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“The Language of God” Book Club – Chapter 3

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February 7, 2014 Tags: Creation & Origins, Earth, Universe & Time

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

“The Language of God” Book Club – Chapter 3

For this installment of our online discussion of Francis Collins’ The Language of God, we’re on chapter three, “The Origins of the Universe.” Find the Book Club page here, where there is a reading schedule as well as downloadable discussion questions and supplemental resources.

The twentieth century saw an “explosion” (pardon the pun) of information about the cosmos. (See some of the more recent of these along with fantastic photos in President Haarsma’s series Recent Discoveries in Astronomy, found in the supplemental resources for this chapter.) It has become mind boggling to consider the universe on the grandest scales. Part of the wonderment comes from the implications of the expansion we’ve detected: run time backward, and everything there is in the universe must have originated from a point. Collins gives the famous Robert Jastrow quote about “the band of theologians” who have been contemplating this “creation” for centuries before the cosmologists got there (p. 66). For a while it looked as though science might be conceding the need for a supernatural origin to the universe.

But recently there has been a spate of cosmologists arguing that natural explanations might do just fine in describing how the Big Bang could have gotten started. Besides Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene (The Hidden Reality, 2011) and Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing, 2012) offer scientific explanations for how things might have gotten started. Of course these are hugely speculative right now, but the mathematics is at least suggestive of some of their claims.

  1. What if they can develop an empirically sound explanation for how our universe originated? Does this rule God out of the picture? Or does it merely push things back one more step? And what about the natural laws on which those explanations (e.g., quantum vacuum states) depend?

In another section of the chapter, Collins addresses the Anthropic Principle (p. 71), which is admitted by almost all cosmologists to cry out for an explanation. The chances that everything came out the way it did are far beyond what anyone can attribute to blind chance. But the multiverse option does have some traction now. Perhaps this is just one more step in our discovery of the vastness of God’s creation. (See Gerald Cleaver’s blog series on the multiverse.)

  1. Would the discovery that there are not just other stars, other galaxies, and exo-planets, but also other universes challenge your understanding of our cosmos and God’s role in it? Does that really help to answer the Fine Tuning problem, or just push it back another level too?

Finally, this line of reasoning leads us to ask the question about life on other planets. Collins seems undisturbed by this prospect (p. 71), and we’ve listed several works of fiction in the supplemental resources which explore some of the theological implications of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

  1. What about you? How might the discovery of intelligent life on other planets affect your belief system? Are there theological problems with this, or would it be similar to the discovery during the 1500s of civilizations which didn’t come from the cradle of Western civilization described in the Bible?

In all of these topics, Collins sees not “proofs” for God’s existence, but pointers toward God. We might say that such cosmological discoveries are consistent with the data.

Our goal for this online discussion is to get you interacting with the book and with each other. Feel free to give your answers to one or all of the questions, to respond to what others write in the comments, or to ask your own questions.

 


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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Dean Gibson - #84454

February 7th 2014

“3. How might the discovery of intelligent life on other planets affect your belief system?”

Not at all.  I’m amused by many (from both believers and non-believers) that seem to feel that a resolution of this question “proves” their position.  John 10:16 has traditionally been interpreted as referring to Gentiles, but that’s not the only possible interpretation.  The discovery of such alien life wouldn’t necessarily confirm evolution, but even if it did, it wouldn’t have much effect in my belief in God being the creator of the universe.

The really question would be, what does this intelligent life believe about God?

If we find such life, I would also want to know if they visited earth before, and if they took pictures (seriously) or had other pre-historical data about us and our environment.

As for questions #1 and #2, I find them to be too fanciful to be of much theological interest to me.


Mike Beidler - #84463

February 9th 2014

1.  What if they can develop an empirically sound explanation for how our universe originated?  Does this rule God out of the picture?  Or does it merely push things back one more step? And what about the natural laws on which those explanations (e.g., quantum vacuum states) depend?

The question of the cosmos’ origin is much like the question of abiogenesis:  We can discover possible naturalistic methods of varying degrees of plausibility by which either could have happened, but it is extremely unlikely that we’ll ever know definitively how “something came from nothing” or how “life came from non-life.”  Of course, neither question nor their respective scenarios in all their variety rule God out of the picture.  Both sets of results and each hypothesis’ theorized mechanisms exhibit profound order, once again pointing to a Lawgiver by Whose will the cosmos must operate or cease to be, and without which the universe would be unpredictable and incomprehensible.  Not even quantum vacuum states, which still contain energy, can violate the Third Law of Thermodynamics.  Who or what keeps it from doing so?

2.  Would the discovery that there are not just other stars, other galaxies, and exo-planets, but also other universes challenge your understanding of our cosmos and God’s role in it? Does that really help to answer the Fine Tuning problem, or just push it back another level too?

Ultimately, the Church’s responses to certain astronomical discoveries (e.g., the earth revolves around the sun, stars are other suns, the Andromeda “nebula” is another galaxy, and perceptible variations in a star’s radial velocity are caused by local planetary bodies) have survived the debates.  The Church survived easily the aftermath of the Shapley–Curtis Debate of 1920, wherein scientific consensus about the boundaries of the universe began shifting from a galactic-sized cosmos to something more “communal” and in line with George Lucas’ fertile imagination (arguably applicable to just the original trilogy).  Evangelical Christianity is also moving slowly toward acceptance of the Big Bang.  In all of these cases, the scale of God’s power and majesty, for all of its infiniteness, grew paradoxically bigger.  Certainly, some Christians have had a more difficult time accepting the existence of exoplanets, fearing that it would somehow diminish the importance of our own spinning ball and cheapen the love and attention with which God has lavished it by means of the Incarnation.  Perhaps these discoveries are God’s way of humbling us periodically, reminding us that we are not necessarily the pinnacle of God’s creation and refocusing our attention on the One who set the cosmos into motion and sustains it by the word of His power (Heb 1:3).

Through my interactions with atheist friends, it has become clear to me that what one brings to the multiverse hypothesis has considerable impact on what one takes from the hypothesis.  If I attempt to appeal to the Anthropic Principle, my atheist friends will counter with the multiverse hypothesis as evidence of God’s non-existence.  I simply don’t understand how evidence of the existence of other universes can be used in such a way.  Perhaps we are the only ones, despite the fact that, as the family of universes grows infinitely, the odds increase of another habitable universe existing.  We may very well come to discover solid evidence of our own universe’s interaction with other universes, but I’m not aware of any method by which we could determine whether a sister universe is fine-tuned and capable of supporting life, intelligent or otherwise.  In fact, all of them may be fine-tuned and play host to an infinite variety of life forms.  We simply don’t know, nor do I suspect we ever will.

Regardless of the true nature of these other universes, for the theist, a multitude of universes – if it were possible to prove their existence – would be simply grounds for greater adoration of the Creator.  And if such universes did, in fact, exist apart from our ability to detect them, then I prefer to believe God also directs His love and attention toward those other-worlds as well, especially if their inhabitants are intelligent and capable of serving as priests of the Almighty.  We would do well to expand our theology and welcome the idea of a larger community of God-imaged beings.

3.  What about you?  How might the discovery of intelligent life on other planets affect your belief system?  Are there theological problems with this, or would it be similar to the discovery during the 1500s of civilizations which didn’t come from the cradle of Western civilization described in the Bible?

Perhaps it is the fact that I grew up on “Star Trek” and Star Wars that I’ve never had an issue, even during my young-earth creationist days, with the potential existence of extraterrestrial life.  As a young-earth creationist, I argued that the presence of such life wouldn’t necessarily suggest that evolutionary processes were at work in another solar system, but rather that God created extraterrestrial life via similar de novo, ex nihilo creative acts.  Theologically, I treated any theoretical intelligent, rational creatures as just another subset of God’s creation in need of salvation, akin to those on Terra who lived and died beyond the Gospel’s reach, both temporally and geographically.  Thus, the theological issues surrounding the question of the existence of extraterrestrial life are no different than our more local discovery in centuries past of the existence of other populations of Homo sapiens who lived and died prior to the arrival of the Messiah and whose civilizations lay beyond His disciples’ initial reach.  

As an evolutionary creationist, my theological imagination is now geared toward addressing questions of the Incarnation.  Was the Logos’ incarnation on Terra in the form of Jesus of Nazareth a singular event in time and space (cf. Heb 7:27; 9:12, 26) meant to express God’s love to all of His creation – past, present, and future – on Terra and beyond?  Or has the divine Logos incarnated Himself countless times through out the ages on countless worlds, and showing His infinite love to inevitably fallen creatures?  Shall we trek across the stars in an expanded version of the Great Commission with the Gospel of Jesus Christ in hand, or shall we discover that E.T., too, has a Savior born in its own likeness (cf. Phil 2:7)?  Assuming we arrive at the right time in the evolution of E.T.’s civilization, could the Logos have expressed, in a culturally relevant way unique to E.T.’s world, His infinite love and desire to be reconciled with another group of His prodigal children?  What if we were to arrive prior to the arrival of E.T.’s “messiah”?  What then?

If C. S. Lewis were alive today, I think he would be smiling, stealing a casual glance at his Space Trilogy proudly displayed alongside his tales of Narnia.


James Stump - #84477

February 10th 2014

Thanks, Dean and Mike.  Good reflections.  Anyone else?


Matthew Winegar - #84478

February 10th 2014

  1. What if they can develop an empirically sound explanation for how our universe originated? Does this rule God out of the picture? Or does it merely push things back one more step? And what about the natural laws on which those explanations (e.g., quantum vacuum states) depend?
To me this pushes things back one more step.  Science focuses on and is a study of the world, and God, as creator of the world is beyond its epistemological limits.  Certainly some people get hung up on this, concluding that findings of science threatens belief in God, but the God I believe in is bigger than this.  However, belief in this kind of God will always be (from an empirical standpoint), ambigous (in that his existence can neither be proved nor disproved conclusively).
  1. Would the discovery that there are not just other stars, other galaxies, and exo-planets, but also other universes challenge your understanding of our cosmos and God’s role in it? Does that really help to answer the Fine Tuning problem, or just push it back another level too?
It does not pose a challenge at all.  As I understand (which is to say, barely), theories of inflation in the early universe that results in a multiverse; other universes are just places we will never be able to go or even see (which, practically speaking, makes them no different from other solar systems that are currently forming in our own universe thousands or millions of light years away; we probably won’t be able to study them in our lifetimes).
  1. What about you? How might the discovery of intelligent life on other planets affect your belief system? Are there theological problems with this, or would it be similar to the discovery during the 1500s of civilizations which didn’t come from the cradle of Western civilization described in the Bible?

This also does not pose a problem, although there are some interesting theological questions posed by this, as indicated by Mike above.  First, any intelligent life that evolved elsewhere may or may not be ‘in the image of God’ like us.  If they were in his image (which to me means being capable of a worshipful relationship with God), then would they also have our fallen nature, and if so, would God have had to have come to them, incarnate, as he did to us through Jesus, or could he have worked out some other arrangement (for their salvation) with them?  We probably won’t be able to answer any of these questions, but I wouldn’t presume to have the answer (other than to say God would be able to do it as he saw fit, and even a separate incarnation would do nothing, IMHO, to denigrate Jesus’ salvation for us).


dcscccc . - #84480

February 10th 2014

interesting topic.


Greg - #84527

February 14th 2014

In regards to question 1, I’m really not sure why we would expect anything but something coming from nothing. Of course there was a mechanism in how the universe started, but just because there is a mechanism doesn’t prove or disprove God at all. God’s not a scientific hypothesis—science is the study of God’s action in the natural world.

Natural selection is a perfect example. Just because we discovered the mechanism in how the complexity of life came to be doesn’t prove or disprove God. There was ALWAYS a mechanism, even if we held the pre-Darwinian view that God created this complex world by the snap of His fingers. If science supported this view, we would think that God arranged all of the molecules to create plants, animals, and humans. The skeptic would believe that the molecules just ‘happened’ to arrange themselves in such a way. Just like we ‘happen’ to live in a finely-tuned universe and we just ‘happened’ to have some wild reaction occur on earth that created RNA which lead to bacteria, etc, etc. Collins talks about how there is a natural explanation for how life began, and he’s right. We may not know the mechanism just yet, but we will. God used some sort of mechanism in the natural world. We don’t need a God of the gaps. 


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