Friday, August 1, 2014
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Attention God: Please Beware of Gaps

A religious scientist explains why so-called "intelligent design theory " isn't so smart.

Attention God: Please Beware of Gaps

When it comes to religion, University of Pennsylvania paleontologist Peter Dodson and I fall on opposite sides of the tracks. He’s a practicing Catholic and I’m, well, let’s just say if he’s right, we won’t be neighbors in the afterlife.

But we agree about the nature of science and faith; we see them as separate modes of thought. In that I’ve run afoul of many religiously oriented readers and commentators who say I’m blind, or stubborn, or just plain stupid not to realize that science is just another form of faith.

That criticism has been particularly strong when I’ve touched on those dark areas in the map of human knowledge such as the origin of life. Scientists, my critics argue, are exercising blind faith that it was nature, not God at work. So I was eager to discuss this with Dodson, who is a member of the advisory board of the newly formed Institute for Religion and Science.

The IRS, has he calls it, is hosting a series of public lectures this spring, and Monday at 7 p.m. Dodson will speak about “Faith and Fossils” at Chestnut Hill College. In the talk, he said, he will recount some of his adventures and triumphs as paleontologist. He’s hunted dinosaurs from Madagascar to Argentina, and in Montana he discovered a new species, Avaceratops lammersi.

And he will talk about faith. Like many religious scientists, he thinks biblical literalists miss out doubly — since they can appreciate neither the wonders of science nor the poetry of the Bible. “There’s a passage that says the rivers clapped their hands and the hills ring out with joy,” he said. “How do you interpret that literally?”

On intelligent design theory, he says that an honest appraisal of nature shows both elegance and awkward contrivance. Scientists critical of intelligent design often point to the proximity of our excretory and reproductive functions and ask what kind of designer would put the sewer pipe through the playground.

But the biggest problem Dodson sees with intelligent design theory is that nobody has been able to use it to make any kind of advance in science. There are a few scientists devoted to promoting it, but they are not applying it to gain new insights into the natural world or human health.

In this view Dodson is closer to reflecting the views expressed by the pope than is Rick Santorum, who is often referred to as uber-Catholic. Intelligent design proponents insist that some aspects of the natural world must have required divine intervention. Santorum has advocated teaching this in school, but the pope himself has stated that he accepts Darwinian evolution as the explanation for the physical bodies of plants, animals and humans.

But these issues are not the places where science and religion have clashed most violently, at least in my in-box and voice mail. The real sparks fly over the contention that scientists are practicing a form of faith when they venture into the unknown and seek natural explanations for the origin of the universe and the origin of life.

I’ve argued that exploring unknown territory is what scientists do. If we knew all the answers there would be no reason to fund research. There’s no faith required to explore. If someone found incontrovertible, confirmed evidence that angels created the first cells, we’d have to accept that. But so far, the science is pointing toward self-assembly of complex, information-carrying molecules that were precursors of DNA.

My critics, even some who accept evolution, argue that reason leads to the conclusion that God is the originator of life and the cosmos. It takes more faith to consider the possibility of a natural explanation, they say.

Dodson says the assumption that there are divine answers to what science can’t explain is often called “God of the gaps” thinking, and it’s theologically shaky because the gaps can close. Isaac Newton, he said, couldn’t make stable orbits for the planets from his laws of motion, so he proposed that God had to occasionally nudge them back in place. When he was proven wrong, his God’s role was diminished.

“Which is a better concept of God — one that has to intervene repeatedly because he couldn’t get it right, or one that sets up a universe that operates by itself?” This is where our views diverge, since Dodson believes God created the universe, and I’m content not knowing exactly how the universe got here.

For Dodson, faith is, by definition, independent of scientific evidence. If scientists found a natural explanation for the origin of life, or even evidence for intelligent life on another planet somewhere, he said, “that wouldn’t shake my faith.”

If You Go: The lecture starts at 7 pm at Chestnut Hill College's Commonwealth Chateau, SugarLoaf Campus, 9230 Germantown Ave. Philadelphia, PA. For more details, click here.

Contact Faye Flam at 215-854-4977, fflam@phillynews.com, or @fayeflam on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/evolution.

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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