Science, especially in the areas of molecular biology, biochemistry, and neuroscience, is changing the way we in western culture view human beings, human nature, and the human experience. Some claim that this may prove a much more serious challenge to Christian faith than the science surrounding the age of the earth or evolution and common descent. To explore these issues related to neuroscience we’ve been looking at books by Malcolm Jeeves, a Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of St. Andrews, and a Christian. It is wise, however, to consider what non-Christians as well as Christians have to say about these topics.
Recently I’ve begun reading a short book Neither Gods Nor Beasts by Elof Axel Carlson (a good Scandinavian name). Carlson is a geneticist who taught biology for decades at UCLA and at Stony Brook. He calls himself a non-theist, and has little appreciation for religious faith. He is not, however, a militant atheist. The premise of his book is that humans are distinct from other animals in possessing reason and his argument is one for science, science education, and the use of reason. The post today looks at his introduction, before he moves into the details of his arguments.
Human Nature, Human Reason. Carlson makes the point that the human condition is not human nature, and that the human condition has changed, and improved, throughout time as we have accumulated knowledge.
In one sense, humans are no smarter than they were 20,000 years ago. But knowledge is cumulative, and with the development of language, humans could store that knowledge and pass it on from parent to child, from guild member to guild apprentice, and from schoolteacher to schoolchild. In general, what worked and what was useful was preserved and what was false or harmful was rejected and forgotten or served as a cautionary tale. (p. 2-3)
He argues that “what makes us human is our capacity to reason.“
We learn poorly, if at all, from revelation, from intuition, from hearsay, or from superstition. What distinguishes the human mind from the minds of most animals is our capacity to use our reason to figure out how the universe works, what our place in the universe is, and how we can provide a world more humane for our children than what we ourselves experienced. (p. 3)
He goes on to distinguish ways of acquiring knowledge.
We learn about our place in the world from four principle sources: revelation, tradition, experience, and science. Those who rely on revelation usually find that knowledge in religious texts. It is a knowledge based on faith. Why is it faith-based? The simplest answer comes from the plurality of religions and how religions change over time. … This tells us that revelation requires faith because all of these views cannot be simultaneously true, and none of them can be proven. (p. 4-5)
In contrast, tradition is passed on by culture, although Carlson doesn’t make the argument, one could argue that religion and “revelation” is simply a subset of tradition passed on by a culture. Experience is personal and effective, but sometimes damaging (touching a hot stove or going too fast on an icy road might serve as examples).
Science is the exploration of the universe by reason, using standards of objectivity, controlled experimentation, verification of findings and interpretations by others, and recognition that theories that bind together a lot of facts may sometimes be wrong. In contrast to revelation, science demands evidence and keeps testing that evidence. … Science is mostly of recent origin in our world view. It often takes us by surprise and it sometimes contradicts the beliefs generated by those who derive their knowledge of the universe through revelation and the authority of scriptural texts. (p. 5-6)
In the next paragraph Carlson goes on to make this point on the distinction between science and revelation in a more provocative form to drive his point home.
Science often contradicts tradition and revelation. Its findings are universal, and what a scientist finds can be tested independently by scientists throughout the world. In fact, science requires its findings to be constantly tested and challenged. Knowledge by revelation does not. Revelation is inherently parochial because different religions have different revelations given to prophets. Revelation requires faith to believe in the legitimacy of the prophet’s teachings. Science rejects using faith to justify its scientific findings. Reason, experimentation, observation, and the integrity of interpreting the data with independent confirmation are essentials of science. (p. 6)
Revelation vs. Science. I’ve quoted this at length because I think it is worth some thought and conversation. As a scientist I agree with Carlson’s description of the nature and strength of scientific reasoning in for the exploration of the universe. I look forward to digging deeper into his book to learn what he has to say about human nature and what he thinks science has to teach us about the nature of being human.
I disagree, however, with his characterization of revelation and the role it plays as the source of religious knowledge. Now, I know that there are Christians who have a view of revelation through scriptural texts that agrees with Carlson’s. This is a large part of the problem. We get bogged down in arguments about inspiration and inerrancy, using litmus tests to shore up a view of scripture as the foundation of knowledge. But as I’ve thought about Scripture more deeply and more often (not to mention immersing in the story from Genesis through Revelation as a whole) I think this really misses the point.
The clip Scot posted from Dan Wallace’s column at Reclaiming the Mind, that is a good start.
The center of all theology, of the entirety of the Christian faith, is Christ himself. The Christ-event—in particular his death and resurrection—is the center of time: everything before it leads up to it; everything after it is shaped by it.
This is revelation, yes. But it is not first and foremost the delivery of a text This is worth repeating. God’s revelation is not really a divine text of rules, propositions, and information about history or science (for lack of a better term here). God’s self-revelation is inherently personal and relational. The most significant revelation is the revelation of God through Christ.
I’m not so sure that we believe this because The Bible Tells Us So. Rather we believe it through a combination of tradition (which includes Scripture) and continuing experience. This isn’t to diminish the importance of Scripture as a faithful record of God’s interaction with his creation and a faithful record of the wrestlings, recollections, and teachings, of those who witnessed the life, death and resurrection of Christ. I believe that Scripture does carry authority derived from God (see N.T. Wright in Scripture and the Authority of God).
Personal relationship permeates scripture. When we turn to the Old Testament, we have stories of God or his messenger appearing to Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, The Prophets – to deliver a message to Israel and to Judah (as well as others). The New Testament is almost entirely a tale of such relationship. This is a story and we need to be immersed in the story.
Turning to Carlson’s book, I don’t think that Scripture answers scientific questions and thus most of Carlson’s discussion as quoted above seems a bit irrelevant and off topic. (As John Walton often says No Scientific Revelation in the Bible!)
As a rule of thumb, I think that we need to take Scripture seriously, and learn what it has to tell us about God and his relationship with his creation, from Genesis through to Revelation. We need to take science seriously for what we learn through scientific reasoning about the nuts and bolts and mechanics of creation (evolution, paleogeography, physics, biochemistry, neuroscience).
Revelation and Christian faith will conflict, perhaps, with some of the conclusions that Carlson draws from science in his book. But it will do so in the realm of human nature and purpose, not in the nuts and bolts and mechanics of creation.
What do you think of the way Carlson frames the distinction between science and revelation?
Do you agree that the plurality of religions require that we reduce Christian faith to a rather ephemeral wisp?
How would you answer someone who takes the view that Carlson does and dismisses Christian faith?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.