Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Ambivalence About Evolution and its Implications for an Academic Chemist | Righting America

by Mark Masthay

Dr. Mark Masthay brings our series on observational science to a close with a personal reflection on the significance of wonder and speculation in both his scientific work and his faith.

Much of the content in this blog entry is from a talk by a similar title which I presented at the “Thelma Fordham Pruett Conference on the Academy and Religious Faith: Science and Theology as Partners” conference at the University of Dayton in April of 2013. It is based on my many years explaining to my colleagues at work and church why I can be both a professional scientist believe in the both foundational principles of science and in the Bible.

The Central—But Uncontroversial—Science   
Chemistry is sometimes called the “central science.” In fact, there is a freshman chemistry text that goes by the title Chemistry: The Central Science. (I confess to taking pleasure in joking about this with my colleagues from physics, geology, and biology; I particularly enjoy referring to their disciplines as the “peripheral sciences.”)

Kidding aside, the designation “central” is accurate, because chemistry intersects with all of the other natural sciences. Even so, it tends to be less controversial than these other disciplines. Ask a non–scientist what she thinks about the Periodic Table of the Elements and you will likely encounter a yawn. Ask her what she thinks about the Big Bang Theory, the age of the earth, or the theory of evolution and you will likely receive an earful.

This does not mean that chemists are uninterested in the mysteries surroundings human origins: as both a chemist and a person of faith, these issues are interesting and important to me from both the scientific and religious sides of the aisle. It does mean, however, that chemists are seldom consulted about origins. We are able—in the research laboratory, in the classroom, and on the street—to comfortably straddle what can be an uncomfortable fence for our colleagues from the other natural sciences. When chemists do confront these issues, it is from the standpoint of the unvested: our personal views about origins do not impact our professional or spiritual lives to the same extent as they do those of our colleagues in physics, geology, and biology. Allow me to illustrate with some of my own personal experiences.

A “Natural” Epiphany 
Although I attended church as a child, my early experiences with Christianity did not impact me significantly. I was more interested in science than spirituality, reading science books long before the Bible. I came at a young age to share the views of scientific authors, who tended to be skeptical toward religion—sometimes to the point of scorn.

My perspective began to change years later, when I reached adolescence and my interests widened beyond the natural sciences. I remember well an experience I had while watching television one evening when I was in eighth grade. Upon glancing down at my feet, I was struck by their remarkable architecture, which pointed, in my mind, to the existence of a designer. This didn’t make me question evolution; I recognized that my feet were similar to those of other primates with whom I could share a common ancestor. Even so, it seemed that the feet of other primates were—like mine—too remarkable to have arisen by chance.

Although my “foot epiphany” may have been more aesthetic than it was scientific, it was both memorable and persuasive. I have had a number of similar experiences in the years since. The underlying circumstances have differed, but in every case the order and complexity of nature have whispered to me about the existence of a designer. The poet Walt Whitman describes, more beautifully than I, the impact of my experiences: He wrote in his epic “Song of Myself”:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,

And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,

And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,

And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,

And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,

And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,

And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

In deference to Whitman, leaves of grass, pismires, tree-toads, running blackberries, finger joints, munching cows, and mice are all remarkable in their own way—but it was the wondrous design of a human foot which staggered me out of my former affinity with his sextillions.

“Non–Chemical” Equilibrium: Faith and Skepticism in Balance
My foot epiphany told me nothing about how the designer engineered feet, or how long he took to do so; its sole impact was to convince me that a designer exists. Four years later, I became a serious Christian—in part because of that epiphany. And my views about life’s origins have not changed in any significant way in the four decades that have intervened. It has always seemed to me that the fundamental issue is whether or not a designer exists—not the details of how he did the designing. Thomas Aquinas notwithstanding, I don’t believe it is possible to confirm or deny the existence of God with absolute certainty.

It surprises me, then, that my evangelical brothers and sisters work so hard to prove that the earth is young and that life did not evolve—especially because they, of all people, should be familiar with the Biblical passage which states: “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible” (Hebrews 11:3 KJV). Such a faith carries with it a kind of certainty—not one that is blind to empirical evidence or existential inference—but faith nonetheless. At times I wish they would stop trying to pinch hit for nature and let it speak for itself, for the Psalmist tells us that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament declares his handiwork” (19:1 KJV).

Evangelical Christians don’t have a corner on the faith market; scientists operate on a kind of faith as well. My scientific colleagues like to think of themselves as raw empiricists with a “just the facts, ma’am” approach, but I’m not always so sure. People of science and people of faith arrive at their convictions more by drinking in their environment than by reflection and analysis. The certainty of evolutionists who regard creationists as primitive and naïve strikes me as no more informed than the certainty of creationists who regard evolutionists as ungodly and deceived. Both trust their respective authorities unquestioningly—probably because of social pressures unique to their respective camps. Ask either to delineate the reasons for their positions and they cannot do it: at the bottom line they both “just believe.”

I cannot deny the significant body of evidence supporting the antiquity of the universe and the earth—nor do I want to. But I do think that Ken Ham has it partially right—that there is enough uncertainty about the geological and biological past to raise uncertainties about the fine details. (I am reminded of the rapid paradigm shift in the explanation for the origin of mountain ranges; the geosynclinal theory was replaced by the plate tectonics model in little more than a decade during the mid–20th Century. I am also reminded of Lord Kelvin’s assumption that life on earth must be, on geologic time scales, of relatively recent origin. Kelvin arrived at this conclusion because he mistakenly believed that the sun could radiate for at most 40 million years; he was not aware that stars are fueled by nuclear reactions.)

When it comes to the distant past, intellectual honesty demands epistemic humility, which seems at times to be in short supply with my evolutionist colleagues. Excessive confidence and oversimplification may give them sway with the scientifically naïve; strong but simple assertions are frequently more persuasive than detailed explanations of nuanced truths. Although I would like to think that my scientific colleagues would choose not to frame their arguments with manipulative and entertaining overstatements, they appear to be as susceptible to this temptation as creation scientists who make their living scoring points on the creation—evolution debate circuit.

This does not mean that we should give up the quests for theological and scientific certainty. Rather, it reveals the character–straining needs for honesty and humility required of theologians and scientists. My own experience suggests that that the recovery of a sense of wonder can elicit such character from both camps.

The Recovery of Wonder
The American preacher A.W. Tozer once stated:

“The modern scientist is in danger of losing God amidst the wonders of his world; the modern Christian is in danger of losing God amidst the wonders of his Word” (The Pursuit of God, 9)

Tozer’s intended target was the Christian enamored with the intricacies of Biblical exegesis to the point of forgetting the reason for her interpretational efforts: to better understand and experience God. As a professional academic chemist I find his rebuke to the scientist to be on-target. As a younger, non-professional scientist, I was captivated by wonder at everything natural; as an older, professional scientist preoccupied with getting the next paper accepted and the next grant funded, it is easy to lose the wonder. Occasionally I step back from the details of my work and see the remarkable nature of the molecules I study, and the wonder returns. When I do, my professional self–preoccupation and defensiveness are immediately replaced by contentment and humility.

An Envy and a Contentment 
I admit to having an occasional twinge of envy toward my evolutionist and creationist colleagues who profess near-absolute certainties about human origins and the geological past. I know that because I see truth on both sides, some might accuse me of wanting to have it both ways. But I am content. My apparent waffling is not indecision—it is informed ambivalence: I am decidedly on the fence because of what I believe to be the limits of human epistemology. I am both a professional scientist and a person of faith. It’s not my job to convince people about the fine details of human origins—only that a designer played a central role in the process.