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This blog compiles the occasional musings of Randy Isaac who was ASA Executive Director from 2005 to 2016 and is now ASA Director Emeritus.


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Larson&Ruse Chapter 6--The Evolution of Humanity

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Thursday, November 30, 2017

Larson takes a closer look at the details of Darwinism, focusing on applying it to humans. “Speaking from a historian’s perspective, however, the big issue has never been the theory of evolution in general, but applying it to humans. After all, many people care more about humans than they do about other animals. And who cares if plants evolved? But many people find the idea of descending from monkeys or being related to apes as really quite degrading to their self-image.” (p. 159)


“…even as mild-mannered an evangelical as Oxbridge scholar C. S. Lewis agreed that, while he accepted the theory of evolution, he too drew the line when Darwin began monkeying with man.” (p. 161)


“[Darwin’s letter to Asa Gray] passed quickly from observations of what seems evil in nature (such as cruel animal behavior) to their implications for what seems well-designed good in it (such as the human eye), and then moved on to ponder the origin of what seems positively good (such as human morality and mentality). Few Christians want to blame God for the first; many could go either way on God’s role in the second; but all want to attribute the third to their God.” (p. 165)


Larson proceeds to articulate concisely the sequence of discoveries of hominid fossils that documented what Darwin suggested. Throughout this history, the lines of demarcation were clear between those who were excited by and those who were frightened by “the prospect that humans evolved from beasts by a naturalistic process that goes back in some material cause-and-effect chain to earliest forms of life.” (p. 183)


“Today, Darwin’s sketchy social theories have matured by way of E. O. Wilson’s sociobiology and modern evolutionary psychology to become foundational for understanding in the social sciences. Through it, human behavior is reduced to the physical, and people become merely matter in motion with evolved self-consciousness.” (p. 183-184)

Tags:  evolution  Larson  On Faith and Science  Ruse 

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Larson&Ruse Chapter 5--Darwinism and Belief

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, November 27, 2017

Ruse devotes this chapter to the philosophical background and perspectives of Darwinism and religion in general. He finds it noteworthy that Darwinism, by which he simply means Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection, arose out of Western culture, springing up from a Jewish or Christian view of life rather than from a non-Western culture. He suggests three big questions that Christianity and Judaism (and Islam as well though it did not tie into the origin of Darwinism as much) try to answer.


1.      “Where did everything come from?” Ancient Greek philosophers didn’t ask that. Matter just is and there’s no point in asking about origins. “The ancient Hebrew people did think in terms of origins and beginnings, and Christians followed them in doing so. This is what Genesis is all about. God made the world and set it in motion. That is the answer to where things came from ‘in the beginning.’ Believers needed to know that is true. It is central to their theology.”

2.      “What kind of world do people live in?” This is not a question that everyone asks but most people have some degree of curiosity about the world we live in. “…ancient Babylonians typically saw it as a dreadful place dominated by gods who were at best indifferent to humans and at worst malicious.” (p. 139) Others see a wonderful world, cleverly put together. “It was Plato who drew the inference that such a beautifully functioning world could not be pure chance, there must be an intelligence (aka God) that lies behind it. Aristotle was more biologically minded than Plato. It was he who saw that it is in the living world of plants and animals than one really finds this intricate functioning, this designlike nature, which seems to be more than just random chance…And it is here that Christian theologian-philosophers, from Thomas Aquinas to William Paley, stepped in to make sense of it all. To them, the world does seem like it is designed, because it is designed---by an all-powerful, all-loving being---the God of Christianity.”(p. 140)

3.      “Where do humans fit into the scheme of things?” Though it is humans themselves who do the judging, it seems clear that “…humans are way ahead of all other organisms…a consciousness of their own existence and of a sense of morality and mortality far beyond that of any other kind of animal. They are not gods, but…made in the image of God and are given ‘dominion’ over the earth and all its nonhuman inhabitants.”(p. 140-141)


How did this pave the way for evolutionary perspectives? The scientific notions that came from astronomy and geology and paleontology changed the prevailing view of a static universe to one of directional change. As more evidence was obtained, there seemed to be progressive change over time, an idea that was tentatively extended to a new philosophy of progress. “Humans unaided except by their natural or endowed reason can make things better.” (p. 143) The vague idea of evolutionary change began to be more appropriate than stasis.


Evolutionary ideas, capped by Darwin’s seminal 1859 book, provided answers to all three questions, though the similarities were overshadowed by some key differences from the prevailing Christian views. The provocative answers continue to inflame discussions even today.


While the main focus is on the relationship between the major Western theistic religions and evolutionary thought, the question arises about other religions such as Buddhism. Similar to Hinduism and some other Eastern religions, Buddhism has little interest in the three big questions noted above. “Existence is eternal---always was and always will be.” (p. 151). Things just are, with no thing or no one responsible for anything or everything. The Buddhist will explore the nature of the world but that exploration is not about God. The world simply exists as it is. Humans are not the end result of progress but in the middle, above the vilest of beings but below the gods.


The problem of evil is one of the key dilemmas facing Christianity and Darwinism. For a Christian perspective, an all-powerful, all-good Creator is hard to reconcile with the existence of evil. Various scenarios abound but Darwinism exacerbates the issue by making natural evil (i.e. the predator/prey conflict and the struggle for existence in a Malthusian contest) the very engine of progress. Christians generally find some way of reconciling the existence of evil as a necessary aspect of the world that God created, enabling free will and humans capable of loving God.


Similarly, the clash between Providence and progress looms as a gulf between Darwinism and Christianity. The two are not easily reconciled. Yet, it is not an insurmountable difference.


“[I]nstead of being inevitable foes, Darwinism and Christianity might in some respects be compatible---or at least that was what the Christian Darwinist Asa Gray thought and said in his theory of theistic evolution…” (p. 158)

Tags:  Darwinism  Larson  On Faith and Science  Ruse 

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Larson&Ruse Chapter 4--Rock, Fossil, God

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, November 27, 2017

Once again Larson, the historian, returns to recount the history of geology as a preface to the coming revolution in biology.


“Before Cuvier, European naturalists typically held that no species---perfect in original creation---ever die out…Overturning this view, Curvier ultimately concluded that all fossilized animals differed in kind from modern ones and that no modern species existed in truly fossil form.”(p. 110)


Cuvier amassed evidence that fossils were of species that were not similar to any alive today. “To some, such evidence suggested evolution. Cuvier had already rejected this explanation based on his study of comparative anatomy by concluding that each type is too irreducibly complex to change, and the apparent absence of transitional forms in the fossil record confirmed this conclusion. In his extensive study of fossils, Cuvier saw only distinct species that persisted without change until they went extinct altogether at some remote time in the earth’s unimaginably long history.” (p. 113)


“Cuvier’s equation of the biblical deluge with the final catastrophe lost its principal scientific proponents in the 1830’s, when British geologists Adam Sedgwick and William Buckland, both evangelical Christian Oxbridge dons, concluded that a single flood of the type described in Genesis could not produce the complex deposits attributed to the last catastrophe and should have left human fossils, which were never found among its debris. Yet they drained the biblical deluge of geologic significance without drying up their Christian faith: the ages of creation simply moved back in time, more in line with the biblical account that places the days of creation before Noah’s time.” (p. 116)


“In his concept of steady-state volcanism…[James] Hutton proposed a cyclical process of igneous-rock mountains gradually rising from the earth’s molten core and then slowly weathering to create inhabitable land….[S]teady-state volcanism survived as a minority view that tempered the prevailing catastrophist, directional tone of early-nineteenth century geologic thought. Then in 1830, the English lawyer and gentleman geologist Charles Lyell gave it wings.” (p. 118-119)


“…Lyell refashioned Hutton’s cyclic outline of geologic history into a coherent scientific theory…Lyell saw long-term environmental change as gradual rather than abrupt and therefore posited that new species were created continuously rather than in spurts.” (p. 120-121)


William Buckland, an ordained Anglican cleric who obtained an Oxford readership in geology, flamboyantly described new fossils finds and built on Cuvier’s idea of directionality in the geological record. “Buckland’s God used systematic processes to guide terrestrial events with a designer’s touch; his God did not intervene irrationally…[T]he succession of species in the fossil record reflected God’s direction for life on earth. It had a beginning and human beings are its end…[H]e offered no specifics of how ‘the divinely endowed laws of creation’ might work except to affirm that they could not involve evolution.”(p. 128)


“In the half century since Cuvier and Werner came on the scene in the late 1700s, geology and paleontology had utterly transformed Western conceptions of the earth’s past and probable future…If ever there was a golden age of science and religion in Western Christendom, this was it. Neither side dominated or suppressed the other; both sides found inspiration from the relationship. For Christians, it required reinterpreting scripture to fit the advances of science. For scientists, it involved accepting the idea of divine design in nature.” (p. 131)


“The golden age ended abruptly…[T]he revival of evolutionism during the mid-1800s complicated the relationship between science and religion. The theory of human evolution became a flashpoint that could not be reconciled with the Genesis account as easily as Cuvier’s concepts of an ancient earth and geologic ages could.” (p. 132)


“…[N]ineteenth-century paleontology and geology offer a glimpse of what once was and again could be in the ongoing relationship between science and religion.” (p. 134)

Tags:  Larson  On Faith and Science  Ruse 

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Larson&Ruse Chapter 3--The Brain, The Mind, and the Soul

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Friday, November 24, 2017

The philosopher picks up the pen again and sets out a survey of the mind-body issue in the history and philosophy of science. He covers the mind of Plato, the Cartesian mind, the mind of Darwinism, computers and the brain, and the “new mysterianism.”


“…this is a problem without a solution, or at least without a solution open to human intelligence….In respects, because of advances in science, especially advances in the physical sciences teaching that some questions simply cannot be asked because there are no possible answers available, this is perhaps a more attractive option in recent years than it was back at the time of Descartes….Perhaps the body-mind problem is like this. It goes almost without saying that this position –known today as "new mysterianism" - has its attractions for theists…Today, elements of such thinking can be found far and wide, including in the writings of that runaway favorite of the modern-day evangelical Christians, C. S. Lewis.”(p. 96-97)


“Some have suggested that invoking a hardware—software distinction avoids this problem. The brain is the hardware; the mind is the software. But the analogy doesn’t really work. A computer program and the stored files aren’t really conscious.”(p. 99)


“One thing that modern physics has taught is that the idea that the world is made up of inert chunks of basic substance, matter, is simply not true. Whatever may be the case down at the quantum level, there certainly are not simply minichunks of rock there. Matter is energized-dare one even say "alive" -in a way not dreamed of even in the nineteenth century. This certainly doesn't prove dualism; but it does mean that mind and matter may not be quite as far apart as they might have seemed to Descartes.”(p. 100)


In essence Ruse says that we have not made much progress since Plato except that we know vastly more than Plato about consciousness and how it is connected to the brain. But the hard problem of consciousness has not been solved.

Tags:  Larson  Mind  On Faith and Science  Ruse 

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Larson&Ruse Chapter 2--The Tao of Physics and Other Big Ideas

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, October 30, 2017

This chapter was written by Ed Larson as a historian's complement to the first chapter which was a philosophers view of astronomy from ancient time to today. It is more focused on physics. Here are some selected quotes.

“During the 17th century... the heavens were no longer seen as some perfect abode for God and angels but a material place subject to the same physical laws as on the earth. Yet while this tended to bring astronomy down to earth, it lifted physics up to the heavens.” (P. 51)


Physics and the enlightenment


“Whatever Kant might think or hope about his age, rational, critical enlightenment remained a minority position. In fact, the 18th century was also an age of intense religious ferment, with a Pietistic revival in Germany, the Wesleyan movement in Britain, in the evangelical Great Awakening in English North America.” (P 56)


The theology of electricity


“ Franklin, Wesley, and Priestly offer three different examples of how science related to religion during the Enlightenment in England and America: Diest, Christian, and Unitarian. Science may have been on the incline, and religion on the decline at that time in those places, but neither could be likely dismissed. Both loomed large in the minds of people attuned to the latest intellectual currents, and many devised their own personal reconciliation of the two types of thought.” (P 61)


19th century developments


"With Kelvin...we have come full circle from Enlightenment-age French encyclopedists who used physics to promote atheism. “If you think strongly enough you will be forced by science to the believe in God,“ Kelvin affirmed in a widely reprinted 1903 response to a popular lecture by Christian apologist George Henslow. “You will find science not antagonistic but helpful to religion.“ (p 68)


Relativity, quantum mechanics, and beyond


"During the early 20th century, relativity and quantum theory launched the universe of modern physics that still rules the roost today...They threw theological speculation about the religious meaning of physics for a loop and...opened new ways of thinking about how God might work in the universe...Three main points should suffice here: indeterminacy, complementarity, and holism.” (P 69)


“Classical physics envisioned an utterly deterministic and totally reductionist universe that was objectively knowable through science. Newton had left room for God in this system by observing non-reductionist instability in planetary orbits that would require ongoing divine intervention and by pointing to the solar system’s unnatural orderliness as evidence of a designer. By 1800, however, Pierre – Simon Laplace had accounted for these matters and proclaimed the theoretical ability to wind the entire system forward or backward with perfect precision, in a matter that not only dispensed with the need for but disproved the possibility of ongoing supernatural Intervention in nature. God may or may not exist – and people might still claim the ability to feel God’s presence spiritually, and that feeling might be true – but God was banished by classical physics from the ongoing operation of nature, although not necessarily from its origin in time and space. Human free will fared no better under determinism.” (P 69)


“Holism had many implications for religion. It challenged the reductionism of classical physics, with saw the behavior of the whole as reducible to the behavior of its material parts, by showing that those parts only behave as they do as part of the whole. Further, it offered a physical parallel for how God might have an active presence everywhere at once. Finally, by stressing the impact that observers have on observations, it suggested that individual choices can make a difference. All that happens need not be pre-determined. The object, subject, and even God may grow out of the process.“


Larson's summary is that the interaction between science and faith was a mixture of conflict, complementarity, and complexity. All of these with many variations were in play.

Tags:  Larson  On Faith and Science  Ruse  Tao 

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Larson&Ruse Chapter 1--Looking Up to God or the Cosmos

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Friday, October 27, 2017

Michael Ruse wrote this first chapter to give the background of how ancient philosophers considered the cosmos.

“The ancient Greeks were not so much interested in origins. This is more a Jewish and, later, Christian and Muslim way of thinking. For the Greeks, the great ideal was mathematics, and no one asked when 2+2=4 started to become true.”(p. 26).

“One of the most interesting things about science…is the extent to which it is metaphorical.”(p. 28)

“Plato was quite explicit in thinking of the earth---the whole universe, indeed---as an organism. Aristotle was a little more circumspect, but certainly he thought of the physical as well as the biological world organically.” (p. 30) He goes on to show how this perspective leads to “final causes” since reproducing organisms have the capability of reproducing which is a future event. In this way, effects can precede causes. These are “final causes” instead of “efficient causes.”

“At this fundamental level—perhaps the most fundamental of all in the Scientific Revolution—the root metaphor changed from the organism toward the machine. What was happening was that people were no longer thinking of the world in terms of vegetables or animals but beginning to think of it in terms of contrivances, of human-made systems designed to perform certain functions perpetually..” (p. 41)

“It was not atheism or deism that drove the Scientific Revolution. Virtually all of the key figures in the Scientific Revolution were Catholic or Protestant Christians who saw their work as glorifying God and defending the faith. This is not to say Christianity necessarily leads to science…” (p. 43)

“But before long, and despite Newton’s protests to the contrary, increasingly God was being pushed out of science, and naturalistic explanations became the sole object of those doing science. There was a stampede to atheism, deism, or agnosticism but no further compulsion to keep thinking about spiritual (or even final) causation in nature. In the words of the historian of science D. J. Dijksterhuis, increasingly God became a ‘retired engineer.’” (p. 44)

“…the machine metaphor dominated in physics generally, and in astronomy and its causal discussions, cosmology, specifically. The world works according to unbroken law and, for most modern astronomers and physicists, God stays out of it. All is efficient cause.”(p. 45)

Ruse goes on to point out how the mechanistic universe crumbled under the weight of relativity, quantum physics, and the Big Bang theory, with its inflationary theory and possible multiverses. For some, these new concepts keep the door open to a spiritual, divine presence.

Tags:  cosmos  Larson  On Faith and Science  Ruse 

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On Faith and Science: Introduction

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Wednesday, October 25, 2017


Introduction: What’s the Fuss?

Two of the most distinguished, well-known historians and philosophers in the field of science and faith collaborate in another recounting of the historical encounter between science and faith. Much has been written on this topic and one might wonder what new insights could there possibly be. Yet, these skilled authors shed more light on the interface between these two paradigms.

Ed Larson is University Professor of history and Hugh & Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University. His most acclaimed work is the book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1998. He has written 9 other books, half of which deal with evolution and creation and has made frequent appearances in public forums to discuss faith and science.

Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor and director of the history and philosophy of science program at Florida State University. He taught at the University of Guelph in Ontario for 35 years and has been at Florida State since 2000. Though a self-described atheist not subscribing to Christian faith, Ruse argues that Christianity and evolution are compatible and he disagrees sharply with the harsh arguments of the so-called “new atheists.” He has published numerous books and articles and appeared in countless public occasions to make his case.

Larson and Ruse set the stage for their discussion by reprising Salman Rushdie’s account of the 12th-century philosopher, physician, and jurist Ibn Rushd. In essence, 800 years ago, Rushd suffered banishment for his defense of divinely created natural law as opposed to the prevailing view that God “…could easily intervene to make causes ineffectual and later effects if He so chose.” This Islamic version of the Western world’s Galileo affair demonstrates the universality of the notion of conflict between science and faith. Yet, historians not just in the 20th century but in the last few centuries have duly noted that the relationship between science and faith is neither merely conflict or compatibility, but a complex interaction.

The authors “favor what might be called a “coexistence” approach, which views religion and science as two big messy and sometimes internally inconsistent categories of human perception and understanding that coexist in the same place and time, sometimes in a complementary or conflicting relationship but most often in a complex one, with both categories currently growing in influence and authority in many regions.” (p. 12) The conflict model exists and thrives as well as the complementary approach with a wide range of complex interactions in between. The persistence of these extremes and the diversity of interaction prompted this historian and philosopher to join together to take a fresh look at a well-worn topic.

The approach taken by the authors is to devote nine chapters to various fields of discipline, alternating authorship for each one. To them, “it is a story of science and religion, not science or religion.” (p. 16) They intend to encourage readers to join in the dialogue and make it into a conversation.


Tags:  Introduction  Larson  On Faith and Science  Ruse 

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On Faith and Science

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Friday, September 22, 2017

For those of you unable to attend the ASA 2017 annual meeting in Golden, CO, you missed an excellent, well-attended meeting. Recordings are available and highly recommended. I would particularly recommend the ones based on the topic of energy sustainability by Hayhoe, Hutchinson, and Pratt as well as the related contributed talks.

You may have seen that my review of Lucas Mix's book, Thinking Fair, was published in the September 2017 issue of PSCF. I hope it generates some sales for him but more importantly a broader awareness and practice of the concepts he espouses.

I have finished my review of the Zondervan Dictionary of Christianity and Science. It will be published in Science and Christian Belief, the publication of the organization Christians in Science.

Now for my next project. I just received my review copy of the new book On Faith and Science, by Ed Larson and Michael Ruse. It promises to be an insightful book on the history and philosophy of the encounter between science and faith and I look forward to reading it. I intend to post my notes on this blog as I go for anyone who might be interested so stay tuned.

Tags:  annual meeting  faith  Larson  On Faith and Science  Ruse  science 

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Fine-Tuning Arguments for the Existence of God

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, July 10, 2017

Walter Bradley asked me for some thoughts on fine tuning arguments. He is giving a talk on the subject at the ASA meeting in Golden this summer. Walter and I have had some very good debates on this topic before. I put together a few random thoughts on the topic and would like to share with you what I sent to Walter. Your comments would be greatly appreciated.

In a nutshell: The lack, no matter how fundamental, of a scientific causal explanation of a phenomenon, no matter how awesome or precise, is never evidence for the existence of God. Conversely, the faith-based presupposition that God the Creator exists renders the existence of the universe, whether understood scientifically or not, comprehensible.


The fine-tuning argument is the clearest example of the genre of arguments for the existence of God known as “God of the Gaps.” The gap is our utter lack of knowledge of how the cosmological constants came to have their unique values, which in many cases have an incredibly high precision. It seems possible that this gap may even be fundamental so that we may never be able to understand the source of these values. The premise that God is the agent who chose and assigned those values seems eminently plausible since God is omniscient and omnipotent and the Creator of all things. The selection of these values is in a sense the very essence of creation. But the gap of our knowledge is not in any way evidence for God’s existence or role in establishing those values.

I personally believe that God does exist and is the creator of all things and that he fixed these values. But I do not believe that the finely tuned values constitute any shred of evidence for the existence of God. Rather, the existence of God is a faith-based presupposition which makes the values of the constants comprehensible. The difference is profound.

At this time, no one has any idea of how these values came to be, how they might be related, or even whether they could possibly have any other value. Nor do we have any independent evidence that an intelligent agent exists or could in any way influence these values. The claim that God could do so is a logical possibility but one for which there is no evidence.

The claim that there is no other known cause of fine-tuning does not offer any support for the claim that therefore it must be God. It is far more likely that we simply do not know and may never know.

Stephen Meyer points out in his book Signature in the Cell (page 161) that philosopher of science Michael Scriven has discussed the method of reasoning called “retrospective causal analysis.” The central point is that “to establish the cause of a past event, historical scientists must first show that any candidate cause ‘has on other occasions clearly demonstrated its capacity to produce an effect of the sort here under study’” In this case, there is no independent indication that the cosmological constants can be established by anyone or anything, let alone by a God. The only rationale is a logical construct that a God should be able to accomplish it. This does not constitute evidence. (and no, no one is talking about ‘proof.’)

Finally, the apostle Paul is not referring in Romans to scientific methodology of which he has no knowledge. The passage in Romans 1 cannot rightly be used to argue that evidence for the existence of God can be deduced from scientific observations. Rather, he refers to the universal sense of awe that elicits the faith-based sense of God’s creative power and grace. A close literal reading of the text also seems to indicate that God’s existence is a presupposition and, given that God exists, what is clearly perceived from nature is his power and his divine nature, not specifically his existence. One cannot deduce from this verse that scientific observations like the cosmological constants clearly reveal God’s existence.

As for Duns Scotus, it was Mark Noll who traced a common fallacy back to John Duns Scotus and William of Ockam. This is the fallacy that there is only one essence of being such that only one causal explanation can be correct. Therefore, we have the fallacy that scientific explanations are mutually exclusive to theistic ones. Hence, if there is no scientific explanation, then the theistic explanation must be true. Conversely, if there is a scientific explanation, then the theistic explanation must be false. The fine-tuning argument falls into the former category with its claim that since there is no scientific explanation, the theistic source must be correct.


Note added on 9/23/2017 by RDI:

The talk that Walter Bradley gave at the ASA meeting on July 30, 2017 can be heard here and the slides at this link.

On a previous occasion, September 30, 2015, Walter and I debated this topic at a series of Roundtables. His presentation and mine at the Cambridge Roundtable are attached to this post.

 Attached Files:

Tags:  ASA  cosmological constants  fine tuning  Physics 

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Reviewing the Dictionary of Christianity and Science

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, June 5, 2017

It's time to do another book review. This one is not for PSCF since someone else had already committed to do it so this is at the request of the UK folks to be published in Science & Christian Belief. Zondervan's years-long project of publishing the Dictionary of Christianity and Science has finally come into print. I just received my copy and it will be quite a challenge to figure out how to review such a compilation.

Have any of you seen the book? Any insights or comments you have would be greatly appreciated. I'll try to post a few notes as I go through it.


Tags:  Dictionary  Zondervan 

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