Genesis One 17

Walton.jpgThis is my last post on Walton’s book, but RJS will have one tomorrow ...

We come today to the end of John Walton’s (professor at Wheaton) new book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, and he finishes off this book with a conclusion that is worthy of serious discussion by those of us interested in public education:
Public science education should be neutral regarding purpose.
Here’s a major thesis of this book: “If a science course intends to discuss material origins from the perspective of a material ontology… there is no point at which the Genesis account becomes relevant, because Genesis does not concern material origins and does not have a material ontology” (152). Which is to say: leave out Genesis 1 if you are dealing with science.
Empirical science, though, is not about teleology even if it can deduce purpose as the best explanation. Therefore, science “must remain teleologically neutral” (153). Walton’s own thesis might be called — in his terms — “teleological evolution” (153). But he also contests the legitimacy of “metaphysical naturalism,” which proposes that all that exists is material — for science can’t pronounce on metaphysics like this. Purposelessness, too, is a metaphysical claim. So Walton argues that purpose ought to be left out of science classrooms.
More can be said, but this is a valuable book for the evangelical community. Thanks John.
About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Phil

    Back in my college days I read a bit of Ian Barbour and the like on the philosophy of Science and Religion. I think that we really can’t be timid in putting “purposelessness” or any metaphysical assumptions by materialist’s in their proper place.
    I can’t remember if it was here through Scot, or somewhere else, NT Wright perhaps, that some discussion arose about Christian theology having a body of knowledge. The difficultly from a pastoral perspective is exciting and engaging a congregation to learn about this body of knowledge, and treat as such, as opposed to falling into fundamentalism for those that read their Bibles or simply not caring, for those that warm pews.
    I would like to read the book in the future. Thanks for this series Scot.

  • pds

    peelingdragonskin.wordpress.com
    Neutrality in the area of metaphysics is elusive. How do you achieve it? Is he suggesting that Darwinian theory has no metaphysical implications or underlying metaphysical assumptions?
    The real debate now is whether you teach only the evidence that supports Darwin’s theory, or also the evidence that undermines it, like the fossils of the Cambrian Explosion. The science establishment has been relentless in trying to keep these fossils out of the curriculum.

  • RJS

    pds,
    The Cambrian explosion does not undermine the basic mechanism of Darwin’s theory. It helps refine how we think about the landscape defined by environmental and physical constraints and how this landscape influences the time course of evolution.

  • pds

    RJS-
    Many scientists would strongly disagree with you. Darwin’s theory does not predict that all the phyla we have today (and more) would appear in a geological moment 530 million years ago. It does not predict that no more phyla would appear for the next 530 million years. It also does not explain why that is what we find in the fossil record. (I am just scratching the surface of the problems posed by these fossils.) Why do you think that is what we find in the fossil record?
    Do you agree with the science establishment that these fossils should not be taught in public schools?

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    PDS obviously has not the slightest clue as to what is in the actual textbooks.
    “The real debate now is whether you teach only the evidence that supports Darwin’s theory, or also the evidence that undermines it, like the fossils of the Cambrian Explosion. The science establishment has been relentless in trying to keep these fossils out of the curriculum.’
    False statement. The textbooks actually used in school devote sections to discussion of the Cambrian explosion and the fossil record. To claim that schools are excluding any examination of Cambrian fossil record is a canard.

  • RJS

    I think this is what we find in the fossil record because the evolutionary search algorithm is effective and because there are only a limited number of solutions to the problems posed by environmental conditions. In addition motion down new paths requires the right building blocks.
    There are very few active scientists in paleontology or evolutionary biology who would claim that the Cambrian explosion poses a serious problem for the evolutionary mechanism of modification. Rather – the Cambrian explosion provides crucial data as we try to understand how the evolutionary process works.

  • Rob

    I am not certain of what the concern is with respect to the cambrian explosion. The Cambrian explosion poses no serious problem for evolution. Early life – before the cambrian explosion – did not leave a fossil record. It has more to do with the complexity of life at that point in time with respect to the ability to leave a fossil record. Because of the lack of ability to leave a fossil record, science has to look towards other indirect means.

  • Rob

    Simple cellular life does not leave fossils. The indirect methods I was referring to are techniques which can help detect the presence of this early life without the direct evidence of fossilized forms.

  • pds

    Rob,
    You have your facts wrong. There are plenty of fossils before the Cambrian, but they are not ancestors of the Cambrian animals. Read about the Ediacara fauna which are complex multicellular organisms that flourished from about 580 mya to about 540 mya. Many or most were soft-bodied. Why did they fossilize so well but the Cambrian ancestors did not?

  • pds

    RJS #6,
    You are explaining away the evidence, not explaining the evidence that I cited in #4. Darwin’s theory does not predict what we find. In fact, Darwin made predictions as to what must have existed before the Cambrian, and what we have actually found has falsified those predictions.
    I did not say that “the Cambrian explosion poses a serious problem for the evolutionary mechanism of modification.” I am not sure what you mean by that. It poses problems for the theory because it does not match what the theory would predict on a number of levels (I mention just a few in #4).
    Gould lays out the enormous problems in the first few chapters of Wonderful Life. Then he tries to explain them away somewhat. He never argues that Darwinian theory explains these fossils, because it does not.

  • RJS

    pds,
    First, Gould’s work is somewhat out of date – much is known now that was not known when he was writing.
    Second, the Cambrian explosion shapes some of our understanding of how Darwinian evolution works – it does not undermine the theory. Read Conway Morris. Here is an unreadable scientific report (actually – it is well written, but not for a lay audience) Darwin’s dilemma: the realities of the Cambrian ‘explosion’ Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 29 June 2006 vol. 361 no. 1470 1069-1083. (I think that the content is open access, but I may be wrong.)
    Key paragraph in the conclusions:

    Does this course of events create a problem for Darwinism, even for evolution? I do not think so. … it may be more useful to regard this event as the natural and inevitable result of the continuing evolution of a planetary system that shows cumulative and irreversible bio-geochemical changes. As and when the conditions are appropriate, the opportunism and flexibility of the evolutionary process will exert itself. This is hardly surprising given both adaptive advantage and the fact that much of the molecular architecture necessary for complex organisms had evolved much earlier.

  • pds

    RJS #11,
    “Much is known now that was not known when he was writing.” What is now known that makes a significant difference?
    In that quote, Conway Morris gives an opinion, but not an explanation. God bless him for speculating, but speculation is not an explanation. I read his book on the Burgess Shale (Crucible of Creation) and he does not even address the biggest problems posed by these fossils.
    If you let the evidence speak for itself, it looks like something else dramatic was at work besides random mutation and natural selection. What is so threatening about that? Why are TE scientists so against that possibility?

  • RJS

    pds,
    On What is known now?: Among other things: much more about the mechanism of evolution, at least somewhat more about the fossil record, and significantly more about the effectiveness of evolutionary searches.
    On Conway Morris’s article: Read the whole article with the reasoning. Don’t blast or patronize him for stating this as an opinion. It is a typical and accepted form of civil discourse in scientific writing and speaking. What would you prefer, the hubris of pronouncements ex cathedra?
    On TE and “something else”: Yes – something else was at work, random mutation, natural selection, along with changes in the environment enabling a new “space” and the accumulation of available building blocks.
    And – I am not against going where the evidence and reasoning leads. You seem to be the one who is closed-minded on this issue. You’ve decided it is a problem and there is no solution and never will be.
    Three reasons I don’t think that it is helpful to trumpet the Cambrian explosion as a failure of “Darwinian” evolution:
    1. I don’t think that it is a failure – but it is a challenge to better understand how the process works.
    2. I think that God created in a manner that is intelligible and that we will be able to deduce much of the process of the formation of life. Thus, even if a new better theory emerges, even a theory sufficiently revolutionary to warrant a new name, it will be a “natural” theory.
    3. Trumpeting “failures” serves mostly to set students up for a fall.

  • pds

    peelingdragonskin.wordpress.com
    RJS,
    You are reading much into my comment.
    I am not “blasting or patronizing.” I am pointing out that speculation is not an explanation. Without a plausible explanation, we are left with a problem, a puzzle. Different minds will disagree on how big a problem it is.
    “You seem to be the one who is closed-minded on this issue. You’ve decided it is a problem and there is no solution and never will be.”
    Wow. I never said anything like that. I think it is a big, big problem, very interesting, very fascinating, a cause for wonder and awe. That is not “close-minded” by any stretch. I read it and I think Job 38, that is, I am humbled.
    Both Gould and Conway Morris agree it is problem. Gould, Conway Morris, Dawkins all disagree on how to deal with it and what the best explanation is. We should be honest about it and recognize that people will disagree on it. That is not being done. Scientists who think it poses a big problem for Darwinian theory and say so publicly are regularly ridiculed and ostracized. That is not good science.
    RJS, there is much we do not know. I believe we should admit what we do not know.
    Darwinism does not explain:
    1. the origin of life
    2. the origin of DNA
    3. the origin of the Cambrian animals
    For a theory that purports to explain “the origin of species,” I think that is pretty noteworthy. I think “neutral” science education should include that. I think students have a right to know. No need to “trumpet” anything. Just give the students the full story straight up.

  • RJS

    You are right…Darwinism does not explain:
    1. the origin of life
    2. the origin of DNA
    I’ve said so all along – frankly it can’t, this is the wrong domain. Darwinian theory and the origin of species starts after this point.
    It can explain the origin of the Cambrian animals. This is an entirely different kind of question. Now you can define “Darwinian evolution” so that it does not explain it. Ok – in that case some modified evolutionary theory does explain it. Give it a different name, I don’t care. It is still explainable by natural mechanism.
    And…you are pretty good with words. The emphasis on “speculation” was meant to downgrade reliability. It was meant to “sow seeds of doubt” about what Conway Morris said as his expert opinion.

  • pds

    There is new film coming out on the Cambrian animals. Looks like it will have very cool computer animations of these awesome animals. I am glad someone loves them as much as I do. Trailer here:
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2009/09/darwins_dilemma_new_intelligen.html

  • John H. Walton

    Notwithstanding the deep interest in the Cambrian period, it would be great to hear what folks think about my proposals regarding public education.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    Thnak you for postign.
    I’ll be happy to express my own thoughts on public educaiton. The science has to be solid.
    That said, much of science has to be prefaced by “As far as we know today…” In biology that means, as far as we know from science, there is no detectible purpose and no discernible in evolution. Any conclusion of purpose is currently outside the scope of science. It does not mean that there is in fact no purpose. It just means that, so far, no sense of purpsoe is detectible by currently available scietific methods.
    I recognize that such a statement is not neutral, but I think it’s accurate.

  • RJS

    John,
    As you can probably tell this is a continuing disagreement…and discussion.
    When science teachers want to make pronouncements about religion or purpose or lack of purpose they need to be challenged. Unfortunately some percentage will.
    Beyond this – teach science in science class.
    But I also think this impacts how parents and youth leaders etc. should handle the issue. If parents (or youth leaders/SS teachers) help their kids discern and separated the “metaphysical” statements from the scientific statements it is much easier to confront the challenges.

  • pds

    Several of my comments already addressed public education. Whether you can teach about the Cambrian explosion is one of the hot topics in the education debates.
    Detecting design does not necessarily entail metaphysical questions. Merely detecting design does not tell you whether the design came from a natural source or not. Therefore, there is no reason to ban discussions of evidence of design. Banning such discussions would also be a science stopper and would constitute censorship. Several scientists have proposed “seeding” of life on earth from somewhere else, and in this case, the design would be from a natural source.
    As I said earlier, “neutrality” should be the goal, but it is elusive. You have to get into specifics to say anything meaningful.

  • pds

    RJS #15
    You are pretty good with words too. “Sowing seeds of doubt” sounds pretty sinister. I thought we were supposed to “test” scientific theories. Many other scientists “doubt” SCM’s ideas, opinions, speculations, whatever you want to call them. That’s a good thing.

  • AHH

    Regarding public education, I absolutely agree with Prof. Walton that in science classes one should teach science (as best currently understood) without any imputation of metaphysical purpose or lack thereof (talking about mutations, for example, showing no *discernable* direction might be reasonable). I know some public school science teachers, and that is already the policy, I think pretty much everywhere in the US. Of course individual teachers may go outside those boundaries on occasion, and should be challenged if they do.
    It is a problem for science education in the US that, many places in the country, the subject of evolution is avoided because teachers and school districts do not want to deal with the hassle of “creationist” parents or other pressure groups. It is also a problem that some push to undermine science education by “teaching the controversy”, when within science there is no serious controversy about the major aspects of evolution (common descent, natural selection).

  • http://therewindblog.wordpress.com/ BPRjam

    I suppose I’m a bit confused about the need for Walton’s proposal.
    I went to school in the late 80s/early 90s, and college after that were I specialized in engineering and biology. In neither high school nor college (and both were public institutions) did I experience anything but the “facts” in my science classes. When I attend continuing education, I also do not experience mention of “purpose” aside from the search for survival advantage possessed by a particular structure, which, I would argue, is not a teleologic search but a more localized search for how natural selection chose a particular structure.
    In other words, I’m not sure I’ve had the kind of experience that requires a proposal like Dr. Walton’s. Have others in an academic context?
    In a non-academic context, I’ve certainly experienced this (books, movies, conversations, etc.), but the only time I’ve felt people speaking against my religion in an academic context is when they challenge religion to grapple with the facts being presented. And even this was exceedingly rare.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    “Whether you can teach about the Cambrian explosion is one of the hot topics in the education debates.”
    No it’s not. A review of high school biology textbooks will disclose whole chapters of the subject–as I pointed out above. Interested students can “Google Scholar” the word “Cambrian” and find a wealth of information to use for extra credit.
    “Merely detecting design does not tell you whether the design came from a natural source or not.”
    Again, a full Alice in Wonderland equivocation of the word “design.”
    All non-trivial (excluding spider webs, birdnests, beehives, beaver dams and honeycombs) designed objects are known to be man made.
    This idea that there is some global conspiracy of scientists to exclude discussion of the Cambrian period or “Design” is ludicrous.
    School time is limited. Generally, school time is not wasted on subjects of limited merit and usefulness such as:
    the physics of the propulsion systems of the UFOs held at the secret bases in Area 51,
    Bigfoot’s anatomy and geographical range,
    the extent of government agencies’ participation in concealing the link between childhood vaccinations and autism,
    the CIA’s involvement in the development and transmission of AIDS, and
    the frequency, importance and role of supernatural events in the course of biological evolution.
    I understand that the people who all believe that the above topics have some merit all also believe there is some conspiracy directed against them. The great weight of quality science arrayed against a particular theory can feel and “appear” like a conspiracy to proponents of implausible theories but it cannot be confused with actual oppression.
    Intelligent Design ahs its own sponsored organization, The International Society for Complexity Information and Design which publishes a peer reviewed Journal. Society Fellows include Miachel Behe, Willaim Dembski and other luminaries of the ID movement. The last Volume of the Journal, Volume 4.2, was published in 2004. Such is the state of ID research. The ID lab, the Biologic Institute, is also devoid of activity.
    In sharp contrast, the Oregon Bigfoot society is very active with up to date newsletters, sighting reports and conferences. Despite the activty, I don’t expect much school time to be devoted to Bigfoot.


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