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Seminar Series: Christian Perspectives in Science (2004-2005)

Fall 2004

October 8, 2004

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

Steven Horst, Associate Professor and Chair, Philosophy Department, Wesleyan University
Co-sponsored by Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship and by the Calvin Philosophy Department

October 12, 2004

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

Robert N. Wennberg, Professor, Philosophy Department, Westmont College
Sponsored by Templeton/ASA Lecture Series

October 29, 2004

"The Birth of Mathematical Astronomy: Observational Equivalence, Simplicity, and Metaphysics in Ptolemy and Copernicus"

Steve Wykstra, Philosophy Department, Calvin College
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."

November 12, 2004

"Green Academic Buildings: Good Stewardship or Temples for a New Religion?"

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

December 3, 2004

"Christian Philosophy, Spatiality and Geography"

Henk Aay, Geology, Geography and Environmental Studies Department, Calvin College
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 by the Calvin GGES Department

December 10, 2004

"The Problem of Boundaries"

Janel Curry, Professor of Geology, Geography and Environmental Studies, former Dean of Research & Scholarship, Calvin College
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 by the Calvin GGES Department

February 18, 2005

"Place-based agbiotech: Bridging ideological divisions over genetically modified crops"
David Koetje, Biology Department, Calvin College
"It is rather remarkable," writes anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone, "that a process as esoteric as the genetic modification of crops would become the subject of a global war of rhetoric." Yet this is where we find ourselves today. Agbiotech's critics advocate substantial changes, a moratorium, or an outright ban on GM crops. Most base their assertions on an ecologically-based or agrarian view of agriculture. Agbiotech proponents counter that GM crops are necessary to sustain agriculture and reduce environmental risks. Yet in making this claim, most fail to question agbiotech's underlying industrial paradigm, which has a notorious record of ignoring cultural and environmental contexts. Are we at an ideological impasse, as some have asserted? In the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship-supported book we are writing, Uko Zylstra and I contend that if agbiotech proponents would adopt a place-based paradigm, then critics would be more likely to consider agbiotech. A place-based approach would primarily seek to improve ecological and cultural resilience within bioregions, or foodsheds, and in this way promote sustainability. Our vision is spurred by a Christian environmental perspective that embraces a careful balance between humanity's place in nature and our limited power over nature.
Co-sponsored by Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship

March 4, 2005

The Truth of a Tree: Logos Christology as a Foundation for a Christian Environmental Ethic
Laura Smit, Dean of the Chapel & Assistant Professor of Religion, Calvin College
Pre-modern Christian theology took seriously the gospel of John's claim that Jesus is the Logos, the eternal Word of the Father, understanding Christ as the one who holds the universe together and whose work in creation is to give each creature its individual form and design. More recent approaches to Christology have typically emphasized the humanity of Christ rather than emphasizing his role in creation; however, traditional Logos Christology remains a powerful way to understand the on-going work of Christ in the natural world. The 13th-century Franciscan Bonaventure was an advocate for such Logos Christology, and in that context he presented nature as an arena within which we make contact with God. In that arena, the human knower fulfills a priestly role. Bonaventure suggests that we can know the physical world truly only when we know it in Christ and that when we know it in this way we perform a priestly act by offering the natural world back to God in our knowing of it. To know in this way is not to have dominion in any destructive sense. It is rather to open oneself to the truth of things, to their place in God's design, and to come to understand the world as it relates to God rather than as it relates to us. This is a humble and hospitable approach to interacting with nature, which continues to be viable today.

March 23, 2005

Partnering with Faith Communities to Promote Advance Care Planning
Karen VanderLaan, Nursing Department, Calvin College
Advance Care Planning (ACP) is a desirable process of individual and community reflection, discussion, and communication about end-of-life care preferences. However, with a < 40% prevalence of ACP in the general population, there is often uncertainty of individuals' preferences for care and potentially undesired treatment. During this seminar the philosophical and ethical bases for ACP will be reviewed. A conceptual model of the decision processes in ACP, mostly influenced by the Decision Process Model, will be discussed. A descriptive study of ACP in one Midwestern city's faith communities will be presented. Study participants are individuals who voluntarily attended ACP information programs conducted by ACP Facilitators. The sample of 100 participants includes adult men and women from diverse faith communities. This descriptive study provides a baseline understanding of how members of faith communities understand and use advance care plans and the immediate effect of ACP programs. For the longer term, this study lays the groundwork for an evaluation of the effectiveness of faith communities as promoters of ACP. The seminar will conclude with a discussion of the role of faith communities in promoting ACP.

April 1, 2005

Science, Experience, and Philosophy: from Henri Bergson to Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Gary Gutting, Professor, Philosophy Department, University of Notre Dame.
Every modern philosophical enterprise has had to guarantee a place for itself by showing that there is something for it to know that escapes the grasp of empirical science. There have been many vehicles for staking out the domain of philosophy, but one of the most persistently attractive has been the claim that philosophy can and should root itself in an experience with an immediacy or concreteness that escapes the abstractions required for successful empirical science. This appeal to a distinctive realm of philosophical experience is particularly prominent among the twentieth-century philosophers characterized as "continental," and it has been especially important in the French philosophy of the last one hundred years. It is, accordingly, appropriate to try to think through the complex questions of science, philosophy, and immediate experience via some reflections on French thinkers. Here I find the work of two figures, Henri Bergson and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, particularly helpful. I propose to sketch their critiques of the limitations of scientific knowledge, their consequent conceptions of philosophy as a distinctive epistemic domain, and their disagreements with one another on these topics.
Sponsored by the Metanexus Local Society Initiative of Calvin College and the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship

April 8, 2005

Religious Opinions Concerning Human Reproductive Genetic Technologies
John Evans, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego
Life. Death. Suffering. Human purpose. The limits of human control. These are all central concepts in the dominant religious traditions in the U.S. They are also the concepts that many people feel are implicated in reproductive genetic technologies such as genetic testing, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, cloning, and so on. To take the oft-repeated phrase: reproductive genetic technologies are often accused of "playing God." It is not only the experts that see these connections -- the religious beliefs of average Americans are central to predicting their attitudes about these technologies. In this lecture I will give preliminary findings of a nation-wide study of the views of religiously oriented Americans toward reproductive genetic technologies. I will discuss some general conclusions taken from in-depth, inductive surveys of different religious groups, including Jews, Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and the non-religious. I will give examples from the interview data about topics such as whether different religious traditions hold different notions of suffering, which in turn lead to different conclusions about the need for these technologies. I will also present findings on how the public thinks we should debate these topics: whether we should use our religious language in debates about these most religious of topics.
Sponsored by the Calvin Sociology Department

April 15, 2005

Truth and Interpretation: Science, Religion and Culture
Lambert Zuidervaart, Professor of Philosophy, Institute for Christian Studies
Philosophers often characterize science as a pursuit of truth, and they regard truth as scientific truth. Truth is propositional, they say, and it pertains to the relation between propositions and facts. I shall argue that this misconstrues both science and truth. It overlooks the cultural and religious character of science, and it reduces truth to only one of its dimensions. First I shall comment on Martin Heidegger's claim that propositional truth stems from the "disclosedness" of human existence. In partial agreement with Heidegger, I shall then portray truth as a dynamic correlation between human fidelity and societal disclosure. Truth calls for our faithfulness to societal principles such as solidarity and justice. It also calls forth the flourishing of all creatures in their interconnections. So truth is to be lived, and not simply claimed. Yet making assertions and testing propositions are vital to the pursuit of truth. Further, the sciences have a special role in this regard: scientists should strive for empirical accuracy and propositional correctness in order to serve human fidelity and societal disclosure. Interpreting what such service means is indispensable to scientific endeavors. Hence science is hermeneutical, and so is scientific truth. This does not make scientific truth any less true, however. Rather, by rooting science in culture and religion, interpretation keeps science connected with the ongoing dynamic of truth.
Sponsored by the Metanexus Local Society Initiative of Calvin College and the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship

April 29, 2005

"A Student's Perspective on Integrating Faith and Science"

Elise Crull, Physics major, Calvin College
The project of Calvin's education is rare in that it not only intends to train students rigorously in both their discipline and their faith, but also attempts to synthesize the students' maturing faiths with their academic pursuits. As a student who has spent (nearly) four years pondering and grappling with this synthesis project, I will present my reflections on the Christian interpretation arrived at through my undergraduate experience. Has this Christian hermeneutic (as specifically applied toward the inquiries of physics) been successful? Is this evident in my science? Is "synthesis" the most appropriate mode through which to approach science as a Christian? My hope in sharing these thoughts is to present a student's honest perspective on the endeavor of uniting faith and science at Calvin.

May 6, 2005

"Is the Continuum Hypothesis True or False?"

Mike Stob, Mathematics Department, Calvin College
The Continuum Hypothesis (CH) is an important open question concerning the "size" of the infinite set of real numbers. It is more than open – we now know that we cannot settle the question on the basis of the currently accepted set of axioms for set theory. This situation has caused some to claim that CH doesn't even have a truth value. This position, if correct, has consequences for those who want to hold to an ontology of mathematics that embraces realism. The status of CH, at the very least, presents a challenge for those who claim that a Christian is naturally led to a realist's view of mathematical objects. In this talk, I will attempt to give a precise statement of the Continuum Hypothesis suitable for non-mathematicians, outline the current state of knowledge about its truth value, and describe the various philosophical positions that are popular consequences of thinking about CH.