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Seminar Series: Christian Perspectives in Science (2004)


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Schedule for 2004


Friday, February 13, 2004, 3:30 p.m. in Science Building room 110.

Speaker: Rev. Alvin VanderGriend, Prayer-Evangelism Associate for Harvest Prayer Ministries; & Douglas VanderGriend, Chemistry Department, Calvin College.

Title: "The Scientific Efficacy of Prayer"
     Scientific experiments to verify the power of prayer have been conceived of as early as 1872. Even as the evidence mounts, questions remain as to the interpretation and appropriateness of such studies.  Prayer being the mentative interaction between the natural and the supernatural, its study epitomizes the elusive harmony between science and religion. We aim to explore how the measurability, reproducibility, and causality of the efficacy of prayer can be integrated with a Christian Reformed world view.

Friday, March 12, 2004, 3:30 p.m. in Science Building room 110.

Speaker: Rebecca J. Flietstra, Associate Professor of Biology, Point Loma Nazarene University.

Title: "The Human Creature"
     For millennia, we have sought to define who exactly we are as human beings. The two main approaches to this self-definition are the scientific/philosophical approach and the religious/theological approach. The biological understanding of human nature has been shaped by evolutionary theory, genetics, and the neurosciences. For Christians, a theological understanding of human nature centers, in part, on the doctrine of the image of God. Because these two approaches have been generated by two seemingly disparate worldviews, they are frequently presented as incompatible with—and even diametrically opposed to—each other. In this talk I will discuss how Christians might think of the human person in a way that incorporates insights from both modern biology and Christian theology. In this way I hope to uncover a richer understanding of both human biology and the human creature as imago Dei.


Tuesday, March 30, 2004, 7:30 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Prince Conference Center

Speaker: Sir Ghillean Prance, former Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, adjunct professor at the City University of New York and a visiting professor at the University of Reading.

Title: "Can We Allow Climate to Change and Biodiversity to Become Extinct?"
     The lecture will show the seriousness of the current environmental crisis focusing on issues of climate change and the loss of biodiversity.  Examples of damage to biodiversity will largely be taken from the lecturer's extensive experience in tropical South America.  It will particularly ask questions to Christians about whether we can stand by while such serious damage is being done to Creation and challenge the audience to be more active carers for creation.  The lecture will be in the Great Hall of the Prince Conference Center and is free and open to the public.

Co-sponsored by Templeton Foundation / American Scientific Affiliation lecture series.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004, 12:30 p.m. in Science Building room 010.

Sir Ghillean Prance, former Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, adjunct professor at the City University of New York and a visiting professor at the University of Reading.

Title: "The Eden Project"
     The Eden Project ( in Cornwall, England, is a massive undertaking to convert an abandoned quarry into conservatories featuring the major biomes and their botanical specimens of the Earth.  It's mission is "to promote the understanding and responsible management of the vital relationship between plants, people and resources leading to a sustainable future for all."  Sir Ghillean Prance serves as the Scientific Director for this project.  The scriptural roots of the name of this project are intentional, as are many of the principles of environmental stewardship.  Come for an enjoyable presentation on "The Eden Project.".

Co-sponsored by Templeton Foundation / American Scientific Affiliation lecture series

Friday, April 16, 2004, 3:30 p.m. in Science Building room 110.

Speaker: Stephen Matheson, Biology Department, Calvin College.

Title: "The Future in the Instant: What human embryonic stems cells can do, and where they are taking us"
     Mammalian embryonic stem cells (ES cells) have been the focus of intense research for decades, and their use has reshaped the study of mammalian genetics and development.  The utility of ES cells derives from the combination of effectively unlimited developmental potential with relative ease of use and genetic manipulation.  Human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998, and were welcomed with enthusiastic predictions of future therapeutic benefits along with significant ethical objections to their creation.  Popular debate since then has focused on the tension between the therapeutic potential of the cells and the moral costs of generating them.  Opponents of the use of human ES cells have posed challenges based on both therapeutic potential and moral costs.  We will examine these two values and their scientific bases, considering the latest findings in this fast-moving field of research.  Then we will examine the ramifications of a future in which neither therapeutic utility nor the current moral objections can constitute a significant barrier to the generation of human ES cells.  Christians are right to be concerned about how ES cells currently are made, but that will probably change dramatically in the near future.  I will argue therefore that Christians should be even more concerned about what stem cells can do, and soon will do.


Friday, April 30, 2004, 3:30 p.m. in Science Building room 010.

Speaker:Dave Young, Geology, Geography and Environmental Studies Department, Calvin College.

Title: "John Calvin and the Natural World"
     An important way in which one might be a "Calvinist" in regard to the practice of science is to apply Calvin's principle of accommodation to the interpretation of biblical passages with "scientific" relevance. For Calvin, any divine revelation to or divine interaction with people requires that God accommodate or adapt himself to the limited capacities of the human creature. Calvin employed this principle in dealing with biblical representations of the incomprehensible God and the different modes of revelation of Old and New Testaments, but he also found use for it in understanding biblical references to the natural world. In effect, the divine and human authors of Scripture couched their message of redemption in terms of the understanding and comprehension of the natural world possessed by those to whom that message was first addressed. I suggest that contemporary Calvinists might apply the principle of accommodation to seeming disparities between our contemporary knowledge of the natural world and biblical references to the natural world, e.g., the foolish ostrich of Job 39:13-18; the waters under the Earth of Exodus 20:4 and Psalm 24:2; the expanse of Genesis 1:6 and Ezekiel 1:22, 25; the deluge; and the cobra of Psalm 58:4.

Co-sponsored by Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship.

Friday, May 7, 2004, 3:30 p.m. in Science Building room 010 (note: basement of Science Building).

Speaker:Dennis Danielson, Professor and Associate Head of the Dept. of English, University of British Columbia.

Title: "Copernicus and the Tale of the Pale Blue Dot"
     Most of us have at some point heard the claim that Copernicus, by "dethroning" earth from the center of the universe, "showed" that the Earth and Earth's inhabitants are cosmically not very special.  This claim is routinely extrapolated to function as a principle ― the "Copernican Principle" ― according to which not only is Earth merely one planet among many, but also the Milky Way is merely one galaxy among many, and perhaps what we think of as the whole cosmos is merely one universe among many.  Moreover, this "principle" is enlisted to show that science trumps religion: while religion wants to enthrone Earth-dwelling human beings in the center of the universe, science authoritatively demonstrates (in more ways than one) the "mediocrity" of our place.  From Fontenelle in the seventeenth century to Carl Sagan in the late twentieth, Copernicus is thus used to bring down human pride, which supposedly stems from our naive religious illusions.  Unfortunately, this comic-book version of the meaning of Copernicus is all but universally accepted by many educated people, including some scientists, whose capacity to weigh evidence ought to make them capable of a more well-informed, critical view.  An effort to attain such a critical view ― based on the exciting words Copernicus and his followers, and on a measure of undogmatic careful thinking ― can revitalize our perception not only of Copernicus in his own age but also of the interplay between science and metascientific assumptions today.

Co-sponsored by Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship.

Friday, October 8, 2004, 3:30 p.m. in Science Building room 110.

Speaker: Steven Horst, Associate Professor and Chair, Philosophy Department, Wesleyan University.

Title: "Consciousness Studies, Philosophy of Science and Theology: 
            Why the Sciences Do Not Threaten Consciousness, Free Will or Miracles"

Co-sponsored by Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship and Calvin College Philosophy Department.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004, 7:30 p.m. in the Calvin College Chapel
                                (Sponsored by Templeton/ASA Lecture Series)
Speaker:Robert N. Wennberg, Professor, Philosophy Department, Westmont College.

Title: "But It's Only a Rat!  Christian Reflections on Painful Animal Research"

Co-sponsored by Templeton Foundation / American Scientific Affiliation lecture series.

Friday, October 29, 2004, 3:30 p.m. in Science Building room 110.

Speaker:Steve Wykstra, Philosophy Department, Calvin College.

Title: "The Birth of Mathematical Astronomy: 
               Observational Equivalence, Simplicity, and Metaphysics in Ptolemy and Copernicus"
     Versions of the "realism vs instrumentalism" debate have played an important role in shaping developments within science up to the twentieth century and beyond.  (Ludwig Boltzmann, on a not-implausible interpretation, was plunged into depression and suicide by refusal of his fellow physicists to take seriously the atomism at the heart of his "realist" interpretation of thermodynamics—this refusal arising largely from the insistence on a "phenomenological" approach to thermodynamics, fitting the then-fashionable positivistic instrumentalism of Ernst Mach, W. Ostwald, and others.)  But this debate has deep historical antecedents, as shown by the pioneering historical/philosophical  work of Pierre Duhem in his 1909 book Saving the Appearances (Duhem himself being an important physicist and Christian believer with an instrumentalist orientation).  Ever since Duhem, historians of science have tended to see the "Saving the Appearances" tradition in astronomy as reflecting an "instrumentalist" approach to theorizing—that is, an approach that regards theories purely as "useful fictions" or calculating "instruments," enabling us to predict the observed phenomena (or "appearances"), rather than as models purporting to describe what is really out there.  An instrumentalist orientation, it is thought, lies behind both the split between physics and astronomy in the period after Ptolemy, and also in the "Wittenberg" interpretation of Copernicanism, allowing 16th century Lutherans under Melancthon to have their cake and eat it too—that is, to pioneer in adopting and improving Copernicus's theory (as an "instrument"), while still embracing geocentrism as the truth of the matter.  My talk will review:  (1) the way that that ostensibly "empirically equivalent" devices within Ptolemaic astronomy (the option between the eccentric and the epicycle, both of which "saved the appearances") generated some impetus toward some version of "instrumentalism;" (2) the role that considerations of metaphysics and simplicity played in addressing such empirical underdetermination for Ptolemy and for Copernicus; and (3) some of the recent work that may shed further light on why it is not quite right to view either Ptolemaic astronomers or Lutheran astronomers as "instrumentalists."

Friday, November 12, 2004, 3:30 p.m. in Science Building room 110.

Speaker:John H. Scofield, Professor and Chair, Physics and Astronomy Department, Oberlin College.

Title:"Green" Academic Buildings:  Good Stewardship or Temples for a New Religion?
     There is growing interest in "green" buildings, particularly on university and college campuses.  Green building projects range from the incorporation of modest energy-saving features in otherwise conventional campus buildings to the construction of elaborate environmental centers with photovoltaic arrays intended to generate more energy than they use.  In my talk I will discuss the design and energy performance of two green academic buildings, Oberlin College's Lewis Environmental Center and Stanford University's Leslie Shao Ming Sun Field Station.  Though sharing many of the same goals, the designs of these two buildings reflect very different philosophies and methods.  These two cases offer the opportunity to discuss some of the larger energy/educational issues associated with green academic buildings.  In particular, I will raise concerns about the bad science behind the promotion of all-electric buildings, heat pumps, photovoltaic arrays, and fuel cells as "silver-bullet solutions" to our nation's growing energy problems.  Finally, I will discuss what I believe to be the root cause of this misguided energy education: the worship of the creation, rather than the Creator.

Friday, December 3, 2004, 3:30 p.m. in Science Building room 110.

Speaker:Henk Aay; Geology, Geography and Environmental Studies Department, Calvin College.

Title:  Christian Philosophy, Spatiality and Geography
     One of the fundamental elementary concepts in geography is spatiality (space, spatial). In the history of science and philosophy, space has been regarded as a substance, a relationship, a perceptual framework and as an aspect or property of things.  This seminar will consider the relevance of reformational philosophy for a systematic understanding of the place of the "spatial" in all of the different kinds of things in our world.  For example: How is economic spatiality different from social and physical spatiality?  How do spatial analogies (e.g. a person's "social position") open still wider windows on the meaning and place of the spatial?

Co-sponsored by Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship and Calvin College GGES Department.

Friday, December 10, 2004, 3:30 p.m. in Science Building room 110.

Speaker:Janel Curry; Geology, Geography and Environmental Studies Department, Calvin College.

Title:  The Problem of Boundaries
     This talk addresses issues of the relationship between society and nature through an analysis of New Zealand's marine resource management policies.  Two broad themes are explored: 1) that the act of bounding property and resources cannot be separated from the building of boundaries between and among people, and that 2) boundary construction reflects our views on the relationship between nature and humans -- the nature-culture boundary.  A case study is presented, based on research conducted on Northern Great Barrier Island, New Zealand.  The research involved a cross-section of people who represented a variety of marine resource stakeholder groups.  Assumptions on the nature-culture boundary reflected in policy as well as among the different stakeholder groups are presented, as well as alternative ways of viewing the "problem of boundaries."

Co-sponsored by Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship and Calvin College GGES Department.