Posts tagged ‘Science’

All The Stuff We Don’t Know

COVID-19 continues to be stubbornly confusing. As researchers push to discover treatments and develop a vaccine, their efforts and preliminary conclusions concerning the virus and its treatments have been plagued by some embarrassing mistakes. Most recently, a study that appeared earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has come under fire. The New York Times reports:

The study claimed that mask-wearing “significantly reduces the number of infections” with the coronavirus and that “other mitigation measures, such as social distancing implemented in the United States, are insufficient by themselves in protecting the public.” It also said that airborne transmission was the primary way the virus spreads.

Experts said the paper’s conclusions were similar to those from others – masks do work – but they objected to the methodology as deeply flawed. The researchers assumed that behaviors changed immediately after policy changes, for example, and the study failed to take into account the seismic changes occurring across societies that may have affected the reported incidence of infection.

It turns out that even when it’s generally agreed that a particular study’s conclusion is broadly correct, the methodology researchers use to arrive at their conclusion can still be suspect, which is part of the reason so many of these types of studies raise more questions than they answer. The more we try to learn, the more our enduring ignorance about this virus becomes apparent.

An article in The Wall Street Journal summarizes the state of our ignorance sharply:

What is the true mortality rate? What is a safe social distance? How contagious is the virus? What percentage of carriers are asymptomatic? We still don’t know any of these facts with certainty.

There was a time when we had a certain bravado about what our scientific studies could solve. The 19th century patron of scientific positivism, Auguste Comte, once confidently proclaimed: “From science comes prediction; from prediction comes action.” But Comte’s aphorism now seems to be a summary of the struggles with our response to COVID-19 rather than a pattern for how to get our response to it right. Predictions are consistently changing. And our actions must be continually revised to keep up with these provisional predictions.

When the apostle Paul writes to the Christian church at Corinth, they, too, like we once were, are quite confident in their knowledge. He says about their confidence:

We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! (1 Corinthians 4:10)

The Corinthians, however, do not know as much as they think they do. The Corinthians are divided over their spiritual leaders, so Paul has to admonish them:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? (1 Corinthians 3:16)

If the Corinthians are one spiritual temple, they should not be fighting over different spiritual leaders. The Corinthians should know this – but they don’t seem to.

But Paul isn’t done yet. The Corinthians are also ignorant of the proper boundaries for sexual morality as they celebrate a man among them who is sleeping with his mother-in-law. Paul must warn them again:

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? (1 Corinthians 5:6)

Paul says that the sexual immorality of one man affects the spiritual vitality of the whole Corinthian congregation. The Corinthians should know this – but they don’t seem to.

But Paul still isn’t done. A couple of chapters later, Paul has to remind the Corinthians that they need to support their spiritual leaders so they, in turn, can support their families:

Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:13-14)

The Corinthians should not be stingy with their leaders, but generous. And again, the Corinthians should know this – but they don’t seem to.

It turns out that human ignorance is as old as the Scriptures and part and parcel of our finitude. There is so much that we should know – or would like to know – but simply do not. Thus, instead of living with arrogance, we are called to approach the mysteries of life – the spiritual as well as the scientific ones – with a healthy dose of humility. One of the most important things for us to know is that there is so much we don’t know.

None of this is to say that we should end our efforts to combat COVID-19, nor is it to say that we should abandon our search for effective treatments and a vaccine. Science’s value to discovery and progress is not in question. But its limits must still be admitted and respected. The positivism of a prior age simply cannot face all the facets of a pandemic like this one.

So, let’s show grace, patience, and pay appropriate respect to our scientific researchers as they continue to carry out their important work while also holding onto faith as, together, we continue to walk into the unknowns of COVID-19 with the One who knows all things – God Himself.

With Him, we can face what we don’t yet know.

June 29, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Digitizing Life After Death

Digital Brain

Credit: Martin420

There seems to be something hardwired into humans that wants to cheat death.  Writing for NBC News, Kevin Van Aelst, in his article “Disrupting death: Technologists explore ways to digitize life,” chronicles a new bevy of scientific experiments designed to con the grim reaper.

In one experiment, researchers work at mapping brain connections in an attempt to digitize the mind so that, even after a body dies, a “human being can live in on virtual form.”  In another experiment:

Artificial intelligence specialists are developing digital avatars that replicate users’ personalities and can continue to communicate with loved ones after their owners have passed away … The program, Augmented Eternity, will then be able to communicate memories of your life and answer questions on certain topics, such as your political views, depending on what information is stored in your data.

Even before these technologies have been thoroughly tested and refined, their limits are glaring.  Having someone live on as a digitized mind makes bioethicist John Harris wonder, because “we are so much flesh and blood creatures,” what it would be like to “continue to exist in a disembodied state.”  Another woman, who created an avatar of a friend she lost, describes the avatar as a “sort of digital tomb to come to and mourn” and freely admits that her friend is no longer alive – at least in any sort of meaningful way.  In other words, for all of science and technology’s attempts to cheat death, its reality and finality still loom large.

Christ does what science and technology cannot.  All of our experiments, from digitizing minds to fashioning avatars, only succeed in mimicking life after death.  Christ actually gives life after death.  As He says to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in Me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25).  The Christian hope is much more than a digital grave that a person can pay a visit to in order to hear a phantom voice.  It is a real life that we are promised.

The scientific and technological advances that address life and death are both problematic in that they blur distinctions between the two and promising in that they give us insight into the two.  But whatever their problems and promises may be, this much is clear:  they will always only be partial.  Only Christ can give real life – a life that is “to the full” (John 10:10).

July 30, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Back To The Beginning

greenland-fossils

A couple of weeks ago, a scientific discovery significant enough to merit coverage in The New York Times was revealed.  Geologists have discovered the world’s oldest fossils in Greenland.  According to these researchers, the fossils are around 3.7 billion years old and are thought to be stromatolites, which are formed by the growth of layers of cyanobacteria, a single-celled microbe that lives in shallow water.  But the discovery has posed a problem for scientists.  Nicholas Wade explains:

The great age of the fossils complicates the task of reconstructing the evolution of life from the chemicals naturally present on the early Earth. It leaves comparatively little time for evolution to have occurred and puts the process close to a time when Earth was being bombarded by destructive asteroids.[1]

For years, scientists have struggled to date the age of and construct a prehistory of the earth.  Just when a consensus about the earth’s age seems to emerge, new evidence surfaces that forces scientists to rethink the prevailing wisdom.  Theories of the earth’s origins and the origins of life are constantly being modified.

Part of the trouble with the discovery of this fossil is that it forces the origins of life, from an evolutionary perspective, back to more than 4 billion years ago. This timeframe coincides with cataclysmic meteor events on the earth, including a hit by a meteor so big that it tore out a chunk of our planet that spun into orbit and become our moon.  As Mr. Wade notes in his article, “It is difficult to see how life could have begun under such circumstances.”  It is difficult, indeed.  That is, unless there’s more to life than evolutionary chance.

Whenever a discovery like this is made, it points not only to the wonder of the earth, but to the problems that emerge with what appears to be a designer planet when one denies any sort of a Designer.  This is why the Bible opens its pages with a declaration of one Designer: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).  Whatever one might think of fossils that are purported to be billions of years old, this much the Bible says we can know:  the fossils, and the life they represent, did not happen by accident.  Someone formed life and, through whatever this planet has endured, has sustained life.  This is why some researchers struggle so mightily to reconstruct earth’s origins.  They work out of a worldview that will simply not allow an author and sustainer of life.  They may study fossils to date them, but they do not take the time to marvel at the very existence of them.

The question each of us must answer is this:  am I wedded – philosophically and academically – to a universe that is constrained by naturalism?  Do I believe that there is no cause of anything save what we can see and measure?  Or, as Christianity claims, am I open – philosophically and academically – to a universe that bears the marks of supernaturalism?  Do I believe that what we see is simply too fantastic to be described in merely mechanical terms?  Do I believe that things can also be described in theological terms?

Christians should by no means be closed off to scientific study and discovery.  Curiosity, after all, is hardwired into the human spirit.  But scientists also should not close themselves off to God. For if one is subscribes to sheer naturalism, he may be able to accumulate lots of information about what he sees, but he will still be left with little meaning as to why it’s all here.

Christianity tells us that everything is here because, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  He is why everything exists.  He is why we exist.  And that means He is worth at least considering in any theory of origins.

The fossils got here somehow.

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[1] Nicholas Wade, “World’s Oldest Fossils Found in Greenland,” The New York Times (8.31.2016).

September 19, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Why I Don’t Read The Bible Literally (But I Do Take It Seriously)

Bible in PewIt never ceases to amaze me how misunderstood the orthodox Christian belief concerning Holy Scripture is.  Even The New York Times can’t seem to figure it out.  Take Charles Blow, an op-ed columnist for the Times, who stands stunned at the views of many Americans on the Bible.  With a mixture of disbelief and disdain, he reports:

One Gallup report issued last week found that 42 percent of Americans believe “God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.”

Even among people who said that they were “very familiar” with the theory of evolution, a third still believed that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.

It’s not clear what the respondents meant by being “very familiar” – did they fully understand the science upon which evolution’s based, or was their understanding something short of that, as in, very familiar with it as being antithetical to creationist concepts?

Whatever the case, on this issue as well as many others in America, the truth is not the light.[1]

Blow goes on to cite people’s opinions on the Bible itself according to this same Gallup pole:

Nearly a third of Americans continue to believe that the Bible “is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”

Furthermore, nearly half believe that it is “the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally.”

About a fifth of Americans said they believe the Bible is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.”

The questions Gallup asks concerning the nature and character of the Bible frustrate me.  Gallup wants to know, “Do you believe the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word?”  Personally, I would have to answer “yes” and “no.”  Do I believe the Bible is “the actual word of God”?  Yes.  Do I believe it is to be “taken literally, word for word”?  No.  But this is not because I want to discredit the Bible’s veracity, authority, or inerrancy.  Rather, this is because I follow the Bible’s lead when it interprets itself non-literally in some places.  The Bible is full of metaphors, symbols, and other figures of speech as even an elementary reading of it will uncover. One need look no farther than “The LORD is my shepherd” (Psalm 23) to find a metaphor – and a beautiful metaphor, I would add – of Scripture.  Thus, I would find myself more at ease with Gallup’s second position:  “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally.”

Blow, however, summarily dismisses this second position:

I am curious which parts would get a pass from most of these respondents and which wouldn’t. Would the origins of the world fall into the literal camp? What about the rules – all or some – in books like Deuteronomy?

Perhaps Blow has not yet discovered the difference between reading something literally and reading something contextually.  Just because I don’t practice, for instance, the sacrifices outlined in Deuteronomy doesn’t mean I don’t understand them literally.  It just means that I read them in light of Hebrews 10:10:  “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”  Christ’s sacrifice for sin put an end to all those Old Testament sacrifices for sin.  For me to try to follow those laws would be like me taking a ticket for an Elvis concert, going to the venue listed thereon, and expecting a concert usher to let me in!  Though I may read the ticket “literally,” that ticket’s time is past.  So it is with the Old Testament sacrificial system.  Its time too is past because it has been fulfilled by Christ.  But that isn’t me reading the Bible non-literally.  That’s just me reading the Bible contextually.

I suspect part of the reason Blow disparages option two when it comes to reading and interpreting the Bible is because, for him, only option three, which says the Bible is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man,” is viable.  He writes:

I don’t seek to deny anyone the right to believe as he or she chooses. I have at points in my own life been quite religious, and my own children have complicated views about religion. As my oldest son once told me, “I’d hate to live in a world where a God couldn’t exist.”

That is his choice, as it is every individual’s choice, and I respect it.

What worries me is that some Americans seem to live in a world where facts can’t exist.

Facts such as the idea that the world is ancient, and that all living things evolved and some – like dinosaurs – became extinct. Facts like the proven warming of the world. Facts like the very real possibility that such warming could cause a catastrophic sea-level rise.

Ah yes, facts.  Facts like the Bohr model of the atom or the rallying cry of biogenetics: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”  Oh, wait.  Those “facts” turned out to be not quite as factual as we once thought.  Contrary to Blow, I’m not so sure that a great uprising of people who want facts to not exist is the problem.  The problem is there are people who disagree with him on what the fullness of the facts are and how the data that form the facts should be interpreted.  Now, I’m not saying these other people are correct on the facts.  I’m just saying these other people with other thoughts on what the facts are that contradict Blow’s thoughts on what the facts are not necessarily rejecting facts themselves.

Blow says he is “both shocked and fascinated by Americans’ religious literalism.”  I don’t think he even understands what “religious literalism” is.  Nor do I think he understands that many serious people of faith understand and trust the Bible theologically, morally, and historically without always reading it literally.  No wonder he’s so shocked and fascinated.  He simply doesn’t understand.  Then again, I’m not so sure he wants to.

__________________________

[1] Charles Blow, “Religious Constriction,” The New York Times (6.8.2014).

June 16, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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