Friday, October 27, 2006

"Redeeming Science"

Vern Poythress has published a book on science, entitled Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Crossway Books 2006). A free, online edition is also available at his website.

Due to the author’s interdisciplinary education, he brings a unique expertise to the subject. On the one hand, he majored in mathematics at Caltech, and was awarded a doctorate mathematics from Harvard.

On the other hand, Poythress also holds advanced degrees in theology, linguistics, and hermeneutics. That’s excellent preparation when it comes to the integration of science and Scripture.

The natural temptation in reading such a book is to skip over the preliminaries and jump right into the storm center with the chapters on Genesis and ID theory.

But in many respects, this book is less about the specifics of the science than it is about metascientific issues. I’ll confine myself to some of the major themes:

I. Hermeneutics

1.Genesis was written in ordinary, prescientific language to render it accessible to all cultures (92-93,222-223).

2.Likewise, the Bible is often written in observational language, reflecting the natural perspective of an earth-bound observer.

3.Poythress has definite ideas about the relation between general and special revelation. It’s a concentric process of elimination.

For example, we begin with Gen 1. We examine the primary interpretative options, and narrow these down to a few.

There then comes a point when a particular theory or interpretation (e.g. YEC, OEC, theistic evolution) is more specific than the text (255-56).

Having narrowed the field as far as we can on purely exegetical grounds, we then turn to science to supplement our understanding and further exclude some of remaining options.

4.One of his recurring concerns is the danger of unconsciously foisting an anachronistic interpretation onto the text by importing our own cultural preconceptions onto the text. For example, we must guard against reading the flood account from an Apollo 11 perspective (127-28).

5.Conversely, he rejects the contrary efforts to simply merge Biblical cosmology with ANE cosmology. For example, he shows from Scripture how the ancient Israelites knew perfectly well that rain comes from clouds (94-95).

II. Exegesis

1.Poythress devotes half a chapter to mature creation (chapter 9). Here he goes back to the pure version of the theory as originally proposed by the Victorian, marine biologist, Philip Henry Gosse—which attempts to account for the fossil record by appeal to mature creation.

As with methodological naturalism, Poythress attempts to give mature creation every benefit of the doubt. He points out that even when taken to a logical extreme, it is not as outlandish as its critics would make it out to be.

Poythress leaves the door open to subhuman death before the fall (121). Indeed, he seems to imply it at one point. Noting that the Garden of Eden was a fertile garden, he makes the commonsense observation that ordinarily, fertile soil “contains decaying organic matter from dead plants. Bacterial and soil-dwelling creatures like earthworms work over this matter…So the soil in the garden would have the necessary organic matter and the bacteria, even if God in fact prepared the garden and its soil over a period of seconds or hours rather than the many years that it takes to generate soil by gradual processes” (118).

And this juncture he anticipates a possible criticism: “The trees in the garden of Eden could be full-sized. But the objector would not accept rings within the trunk indicating a succession of seasons” (118).

He then takes up another example to undermine this distinction by referring the reader to the miracle at Cana. “Could it [the wine] have contained any grape plant cells or yeast cells or fragments from cells? Such cells would contain DNA, and the DNA would by its distinctive signature enable a scientist to infer from what grapevine stock the wine derived. He would then infer past events like…the operation of yeast in aging, and so on (119-20).

As a result, “I conclude that a hard-and-fast distinction between complex structures and mature structures with an idea past is implausible” (120).

Poythress is clearly sympathetic to mature creation, and regards it as valid up-to-a-point. But unsatisfactory an all-purpose explanation.

2.Regarding YEC, Poythress finds flood geology unconvincing. For one thing, he surmises that the “water” which covered the mountains (e.g. Gen 7:19; 8:4) might be snow. At a certain altitude, precipitation takes the form of snow (129). The receding floodwaters might then include the snowmelt.

He also criticizes Whitcomb and Morris for artificially restricting the explanatory scope of mature creation (105).

3.He rejects the calendar-day theory in favor of an analogical-day theory (chapter 10).

One justification for this is his contention that ancient people were not as time-conscious as modern people, who live by the clock—regulating and subdividing their lives by hours, minutes, seconds, and nanoseconds (e.g. 138-43). Punctuality is a modern obsession.

Although he doesn’t mention it, this is a point made by David S. Landes in Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Belknap Press 1983).

This distinction leads him, in turn, to say that “God really did create the world in six-days. That is to say, when we speak in everyday human terms…because we are thinking of days within an interactive orientation. Only within the technical sphere of consistent clock orientation and calculation do we develop another, complementary perspective on time. Within that sphere, where we define ‘time’ in an unusual, precise way that separates it from human rhythms, we obtain a figure of 14 billions years” (220).

4.He defends the traditional reading of Gen 2 on the special creation of Eve.

5. He discusses the relation between Gen 1 and Gen 2, explaining that Gen 1 prefers a taxonomical organization while Gen 2 prefers a teleological organization (89).

6.He defends creation ex nihilo (73-76).

III. Metascience

1.Ordinary perception is just as valid as our scientific picture of the world (150-151). He rejects the traditional hiatus between appearance and reality (217). There is no one correct picture of reality. Rather, we should embrace a stratified view of reality.

He appeals to optical illusions (200) as well as alternative, but mathematically equivalent, versions of quantum mechanics (202) to justify his pluralism.

2.Poythress devotes a lot of attention to the metaphysical and epistemic status of natural “laws.” For example, he says that natural “laws” are merely “human descriptions of the way in which God governs the world now within the physical sphere” (163).

3.Poythress uses Robert Pennock as a foil to examine methodological naturalism (262-266). After giving Pennock every benefit of the doubt, Poythress concludes that methodological naturalism is a prejudicial and unstable compromise which collapses into metaphysical naturalism.

After arguing his point, he ends on the note that methodological naturalism “devalues science” (271).

4. Furthermore:”In fact, scientific laws are themselves a prime case of design. Design shows itself not only in a particular case like a bacterial flagellum but in a general law like the conservation of energy” (266).

5.He presents a striking analogy between divine and human agency to illustrate the limitations of a reductionistic, materialistic explanation of cause and effect:

“Human intentionality is mysterious. It is not a “cause” on the same level as the physical causes immediately impinging on one machine part. The human being plans and looks ahead and plots the shape of the finished machine. Then he acts in an external world where he uses ordinary secondary causes. His planning and intentionality are like a primary cause in relation to these secondary causes, though of course he in turn also has God as his primary cause…The analogy between God and a human designer still helps. When a human being constructs a motor, we can follow two levels of causes. We can
focus on the secondary causes, involving physical motion and chemistry. By carefully analyzing a single metallic part, we might possibly deduce not only what factory manufactured it, but from what mineral deposit the iron ore came. But suppose that we tried to explain exclusively through secondary causes how the whole motor came together as a whole in one place. We could not do it. Physical causes exist all the way through, in the form of pressures from human fingers, or pressures from machines or robotic fingers set up by a human being. But this kind of causal chain is far too complex to follow, and looks very improbable unless we invoke a “primary” cause, namely the
human designer or assembler” (281-82).

IV. Science

1. Poythress makes the point that “in its practical uses, the vast bulk of modern science and technology concerns what happens now, not what happened in the distant past. It matters little whether the universe originated 6,000 years ago or 14 billion years ago. Most science and technology focus on how the universe functions now. What matters is how I use my car or my telephone” (114).

On a related note, he reaffirms the distinction, drawn by Behe, between “repeated” events and “once-for-all events” (263).

2.Poythress also sees no compelling reason to jettison scientific dating techniques and their conventional results (81-85; 99-105).

3.He offers a very favorable exposition of ID theory (chap. 19), using the flagellum as Exhibit A.

4. On the evidence of analogies and homologies, he argues that these “show common design by a common designer” (247).

With respect to the fossil record, which, according to Darwinians, presents the pattern of an evolutionary tree, Poythress suggests that “one may simply observe that God designed the pattern; it is not an illusion. A single living tree has twigs and smaller braches and larger branches and trunk, with in many respect imagine another. The growth of a tree shows the pattern of offshoots that replicate the growth of an original single stem. What if the pattern of life through geologic ages mirrors life on a small scale, the life of a tree? It then becomes another instance of imaging. The motif of imaging shows that we can organize the entire evidence cited in favor of evolutionary theory within a framework of design” (247).

5. As you might expect from a scientifically-trained mathematician, he takes an avid interest in abstract (mathematical) and concrete (natural and or artifactual) symmetries.

V. Sparring Partners

1.As a member of the Reformed community, Poythress touches on certain intramural debates. He rejects the framework hypothesis, despite its growing popularity in Reformed circles (chapter 10; appendix 1).

2.Likewise, he takes issue with Paul Seely at one point (96n8).

While we’re on the subject of Seely, it’s clear that Poythress is well to the right of his one-time colleague, Tremper Longman (How to Read Genesis [IVP 2005]) as well as his current colleague, Peter Enns (Inspiration and Incarnation [Baker 2005]).

3.He’s also critical of James Jordan (103).

4.In the course of his comparative analysis, he chooses certain writers as representative spokesmen for their respective positions. This raises the question of selection criteria.

Gould is mentioned, but not Dawkins? Why? Is it that Poythress regards Gould as a more impressive representative of naturalistic evolution, whereas Richard Dawkins is more of a popularizer or eccentric?

In ID theory, he settles for Behe and Dembski, (with passing reference to Denton)—presumably because theey are the most technically and theoretically astute members of the ID movement. But he also cites Philip Johnson on the philosophy of methodological naturalism.

Where YEC is concerned, he settles for Walter Brown, Russell Humphreys, Henry Morris, and John Whitcomb. His justification for the focus on Whitcomb and Morris presumable comes from his statement that The Genesis Flood “offers a kind of foundational document” (100).

As you can see, I’m just scratching the surface in my selective exposition. Let’s now move from exposition to evaluation.

In some ways, this book is a landmark in its chosen field. Despite the fact that it’s pitched to a popular audience, it often presents a very sophisticated model of how science and Scripture interrelate. And it frequently advances the traditional point-counterpoint in new directions.

So this is one of those “must-read” books.

At least within the Reformed community, this will be, or at least ought to be, a compass point for further deliberation.

That said, there were certain areas in which I was dissatisfied with the analysis:

1.It’s true that punctuality is a modern obsession. And that is largely due to the availability of accurate clocks and watches.

But I fail to see how that distinction covers the distance from a traditional chronology (6,000+ years) to a modern chronology (14 billion years).

Poythress admits that Jewish culture was time-conscious in relation to the religious calendar as well as the agricultural seasons.

So the difference between then and now would seem to be a rather minor difference with respect to differing degrees of technical precision.

2.It also strikes me as overly facile, to put it mildly, to both affirm that “God really did create the world in six-day” and also that “where we define ‘time’ in an unusual, precise way that separates it from human rhythms, we obtain a figure of 14 billions years.”

Is this just a matter of flipping the switch from an “interactive orientation” to a “clock time orientation”?

That’s an awfully artful performance—like watching a pickpocket make a billfold disappear from its owner’s button-downed vest. I admire the dexterity, but I’m unwilling to surrender my wallet without a fight.

3.Given his evident sympathy for mature creation, which he affirms up to a point, I don’t know why he falls back on conventional dates for the age or the universe in general and the earth in particular.

Where does the dynamic of mature creation leave off and the providential factors kick in?

4.As to the analogy between an evolutionary tree (i.e. the cone of diversity), a real tree, and the motif of imaging, all I can says is that, despite the aesthetic appeal of this very elegant and economical explanation, I don’t see how that would account for the fossil record—at least as the Darwinian has packaged it. Doesn’t a Darwinian say the fossil record charts a more-or-less linear trend from simple to complex? That quite different from a cyclical pattern of self-similar configurations.

5.His suggestion regarding a snowpack, followed by snowmelt, is attractive—and may even true in its own right.

But doesn’t the natural rhythm of the narrative picture the dry land overtaken by rising waters? And upward motion rather than a downward motion?

6.Regarding the following criticism: “The trees in the garden of Eden could be full-sized. But the objector would not accept rings within the trunk indicating a succession of seasons” (118),” I find myself on the side of the critic. For I do think one can draw a principled distinction.

i) The problem with Adamic navels, fake fossils, and annular rings on instant trees is that such features serve no purpose in that pristine setting. As such, they overextend the logic of mature creation.

ii) And his counterexamples don’t succeed in disproving that distinction. Even if instant wine or instant potting soil contained trace elements of an illusory, biochemical process, there would be a functional justification for that illusion. For that’s the differential factor between barren soil and fertile soil, fermented grape juice and unfermented grape juice.

iii) In addition, his counterexamples equivocate. Are we talking about actually “decaying organic matter from dead plants,” as well as actual “bacteria and earthworms”? Or are we talking about the biochemical equivalent? Synthetic mulch.

Same thing with grape cells and yeast cells with a distinctive DNA signature. The miracle instantiates the end-stage of the product minus the intervening process. The effect without the secondary cause, because the primary cause takes its place.

So it’s not as if God is creating dead organisms. Dead plants. Death earthworms.

All that God is reproducing in this scenario is the effect or end-result of an ordinary process while bypassing that ordinary process to produce the same effect directly.

6.I enjoyed his discussion of symmetries. But I find it odd that he didn’t trace this principle all the way back to the Trinity. What, after all, is the Trinity if not the archetypal symmetry?

For example, it would be interesting to see him model the Trinity on enantiomorphic symmetries.

7.His discussion of ID-theory is highly inflected. And he examines the possible origin of the flagellum from just about every conceivable angle.

Unfortunately, one unavoidable consequence of leaving the lofty, metascientific trees for the lowly, scientific trenches is that any discussion of the gritty particulars is bound to be dated in a few years or so, with interminable debates between competing parties.

8.Although he defends creation ex nihilo, he fails to connect this doctrine with mature creation. But creation ex nihilo is what makes mature creature both possible and inevitable. Rather than a gradual, incremental process, the basic forces and cycles of nature are instantiated all at once.

9. By the same token, creation ex nihilo has implications for our chronological extrapolations. The cosmic “clock” was set “forward” as if the cycles of nature were already up and running—which they were, via creation ex nihilo. The end-result wasn’t phased in over millions and billions of years.

Even Stephen Jay Gould appreciated the inner logic of this argument. He simply rejected the operating premise, thinking he had an evolutionary alternative at his disposal. But as he summarizes the argument:

“Gosse began his argument with a central, but dubious, premise: All natural processes, he declared, move endlessly round in a circle…When God creates…he must break (or ‘irrupt,’ as Gosse wrote) somewhere into this ideal circle. Whenever God enters the circle…his initial produce must bear traces of previous stages in the circle, even if these stages had no existence in real time…I find this part of Gosse’s argument quite satisfactory as a solution, within the boundaries of his assumptions, to that classical dilemmas...’which came first…’If organisms arose by acts of creation ab nihilo, then Gosse’s argument about prochronic traces must be respected,” “Adam’s Navel,” Granta (Summer 1985), 16:136-37,39,40.

To simply run the clock backwards in time from the present to the past will thereby yield a false reading.

When a watchmaker constructs a timepiece, there’s the time he made it, and then there’s the time he sets it to. But the time he sets it to is obviously not isometric with the time he made it. They are, indeed, quite independent variables.

9.Another problem with Poythress’ discussion is that any dating technique involves the measurement of time. But that, in turn, involves us in the philosophy of time. Does time have an intrinsic metric?

As a highly trained mathematician, it’s hard to believe that Poythress is entirely unaware of this debate, for it goes back to Poincaré’s conventionalism. Now, the question of metrical conventionalism or its converse (metrical objectivism) is directly germane to our dating techniques, for the question of age is a chronometric question. Yet this issue is never addressed.

Failure to address this metascientific issue renders his straightforward appeal to the scientific evidence philosophically naïve.

10.As far as YEC is concerned, Poythress fails to engage its most sophisticated proponents. I agree with Poythress that The Genesis Flood was a foundational document. But for that very reason, it hardly represents state-of-the-art creationism.

Poythress refers to the sixth edition (1995) of Walter Brown’s In the Beginning. But Brown issued a seventh edition in 2001.

Moreover, Brown has an online edition at his website, where he also has periodic updates on newsworthy developments.

More serious is the omission of John Byl and Kurt Wise. Byl came out with his God & Cosmos back in 2001. Byl is a professional astronomer and YEC.

Byl is a Calvinist in the Dutch-Reformed tradition. He has also contributed to the WTJ in the past, so you’d expect him to be on Poythress’ radar screen.

Kurt Wise is the Harvard-trained paleontologist, and a rising star in YEC. He figured prominently in Ronald Numbers standard history of The Creationists. And he was recently tapped by Albert Mohler to take over Bill Dembski’s old job at SBTS. So he’s a known quantity.

Wise published Faith, Form, and Time back in 2002, along with a more popular version thereof (Something from Nothing) two years later.

Since Poythress bibliography includes 2006 titles, there’s no apparent reason for the omission.

Furthermore, we live in the age of email, and before email there was snail mail. I’ve been corresponding with Byl for years. If I can, Poythress can. I’ve also corresponded with Brown. If I can, Poythress can.

When he was preparing to write his now-classic work on Dispensational, Poythress went out of his way to get first-hand information from the very best sources. He took a sabbatical to make a trek down to Dallas Theological Seminary.

But it doesn’t look like he has made anything like the same effort to acquaint himself with the leading lights of contemporary creationism.

Frankly, this borders on shoddy scholarship, and it’s hard to explain.

11.There are other puzzling lucunae as well.

i) John Walton published a major commentary on Genesis back in 2001. On a number of interpretive issues, his positions are strikingly similar to those of Poythress.

So it would be natural of him to cite Walton in support of his own positions. But, no.

Since Poythress believes that we should interpret the flood account consistent with an eye on ANE geography rather than modern geography, you might expect him to mention a standard reference work like Wayne Horowitz’ Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (Eisenbrauns 1998). But, no.

Along similar lines is A. Dundes, ed. The Flood Myth (Berkeley: University of California Press 1988).

Obviously, one must make very discerning use of this background material.

ii) Since Poythress rejects the calendar-day theory, it would be instructive to have his take on how John Sailhammer construes the syntax of Gen 1:14, both in his commentary as well as his book Genesis Unbound. But, no.

iii) Likewise, Donald Wiseman, the famed Assyriologist, examines the semantic aspect of Gen 1:14 in his article, “Creation Time—What does Genesis Say?”, Science & Christian Belief, 3/1 (1991), 25-34.

iv) Since Poythress devotes a fair amount of time and attention to the philosophy of science, it would make sense for him to interact with Bas van Fraassen. Although van Fraassen converted to Catholicism a while back, he comes out of the Dutch-Reformed tradition, and his own metascientific views, as well as his way of relating faith and science (The Empirical Stance [Yale 2002]), would furnish a useful foil for Poythress to articulate his contrasting point of view. But, no.

v) One would like to see Poythress remark on some of the more unorthodox critics of naturalistic evolution like Rupert Sheldrake.

Of course, every author is bound to be selective—especially in a semi-popular work.

But even aside from his poorly-researched assessment of YEC, there’s a rather myopic quality of the interaction overall, as if he’s suffering from intellectual isolation.

As a result, Redeeming Science is brilliant in some respects, but provincial in others. Breaking new ground, his book is often outstanding, but it could have been a lot better if his investigations were not so blinkered.


  1. Nicely done critique, Steve. I greatly appreciated your positive and generous interaction with one of my teachers. I am a YEC myself, and so find myself in complete agreement with your arguments. Keep up the good work. I have linked to your critique over at my blog.

  2. Quick question: do you think there is any merit to the argument that Exodus 20:11 wouldn't make sense if the creation weren't in six literal, from-Israelite-perspective days?

  3. I hate to break it to you, but mathematics is not a "science", in the sense that it does not use the scientific method, observation, experiment, or falsification.

    Math is about proof, relating abstract objects via logic. Science is about evidence, relating natural laws with observations and testing them via hypotheses...then falsifying said hypotheses until only one, or a few, plausible options remain.

    Completely unlike math, which seeks proof. Completely unlike math, which makes no observations and draws together no inferences from them. Completely unlike math, which does not proceed by falsification of possible explanations of phenomena.

    And this juncture he anticipates a possible criticism: “The trees in the garden of Eden could be full-sized. But the objector would not accept rings within the trunk indicating a succession of seasons” (118).

    It is an unfalsifiable argument to claim that God made everything such that it looks 4 BY old, etc. But it also indicates a sort of deception if this same God wanted us to believe that things weren't old.

    2.Regarding YEC, Poythress finds flood geology unconvincing. For one thing, he surmises that the “water” which covered the mountains (e.g. Gen 7:19; 8:4) might be snow. At a certain altitude, precipitation takes the form of snow (129). The receding floodwaters might then include the snowmelt.

    I think the problem is starting with Scripture, then digging to find evidence to support different conjectures. Why not start with observation? People without the Bible for thousands of years would've done just that -- looked at things without that bias. And, these people would've surmised the same things that modern science has -- that the idea of an earth completely deluged, and all plant life and animal life refilling the earth, some time around the first kingdom of Egypt, is just silly.

    2.Poythress devotes a lot of attention to metaphysical and epistemic status of natural “laws.” For example, he says that natural “laws” are merely “human descriptions of the way in which God governs the world now within the physical sphere” (163).

    But then, he goes on to imply that laws are "real"...

    Furthermore:”In fact, scientific laws are themselves a prime case of design. Design shows itself not only in a particular case like a bacterial flagellum but in a general law like the conservation of energy” (266).

    And as I said earlier, this seems to overlook the metaphysical fact that "possible worlds" are constrained by "life-possible worlds" -- without conservation, there could not be life, nor a feasible physical universe. If energy just came from nowhere and went nowhere, then there could be no laws regarding it, nor tying together physical processes...

    given, that is, there is no God. If there is a God, there seems to be no need for "laws" at all. I would turn this argument on its head and point out that a natural universe requires uniformity (let's not get into induction, please) and natural law to be feasible, and to bring about life. But a supernatural God need not rely upon lawlike systems.

    I would say that the fact that so much of nature is uniform and lawlike is not only unnecessary, should there exist a God, but evidence against the idea. Should there be such a Being, it could miraculously cause things to happen, in an irregular and transient manner, which would convince us of the insufficiency of natural law, and cause us to continually be struck with "shock, worship and awe". Assuming, of course, that such a Being would want "more glory" and "more worship" and more people to believe in it. But I don't want to digress onto the problem of God's hiddeness, since I know you don't flatly refuse to acknowledge that principle.

    Anyway, I'll finish this critique later.

  4. Exod 20:11 makes more sense on the YEC reading.

  5. Steve,

    That was a very good review.

    I myself noticed that Poythress made no reference to John Byl's "God and Cosmos". I thought Byl's book also made an excellent recap on the various Christian and secular cosmology views out there.

    Incidentally, I'm also blogging on apologetics but with focus on cosmology. As such, I made a link to this blog (just fyi).


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