Chapter 13 of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology poses some interesting questions about evolution and the language used to describe evolutionary mechanisms. (For those paying attention – I’ve skipped Ch. 12; it is worth reading, but poses questions quite similar to those considered in our last post on the book.)
There are three factors at play in much scientific writing: empirical observation, scientific interpretation, and metaphysical assumption. The first two are always at play – one of my mentors emphasized the importance of separating data from discussion and interpretation as much as possible. I in turn emphasize the distinction with my students. The experimental results or observations should always stand the test of time, the interpretation may or may not. New information or insights may change our interpretations in the future. The third factor above – metaphysical assumption – is always present at one level, but is not always important. However, it is often significant when the discussion borders on issues of science and religion or faith, and this is certainly true in evolutionary biology and speculation on the origin of life.
How carefully do we, should we, analyze the levels of observation and interpretation in what we read?
Even a cursory reading of contemporary works in evolutionary biology shows how theological or antitheological agendas repeatedly intrude into what are supposed to be neutral, objective scientific discussions. What is presented as reality often turns out to be infested with nonempirical assumptions, often involving covert metaphysical dogmas. … Dawkins here sets out [in The Selfish Gene p. 21 (pp. 19-20 in my copy)] the “gene’s-eye” view of evolution, which was then dominant in biological circles.
[Genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by torturous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.
But this paragraph contains an empirical observation intertwined with scientific interpretation and metaphysical assumption. How does the following paragraph differ? (p. 170)
[Genes] are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy that we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.
This paragraph contains the same empirical observation as Dawkins’s description – but intertwined in a very different way with both scientific interpretation and potentially with metaphysical assumption. This contrast brings to the fore an important question for consideration.
The second paragraph was written by Denis Noble (CBE, FRS, Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology at the University of Oxford). Noble is a systems biologist who has written a book The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes that starts out by questioning the reductionist paradigm inherent in Dawkins’s famous quote. From the web site dedicated to Noble’s book:
The reductionist approach of molecular biology has proved itself immensely powerful. But DNA isn’t life. It doesn’t even leave the nucleus of the cell. A whole army of proteins is needed to unpack, edit, and execute the information it contains. Without this apparatus, DNA is but an inert database, full of errors and repetitions. To grasp the nature of life, … we must move away from our obsession with genes alone. We must look not at one level, but at the interaction of processes at various levels, from the realm of systems biology, …far from being a vague, unsatisfactory, and even faintly mystical holistic view, modern systems biology can be just as mathematically rigorous and exact as the reductionist approach that has led to the vast knowledge amassed by molecular biology in the past fifty years. And it may be the view we need to adopt to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of life.
Systems biology described by Denis Noble and the reductionist approach inherent in Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene are two different approaches to evolutionary biology that reflect scientific interpretations of the data; scientists trying to make sense of the data and the world we observe and interrogate around us. Noble wrote a review on this view of the heart for Science Magazine when they published an issue focusing on systems biology, Modeling the Heart–from Genes to Cells to the Whole Organ Science (v. 295, pp 1678 – 1682). I’ve read Noble’s book – and found it fascinating. Several years ago Bev Mitchell, a retired biology professor offered us a reflection on the book in a post aptly titled The music of life.
The above debate between reductionist and systems based approaches is a scientific one. But what about room for God? Dawkins certainly lets metaphysical assumption color the way he expresses scientific ideas. His agenda is no secret. Denis Noble has no clear agenda here – but comes from a secular perspective. He wrote a book review for Science (v. 320 pp. 1590 – 1591) on Stuart Kauffman’s book Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. In this review he says:
At a Novartis Foundation meeting 10 years ago on “the limits of reductionism in biology,” I presented my work on modeling heart rhythm as an example of downward causation: the idea, … that the whole constrains the parts as much as the parts are necessary to the whole. A colleague objected: “Denis, I would go along with you, but this lets God back into the picture.” I disagreed. But Kauffman, …, would wholeheartedly agree.
Of course Kauffman’s God is a vague spirituality, not the personal God of the Bible. Later in the review:
But why should we call any of this “God”? Kauffman’s God is not even given the power that the Deists recognize. It is not a prime mover. He feels that “we must use the God word, for my hope is to honorably steal its aura to authorize the sacredness of the creativity in nature.”
There are many directions I could go with this discussion. It is certainly true that some in the sciences, like Noble’s colleague above, fear opening the door a crack to let God into the picture. Some – like Dawkins – try very hard to keep the door shut, locked, bolted, and the key discarded (A portcullis or two wouldn’t hurt either). Some are willing to follow the data and wrestle with their preconceptions. In all cases metaphysical assumptions, like scientific assumptions and preconceptions, can color the way ideas are expressed. I have extended this discussion a bit beyond McGrath’s – but it includes his general idea.
This digression indicates how easily metaphysical presuppositions intrude into what is meant to be an objective scientific account of things. This is perhaps most evident in the case of writers wishing to argue that evolutionary naturalism eliminates either (or both) belief in God or (and) in divine involvement in natural process. (p. 170)
Of course metaphysical presupposition and agenda also colors the presentation of the scientific data – and the willingness to even consider the scientific data – in the case of writers wishing to demonstrate that nature points conclusively to God. This is most obvious among those who argue for scientific creationism – young earth creationism; but it can be found at times in those espousing more moderate views as well. But science doesn’t, or shouldn’t deal with metaphysical assumptions from either side.
So where do we go from here? …I have some opinions – but first I’d like to hear from you.
How should we think critically about metaphysical assumptions, scientific interpretations, and empirical observation?
Or perhaps you think my distinctions are wrong from the start …?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.