Monday, June 8, 2009

Coming Next Spring: A Lecture!

Just what the world needs, another lecture, right? Well, I for one am pretty excited. The proposal I submitted for the 2010 Weter Lecture here at SPU was accepted, so in about 11 months I'll be holding forth for the university community on "The Chemical Constraints on Creation: Natural Theology and Narrative Resonance." And I'm also a little nervous to be doing a high-profile lecture -- I forgot my title when I was called up in front of everyone today as the lecture was announced. I just remembered there were a lot of "C"'s in it. Click here for a description of the Weter Lecture and list of past lectures. Below I'll paste the proposal I submitted, although I'm not sure how the footnotes will turn out. Comments are as always welcome (after all, I have 11 months to prepare for this):

Thesis: The periodic table of the elements and the laws of thermodynamics provide chemical constraints on how life could happen, to the point that we can know much of the procedure of creation. Retelling this story in the context of scripture and the Christian community helps build a renewed, limited natural theology.

Lecture summary (2 pages): The May 14, 2009 New York Times broke the news that a “Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be the Starting Point for Life.” Such news of “creation mechanisms” forces Christians to confront the possibility that life emerged by a mechanism from a material universe. This lecture addresses this dilemma, retelling the story of creation from a Christian chemist’s standpoint, because the act of recounting how we were created brings glory to God. This story is an example of renewed , limited natural theology, with the following three emphases:[1]
i.) Resonance, not proof.
ii.) The Big Picture, not the gaps.
iii.) The suggestive but not conclusive argument of the Anthropic Principle.

This chemist sees the formation of the universe as constrained by surprisingly simple physical/inorganic chemistry, resulting from the periodic table of the elements.[2] I propose a story of seven chemical stages of life’s creation, through the lenses of the periodic table and the thermodynamic laws:
I.) The universe started as light, from which math and physics formed the single possible periodic table for our universe. (Narrative element: Humble beginnings)
II.) Our universe is so vast that the thermodynamic law of “spreading out” (entropy) could continue even as matter cooled down and clumped together. (Narrative element: the beauty and wonder of vastness)
III.) The earth was “born” in a special place with a special mix of elements and phases of matter, causing invisible electromagnetic protection from the solar wind. (Narrative element: unseen protection, fortuitous birth)
IV.) Land, sea and sky formed according to the chemical rules laid out in the periodic table, providing diverse, flowing environments, while the temperature of the entire system became “set” at 300K and did not deviate from this for billions of years. (Narrative element: the odd couple and the balance of change vs. constancy.)
V.) The dominant element of the earth shifted from hydrogen to sulfur and then to oxygen. Entire classes of species arose and then died out, such as the ancient “methanogens.” (Narrative element: Change and surprise, and tragedy. This story has catastrophes!)
VI.) Oxygen was produced when sunlight was captured, which initially was a waste product and poison to much of life, but was changed into a useful and biogenic element by a chemically logical series of steps. (Narrative element: redemption of poison to become essential)
VII.) Oxygen allowed new things: new chemistries that made new molecules that provided new communication modes between new compartments: the first “organs,” up to and including the incredible capabilities of the brain, namely, mathematics and worship. (Narrative element: communication, elaboration and baroque expansion)

The common thread to these seven stages is that chemistry is a constraint that narrows the possibilities of where and how life can form. Combined with the concept of constrained, convergent evolution of species,[3] this gives the picture of a vast, deep, old universe in which life is constrained to follow a logical sequence of chemical development. Scriptural passages about the constraint of chaos align with this interpretation of nature. Evolution itself is given a direction by chemistry (ever-increasing oxidation) and thermodynamics (ever-increasing entropy).

This view of the universe will be presented not as antithetical to the Biblical account, nor as “separate but equal” non-overlapping magisteria,[4] but as a distinct yet complementary story of creation from a unique viewpoint. This can be explained by the physical metaphor of “dual vision” in the sense of stereoscopic “Magic Eye” images; by a metaphor of the overlap of earth and heaven in Second-Temple thought;[5] and by the metaphor of “the unfolding of a still-unfinished story,”[6] supported by the manner in which many of the dramatic elements of narrative found in books and movies have analogues in the story of creation (as demonstrated in the narrative elements aligned with the seven stages of life). When the story of creation is told in this way, based on public data, it gives glory to God, the first Author. Speaking humanly, it lends Christians confidence to stand like Paul on the Areopagus proclaiming that there is One Creator God, a foundation for the claim that this Creator was seen incarnate in history as a crucified King.

[1] This sort of project and 3 categories after Alister McGrath in The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology.
[2] With emphasis on the writings of R.J.P. Williams and J.J.R. Frausto da Silva.
[3] As proposed by Simon Conway Morris in Life’s Solution.
[4] In the words of Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages.
[5] After N.T. Wright.
[6] Quoted from John Haught, in The Deep Structure of Biology.


Anonymous said...

Congrats Ben!
How exciting!


Andrew said...

Ben - Just discovered your blog. I am excited for this! Would there be a chance that this lecture could be webcast? Maybe KSPU if the funding isn't yet cut.

andrewcaldwell said...

This is awesome! I want to be there!