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Belief in God in a World Explained by Science, part 2

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July 15, 2014 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now, Earth, Universe & Time, Science & Worldviews, Science as Christian Calling

Today's entry was written by Jim Stump. You can read more about what we believe here.

Belief in God in a World Explained by Science, part 2

Note: BioLogos Content Manager Jim Stump recently gave a talk on science and religion at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, IN, the text of which we’re featuring this week. Today’s post is the second in this series—read the first post here.

History should have taught us that science has a way of figuring out things we once thought only supernatural intervention could explain. We might still pray for rain, but we can trace back the cause of thunder without invoking bowling gods. Similarly, sudden outbreaks of disease or an individual’s return to health were once so poorly understood that it seemed God must have been directly responsible for superseding the natural order of things to cause those phenomena. As such, God was counted among the otherwise natural causes of events. We see this clearly in the history of cosmology.

The nineteenth-century British mathematician and philosopher Augustus de Morgan published the famous story (probably embellished a bit) in which Emperor Napoleon asks one of the leading scientists of the day, Pierre-Simon Laplace, why he has not mentioned the Creator in his new book, “Systeme du Monde”. Laplace answers, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” This story is often used in the service of naturalism: we don’t need God anymore to fill in the gaps in our understanding, so why believe in God? But I wonder if there is a better way to understand God in relation to advancing scientific explanations. Even for Laplace, it is incorrect to think he was advocating atheism with that claim. Rather, it is a statement about the comprehensiveness of his scientific explanation. Newton’s remarkable achievement in mathematical physics the century before Laplace had left some gaps. Newton gave very precise formulas to account for some of the empirical evidence—like why gravity causes both cannonballs and the moon to trace out the paths they do. But to account for other observable phenomena—like why the “fixed” stars don’t collapse together because of this newly found gravity—he could only say, “. . . and then a miracle happens.” Laplace (and scientists generally) were not satisfied with leaving a miracle in the scientific explanations. His equations and scientific explanations were better than Newton’s and didn’t need to appeal to supernatural intervention to make the system work.

Did that squeeze God out and threaten to undermine a theistic view of the cosmos? If God is one who needs to reside in gaps in the natural order that we can’t explain scientifically, then God was running out of places to hide. But perhaps his fortunes changed in the twentieth century, because natural explanation of the cosmos had run up against a brick wall called the Big Bang. It implied an absolute beginning, a time before which there are no further times—no earlier events that could be appealed to in order to explain it. The cosmologists needed a self-explaining event to get things started, which sounds a lot like a First Cause or an Unmoved Mover. In 1978 the agnostic cosmologist Robert Jastrow wrote:

“At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” (God and the Astronomers, p. 116)

It seemed to Jastrow that theologians had found a permanent seat at the table of scientific explanations for the cosmos. There was an inability to provide a purely natural explanation to bridge the gap between the present state of things in the cosmos and how it all might have gotten started. So it seemed reasonable by many to appeal to something supernatural. But the times, they are a changin’. Scientists are no longer embarrassed when questions about the ultimate origin of the universe arise. They are working very hard to “raise the curtain on the mystery of creation” and provide natural explanations for how the matter, energy, space, and time of which our universe consists could have sprung into existence.

For most of the history of science, there was no problematic beginning to the universe. Scientific orthodoxy held the cosmos to be eternal. There would always be an earlier state of things to which science could appeal. But that is what changed dramatically in the twentieth century. Einstein’s equations for general relativity implied that the universe could not stand still; it must always be expanding or contracting. Just like an object propelled upwards will eventually either escape earth’s gravity or succumb to that gravitational force, so too the enormous masses of the universe must be moving apart from each other or collapsing together. Einstein initially resisted this implication and added a fudge factor to his equations to prevent it (a move he later called the greatest blunder of his scientific career). But Edwin Hubble soon found empirical evidence that the newly discovered galaxies were indeed receding from each other as we progress through time. So if we were to run time backward, we’d eventually get to the spot at which all matter, energy, and space itself are condensed into one point. Other empirical evidence, like the incredible confirmation of cosmic microwave background radiation, eventually convinced even the staunchest critics of the Big Bang model of our universe’s evolution.

The Big Bang proved to be a big boon for the science and religion dialogue. It is no coincidence that the significant rise of science and religion as an academic discipline came in the wake of the cosmological discoveries just after the midpoint of the twentieth century. Many theists saw unmistakable evidence of God’s involvement in the natural world. They took the Big Bang to be scientific proof of the theological doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Even biblical concordists (once they got over their literal reading of the Bible’s timeline) decided the true meaning of “Let there be light” was to be found in the explosion of our universe into being some 13.8 billion years ago. This was fantastic stuff. Even now we imagine the moment of creation using a film clip of the Big Bang in which the camera’s viewpoint is stationed a safe distance away and we see an incredible explosion. But that is a popularized and cartoonish version.

In its scientific guise, the Big Bang is not some fiery explosion that came out of nothingness; the term really just names a placeholder for we know not what. Current scientific theories can’t penetrate to time zero and describe what was going on. By about one second after the Big Bang, we have very precise theories backed up with impressive empirical evidence. At that point the universe was already about 1000 times the size of our solar system, and our physics works for describing its further development. Before that first second, though, things are a bit sketchy.

It’s not quite so bad from about 10-43 seconds after the beginning up to one second. During that period cosmologists believe that our current understanding of physics (quantum mechanics and general relativity) is capable of describing the development of the universe. The problem is that we don’t know how these two highly confirmed theories fit together, so we are left with one way of describing the world on large scales (general relativity) and another on small scales (quantum mechanics). But then before 10-43 seconds—the era known as Planck Time in honor of physicist Max Planck who was a pioneer of quantum theory—these two scales have to be integrated for us to make sense of things, because the whole universe was only the size of an atom. So our current inability to articulate a unified physics precludes anything more than speculation during that period.

Such speculation has become a cottage industry these days. A spate of popular level books has been written by scientists who claim to solve the mystery of the origin of the cosmos without having to appeal to God. Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design (2010) speculates that time folds back on itself in the earliest moments of the universe, just like direction folds back on itself on the surface of the globe at the north and south poles. It becomes meaningless then to ask what came before the Big Bang, just as it is meaningless to ask what is north of the North Pole. You can travel north for only so long before you’re forced to start heading back south. If the analogy is correct, on Hawking’s model we can go back in time only so far with our explanations before we’re forced to move in the other direction. Echoing Nicea’s condemnation of Arius, we cannot say of the universe, “There was when it was not.” So according to Hawking, there is no need to invoke a Creator to bring it about.

Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss takes a different approach to render appeals to God obsolete in cosmogony. He argues in A Universe from Nothing (2012) that a natural explanation of something coming from nothing can be given in quantum theory. There are no material particles or energy, no space or time, in a relativistic quantum field vacuum. But according to the highly confirmed laws of quantum physics it is to be expected in such a vacuum that little packets of space can pop in and out of existence in a kind of random flux. Some of these will undergo massive inflation and develop into full-blown universes complete with matter and energy. Nothingness, Krauss argues, is inherently unstable and will naturally develop into something—or perhaps many somethings.

It has become popular to speculate on this subject of multiple universes. Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality (2011) details some nine different kinds of “multiverses” that have been postulated. The most promising version for our topic intimates that rapid cosmic inflation and some versions of string theory would give rise to an astonishing number of universes, each with different laws of physics. Such a scenario undermines the appearance of cosmic “fine tuning” according to which some think we must invoke God to explain why our universe defies the odds and is hospitable for life. Out of the possible 10500 universes the theory predicts, it is no mystery that we find ourselves in one where the laws are in our favor.

None of these theories is without its critics on scientific grounds. They all reach well beyond the currently available empirical evidence and so remain in the arena of speculation. But it should also be mentioned that they are consistent with the currently available empirical evidence and in some cases suggested by the mathematics. And so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that one of them, or something similar will eventually succeed in giving a complete and fully natural description of the origin and development of the cosmos. Objections might be made on philosophical grounds as to whether science could ever give an ultimate explanation of the universe—a topic explored engagingly by Jim Nolt in a recent book called Why does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story (2012). But regardless of how that part of the story plays out, we Christians should learn something from the science of the past hundred years.

Judging from the past, it seems to be a risky business to bet on God standing in the gaps in our understanding of scientific theories. Whether the gap is why the stars don’t collapse, how bacterial flagella could have evolved, or how all this matter and energy got here, science has proven to be remarkably successful at explaining things on its own terms. Does that success come at the expense of God? Too many people—both Christians and atheists—have seemed to think that the completeness of scientific theories obviates any role for the divine. But when some scientists or news reporters trumpet the latest scientific discoveries as rendering belief in God obsolete, I say that I’m already an atheist with respect to the kind of god they’re talking about. That god is just one of the causes in and amongst the otherwise natural causes. If we’re looking for God in those kinds of gaps, we’ll soon be left with Napoleon wondering what happened to God.

Join us tomorrow for Part 3 of this series!


Jim Stump has served as the Content Manager at BioLogos since August 2013. As such he oversees the development of new content and curates the existing content. Jim's PhD is in philosophy from Boston University where he wrote a dissertation on the history and philosophy of science. He is the author (with Chad Meister) of Christian Thought: A Historical Introduction (Routledge, 2010) and the editor (with Alan Padgett) of the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). Jim is a frequent speaker at churches and other groups on topics at the intersection of science and Christianity.

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Jon Garvey - #85969

July 15th 2014

Jim, I’ve observed that BioLogos reliably puts out articles every day or two - so regularly, in fact over the last few years that it appears to need no explanation beyond the obviously natural.

Does that mean I should shun the idea that you’ve personally directed these last two posts as an unnecessary “Jim of the Gaps” argument?

After all, we all believe that BioLogos started the whole blog off, and it surely wouldn’t lack the competence to ensure that it all continues seamlessly just as it began?


g kc - #85970

July 15th 2014

Good questions, Jon.


James Stump - #85973

July 15th 2014

Jon, I don’t see the relevance of your analogy.  Seeing some regular phenomenon does not mean that no explanation is required (think of the sun rising every day—we’d still like to know why that is).  My point (as will become more clear in tomorrow’s post) is that even if we get a complete scientific account for something, that still isn’t a complete explanation of it.  There are realities beyond the empirical realm that science is not equipped to handle.  Some will claim that I am still invoking a gap with that, but it is a gap of a different sort.  It is not the gap in a scientific explanation that is filled by invoking God, but rather it is a recognition that science is necessarily limited and cannot explain all of reality.  Perhaps our quarrel, then, boils down to a terminological dispute and methodological naturalism.  I think there are good reasons for not calling supernatural explanations “science”.  Others may do so and attempt to win over their language community to that meaning of the word.


Jon Garvey - #85975

July 15th 2014

I didn’t see it as a quarrel, Jim ... but certainly a question of terminology (and perhaps metaphysics). I was pursuing the line (which you seem to be as well) that a “natural explanation” is not a complete explanation under any circumstances (I speak as a concurrentist).

But perhaps I was also suggesting that we ought to expect (as the early scientists did) that God’s inolvement in nature would be both lawlike and contingent (in the sense of choice-contingent, not chance-contingent). Polkinghorne seems to imply something like that when he writes:

...If the physical world is really open, and top-down intentional causality operates within it, there must be intrinsic “gaps” (“an envelope of possibility”) in the bottom-up account of nature to make room for intentional causality ... We are unashamedly “people of the gaps” in this instrinsic sense and there is nothing unfitting in a “God of the gaps” in this sense either…As to the nature of God’s interaction it is ‘not energetic but informational.’

I take that to mean that if God acts intentionally in nature, it will make a difference that is potentially observable, if not (perhaps) distinguishable from chance-contingency. The informational content of nature (aka “Form” perhaps) will not in all probability, be accounted for by natural laws - it will show as contingency.

I note, however, that Wplfgang Pauli considered the invocation of low-contingency in biology to be unscientifc (and indeed, an attempt to shut out purposiveness).

My facetious comment was to suggest that, whilst your posts are explicable through the “natural law of BioLogos,” choice-contingency  is evident in the fact that they convey original information (for which, thanks).


g kc - #85976

July 15th 2014

Jim,

You probably don’t mean to, but your making me smile. Again. (See “highly confirmed” in my comment below.)

Specifically, I mean how you, and all evolutionists, play the “gap” both ways - without, perhaps, realizing it.

“Some will claim that I am still invoking a gap with that, but it is a gap of a different sort.  It is not the gap in a scientific explanation that is filled by invoking God, but rather it is a recognition that science is necessarily limited and cannot explain all of reality.”

Evolutionists try to demean deniers by saying the dolts invoke a “god of the gaps” in evolution. But evolutionists plug their Swiss cheese (hole-y) theories with an “evolution of the gaps”. Can’t come close to explaining, say, the emergence of the eye? Is there a gap in nature giving the gape? No problem. The gap is filled with “It evolved”. 


g kc - #85972

July 15th 2014

Jim,

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Christian website where atheists/agnostics received so much favorable attention. This article featured self-identified atheists/agnostics Jastrow and Hawking, and probably some not-yet-self-identified ones (Krauss, Greene?). And your preceding article highlighted the benefits you derived from an identified agnostic (Carl Sagan) and a “fairly well known” but unidentified atheist.

Secondly, unless this is the norm, Biologos seems to be on a “speculation” spree lately. You used some form of the word five times here. In Dennis Venema’s most recent piece, he also uses it, along with wording such as “we have almost no clue how it might have occurred”. [I’m still hoping Dennis will respond to my 7/13/14 comment there.]

Also relating to this, you twice used the phrase “highly confirmed” in reference to some theories/laws. Frankly, I had to smile, because I thought this was like calling someone “highly pregnant”. A theory/law is either confirmed or it’s not. If it’s not, it’s speculation as far as I’m concerned.

You seem to be under the impression that the science of cosmology is pretty well settled when it considers what we have (very) shortly after the Big Bang, and what we have now:

“By about one second after the Big Bang, we have very precise theories backed up with impressive empirical evidence. At that point the universe was already about 1000 times the size of our solar system, and our physics works for describing its further development. BEFORE that first second, though, things are a bit SKETCHY.”

My perception is that just about EVERYTHING in the current state of cosmology is SKETCHY. Almost daily I see examples of intractable problems and contradictions. Here are just three recent cases::

Example 1

“The discovery of thousands of star systems wildly different from our own has demolished ideas about how planets form. Astronomers are searching for a whole new theory… The findings have triggered controversy and confusion, as astronomers struggle to work out what the old theory was missing…The field in its current state “doesn’t make much sense” … researchers continue to nurture their mess of models, which have grown almost as exotic and plentiful as the planets they seek to explain. And if the current theories are disjointed, ad hoc and no longer beautiful, that is often how science proceeds…”

http://www.nature.com/news/astronomy-planets-in-chaos-1.15480

 

Example 2

“The standard cosmological model is the frame of reference for many generations of scientists, some of whom are beginning to question its ability to accurately reproduce what is observed in the nearby universe. Merritt counts himself among the small and growing group that is questioning the accepted paradigm… “When you have a CLEAR CONTRADICTION like this, you ought to focus on it,” Merritt said. “This is how progress in science is made.””

http://www.rit.edu/news/story.php?id=50841

 

Example 3

As a kind of intro, as I understand it, the 14 billion-year age of the universe comes from the Big Bang Theory (aka The Standard Cosmological Model), and this Big Bang Theory relies on a foundational assumption: the “cosmological principle”, which basically assumes the even distribution of matter throughout the universe (i.e. the universe has no lumpiness).

[This assumption has always struck me as ridiculous. Because I know of at least one lump which not only exists (me) but which questions the assumption.]

Now, if one of the legs of a stool is destroyed or proven defective, you lose the use of the stool. If an automobile loses its engine, you lose the use of the car. And if a theory’s foundational assumption is proven false, you lose the use of the theory. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

But that’s NOT how it works in cosmology. (Nor does it work that way for its cousin, biological evolution.)

BREAKING NEWS: A really and literally big discovery seems to demolish the “cosmological principle”, yet…

“But the cosmological principle is so ingrained that it is hard for researchers to shake. “People are maybe understandably reluctant to give up the thing, because it will make cosmology too bloody complicated.””

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23074-largest-structure-challenges-einsteins-smooth-cosmos.html#.U8VhfPldXT8

 

Jim, you wrote “Too many people—both Christians and atheists—have seemed to think that the completeness of scientific theories obviates any role for the divine.”

How would you gauge the “completeness” of the current state of cosmology?

P.S.

I have to admit to being a bit surprised to seeing presented for ostensibly serious consideration on a “scientific” Christian website a sentence like this:

“Nothingness, Krauss argues, is inherently unstable and will naturally develop into something—or perhaps many somethings.”

Now THAT is sketchy.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #85978

July 15th 2014

I have a different but related concern.

Yes, if you try hard enough you can come up with an alternate explanation for anything.  The question is “Does it make sense?” and “Does it fit into the rest of our experience as human beings?” 

The multiverse is a good example.  It probably cannot be proven, and really does not prove anything, but stillo it can be used as an excuse for not believing.

However the real problem is that many new atheists are moving to a irrational view of reality.  Monod opened the door by saying the universe must be without purpose because matter cannot think and purpose requires thinking. 

If God did not create the universe, it is without rational comprehensible structure, because the universe created itself and it cannot think.  Without rationality the universe has no purpose, because purpose requires rationality.

While this view is proclaimed as scientific it is not because it is based on theory, rather than experience.  Dawkins agrees that many things have the appearence of design or purpose, but his ideology “proves” these appearances false.  Science is based on appearances, tested experience, rather than unproven theory.

Dawkins believes that the Why? is false because life has no why.  Another example of this thinking is “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions” by Alex Rosenburg a recent book (2011) that received good reviews. 


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