For about 40 years I have followed the so called “war between science and religion,” and have felt wonderfully blessed that I haven’t been called upon to offer an opinion about the nature of the origin of life, the age of the earth, the role of evolution if any in the way things exist today, or any such thorny issues. And, even if I had been pressed for an opinion it certainly would not have carried much weight. My theological and scientific credentials are so totally lacking in substance that an opinion in either arena would be laughable. I do take the Bible as the infallible Word of God and also believe that the God of the Bible is the creator and also the one who designed the mathematics and physics which describe and in a sense control the working of everything which has ever existed, exists today, or will ever exist. I’ve been perfectly content to let Him do that using whatever method and in whatever time frame He pleases. I simply marvel at His glory as displayed in creation.
The author of the following blog posting, Professor Justin Topp, does have some opinions and reports that his opinions have not remained constant over time. His article does not push one to accept his views or conclusions on the issues but rather deals with the perspectives and worldviews that tend to drive one’s opinions. His observations are interesting to me and I hope will interest you as well. His article appeared first at: The BioLogos Forum.
Justin Topp is Assistant Dean of Science, Technology, and Mathematics and Associate Professor of Biology and Bioengineering at Endicott College. He previously taught at Gordon College and North Park University. His Ph.D. and post-doctoral training was in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. He also pursues research on the integration of philosophy, science, and theology, and maintains a blog on science and religion.RMF
Creation and Evolution “Research Programs”
(And Why It’s So Hard to Change Perspectives)
by Justin Topp
In a previous two-part series on this blog[http://biologos.org/blog/lakatos-and-the-creation-evolution-discussion-part-1], I wrote about the interplay in science between hypothesis, data, and theory, focusing on Lakatosian epistemology of science. Lakatos is but one philosopher of science who wrestled with how to aptly describe “how science works” from the individual scientist’s perspective and how different scientific disciplines progress as entire fields. Lakatos coined the term, “research programmes,” for the former and argued that competition between programs drives the latter. Briefly, research programs are composed of a core hypothesis (akin to a theory, this encompassing statement is an a priori, unchangeable commitment if you are to remain within the same research program), auxiliary hypotheses (akin to explanations, which aim to connect the core hypothesis with data as it is acquired), and a positive heuristic (akin to the guiding principle that describes the methodology and principles used by the researcher; this is the fuzziest of the research program components).,, The most important aspect of the research program for this discussion is that, in practice, two or more research programs are in competition when their core hypotheses are mutually exclusive.
In today’s post, I want to return to Lakatosian epistemology of science, but focus more clearly on issues directly relevant to creation and evolution. If Lakatos is correct and science progresses via the competition between different research programs, it stands to reason that focusing solely on the data will not lead to fruitful discussion. Because competing groups can interpret data in different ways that are entirely consistent with the structures of their disparate research programs, true dialogue (atypical of common discussions in creation and evolution in which people talk “past each other”) will require dissenting parties to somehow “enter” the program of another, which is epistemologically painful and pragmatically near impossible. Thus, while competitors go back and forth, arguing that this data point means x instead of y, there is no real arbiter of who is correct because everyone participating in the discussion possesses their own program “baggage” that is not easy to shed.
To put it more simply, better and more accurate explanations of the data are not enough to convince people of the truth of evolution! It doesn’t matter how good Dennis Venema is at teaching evolution (and he’s REALLY good at it!), one must go beyond the data to reach someone who doesn’t share the same research program.
For many of my Christian colleagues, they are baffled to find out that I was once an avid proponent of young-earth creationism (YEC). That’s not abnormal in the U.S., as polls routinely show 40% of Americans are in this category and there has been minimal change over the last three decades. What’s unusual about me is that I didn’t grow up in the church and I adopted YEC (and fundamentalism) while pursuing a Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry at a prestigious institution. While my conversion story could be a post itself, I was not “indoctrinated”, and since leaving YEC have no animosity or bitterness towards my previous church (or my previous self for that matter). That said, I grandly took the cues of the verses provided at the outset and believed that my personal “mission field” was atheistic scientists. I didn’t want to explain evolution away for its own sake (though I fully believed it was false and its teaching was detrimental to society), but sought to remove the intellectual stumbling block that was so obviously hindering them from accepting the Gospel. All the while I was excelling in my field, receiving an NSF fellowship for my graduate studies, a NIH award for my postdoctoral work, and working in the lab of Nobel Prize winners. I spent my time rationally solving intellectual puzzles, including those related to YEC.
Lest you think this is just my story and a single anecdote, I have taught at two Christian institutions where a large number of incoming students have come in with a YEC background. Has explaining the data helped them to see the scientific errors of their ways and moved them towards an acceptance of evolutionary creation (EC)? Sure! But only in the context of the rest of their education, which has provided them with the other important and related tools, namely, philosophy, hermeneutics, theology, and intellectual humility. You would be surprised how many biology majors I have taught who have said that the data supporting evolution had little impact on their decision to leave YEC. Similarly, when I asked my friends if they would be willing to share their “conversion to evolution” stories, if they had them, one quipped, “I went to college.” He wasn’t joking. Those of us in higher education know about and greatly appreciate the conceptual changes that come about via the structure of college life. These conceptual changes are akin to changing your research program.
But back to the anecdote. When I was a proponent of YEC, would reading the excellent books of Darrel Falk, Francis Collins, and others have changed my mind and moved me to evolutionary creation? Hardly. In fact, when I first read a review of Collins’ book The Language of God I thought Collins was a “sell out.” It was only after I had a better understanding of philosophy, theology, and hermeneutics that I was “ready” for the evolutionary creation interpretation of the scientific data. Then and only then did Collins’ book along with Coming to Peace with Science by Darrel Falk, beautifully and elegantly explain the data of evolution to me. Prior to the philosophical change or change in my research program, I would have always had a counter-answer to the data. But after my research program changed, I didn’t feel the need to formulate the counter-answer any more. The data just made sense in light of everything else.
I feel I am doing a disservice to how difficult it can be to move from one research program to another. Leaving YEC felt like I was turning my back on God and a ministry he was specifically preparing me for. It was intellectually painful, and in the case of the creation-evolution discussion, socially and emotionally disturbing as well. I’ve lost many friends since I left YEC, and some that are still close to me are only half-joking when they utter the word “heresy” around me. By far, the most difficult aspects of leaving YEC for EC were the mental and spiritual ones. It’s not as simple a transition as many make it out to be.
And that is why I am compelled to tell my story. The vast majority of the folks that write on science and theology have never been in the other person’s mental shoes (i.e. research program). One common complaint of YEC proponents is that they are seen as irrational or unscientific, whereas EC supporters complain of being portrayed as liberal or worldly. As Pigluicci rightly notes in his book Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science, those who espouse YEC are not irrational—far from it. The idea of apparent age (i.e. God made the Earth look old) is completely rational when you are committed to the YEC research program. My capacity for rationality didn’t increase when I left YEC, nor did my ability to rationalize ideas that seem crazy on the surface (such as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ). Instead, what changed was my epistemological commitment to foundationalism, but that’s a post for another day.
To provide a better context to the reader, I have taken the liberty of constructing what I see are the three main research programs that are most relevant to the creation-evolution discussion for Evangelicals (see table). As a reminder, the “core hypothesis” is a thesis that is unchangeable and to which the researcher commits at all costs. Everything else within the research program is designed to connect (or protect) the core hypothesis to data that supports (or refutes) the central theory.
A cursory glance at these three competing research programs reveals that they have some things in common with each other. However, each program has its own core hypothesis and positive heuristic and these are mutually exclusive between the programs. Furthermore, and this is what separates my work from that of others, research programs are borne out of their core hypotheses and positive heuristics, which as we have seen above are only peripherally related to the actual data. Thus, no matter how many rows of the table are the same, the research programs are very different from one another when you get down to it. Proponents of the YEC program will always accuse the other groups of not reading the Bible as it should be read. And how do you really know that the Earth is old? Are you willing to stake your life on the assumption of scientists that decay rates haven’t changed or that natural selection is powerful enough for microevolution to jump the species barrier into macroevolution? Meanwhile, proponents of EC will say that the other groups are not taking the science seriously enough and yes, thank you, we are reading the Bible as it should be read. Do they take into account different genres in the Bible and have they ever wondered why different groups who all say they read the Bible literally disagree on so many fundamental points?
You may wonder why I haven’t included a fourth research program for intelligent design (ID). The reason is that it is not a unified program. If one were to construct a program around it, the core hypothesis would be “evolution via natural selection is insufficient to generate the diversity of life on this planet.” But this isn’t enough to build a research program, and it explains why so many people who fundamentally disagree on key aspects of science and theology can still claim to fall under the intelligent design “umbrella”. For me, ID served as a stopping point along the journey from YEC to EC; for others it may add to their understanding of one of the three research programs described here. On its own, it fails as a research program in a Lakatosian sense.
For many evolutionary creationists, science and religion are separate, independent entities; however, for young-earth creationists (YEC) this is impossible. While many believe that YEC is exemplified by a warfare model of science and religion, this is inaccurate. Instead, YEC sees science and religion as disciplines that should be integrated together, just not mainstream science (or mainstream religion, for that matter). To be consistent with proponents of YEC and due to space constraints, the three research programs that I describe contain both scientific and religious dimensions, though in reality there are two (or more) evolutionary creation research programs that differ in how they view the relationship of science and religion.
This helps explain why evolutionary creation has not gained converts as quickly as its adherents would like. Unlike the clear core hypotheses that comprise the YEC and OEC programs, it is not so clear that the one I have proposed for EC encapsulates the beliefs of all who espouse this research program. For instance, many evolutionary creationists believe that science and religion ask different questions and are independent endeavors, while others believe that science and religion should be in dialogue with each other on methodology, boundary questions, etc., still others espouse an integration model of science and religion a la the work of Teilhard de Chardin. Thus, there could really be multiple research programs for EC, which equates to a dilution of proponents. There’s a reason only one Democrat and one Republican are allowed to run for president.
Nevertheless, I happily promote the EC research program because I believe it does the best justice to the Bible, philosophy, theology, and scientific data. I feel there are a great number of interesting lines of inquiry within it that remain to be investigated (teleology, convergence and emergence; what it means to be human; the nature of the soul; divine action and God’s providence, etc.) and it is clear to me that it is a better alternative to the other two evangelical creation-evolution research programs. Others will disagree with me and that is fine. I know firsthand how difficult it can be to leave the YEC or OEC programs. Be it the loss of what I call “Biblical geometry,” the feeling that I left “my mission field,” or the “what to do with Adam” anxiety that pervades evangelical conversations about evolution, it was a long and arduous journey out of YEC and into EC. I imagine others have made the reverse route and will have weak knees from the hike as well. No matter the direction of the journey, I hope this post will serve as encouragement to all participants and illuminate why the discussion is often so difficult. May we proceed with grace and humility.
1) I further argued in my previous posts that research programs are more broadly applicable and can shed light on intellectual discussions outside of science, best exemplified in the earlier philosophical theology of Nancey Murphy who was primarily responsible for introducing Lakatos to a broader community. For Murphy’s best explication, see: Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning. New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.
2) Hereafter referred to as “research programs.”
3) Lakatos, I., Worrall, J., and Currie, G. The methodology of scientific research programmes: Philosophical Papers Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
4) Please see my previous posts for a longer explanation of Lakatos’ research programs.
5) This is after having received a degree in Biomedical Engineering with Honors and Distinction from the University of Iowa. I don’t include any of this to be arrogant, but to provide context to my story.
6) If you haven’t lived it, you don’t realize the intellectual and social complexity of the YEC position. It is a complicated matrix of rationality, in-group dynamics, and absolutely sincere spirituality and faith. It is wholly committed to a foundationalist perspective in which if one link fails the entire chain is broken. (And a broken fence will no longer protect the sheep from the big bad wolf.) I left YEC during my second postdoctoral fellowship, settling on evolutionary creation (EC) after layovers in old-earth creationism and intelligent design.
7) Falk, D. Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004. Collins, F. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York, NY: Free Press, 2006.
8) Note I am not saying data can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways or that all possible ways are equally valid.
9) Pigliucci, M. Denying evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2002.
10) For a good example, see the thorough work of Gerald Rau in: Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012.
11) For further reading on this question: Smith, C. The Bible Made Impossible. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011.
12) This is how you can have folks that are really within the YEC, OEC, and EC research programs all espouse ID.
13) They unite around a disapproval of natural selection in some form and yet are in complete disagreement on theological doctrines, philosophical commitments, and hermeneutics. Sharing a common enemy does not make a research program.