The last quartet of questions, one from each topic “region,” have been chosen in the Most Pressing Science & Faith Question tournament. After my attempt at seeding the questions turned out to have little connection to your preferences, you guys proved me clueless once more by making the showdown I expected to be neck-and-neck the only one to be decided unanimously! The remaining four are guaranteed at least one post all to themselves and my best effort to get input from other knowledgeable parties. (If there’s someone you’d like to address one of them, let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I can do.) So while the voting will continue for two more rounds, this is the last week for a quickfire round-up of answers to departed questions. Click here for a larger scale bracket if the embedded poll below is not convenient. Voting is open until midnight EDT on Sunday (April 4).
Once again, keep scrolling after the poll to see my quick takes on the four questions that did not advance.
Philosophy & Ethics
Is there a point at which we can conclude science will never answer a given question about the physical world?
In a way, this is like the halting problem in computer science. When you write a computer program, it would be helpful to know before you run it if it will ever finish. It is theoretically possible for a program to carry on indefinitely, which is undesirable if you are waiting for an answer although possibly useful if you’re writing something like an ever-vigilant monitoring tool. We can deductively prove whether certain programs with certain inputs will end, but in general we can demonstrate that the question is unanswerable.
We could imagine applying a similar line of thinking to scientific investigation. If we start a research program to tackle a particular question, will it ever finish? If we know in advance it will finish, and if we get to that end without positive results, we might be able to reasonably conclude that science cannot answer that question. To give some specific examples: What is dark matter? Is there a single theory which can model all four fundamental forces of physics? Can biology emerge from chemistry? Scientists have spent decades on these questions with varying degrees of progress but no clear answers. Could there come a point when we realize we’ve exhausted enough possibilities that we know nothing is left? The halting problem analogy might suggest ‘no’ but maybe the correspondence breaks down at some crucial point.
Another analogy is the game Battleship where players search a grid one square at a time for enemy naval vessels. Since the smallest vessel occupies two squares, you don’t actually have to search every spot; a checkerboard of every other one will do. With that pattern, you only have to check half the board to find out your opponent has cheated and not actually launched their fleet. Maybe science is more like this, a space of possible answers that we just have to check thoroughly enough to know there’s no hidden answer waiting to be discovered. Then we just need to know if we’ve searched enough. On the origin of life question, consider how many quintillions of gallons of water cover the globe and how many millions of years of chemistry was going on in that water. Then think about how many liters worth of experiments have been done in the ~70 years since Miller-Urey. We likely have only explored a minuscule fraction of the chemistry carried out in the prebiotic Earth. Quantifying all the possible math that could unify physical forces might be more challenging, so the Battleship approach might not always be practical either. But I think it’s a potentially useful way of framing the issue.
Theology & Religion
How much can we learn from general revelation?
Last week’s question about whether God is a viable scientific hypothesis overlaps with this one. Going further, we can definitively identify some topics outside the scope of general revelation. In the midst of Holy Week, the occurrence and significance of the Resurrection cannot be derived from experience with creation. Sure, you can learn the facts of life and death. And the metamorphosis of butterflies is popular as a resurrection metaphor, but the metaphorical possibility alone does not warrant concluding anything about resurrection reality. By itself, I would not say that general revelation is a complete revelation.
At the same time, there may not be a hard boundary. Obviously some folks make stronger inferences than I do about the existence of God just from the facts of creation. And the complementary relationship of Scripture and nature leads to investigatory feedback loops, each deepening our understanding of the other until it is unclear after the fact just what we learned from where. So we may not be able to enumerate all the questions that are answerable from general revelation and all the ones that are not, but we can still know that it has a different domain than special revelation. Further, I’d say that part of the point of general revelation is to raise questions that special revelation can answer rather than answering them itself.
Are some versions of evolutionary biology more compatible with Christianity than others?
Certainly some evolution popularizers link the science of evolutionary biology to a philosophy or worldview of materialism or atheism. But in that case the incompatible elements are the metaphysical add-ons, not the science itself. Going deeper, there are Christians who recognize the difference between the science and the philosophy and emphasize opposing Darwinian evolution more specifically. Along that vein, I periodically come across great enthusiasm for “third way” approaches and various parts of the extended evolutionary synthesis. Frankly, that enthusiasm generally puzzles me. Perhaps some of the appeal is simply that of the middle ground; somewhere between Dawkins and Ham must lie the truth. Certainly the “third way” branding deliberately makes that appeal, but to me that’s more marketing than anything else. If you object to common descent, the extended synthesis is not actually any closer to what you believe than whatever other formulation of evolution you think it opposes.
At the same time, I do think some folks are looking beyond the marketing pitch. I think there are some Christians who are willing to contemplate the common descent aspect of evolution but are not satisfied with “time plus chance” which sounds an awful lot like God playing a lot of dice. And so anything with more structure will be appealing. To me, the evolutionary model always had more structure than just “time plus chance;” I never understood how such an incomplete summary became so widely used. At the same time, randomness still plays a role even in extended synthesis mechanisms. In some cases, that randomness may not involve completely uniform probabilities, meaning some outcomes are more likely than others. But I think our common examples of coin flips and dice and monkeys at typewriters lead us to expect that only uniform probabilities “count” as random and so any departure from that is counter to randomness. (In fact, if you ask people to draw random patterns or write random sequences, they will space things out or impose fairness rules that push the results far from what actually happens randomly.) I think it is because I think about randomness differently that I’m puzzled by the enthusiasm for the extended evolutionary synthesis. Nevertheless, if structure and bias that leads away from uniformly random results is more appealing to you, great, because there is plenty of that in evolutionary biology!
What would the discovery of extraterrestrial life mean for Christianity?
Maybe there was less interest than I expected in this question because you guys watched the BioLogos conference talk on the subject when I linked to it a year and a half ago. (See below if you missed it then.) Some Christians have staked claims about human uniqueness or against evolutionary models on the expectation that there is no other life in the universe. But since I believe God created physics and chemistry in such a way to make life possible and perhaps even inevitable, finding life elsewhere would not necessitate reconsidering my beliefs.
To me, the more interesting question is how other sapient life might relate to the Gospel (or vice versa). Science fiction has explored this question from various angles. While individual writers have offered varying takes, a prevailing sentiment in the Star Trek saga is for the pluralism of a galactic civilization to sand the edges off idiosyncratic beliefs to find some lowest common denominator. Conversely, Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God imagines a Terran materialist being led back towards belief in the divine by the science-based apologetics of an extraterrestrial visitor. Obviously such speculative fiction is, well, speculative; the only way we’ll ever really know if aliens know about Jesus is if we ask them. In the meantime, I put my hope in the trend of Scripture. Every time the people of God encounter another culture and ask “Are God’s promises for them too?” the answer is always affirmative. Why not for Cenaturians too?
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain’s hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer’s cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts — Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.