On November 1, Governor General (GG) Julie Payette was a keynote speaker at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa. She touched upon a variety of issues including climate change, horoscopes, the origin of life, alternative medicine and divine “intervention.” In this piece I would like to focus on her comments regarding religion and science, where she stated that: “And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.” She also suggests that such beliefs, among others, should be unfathomable in a “learned society.”
This statement is so deliciously bad that it is hard to know where to begin in response, since I feel as though I’m a mosquito at a nudist colony. In this sloppily thought out sentence, the GG not only assaulted and disparaged complex religious issues in a highly irresponsible manner but she also trivialized the beliefs of millions of Canadians. One wonders what the supreme governor of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth II, whom she supposedly represents, would think. The GG’s mandate is to represent the queen and not give partisan views on what people should believe or not believe in a free society. Having said that, I think she is highly misinformed on the relationship between science and faith.
Faith and Science
The GG raised a number of issues pertaining to not only science, but theology, the science-theology dialogue and philosophy of science. These comments deeply disturbed me since I have thought long and hard about the relationship between science and theology. Unfortunately, she caricatured the two great disciplines. She espoused the typical view of scientism which sets up religion against science. However, most likely unbeknownst to the GG, there are nuanced positions on the relationship of science and religion, including what the physicist-theologian, Robert John Russell, dubbed “Creative Mutual Interaction” whereby science and theology mutually inform one another. There is also what the late nuclear physicist, theologian and pioneer of the science-theology interaction, Ian Barbour, labeled dialogue and integration which outlines many of the complexities concerning the relations between the two.
Treatment of deep questions such as the origin of life and God’s interaction with physical reality require careful thought. One is not entirely clear what the GG meant by life: did she mean the origin of information necessary for building the first replicating system? Or is it a generic expression for discussing evolution in general, i.e., common descent – the view that all organisms are descended from one (the standard view) or several common ancestors (the unorthodox view), regardless of the mechanisms involved (natural selection, random mutation, horizontal gene transfer, endosymbiosis, self-organization, etc.)? Common descent is what most people think of when they think of evolution, which is quite compatible with God’s guidance or “intervention” but we’ll come back to this term later. If she meant the origin of life, as a scientist, especially an engineer she should appreciate the high level of sophistication of even “low” life. As twenty-first century humans, we find ourselves in an era of utter awe and discovery with the rapid advancement of natural sciences and the exponential development of technology, all of which serve as indispensable aids to scientific, philosophical and theological inquiry. Through this ever-evolving correspondence between our understanding of the natural sciences and technological development, it is astonishing, for instance, to observe the features of “low life” (micro-organisms) endowed with specified complexity, something that has been only possible because of our advancement in technology. Most remarkable is the fact that we can unravel a world far more complicated than any computer or device we have been able to design. This is especially true with the informational content embedded on the spine of the double helical DNA molecule. Indeed, our technology has allowed us to discover an exquisite world of biological “nano-technology” that is far more sophisticated than our own, yet vastly more primitive (e.g. even primordial single-celled organisms such as eukaryotes or prokaryotes bacteria), exhibiting much lower orders of specified complexity and obvious cognitive capacities that humans possess. Such advancements provoke us to reflect deeply on our philosophical and theological outlooks.
The difficulty with the ‘origin of life’
The GG should know or have some acquaintance with the tremendous obstacles that face origin of life studies. For instance, philosopher of science, Stephen C. Meyer, in his seminal book on the origin of life, Signature in the Cell, builds a case for agent causation using standard scientific modes of reasoning. He uses abductive reasoning, which is standard in the historical sciences. This is precisely the same method Charles Darwin mounted in his On the Origin of Species and geologist-lawyer, Charles Lyell who in his text, Principles of Geology, expounded his doctrine of uniformitarianism, which deeply influenced Darwin in his formulation of his theory of evolution by natural selection. This also involves making an inference to the best explanation among other competing hypotheses. Meyer employs precisely this method, using the origin of life to explain the origin of the first replicating system. Meyer emphatically states that:
The inability of genetic algorithms, ribozyme engineering, and prebiotic simulations to generate information without intelligence reinforced what I had discovered in my study of other origin-of-life theories. Undirected materialistic causes have not demonstrated the capacity to generate significant amounts of specified information. At the same time, conscious intelligence has repeatedly shown itself capable of producing such information. It follows that mind – conscious, rational intelligent agency – what philosophers call “agent causation,” now stands as the only cause known to be capable of generating large amounts of specified information starting from a nonliving state…If there are no other known causes- if there is only one known cause – of a given effect, then the presence of the effect points unambiguously back to the (uniquely adequate) cause.
We can summarize Meyer’s findings with the following argument:
- The origin of information needed to build the first replicating system is due either to natural law, chance, a combination of chance and natural law or design.
- It is neither due to natural law or chance nor to a combination of the two.
- Therefore, it is due to design.
I wonder if the GG, knows of this line of argumentation and if it belongs to a “learned society”?
Randomness vs. chance
What about the issue of randomness? Did the GG mean chance? It is not clear. No one thinks that life originated by chance nor “randomly”. Most origin of life specialists agree that some ‘law’ imposing order must be necessary but as we saw above – the combination of chance and natural law is insufficient according to Meyer’s systematic argument. But, even if life originated by chance or randomness, for argument’s sake, why isn’t it possible that God pre-ordained the laws of physics and front-loaded information into the universe, in order to allow for this singular event to take place throughout the course of cosmic evolution? This is the position of thrice doctored scientist-theologian-dentist, who was the first tenured professor of science and religion in Canada, Denis Lamoureux. Perhaps, the GG believes she is more learned than a philosopher like Meyer and an actual working scientist, such as Lamoureux, who publishes his findings in peer reviewed journals and makes his arguments in carefully thought out books? It is difficult to say.
Philosopher Brendan Sweetman, in his book, Evolution, Chance and God: Understanding the Relationship between Evolution and Religion, focuses on the concepts of chance, randomness and determinism in relation to evolution, as he states:
Central to my thinking will be the claim that, contrary to one influential, even prevailing, view in the general discussion, evolution does not operate by or involve a significant element of chance. This means that there is no chance operating in either physics or biology: I will defend with certain qualifications concerning human free will and any action by God in creation, the position of determinism with regard to the operations of the physical universe… I have become convinced in my reading and thinking about evolution that, with certain qualifications, there is no chance or random occurrences involved in the process, and that leading thinkers in biology, philosophy and theology who claim there is, or who assume there is, or who have made chance a key part of the way they understand explain the theory, are seriously mistaken. Moreover, this mistake has far-reaching implications consequences for the evolution/religion discussion.
So, far from being a rational proposition that chance or randomness is fundamental to evolution, it may be more deterministic than some realize. All this is to say that there is a discussion among scientists, philosophers and theologians over the role of chance and randomness. Even the famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, emphasizes the non-random component of evolution: natural selection as being more important to evolutionary change. Moreover, it is worth pointing out that randomness does not mean that something is without a cause.
Finally, what about intervention? This term has spawned countless articles and discussions in the science-theology dialogue. But what does it mean? It turns out most thinkers have not come to a consensus. The question of intervention directly concerns the notion of divine action. Traditionally, since the 17th century, an intervention is an act of God known as an instance of special creation or action after the initial creation of the universe. Intervention it seems could mean any action that God takes upon the creative order. It is sometimes described as a suspension of the laws of physics. One could ask why God would suspend the laws He created at one point, in order to intervene at another. The concept of divine intervention may seem unpalatable to many, particular theologians, because of the accompanying stigma of being labelled scientifically ignorant. But perhaps, an intervention of God, or to put it in more acceptable terms, God’s “action,” is where a resolution may lie. In order to be intellectually honest with oneself, one must be able to at least entertain the possibility. What about God operating through the informational structure of the universe? Life as we know it depends on information-rich systems (specified information). We also know through information theory, that information transcends the material component, so in essence this is a way God could interact with life and even complex brains without suspending or breaking the laws of nature. This could also be seen as an intervention, even if operating at the quantum level, but not one where God contravenes the laws of nature that He initially created.
Interestingly, it turns out that anyone who believes in God is a creationist regardless of how God chose to create. This is true whether His action is detectable or not. Nevertheless, I hope that I have been able to show that these concepts that the GG raised are highly contentious and complex. I doubt she really has any clue how complex it is really is and how many nuanced positions there are. But she should know better than to disparage people’s beliefs. She should also be mindful of her mandate.
Either God was involved in creation or He wasn’t. The ways by which He was involved can be explored, but what the GG is suggesting, namely that God had no involvement, is a claim that is not only unsubstantiated but extremely presumptuous indeed!
She has no arguments for this, since science has zero to say about God per se because God by definition is transcendent to space, time, matter and energy and therefore unobservable through the scientific method. Only the effects of God’s action can be examined by science.
Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in his usual fashion, gave his unreflective support for the GG, when he said:
And I am extraordinarily proud of the strength and the story of our Governor General, Julie Payette, who has never hidden away her passion for science and her deep faith that knowledge, research and the truth is a foundation for any free, stable, successful society. And I applaud the firmness with which she stands in support of science and the truth.
I wonder what the PM considers truth since he so often contradicts himself. For instance, he identifies as a Catholic but is a ruthless totalitarian against those who are pro-life, as seen with his treatment of pro-life Liberals and the recent fiasco with the Liberal MPs walking out on conservative pro-lifer, Rachel Harder.
I would suggest the next time the GG and the PM for that matter, through his unreflective support for her comments, should better inform themselves on complex and sensitive issues. It would save them much embarrassment.
I fully support science, but it should be emphasized that experimental science emanated from a Judeo-Christian worldview, and not any other. It did not stem from atheism, ancient materialism, nor Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. I wonder if the GG or the PM are aware of this fact of history. There is good reason why science stemmed from the Western Judeo-Christian world, since it entails the view that the world was created by an all knowing and all loving God, in such a way that the world was structured to be intelligible. This intelligibility is what allows rational inquiry and scientific study. So that humans who possess intelligence can understand the workings of God, so to speak, whether through evolution and/or “divine intervention.” This is the view that was held by the modern architects of science such as Galileo, Newton, Kepler and Copernicus.
Finally, I would like to extend an invitation to both the GG and the PM for a debate on the nature of science, the science and theology interaction, issues in the philosophy of science or even the reasonableness of faith and the existence of God. This, however, would require them to finally substantiate many of their audacious claims. I wonder if they are prepared to have a discussion in the spirit of truth, instead of declaring important issues by fiat. This is how real progress and understanding is possible, in a true “learned society.” Pitting science against faith is so typical of our highly secularized society. Exposing such intellectual laziness and canned statements would help the general population realize that science, nor reason, is really opposed to faith and theology.