Saturday, June 30, 2007

Back to the Drawing Board on the "Gap Theory"

Heh folks,

I've heard from quite a number of you, and I'm delighted you're enjoying my daily posts on the Science and Theology Conference out here in Quincy. (I also know its not everyone's cup of tea, so to you non-scientific folks I say, "Thanks for your patience"!)

On Thursday we dialogued with Dr. Ken Miller, professor of cell biology at Brown University. As with our previous guests, he was an incredibly informative and engaging speaker. Ken is a very quick thinker, an avid evolutionist, a passionate opponent of Intelligent Design being taught in public schools, and a very committed Roman Catholic. He's well known for his acclaimed book, Finding Darwin's God, but he's even better known for having written a widely used high school biology textbook that has been at the center of several controversies surrounding the teaching of Evolution and Intelligent Design in public schools, the most recent being the controversy in Dover, Pennsylvania, that got national attention.

Most of Miller's lecture was spent giving "the inside scoop" on his various battles with "the Intelligent Design" (I. D.) and "Young Earth Creationist" crowd. This wasn't quite on target for the topic of our conference, but it was nevertheless very informative and more than a little entertaining. Miller was a central player at the Dover's trial, and some of what went on during this trial was hilarious, at least as Miller tells it. As you probably know, the I.D. crowd was voted down by the Judge. Miller says that there are currently TWO movies in the making about this event. (I wonder if they'll include Pat Robertson's cryptic and omnious warning of disaster coming to Dover because of this decision against I.D being taught in the public schools.).

ANYWAY, in the course of describing these controversies, and especially in the discussion after his lecture, Miller provided us with a number of arguments as to a) why Intelligent Design is a religious, not a scientific theory; b) some of the more impressive recent findings that support the theory of evolution [most of which I hadn't known before]; and c) why evolution should pose no threat to religious faith. None of the participants in the conference (including myself) had any problems with "b" or "c," but a few expressed reservations about "a." One very sharp participant argued that Miller's depiction of some of the I.D. defenders and some of their arguments at the Dover's trial was quite biased -- but I'm frankly not informed enough on either side to comment on this.

The discussion also delved into the nature of scientific explanations verses religious claims, and I felt this was for the most part a helpful dialogue. Among other things Miller stressed that the claim that science must stick with a "naturalistic methodology" isn't an arrogant claim that all of reality can be understood naturalistically (as some philosophers of science seem to think -- see several blogs from last week). Rather, it’s a claim toward modesty. It is saying, "this is all we are competent to speak on." To qualify as science, he argued, a claim must in principle be TESTABLE by empirical means. If it's not empirically testable, it still may be TRUE--i'ts just that it can't be proven scientifically.

This is an important point, because Miller's battle isn't against people who believe the world was designed by a Creator. He himself believes this. His beef is with those who want to allow appealing to a supernatural source to qualify as science (and taught in public classrooms as such), for this is simply not a testable hypothesis. All the arguments used to support this contention at best only show that evolutionary theory is yet incomplete. They don't "prove" Intelligent Design. Also, Miller gave many examples where science at points was at a loss as to how to explain certain phenomena, but how when they "stuck to their guns" and insisted there must be a natural explanation -- against others who wanted to appeal to a supernatural source -- it proved fruitful to subsequent scientific discoveries.

I myself wasn't versed enough in Intelligent Design to enter this discussion (I've read a total of two books on the subject!), but several participants at the conference pushed back a bit on this. It was a good dialogue.

As it concerns my own theology, there's only one point that is possibily affected by any of the discussion this morning.. (Actually, its not really affected by any of this discussion, but the thought arose during the discussion).

To date I have argued that we have good grounds for maintaining that fallen powers were at work in the world before humans ever came on the scene, since (as I mentioned a few blogs ago) the paleontological evidence shows clearly that there were millions of years of carnage before humans were created. Odd as this belief seems to some, I'm personally convinced this view is true.

Now, in God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil I have appealed to the "gap theory" of creation as a way of reconciling this conviction with Genesis chapter 1. (My version of the "gap theory" posits a gap between verses 1 and 2 and says nature became corrupted by demonic powers and the world and the powers were judged during this interval). Among other arguments, I have contended that there are more than a dozen references to creation in the Old Testament, and every one but Genesis 1 involves "warfare" (chaoskampf -- meaning "conflict with chaos"), in so far as these passages depict Yahweh rebuking hostile waters or cosmic monsters to bring creation about. The imagery is of course mythic, but like all true myth, it must refer to a reality, and so it must be integrated with Genesis 1. So I have proposed (however tentatively) that we put this cosmic conflict between verses 1 and 2 in the first chapter of Genesis. (We have to put the creation of the angels in Genesis 1 somewhere, since they're not mentioned, so why not the fall of the angels and their corruption of the earth in this space as well? Plus, I find evidence in Genesis itself that warrants this God at War!)

At the same time, I've left open the issue of how literal or figurative the rest of Genesis 1 should be taken, and thus left open the issue of how to fit evolution into this chapter after verse 2. (I grant that it occurred before the arrival of humans, though I'm not convinced that current evolutionary theory is adequate to explain how).

Well, as Ken Miller was presenting his case, I had to face a problem that I've known about for a long time, but have to date been conveniently ignoring. Namely, there's simply not much scientific evidence for the "gap" I'm proposing. If there was in fact a cataclysmic judgment on the earth and then a re-creation, as I've proposed we find in Genesis 1, one would think there should be some evidence of it. In fact, one would expect to find MASSIVE evidence for it. Now, one can certainly find a number of major cataclysims in earth's violent history, but nothing that would come close to suggesting what the gap theory requires.

So, folks, I seem to have a problem, and I need to face it.

The advantages of my version of the gap theory are that it solves an exegetical problem (viz. reconciling Genesis 1 with the dozen or so other creation accounts that involve conflict); it accounts for an old earth; and it accounts for the carnage that existed before humans ever came around. But I have to confess it runs into a significant problem with the geological and palentological record. It also runs into problems with the genetic record, since the vast majority of scientists are now convinced there is a rather seamless ancestry that can be genetically traced from the lower primates up to humans. (Miller gave some of this evidence, and it was very impressive).

When established science and one's theology come into conflict, it simply means we have more work to do.

And so, folks, its back to the drawing board for me on the gap theory.
Keep growing, thinking and loving!

Ps. I know my concession in this post is going to disappoint some, since I've received numerous mailings from people who LOVE my version of the gap theory as a way of reconciling Genesis 1 with an old earth and violent pre-huminoid history. I'm sorry, but what can one do? I'm convinced there's a plausible way to handle all the biblical and scientific evidence, and I even have a HUNCH as to how this might be done. But I need to work on it. I encourage you to do the same.