted that we don’t have the whole picture yet, but it is always claimed by evolutionists that we basically know the sort of thing that happened to bring about life as we now know it–we know the basic outline of the story. When evolution is argued for, however, it is usually done so on the basis of it being a good scientific model the describes the evidence that we have before us. “No other theory” it is said, “can account for the data in the way that evolution does.” I think that this is intrinsically problematic. It is one thing to say a theory accounts for the data better than any other theory–it is quite another to say that that theory is true. This, I think, is especially the case when we are talking about history, unrepeatable history for which there is not, for the most part, any record. We should consider more carefully the relationship between a scientific model and truth. How do we relate one to the other?

Philosophically, this is not an easy question. Furthermore, the answer may be different depending on what kind of “science” we are doing. In the sciences of physics and chemistry, we are dealing mostly with observation of phenomena in the present. We look at events that are concrete and repeatable–the motion of a tennis ball as it glides through the air, the orbit of Venus, the oscillation of a spring. We then try to find a general “law” that describes in general the behavior of a wide class of phenomena at the same time. For example, Newton’s laws  of motion can be used to describe, using simple calculus (calculus is simple, trust me!), all of the three above events.

Now, even in the case of basic physics, there arise philosophical issues when we consider the relationship between the phenomena, the world around us we observe, and the model we use to explain them. But, whatever we conclude about these philosophical issues, all will probably agree that there is some deep connection between the model and the reality. I want to argue that the history of life on this earth may not be like this. For one, it happened only once. Also, the vast majority of it has not been observed. So even for the materialist, this makes things quite different. We don’t know beforehand how much of what actually happened can be gleaned from what we see now. Thus I sometimes wonder if the people who talk about evolution, who write books about how it could have happened (such as The Blind Watchmaker, which I’ll be reviewing soon), actually think very much about whether what they are saying is true. Sometimes it seems like they are more concerned with saying “this could have happened this way” than they are with being sure they know what actually happened, or at least with concluding that we don’t know what actually happened. Not thinking about this distinction enough causes them, I believe, to overstep the bounds of what is genuinely known; to present clear speculation as near fact, merely on the grounds that it is the only plausible scientific model.

Ultimately, I think that the religious and the non-religious must come to terms with the fact that they are simply operating under different premises. All too often, people of all sorts, materialist or not, seem to make the leap: evolution by natural selection has been show to be plausible total explanation for the state of life on earth today, therefore evolution by natural selection gives us the true history of life on earth. The materialist can be somewhat forgiven for this–having hit upon the only plausible solution to his problem of how life came to be, he is right to adopt it. But those of us whose worldview allows for more possibilities should not make the inference so immediately, if we should even make it at all. It could, in fact, turn out that the best answer a non-materialist can ever give to the question of the origin of life is, at least in some sense, one of considerable more uncertainty than the materialist one. This should not be taken as a weakness of that position, anymore than it is a weakness of the position of the cop who, having realized that the crime scene was altered, concluded that the true details of the crime were now inaccessible to his investigation. That is, skepticism about the details of the origin of life might be a simple consequence of what we believe about the sorts of things that go on in a universe where beings with free will exist and influence things.

Let me speak now from a non-materialist perspective–in fact, let me speak from a Christian perspective. I am not, by all of this, saying that we will be unable to conclude anything about the origin and history of life, though we may be able to conclude considerably less than we thought we could. Neither will we have to reject wholesale what secular science says about origins–we just have to always keep in mind what their assumptions are, and take their work for what it’s worth, in recognition of that. Thus we should not, as the creationists and intelligent design proponents are prone to, fight evolution, try to show that it is false or heavily problematic. But neither should we accept it practically wholesale and then try to reconcile it with our own scripture and theology, as some of the theistic evolutionists do. Rather, we should recognize it for what it is: the theory of origins that comes about when one assumes materialism throughout all space and time. Only when we see it clearly as that can we begin, from the standpoint of Christian truth, to put it in its proper context, to glean what we can from it, assimilate it and put it within our own paradigm, making whatever adjustments are necessary. This, of course, will not be easy, and I am not claiming to have the answers as to what we will ultimately conclude. I’m only arguing that we need to begin in the right way. And I believe that some are already making such progress, and I hope in the future books that I read on this project to learn about it.

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