I knew I’d have to blog about this one. I just got back from the latest TANSA (Theology and the Natural Sciences in Aotearoa) meeting at Laidlaw College.
The Speaker was Dr. Peter Wills, who, it turns out, is a naturalist (I also met and had a nice talk with a lady who shared that she no longer professed faith, so this was no Christians-only affair). Nicola, the chairperson for TANSA, opened with a lovely quote from theologian Michael Welker to give expression to the ‘T’ in TANSA, as Peter would handle the ‘N’ (couldn’t help but smile to myself seeing boxes of ‘Hell’ pizza behind this ‘godless’ scientist ;D ).
While I was able to follow the entire talk (I especially appreciated his honest personal intro about his upbringing in the fundamentalist Exclusive Brethren movement and his leaving of it and faith altogether), I was aware of my limited comprehension due to my not being up with microbiology (the notes below don’t represent full comprehension by me!). Wills is an interesting character who would have many enemies, but particularly interesting was his criticism of many of his biological colleagues, who according to him, don’t deal sufficiently enough with the question of biological ‘information’.
He said that you can’t have a theory of the origin of life without a theory of causation in the universe, and criticised reductionist accounts that were only ‘materialistic’ and ‘mechanistic’, saying that this was ‘dogmatism’ which should be absent in science. Following Schrodinger, he talked about the ‘information in a molecule’, and noted the fundamental and constantly overlooked distinction between the ‘representational’ (information) and the ‘material’ (molecule); questioning what the mechanism was for the evolution of the relationship between the two. He posed a kind of ‘chicken/egg’ dilemma wherein if you don’t have specificity of (biological/molecular/genetic?) action, the system breaks down. ((I’d heard similar terminology from intelligent design proponents about later evolution, but to me it actually makes more sense as a kind of hard barrier at the level of abiogenesis.))
Along the way, he heartily recommended a recent book (at the 150/200-year Darwin marker) by an atheist author, Fern Elsdon-Baker called “The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwins’ Legacy”, which criticises Dawkins’ presentation of genetics in ‘The Selfish Gene’. He agreed with her criticism that Dawkins’ treatment doesn’t satisfy the need for explanation of the relationship between information and the molecule, nor where the information comes from. He then moved on to provide his own hypothesis about what he called ‘spontaneous generation’ or ‘informed generation’. The term ‘informed’ doubly signalling that a) the generation needs the information to be there, and b) is formed within the system (not outside).
In an interesting point, he stated that genes need ‘interpreters’ to determine what they will do, and made reference to a programme he had which took the human genome and ‘interpreted’ it into Beethoven’s 9th!! He argued for care with words and more honesty in biology, for example in reference to talk of ‘information’, which he insists must be non-material. He summed up by saying that we live in a universe of both physical/chemical events and information, which are in kind of an inseparable ‘marriage’ together in such a way that the world is very creative.
The Q&A time was quite interesting, and not a little over my head, but drew out things a bit further (esp. when Jonathan – who comments here from time to time – asked some questions with words I’d not heard before! Peter attempted a response and clarification for laypersons present, and then – probably wisely – deferred the question to be followed up afterward.) It did lead (not surprisingly) to a few philosophical/theological questions (warmly received by Peter – as he admits an interest in metaphysical issues).
My main reflection has to do with how to describe his worldview. He self-identifies as a naturalist, and does not believe in a God (though he didn’t elaborate on his absence of belief – and seemed quite happy for people to posit a First Cause and call that ‘god’). But he quite clearly seemed to be an ontological dualist of sorts (reality = material elements + ‘information’)? For me, this really puts him more in the category of a loose kind of Einsteinian or Spinozian sort of pantheism – an impersonal, yet ‘ordering’ kind of vague divinity.
Personally, I found it wonderful that TANSA would host a non-theist as a presenter, as it reflected a warm spirit of dialogue and respect across lines that often divide. The regular gathering (mostly Christians) engaged with him respectfully and robustly. Well done, TANSA.