Research leads to student winning international essay contest

| September 18, 2013 | 0 Comments

Courtney Guhl – Features Writer

Melanie McConnell researches questions with theological impact. (Photo courtesy of Amy Vu)

Melanie McConnell researches questions with theological impact. (Photo courtesy of Amy Vu)

We all ask questions. Melanie McConnell, junior science and religion major, asked questions all summer.

She pursued theological and philosophical questions like, “How much does God need to know to be God?” and “What does it mean to be made in the image of God?”

McConnell contributed to a research project with Steve Donaldson of the mathematics and computer science department. The project on randomness and divine providence is taking course over a two year time period.

Combining aspects of science, theology and philosophy, Donaldson and his team are researching a new perspective on neurological evolution and how the process ties into the idea of an all-knowing God.

“We are simulating the process of evolving neural architectures. So we are interested in where do brains come from?” Donaldson said.

“When you look at the evolutionary process, there is this huge element of randomness.”

Many people argue that randomness within evolution undermines the need for a God.

Donaldson and his team argue that randomness is never pure.

“You never know when a given mutation is going to occur, but you are not going to get a radically new thing with one mutation. The mutations are random, but they operate within constraints,” Donaldson said.

The idea that randomness can have limits brings up deeper theological questions.

“If we do a simulation of evolving a neural circuit to solve some problem, we can’t say what the circuit will look like. But we can say that it will solve the problem,” Donaldson said. “Is that a kind of foreknowledge?”

These theological questions were the basis of McConnell’s research this summer. She concluded her summer by winning an essay contest based on her research. She won a cash prize and attended the Science and Religion Forum’s annual conference in the United Kingdom.

“If I had never gotten the opportunity to help with Dr. Donaldson’s research project, I wouldn’t have been able to enter this essay competition,” McConnell said.
Donaldson encouraged McConnell to enter the competition.

“We feel like there has been a shortage of Americans who have contributed to this area, and we would like to see some Samford students become those voices. I think Melanie has the potential to do that, and I was so excited when she won this.”

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