Thursday, April 26, 2018

The State of the Conversation

Last week I received a long critique of my latest book Mere Science and Christian Faith from an unnamed author at the Discovery Institute, which promotes the theory of Intelligent (or ID).

It led me to think about the state of the conversation of faith and science. 

Did I make some mistakes in Mere Science and Christian Faith? Yes, I misspelled Stephen Meyer’s name and credited his degree to Oxford not Cambridge. (Typos and incidental factual errors simply multiply like locusts and are the bane of writers!) This irks me because the errors distract from my main point—I was trying to underline that Meyer is a really good scholar and that his ideas shouldn’t be quickly dismissed as many university scientists do when I mention ID. Here’s the quote: “This movement has some heavy hitters in its ranks, among them Oxford-trained philosopher of science Stephen Myer, university biologist Michael Behe, and, perhaps most surprising, prominent UC Berkeley constitutional law professor Phillip Johnson. So it cannot be immediately written off as a farce proffered by thoughtless creationists.”
The article also took on my statement about the connections between statistical complexity and design. I would have rather added there is no necessary connection between the two because this is more consistent with my comments on the fine-tuning argument/anthropic principle (pages 78-80). In that light, the author presented some good reminders about “specified complexity” as a component of ID theory, which, due to space limitations, I did not address. Still I can’t quite tell why the author switched the topic from “irreducible complexity,” which is relevant for my charge that ID promotes a “God of the gaps” theory.

I’d rather not journey too far here because it detracts from the central point I hope to address. I want these comments to underline that this kind of critique may be one reason people don’t want to enter the faith-science conversation. Ideas are criticized, and mistakes are highlighted. For what it’s worth, I'm used to this—it’s what we do in academics—but it’s not always pleasant.

But there are other reasons to avoid the conversation, to be sure. Here’s what I mean. 

This review presents the following evaluations. Mere Science is a “sloppy Anti-ID book.” (More on whether the book is anti-ID below.) In one section, in which I assess the state of ID after the infamous 2005 Dover case decision, the piece talks about my “misguided critique,” and that my statement about the decision is “absurdly sloppy and misinformed.” He/she concludes in the piece’s final paragraph with this: “Cootsona’s treatment of ID is pathetic.” (Is it worth repeating these? Sloppy, misguided, absurdly sloppy and misinformed, and pathetic. There’s more, but already that’s pretty harsh.)

I imagine you see my intent, or perhaps the author’s. This kind of evaluation is intended to score points with one’s base and to discount the author. I am a university lecturer after all and I take my scholarship seriously. Need I say that one of my first reactions was to imagine a point-by-point rebuttal? That, however, is not what I’m addressing here, and I don’t imagine a rebuttal would be fruitful. Instead I’m thinking about the state of the faith-science conversation and how we might be tempted to respond. Once again, I noticed that those who desire to see some integration of mainstream science and Christian orthodoxy might stray from taking part if it includes this kind of anger and derision.

Nevertheless, my actual concern lies much deeper: I am concerned, actually deeply troubled, about a writer who sees this as a job to attack a book—and three associated organizations (BioLogos, the Templeton Foundation, and InterVarsity Press) and five individuals whom I won’t enumerate—based on 3% of the material from the book. (My treatment of ID is 5 pages in a 163-page book.) 

And this may yet be one more reason that many stay away . Paul writes so wisely, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). If this is the state of the conversation, many of us would say, "Forget it. I’d rather save my soul and a few therapy bills in the process."

But, for a variety of reasons, that’s not me. I want to move toward joining with others who want to change the conversation. They are many who have even elevated it into something beautiful, to find the way best to bring together the glories of the science and the knowledge of God. 

That to me is still good news.

A postscript: My posts have been coming out Mondays, and this week I've made a change to Thursdays. So be prepared!


Anonymous said...

Nice reflections on some clearly unfair and (I think you're right) "fire up the base" rhetoric. I can understand how irksome that experience might be and I think Paul's words are apt.
-Andrew Lavin

bob sprague said...

An unnamed critique is of little value. While I obviously haven't read the critique, I'm reminded of the saying, "Any jack-ass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one." I have always known you as one to be a builder of "conversation." I don't imagine you shrinking from spirited debate, or critique offered as part of rigorous conversation. I also know you will stand on your conviction, but honest enough to rethink. Of course, we know the best of these "conversations" happen when they are personal, humble, and thoughtful. You are experienced enough to know this was coming, and you probably will find your "grit" has grown. I'm still sorry you encounter this stuff.

Ted said...

Greg... welcome to the war. You go out to fight the enemy and then your friends shoot you in the back. I am so sorry for this. But it is not unexpected. Intelligent design soldiers do more battle against liberal Christians than against atheists. You want to bring religious voices together to sing in the same choir, but these critics Cannot appreciate Harmony. The fault here is not yours. Press on with your peacemaking.