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More Dispatches from the Science/Religion Classroom

Robert F. Shedinger
Photo: ESO 455-10, a planetary nebula, by ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Stanghellini.

Editor’s noteDr. Shedinger is a Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He is the author of a recent book critiquing Darwinian triumphalism, The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms.

Building on my previous short post (“Why We Do This Work”), I find that the students I have recently been teaching in a Science/Religion class are capable of profound insights far beyond what many members of the scientific establishment seem to be able to conjure up these days. In the latter part of the course, we concentrate on the fine-tuning of the universe by reading portions of Paul Davies’s The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life? Few of my students have any experience with modern particle physics or cosmology and therefore find this material quite challenging. 

But once having grasped the basic idea, they can appreciate the unlikelihood of a bio-friendly universe just appearing by accident, and they can quickly spot the multiverse theory as an attempt to save the sacred doctrine of methodological naturalism in the field of cosmology. Deeper insights then follow.

Darwinian Theory and Students’ Minds

One student wrote in a reflection journal:

Another reason I have not given much thought to the Big Bang or the specifics of the universe is that I have been taught, and I believe, that God created the universe, which is kind of hypocritical of me to say given that I, before this class that is, believed that evolution occurred by natural selection.

This comment reminds me of the hypocrisy demonstrated by Francis Collins in The Language of God, where he strenuously tries to ban the direct action of God from biological explanation, but is only too willing to pose it when accounting for the origin of the universe. Actually, I don’t think my student is being hypocritical at all. Her comment merely demonstrates the power and influence of Darwinian theory on the minds of students — even deeply religious ones — when they are denied the opportunity to consider its weaknesses and alternative ideas. Collins, of course, should know better.

With Mathematics, Not As Mathematics

Another student made a comment that reminded me of the great anti-Darwinian geneticist Richard Goldschmidt. This student emphasized the need to study evolution using sound mathematical reasoning based on what actually occurs in nature, “not just theoretical evidence like population genetics.” Goldschmidt once quipped that biology needed to be studied with mathematics, not as mathematics. Population genetics, he felt, had become more like the latter, and my student seems to have developed a similar insight. 

Interestingly, instead of theoretical population genetics, it might be the field of combinatorial mathematics that is more germane to evolutionary theory by demonstrating the vanishingly minuscule odds of functional new proteins arising by random mutation. Mathematics certainly has its place in evolutionary theory, but not necessarily the one Darwinians envision.

A third student spotted the inherent contradiction in a purely materialist physics, writing:

Scientists apparently want to adhere to the idea that man is just another form of life, right — that we are insignificant in the grand scheme of things? So how can that ideal be held in juxtaposition with the insistence that man will be able to determine a “theory of everything”? 

Art Without the Artisan

Many of my students noticed the inherently religious character of some aspects of modern physics and its aesthetic fascination with elegance and unification as a measure of truth value. Copernicus had made simplicity and elegance the driving motivation of his posing the sun as the center of the solar system, but he was explicit about the religious nature of his aesthetic sensibilities. Modern physics, however, seems to want to have the art without the artisan. And more to the point of my student’s question, what does it mean that humans have the unique ability to wonder about and actually comprehend aspects of the nature of reality if we are just accidental by products of physical processes? This is a great question, but how many science courses will encourage this kind of inquisitiveness?

The more I engage students on issues at the intersection between science and religion, the more it becomes clear to me why the scientific establishment expends so much energy trying to keep the “Divine Foot” (to use Richard Lewontin’s term) out of the classroom. Given the opportunity and encouragement, students are quite adept at spotting the incongruities, double standards, and tendentious arguments that often attend attempts to keep faith with methodological naturalism. If students were given a complete picture of subjects like the origin of the universe, the origin of life, evolution, and the nature of mind and consciousness, methodological naturalism might not have a prayer!