Clayton, Shaw and Swamidass: Questions from FaithAscent 2018


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

This thread has special rules, is is meant to engage questions from high schoolers, all of whom are MINORS. Do not engage in any advocacy on this thread. Keep it on topic, and take rabbit trails to another thread. If in doubt, do not participate here.

Earlier this summer, a pastor (YEC), a philosopher (OEC, ID), and a scientist (me), were on a panel for a group of high schoolers. One of them, @Brandon_J, emailed us some follow up questions. The adults involved gave their permission and all agreed to answer his questions here. @Brandon_J will only be participating once a week.

I will post his questions tonight with some light editing.

From the Beginning: Question from a High School Student
(Brandon J.) #2

For @swamidass:

  1. Evolutionary Creationism is approximately the belief that God started and assisted the Darwinian evolutionary processes that are responsible for life as we see it today. This does away with many of the weaknesses of secular evolution, such as the problem of non-life to life, no matter to matter, and the existence of males. However, it seems that for each “jump” that occurs in biological evolution (such as prokaryotic bacteria becoming eukaryotic or lizards becoming birds) God needs to create new genetic material that is independent of the parent organism(s) - essentially creating a new organism. Even if the change is very gradual, God would need to slightly alter the genes every generation or so, creating a creature whose genes were not entirely dependent on its ancestors’ genes. This however, seems to defeat the entire purpose of evolution - why do we need evolution to explain the creation story if evolution ends up being creation in a different order? How does science favor this order of creation over the biblical account? (Essentially my very long question boils down to this: Why do we need to add evolution to the Bible?)

  2. You, in comparing atheism to Richard Dawkins’s actions, said that atheism is “more beautiful than that.” Do you still stand by that, or was it a slip of the tongue? If you do stand by it, what do you find beautiful about the belief that there is no God?

  3. Second,you said that rats and mice having drastically different DNA makes it hard to believe the creation model in which rats an mice are the same kind. Since rats and mice cannot produce a viable zygote, I don’t think that the YE folks would put them in the same kind. (comment, not a question)

For @Andrew :

  1. Do you believe that the “days” or “yoms” in Genesis are equivalent length? Do you even think it matters? Why or why not?

  2. Many Hebrew scholars believe that Genesis was written in a historical “tone.” Do you agree? Why or why not? If you do agree, how does that fit with your view that the “days” in Genesis one were mainly a literary device?

For Dr. Clayton:

  1. You spent a lot of time discussing the flaws in YE creationism. Why do you even believe in a young earth if there are so many problems with it?

  2. In your opinion, does properly applied science contradict the Bible? Would you consider mainstream Darwinian evolution to be properly applied science? Why or why not?

For all three:

  1. Do you believe that the genealogies of the old and New Testaments contains gaps (excluding Matthew’s, which obviously has gaps). If so, how large do you think the gaps are? Why?

These are my main questions. I am hopeful that we will receive straight answers, especially to the first question.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #3

Hello @Brandon_J. Great questions! I’m going to take these one at a time.

Question 1: Evolution and Creation

Let’s start with some definitions.

First, I do not affirm Evolutionary Creationism, which is a specific theological approach associated with BioLogos, and organization with whom I am not working.

Second, do not affirm Darwinian evolution, because this was falsified in science back in the 1960’s. Modern evolutionary science has moved on from Darwinism a long time ago.

The best way to think about “evolution” in this context is “common descent:” the finding in science that life appears to share common ancestors in the past. For example, humans and apes seem to share common ancestors in the distant past.

That is correct. If there was any specific point in evolutionary history that was not possible by natural processes alone, God could have overcome the barriers at that point.

This turns out to be a matter of great debate. It is not clear to me as a scientists how we could tell if there were any “jumps” that required God’s action. I certainly affirm that God providentially governs all things, including evolution if it is true. However, it seems that, at most, all evolution requires is fortunate coincidences, that may not actually violate natural laws.

Did God inspire any mutations? Maybe He did. There is no way to rule it out. Was His inspiration required? Maybe it was. There is no way to know for sure. On this matter, I am an agnostic. I affirm God providentially governs all things, but I do not know how unless He tells me. In this way, I am well described as a “revelationist.”

Some will present arguments against evolution as strong evidence for God’s inspiration of mutations or action. I’m reminded of Pascal’s assessment:

We know God only by Jesus Christ. Without this mediator all communion with God is taken away; through Jesus Christ we know God. All those who have claimed to know God, and to prove Him without Jesus Christ, have had only weak proofs. But in proof of Jesus Christ we have the prophecies, which are solid and palpable proofs. And these prophecies, being accomplished and proved true by the event, mark the certainty of these truths, and therefore the divinity of Christ

I suppose I just think Jesus is greater than anti-evolution arguments. Do you not agree?

We do not need evolution to explain the creation story. Evolution just turns out to be a very good description of what we see in the world. It provides precise mathematical predictions, for example, about the patterns of similarities and dissimilarities between humans and chimpanzees.

Moreover, I see no conflict between Scripture and evolution, even if you read Scripture in a literal way. You’ll have to do some more careful work to explain how and why you are seeing a contradiction. It might merely be that you’ve been taught to read Genesis in an anti-evolution way, instead of reading it plainly. Maybe you can clarify.

I hope you wouldn’t add evolution to the Bible! That would be a mistake. It, instead, seems that the Bible is silent about the precise mechanisms of Creation in the distant past. There is no conflict. Scripture is also silent about gravity, space travel, heliocentrism, embryology, germ theory, antibiotics, the internet, electricity, and artificial intelligence…etc. etc. etc. None of these things are in conflict with Scripture. The same is true of evolution.

Scripture is silent on evolution even if you take a plain literal reading of Genesis, including interpreting the days as ordinary days (about 24 hours long). All you have to do is read it carefully, without an anti-evolution bias, and this can become clear very quickly.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #4

Question 2: Atheism

Richard Dawkins is a horrible ambassador of science and of atheism.

Most atheists are much different than him. They are not really anti-Christian, but can be moral and kind people. Many of them are my friends.

What I respect about the journey of many atheists is that they did not settle for a manmade religion. They recognized that the religion in which they were raised was manmade, and they left it in search of something better. That is a brave step that I respect. Of course, I hope that atheism is only on step in their journey, and they might find the Truth of Jesus. It is a mistake however, to think they are farther from God than when they were in a false religion.

An example of this is the story of @rcohlers who was raised a Christian Scientist. He came to realize it was a false religion, and the became an atheist. Later. he encountered Jesus, and follows him now. So was atheism a step forward or backwards? In my view, it was a step towards the truth.

That is the beauty we find in many atheists. They are rightly rejecting manmade religion. Moreover, they are often kind and moral people. They might be, as we understand it, wrong about God. But there can be many things they do have right. And they also are usually much different than Dawkins.

An Interview with Confessing Scientists
(S. Joshua Swamidass) #5

Question 3: Kinds of Mice and Rats

It turns out that in modern day YEC, very different animals are often placed in the same “kind” in order to fit everything onto the Ark. Viable zygotes are not a reliable way of parsing this out. Most would place mice and rats in the same group. This is consistent with the “Orchard of Life” model that evolution is allowed within groups of the same “kind.” For example, one creation group writes “Rats may actually share ancestry in the same created kind as mice.”

The story gets stranger. The evidence for common descent is so strong, it seems, that even some YECs think that whales evolved from terrestrial ancestors:

Pretty interesting right? That is evolution: common descent.

(Andrew Shaw) #6

Hi Brandon -

Here is my response to your questions!

A “Day” in Genesis

How long are the days in Genesis 1? (What is the meaning of the Hebrew word “yom” in Genesis? I have heard and read Hebrew scholars on both sides of the question argue “it must mean a literal 24 hours” vs. “it does NOT have to mean a literalistic 24 hours.” Please keep in mind that my “expertise” is as a teacher who has studied this question and many other science-faith questions for over 50 years. I am not occupationally a theologian nor a scientist, though I have done a lot of theology and science. Therefore, my responsibility is to do my homework and organize the subject matter the best I can in a way that will help others think about these issues.

Here are some of my presuppositions:

  1. Ultimately, what the Bible says about the Universe/Earth, and what Science says about the Universe/Earth, must agree because both revelations (Special and “General”) have the same author – the Triune God. Any contradiction or disagreement is due to faulty or incomplete understanding/interpretation by theologians, scientists, and the rest of us. We are all finite and fallen.

  2. Jesus is the Word (John 1, Logos ). He is the one who spoke the Universe into existence (Colossians 1, Hebrews 1). Therefore, the Universe is rational because it reflects Him, and Man is rational because we are created imago Dei (Genesis 1:26-27) – in the image of a rational God. Consequently, God designed a Universe that is accessible to Man (we can do Science!), and that points to our Creator (Psalm 19). This Universe is the setting for our relationship with the Triune God. It is under His covenant promises, and is included in His redemption and future restoration.

  3. Though the Bible is not primarily a science book, when it does address science-related things (or educational, sociological, economic, political, etc. for that matter) it speaks with authority. God’s Word lays the foundation (essential principles) for all disciplines. “All Truth is God’s Truth.” The Bible is God’s very word - inspired, inerrant in its original writings, and authoritative, in all times, in all places, and to all peoples.

  4. In the case of Genesis 1, I believe it is BOTH an historical narrative AND incredible prose. It is BOTH a response to the false creation stories of ancient near eastern religions (some of which were already in print) that were often derivatives of the True story, AND beautiful literature, as only God could inspire it.

My personal position is that the Universe and the Earth are “old” – that I have no theological nor scientific reasons to question the present conclusion by many that the former is 3.75 billion years old, and the latter is 4.5 billion years old. Nor do I think there are any doctrines of Scripture that depend one way or the other on age of the Universe or the length of the days in Genesis 1.

Furthermore, I think the importance of the creation-days in Genesis is not how long they were. Well over a dozen times when the Bible talks about the creation-week, the significance is that this week is supposed to be the pattern for our week. We are to work and be creative for six days, and rest on the seventh day if we want to flourish in our relationships with God, with each other, and with Creation.

The Hebrew language does not have a lot of nouns, especially for lengths of time like English does (era, eon, epic…). I think there are 4 possible meanings of “yom” in the first two chapters of Genesis alone. Before the sun is even created (or becomes visible, depending on how you understand it) on creation-day 4, the day could be an indefinite length of time or it could be 24 hours since the solar cycle has not been established.

On creation-day 4, the greater light (sun) is made to rule the “day” and the lesser light (moon) to rule the night. Here, “yom” means the daylight hours only. In Genesis 2:4 “In the day that the Lord God made…” “yom” obviously means a period of time longer than 24 hours. Finally, since the 7th day contains no “and there was evening, and there was morning…” refrain, this “day” is still going on, at least according to the book of Hebrews – we are still in His rest.

I really think that Collin’s (see booklist below) approach – analogical days – is the most theologically consistent way to understand the days in Genesis, and the most helpful. Our week is supposed to be analogous to God’s week, but not identical, especially in length. For example, He can create out of nothing, we can’t. He didn’t need to rest on the 7th, we do (and should!). In addition, it seems to me that on creation-day 3, for example, it takes some time for the earth to sprout vegetation, fruit trees to bear fruit, and plants to reproduce after their kind.

Or, consider creation-day six, especially as it is amplified in Genesis 2:5-25. Animals have to reproduce after their own kind, and Adam (the first “scientist” – taxonomy!) has to study the animals (traits, characteristics, life cycles, etc.) in order to give them the appropriate names (like God modeled for him in Genesis 1). In the process, he discovers that he is alone so God creates Eve. This would be a lot to do if the day was an ordinary day.

On a side note, it seems to me that a “young Earth, ordinary day” approach requires God to create the Universe with the appearance of age (which, of course, He could). I have an equal problem with the materialist/atheist approach that posits merely the appearance of design. I think both the age and the design are real, and when we use God’s gift of Science to study the Universe, it will point at what is Real and what is True, and reflect the very character of the Creator Himself (Romans 1:20).

Two of the books that have shaped my understanding and that I would recommend are Science and Faith by C. John Collins, and Seven Days that Divide the World , by John Lennox.

Hope this helps!

Andrew Shaw

August 4, 2018

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #7

Welcome to the conversation @Andrew! It is great to have you here.

(Brandon J.) #8

Hi, everyone! This is Brandon. Sorry that it took so long for me to get on here. Anyway, I was looking at my questions and I’m not quite sure that I even agree with all of my positions from last year…

Anyway, here goes:
First of all, thanks for taking the time to listen to my questions!
Second, I’d like to clarify on my original question some:
Secular evolution stands on rather shaky ground, scientifically speaking, for several reasons. One is that no one has any good (subjective term, I know) ideas about how life came to be in the first place. Obviously you believe that God provided that spark, but in terms of atheistic common descent, the spark is missing. Even laboratory experiments have failed to produce life from non-life – which does not bode well for life arising completely on its own.

Essentially, evolution can only make scientific sense with a “Supreme Being” of some sort being involved.

So…Science alone does not confirm evolution. The Bible alone does not confirm evolution.

What, then, makes evolution more reasonable to believe than YE creationism?

Unfortunately, that’s all the time that I have for now. Hopefully what I said makes sense. Maybe next time I can explain more in depth my theological hesitancy for believing in progressive creation/evolutionary creationism/old earth creationism.

As a postscript, I’d like to add that I recognize that science is limited, because we don’t know everything. Consequently, my (rather weak, admittedly) argument could be completely crushed by some new discovery in a dozen years or so.

Hope you all have a great week!

(Dr. Patrick Trischitta) #9

Hi Brandon,
Would very much like to engage on your statements that I put in bold. Can you please elaborate while providing evidence or facts for your assertions.

(Brandon J.) #10

Hi Dr. Trischitta!

Just a brief disclaimer: what I wrote previously was intended for someone who already agreed on those points, which is why I did not provide any facts or evidence for what I said.

With that being said, I would love to engage on this topic! Just know that I as a high school student will likely misrepresent both your “side” and mine at some point.

Let’s start out with the standard mathematical argument:
The probability of all of the correct chemicals coming together at the right time to form the right amino acids is quite small. I’ve seen various estimates, but I figured I could create my own. Ribonuclease, considered life’s simplest and most fundamental protein, consists of 124 amino acids. Assuming that only those 124 amino acids are present and they are constantly attempting to join together (and thus 124 factorial is an appropriate model), we arrive at approximately 1.506 x 10^207. While my model is simple and likely flawed, the number produced is somewhat daunting, even if it is off by a factor of several trillion or more. Furthermore, proteins far more complicated than ribonuclease occur in life, and the presented situation makes the rather dubious assumption that all amino acids are correctly formed and present to begin with.

Of course, the precise rate of trials attempting to form this protein is indeterminable. Some might argue that natural selection would “help along” a protein like ribonuclease in forming, but why? Ribonuclease by itself does pretty much…nothing. Furthermore, what would the ribonuclease even do once it was formed? Did it know that it was supposed to join with other proteins that had recently formed and create life? Why is it not just sitting around in the primordal soup?

Second, even if all the right chemicals are assembled, the primitive bacterium would not necessarily be alive. For example, if you were to wring a chickens neck, wait an hour or so, and then (somehow) line up the nerves and blood vessels and what not to be precisely like they were before, would the chicken be alive? All the chemicals are there, but could it be revived?

Third, it is concerning to me that some of the best biologists in the world are attempting to create life from something not alive and have yet to succeed. How can I trust unguided processes to do what guided human minds cannot, even on the smallest scale?

That’s all the time I’ve got, sadly (actually, I meant to finish up about 5 minutes ago haha). Let me know what you think, and have a good week!


(Dr. Patrick Trischitta) #11

Hi Brandon,
I am impressed by your math skills. It is important to do redo the calculations of the probability of occurrences after you are given information on previous occurrences. This is called Bayesian Probability. You recalculate based on new information found.

Let’s see what science has discovered and then go back to your march up the mountain of improbability.

You say:

But here are two results of amino acids in space and on asterolds:

So it seems highly likely that there would be a lot amino acids made by the same chemical processes in space and here on Earth, not to mention amino acids arriving here during the heavy bombardment period on asteroid just like water arrived. There would be places on earth from the time the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years to say about 4.1 billion years ago where a lot amino acids could be made or just be there. Agree?
Now this is a very long way to a living self-replicating cell. But rocks from the 4.1 billion show a lot of chemical processes going on. So do you agree that the Earth had all the chemical building blocks upon which living cell uses?

Let’s stop here and discuss before moving on. OK?