A Fine Tuned Universe? 6 (RJS)

RJS points us here to a major, major issue in the relationship of science and faith: the necessary distinction between “evidence” or “facts” and “interpretation.” Not all, including Richard Dawkins, are careful to distinguish the two and this post helps us. Where are you seeing this problem today?

Chapter 13 of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology poses some interesting questions about evolution and the language used to describe evolutionary mechanisms. (For those paying attention – I’ve skipped Ch. 12; it is worth reading, but poses questions quite similar to those considered in our last post on the book.)

There are three factors at play in much scientific writing: empirical observation, scientific interpretation, and metaphysical assumption.  The first two are always at play – one of my mentors emphasized the importance of separating data from discussion and interpretation as much as possible. I in turn emphasize the distinction with my students. The experimental results or observations should always stand the test of time, the interpretation may or may not. The third factor above – metaphysical assumption – is always present at one level, but is not always important.  But it is often significant when the discussion borders on issues of science and religion or faith, and this is certainly true in evolutionary biology and speculation on the origin of life.

How carefully do we, should we, analyze the levels of observation and interpretation in what we read?

McGrath notes (p. 169):


Even a cursory reading of contemporary works in evolutionary biology shows how theological or antitheological agendas repeatedly intrude into what are supposed to be neutral, objective scientific discussions. What is presented as reality often turns out to be infested with nonempirical assumptions, often involving covert metaphysical dogmas.  … Dawkins here sets out [in The Selfish Gene p. 21 (pp. 19-20 in my copy)] the “gene’s-eye” view of evolution, which was then dominant in biological circles.

[Genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by torturous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.

But this paragraph contains an empirical observation intertwined with scientific interpretation and metaphysical assumption.  How does the following paragraph differ? (p. 170)

[Genes] are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy that we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the
ultimate rationale for their existence.

This paragraph contains the same empirical observation as Dawkins’s description – but intertwined in a very different way with both scientific interpretation and potentially with metaphysical assumption. This contrast brings to the fore an important question for consideration.

The second paragraph was written by Denis Noble (CBE, FRS, Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology at the University of Oxford). Noble is a systems biologist who has written a book The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes that starts out by questioning the reductionist paradigm inherent in Dawkins’s famous quote.  From the web site dedicated to Noble’s book:

The reductionist approach of molecular biology has proved itself immensely powerful. But DNA isn’t life. It doesn’t even leave the nucleus of the cell. A whole army of proteins is needed to unpack, edit, and execute the information it contains. Without this apparatus, DNA is but an inert database, full of errors and repetitions. To grasp the nature of life, … we must move away from our obsession with genes alone. We must look not at one level, but at the interaction of processes at various levels, from the realm of systems biology, …far from being a vague, unsatisfactory, and even faintly mystical holistic view, modern systems biology can be just as mathematically rigorous and exact as the reductionist approach that has led to the vast knowledge amassed by molecular biology in the past fifty years. And it may be the view we need to adopt to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of life.

Systems biology described by Denis Noble and the reductionist approach inherent in Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene are two different approaches to evolutionary biology that reflect scientific interpretations of the data; scientists trying to make sense of the data and the world we observe and interrogate around us. Noble wrote a review on this view of the heart for Science Magazine when they published an issue focusing on systems biology, Modeling the Heart–from Genes to Cells to the Whole Organ  Science (v. 295, pp 1678 – 1682 – the abstract is free, you need a subscription for the article).

The above debate between reductionist and systems based approaches is a scientific one. But what about room for God? Dawkins certainly lets metaphysical assumption color the way he expresses scientific ideas. His agenda is no secret. Denis Noble has no clear agenda here – but comes from a secular perspective. He wrote a book review for Science (v. 320 pp. 1590 – 1591) last year on Stuart Kauffman’s book Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion.  In this review he says:

At a Novartis Foundation meeting 10 years ago on “the limits of reductionism in biology,” I presented my work on modeling heart rhythm as an example of downward causation: the idea, … that the whole constrains the parts as much as the parts are necessary to the whole. A colleague objected: “Denis, I would go along with you, but this lets God back into the picture.” I disagreed. But Kauffman, …, would wholeheartedly agree.

Of course Kauffman’s God is a vague spirituality, not the personal God of the Bible. Later in the review:

But why should we call any of this “God”? Kauffman’s God is not even given the power that the Deists recognize. It is not a prime mover. He feels that “we must use the God word, for my hope is to honorably steal its aura to authorize the sacredness of the creativity in nature.”

There are many directions I could go with this discussion. It is certainly true that some in the sciences, like Noble’s colleague above, fear opening the door a crack to let God into the picture.  Some – like Dawkins – try very hard to keep the door shut, locked, bolted, and the key discarded (A portcullis or two wouldn’t hurt either). Some are willing to follow the data and wrestle with their preconceptions. In all cases metaphysical assumptions, like scientific assumptions and preconceptions, can color the way ideas are expressed.  I have extended this discussion a bit beyond McGrath’s – but it includes his general idea.

This digression indicates how easily metaphysical presuppositions intrude into what is meant to be an objective scientific account of things. This is perhaps most evident in the case of writers wishing to argue that evolutionary naturalism eliminates either (or both) belief in God or (and) in divine involvement in natural process. (p. 170)

Of course metaphysical presupposition and agenda also colors the presentation of the scientific data – and the willingness to even consider the scientific data – in the case of writers wishing to demonstrate that nature points conclusively to God. This is most obvious among those who argue for scientific creationism – young earth creationism; but it can be found at times in those espousing more moderate views as well.  But science doesn’t, or shouldn’t deal with metaphysical assumptions from either side.

So where do we go from here? …I have some opinions – but first I’d like to hear from you.

How should we think critically about metaphysical assumptions, scientific interpretations, and empirical observation?

Or perhaps you think my distinctions are wrong from the start …?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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  • JKG

    To answer the question directly, we should think critically about metaphysical assumptions just as we would any other assumptions in an analysis. The assumptions we make inherently constrain the interpretation of the data to the domain of those assumptions. If we assume that biological systems are ruled by the genetic codes, then we will interpret the data in ways which can only validate, or at least not compromise, that assumption.
    Real systems, however, don’t allow any one part to rule in that way. Whether the context is biological, chemical, or mechanical (which are themselves arbitrary distinctions), everything operates within a system. DNA, outside the context of a system, cannot express itself. Its modes of expression will be constrained by the system of which it is a part. Nothing that exists in this material universe is outside the systems that operate here. Things can be known to exist only through their interaction with other things. If an object has no interactions, it effectively has no existence. If something exists in this universe, it is part of a system by virtue of its interactions with other things.

  • Travis Greene

    Good points. Confirmation bias, particularly, is demonstrable enough that even somebody like Dawkins really should know better.

  • pds

    Excellent post and very important topic.
    You said,
    “It is certainly true that some in the sciences, like Noble’s colleague above, fear opening the door a crack to let God into the picture. Some – like Dawkins – try very hard to keep the door shut, locked, bolted, and the key discarded (A portcullis or two wouldn’t hurt either).”
    Yes, but the point that also has to be made is that Dawkins may want to keep “God” locked out, but he does not keep his own personal metaphysics out. This is a double standard.
    I think it is a fool’s errand to try to keep your metaphysics out completely. We are looking for truth, and you can’t keep “scientific truth” hermetically sealed from Ultimate Truth (at least when you are dealing with topics like origins). You also cannot “do science” without an underlying philosophy of science. Only by being self-aware of our own metaphysics will we be able separate evidence from interpretation from metaphysics.
    Part of the solution is disclosure by both sides of their metaphysical presuppositions.
    One of the best aspects of Darwin On Trial by P. Johnson is his analysis of how metaphysics and other assumptions have affected the evaluation of the evidence.

  • RJS

    You said: If we assume that biological systems are ruled by the genetic codes, then we will interpret the data in ways which can only validate, or at least not compromise, that assumption.
    I may be misinterpreting your main point, but I don’t think that this is completely true. It is a common refrain in Christian circles – usually to cast doubt on the scientific conclusions and interpretations.
    Now there is certainly a push in science to look first for an interpretation that is consistent with the dominant paradigm. But when the data doesn’t fit, modifications, or even revolutions of the paradigm result. It is not possible to continue to shoehorn misfitting data into a model.
    The reason most Christians in the sciences accept basic features of the dominant paradigm is because it works – beautifully.

  • RJS

    But to continue – I may have commented on something completely outside of response to your comment, as your second paragraph, when I read it more carefully shows.
    I think that you are right on the importance of “systems” and we are seeing something of a response in science to the reductionist view – not that reduction is not in some sense true, but that the whole is greater than, brings out properties that are greater than those simply apparent in the sum of the isolated pieces.
    The data does not seem to all fit neatly into the reductionist view and some modification is appearing.

  • Great post RJS and thanks again for this series.
    I only have two nits, both having to do with metaphysics. First of all I think talk of ‘metaphysical assumptions’ is misleading. It makes it seem as if we can somehow get outside of our metaphysics. Secondly, our metaphysics is what enables us to distinguish between data and interpretation. To see this, take a look at a system like Bertrand Russell’s where the raw data is sense datum or direct sensory experience. Under this system what we normally think of as objects (organisms, fossils, stars etc…) are interpretations not data. Given this role, I don’t see how we can ever say that metaphysics isn’t important. It only seems unimportant when everyone in a discussion or community shares metaphysical views.

  • JKG

    Thanks for the clarification.
    I think we generally have two phases in the interpretation of data. In the first, we work from the models to interpret the data in the assumptive/presumptive context. Only when that fails–when we can’t make sense of it–do we question the model. The best of both science and theology understands this.
    In my opinion, both of the extreme camps in the science/faith dialogue tend to stretch the models beyond the point where they ought to be questioning their assumptions. In their desire to be understood, they hold so tightly to those models that they can no longer admit any data that might refute the model. When pressed, they attack the other model, while driving back any assault on their own.
    So, the interpretation is intimately tied to the assumptive context.
    The use and credibility of empirical data is likewise subject to both the model/assumptions and the interpretation itself. The data, like the interpretation, can only exist in a context–specifically, the context of the measurement (or means by which the data were acquired). We interpret the data based on models of that context. We can get into trouble, however, when the means of acquiring the data is itself not consistent with the context in which the data are to be interpreted.
    This is where the reductionist view will fail every time. The issue is not whether properties of an object are known, but how each object behaves and is understood in relation to the other objects in the system of which it is a part. The object’s properties can only be rightly understood in that context. The interpretation of data will become more accurate as the models and assumptions behind it more closely resemble the “real” context in which the object exists.
    Thanks for the chance to let off a little steam. This topic is dear to my engineering-trained mind, and the reductionist method has long been a sticking point for me in discussions with those who are more purely science-oriented.

  • RJS

    craig v.
    Ok – I am a scientist, not a philosopher. So looking up “metaphysics” I see that your nitpicking has merit.
    I was using the term to refer to a subset of ideas – of the following sort:
    Is the existence of the universe necessary?
    What is the ultimate reason for the existence of the Universe?
    Does the cosmos have a purpose?
    Is there anything beyond the natural world?
    What is the meaning and purpose of life?
    Is slavery wrong? (a bit of a twist…)
    Anyone have a better word for me to use than “metaphysical assumptions” to describe this class of assumption?

  • JKG

    Craig V.,
    Your post reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”.
    When the human children are introduced to an elderly “man” and told that he used to be a star (as in the night sky, not an entertainer), one of the children replies that in their world, a star is a huge burning ball of gas out in space.
    The man/star replies that even in their world, that is only what a star is made of, not what it is.

  • AHH

    As I’m sure McGrath (and Scot, and RJS) know, the division between “evidence” (or “facts”) and “interpretation” is not 100% clear-cut. As philosophers of science say, there is no such thing as a bare fact and all our observations are “theory-laden”. But (at least for most scientists who are critical realists), that doesn’t mean we can never draw “beyond a reasonable doubt” conclusions from our observations.
    I think it may be more useful (albeit oversimplified) to make a finer distinction into 3 categories:
    1) Facts (for example, rates of radioactive decay and concentration of isotopes, or fossils and DNA sequences)
    2) Scientific inferences drawn from these facts (ages of rocks, common descent involving natural selection acting on genetic variation)
    [Of course there is not always a clear distinction between (1) and (2), and as has been pointed out some use of metaphysics is inevitable in getting to (2)]
    3) Metaphysical inferences drawn from (1) and (2) (like “we have a natural explanation for the development of life, so God didn’t do it”)
    I think a lot of our problems in this area, particularly with evolution, come from failure to distinguish between inferences in categories (2) and (3). It is bad enough when people like Richard Dawkins smuggle in metaphysical inferences as though they were results of science. But too many Christians accept Dawkins’ metaphysical assumptions (for example, that natural explanations entail the absence of God), leading them to attack the scientific inferences when it is the extrapolation to metaphysics that is the real problem. I think much of Christian anti-evolutionism makes this error, and the church needs to stop taking its views on the metaphysical meaning of things like evolution from people like Dawkins and use the resources of Christian theology instead.

  • RJS,
    Now that I see from your examples what you had in mind my nit picking may have been too severe. ‘Metaphysics’ is sometimes used in the sense you intend. It seems like you want a term that covers ground similar to Aristotle’s final causes. Perhaps ‘telic assumptions’ might work.
    That’s a great quote. Unamuno argues in The Tragic Sense of Life that if we restrict ourselves to scientific explanations (RJS’ 1 and 2) our explanations become less human. I think your man/star captures that point well.

  • pds

    RJS (#8),
    Craig is right and there is no good solution. Metaphysics is tied closely to epistemology, and one’s philosophy of science and the scientific method come out of one’s epistemology.
    “Science” started out as a branch of “philosophy.” Now no one thinks of it that way, and that is part of the problem we have now. Also, all science is not the same. The methodology of natural history and evolutionary theory is very different than the methodology of applied physics and engineering.
    You said (#4),
    “It is not possible to continue to shoehorn misfitting data into a model.”
    Had to smile when I read that. Walcott’s shoehorn of the Cambrian animals persisted for decades. Then Simon Conway Morris and Gould and others broke that shoehorn, but I think they replaced it with a new shoehorn (they each have their own). I think the fossil record has been shoehorned ever since Darwin.
    I think history has shown that it is quite easy to shoehorn misfitting data into a model.

  • Scot McKnight

    I’m not so sure the debate about “metaphysics” is all that helpful. I, too, observe that this term with scientists has a meaning something like “ultimate meaning” or “ontology” or “deep reality” when these folks are using it, but they are getting at something: some kind of larger interpretive scheme is at work that shoves the data/facts/etc into a larger grid that explains significance.

  • pds

    I continue to believe that these issues are immensely important and the discussion on metaphysics is essential. I also think that there are many believers who have not examined their worldview top to bottom in light of biblical teaching. I think we can hear sermons week after week and simply overlay the teaching on top of a fundamentally flawed worldview.

  • RJS

    I think you are right – that there are many believers (from influential preachers to those in the pews) who have not examined their worldview top to bottom in light of biblical teaching. Of course part of the problem with “in light of biblical teaching” arises when we try to understand what qualifies as “biblical teaching”. A one size fits all plain sense literalism doesn’t cut it.
    One of the things I’ve been trying to do is consider all pieces of this from top to bottom. Part of this deals with the nature of scripture and our understanding of inspiration, part of it has to do with theology, and part of it has to do with thinking through what science actually tells us about the nature of the world – always on the foundation that God exists and reveals himself to us. The discussion is useful even (or especially) we don’t all agree and different people bring in different views.

  • pds

    Yup, agreed on all points.