28 March 2008

In high praise of Howard Van Till

Howard Van Till is one of my heroes. It's been a month and a half since his address to the Grand Dialogue, and I still think about it, even though the ideas were all familiar to me. I think this is due partly to the fact that the excellent talk displayed Howard's disarming warmth and generosity, and partly to the fact that he was already one of my heroes. Here I'll discuss some of the main points of the talk, and in the process I hope you'll discover why I hold Howard Van Till in such high esteem.

Howard is professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at Calvin College, where I teach and work. The publication of his 1986 book The Fourth Day – and the ensuing controversy at the college and especially in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) – had an enormous impact on both. Some commentators suggest that the disputes over evolution that were spawned by the book are largely responsible for the existence of an entire denomination, the United Reformed Church, which represents one of the major secessions from the CRC in the last two decades of the 20th century. The book actually did not tackle biological evolution so much as it described cosmic evolution, the ancient universe, and the tragedy of "scientific creationism." It contains immense wisdom on the nature of science, and many of my colleagues still give it pride of place on their bookshelves.

The controversy exacted a toll, though, and I know just enough of the story to know that it is a sordid and disgraceful tale. I suspect that Howard is hundreds of times more gracious than I would be. And some of his recent public remarks give me the impression that the scandalous (if not blasphemous) behavior of our community led Howard to move away from traditional Reformed Christianity. Howard's theological pilgrimage is not my subject here, but this aspect of Howard's journey is something of a backdrop for my own life as a Reformed Christian scientist, if only because I couldn't do what I do at Calvin if it weren't for Howard and his contemporaries.

Howard's talk was entitled "IS THE COSMOS ALL THERE IS? The quest for answers to big cosmological questions." There are plans to post video at the Grand Dialogue site, but in the meantime you can download the extensive outline that Howard provided from my personal website.

Here are Howard's main questions, with comments that don't already appear on the outline, and then some comments on the question & answer period that followed the lecture.

1. Why is there something rather than nothing?

Howard says this is a "hard question," and I guess we have to agree with him there. This was one of my favorite sections of the lecture, so here it is approximately verbatim, in quasi-dramatic form.

Religion. Because God made something.
Howard. Sorry, that's the answer to a different question. You still have to explain why there's a god vs. no god.
Religion. But it's impossible for God not to exist. He necessarily exists.
Howard. Sorry, that's just too easy. Not all assertions are true, even if offered by brilliant philosophers or theologians.
(Steve. Touché.)
P.W. Atkins & Co. It just happened. From nothing.
Howard. Sorry, that doesn't work either.
I'll just interject here that one reason I look up to Howard Van Till is that he seems to share my discomfort with being identified with a "side."
Howard. What about: "we don't actually know." What we have here is a profound mystery that should inspire profound awe and humility.
At that point, Howard referred to a folk singer named Iris DeMent, and quoted this lyric:
Everybody's wonderin' what and where they they all came from
everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go
when the whole thing's done
but no one knows for certain
and so it's all the same to me
I think I'll just let the mystery be
The song is "Let the Mystery Be" from the Infamous Angel album.

2. What is the universe like?

Howard identified this as an "easier" question, but he tackled one not-so-easy question when addressing the nature of the universe.

As you can read on the outline, Howard described the universe as "big and old, nearly empty and mostly cold," but emphasized the fact that the universe has "a formational history that is readable by natural sciences," including a formational history of life on earth. Then he outlined what he calls the "Right Stuff Universe Principle" (RSUP), which posits that the universe ("amazingly") has the Right Stuff (resources, potentialities, and capabilities) to actualize everything we see, naturally. (Call it "fine tuning" if you want; same thing as near as I can tell.)

As you might guess, 'naturally' means 'without the need for supernatural filling-in', and 'supernatural action' means specifically coercive divine action; I learned that this latter phrase is the language of process theology. Howard's summary: "The principle is a statement about the adequacy of natural causes to accomplish all the formational histories in question."

If you've read Howard on "robust formational economy" then much of the preceding should sound pretty familiar. But then Howard addressed this question, which I find tiresomely familiar: how did science come to adopt the assumption of the "adequacy of natural causes to accomplish all the formational histories in question"? Quoting Howard:
Some religious critics object to science unfairly excluding supernatural causation. Sorry…that’s a serious and mischievous misrepresentation of the history of science’s consideration of assumptions. [...] The “hybrid” approaches were discontinued because they were inadequate to explain formational histories. The “right stuff” principle was adopted because it worked.
The ellipses indicate parts I didn't write down, but I think it's clear what Howard is getting at. And I think he's completely right. Can you see why this man is one of my role models? The RSUP, in Howard's eyes, is more than just "fine tuning," more than just "getting a bunch of numbers right." It is a truly astounding fact of the natural world. And it raises an obvious and difficult question.

3. How can something as remarkable as the RSUP be true?

Howard proposed several possible answers, found on the outline, including three religious answers worth expanding here (roughly quoting Howard in all cases):

  • In the spirit of St. Augustine, assert that the cosmos is a creation, a manifestation of the Creator's creativity and generosity. God was both able and willing to give it that rich a being. Howard: this is the solution I used to recommend, and still recommend to those embracing “traditional Christian theism.”
  • In the spirit of process theology, postulate that the very natures of God, the world and the God/world relationship are such that supernatural intervention is excluded and so the RSUP has to be true.
  • In the spirit of the ID movement, cancel the question. Deny that the universe has the Right Stuff.
I'm waiting for someone to explain process theology to me. I did buy a brand new book at the conference, which contains lots of process theology (or so I'm told). I'm interested, but my commitment to "traditional Christian theism" is non-negotiable, so I guess I'll just browse.

Howard dismissed the "Cosmic Casino Hypothesis" (the RSUP is the result of dumb luck) as "not very helpful" and he seemed cool to the multiverse. I suspect he favors this last option, quoting as best I can:
And then there's agnosticism, or humility. We'll just say that we don’t really know. Let the mystery be.

4. Does the universe need a creator, and if so what does a creator do?


In this part of the talk, the main idea I found notable was the question of whether there has always been a universe. If I got Howard right here, he said:
I was taught that the answer is clearly “no.” But I’m inclined to disagree now.
I'm not sure what he meant on that one.

5. How would anyone know what a creator is like?

Howard introduced this final section by noting that this question was likely to be the most "disturbing and thought-provoking" of the lecture, stating with disarming good humor but unapologetic bluntness that "I want you to go home with new questions." His focus was on scientific explanations for religious belief, and the outline provides significant detail.

And it was interesting, and it was thought-provoking, but it was hardly disturbing to me, probably because I don't understand why explaining something – whether it's religious belief or photosynthesis or genetic recombination or zits – reduces its religious significance, its majesty, or even its mystery. I've heard about Pascal Boyer's work, and Justin Barrett's, and it's cool stuff, and I just don't get all freaked out about it. Explanation is no alternative to belief.

Howard emphasized the idea (after Justin Barrett) that belief in the supernatural could have emerged through the action of our so-called hyperactive agency detection device (HADD), which is basically the high-sensitivity aspect of our consciousness that jumps at the sound of a twig snapping in the forest. After exploring these interesting ideas, Howard concluded that "having religious beliefs is as natural as natural can be." Then he closed with comments that I jotted down as follows:
But then…how can this brain be trusted to give us true answers [to the big questions above]? One suggestion that is worth testing: perhaps we should deal with these intuitive beliefs the same way we would deal with a ‘snap’ sound in the jungle. We should begin with our intuition, but then turn the question over to our slower, more rational evaluation and see if it holds up. (I place a very high value on rational, as many are quick to point out...) Run the belief through some basic tests, and dare to honor the score. Don’t believe something because it's “emotionally reassuring” or because “tribal orthodoxy” holds it to be true.
"Dare to honor the score." That's a dramatic challenge, and I think Christians should be unafraid to accept it. We have nothing to fear from a sober examination of God's world.

Aftermath and concluding comments

After the lecture, there were responses from two local physicists, including my friend and colleague Deb Haarsma, then there were questions from the audience.

Watching Howard handle questions was, for me, impressive and humbling, and it was this experience that caused me to conclude that Howard was not just a hero but a true role model. Somehow, he's able to combine generous openness with blunt (even fierce) criticism. Some examples:
  • In his response to a rambling comment from an audience member, Howard concluded: "I don't know as much as I used to." The audience answered with its biggest applause of the day.
  • His response in full to a sickeningly self-indulgent sermon riddled with Christianese platitudes and proof texts: "You've given your testimony and we should just leave it at that."
  • One perceptive questioner wondered whether the evolutionary explanation of belief (HADD) would cast the same doubt on scientific understanding as it would on religious belief. Howard identified this as "a classic question and a good one," and agreed that both science and religion "deserve equal criticism." But then this: "When I look at how traditional beliefs are handled in religion vs. science, I think science is doing a superior job with respect to examining its 'traditional beliefs'."
That last comment is the kind of fearless confession that makes me admire Howard so much. It's just not fashionable, especially among Christians, to say that science is better at self-criticism and error correction than is Christianity. But it's true, and maybe someday I'll learn, from Howard, how to be brutally frank without being brutal.

One last thing. I don't know whether Howard Van Till self-identifies as a Christian. And I don't intend to walk away from my faith (or, more specifically, from what I believe to be revelation) under the influence of scientific explanation. But when the subject is science and explanation, I agree with Howard a lot more often that I do with most of the Christians I know, and he has a passion for truthtelling that would completely transform the so-called faith-science dialogue, if even a few more people followed his lead.

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