Ard Louis | Symmetry, Function & Predictability

There are many biological structures in our bodies, things like proteins, DNA and RNA, and they do amazing things. How these structures came to self-assemble is somewhat of a mystery, but Ard Louis has been studying just that question and his works has shown that qualities like symmetry and function tend to show up quite a lot, more than a purely random process might predict. Ard helps us understand what this means for science and then discusses what it might mean for theology, while being careful to realize that our value does not come from describing our origins but from our being made and loved by God.

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“So whether we came about by God giving inevitable humans how he set the process or whether we came about because God tweaked the process at some point in evolutionary history doesn’t determine anything about us that’s important in terms of value.”

Yes and No. Certainly, it is important that God created humans, but it is also important that God gave us free will. Louis says that God created a deterministic system that automatically created humans or God intervened to create humans, neither option gives us a free will.

The challenge for God is to create a situation whereby evolution encourages us to exerciser our freewill for God, but does not determine that we do so. This is what he and Biologos have failed to do.

So now imagine that the environment changes, and the oak tree needs to become more willow tree like.

Here Louis is exactly right. Species need to adapt to their environment. This is the most significant engine of change in nature, which God made and God controls. Humans could not have appeared before they did because the environment as not right. and yet actually he does not treat the environment as a factor in evolution.

BioiLogos needs to get its act together and be clear that God used the changing environment to shape humanity and give us the freedom that we need as children of God.

When listening the podcast and seeing the publication from Ard Louis in PNAS titled: Symmetry and simplicity spontaneously emerge from the algorithmic nature of evolution. I come to the idea that evolution explains simplicity and not complexity. If I understand it correctly symmetry is preferred since it is a kind of simplicity.

Wow! Great discussion which I’m still reading but this was so helpful - that DNA as a blueprint is a lousy analogy for how life propagates. We are not as precisely determined by our DNA in the way a bridge or building is by its blueprint. In fact, whereas anyone competent could recreate a physically identical structure from a set of blue prints provided they could access the same materials and skill sets, life doesn’t work that way. How the directions implicit in DNA get elaborated are not as finely explicit as are the directions spelled out by a set of blueprints. When you add in the many layers of nurture required for humanity it is easy to see that the woman you end up with is not a deterministically inevitable outcome of the DNA you start with.

…this is one of the criticisms that we at BioLogos hear from people who are objecting to evolution in some sense, of how could this just happen this way? How in the world are there natural explanations for how these tiny little particles assemble into meaningful structures as opposed to what you’re saying, there are many, many, many more ways that it could go wrong, then it could actually work. How does it work then? What have you found out these last 15 years?

Louis:

Well, I think it’s a super interesting question to ask how does it work? It clearly does work because we see it. And so then the question is how? And so what I got interested in is thinking about what is evolution really doing when it’s searching for new patterns. And so the important thing is to think about evolution searching in a space of algorithms. That sounds very fancy, but algorithm is just a computer program. So when I have a bunch of particles together in a box with various ways of sticking into each other, I can change the way that they stick as I’m changing the program that makes them do something. And then what I’m now claiming is that if you think about theories of algorithms, that you can show that on certain kinds of shapes or shapes that have short algorithms are easier to make than shapes that have long algorithms, because I’m more likely to find a short algorithm than a long algorithm. And that should be reflected in the kinds of shapes that we find. So one example, one different way of thinking about this, it’s not actually self assembly, but it’s maybe a little easier to visualize is, I think about tree shapes. So trees have different shapes. And you might think, Oh, yes, because in the DNA of the tree is some kind of blueprints, that looks like an architectural drawing. And that tells me exactly where every leaf goes, and every branch goes. But that’s not how a tree does it. It has a little stochastic algorithms or random algorithm that says, make a branch with certain probability, make a leaf a certain probability. And if you do one kind, you get something that looks like an oak tree. And if you do another one that might look like a weeping willow. They look quite different although they have slightly different algorithms. In fact, if you took that oak DNA and replanted it, it would make an oak tree again, which would look slightly different from the way it grew before, even though has exactly the same DNA because there’s some randomness and how it makes things. But it still would be distinguishibly an oak. So now imagine that the environment changes, and the oak tree needs to become more willow tree like. So when you think about that, it’s very different if I have a blueprint of an oak tree, and I need to change it to look like the blueprint of a willow tree, rather than an algorithm that makes leaves and branches with a certain probability. And I want to go to a willow tree shape, it might be really easy to do so. It might be just one or two tweaks. And suddenly, the whole thing looks like a willow. Does that make sense?

Stump:

So just for the sake of our audience, understanding where these tweaks are happening in the DNA itself, so some mutation of one genetic base, that could have a fairly significant effect on not, I think too often we think there’s this direct relationship between that DNA and what it ends up looking like, the phenotype, but there’s something a little more complex going on there that—

Louis:

Exactly. The DNA is really more—so I’m talking about this blueprint analogy to say that’s not the right way of thinking about it. It’s maybe more like thinking like a recipe and a dish. So the DNA is like the recipe and you could tweak the recipe a little bit and the dish might look really different. And so, the important thing to remember is that you are not your DNA, just like the recipe is not the dish. And so the recipe is like the set rules that are used. And so I can write the recipe out, that’s like the DNA. But actually, I have to interpret that. If the recipe says, put in one spoon of sugar, or put in one cup of sugar, there’s two very different things, the meal might taste very differently. But there’s only a few letters that have changed. And so the idea is that you can think about the way evolution works in these kind of pattern formations as a kind of recipe that says make a branch, make a leaf. And so I might say, make a branch quickly, or make a branch slowly. And that might make a very different shape. So that once you think about it that way, you realize, oh, okay, so evolution is really searching in this kind of more abstract space of shapes. And then if I get back to my self assembling proteins, then well, what’s easy to make? Well, if I I want to make a big structure, it’s much easier to say, take this unit, and repeat it 10 times, for example, then to tell you where every single one of the 10 units has to go.

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I wonder if I can interest my fellow non @Klax in this discussion as it relates to the value and limits of science. Here is the lure I’m using, baited with my bolding:

And the idea is that learning and faith are something completely different. So in that context, there’s definitely a strong sense of faith versus science. Obviously, in the African context, it’s different because people are, by nature, very deeply religious. It’s very much part of the culture. And so atheism doesn’t have the same ring to it. And even science, I think people will study it and see it as a different category. So I didn’t really grow up with very much this kind of conflict grounds. I did go to a school run by American missionaries. And so I was introduced to young earth creationism there. It was taught at the school. My parents just, they said, “this is one of the strange things that Americans do. Don’t pay too much attention to it.”

Stump:

[laughs] Our greatest export, I’m afraid.

Louis:

Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s interesting. So for me, it just, they’re also very much into kind of end times things. Some of them were I mean. There’s obviously always a wide diversity of people. I think even on this question of creation, evolution has a wide diversity, there are definitely people that were very much on young earth sides. So I remember, they had a book called the handy dandy evolutionary future. I remember it mainly because the title was so interesting. And they were also very interested in this kind of end times, you know, Tim Lahaye, Left Behind . So my father used to call it Christian Science Fiction. And so I think, in my mind, these things all kind of fell into the same eccentricities of the Americans, which didn’t take that seriously. I think it’s more when I went to the Netherlands that I felt the conflict more strongly. And I think the conflict, I often think the conflict isn’t really as much with science as it is with this idea of scientism. So the idea that science or something like it can explain everything that’s important. In the kind of context that would be broader than just natural sciences that would include philosophy and psychology. And somehow, there’s an inbuilt idea that this will explain everything and if it hasn’t done yet, it will. And I think if you then go to university, and you have a Christian faith, and these two kind of worldviews collide a little bit, and partially because they’re presented as a kind of false dichotomy. So I think I definitely experienced that as a student. Obviously, I think if you grew up in a place like Gabon, where faith is so strong, it also seems odd when people completely don’t believe in God. It’s like a strange thing. So I also found it strange. So like the Netherlands is, in certain ways, a very secular country. So that kind of secularity, I found strange, but it was definitely something I had to work

  • From the transcript

Unfortunately my attempt to bold part of that excerpt doesn’t seem to have worked so here it is again, the TL;DR version:

I often think the conflict isn’t really as much with science as it is with this idea of scientism. So the idea that science or something like it can explain everything that’s important. In the kind of context that would be broader than just natural sciences that would include philosophy and psychology. And somehow, there’s an inbuilt idea that this will explain everything and if it hasn’t done yet, it will. And I think if you then go to university, and you have a Christian faith, and these two kind of worldviews collide a little bit, and partially because they’re presented as a kind of false dichotomy. So I think I definitely experienced that as a student. Obviously, I think if you grew up in a place like Gabon, where faith is so strong, it also seems odd when people completely don’t believe in God. It’s like a strange thing. So I also found it strange.

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I like Ard’s style.

Science cannot possibly, meaningfully, understandably explain the inexplicable, i.e, ultimate realities. It works within a very narrow window of augmented even narrower more limited senses and rapidly gets deeply abstruse. Mathematical, abstract, contingent, so. Rationally we’ve got to an 11-D colliding brane multiverse in bulk. Uh?! Haldanean or what. Religion doesn’t help, except in some wired visceral way.

I like the way that Ard does not claim that symmetry, function and predictability imply meaning.

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Perhaps that’s because we all have viscera but the existence of p-branes eludes our pea brains. My hypothetical theory is that our existence is embodied and that constrains what can count for us as truth beyond the empirical. Ironic that the nature of our physical embodiment should somehow ground our flights of hypothetical fancy.

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Thanks for these quotes, comments and (brief) conversation. I haven’t had a chance to get to this podcast yet, and just what you’ve shared from it is good.

Far less philosophically oriented, I find his judicious processing of American obsessions with (countering) science and with end times helpful and refreshing. Although I have resided in the thick of both, and watched the anti science thicken over the years, the obsessions in both areas never made sense to me.

I have had to learn to think much as his father suggested, that it’s a thing Americans (around me) obsess about. It isn’t even normal among Christians globally or historically. I don’t have to assimilate it myself.

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Flights of hypothetical fancy can be unjustifiably restricted to the solely physical as well. Is it therefore entirely honest to conclude that the spiritual cannot exist.

I actually appreciated that he did not claim or even imply that they do.

Louis:

I think these kinds of natural theological arguments are often very hard to run well, because but for sure, this picture of evolution is a lot less random in its outcomes, then the traditional way you might have been taught in school. I think that is, for many people, at the very least, it makes evolution feel much less like a metaphysical anti-God kind of theory.

It’s a genuinely interesting question, a scientific question, but it’s not clear to me how much it tells us theologically. And I can turn this around and say, I think one of the reasons, and I think I understand this reason, why people of faith are often suspicious of evolution is because a lot of people who don’t believe in God, atheists, use evolution to try to prove that there is no God, in one way or the other. And you can see that in many, many examples. Richard Dawkins is a good example. But there’s many others that do that. And so if you are an average person on the street, you hear this, and you think, well, if evolution tells me there’s no God, so much the worse for evolution. But interestingly, I think people like Dawkins, are also natural theologians, they look at the natural world, they look at their particular interpretation of it. And then they say, “ah, this tells me that there is nothing here. There’s this world that we’re looking at there’s no good, no evil, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference,” in one of his Dawkins famous lines, where he basically looks at the world and says, “there’s randomness there, ergo, there’s no God involved, or there’s no meaning or purpose.” That’s a kind of theology as well.

Stump:

He’s deriving theological conclusions from empirical evidence himself.

Louis:

So he’s a, you might call it, you know, a natural a-theologian, right? But that’s effectively what he’s doing. So I–

Stump:

The process is the same.

Louis:

The process is the same. So I think Christians and non Christians often fall into this trap, where they think that meaning and purpose derives from these particular mechanisms of the natural world, whereas I just gave you example of whether the evolution is contingent or predictable, either way is consistent, could be consistent, with God acting, or not acting, it doesn’t really matter that much.

As to Ard’s work, I think it’s always (nearly always) really interesting to find out how people get to a question that won’t let go of them that they work on for years. That Ard noticed a pattern and thought about it in a way that no one else had, and then was able to turn into productive questions is fascinating in itself.
That a physicist is doing work in biology is probably most shocking to me. The only physicists I’ve know (in person, face to face; not ye) understood biology less that I do, which is really saying something. I’m sure his parents have reminded him with humor about that “sit down” conversation, when he confessed his plan to be a physicist.
It’s not surprising that physical schtuff behaves in particular ways that are predictable. Lots seems to. The amazing thing seems to be in learning how things work.
I love to hear about the joy and fascination people find in the work that they do. Ard was exceptional.

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HAH! That’s what I meant! Senility or what?! You are smart. I’m so used to saying that order does not imply meaning, I trotted that out.

Absolutely.

I’ll correct it.

I like the way that Ard does not claim that symmetry, function and predictability imply meaning.

HOLD THE FRONT PAGE!

I just read the quotes, not the article, and I just read yours. He’s wrong. They’re wrong. Ignorantly intellectually dishonest. To infer that the process is the same. A level playing field. 50:50. That’s the beginning of third rate Kalam. I am not using evolution to prove there is no God. I want there to be God. There is no divine intelligence in our story of God, which is the only basis for Him above yearning. Yes it is logically possible, positable that the pitilessly indifferent eternal, infinite multiverse, nature, which has no intentionality to be pitilessly indifferent with, in all its bulk 11-D brane dark energy strangeness, is grounded in God; that He has the whole eternal, infinite, bulk 11-D brane, spacetime expansion accelerating dark energy, unimaginable, abyssal strangeness in His hand, but unless Jesus is God incarnate, there is not even quantum noise above absolute zero, null to warrant that belief. To go there. There is only one team, one player on the field. Nature. Which doesn’t have the capacity for pitiless indifference. Until you get to things like us.

At least Kierkegaard was honest.

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Ah. I was trying to decide how much, if any, irony was intended.

In regard to your protest, I recommend listening to the last 15 or so minutes of the podcast, where the discussion I quoted takes place. It’s clearer, when you hear it. All the vocal cues and intonation are missing here, and they make a difference. However…….

There are times, when it’s best to stop the presses and make sure that front page is right. So let’s.

You mean, this, right?

In the longer section, Louis carefully disagrees a number of times with Stump’s questions about whether Louis’s research could be understood in some connection with God. He makes it clear a number of ways, that what he sees in his research is consistent with natural processes doing what natural processes do, and they will do it with or without God.

This view seemed very familiar to me.

I believe Louis only referred to Dawkins (and maybe vaguely to others like him, out doing the atheistic apologetic circuit). For them, the ability of natural systems to function without any identifiable trace of godness involved appears to be proof of their first assumption. “God doesn’t exist. See here’s proof. That thing you said was dependent on God to function seems to function just fine without God. Therefore God doesn’t exist. And Jesus was a neat guy, but that doesn’t tell us anything, either.”

Do you not see a difference between your thinking and Dawkins’s? While your methods may be similar, you’re looking for different things and have some different assumptions that Dawkins would never even consider. So, in spite of my great respect for you, Louis and Stump were referring to different critics of natural theology.
Would Dawkins even remotely concern himself with such things as these:

Not hardly. Dawkins would never consider the thought that “Life is better with God,” or that “If Jesus was God incarnate, then God is (or could be).” Dawkins would never be tormented over the thought that the study of nature takes him farther and farther from any (formerly held) evidence for God’s existance or purposes. I can’t imagine that he ever lost a moment of sleep considering what God could possibly be like, if the things he once believed about God had become untenable.

You are simply not like Dawkins, thank God. Even when you try to present as such.

They may be wrong, but I don’t think so. Not in reference to people like Dawkins.
I disagree with you that this discussion provides intellectual dishonesty on the part of Louis or Stump. Louis, in particular, is addressing a way of thinking that is different from yours. Something more simplistic that really does see absense of evidence as proof of the negative.

Really, I encourage you to listen to the last segment of the podcast, and recognize that you really don’t fit the category they are discussing.
Then let’s look at that front page again, if you’re willing.

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Nice discussion. I don’t think I’m engaging in natural theology so much as brute speculation when I ponder the origins of God belief. Online atheists are fond of referring to religion as primitive science, ways to explain lightening and earthquakes. But I think that gives our early forebears too little credit. What they really wanted to understand were the seasons, fertility and mortality - things that relate to understanding ourselves and how we fit in the world.

Coming at it as I do I think of God belief as a truth for humans that emerges in the world with us. Apart from humanity it isn’t possible (for us) to make sense of God. Apart from God we cannot make sense of our place in the world. But when we try to isolate anddescribe God alone we hit a wall. There is something more to us that these narrowly focused minds we’ve evolved can grasp or describe. It is a living part of what we are individually and communally. It is a source of individual flourishing and of our capacity to coexist in such vast communities. Whatever God may be or where it may reside, it isn’t the sort of thing that actual humans can consolidate or make their own, even if it is baked right into us as much as into the world and the greater cosmos.

The way I look at it, there is much more to us than we can account for by way of our narrow focused attention. From the perspective of a microscope, God is just an alleged thing the existence of which no one has been able to demonstrate. But when we take into account the wide range of our experiences we realize other perspectives are possible, including a culturally derived God like perspective from which we individually can be seen as narrow and limited. It is natural to recognize our ordinary perspective as limited and to seek understanding from this more encompassing perspective. I think religion has evolved to codify that understanding in human cultures.

Of course my view is subject to the criticism that it reduces each actual instantiating of religion to a mere concept, flattening them all out in the process. But really that is only true of the codifications of religious experience (which is how I think of theology) and not the experience itself. I believe it is the aspects of our experience which evoke awe and wonder which motivate God belief, not empirical answers to questions beyond our reach.

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I’ll listen. Promise.

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I lie. I never listen. 80% is ums and ahs. Waffle, waffle, waffle… waffle. I just opened the transcript. I’m astounded. 16 pages of nothing so far. 22… 27 ID!.. Waffle, waffle, waffle… waffle. 31 Ah! God.

Stump:

Okay, so let’s bring this back to God, trying to decide how to make a world that can make itself, because the sort of first level of, at least my understanding of your work, is showing people who were trying to inject God’s direct action into processes because they didn’t think they were explainable by natural means. And you’re saying, no, it turns out, it really does look like this is explainable from the laws of physics and whatever, you know, we’re understanding by those.

But there’s a second level to this, that starts to make us think, at least, to bring back into conversation, those of us who are interested in these kinds of questions at the intersections of science and religion, that maybe there is something deeper here that isn’t a knockdown, drag out proof, but at least is highly resonant with those of us who think God may have had something to do with all of this. Is that fair to say?

Louis:

Maybe. Yeah, I think it is. I think these kinds of natural theological arguments are often very hard to run well, because but for sure, this picture of evolution is a lot less random in its outcomes, then the traditional way you might have been taught in school. I think that is, for many people, at the very least, it makes evolution feel much less like a metaphysical anti-God kind of theory.

Stump:

Right, right. So for instance, when we were talking with Simon, I brought up the fact that many Christians interested in his work have tried to leverage it as a new kind of fine tuning argument. So the subtitle of his book was ‘Inevitable Humans’ right? So that it sounds like people can take this idea and say, “oh, God knew that humans were going to come out of this evolutionary process at the end, it must have been designed that way from the beginning.” And I asked Simon about that in particular and he does not like that interpretation very well. Is there any? Again, we’re not looking for a mathematical proof of God’s existence in that sense, as much as trying to find ways that these can, that science and theology might be fruitfully at least brought into conversation with each other.

scientists have been influenced by a certain atheistic worldview that might close them off to certain ways of thinking about science

I think that has been true for some aspects of evolutionary theory that a particular worldview that was based on a kind of contingency resonated with people’s sense of a-theology and so they kind of ran with that longer than they maybe should have.

Stump:

Or the other direction? Do the details of your theology affect at all, how you can even interpret the scientific details?

Louis:

I don’t think so. I don’t think they do
(This is what you meant @Kendel? His bias in the foregoing continues in what follows.)

I think it’s the wrong way of thinking about it. I think a better way of thinking about it is to say, you know, I have a big circle of everything that can be knowable. And that circle is, would be maybe a theological circle, everything about God, and et cetera. And a sub-circle of that is science.

(that is cognitive bias)

That’s one way of thinking about the world. But it’s not the only way of thinking about the world. And science is extremely powerful. It’s probably the greatest thing that humans have ever invented. On the other hand, it doesn’t answer our most important questions like, what does it mean to be human? Or why are we here? Or what’s the purpose of my life?

(Because they’re non-questions. Syntactic but not semantic.)

Those are questions that science and I don’t think neither science nor any conceivable advance of science could answer. That doesn’t minimize science. It’s just a different way of thinking about the world. So these really important questions like, what does it mean to be human? What’s the value of human being? How should I live? These are questions that we answer on religious grounds, for example. And if you’re not religious, then you have to find some other metaphysical type of argument to derive these ideas from.

(Yep, easily done)

Science doesn’t give you those answers.

(Says who? Our evolved, genetic, hard wired psychology obviously gives us ideas superior to religion.)

So I’m not saying they’re running on different tracks. I’m just saying science is a subset of a bigger set of ideas about the world. And those include questions of meaning and purpose.

(It’s the reverse. We naturally question meaning and purpose: go to science. Psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology. There are no bigger ideas, not with any warrant whatsoever. Apart from the proposition in:)

And certainly, as a Christian, I think I find those questions, those things answered in revelation in the Bible, in the Incarnation, that God came to earth in human form. Those are really profound things that tell me something about my role. I believe that humans have intrinsic value, because they’re made and loved by God.

(They have regardless of God.)

That’s something I believe is absolutely true. You may believe that humans have intrinsic value for some other reason. Which is great. But I’m telling you the reason why I believe that’s true.

(Good for you mate. Is that better than why I do?)

(This is what I mean about witless intellectual dishonesty. They’ve never heard of Kierkegaard.)

Going back, reading and listening and thinking more.

In the meantime, however, I want to address this:

Specifically:

(They have regardless of God.)

Regardless of God, no. They don’t.
Regardless of God, they do only because we, either as individuals or as societies, subjectively decide they do, which is not universal or guaranteed. (My biggest beef with Lewis’s Mere Christianity the last time I read it.) This also allows us the enormous power as individuals or societies to determine who does not have meaning or equivalent worth.

This is why it is so heinous, so sinful, when Christians deny or ignore that intrinsic value we claim God somehow baked into humanity, by whatever means we deny or ignore it. Whenever we claim this vague “image of God” concept or “sanctity of life” only for some, or we redefine what it is to be human in order to (attempt to) strip others of their (God-given) intrinsic value, this is a hideous sin.

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Why not just say “it’s the most powerful thing we ever invented” and I agree it is. Greatest? If power is the only criteria, yes.

What then is the criteria for being a proper question? Is that synonymous with being something science is fit to answer?

But is there less cognitive bias in making the big circle a science circle?

I think a more neutral (how modern!) way to begin would be to note that we are one of many different creatures on the planet, aided and limited by the perceptual/cognitive window which we have. What about making the big circle “what is knowable” and a smaller circle inside it be labeled “what is knowable by human beings”. That smaller circle could contain smaller circles labeled “knowable by science”, “knowable by intuition”, “knowable by cultural tradition”, and what else?

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Postmodern extremism is premature. Science is not just another narrative among others of equally no meaning. Sure science is a very narrow window on reality, as is art; the yearn to express. But it maps superbly on to reality from the quantum to relativity, stellar nucleosynthesis to protein synthesis, genes to morality, love and art. It sketches beyond the fact of the multiverse, take your pick of type. Beyond that is the absurdity that postmodernism prematurely declares, the ineffable strangeness of being. Science gets to the brute fact of meaninglessness in our practically infinite, practically eternally dead universe of infinite from eternity. That’s not a narrative with any competition.

Where are you seeing postmodern extremism?

Science is not devoid of meaning and neither are the truths of the human heart. It is only thinking that science trumps all else that makes nihilism look like an accomplishment rather than what it really is, defeat. If you insist on all truth presenting the credentials of logic and science, then what is left for one’s humanity is much the poorer. What gains of science justify such an outcome? It is as unnecessary as it is foolish. Science is surely a source of power. But the wisdom to wield it isn’t found there.

I think he means that suggesting other pathways to truth are on par with science is committing the excess of wanton deconstruction, assuming all interpretations are on equal footing.

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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