Monday, May 11, 2009

Replacing Fictionalism and Antirealism with Humble Realism

Do the entities found in our scientific theories exist in the real world, or are theories simply tools used to give us a helpful but ultimately false handle on our experience of the world?

My friend and colleague Phillip Broussard at Covenant College (the undergraduate liberal-arts college of the Presbyterian Church in America, a Reformed denomination which together with the CanRC is in NAPARC) wrote a couple of papers which are relevant to our discussions here regarding the age of the earth.  I encourage you to read these, and make your comments here.

He argues against what he calls a fictionalist view of scientific theories, an example of scientific antirealism, a view which suggests that there is little if any connection between the theories used in science and the created reality, and affirms the approach of critical realism, moving it forward into a Reformed Christian perspective he calls humble realism.  He describes and critiques fictionalist views which show up in the creation science community and in his students, along the lines of ‘appearance of age’.

The papers are entitled “A Reformed View of Fictionalism and Antirealism in the Sciences” (2003, PDF here) and “Is Realism Viable in the Midst of Physics and Philosophy?” (2008, PDF here).  These were written in the context of Broussard’s tenure review process at Covenant, and while they contain some “in-house” references (particularly in the first paper), such as to lectures by his colleagues, he brings up points which are valuable for us all to consider.

Here is a lengthy quote from pp. 27f. of the second paper, which you would need to read in its entirety to fully appreciate.  It does contain some wonderful technical detail for the physicists among us, but is certainly possible to comprehend without a physics background.

“Humble Realism does not accept the tenets of antirealism, in saying that theories have no connection to reality, nor would it accept a classical realist view that the objects must be consistent with our scale chauvinistic views or that if a theory is successful then it is True. Humble Realism would first of all see that the goal of science as glorifying God and enabling us to be better stewards of His creation.  In order to do that, Humble Realism would see science as attempting to discover truth about the nature of reality, but is aware that a complete understanding of even a limited part of reality is going to be beyond us. The entities and laws postulated by theories are assumed to be accurate, yet incomplete, approximations to what is present in the theory-independent world, but the mental model of those images must be informed by the problems of scale chauvinism we all struggle with. Humble Realism embraces the view of humans as limited and fallen creatures, who realize that our finitude is a gift from God, all the time acknowledging that the truth of Imago Dei has something to do with how we can be stewards of this creation, including the ability to grasp a limited understanding of God’s faithfulness in creation. Humble Realism acknowledges that past theories, although shown to be incomplete and false in some ways, can still be used as well as seeing that these theories do seem to arise from more accurate theories. Humble Realism cannot do a better job on quantifying verisimilitude than the many philosophers who have tried, but it can acknowledge that we often do distinguish between competing theories and can tell which does a better job. Humble Realism must take full ownership that the issues of confirmation cannot be fully solved, and as such can never claim absolute confidence in any theory, however, as a theory is more and more successful, we can have more confidence that it applies to reality in a limited manner. Humble Realism acknowledges that it is only because of a faithful God that one can understand some aspect of reality in a limited way and that all the knowledge we have is revelation from the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:18) Finally, Humble Realism will hopefully allow one to take joy in what we learn about God’s creation.”

I’m looking forward to a fruitful discussion among readers of Broussard’s papers.  When responding, please refer to page numbers and make sure we can tell which paper you’re referring to (first paper, 2003; second paper, 2008).

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for providing the links to those papers. I am excitedly anticipating reading them.
Another and quite contradictory view is held by your TWU colleague Dr. Byl. I wonder if you could encourage him to make a response here. 

Rick Baartman

Arnold Sikkema said...

Thanks for your suggestion, Rick; he plans to look at these sources in early June.

Fritz said...

A group of early Christians were called Docetists. (Their name comes from a greek word which means "seems", or "appears".)
They maintained that Jesus was not a full flesh-and-blood human being, but that He was completely and only divine. He only "seemed" or "appeared" to be a human being; to hunger, to thirst, to anguish, and to die. Since Jesus was God, he could not really be a man. He simply came to earth in the "appearance" of human flesh. This view was considered a heresy by the early Church. Can a connection be made between "fictionalism" and "docetism"? Just curious.

-- Fritz Dewit

Ben said...

Phillip Broussard's argument for Humble Realism in the sciences has interesting parallels with the Augustinian hermeneutic practiced in literary studies by David Lyle Jeffrey, Alan Jacobs, Roger Lundin, Jens Zimmerman, and others. In response to the 'hermeneutics of suspicion' that characterizes much of post-modernist literary theory, these Christian scholars argue for the possibility of meaning in the experience of reading literary texts for those who read with charity and humility.

There's more to the story of Christian literary hermeneutics than this, of course, but I merely want to note here that Reformed approaches to the arts and sciences often have similar starting points in ontology (realism), epistemology (humility), and anthropology (imago Dei). Comes from working within the same Reformed confessional framework, I'd say.

Ben Faber

Arnold Sikkema said...

Regarding Fritz's comment, see this blog posting by George which discusses the docetism of the young-earth creationist Henry Morris.

Fritz said...

I have to admit that I have trouble with the jump from anti-realism to "fictionalism". please correct me if I'm wrong, but in the course of this leap, doesn't rational thought get left behind somewhere? I've heard this kind of argument before, and it's always irritated me. So finally, I decided to try to get to the bottom of the matter.

As given in the article, the definition of "fictionalism" is:
"that although the theory and data may imply a certain result, it only appears that way to our observation and the actual truth is quite different."

At first sight, I thought well, maybe there is something to that. But, I just was uncomfortable with something. So, to help tease out what the problem might be, I started by doing a bit of thinking about how "science" works. And, to get away from the
misconception that somehow "science" "works" differently than we do in living our day-to-day lives, I decided to replace the highbrow-sounding words like "theory" and "data", "observation", with concepts, words, and experiences we live our daily lives by.

Here is a "fictionalist" Galileo:
1. I wonder if how a rock falls is affected by its size.
2. I can learn something by dropping a big rock and a small rock off a high bridge.
3. I take a big rock and a small rock and drop them off a high bridge, and see that they hit the water at nearly exactly the same time.
4. but, the connection between a rocks fall and its size is actually different.
I think most people will agree that this is bizarre. At best, it seems to be a contradiction. (step 4 seems to contradict step 2 and step 3) At worst, it seems to indicate a pathology of thought.

As a second example, here is Galileo who went to bed too late after a night on the town:
1. I wonder if I have to get up for work.
2. I can find out if I roll over and look at my alarm clock and see if it's 6:00AM
3. I look at the clock and see that it's 5:58AM.
4. but actually I don't have to get up for work.
This starts to make sense. Galileo hasn't become contradictory nor lost his reason, but doesn't want to get out of bed.

And, here is my final example:
1. I wonder how old the universe is.
2. I can learn something by looking at a "universe clock".
3. I see that the clock says 13 billion years.
4. but, the age of the universe is actually different.
I suggest that step 4 is not really an "interpretation" of steps 1 - 3, but is in fact a reaction to them.

-- Fritz Dewit

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Phillip Broussard’s work on scientific knowing is enlightening, as is his belief that the truth of our being created in the image of God “has something to do with how we can be stewards of this creation” and with our ability to achieve a limited understanding of God’s faithfulness in creation. His articles, and especially his description of “humble realism,” contain antidotes not only to naïve-realist and anti-realist interpretations in science but are applicable in a wider area. They shed light, for example, on the conflict between modernist objectivism (naïve realism) on the one hand and postmodernist subjective relativism (anti-realism) on the other. I focus on that wider context.

Among the philosophers who have dealt at some length with the errors of an anti-realist position is Michael Polanyi (1891-1976). Of interest in this connection are his arguments against “cultural conditioning” – the doctrine that we hold our beliefs and convictions merely because of the culture in which we live, and that therefore they are altogether relative. Polanyi does not deny the role of cultural influences but argues that, rather than interfering with the accumulation of knowledge, they are in fact essential for our mental development. “An entirely untutored maturing of the mind would…result in a state of imbecility” (Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 295). We can function as intelligent human beings only because we are part of the community, historical epoch, and civilization wherein we find ourselves. “Tacit assent and intellectual passions,” he writes, “the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework” (Ibid., p. 266).

Polanyi at the same time warns that our cultural rootedness does not deprive us of our personal responsibility. Not only are we obliged to test the traditions we inherit, we are also able to do so. Although influenced by our culture, we do not have to be its passive recipients; everyone has “some measure of direct access to the standards of truth and rightness” (Polanyi, The Study of Man, p. 30). It is true that that access is limited. The criteria by which we test the traditions of our culture depend on that same culture, so that a truly objective view of things is denied us. But does this not mean that we are the helpless victims of our environment after all? Polanyi rejects that conclusion while stressing our human limitations, which he sees as imposed by our finitude. We have no choice but to accept these limitations, since it is impossible to hold ourselves responsible beyond them. Asking how we would think if we had been raised outside a particular society is as meaningless as asking how we would think if we had been born in no particular body. “I believe, therefore,” he concludes, “that as I am called upon to live and die in this body, struggling to satisfy its desires, recording my impressions by aid of such sense organs as it is equipped with, and acting through the puny machinery of my brain, my nerves and my muscles, so I am called upon also to acquire the instruments of intelligence from my early surroundings and to use these particular instruments to fulfill the universal obligations to which I am subject” (Pers. Knowl., p. 323). Epistemic humility is required, but postmodernist agnosticism is out of the question.

Polanyi does not say it is God who called us, placed us in a particular time and culture, and assigned to us our cultural tasks. He also does not he speak of our being created in the image of God, nor does he say in so many words that our (limited) knowledge of reality is God’s gift of grace – although he seems to admit, at least by implication, human dependence. Even so, Christian believers can take to heart his “humble realism” together with his argued rejection of the doctrine of absolute social conditioning. Polanyi was not a Christian. But perhaps we may see in his philosophy the influence of what Broussard calls God’s common grace.

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

I was intrigued, Ben, by your comment on the similarities between Phillip Broussard’s theory of “Humble Realism” and the ideas on literary hermeneutics by various Reformed authors, and wonder if you would be willing to tell us a bit more about this.

hjvb said...

Broussard's article makes a statement at the end that I can wholeheartedly agree with. "Mostly I desire that my students see the wonder and awe in God's creation and be faithful in their use of both His creation and the knowledge that he has allowed us to receive." (Broussard, 2003; p.20). However, I feel compelled to confront some of the points he makes.

First, a relatively minor point. Whatever gifts God gives to unbelievers are referred to in this article as 'common grace'. This expression is referred to as 'light of nature' by the Canons of Dordt (III/IV-4). It may give them insights into God's creation, but, contrary to what Broussard says (Broussard, 2003, p.3), this 'light of nature' can not give them insight into who God is, but rather only "some notions about God". I think there is a distinction. In addition, the word grace implies a benefit, whereas these gifts actually lead to the punishment of the unbeliever. So I think it is better not to use Common Grace. (For an interesting discussion read http://www.banneroftruth.org/pages/articles/article_detail.php?495 )

On page 5 he states that "conflicts, though not inherent between the two 'books' (the Bible and creation), will result due to our sinfulness and finiteness affecting our interpretation of both revelations." Why, then, does Broussard refer to Philip Gosse's suggestion about an old earth as 'evidence'? I hear old earth believers constantly use expressions like 'the evidence suggests' or 'the evidence implies'. Should our sinfulness and the sinfulness and finiteness of unbelieving scientists not make us think there may be a problem with their interpretation of general revelation? Why be convinced that the conclusions of finite scientists about the age of the earth constitute evidence?

Let's go to the definition of a realist on page 6: "A realist is one who would say, yes, we are justified to some degree in believing the existence of nonobservable entities if the theory is successful." Creation Scientists have shown that the geological and biological models for long ages are not successful. That's what I like about them: they test the evolution theory and long age ideas by making observations and testing them and showing that the theories are false. Do we then insist on sticking to the long age because there are more scientists that believe this, whereas a smaller number of creation scientists have come to a different conclusion? Or are the conclusions of evolutionists more convincing than other scientists?

I do find the application of fictionalism by Broussard dangerous and definitely unhelpful. On page 8 he states that "In fictionalism, the claim is made that although the theory and data may imply a certain result, it only appears that way to our observation and the actual truth is quite different." But with this line of reasoning wouldn't it be fictionalism to suggest that a snake spoke to Eve since our observations show us that snakes never speak. We have to see by faith, which can be quite different from observable facts. Abraham could see that he was old. So he should have concluded that he wouldn't have offspring. But he knew that the actual truth was different. It is my contention that the word fictionalism can be applied to any statement of faith, where reality is not what it seems. E.g.we know that a believer is blessed, even as he is suffering in agony as a result of a disease. As Reformed people we should know where a rejection of so-called fictionalism is going to lead us: nothing less than a rejection of 'unscientific' events that are recorded in the Bible. You say 'No way'? Then I like someone to explain how fictionalism is different from faith.

In a next installment I plan to deal with a number of Broussard's statements about Creation Scientists, who, though misdirected in some matters of doctrine, need our support and the benefit of our rich inheritance, but who also offer us many valuable insights.

Herman van Barneveld

Anonymous said...

Creation Scientists have shown that the geological and biological models for long ages are not successful. That's what I like about them: they test the evolution theory and long age ideas by making observations and testing them and showing that the theories are false. I'm sorry, but that is simply not the case. Creation Scientists have provided ad hoc rationalizations to try and fit the data to their presuppositions, but that is not the same thing. The data consistently supports an old earth and biological evolution. The more honest Young-earth creationists admit this: for example, paleontologist Kurt Wise believes some fossils are the result of death before the Fall. Why? Because the evidence is so strong that these fossils were laid down before plants existed (1). A second paper of his discusses numerous transitional forms in the fossil record that he agrees are transitional. Why? Because they are in the right strata at the correct relative time and show exactly the features one would predict based on evolutionary theory / common descent (2). Another example would be Todd Wood, another "honest" YEC: one of his recent papers discusses the striking correspondence between the chimpanzee genome and our own. Todd agrees that it is exactly the pattern one would predict if common descent were indeed the case. Todd does not come to this conclusion easily – and you can see in the paper that he does his own analysis of the data to confirm what mainstream biology has found (3).

If the data is convincing enough for the very best scholars in the YEC movement , what do you think your average scientist should conclude?

In short, Young Earth Creationism is a failed paradigm – it has made no successful predictions, provides no framework for future research, and is maintained solely for (in my opinion, poor) theological reasons. Those in the know within the movement know this to be the case- cutting-edge YEC “research” confirms it. The sooner Christians get past this issue the better! God’s world is too wonderful and beautiful to constantly misrepresent for the sake of poor theology.

Dennis Venema

References: all three can be found at

http://www.bryancore.org/anniversary/building.html

and downloaded as PDF files. The links to the paper scroll at the bottom. The ones by Wise say “When did the Flood Begin?” (1) and “Ape-Men, Bird-lizards and walking whales” (2); the one by Wood says “Image of God, image of man?” (3). They make great reading – enjoy.

Arnold Sikkema said...

This is a response to Herman’s comments on Broussard’s articles on fictionalism.

First, regarding “common grace”. Certainly several Dutch Reformed denominations have different points of view regarding the concept and/or the term. In fact, as the summary of the debate (cited by Herman) indicates, it led to the establishment of the Protestant Reformed federation. And perhaps since Kuyper used the term “common grace” and since many followers of Kuyper did not following the vrijmaking (perhaps a simplistic reading), many in the CanRC object to the term as well. In Broussard’s PCA tradition, there is not this history of dispute about the term.

Some argue that God’s gifts to the ungodly are actually God’s gifts to us through the ungodly, so that we can rightly thank God for the medical research and practice also of unbelievers. Others would say that these are in fact God’s gifts to the ungodly, and are a call to repentance and acknowledgment of their Source, and which testify against them if they refuse to turn to God, or which can be used by God in turning their hearts to Him. Both are true, and the second can be expanded to describe how God’s gifts apply to us as well. In fact, the Reformed doctrine of the covenant is similar, in that of those to whom much has been given, much is expected: those so blessed are judged more strongly than those not party to the regular means of grace. So grace is an undeserved benefit given by God, which people will reject unless empowered by the Spirit to accept.

Psalm 19:1-4 states “The heavens declare the glory of God…Day after day they pour forth speech…their words to the ends of the world.” (NIV) Romans 1:20 says: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (NIV) Broussard does not claim that common grace is all anyone needs for salvation or for complete or sufficient knowledge of God; certainly special revelation goes beyond general revelation. Herman seems to indicate that Broussard says common grace gives people insight into “who God is”, but all Broussard says in “common grace…allows nonbelievers to have insights into God and his creation” which is not, to me, very different from what the Canons of Dort calls “light of nature” or from what Psalm 19 and Romans 1 say.

[continued…]

Arnold Sikkema said...

[continued…]

Next Herman suggests we should not allow “the conclusions of finite scientists about the age of the earth [to] constitute evidence.” If we go this way, then there can be no use of evidence in any human matter, such as the courts, Biblical exegesis, archaeology, historiography, literature. Evidence in science, or anywhere else, is certainly valuable and necessary. It does not constitute proof, as proof is, in my view, limited to logic and mathematics. But evidence certainly does point, direct, indicate, imply, suggest, lead. And evidence helps in the judgment of theories in terms of their fruitfulness, verisimilitude, consistency. This goes for everyone; young-earth creation scientists also rely on evidence.

Further, Herman suggests “Creation Scientists have shown that the geological and biological models for long ages are not successful… they test the evolution theory and long age ideas by making observations and testing them and showing that the theories are false.” This is, of course, quite an overstatement. Within the small community of creation scientists, certain points of evidence have been disputed, but in the overwhelmingly vast proportion of these, many Bible-believing scientists disagree with their conclusions. There are far more Bible-believing scientists (including Reformed believers) who find the evidences for an old earth compelling than there are Bible-believing scientists who dispute the evidence. Even so, science is not a democracy, for an anomaly put forth by anyone merits consideration. But this is not, as Herman seems to suggest, a simple case of choosing between “evolutionists” on the one hand and “believer scientists” on the other hand. For, as Tony pointed out in his first post, “evolution” is a loaded term. Certainly many have put forth evolution as if it were a thoroughly materialistic and atheistic worldview, but in doing so they have stepped out of science.

Finally, Herman suggests “the application of fictionalism by Broussard dangerous and definitely unhelpful… wouldn’t it be fictionalism to suggest that a snake spoke to Eve since our observations show us that snakes never speak. We have to see by faith, which can be quite different from observable facts…It is my contention that the word fictionalism can be applied to any statement of faith, where reality is not what it seems.” Broussard is discussing fictionalism within science, in terms of how one relates the things in our scientific theories and the things in the real world. Fictionalism in the context of theology would claim that the miracles spoken of in Scripture do not have any counterpart in the real world, so that the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for example, didn’t really happen but only serves as a story to create a community of believers. Broussard rejects fictionalism in science, and would reject it in theology as well. Rejecting fictionalism does not have anything to do with claiming that miracles in Scripture did not occur because we cannot scientifically prove them; these are outside the realm of science after all.

hjvb said...

Very quickly, it very much seems that Broussard talks about fictionalism in Science as it also overlaps with statements made in the Bible; he applies it to Creation Scientists who say that there is an appearance of age because God tells us that He made the earth in a short period of time, so that mature organisms were formed who look old but aren't. Similarly, studying snakes is Science, but it overlaps the account of the fall. So I don't see Broussard making that applying fictionalism only to Science. Please check it out carefully. It appears that fictionalism deals with the overlap of Science and Faith.

Herman van Barneveld

Anonymous said...

Herman wants "someone to explain how fictionalism is different from faith". I infer from this that his view of faith is that it means hanging on to some vision of the past in the teeth of evidence to the contrary. That's not faith, it's stubbornness. In Hebrews we read "...faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.". And in the BC, art. 2, "...we know [God] ... by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, ... lead us to perceive clearly the invisible things of God...". I do perceive this clearly, and moreover understand that this perception is not given to all, but is a gift. The fictionalist perspective of Morris and others who propose an "appearance of age" to explain away the evidence, strikes me as diametrically opposite to the revelation described in the BC.

Rick Baartman

Anonymous said...

Hi Herman,

I'll look forward to seeing your supporting material. To date, (and I have done a lot of reading on this subject in areas outside my own specialization) I have not seen any evidence in physics, astronomy, geology or biology that matches what one would predict based on a YEC model. What I see are either outright misrepresentations or ad hoc rationalizations why the data looks the way it does while the authours deny the natural conclusion the data point to.

In my area of specialization (genetics, genomics, cell biology) the evidence for common descent is incredibly strong - stronger than a non-specialist can even imagine. That's just the way it is - like it or not (theologically). If Darwin or Wallace had never existed (and science had never come up with the idea of descent with modification) the various genome projects, including the human genome project, would have forced the idea on us on the weight of the evidence.

Best,

Dennis Venema

hjvb said...

Aye, aye, aye, Dennis Venema. Who said it was easy to figure out the geological history of the earth, esp. with cataclysmic events and all that. If Creation Scientists run into unanswered questions then they are in good company of evolutionists (and I'm using it in the Slime-to-Superman sense)who have many more unanswered questions. But to suggest that "The data consistently supports an old earth and biological evolution." [quoting Dennis Venema] is, in my humble evaluation of the facts, simply not true. But how is this to be resolved? The evolution movement has its honest contributors as well, stating that 'evolution' doesn't really work. (sorry, but I don't have the time to find the sources; I can get them later). Give me a bit of time to check your references. To be continued.

Herman van Barneveld

hjvb said...

I was going to supply the readers with an example of 'honest' evolutionists who will admit that they do not know much at all, but that their ideas are based on a different worldview. Jonathan Sarfati wrote the following about a leading evolution promoter: "The thinking inherent in the evolutionary mindset is illustrated by the following statement by Richard Lewontin, a geneticist and leading evolution promoter (and self-proclaimed Marxist). It illustrates the implicit philosophical bias against Genesis creation—regardless of whether or not the facts support it.

(Lewontin states: HvB)
'We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfil many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.' "

" http://creation.com/jonathan-d-sarfati-physical-chemistry-in-six-days (may 26, 2009)

So we see that it is often not 'facts' but world view that shapes conclusions in regards to the history of the earth. And once that framework is set up, other scientists build on it and see it as an unmovable anchor.


Herman van Barneveld

Tony Jelsma said...

I agree with Herman that many evolutionists have a worldview commitment that allows no other option than a naturalistic evolutionary scenario. Besides Lewontin, I can name Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Will Provine and many others. But there are many Christians, including Francis Collins, Darrell Falk and others who have a Christian worldview and argue that evolution is God's way of creating.
Is evolution incompatible with a Reformed worldview? That's a big question which needs to be unpacked. What do we mean by evolution? What do the early chapters of Genesis really say? What do we mean by a Reformed worldview?
That's the sort of nuanced discussion we're trying to promote on this blog. Broad brush strokes don't help much in this regard.

Anonymous said...

Hi Herman,

Lewontin is welcome to his opinions, but they are his alone - and they have been criticized by biologists of all stripes. He is not representative of evolutionary biology as a whole, not by a long shot. He is viewed as a competent biologist who also holds rather fringe philosophical ideas.

Aside from all that, the case you seem to be making is that scientists have already made up their minds philosophically and then bend the data to fit their presuppositions. I think the papers I referenced above show that this is not the case - the data is a problem from a YEC perspective even when one holds to YEC presuppositions. Have you read the Wood paper yet? This is a man who shares your exact presuppositions. He also has expertise in genomics. He can't make head nor tail of human : chimp genomic "problem", as he calls it. Why not? Because of the evidence. If all Todd needed to do was to unravel the atheist philosophical spin put on otherwise solid pro-YEC data it would be a very different paper (and YEC a very different movement, but I digress).

Of course, this problem of evidence countering the YEC position is a problem at all levels of organization, from cosmic to molecular, from galactic redshifts to pseudogenes. Eventually, it necessitates an anti-realist position, where one maintains one's presuppositions in the face of overwhelming data to the contrary. In the process, I think they run roughshod over God's revelation in nature.

So, while short quotes from evolutionary biologists are interesting to discuss, what of the evidence? Has God written "two books" or only one?

Best,

Dennis Venema

YFNWG said...

Over the past number of years I have been an observer on the anthropomorphic global warming debate and every once and a while put my $0.02. I have observed that there are similarities in that debate and the one regarding the origins of the universe and man.

There are those (on both sides) that take the ostrich position, the head in the sand, a hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil approach. They don't want to look at or talk about the data that appears to contradict their viewpoint. However, they are very vocal in expressing their own viewpoint and are vitrolic in their condemnation of the other "side".

There are also those (again, on both sides) who immerse themselves in the data, sifting, sorting and drawing their own conclusions whether in support or contradicting the other's arguments.

I would suggest that the second is much more effective and critical in determining the veracity of one conclusion or another and getting others to agree.

I have also observed that there is a minority position and a majority position. The majority has the research funds, a supportive MSM, and the audacity to declare a scientific concensus. The minority have to kick and scream to get themselves heard, to get funds and data to perform research that will get accepted by the scientific community at large.

Evolution is the majority position in this particular debate, with most most proponents not acknowledging God as a factor within the debate.
I would suggest that Christians be extremely wary of adopting any of the world's view and thereby become more "of the world", which by Biblical definition, is antithetical to Christianity.
Conversely, Christians shouldn't take the ostrich position either but, if possible, to do the research to draw their own conclusions. If it isn't possible, then keep an open mind to the possibility that a literal interpretation isn't the only valid view of Scripture.

Fred Nieuwenhuis

Arnold Sikkema said...

The Wood paper which Dennis refers to is a bit hard to find, so I have dug up a direct link.

Anonymous said...

I've written some thoughts on the subject of Realism here.

--rick baartman

John Byl said...

I have been invited to reply to Phillip Broussard’s articles on scientific realism. Rather than respond to details, I would instead like to address the deeper underlying issue of how science should relate to Scripture. Since Broussard’s view seems similar to that of Reformed Academic (hereafter RA), let me comment more widely on my reaction to RA:

1. I applaud the aim of RA to discuss “academic issues on the basis of Scripture and the Reformed confessions” and to promote the “Reformed tradition” originating with Calvin and Luther”.

2. Given RA’s stated goal, I am dismayed that its actual starting point seems to be a rather uncritical acceptance of the naturalist myth of origins (from the Big Bang to the evolution of man), which RA mistakenly elevates to “what God has revealed in nature”. RA is then compelled to reject the traditional historical interpretation of Gen. 1-11. This, in turn, entails a reduction of Biblical authority and a new hermeneutic that re-interprets Genesis in conformity with mainstream (naturalist) science. In justifying all this, RA tends to unduly minimize the subjectivity of science and to grossly exaggerate the difficulty of biblical interpretation.

3. In science we must distinguish between (1) the actual observational data and (2) their theoretical extrapolation and explanation. The latter are subjective human constructs, reflecting worldview presuppositions. Since we can’t directly observe the distant past, scientific conclusions about origins must rely on various theoretical assumptions. The fundamental epistemic question is thus: in case of conflict, should Scripture trump scientific theory or vice versa?

4. I maintain that a genuinely Reformed epistemology should conform to the Reformed confessions. The Belgic Confession affirms that the Bible is the Word of God (Art. 3) and, hence, inerrant and fully authoritative (“believing without doubt all things contained in them,” Art. 5). It allows for revelation through nature but this knowledge (1) concerns God’s attributes and (2) is less clear and full than Biblical revelation (Art. 2). Furthermore, since scientific theories are human constructs, they must bow before Scripture (Art. 7). A Reformed epistemology should thus judge scientific theories in the light of Scripture.

5. I maintain that a genuinely Reformed hermeneutic should conform to a high view of Scripture, applying biblically sound hermeneutical principles. The Reformers insisted that (1) we should interpret the Bible in its obvious, natural sense unless internal evidence indicates otherwise and (2) Scripture should interpret Scripture. A Reformed hermeneutic should thus read the Bible on its own terms, letting the exegetical chips fall where they may.

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John Byl said...

[continued]

6. The Bible itself consistently takes Gen. 1-11 in its obvious, natural sense. Reformed hermeneutics thus implies that the traditional, historical reading of Gen. 1-11 is in fact what the Bible teaches. This is the Reformed view of Gen. 1-11, held by the Reformers Luther and Calvin as well as the vast majority of Christians until recent challenges from naturalist science. Hence, Reformed epistemology should reject all scientific theorizing that contradicts the plain, historical reading of Gen. 1-11.

7. To RA I pose the following challenges:

A. Biblical implications
If we cannot believe everything the Bible affirms, how can we believe anything in it? Why, for example, should we believe in a resurrection, given this contradicts naturalist science? Why should naturalist science trump the Bible on origins but not on eschatology? Where do you draw the line? And how do you justify your criteria? If taking the Bible at face value is “simplistic”, what hermeneutical criteria must be applied? And how are these to be biblically justified?

B. Scientific implications
If our reading of Scripture is to be dictated by some scientific theories, why not others? How do you know which scientific theories are true? Where do you draw the line? And how do you justify your criteria?

C. Theological implications
If man evolved from matter, how can he have a non-material soul? If Adam and Eve had evolutionary ancestors then Gen. 2 is not historical; since Gen. 2 is closely linked to Gen. 3, why should we believe in a historical Fall? And where does that leave the doctrine of original sin and the need for atonement? Further, if man evolved then suffering and death existed long before the Fall. How, then, can these be considered a result of sin?

[RA affirms belief in an historical Adam and his fall. But if RA believes also that Adam evolved from animal ancestors then RA owes us a detailed explanation of how it reconciles two seemingly contradictory beliefs.]

8. In short, it seems to me that RA is promoting an untenable syncretism of Christianity and naturalism. RA would do well to return to the Sola Scriptura of the Reformation.

John Byl

Jitse van der Meer said...

Here is my response to John Byl’s comments.

Re: 2. Dr. Byl knows very well that as Christians we do not accept naturalism and its myths. He should either support this allegation with evidence or withdraw it. In typical Enlightenment fashion he describes various entailments of this caricature, none of which we hold. Further, it is naïve to think that any hermeneutic by itself -- new or old -- guarantees an interpretation of Scripture that is automatically true. This is another intellectualistic distortion. First and foremost, biblical interpretation requires guidance by the Holy Spirit and prayer. It also requires expert knowledge of the languages of the Bible and the cultures in and around Israel.

Re: 3. The distinction between data and interpretation is as attractive as it is simplistic. Dr. Byl is of course entitled to his personal philosophy of science. But he can do so only by ignoring what is now generally accepted, namely that observational data are not as objective as he suggests and that theory is not as subjective as he suggests. Data and theory cannot be separated so cleanly and so the subjectivity of theory extends to the data. Moreover, as Christians we should be concerned not to emphasize the subjectivity of human knowledge to the extent that we become relativists. This would prevent us from knowing God as well as from knowing the objectively existing things God has created. The question Dr. Byl raises as the fundamental question is exactly the false dilemma that has gotten many Christians into rejecting the Scriptures as God’s Word. Dr. Byl has chosen for a particular view of Scripture (see ‘inerrancy’ below) and needs to deny that scientific theory has anything to do with reality in order to avoid problems. For those Christians who do not share Byl’s anti-realism as an escape, this balancing act has worked out the other way. Reformed Academic is motivated by the need to avoid the latter.

[continued]

Jitse van der Meer said...

[Response to John Byl, continued]

Re: 4. The history of biblical interpretation shows that those interpretations suffer from the same human imperfections and failures as their interpretations of nature do. The notion of ‘inerrancy’ is a case in point. To make a long and complex story short, historically ‘inerrancy’ is a rationalistic, Enlightenment-inspired reaction to higher biblical criticism that has done more damage to biblical interpretation in the Reformed tradition than good. It was introduced by Warfield, shaped by Scottish common sense philosophy, and adopted by North American evangelical Christians in their struggle with biblical criticism. Unfortunately, the notion of ‘inerrancy’ introduced the same reliance on human reason that motivated biblical critics. This is why it has been rejected by such continental Reformed theologians as C. Trimp and G.C. Berkouwer. ‘Inerrancy’ is an addition to the older notion of ‘infallibility.’ Infallibility means: God does not fail to achieve his purpose when He promises salvation to us and everything that this requires. It makes the guiding question for biblical interpretation: what is God’s intention with the text. ‘Inerrancy’ often means: the Bible contains no errors. It makes it impossible to acknowledge that the Bible is not only a divine book, but also a human one. I consider ‘inerrancy’ as a Trojan Horse that provides biblical critics with lots of ammunition to show that the Bible is not what it claims to be. This does not mean that ‘inerrancy’ cannot be saved from its historical burden of rationalism. This is what J.I. Packer intended when he promoted inerrancy despite its historical burden. But in his hands it has come to mean the same thing as infallibility. About the mistaken use of inerrancy he observed: “And one can see how the mistake happens: people feel, sincerely if confusedly, that the only natural, straightforward way to express their certainty that the contents of Scripture are contemporary in their application is to treat Scripture as contemporary in its literary form. So, for example, Genesis 1 is read as if it were answering the same questions as today’s scientific textbooks aim to answer, and Genesis 2 and 3 are read as if they were at every point prosaic eyewitness narratives of what we would have seen if we had been there, ignoring the reasons for thinking that in these chapters ‘real events may be recorded in a highly symbolic manner,’…and books like Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation are expounded in total disregard of the imaginative conventions of apocalyptic. But it does not follow that be-cause Scripture records matters of fact, therefore it does so in what we should call matter-of-fact language.” [see p. 78 of J.I. Packer, “Encountering Present-Day Views of Scripture,” in J. Montgomery Boice, ed., The Foundation of Biblical Authority (London & Glasgow: Pickering & Inglis, 1979), pp. 61-82]. Would Dr. Byl consider adopting this notion of inerrancy?

[continued]

Jitse van der Meer said...

[Response to John Byl, continued]

Re: 5. Amen!

Re: 6. Dr. Byl needs to correct his characterization of ‘the Reformed view.’ There is variety possible within the confines of a high view of Scripture.

Re: 7A. A high view of Scripture means among others that Scripture provides its own interpretation. How do we draw the line? Here is one example. In the case of the Resurrection it is obvious: all of Scripture stands or falls with it. But then such a miracle falls outside the competence of the natural sciences despite what the Bultmanns of this world say. In the case of the creation story it is also obvious: God is Creator of all, Adam and Eve fell into sin, all of humanity needs redemption. But Scripture does not provide its own interpretation when it comes to questions as to the details of how God created this world because it simply does not address them.

Re: 7B. I agree that our reading of Scripture is not to be dictated by scientific theories. But, seriously, there are more options than that. One wonders whether Dr. Byl also wants to exclude the help of biblical archaeology in Scripture interpretation?

Re: 7C. For answers, see for example: Deborah B. Haarsma & Loren D. Haarsma, Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, and Evolution (Faith Alive, 2007); C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Literary, Linguistic, and Theological Commentary (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2006) and Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Crossway, 2003); Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God Centered Approach (Crossway, 2006); Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1995).

A great deal more could be said. If Dr. Byl is serious about receiving more detailed answers he should take the trouble to inform himself about the matters he brings up for discussion, refrain from stifling constructive exchange by painting caricatures, and resist the temptation of overwhelming his partners in discussion by expecting them to write book-length responses. To assist him in all this we have provided references to the existing literature.

Jitse van der Meer

John Byl said...

Allow me to respond to Dr van der Meer:

1. Does Reformed Academic accept the naturalist myth of origins (from Big Bang to the evolution of man)? Dr vdM denies that RA accepts naturalism or its myths.

My concern is that RA promotes the origins account of mainstream science, which is driven by naturalist presuppositions. Dr vdM may disagree with my assessment of this as naturalist myth but he himself promotes an evolutionary origin of man. Perhaps Dr vdM could elaborate on how his view of evolution differs from that of mainstream science.

2. Should we judge scientific theory in the light of Scripture or vice versa? Dr vdM calls this a false dilemma, leading us to deny either the Bible or the realism of scientific theories.

But this is itself a false dilemma: why should an authoritative Bible lead to an anti-realist view of science? Dr vdM seems to think that science is worldview-neutral. I, on the contrary, maintain that science is heavily worldview-dependent, particularly concerning origins. Hence Christians should do their science using biblical principles, rather than naturalistic ones. Scientific theories should thus conform to biblical facts. I have no problem with scientific realism as such; I simply claim that we should reject those origin theories that contradict the Bible.

Conversely, Dr vdM, by embracing mainstream origin theories, is forced to take an essentially anti-realist approach to Scripture, thereby undermining biblical authority.

3. Why should the Bible trump mainstream science in eschatology but not in origins? Dr vdM asserts that biblical eschatology is immune from scientific disproof since miracles fall outside the competence of science. Dr vdM further argues that, unlike the resurrection, “Scripture does not provide its own interpretation when it comes to questions as to the details of how God created this world because it simply does not address them.”

But Gen.1-11 does give a detailed account of how God created. The specific details denied by RA are all confirmed elsewhere in Scripture: creation in six days (Ex. 20:11), a universal Flood (2 Peter 2:5; 3:6), the direct creation of Adam and Eve (Luke 3:38; 1 Tim.2:13). Further, why could miracles not serve equally well to place biblical origins beyond scientific disproof?

continued…

John Byl said...

Response to Jitse van der Meer, continued

4. The bulk of Dr vdM’s response concerns his dismissal of biblical inerrancy. Here we come to the heart of the matter. Dr vdM claims that inerrancy makes it impossible to acknowledge the humanity of the Bible. Dr vdM appeals to Berkouwer, who in his book “Holy Scripture” distinguished between the Bible’s fallible human, time-bound form and its infallible divine content. Regarding origins, Berkouwer took Gen.1-11 to be largely literary form; he doubted the historicity of Adam.

I maintain, however, that just as the humanity of Christ did not cause him to sin, so the humanity of the Bible does not cause it to err; the Bible is still fully reliable.

If Dr vdM believes that, due to its humanity, the Bible is full of errors, how does he discern which parts are trustworthy? What are the criteria? Does Dr vdM, like Berkouwer, believe Gen.1-11 is mostly fallible human form?

How does Dr vdM reconcile his rejection of biblical inerrancy with the confessions, which affirm “everything God reveals in his word is true…” (HC Q&A 20) and “we are to believe without doubt all things contained in the Bible” (BC 5)? This certainly entails more than Dr vdM’s watered-down version of infallibility.

5. How does Dr vdM address the theological questions arising from an evolutionary origin of man? The only answer Dr vdM gives is to refer me to a list of five books, three of which actually reject human evolution. Only one (by the Haarsma’s) considers the issue. But it makes various suggestions that can hardly be called Reformed: Adam & Eve might be an historic couple that evolved or might just be representative or symbolic; the account of the Fall might be metaphorical; human death might have existed before the Fall; God may not have fore-ordained all events but may have used random processes; God may have accommodated His revelation to erroneous views… (See Joseph Pipa’s review here).

Is this really where Dr vdM wants to go? Would it not be prudent, before promoting unorthodox novelties, to consider their theological implications?

6. In sum, Dr van der Meer has not provided any compelling grounds for preferring the origins account of mainstream science - particularly human evolution - over the plain, historical reading of Genesis. Nor has he shown his approach to be consistent with the Reformed confessions and the high view of Scripture they affirm.

Jitse van der Meer said...

Here is my response to Dr. Byl, point by point.

Re: 1. Dr. Byl and many others confuse naturalism as a philosophy with scientific explanation in terms of natural causes. The theory of biological evolution does not entail naturalism as a philosophy, but it uses explanation in terms of natural causes. If the theory of biological evolution or the natural sciences in general did entail naturalism it would self-destruct. Science uses many non-material tools (concepts, logical reasoning etc.) that cannot be investigated by science itself because material causes are not involved. For instance, the conclusion of an argument has immaterial reasons, not material causes. For this reason it is generally accepted that the natural sciences do not entail naturalism as a philosophy. Of course, people will continue to abuse science for their naturalistic agendas and the popular press will lap it up, but scientists and educators like Dr. Byl must resist those abuses because they produce more heat than light. In this connection the term ‘mainstream science’ covers up the diversity of views of science that exists among practicing scientists and philosophers of science. More to the point it covers up the fact that there are many Christians who accept the theory of biological evolution. This diversity shows that naturalist presuppositions do not drive evolutionary theory. It is the evidence that drives it.

Re: 2, para. 1. The false dilemma I pointed out is different. The key issue is a distortion of inerrantism or infallibility, i.e., the view that the Bible is intended to provide information about nature and history that satisfies the requirements of contemporary scholarly study of nature and history. I take Dr. Byl to mean that the Bible is also inerrant in that sense. Then it is impossible to resolve errors and internal contradictions. For example, the sequence of events in the so-called first creation story is plants, animals, people. In the second creation story it is: people, plants, animals. Now if you read these texts the way Dr. Byl reads them you have a contradiction. But the Bible is inerrant. That is an example of the dilemma I had in mind. As a result, far too many Christians have concluded that the Bible is not worth taking seriously. Theologians of the Jesus Seminar have decided to vote on whether such passages should be included in the Bible. As for anti-realists with respect to scientific theory, there is no scientific theory involved here. So anti-realism does not provide a resolution either. In contrast, I believe that the Bible is inerrant or infallible in the classical Christian sense that is also presented in the Belgic Confession, but that it is NOT intended to provide information about nature and history that satisfies the requirements of contemporary scholarly study of nature and history. Then you can solve such dilemmas. In the example, one only has to see that the two creation stories are about the same events, but each with a different focus.

Re: 2, para. 2. Dr. Byl and I agree that science depends on worldview. But this cannot be used as a free-for-all to deny that scientific laws and theories do not deal with reality. The relationships between scientific concepts, theories and laws is complex and has been the focus of intense research over the last decade or so. That research shows that Dr. Byl’s characterization of the role of worldviews in science is overly simplistic. One key fact about this relationship is that worldviews do NOT logically necessitate the acceptance of some theories and not of others. Since Dr. Byl’s grounds are not valid his conclusions do not follow. Rather, Christians should do their science respecting the things God has made and they can expect there to be no conflict with Scripture because it has the same Author. Moreover, requiring scientific theories to conform to ‘biblical facts’ does not guarantee valid outcomes. The history of science shows that what people might take as a ‘biblical fact’ can turn into a mistake. What would Dr. Byl do in such a case?

continued…

Jitse van der Meer said...

Response to Dr. Byl, continued.

Re: 2, para. 3. As I hope has become clear above, this conclusion of Dr. Byl is not warranted. Instead of being forced to take an anti-realist approach to Scripture, there are a number of strategies for conflict resolution that have been in use since the very beginning of Scripture interpretation. I am referring among others to the principle of accommodation, the role of cultural context, the literary genre and other strategies that have been in the toolbox of Reformed Bible scholars for centuries.

3. Why should the Bible trump mainstream science in eschatology but not in origins? Dr vdM asserts that biblical eschatology is immune from scientific disproof since miracles fall outside the competence of science. Dr vdM further argues that, unlike the resurrection, “Scripture does not provide its own interpretation when it comes to questions as to the details of how God created this world because it simply does not address them.”

Re: 3, para. 1. My comment about miracles was made in connection with the resurrection, not eschatology. Moreover, the comment about eschatology was a citation from Packer, not my text. I can’t make sense of this comment by Dr. Byl.

Re: 3, para. 2. Two of the three issues mentioned by Dr. Byl (six days, universal flood) have all received a variety of interpretations by conservative Christian Hebrew scholars. Dr. Byl choses to select those interpretations that suit his view of Scripture as providing scientific information. In contrast, I believe that since Scripture does not compel Dr. Byl’s interpretation, there ought to be room for this diversity of interpretations. As for miracles, how would Dr. Byl decide that the world with all its detail of history etc. was not created a second ago?

Re: 4, para. 1. While Dr. Berkouwer may have doubted the historicity of Adam, that does not mean that all who reject the intellectualistic form of inerrancy would have to do likewise. Rejecting distortions of inerrancy does not entail rejecting the historicity of Adam. I would appreciate it if Dr. Byl could refrain from the popular rhetorical strategy of associating my views with those of others that I do not share.

Re: 4, paras. 2-4. As I have hinted at before, the topic of inerrancy is notorious for creating confusion. There are many distortions of the classical Christian notion of inerrancy or infallibility and I was rejecting one of these distortions - the rationalistic distortion that is common among North American fundamentalists. If Dr. Byl can explain what he means by ‘inerrancy’ I shall be able to say whether I share his notion of ‘inerrancy.’

Re: 5. As I indicated in my response, the recommended books deal with theological implications you asked about. Dr. Byl is surprised that I included books that reject human evolution. This is because I give serious attention to all sides. I will address the theological implications in a future post on the blog.

Re: 6. Of course, I have not supplied the evidence that Dr. Byl says is missing because I was responding to his list of largely unfounded allegations. Examples of compelling evidence from molecular biology have been posted under ‘collected papers.’ For a complete and excellent review of this evidence see: Daniel Fairbanks. Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA (New York: Prometheus, 2007).