Monday, March 31, 2014

Notre Dame Bestows Laetare Medal on Kenneth Miller

The Notre Dame Observer notes that Kenneth Miller, the Brown, the molecular biologist and critical witness in the Dover School Board trial of 2005 has been awarded the Laetare Medal, given to the catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity...”  The story continues:
Miller, a current professor at Brown University, researches the structure and function of biological membranes. He has appeared on television shows including “The Colbert Report” and C-SPAN programs to debate with supporters of creationism and intelligent design, according to the press release.

“Like many other scientists who hold the Catholic faith, I see the Creator’s plan and purpose fulfilled in our universe,” Miller said recently, according to the press release. “I see a planet bursting with evolutionary possibilities, a continuing creation in which the divine providence is manifest in every living thing.

“I see a science that tells us there is indeed a design to life, and the name of that design is evolution.”
If you have not read Miller's Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution
, you should. It is a wonderful tribute to the power of evolution and God's work in nature as well as an indictment of the vacuity of ID as a theoretical construct.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Ian Philbrick: Why Science and Atheism Are Incompatible

Ian Philbrick has a piece for the Georgetown Voice that tackles the controversy concerning Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and its host, a professed agnostic with tinges of religious antipathy.  He writes:
Tyson’s perspective is even more relevant to the increasingly antagonistic relationship between science and faith. Perhaps first popularized in American public discourse by the 1925 Scopes so-called “Monkey Trial,” modern “active atheists” (in Tyson’s words) have elevated acrimony to new levels. This activism has been spurred by the emergence of science intellectuals, including Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, whose vociferous atheism is inextricably wedded to their public personas.

While campaigns, petitions, and protests are certainly the prerogative of individuals, they become dangerous when applied wholesale to a discipline like science that derives its foundational credo and central legitimacy from objective inquiry. While dogma and impartiality can certainly exist as facets of an individual (as can religious belief and scientific rationality), the two are less easily reconciled on an institutional scale. Reconciling active atheism and science becomes a problem of participation and fundamentally conflicting ideology. Science, which must resist pigeonholing and generalization by its skeptical nature, is inherently incompatible with an activist movement that brands all faith practices invalid.
In their wonderful book, Science Held Hostage, Howard van Till, Davis Young and Clarence Menninga highlight the pitfalls of using science either in support of a belief position or an atheist position, instead arguing that science, practiced properly, cannot confer meaning in any sort of ultimate sense. It is simply a vehicle by which we understand the working of the universe.This is my general discomfort with the ID movement: using science, you can never show that God exists.  The movement's only recourse is to try to show that ID exists as a plausible notion, often at the expense of mainstream science.  This has resulted in an almost complete scientific sterility because there is no theoretical basis from which to work.  What sort of hypothetical question could you construct for which the null is "God doesn't exist."

by the same token, atheists, such as Richard Dawkins are out of their depth when dealing with religious subjects because atheism doesn't flow from the scientific enterprise.  Consequently, his book The God Delusion, was not well-received.  Dawkins, it was said, was a good scientist, but a rotten moralizer.

Science is best practiced as it is. It tells us how things work and, within its own confines, how they work, but it does not tell us what their ultimate purpose is. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sticks and Stones For the First Episode of Cosmos

The internet has been alive with comments about the new version of Cosmos, hosted by Neil De Grasse Tyson and not all of it has been positive.  At issue, it seems, is the very weird detour that the series made in profiling the life of monk Giordano Bruno, who, according to the show, was burned at the stake for his non-canonical views on astronomy.  As several have pointed out, this is a stretch at best and a lie at worst.  As Becky Ferreira put it:
But the truth is that Bruno's scientific theories weren't what got him killed. Sure, his refusal to recant his belief in a plurality of worlds contributed to his sentence. But it's important to note that the Catholic Church didn't even have an official position on the heliocentric universe in 1600, and support for it was not considered heresy during Bruno's trial.

On top of that, his support for Copernican cosmology was the least heretical position he propagated. His opinions on theology were far more pyrotechnic. For example, Bruno had the balls to suggest that Satan was destined to be saved and redeemed by God. He didn't think Jesus was the son of God, but rather “an unusually skilled magician.” He even publicly disputed Mary's virginity. The Church could let astronomical theories slide, but calling the Mother of God out on her sex life? There's no doubt that these were the ideas that landed Bruno on the stake.
Peter Hess writes:
But Cosmos makes Bruno out to be a martyr who died heroically in the defense of early modern science, and this is a role he certainly did not play. Jole Shackleford details this nicely in his exploration of the myth that "Giordano Bruno was the First Martyr of Modern Science" in Ron Numbers' edited volume Galileo Goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion (2009). 
The question being raised is why, for a series that is an attempt to deliver the best modern science to the public, would they take an obscure monk and mangle his history only for the sake of showing how misguided and vile the medieval Catholic church was?  Cosmos writer Steven Sotor argues that it was Bruno's ideas of the cosmos that were the important aspect of the piece.  If this is so, however, why drag the Catholic church  into the story at all?  Why not just focus on what Bruno's ideas were?  Why camouflage the fact that his ideas were rejected by other astronomers of the day and elevate him to the status of martyr for science when, in fact, he was burned for his religious ideas?  I doubt anyone is going to give the Catholic church a pass for how they treated him, but the idea that he was a brilliant scientist of his day and the church was “anti-science.” doesn't hold up here.

Also, without a disclaimer of sorts, it also smacks of holding the church accountable for actions that it took hundreds of years ago, actions that are now universally held as contemptible and myopic.  Nothing is said of how the church has grown in its acceptance and willingness to contribute to modern science.  Its a cheap shot and it mars the otherwise noble aspirations of a show that should be devoted to science. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

HuffPo: Intelligent Design's Final Days?

The intelligent design movement has labored under the premise that its attacks on evolution are not based on religion but on solid science and that arguments that promote intelligent design have no teleological motive.  This denial of religiosity on the part of the DI led, of course, to the church of the flying spaghetti monster, a parody based on the idea that the “intelligence” that was not attributable to God could, then, be attributable to any form of intelligence.

Well, now the mask is off.  Michael Zimmerman, the founder of the Clergy Letter Project, which can be thought of as a kind of response to the Discovery Institute's Dissent From Darwin list (but not to be confused with the hilarious Project Steve list) has written a piece for the Huffington Post titled Intelligent Design's Final Days?  He believes so.  This is why:
An article in the TFN Insider points out that Faith Bible Church in the Woodlands north of Houston will host a conference this weekend that explicitly links this form of creationism to "essential Christian doctrines." This is of particular significance because the most important talking point of those who promote intelligent design is that it has absolutely no link to Christianity in particular or to religion in general.
The description of the conference is clearly at odds with this perspective.
As Zimmerman points out, this conference is being attended by the movers and shakers of the intelligent design movement, with such luminaries as John West, Stephen Meyer and William Dembski. In fact, all but one of the speakers is a Discovery Institute senior fellow, with the sole exception being Melissa Cain Travis, who has written several books for the YEC-oriented publisher Apologia.While Zimmerman is quick to say that all of the main speakers have publicly distanced ID from Christianity, it should be pointed out that in 1999, William Dembski was quoted as saying that intelligent design was “the Logos of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory” and design leader Paul Nelson has publicly accepted the YEC perspective, co-authoring a book called A Case for Young-Earth Creationism: A Zondervan Digital Short.   Therefore, when these folks say that design is irrespective of Christianity, it is with a wink and a nudge.  The designer could be anybody but really, it is God.

Nonetheless, Zimmerman is correct in his observation that this conference represents a sea change of sorts in the movement.  They have, if you will, gone from latent to blatant.  Zimmerman puts it succinctly: “All three of these intelligent design stars are now comfortable moving away from their previous position and saying what all of us have known from the beginning: intelligent design is linked to “essential Christian doctrines.”  It now becomes clear that they have been “cdesign proponentsists” all along. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

More Trouble at Bryan College

It seems that the latest Adam and Eve brouhaha at Bryan College may be the straw that has broken the camel's back.  The Chattanooga Times Free Press relates this:

The change has roiled the entire Dayton, Tenn., campus. In just the past three weeks:

• A trustee resigned over the issue.

• Faculty passed an overwhelming vote of no confidence in President Stephen Livesay.

• A tug-of-war has erupted over the school's future, prompting hundreds of students and alumni to voice their discontent with the recent change and causing faculty to stand up in unprecedented ways.
Apparently, the dissent has been building for some time and many are unhappy with his handling of many different issues, one of which involved the sweeping under the rug of a case involving a faculty member accused of sexual assault:
And in 2012, when biblical studies professor David Morgan was arrested on charges of attempted child molestation, Livesay told students and professors that Morgan had left the college "to pursue other opportunities." Then the president drew national attention for spiking a student newspaper story exposing the arrest.
These problems come at a time when Bryan is facing some serious financial challenges. The college was funding Todd Wood's CORE but cut funding for that over a year ago. Things have not looked up since.

In a letter to the student newspaper, the Triangle, former student Paul Gutacker wrote this:
To revise the Statement of Belief, and raise one Christian understanding of origins up to the same level as the resurrection and the atonement, is a move away from the best of Bryan’s legacy. Let me be more blunt: this revision is a devolution towards fundamentalism. To believe in young-earth creationism is not to be a fundamentalist; to exclude those who believe differently is. This move is defensive and fearful. It is not historically or theologically or hermeneutically warranted. But, you might say, what of the inevitable warnings of “slippery slope!” and “abandoning the clear teaching of scripture!”? These cries ring hollow in light of the thoughtful, careful reflections of hundreds of thoroughly orthodox, robustly evangelical scholars and pastors who acknowledge evolution and maintain their strong faith.
It is too early to see how this controversy is going to affect Bryan's future but the level of discord that it has produced is significant and painful to watch. Bryan College has much to offer the surrounding community and—as some who have graduated from there have attested—a well-rounded strong education. It would be a pity for that to be marred by the short-sighted and myopic actions of a few.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Oldest Crust of Early Earth Found

It has been thought that, due to crustal subduction, the earliest crust of the planet has long since gone and the earliest that we have on the planet is 3.6 or so billion years old.  The age of the planet has always been derived from meteorites.  The St. Severin, Juvinas and Allende chondrites all have dates that cluster around 4.5 billion years old.

Now it has been found that zircon crystals in Western Australia formed around 4.4 billion years ago.  From the Science Daily story:
Writing today (Feb. 23, 2014) in the journal Nature Geoscience, an international team of researchers led by University of Wisconsin-Madison geoscience Professor John Valley reveals data that confirm the Earth’s crust first formed at least 4.4 billion years ago, just 160 million years after the formation of our solar system. The work shows, Valley says, that the time when our planet was a fiery ball covered in a magma ocean came earlier.

“This confirms our view of how the Earth cooled and became habitable,” says Valley, a geochemist whose studies of zircons, the oldest known terrestrial materials, have helped portray how the Earth’s crust formed during the first geologic eon of the planet. “This may also help us understand how other habitable planets would form.”
Another piece of the puzzle.

Noah's Ark Floats Again

It is being reported that Ken Ham's Ark Encounter is no longer foundering.  From ABC News by way of the AP:
Creation Museum founder Ken Ham announced Thursday that a municipal bond offering has raised enough money to begin construction on the Ark Encounter project, estimated to cost about $73 million. Groundbreaking is planned for May and the ark is expected to be finished by the summer of 2016.
Interestingly, the article suggests that the money began to pour in after the televised debate between Bill Nye and Mr. Ham:
Nye said he was "heartbroken and sickened for the Commonwealth of Kentucky" after learning that the project would move forward. He said the ark would eventually draw more attention to the beliefs of Ham's ministry, which preaches that the Bible's creation story is a true account, and as a result, "voters and taxpayers in Kentucky will eventually see that this is not in their best interest."

Ham's Answers in Genesis ministry and the Creation Museum enjoyed an avalanche of news media attention during the debate, which focused on science and the Bible's explanations of the origins of the universe.
This is, perhaps, the great fear in debating a young earth creationist, especially one as nationally-known as Ken Ham. Many scientists were quite unhappy with Bill Nye for accepting the challenge to debate Mr. Ham for two reasons: first, it is almost impossible to bring up to speed the audience—be they studio or TV—on the science involved. Much of it is technical and complex and requires years of education to understand.

Second, the very act of debating Ken Ham (or any young earth creationist, for that matter) is that it confers legitimacy to their arguments.  If you are willing to debate them, it must mean that their side of the debate has as much validity as yours.  Whether this is true or not becomes, at that point, irrelevant.  This was especially the case in the Ham/Nye debate, where the structure did not really allow them to effectively cross-examine each other's positions. 

I suspect that the difficulties inherent in the first reason likely influenced the kind of presentation that Mr. Nye employed.  Nonetheless, because his talk was so general, there was little to really grab on to.  As a result,  he won points on a few arguments but let many other opportunities slip through his grasp. 

I further suspect that there are other factors at work with regard to the uptick in financing for the Ark-n-Park and Mr. Nye should not feel so downcast.  There are always people out there willing to fund this kind of thing and have money to burn.  Like him, though, I am disappointed. 

Monday, March 03, 2014

Bryan College Officially Supports Young Earth Creation Model

The Chattanooga Times-Free Press is reporting that, following what is considered to be an unhealthy drift toward naturalism, the college administration has revised their faculty pledge statement.  According to the story:
The board of trustees is requiring professors and staff to sign a statement saying that they believe Adam and Eve were created in an instant by God and that humans shared no ancestry with other life forms. If they don’t sign, they fear that jobs could be on the line.
General consensus is that this statement is unnecessary and divisive. Since the ruling, almost 300 students (37% of the total student body) have signed a petition requesting that the requirement be overturned. I suspect that is not likely to happen anytime soon.  This is a matter of faith, not science, and the fact that it further marginalizes Bryan in terms of science education will probably carry no weight.  President Steven Livesay, who formulated the statement was quoted as saying: “Scripture always rises above anything else. Scripture rises above science. ... Science at some point will catch up with the scripture.” What if it doesn't? What if your understanding of scripture and science continue to diverge, as they have for the last two hundred years? What then?

As time goes on, the evidence for the young earth model gets worse, not better. President Livesay, are you so sure that, despite the fact that there is no extrabiblical evidence to support it, your hermeneutic is correct?  Are you willing to injure the reputation of your college and put your faculty on edge for it?

As one of my friends at work (and a graduate of Bryan) put it: “Appalling.”