Continuation of review essay: Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century, by Denis Alexander

reviewed by John C. Greene

In support of these generalizations Alexander devotes five chapters to tracing the history of the relations between science and faith from Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine through the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Enlightenments (French and British), the rise of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth, to the emergence of "creation science" in the twentieth, documenting his account with abundant quotations and footnote references to the scholarly literature. Along the way we learn that the Alexandrian Christian Johannes Philoponus attacked Aristotle's doctrine of the eternity of the heavens on biblical grounds, that the condemned Galileo listed as one source of comfort his conviction that "not even the ancient Fathers have spoken with more piety or with greater zeal for the church than I," that John Calvin held that Moses adapted his account of creation in Genesis to common people's understanding, hence "he who would learn astronomy..., let him go elsewhere," that although Laplace was touted as an atheist by the philosophes, he continued as a practicing Catholic throughout his life, that John Wesley popularized science in England from a conviction that there was a "holy alliance" between science and theology, that Sandemanian Michael Faraday, a devout believer in God, held that science reveals “the evidences in natural things of his eternal power and Godhead," and that William Jennings Bryan was inspired to attack the teaching of evolution in the schools partly by reading Vernon Kellogg's Headquarters Nights, a book describing Kellogg's conversations with the might-is-right officers of the German General Staff when he was billeted with them in connection with the Belgian relief effort early in World War I.

From these and many other examples Alexander concludes that "the paradigms concerning science and religion that are most often comfortably maintained in secularized societies are factually wrong." "The use of them as ideological weapons for either secularizing or religious purposes is an abuse of science. It is not science itself which has proved to be a source of secularization, nor technology its handmaiden, but rather the various transformations of science that have been brought about by campaigners eager to use the prestige of its success and intellectual status to achieve certain secularizing goals."

With these preliminary historical and sociological questions out of the way, Alexander turns to philosophical issues in a long chapter entitled "Reweaving the Rainbow: Scientific Knowledge and Religious Knowledge." Passing in review philosophies of science from the naive realism of Francis Bacon, the Enlightenment thinkers, and the logical positivists at one end of the spectrum to the relativism of postmodern writers at the other, Alexander opts for the centrist view, critical realism, held by most contemporary scientists, who have realized that complete objectivity is impossible and who view scientific theories as "a series of maps that help to make the workings of the physical world coherent and...act as useful starting points for the next series of explanatory investigations." This view, Alexander notes, resembles that of Christian theism, which posits a real world having physical properties that are consistent and reproducible "because contingent on God's continued activity--a world that can therefore be investigated by the methods of science." But whereas science succeeds by restricting its inquiries to problems about the physical world potentially soluble by observation and experiment, theism advances a sweeping claim about the universe as a whole rendering coherent human experience both historically and personally. Religious knowledge, says Alexander, is, like aesthetic appreciation, one of the many forms of personal knowledge, comprising "all of those aspects of our experiences...that can be communicated by description to a very inadequate extent, since the communication...is never equivalent to the experience itself." The supreme example of personal knowledge is the experience of "knowing" another person.

Beginning with Chapter 10, "The Fox and the Hedgehog" ["The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."], Alexander enters into dialogue with well known critics of biblically based theism--Richard Dawkins, Jacques Monod, James Rachels, and others--on topics such as chance and design, the compatiblity of mechanistic biology with the concept of a personal, loving God, and the morality or immorality of the evolutionary process. Chance mutations, Alexander argues, play an indispensable role in producing evolutionary novelties, but natural selection among varying phenotypes is not a random process. Those best adapted to environmental circumstances tend to survive and multiply. As for the apparent design in biological organisms, Alexander agrees that Darwin's theory provided a better, more scientific explanation of this phenomenon than William Paley did in his Natural Theology, but he rejects Dawkins' conclusion that this fact invalidates all theological claims with respect to nature. Theism, says Alexander, offers the best explanation for the existence of the universe as a whole and of human beings as observers of that universe.

Turning to the role of chance in the universe, Alexander observes that when T. H. Huxley's view that "none but parsons believe in chance" was discredited by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, secular thinkers like Jacques Monod, turning the tables, began to argue that the prevalence of chance in the universe discredited theism. Not so, replies Alexander. "Why should the mechanisms described by molecular biology tell us anything about the ultimate questions of meaning? One cannot help thinking that Monod is the mirror image of the natural theologians like Paley, who tried to extract too much metaphysics from his observations of the natural world about him." In the biblical view, Alexander concludes, God has wrought, not engineering perfection, but order out of disorder. "The universe in general, and our planet in particular, are ordered entities, as far from the meaningless fuzz on the screen of a faulty TV screen as one could imagine." Such a highly ordered universe, Alexander adds, is consistent with the basic presuppositions of biblical theism.

To the objection that nature as depicted by Darwinian biology is cruel and ruthlessly competitive Alexander replies that food chains, pain, and death are all part of living as carbon-based organisms. "Cruelty" implies an intentionality not known among non-human animals. The natural world, says Alexander, is "an amoral world devoid of those qualities of foresight, conscious deliberation and ethical choice that would justify assessing it as either cruel or cooperative. It just is, and that's the way it is."

Searching for an analogy exemplifying, however incompletely, God's relation to his creation, Alexander proposes the analogy of the sun's immanent power and influence without which life on Earth would be impossible yet which does not dictate the precise details of biological evolution. Radical contingency is coupled to a quasi autonomy and functional integrity. Returning now to the hedgehog-fox analogy, the biblical theist, armed with his one big idea of God's relation to the universe, would champion the hedgehog, emphasizing in the same breath that scientific foxes focusing on mechanistic descriptions of evolutionary processes are important too, since those descriptions are compatible with an overarching account that gives ultimate meaning to the process taken as a whole.

With these objections to biblical theism answered, Alexander turns his attention to the concepts and slogans of the champions of evolutionary naturalism. He begins with Michael Ruse's "epigenetic rules" supposedly dictating human behavior and morality. He then moves on to the "culturgens" of E. O. Wilson and C. J. Lumsden, the incest taboo and incest avoidance, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and game theory as explanations of human altruism, Ruse's genes for self-deception, Aubrey Moore's "naturalistic fallacy," James Rachels' "moral individualism," and the postmodernism of Nietzsche and Michel Foucault. On all of these subjects Alexander displays a firm command of the scientific literature, remarkable powers of logical analysis, and a gift for apt illustration of his argument with familiar examples.

If morality is "a collective illusion foisted on us by our genes," as Ruse says, how can Ruse escape the possibility that his belief in the objectivity of scientific theory has been foisted on him by his genes? And what is the evidence for the existence of the universal moral rules Ruse supposes are genetically foisted on humankind in all cultures? Are not Ruse's high ethical standards more the consequence of his Quaker upbringing than of his genes? (And how, one might add, can Richard Dawkins tell his selfish genes to "go jump in the lake?") And what about the Maori tribes of New Zealand who were persuaded to give up cannibalism by Christian missionaries? What about the Hutterites in Canada, who abhor private property, selfishness, nepotism, and giving aid to your neighbors in the expectation that your generosity will be reciprocated? These people have the highest birthrate in the world, a fact hard to reconcile with the theory that nepotism and reciprocal altruism are the genes' way of insuring reproductive success.

Unlike Ruse and Dawkins, James Rachels concedes that evolutionary naturalism (which he calls "Darwinism") makes it more difficult to justify the "doctrine of human dignity," i.e., the high value placed on human life. This difficulty, Alexander argues, lies not with Darwin's scientific theory but with evolutionary naturalism, a philosophical doctrine separable from that theory. "At the end of the day," writes Alexander, "what determines the rational foundations of moral beliefs and practices is not people's belief (or otherwise) in evolution, but whether they justify their moral system within a theistic or naturalistic account of the world.... What makes the two world views different is whether human value has to be generated from a descriptive account of the world, or whether human value is grounded in a reality beyond such descriptions, as in theism."

As for Michel Foucault and other postmodern believers in Friedrich Nietzsche's view that God is dead, taking with him the idea of a universal human nature and moral law and leaving each individual to invent his own nature and values by unlocking his own inner daimon, Alexander finds sufficient refutation of this view in James Miller's account (The Passion of Michel Foucault, 1993) of Foucault's obsession with madness, violence, perversion, and suicide, ending with Foucault's death from AIDS. These aberrations, and the atrocities participated in by Nazi doctors and intellectuals invoking Darwin's scientific theory as justifying their militaristic and racist outlook, Alexander argues, are not chargeable to Darwin or to science. They are the result, not of science, but of the abuse of science. "As a theory to explain the origins of biological diversity, evolution has...no philosophical, theological, racist, economic, or political implications whatsoever....Evolutionary theory is like a ship that has been so long voyaging at sea that its hull has become encrusted with some rather strange barnacles which are hitching a ride. But the barnacles do not belong to the hull and need to be stripped off. That process needs to continue so that the good ship evolution can steam ahead more forcefully, unencumbered by such a weight of unnecessary philosophical and religious baggage."

Putting biology aside for the moment, Alexander turns to cosmology and cosmic evolution and the question whether the fine tuning of the physical constants of our universe in such a way as to permit the evolution of carbon-based life and human observers (the so-called 'anthropic principle') provides a natural theological argument for theism, as physicists Paul Davies, Fred Hoyle, John Barrow and Frank Tipler have suggested. Alexander considers the strong and weak versions of this principle, displaying a firm grasp of the scientific arguments pro and con and illustrating his analysis with familiar examples such as coin tossing, lotteries, and card games. The theory that our universe is but one of many universes, one that just happened to be capable of generating conscious observers is incapable of empirical verification, Alexander notes. Moreover, it fails to account for the mysterious fact that our universe is comprehensible and mathematically elegant. As physicist Eugene Wigner puts it: "It is not at all natural that 'laws of nature' exist, much less that man is able to discover them. The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand or deserve."

Turning now to Steven Weinberg's view that science finds no evidence of God as an 'interested personality' and that cosmic evolution seems "pointless" from a scientific point of view, Alexander answers that the physical properties of the universe are at the very least consistent with the biblical view of God's relation to the world, and not at all consistent with Weinberg's atheistic view. With respect to the "grand theories" of both science and religion, Alexander maintains, the best we can hope for is an explanation that is consistent with and makes sense of a wide variety of known facts. Darwin claimed no more for his grand theory of the origin of biological diversity. Likewise the biblical idea of a personal God who creates a universe with physical properties insuring the eventual evolution of observers who can respond to that deity is an inference to the best explanation of known facts. If there is no such God, or at most only Einstein's impersonal God, how do we account for the existence of persons in the universe?

In the penultimate chapter of his book Alexander tackles the thorny question of miracles, beginning with the letter to the London Times of six Fellows of the Royal Society and eight university science professors protesting an editorial in Nature arguing that science refutes the possibility of miracles. "It is not logically valid," the protesters write, "to use science as an argument against miracles. To believe that miracles cannot happen is as much an act of faith as to believe that they can happen." This protest was answered by a new editorial in Nature captioned in bold letters, MIRACLES NEVER HAPPEN. "Miracles, which are inexplicable and irreproducible phenomena, do not occur--a definition by exclusion of the concept." From the ensuing arguments in the columns of Nature it seems evident that there was no consensus among scientists on this issue, although the majority appeared to side with the editor of the journal.

Using this debate as a launching pad, Alexander embarks on a comprehensive philosophical, historical, and scriptural examination of the issue at stake, beginning with David Hume's posthumous Essay on Miracles. Hume’s a priori argument, based on eighteenth century conceptions of inviolable laws of nature is rejected by Alexander in favor of the critical realist view that these “laws” are "constructs of the scientific community expressing the pith of a large number of observations and experimental results that can be expressed as a limited number of broad generalizations." "Such 'laws'," says Alexander, "can never be divorced from the theoretical presuppositions that underlie them nor from the experimental contexts in which they have been developed. One day they will be modified to better approximations by new observations." As for Hume's a posteriori arguments, Alexander notes that Hume himself admitted that the evidence attesting to the miracles of healing at the tomb of Francois de Paris was impressive but insisted nevertheless that the testimony of this "cloud of witnesses" was invalidated by "the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature" of the events described, thus retreating to his a priori argument.

For a more satisfactory concept of a miraculous event than Hume provides Alexander turns to the books of the Bible. The writers of those books, Alexander observes, did not distinguish the natural from the supernatural, having no word for the latter. For them, and for St. Augustine later on, nature was "what God does." A miracle was, as Alexander puts it, an extraordinary event brought about by God within a significant historical-religious context. Some miracles, like the crossing of the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds perhaps?) might be susceptible of scientific explanation; others, such as Jesus' resurrection, were clearly not. In either case they were "signs" and "wonders" wrought by God for particular people at particular times in particular religious contexts.

The best, most scientific, mode of determining whether the miracles recorded in the New Testament are believable, Alexander suggests, is the mode used in legal proceedings, where the aim is to determine whether a particular event, however unlikely it may seem, actually occurred. And just as the grand theories of science appeal to us by making sense of wide range of observations and experiments, so the miracles of the New Testament, taken as a whole, make sense within the biblical view of God's relation to nature and history. "The miracles are as intrinsic to the New Testament account as natural selection is to Darwinian evolution," Alexander declares. "The events themselves cannot be extracted out of the world view and assumptions of the New Testament writers any more than the data supporting the idea that continents move can be extracted out of the conceptual framework provided by plate tectonics."

On the question whether miracles still occur Alexander remains agnostic, but he sees no reason in principle why they should not occur. Nor does the fact that most contemporary claims for the occurrence of miracles are unconvincing prove that miracles never happen.

In his final chapter, "Science with a Human Face," Alexander returns to his basic thesis: "Scientific and religious ways of thinking are not locked into watertight compartments but share similarities, particularly when it comes to assessing the 'big questions' of science and religion, using inference to the best explanation as a common approach." Science, Alexander maintains, is "a series of procedures and techniques for obtaining reliable knowledge about the physical world." But it needs a solid epistemological and metaphysical foundation that makes sense of its values and provides it with a middle way between the Scylla of naive realism and the Charybdis of postmodern relativism. Such a foundation, Alexander argues, is available in the critical realism of Christian theism. "Since nature represents God's creative actions," he writes, "they are assumed to be both reproducible and intelligible, created to be understood by humans and to serve their needs." From this point of view natural philosophy is a form of worship, affording insight into God's creative actions and giving science a human face. "A theistic Paradigm...generates a science that is not arrogant but rather quietly confident that the knowledge wrested with so much expense and hard work from the created order is of real value and significance in the larger scheme of things."

In closing Alexander reflects on the biblical concept of humanity as created "in the image of God" as it relates to Peter Singer's defense of the practice of infanticide, to human cloning and hypothetical human-monkey hybrids, to belief in human equality regardless of race, color, IQ or social status, and to human responsibility to protect and care for the environment. With respect to the last of these Alexander quotes John Calvin's injunction to the effect that, since God gave Adam the custody of the earthly garden, it was his duty to be content with a frugal and moderate use of the fruits of cultivation and "take care of what shall remain." "Let everyone regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses." The word "stewardship", Alexander notes, has the same Greek root (oikon), meaning "house" or "household", as the word "ecology". At a time when non-theistic world views are taking science in directions alien to its historical roots and potentially dehumanizing in its practice, thereby generating public misunderstanding and mistrust of science, Alexander concludes, a theistic framework, or matrix, not only returns science to its roots but also provides ample justification for a high view of scientific knowledge and a solid grounding for human values, including equal justice for all and deep concern for the preservation of the God-given natural environment.

* * * * * *

We have now reached the end of Alexander's long, complex argument in Rebuilding the Matrix. What are we to think of it? One cannot help admiring the depth of his scholarship, the range and variety of the topics he discusses, his command of the relevant sciences and philosophic traditions, the aptness of his illustrative examples and thought experiments, his zeal for both science and religion, and the fairness with which he presents the views of those with whom he disagrees. There are, however, some questions remaining to be answered. Is it theism in general or biblical theism or Christian theism whose critical realism he compares to the critical realism of modern scientists? The Newsletter for the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (Spring, 2003) makes it clear that the devotees of the "Indic traditions" regard those religious traditions as more sympathetic to science than the Abrahamic theism of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Alexander, however, is primarily concerned with the science-religion dialogue in the Western world and the issues connected with the Creator God depicted in the Bible. Perhaps that is a big enough topic for one book.

Throughout his book Alexander equates the terms "naturalism" and "scientism" (p. 459: "naturalism (or scientism in common parlance)"). This seems unfortunate. Naturalism is the view that the world described by science comprises the whole of reality. Scientism refers more properly to the extrapolation of scientific theories into world views. As the present reviewer wrote in his Science, Ideology and World View (1981): Science is "a prolific but cruel mother, forever spawning scientisms and forever abandoning her illegitimate offspring." It may be true in some abstract sense that, as Alexander says, Darwin's theory of the origins of biological diversity had "no necessary philosophical, theological, racist, economic, or political implications," but no one, including Darwin himself, thought so, nor do people today, as the recent vote of leading philosophers placing Darwin among the top five philosophers of the Western tradition shows.

Unfortunately, as in all comprehensive works, a few errors have eluded the editor's notice. William Paley's evidences of Christianity were set forth in his book View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794), not in his Natural Theology. Carl Linnaeus and Georges Cuvier owed much more to Aristotle than to any supposed neoplatonic influences. (Cuvier was known as "the Aristotle of the nineteenth century".) On page 188 substitute "the engineering professor Henry Charles Fleeming Jenkin" for "the physicist Henry Jenkin." On page 195 substitute "Darwin's Descent of Man" for "Darwin's Ascent of Man." But these are mere trifles. As a historian who has spent sixty years studying the interaction of science and world view in the Western world I take off my hat to Denis Alexander for his outstanding survey of the relations of science and faith across the centuries. I thought I knew the ground he covers fairly well, but he has opened up new vistas for me.

[Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001]