Being a Science Ambassador (Part Two) - John Mark Kuhns - Anabaptist Perspectives Ep. 122

Apr 1, 2021 10:30 · 3947 words · 19 minute read

Yeah, you’re right that Christians and Christian business owners ought to have as part of their motivation to take care of creation, but that’s not going to be enough to actually change practices in a sustainable way, and what I mean by sustainable: is it sustainable for you as a person or as a business owner.

00:30 - I’d like to circle back again just a little bit to this maybe self-imposed or often viewed as distinctions between Christianity and science, and I’d like to hear a little bit about your journey going through school, and whether you encountered that where you as a Christian you’re studying medical science, and I’m sure there were secular pressures, and influences there. How did that affect you, and how as a Christian did you navigate being a Christian approaching science, but then science kind of saying or the secular attitude behind science is saying you can’t be that and have science too - how did you deal with that? When I went to college, I was enthralled by the world of ideas.

It was intoxicating for me, and I felt the contrast that with some of the people in my church who were uneducated in my mind, and so I went in thinking that - I actually went to college thinking that my biggest challenge was going to be evolution, and I’m going to have to stand up for my beliefs, and then I got intoxicated by this world of ideas. These people are really smart. They’re way smarter than I am. Way smarter than anybody else I know. They know way more than I could ever hope to, and so that was disconcerting for me at first, and in fact the whole question of evolution threw me a bit to start with because I went in thinking that evolution was a stupid idea, and that only people who are actively trying to deny reality and actively trying to deny God’s existence would believe in evolution.

That’s not the case. I also thought that I had some pretty good arguments against evolution, and so early in my career - actually I think it was maybe third week of classes, I was walking beside my botany professor. We were going somewhere, and I said, Dr. Hall, have you ever created life in the lab? So this is my ace in the hole, right? They’ve never created life in the lab, so then my follow-up was going to be, so what makes us think that life could evolve by itself? Okay.

Dr. Hall was - she’d been teaching for 40 years. She was very, very knowledgeable about the history of science, and all of this. She kind of paused a little bit, and she said they’ve created amino acids, and she started to tell me about the experiment in which they created some of the precursors of life using some of the conditions that they think the early earth might have had, and it wasn’t so much that she blew away my question because they hadn’t created life in the lab.

They had created amino acids, and so I could have followed up there, but what I realized was that I was like a little banty rooster standing up against an English Mastiff. As in I knew so little. I knew nothing compared to her breadth of knowledge, and I wasn’t going to be able to - I wasn’t going to change her mind. I also knew she wasn’t going to change mine, and so that was the end of the conversation. That shook me a bit because I realized that my simple answers that I had kind of imbibed - they weren’t enough.

That’s not actually where science challenged my faith the most. That was the only direct interaction I ever had with a professor in which I was trying to challenge evolution, and they were trying to defend it. Okay. They approached they approached teaching science to me just - they taught it, and they weren’t trying to make any arguments in any specific direction. You know they never said, so therefore God couldn’t exist or anything like that. They never directly attacked my faith.

05:27 - It didn’t feel like there was an agenda. I felt like they were teaching facts, and they weren’t trying to push one viewpoint or the other.

05:33 - So I was expecting this proselytizing, and I was expecting them to be constantly making snide remarks about young earth creationism, and never - not once, but I still almost lost my faith, and what it actually was had very little to do with the evolution debate. It had a lot more to do with an approach to life, and so when I talk to my students about going to college, I’m very open with them about the dangers that they’re going to face, and the danger is not so much that your beliefs will be challenged.

They will be. It’s that your way of thinking - so I live in an enchanted world. Okay. God exists. Angels exist. Spirits are around us. This is an enchanted world. Scientists often don’t - okay, now I shouldn’t say scientists. I should say strictly naturalistic scientists do not live in an enchanted world. They take the approach that all that exists is the physical universe. Carl Sagan said all that is is the cosmos. All that ever was - the cosmos. All that ever will be - the cosmos, and by that he means the physical cosmos, and that approach to life.

Always, always the first thing you ask is what’s the physical explanation for whatever phenomenon you see? I started to imbibe that, and I started to recognize that my first approach was not to go to God for anything, but to seek a scientific explanation, to seek physical evidences, and so on. I recognized that I was slowly, but surely losing my dependence on God, and in so doing losing my faith in Him, and so that’s why I took some time off, and actually came here to Faith Builders for a winter term, and did some other things that kind of re-grounded me, and in the process I started teaching, and I think back about where I was as a person when I started teaching, and I shudder because I really wasn’t ready, but looking back, it’s the grace of God that kept me in His fold, and again it wasn’t evolution that was going to take me away from Him.

It was naturalism. It was that non-spiritual approach to life, and I can still tend to fall into those same traps. I have to continually feed myself in Jesus in order to maintain that life because my natural tendency is to go toward naturalism, and even not necessarily think of God being involved in the natural processes. I think He is, but it’s not first instinct always to think that. That’s something that I have to work against.

08:59 - You talked about having these simple understandings or these simple pat answers and realizing okay, here’s somebody who’s studied science all their life, and suddenly your answer seems really, really trite and insignificant. I had a conversation recently with somebody where they were bemoaning the fact that some of our conservative people are buying into the flat earth theory. This person I was speaking with was just wondering how are these people believing this stuff? And somebody else brought up a really - I thought was a good point, and that is that we often as conservative people tend to view this Christian and science thing as two different things, and so if we as Christians reject evolution subconsciously we’re rejecting some of science or scorning science - looking down on that some.

This third individual was just saying that’s how he believes we have conservative people who are falling for these other things because now we’re pitting Christianity against science, and so the scientists are saying the earth is round. They’re also saying evolution, so we reject evolution. Why can’t we reject anything else? And that’s really dangerous ground to be on, but then you just shared about being just immersed in that knowledge, and that learning, and that leading to places that maybe cause us to lose our faith.

Where we go from Christianity and scorning science to maybe the inverse where we are really into science and are questioning Christianity. How do you balance those? My first allegiance has to be to the kingdom of God, and if that’s the case - if I truly am first allied with Him, then I’m going to approach everything I do in life with that commitment including science. Unfortunately for a lot of us we forget that that’s our first commitment. I forget that it’s my first commitment, and so I start committing to other things.

I commit to being right for example. I commit to my group getting, being successful. Okay. So my congregation - I want my congregation to be successful, so I don’t like when somebody leaves my congregation to go to a different one, right? And not all of that is bad, but if I forget that my first commitment is to the kingdom of God, then I’m going to lose my way in lots of other things including in the study of science. We also at the same time have to recognize - again “all truth is God’s truth,” and there are things we can learn about reality, about the physical world from people who are not part of God’s kingdom.

It’s lazy for us to simply accept or reject any of these ideas based on who thinks them to be the case. Now going to the flat earth question. A lot of conservative Anabaptists are sitting ducks for that kind of theory because we don’t teach science well in our schools, and I’ll admit that I don’t teach it as well as I wish I did. Unfortunately far too often what we do when we teach science is that we teach the findings of science. So science becomes a list of facts for you to memorize.

Those facts are always changing. You know fat is good for you. No, it’s bad for you. No, it’s good for you now, and that can undermine our faith in the process of science. The coronavirus pandemic is giving us a front row seat into how science actually works, and with our just teaching the findings of science instead of also alongside that teaching the process of science - how you go about asking questions, how you go about finding out answers to your questions - if we don’t do that our students see science really as just a question of authority.

Who gets to say what’s true? We don’t trust them because they’re not Christians, and they’re setting themselves up as the authorities, so we reject them, and we reject their findings. Science is not that way in reality. It’s not a system by which you have authorities who get to say what’s true and what isn’t. Einstein was dead wrong about certain things, so just quoting Einstein to a scientist means nothing, right? Because that’s missing what the process is, and the process of science in a nutshell is that you test hypothesis.

You have ideas, and you test your ideas, and in the testing process you actually try to show that the idea is false. If you can’t show that your idea is false, then you accept it as true until you can show that it’s false. So circling back. We tend to be sitting ducks for the kinds of alternative theories like flat earth, like a lot of alternative medicines that don’t work. Some alternative medicines do, but you have to take them on an individual approach or individual basis.

We’re sitting ducks for those because we don’t teach the findings very much. A lot of conservative Anabaptist schools don’t teach the findings of science let alone the process, and so when somebody comes along with some whiz-bang idea, we get taken up by it because they seem like a nice person, or they seem like a believable person. They’re projecting confidence, and so on, and we accept it. Also the fact that something is outside the mainstream doesn’t concern us at all because we’re outside the mainstream.

Most Christians would see conservative Anabaptists as kind of a side shoot - maybe an extreme version of Christianity or something. They see us as Christian extremists, so it doesn’t bother us at all that something is outside the mainstream of science because we ourselves are.

16:37 - We almost have a culture of being counter-cultural.

16:42 - Right. Yeah, and on top of that, a lot of these alternative theories like flat earth form communities that are very similar to our communities. They know each other. I was listening to an interview with one YouTuber with another. One was a flat earth YouTuber, and his engagement with his audience was way higher than any other YouTuber can hope for or most other YouTubers can hope for because they’re forming a community. We make a mistake - this is kind of an aside - but we make a mistake when we then try to just bring more facts to the table.

When somebody believes in alternative theory, and they’re part of a community that believes that, bringing more facts just drives them further into their community, and it doesn’t actually change their minds. In fact it can harden their minds. It can make them more convinced of the thing that they already thought which is just mind-boggling until you realize that it actually works in us too. Any belief we have that’s a part of our identity, and so we’re conservative Anabaptists.

That’s part of our identity. Any belief that we have that ties into our identity as conservative Anabaptists - if someone were to bring more facts that would challenge our beliefs, it would just drive us further into our conservative Anabaptist community. It would actually harden our beliefs. Persecution did that in the early church. Now persecution - the blood of the martyrs being the seed of the church - that was way more than just a strictly physical process.

I mean I think the Holy Spirit was blessing the church for its faithfulness, but you see that happening as they got attacked harder. They became more staunch in their beliefs, and the same thing is going to happen if you try to say persecute by bringing all kinds of attacks on them. Intellectual attacks. If we do that for alternative beliefs, it’s just simply not going to work.

18:56 - If there are people listening or viewing this, and they say, okay, I don’t think I did have a great education in science growing up. I’m not sure how to think well about science. Maybe this episode is helping them in that regard - sort some of those things out - but do you have any practical tips or tools for people who want to think better about this? I don’t know of any popular books to recommend in that arena. The first place I go is some book to recommend.

I think that book needs to be written. Kind of a science for the masses book from a Christian perspective. There are a bunch of them from a secular perspective that would - they’re meat not milk, and so unfortunately I don’t know of books that I can offer for somebody to just read, and if somebody knows of them, I would love to see them. I would say as a practical tip the place to go is not where the loudest voices are. There are YouTube channels and organizations devoted to debunking evolution that really just continue to feed into this idea that science is about authorities stating facts and that if an authority says it, then it’s true.

That’s not an approach that you want to develop in yourself, so as far as a practical tip for just developing a scientific mindset, a truly scientific mindset which is that you seek to know the truth based on the evidence is to just start asking the question, how do you know? How do you know that that’s true? Then, yeah, read. Take a subject and read on that subject widely and deeply, and as you learn more about something - any subject whether it’s backyard birds or you know fish or energy or whatever - as you learn more about a subject you just start to imbibe the process as well because you learn how we know this, so that would be I guess the first order - practical tip.

That’s a great question and one that I hope to develop better answers for over time. How do we move from this place where we’re sitting ducks as a community to having the strong intellectual backing while maintaining our strong faith tradition? How do we get there? That’s something that I think is going to take a lot of time. It may take better science instruction in our schools, and just more people becoming engaged with the question.

22:34 - What I hear you saying here then is in some ways to get better at science, we just need to almost do more of it. We need to read, and discover, and as we do more of that, we start understanding and internalizing how discovery actually happens, and we can get better at recognizing what somebody says, and says, well, what was the process behind getting to that conclusion? I can see this process of learning to love the scientific process as maybe starting with one of those light bulb moments where you’re just like, wow, they came up with this, and here’s how they got there.

That’s really neat. And then you want to continue doing that. Do you have any examples in closing here of where there’s a fact, and just the process of getting there you found really intriguing? So in high school I learned that atoms are made - that everything is made of atoms, and that atoms have a tiny nucleus. That’s where most of the mass is, and that most of the atom is empty space, and that outside the nucleus are these electrons, but between the nucleus and the electrons is empty space, and I never asked how did they know that, but when I became a teacher, I taught this, and the process of how we got to know what an atom is like which you can’t see.

You can’t see an individual atom. How do we know what they’re like? One of the first questions was how do we know that there are atoms in the first place? How do we know that there are individual particles that are moving around independent of each other? And the answer to that is Brownian motion. You can actually see this in a microscope. If you take pollen grains, and put them on a little bit of water, and then look at them, you’ll see them jiggling back and forth.

Well, if they’re jiggling, there’s some force on them - something that’s moving them. What’s doing that? Well, it turns out that it’s actually the water molecules themselves are bouncing off that pollen grain, and making it jiggle in place. Okay, so now we know that there are actually particles. What are they like? And there were a number of experiments in which the conclusion was that you can separate them, separate things off of the particles, and they called them electrons, and these things had charge on them, and so they came up with an updated model of what an atom is like, and then there was a guy who decided he’s going to do some more experiments, and what he decided to do.

He’s going to take really thin gold foil, and he’s going to bombard it with alpha radiation which is a really heavy particle (heavy in atomic sense, right), but he’s going to bombard this thin gold foil with these alpha particles, and just see what happens, and what he figured would happen was that these alpha particles would deflect as they went through the gold foil. He imagined that what he was doing was taking a softball and throwing it through say tissue paper, and he just wanted to see how much does the softball deflect as it goes through the tissue paper.

Well, to his surprise he found that - well, he had a detector actually all the way around this setup, so he had the alpha particles coming out, hitting this gold foil, and then deflecting. Okay. So it would go somewhere, and it would hit on this detector. To his surprise he found that some of it would bounce back. It was very small percentage of them, but a percentage of them would bounce backward. That would be like you throwing your softball at this tissue paper sheet and finding that sometimes it bounces back.

It was extraordinarily surprising to him, so he had to update his model, and discovered that in fact most of the mass of the thing is that nucleus in the center. That’s how the nucleus was discovered, and then so that means then that the electrons are going around the atom or that they’re - I shouldn’t say they’re going around the atom. They’re outside the nucleus. Okay. There’s some space there, and so we just imagined them as being like planets going around the sun.

Well, Niels Bohr came along and said, that doesn’t make any sense because what would happen over time because you have this force in the center pulling your electron in is that if over time your electron would spiral in and hit the nucleus, and it would destroy itself. So what’s going on? And so then he came up with what we now call the Bohr model which said that the electrons can only be at certain distances away from the nucleus. Of course the the quantum model is an update from that even, but we use the Bohr model to this day to predict most of or to do a lot of the chemistry that we do to predict what kind of product you’ll get from two reactants and so on, but the story makes the findings so much more interesting.

We know this about something we can’t even see because somebody asked a question, and then didn’t get thrown off by or I mean he got surprised by results, but didn’t give up - didn’t just throw his results away, but actually continued to ask, okay, what’s actually going on here? And was willing to reject the previous model and create a new one based on the evidence that he saw.

28:42 - A willingness to pursue things and really a curiosity when, wait. I wasn’t expecting that. And then pushing in further until they did find the answer. Well, thank you, John Mark, for your time today, and you’ve given us a lot of thought-provoking things on how to maybe think more critically about science, and care more about it in our own lives, and I sense in you a passion here as you’re doing that and bless you on the journey of continuing to learn yourself, and instilling that love of learning and critical thinking in your students as well.

29:21 - Thank you. .