Is God’s word difficult to understand?

Part I: Christians can defend scripture against scientific attacks

Editor’s note: Normally I would post something like this under “Fire Back,” since it involves a question from a reader, but it’s such a fundamental and important question that I’m going to devote two posts to it. This first post is written by Surak.

TF writes:

I had a question, but wanted to let you know first that I stumbled upon your website when I read Sarah Salviander’s testimony and watched the well-done slideshow that accompanied it.  I then read the website’s FAQ, several articles, and lots of comments over several weeks.

After reading more than I thought I would, I have a question that keeps nagging at me:  Is truth hard to understand or easy?  I’m not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination (I’m a pastor) but I’ve always loved science, especially when I can connect the dots between my faith and God’s creation.  For most of my life, I’ve held a pretty simplistic view of our world as a result of reading God’s Word, but after substantial reading on your website I feel like my head is going to explode :)  I don’t know if I agree with all of it, but most of it is fascinating and really well-thought out/researched.  My problem is that it is so hard for a person like me to understand (and I think I’m on the average part of the intelligence scale so the majority of the population would be in the same boat as I am).

So would God make the truth about his creation so complicated that only someone well versed in relativity, Hebrew translations, genetics, and 5 or 6 other fields of study could understand it?  Or would God make the truth about his creation simple enough for all to understand?

I’m not saying God is simple or easy to understand or that he wouldn’t want to give us lots of things for even the most intelligent people to discover and ponder over a lifetime, but wouldn’t God make truths as foundational as “where we come from” and “how this world was created” accessible to everyone rather than just a tiny percentage of super intelligent people?

If the truth of creation is as complicated as what it is on your website, I’m afraid I have no chance of ever explaining it to anyone.  If that is the case, then it seems like God made the truth of creation hard to understand and left most people hopelessly in the dark.  Or have we complicated things and there is a truth that is easier for all to access?

When Jesus (who was the embodiment of all God’s truth/love/mercy/etc.) came he was accessible to all, not just the most intelligent, wise, pious, powerful, etc.  He made God’s truth intelligible to even the poor, uneducated of his day, so I tend to think that God would make an important truth like creation accessible to someone as average as me as well.

So what do you think – is the truth (about creation) hard to understand or easy to understand?  And why?

Sarah will get into a deeper discussion of whether God’s word is inherently difficult to understand in Part II. First, I want to demonstrate how easy it will be for the average Christian to acquire the scientific understanding needed to defend scripture.

Here are the four necessary steps:

  1. The basic scriptural and scientific truths are easy to understand. They are stated clearly in Genesis 1 and are fully supported by modern science.

God created this world as a place where beings created in his image could thrive physically and grow spiritually. Science now confirms that the universe had a beginning and was created in the truest sense of the word. The work of Dr. Hugh Ross demonstrates beyond any rational dispute that the universe is finely tuned for the existence of human life.

A more detailed understanding of the truths revealed by scripture and science is required, because there are atheists who have misused science for 150 years to falsely attack Christian beliefs. So, there are three more scientific steps people have to take to be fully able to defend their faith in this scientific age. It is well within the ability of most people to take these next steps.

  1. Genesis 1 makes at least 26 scientifically testable statements. All 26 are entirely compatible with modern science, and most tellingly, all 26 steps in the Genesis account of the creation of the world and life on Earth are in exactly the correct order.

The odds against someone who lived over 2,500 years ago simply guessing the order of natural events are about one in four hundred septillion. In other words, it’s simply not possible for the author of Genesis 1 to have gotten the details of creation right by simply guessing.

This means the scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that the author of Genesis 1 was divinely inspired.

The third step in a scientific understanding of Christian scriptures is a little harder, but I have found that most people are entirely capable of taking it with a little effort and a good slideshow. Christians must be able to defend the belief that God created the universe in six literal days, otherwise atheists are free to ridicule scripture and mislead generations of young people.

  1. Based on the work of Einstein, it can be scientifically demonstrated that the universe is literally both 6 days + 6,000 years old and 14 billion years old. This understanding requires a careful reading of Genesis 1 and a rudimentary understanding of Einstein’s relativity.

In regard to a careful reading of scripture, there was no Earth and no people on the first day of Genesis. That means that time is not being reckoned from an earthly or human perspective in the opening statements of the Bible. Time was being measured through some other means by the Creator of the universe as He created it.

Einstein taught us that time is relative and therefore measured differently in every part of the universe. Gerald Schroeder explains that time during the first six days of creation was by necessity based on a universal measure we can think of as God’s clock. Schroeder points out in The Science of God that earthly time wasn’t used by the Bible until the appearance of Adam and Eve. Therefore, the Bible used universal time through God’s perspective to chronicle time up to the creation of Adam, while the period of time since Adam was measured by earthly time according to human perspective.

Science shows that the period of time before the creation of man can be measured as six days universal time using Einstein’s relativity, and the amount of time since the appearance on earth of conscious humans is most likely in the thousands of years. Therefore the Creationist point of view that the universe is 6 days + 6,000 years old is scientifically defendable and fully compatible with a universe that is 14 billion years old from our current perspective.

The last necessary step in a scientific understanding of Christian scriptures has to do with evolution. From the time of Thomas Huxley, the science of evolution has been misused to falsely attack Christian beliefs. The idea that humans have evolved from apes is dishonestly presented as evidence against God’s existence.

  1. Again, a careful reading of Genesis 1 reveals something extremely important both scripturally and scientifically. Genesis says that humans were first made (Gen. 1:26) and then they were created (Gen. 1:27). This is confirmed in 1 Corinthians 15:46-47: The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven.

In other words, according to the Old Testament and New Testament, God made the human body with earthly materials. When that was accomplished, God created the human spirit in his own non-worldly image. It does not matter that evolution is scientifically correct in its finding that the mortal human body is biologically related to that of other primates. The basics of evolutionary science are entirely consistent with the biblical account. What matters is that the body is only the worldly vessel for the immortal human soul.

Evidence is abundant that human beings are fundamentally different from every other life form on Earth. Since the unique human ‘consciousness’ is one of the great unsolved scientific mysteries of the universe, science is in no position to deny the existence of the human soul or spirit.

With these four connections between scripture and science, Christians will be able to adequately understand the intimate agreement between modern science and Christian scripture well enough to defend Christian beliefs. Simply put, Christian faith in the Bible as the literal word of God is supported by scientific evidence.

Everything else is just details. Just as we have pastors to explain the details of hundreds of pages of scripture, we have scientists to explain the book of nature to us. God presents challenges that test our faith, but those challenges are not insurmountable.

Reflections on physics and Christian faith

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The following is a guest post by Dr. Kelly Cline, who is both a friend and colleague of Dr. Salviander. Originally from Homer, Alaska, Dr. Cline studied physics at Eastern Oregon University, before earning his Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2003.  He is currently an associate professor of mathematics and astronomy at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, where he lives with his wife and four children.

“All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be…” John 1:3.

When the actor Gary Oldman was preparing to play Beethoven in the film Immortal Beloved, he asked the director to recommend biographies to read. The director replied: “…there is only one he should consider: the music. This music is an unvarnished, uncensored record of Ludwig van Beethoven’s passions, fears, violent anger, humanity and, finally, victory over unimaginable adversity. It is a direct link to his state of mind.”

In works of art created by the human hand, there is powerful connection between the creator and the created. The symphonies of Beethoven, the paintings of Raphael, and the plays of Shakespeare tell us something very deep about the artists who created them.

In this spirit, there is a very old tradition, going back at least to Galileo of asking the question: What does the scientific study of the basic physical laws of the universe tell us about its Creator? What can physics tell us about God?

Physics is the most fundamental of the natural sciences. The principles of chemistry can be understood as applications of the physical laws of electromagnetism and quantum mechanics. Biology and geology can be understood as applications of chemistry and physics. But in physics we seek to understand the most elemental principles of the physical universe, the deepest laws which govern all physical motion in our universe.

Today we know more about the nature of our physical universe than at any time in history. Of course our knowledge of the laws of physics remains incomplete and imperfect. Yet, we have learned an enormous amount about our universe and its laws since the days of Isaac Newton, and currently our theories at least provide a remarkably powerful and accurate approximation to the laws of physics under a wide range of conditions.

For reasons, such as the incompleteness of our knowledge, it is not simple to see a clear and obvious picture of the Creator painted in the equations of physics. However, as we immerse ourselves in this science, I think that we can see certain striking points of resonance between the Creator that we come to know through science and the Creator that we come to know through scripture. In this essay we will consider (1) the role the unification in the development of physics, (2) the apparently paradoxical discoveries of relativity and quantum mechanics, (3) the discovery of the big bang event, the moment of creation, and (4) the unchanging and universal nature of physical law which has led to the development of the world we know. Perhaps these points of resonance may give us some insight into the Author of all things.

Unity and Unification in Physics

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Deuteronomy 6:4

Physics begins with the study of motion and its causes. The first person we know who wrote seriously about why things move was the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. In approximately 350 B.C., Aristotle examined the world and saw different types of motion in different places. Here on Earth he saw stones fall to the ground, while smoke and flames flickered upward, but in the heavens he saw the moon and planets move in what looked like perfect circles. So, Aristotle proposed that different things move in different ways according to different rules. Aristotle argued that here on Earth all things are made of four basic elements, earth, air, fire and water, and that these seek their natural level in the universe, with the force of gravity causing heavy objects to sink, while the force of levity caused light objects to rise. But Aristotle said that objects in the heavens must be made of a different substance, which he called aether, and Aristotle said that elements composed of this aether must naturally move in circles. Aristotle’s solution to seeing different objects move in different ways was essentially to divide the universe into different realms, composed of different substances, which followed different rules.

Almost two-thousand years later, Isaac Newton finally brought the universe back together again. Perhaps inspired by his deep faith in one God, one hand which shaped every part of the universe, in 1687 Newton published his law of universal gravitation, a precise mathematical theory which explained both the falling of a stone and the orbit of the moon. Newton unified two very different types of motion, showing that they are both a consequence of one universal force of gravity. To Newton, gravity was a force pulling each pair of masses in the universe directly towards each other. So if the Earth pulls the moon straight toward it, why does the moon move in an orbit around the Earth? Using the newly developed calculus, Newton showed that because the moon is in motion, the force of gravity from the Earth bends the moon’s path creating the elliptical orbit that we observe.

Newton took two apparently disparate types of motion and showed that they could be explained as manifestations of one deep underlying principle, the first of several great unifications that have shaped the development of physics.

For you are great and do wondrous deeds; and you alone are God. Psalm 86:10

In the 1700s, the electric force and the magnetic force appeared to be completely unrelated forces. The magnetic force is what attracts and repels magnets from each other, and causes magnets to stick to refrigerators. The electric force is what pulls around electric charges, causing a balloon to stick to wall after you charge it up by rubbing it on your hair. But there does not appear to be any special force between a charged balloon and a refrigerator magnet.

Then, in 1820, while giving a lecture at the University of Copenhagen, the Danish physicist Hans Christian Orsted discovered that an electric current – moving charges – produced a magnetic field and could move a compass needle. Magnets and charges don’t appear to interact when they are at rest. But when charges are in motion, Orsted showed that they can exert a magnetic force. This quickly inspired other physicists to see if the it could work the other way.

In 1831, the English physicist Michael Faraday showed that a moving magnet can create electric forces which can cause the charges in a metal to move, creating an electric current. This is the basic process that causes our electric generators to operate: Spinning magnets create the currents that light our world!

In 1862, this experimental work was finally brought together mathematically by the Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell proposed that electric and magnetic forces were different aspects of one fundamental phenomenon. With one set of equations he unified all that had been done before, and created a theory that made some startling new predictions. Studying these equations, Maxwell discovered that electric and magnetic fields could move together through empty space. A changing electric field could create a changing magnetic field which would in turn create a changing electric field again, in a complete cycle, so that energy could be carried through space as electromagnetic waves. Maxwell calculated that these electromagnetic waves would travel at an enormous speed of about 186,000 miles per second, a speed which closely matched the measured speed of light: Maxwell became the first human in history to understand that light itself is an electromagnetic wave. Even more powerfully the unification of electric and magnetic forces opened up the possibility of other types of electromagnetic waves, and so in 1887 Heinrich Hertz published the first of a series of experiments demonstrating the existence of radio waves.

This great discovery that electric and magnetic forces are the result of a single more fundamental force has shaped our world where we constantly use electromagnetic waves for radio and television transmissions, cellphones, and wireless computer connections.

…one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:6

The 20th century saw the discovery of two new fundamental forces which both seemed completely disconnected from gravity and electromagnetism. Physicists discovered that atoms contain nuclei where positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons are packed into a remarkably tiny volume. Positive charges repel each other with a force that gets stronger when the charges move closer together. So the electric force pushing these protons away from each other must be enormous. Binding these protons so closely must require another force, a fantastically strong force to overwhelm this electrical repulsion and hold the nucleus of an atom together. As a result, physicists dubbed this new force, “the strong nuclear force.”

As physicists probe more deeply into the mysteries of the atom, some unusual types of radiation indicated the existence of yet another force which could cause a neutron to transform into a proton and other particles. This force was dubbed the weak nuclear force. Thus by the mid-20th century, it appeared that our universe was regulated by the action of four distinct forces: gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force.

However, in 1968, Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg proposed a startling new theory. Relying on deep mathematical symmetries, they proposed that electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force were both very different manifestations of a single more fundamental electroweak force. Superficially these two forces could not possibly be more different. The weak nuclear force transforms particles and is so short range that it only works inside the nucleus of an atom, while electromagnetic waves can extend so far that they allow us to see the stars. Yet, a profound

mathematical resonance between these two forces led Glashow, Salam, and Weinberg to propose their remarkable theory, and from this theory they predicted the existence of a completely new particle, the Z boson. When the Z boson was discovered at the CERN laboratory in 1983, the physics world celebrated this amazing triumph. Once again, physicists had discovered that two apparently different phenomena could be unified with a single more fundamental theory.

For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, I Timothy 2:5

Again and again, physicists have discovered deeper and deeper unifications in the fundamental laws of our universe. The more closely we look, the more we discover an essential unity in all things. Today physicists are working hard to unify the known laws of physics even further, with “grand unification theories” that integrate the strong nuclear force with electroweak theory, and even more ambitious ideas like “string theory” and “loop quantum gravity” that bring gravity too into the same system of equations.

The Apparent Paradoxes of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways… Isaiah 55:8

The dawn of the 20th century saw an enormous crisis, as physicists were forced to grapple with new phenomena were so strange that they appeared to be paradoxical.

Consider this experimental fact: Every beam of light will always be measured to travel at the same speed, 300,000 kilometers per second, no matter how the emitter of the light is moving or how the receiver of the light is moving. Imagine that you are in a spaceship and someone in another spaceship flashes a beam of light toward you. When you measure the speed of that approaching beam of light, you will get the same speed whether your friend’s ship is flying towards you or away from you. If you were to turn on your own rocket engines and fly directly toward that oncoming beam of light, you would expect to measure that the beam of light would be traveling faster, relative to you. If you were to turn on your rocket engines and fly directly away from that oncoming beam of light, you would expect to measure that the beam of light would be traveling slower, relative to you. Yet, careful measurements make this matter clear: All observers always measures every beam of light as traveling at the exact same speed, no matter how they move relative to the beam of light. This strange fact was first indicated in 1887 by the Michelson–Morley experiment performed at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Over the past century this reality has been confirmed in numerous experiments, and is used every day by our modern GPS system. In order to accurately pinpoint a location on the surface of the Earth using radio waves from moving satellites, the system must account for the fact that the speed of light is constant, no matter how the satellites are moving.

This bizarre reality seems contradictory. It appears to defy our most fundamental definitions of what speed and motion are all about. Yet, in 1905, Albert Einstein showed that there is a logic to this strange phenomenon. Just because something defies our intuition and contradicts our expectation does not mean it is irrational. Einstein showed that this is only a paradox if we assume that time and length

are universal constants. Speed is what we calculate when we take a distance traveled and divide this by the travel time to get miles per hour, meters per second, or some other measure of speed. If time and distance are the same for all observers, then all speeds must be relative and depend on the motion of the observer. To cause all observers to measure the same speed of light, no matter how they move, different observers must disagree about time and length. The time between two events might be one second for me, two seconds for you, and half a second for someone else, if we are all moving differently.

Einstein’s theory of relativity was a startling revelation to the physics community, but it won the day because although it confounds common sense, it is logically consistent, and it accurately explains the experimental data. But just as this revolution was winning acceptance, an even stranger and more disturbing theory was in its infancy, which would soon shatter our common sense more profoundly.

In order to unlock the secrets of the atom and explain the actions of individual electrons required an entirely new way of thinking. Electrons are bound to the nucleus of an atom by the electric force, because their negative charge is attracted to the positive charge of the protons in the nucleus. So early models of the atom proposed that electrons orbited around the nucleus due to the electric force in the same way that planets orbit around the Sun due to the gravitational force. However, this simple model didn’t explain the strange behavior of electrons, sending physicists back to the drawing board. You see, a planet can orbit around the Sun at any distance, depending on how much energy it has. The more mechanical energy a planet contains, the farther away from the sun it will orbit. However, experiments quickly demonstrated that inside an atom, electrons could only orbit at certain specific distance away from the nucleus. Why would that be? To explain this odd behavior required physicists to completely reimagine the nature of an electron.

Rather than thinking of electrons as being particles orbiting a nucleus, like planets orbiting the sun, in 1924 the French physicist Louis de Broglie proposed that electrons are more like musical notes resonating in an instrument, like a trumpet. Louis de Broglie proposed that electrons act like waves. Consider this: the length of a trumpet tube controls the notes that can be played. For a given tube length, there is a specific set of notes that can be played on the trumpet, which fit different numbers of wavelengths into the tube. There is a lowest possible note that the trumpeter can play, then by putting more energy into the lips the trumpeter can play a note an octave higher, but the trumpeter cannot play any notes between these two, because these would not resonate within that length of tube. The theory of waves explains a certain length of trumpet tube can only play a certain set of notes, and in exactly the same way, Louis de Broglie’s theory explained why electrons can only orbit at certain distances away from the nucleus. He showed that an electron will sometimes behave like a particle, a tiny point with one specific location, and sometimes like a wave which can spread out and fill an enormous volume, in the same way that the sound wave from a trumpet can fill a room. If you fire an electron at a screen, first it spreads out like a wave, but when it hits the screen, it turns back into a particle and we see its flash of energy at one specific point on the screen.

But here’s the crux of the problem: When the electron transforms from a big spread-out wave into a single point particle, exactly where will this point be? How does our universe decide exactly where within the broad electron-wave we will see that single flash of electron energy? The answer

shook the physics community to its foundations: It’s random. It happens by chance. When the electron wave hits the screen, the universe picks the electron’s location in a completely unpredictable way. The quantum theory describes a precise distribution of randomness, which can be tested by using enormous numbers of electrons in our experiments, but the location of each individual electron cannot be predicted. The quantum theory says that randomness is woven into the very fabric of our universe at the deepest level. This contradicted physicists’ common sense about what a theory of physics was supposed to say. Einstein himself was so dismayed by this bizarre discovery that he refused to believe it, saying, “God does not play dice!” He spent the rest of his life trying to find another theory which would explain the strange behavior of electrons without the distasteful random factor.

Almost a century later the quantum theory has survived every experimental test with flying colors. After decades of looking for other alternatives the physics community has been forced to accept that randomness is an essential part of the laws of our universe. Even though it contradicts our common sense about what a law of physics should be, the quantum theory works. Initially it appears strange and irrational, but as we study it, we realize that there is a logic to it. The quantum theory is a rational system, even though it is alien to our common sense.

How often do the scriptures tell us that God’s ways are not our ways? Consider the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Defying all expectations of common sense, the owner of the vineyard chooses to pay all the workers equally, no matter how many or how few hours they worked. Although it violates the common sense of the workers, the owner has his own system for choosing how he will distribute his rewards.

The Big Bang: Echoes of Genesis

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Genesis 1:1-4

A century ago, most scholars in Europe and America thought that our universe had always been here. They thought our universe was infinitely old, that it had no beginning, and that our universe was static, eternal, and essentially unchanging. When Albert Einstein was developing his general theory of relativity, his new theory of gravity, he was quite disturbed to discover that his equations indicated that the universe as a whole should be changing, expanding, contracting, or evolving in some way. Even if all the galaxies of the universe were at rest for one moment, then gravity should then pull them all together, causing the universe to contract over time. Einstein was certain that the universe was unchanging, and so in 1917 he a term to his equations which he called a “cosmological constant,” a pressure from empty space which could oppose the attraction of gravity, and cause the universe to stand still.

Then, in 1927 a young Roman Catholic priest and scientist, Father Georges Lemaître began using Einstein’s equations of gravity to create a revolutionary new theory that we now call “the big bang theory.” In 1931 he proposed that our universe had a beginning, a point in which time itself began.

Einstein was initially very skeptical of this new theory, saying “Your calculations are correct, but your physics is atrocious.” Einstein was concerned that this priest was being inspired more by the book of Genesis than by hard-nosed science.

While Lemaître was doing his theoretical work, the astronomer Edwin Hubble pointed his telescope out at distant galaxies and discovered that our universe is expanding: Galaxies are spreading out through space, getting farther and farther from each other. This means that tomorrow, galaxies will all be a little farther apart and yesterday they were a little closer together. The farther we look into the past, the closer galaxies must have been, until we reach a time when all the galaxies must have been compressed together. At the current rate of expansion, all the galaxies in the universe must have all squeezed together at a time about 14 billion years ago.

Using Einstein’s equations of space and time, Lemaître and others created a theory, a set of mathematical equations, which explains the expansion of the universe we see today. The theory says that the universe began in an instant, when all of space everywhere was filled with hot, dense energy under high pressure. The fires of the big bang equally filled every point in the entire universe. This energy caused space itself to stretch and expand, and as the universe expanded, the energy was smeared out across an ever expanding volume, and so it cooled, turning into first the atoms of hydrogen and helium gas. The momentum of this initial expansion causes the universe to go on expanding to this day.

How can we be sure that this event actually took place? No one was around 14 billion years ago to observe the big bang. However, we can use the big bang equations to make a series of specific predictions about things we can see today. Then astronomers can go to their telescopes and see if these predictions are right.

The first major prediction of the big bang theory came from Russian-American scientist George Gamow and his student Ralph Alpher. In 1948, they used the big bang equations to calculate what types of atoms would have been produced by the big bang. During the big bang, the entire universe was hotter than the core of a star, but only for the first three minutes. This was only enough time to leave the universe with 75% hydrogen gas, 25% helium gas, a few tiny traces of lithium and beryllium atoms, and nothing else. The big bang was not able to create any heavier atoms, no carbon, no iron, no nitrogen, and no oxygen. These heavier atoms must have been created much later, in the cores of stars which eventually exploded, spreading them through our galaxy.

Astronomers have been able to test this prediction by studying clouds of gas out between galaxies, which have never been anywhere near an exploding star. What we have found is amazing: Every intergalactic cloud has precisely the same chemical composition. Every intergalactic cloud is made of the exact mix of atoms predicted by the big bang theory: 75% hydrogen, 25% helium, traces of lithium and beryllium, and not the slightest bit of anything else.

But, the most dramatic prediction from the big bang equations came from Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman, also in 1948. They calculated that because the big bang filled every point in the entire

universe, even after 14 billion years, the afterglow of the big bang should still be out there, filling our sky. In 1965 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered that what we now call the “cosmic microwave background” really does fill the universe. Over the past 50 years, astronomers have measured this afterglow of the big bang with greater and greater precision: It is out there. It is powerful evidence of the reality of the big bang.

There was a beginning. There was a moment of creation.

Our Universe Has Laws

Your word, LORD, stands forever; it is firm as the heavens. Psalms 119:89

At the most fundamental level, physics tells is that our universe has laws. There are rational, logical, consistent principles behind the amazing vast diversity of our universe. We look out and see beautiful structures on all scales, from the vast archipelagoes of galaxies, down to the tiny structures inside the nuclei of atoms, and all of them are governed by the same set of physics laws. We point our telescopes out to the most distant galaxies, ten billion light years away from us, and we see that they composed of hydrogen, helium, carbon, iron, the same types of atoms that we have here on Earth. Everywhere we look, we see the same laws of gravity and electromagnetism, the same forces and energy at work throughout every corner of the universe, on all scales, through all epochs from the present day, back to the age of the big bang itself.

The laws of physics as we know them can be summarized with equations that can fit on one sheet of paper. Yet, when put into action in this vast universe, these laws are sufficient to regulate the motions of particles, atoms, molecules from water to DNA, living tissues, organisms, ecosystems, planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies, and the overarching structure of the universe itself.

The intricate and precise balance of these physical laws is truly astonishing. If any of the laws of nature were changed in even small amount, then our universe would not have formed stars, planets, life, and humans in the way that it did.

Gravity is the weakest fundamental force while the strong nuclear force is the strongest. The balance between these forces is amazingly precise. These forces are delicately poised, governing the intricate chain of events which has led to the development of human intelligence. Just after the big bang, the nuclear and electromagnetic forces were strong enough to form atoms of hydrogen and helium, but not of the heavier elements. Then the force of gravity was strong enough to gather these atoms together to form the first generation of stars, all enormous giants, where intense heat and pressure were sufficient to allow the strong nuclear force to create the atoms of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, which are so essential to human life. Then the interplay between the nuclear reactions and gravity caused these enormous ancient stars to explode, seeding the universe with these elements. Then electromagnetism allowed the gas to cool enough that gravity was able to gather materials together to form a second and third generation of stars, with each generation enriched with the ashes of their forebears. The electromagnetic cooling properties of these heavier elements allowed stars like our sun to form, with a more moderate mass, so that it and others could provide a steady, predictable

source of energy for many billions of years. From here the interplay of electromagnetic forces and quantum effects allowed amazingly complex chemistry to flourish in the oceans of the young Earth, which led to the development of the first living cells.

If any one of the four forces was just a little bit weaker or stronger, then it is difficult to see how the delicate chain of events which lead from the big bang to the evolution of intelligent life on earth could have happened. The beauty, the structure, and the balance of these fundamental physics laws, is truly awe inspiring.

Resonances in Scripture and Science

In this essay we have explored four points of resonance between the Creator revealed in the scriptures, and the science of physics. (1) The scriptures describe the unity of God, how there is only one Creator, one Author of all things. At the same time, unification is one of the central organizing principles of physics. Many of the more important developments in physics have come from finding a single deep theory which explains two apparently disparate phenomena, whether this is the motion of the apple and the moon, the operation of electric and magnetic forces, or the seemingly different natures of the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces. (2) The scriptures tell us that God’s ways are very different from ours, at odds with our common sense. The discovery of Einsteinian relativity and the quantum theory revealed aspects of physical law so strange that they seemed paradoxical in the context of our expectations. (3) The scriptures tell us that our universe had a beginning, a moment when it first came into existence. Modern physics clearly establishes that our universe did indeed begin with a single big bang event. (4) The scriptures tell us of a Creator who is steadfast and true, a Creator who is reliable and stalwart through all things. At the most basic level, physics reveals that our universe has laws, and these laws are constant to the most distant views of our telescopes, to the deepest center of atomic nuclei, and throughout the entire history of the universe.

I’ll never forget the amazing moment of discovery when I did the Millikan oil drop experiment for myself as a college. I squirted a faint mist of oil droplets into the air from a little rubber bottle. Then I shined a bright light onto the droplets from the side, and looking through a microscope I could see a few of these tiny drops as they drifted down through the air, pulled by gravity. Next, I switched on an electric field. Some of the droplets had no electric charge, and continued drifting down at the same rate. But a few of the drops had picked up a little static charge, and they responded, dancing in my microscope as I twisted the knob, changing the electric force on them. I adjusted the voltage until one single drop hung motionless in the air, as the force of gravity pulling it down was exactly equal to my electric force pulling it up. This voltage then told me how much electric charge was on the droplet.

Over the course of an hour, I measured the electric charge on a dozen different oil drops and the results were amazingly clear. About half of the droplets carried exactly one electron’s worth of charge. Several of them had exactly two electrons of charge, and a couple had three electrons of charge. The data from my simple little experiment clearly measured exactly how much charge is carried by each electron. With a microscope and a few odds and ends, I personally measured one of the fundamental constants of the universe.

For me, physics is a deeply spiritual experience. Physics is a science based on careful, painstaking measurements of reality stitched together with subtle works of mathematical creativity. I treasure those special rare moments when patterns emerge, when beautiful, striking relationships of amazing power arise out of the fog, and when I see the fingerprints of the Creator.

Image credit for the Seagull Nebula: ESO

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss Tabby’s Star, the meaning of “up,” time dilation, and Christian scientists.

HD, a retired school teacher, writes in with several interesting questions.

I wondered….Could the structures observed around the Tabby star that are postulated be the constructs of the new Jerusalem that is being constructed to come to Earth some day?

She is referring to the star, KIC 8462852, sometimes referred to as Tabby’s Star. This peculiar object captured people’s imaginations after scientists admitted they haven’t been able to explain irregular changes in the amount of light it’s emitting. Observations suggest a close formation of small objects is surrounding the star, blocking out some of its light. One idea is that these objects could be a swarm of comets (see artist’s impression below), while another idea is that they are some form of “alien superstructure.” (Neither idea turns out to be well supported by observational data.)

PIA20053

HD’s idea is novel and interesting, but I think it’s unlikely for the simple reason that Revelation 21 tells us God is going to scrap this universe and start over with a new creation.

And when Jesus says “I have not yet ascended to my Father” and speaks many many times of Heaven…then it is a for sure thing. We can count on it. It is real. It is there. And….it is up. (ascend) So as a scientist who studies space, can you tell me ….where is up?? If I am in Gulfport, I can point up. On the other side of the planet, someone else can point up. So where, scientifically….is up??

“Up” in terms of space and in terms of scripture are two different things. In space, “up” is more accurately described as “out,” as shown below.

up1

up2

When Jesus talks about ascension, I don’t think He is going “up” (i.e. out) from the planet the way a rocket ship does, but rather He is transcending the universe similar to the way a three-dimensional creature would transcend a two-dimensional world. This animated sequence narrated by Carl Sagan illustrates the principle:

Then I saw a special on National Geographic about an experiment on distance and time. Using two atomic clocks, synchronized to perfection, one was left at the bottom of a tall mountain. One was taken to the very top. I think it was four days later the clock from the top of the mountain was brought down. There was a tiny, miniscule difference in time.   So, if 1,000 years are like a day to God (Scripture), how far out would you have to travel to have the 1,000 years equal to a day on Earth?

Gravitational time dilation results from differences in gravity. Despite the fact that it’s difficult for us to escape Earth’s gravity, it’s actually pretty weak, so there’s not much difference between the flow of time on the surface of the Earth and the flow of time out in deep space. It’s enough of a difference that engineers have to account for it, otherwise things like GPS wouldn’t work,  however, it’s not nearly enough to dilate time so that 1,000 years on Earth would be like a day for someone in deep space.

So, the question isn’t how far out you would have to travel in space to make 1,000 years equal a day, but how deeply into a gravitational field you’d have to go before time dilates that much. Turns out, it’s pretty deep, as in just a hair outside of the event horizon of a black hole.

It is amazing that more scientists haven’t become Christians.

There was a time when most scientists were Christian, particularly so in Newton’s time. It’s seems strange from our modern perspective, but in the 17th century, one had to be an ordained Anglican priest in order to hold a professorship at Cambridge. In the 17th century, American universities like Harvard and Princeton were religious institutions.

An entire thesis could be written on the subject, but suffice it to say, somewhere along the way Christianity not only ceased to be the dominant cultural force in the academic world, but academia became hostile to it. Still, the evidence for some kind of conscious creative force is there, and I suspect most scientists know it. English Nobel laureate physicist, George Thomson, observed, “Probably every physicist would believe in a creation if the Bible had not unfortunately said something about it many years ago and made it seem old-fashioned.” I think this is very much the case.

Image credit for Tabby’s Star: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Austin Event: John Lennox and Steven Weinberg

UPDATE: Sadly, Professor Weinberg has withdrawn from this event. Philosophy professor Daniel Bonevac will take his place, and the event will proceed as planned.

Also, for some reason, “Veritas Forum” has been scrubbed from the promotional materials, so the new poster is below.

For those of you in the Austin, Texas area, the Veritas Forum is hosting a dialogue between John Lennox and Steven Weinberg Daniel Bonevac. For those who can’t make it, Veritas tends to post videos of their events on their website, so check in with them afterward.

_Has_Science_Rendered_Belief_in_God_Irrelevant_postcard_front

 

Science as true worship, Part II

truth

Part II: The truth will set you free

In Part I, we talked about the Christian influence on the philosophy of science and the increasing corruption of science the further it moves from its Christian roots. I identified the two significant corruptors of science as

  1. the desire for worldly approval.
  2. the desire to cling to a cherished idea or worldview.

Christianity acts as a brake on these corruptors, because encoded in the Christian way of life is the struggle to resist worldly things and to embrace the truth (John 8:32), however difficult it might seem.

As we discussed before, this does not mean Christians are immune to these corrupting influences, and particularly have to guard against dismissing uncomfortable truths because they go against a cherished interpretation of scripture. I promised Christians a way to avoid this trap, and here it is.

Have faith and go where the evidence leads.

Do not be afraid of the truth, because the truth will set you free. That’s how you avoid falling into trap #2. If you truly believe God is the sovereign creator of the universe, then honest scientific inquiry can only reveal truths about God’s character.

So, have faith and go where the evidence leads.

How that works in practical terms is up to you. You can take the approach of Georges Lemaître, and compartmentalize your religious and scientific views, or you can take the approach of Gerald Schroeder or Hugh Ross and attempt to reconcile the two. It will astonish no one that I favor the latter, since that’s what this blog and ministry is all about.

In my last few posts, I repeatedly hammered on the importance of evidence in science, and how that standard is gradually being eroded. Mostly I have criticized atheists for this, but Christians are guilty of it, as well. As Christians, we must not abandon that standard out of a misguided sense of devotion to scripture, but rather uphold that standard as being fully according to God’s will.

Here is a lesson in the importance of empiricism from an unlikely source:

While experience tells us plainly that the earth is standing still, if there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe … and that the sun does not go round the earth but the earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.

These words were spoken by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who was head of the Inquisition that prosecuted Galileo. As Dinesh D’Souza commented in his book, What’s So Great About Christianity, this is a model of sensible procedure. D’Souza goes on to say:

Bellarmine assumed that there could be no real conflict between science and scripture, which is what Christianity has always taught. Consequently, he argued, if we have been reading scripture one way and the natural evidence shows that we are wrong, then we need to revise our interpretation of scripture and acknowledge our mistake. But first let us make sure that there is in fact conclusive scientific proof before we start changing scriptural interpretations that have been taught for a very long time.

It’s unfortunate that Galileo’s arguments in favor of heliocentrism were flawed, otherwise Bellarmine might well have been convinced. (If you want to read more about Galileo’s run-in with the church, go here.)

History treats the Church rather unfairly with regard to the Galileo affair, because we know in hindsight that Galileo was right (albeit for the wrong reasons), and we now have no difficulty reconciling scripture with the notion that the Earth moves around the Sun. In Bellarmine’s time, there was no conclusive scientific proof of heliocentrism, so he and others like him should be forgiven. We, however, are at the point where there is “conclusive scientific proof” of the very old age of the universe and the Earth, among other things. It is time for Christians to revise our interpretation of scripture, and understand how an old universe is consistent with a literal interpretation of Genesis.

Have faith and go where the evidence leads. And here is why you should not be afraid to do so.

Science does not progress in timid little steps, but in courageous leaps. The history of science is full of revolutionaries who had the courage and perseverance to go where the evidence led, and as a result overturned old, incomplete ideas and replaced them with new ones that have given us astounding insights into the workings of the universe and the character of its Creator.

Here are just a few scientists who had the faith to go where the evidence leads:

  • Copernicus: Overturned the almost 2,000 year-old Earth-centered model of the universe with a model in which the Earth goes around the Sun. The heliocentric model represented the beginning of the scientific revolution.
  • Galileo: Demonstrated the importance of observation and experiment in science, and was one of the first scientists to emphasize the mathematical nature of physical laws. He also laid the groundwork for Newton’s laws of motion and Einstein’s relativity.
  • Newton: Though he made many important contributions, he is best known for uniting the heavens and the Earth with his law of universal gravitation. Newton’s work represented the closing book end of the scientific revolution.
  • Lemaître: Demonstrated mathematically that the universe isn’t necessarily static and eternal, but could be expanding and finite in time. His dedicated work on this idea earned him the informal title of “Father of the big bang.”
  • Planck: Discovered a solution to the so-called “ultraviolet catastrophe” and in the process discovered that energy in particles is quantized. His work kicked off the quantum revolution, and earned him the informal title of “Father of quantum mechanics.”
  • Einstein: With his special and general relativity, he expanded our understanding of gravity and overturned the rigid and distinct concepts of space and time with the concept of a flexible spacetime.

Note that all but one of these men were Christian. Copernicus and Lemaître were both priests, and Newton wrote more about theology than anything else combined. Einstein, though not Christian, characterized his immense curiosity about the natural world as “wanting to know God’s thoughts.”

Science is true worship. The question is, does science worship the world or God? If it abandons empiricism and places anything ahead of the search for truth, it worships the world. If it embraces empiricism and goes where the evidence leads, it worships God.

We will discuss the ways in which science is currently being corrupted in Part III.

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we expose the intellectual dishonesty of a commenter and a few scientists.

“Allallt” commented on the Science as true worship, Part I post:

I am currently in my 5th year of study at a university, I worked alongside a biologist for a year, I lived with two doctors, and although I don’t mean to imply that you are lying, I have never met a single person who claimed to know a deficiency in evolution that kept quiet about.
I’ve never met a scientist who thought they could disprove another scientist, who didn’t take the opportunity and the pay for the paper they published.
‘Science’ is a collection of scientists in different universities in different countries publishing in different journal articles. I’m not sure they have the structure to keep such a conspiracy going.
None of this makes biologists right about evolution. But it does mean I am very sceptical of your opening story about a scientist who not only claims to know the deficiencies in evolution, but also thinks everyone else knows but everyone is just a part of a big global conspiracy.

You know you’re dealing with an intellectually dishonest person when he says he doesn’t mean to do something, but does it anyway. As I pointed out to him in my response, I did not say there was a big global conspiracy. Biologists are forthright about the work they’re doing, but they’re not always forthright about the conclusions. Until now, I had assumed it was not always deliberate, and that some scientists are just so locked into a particular paradigm that they can’t admit the obvious — that Darwin’s theory is flawed — to themselves, let alone to the public. However, after reading the following, I’m starting to doubt that.

When I was young, Stephen Jay Gould was derided, as was Carl Sagan. Of Gould, John Maynard Smith, Emeritus Professor at Sussex, once wrote, “Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.” [emphasis added]

This was precisely the point of my anecdote about the biology student who didn’t want to “hand a victory to Christians” with any public admission of flaws in Darwin’s theory. Actual biologists are well aware of Darwin’s deficiencies. The reason most of the general public is not is because any criticisms are deliberately held back from public discourse. So, while there is no global conspiracy to hide the research, how many nonbiologists are going to read through journal papers or even popular level science books with the necessary rigor to realize that Darwin’s theory is as scientifically dead as geocentric theory? Not many, and those who do are derided as “deniers” or “creationists.”

All of this dissembling and labeling betrays an incredibly unscientific attitude, and shows to what degree ideology rules certain scientific fields (see also: climate change). Contrast this with the way physicists openly and even joyfully discuss serious challenges to one of the most successful and widely-accepted theories in physics, the standard model of particle physics:

“It was so weird that people were forced to chuck their favorite theories and start from scratch,” Adam Martin, co-author of the paper, said in a press release. “That’s a fun area of particle physics. We’re looking into the unknown. Is it one new particle? Is it two new particles?”

The LHC’s data shows two deviations from events expected by the Standard Model, which is the theoretical foundation of particle physics. The recent paper examines four possible explanations for the deviations, one of them being a heavier version of the Higgs boson. Further research may open up doors for new models in particle physics or lead to a mundane, anticlimactic explanation, according to Martin.

“People are still cautiously optimistic,” he said. “Everybody knows that with more data, it could just go away. If it stays, it’s potentially really, really, really exciting.”

Science as true worship, Part I

Part I: The Christian roots of the philosophy of science

When I was a grad student, I had a brief conversation with a biology grad at another university. We talked about evolution, and when I brought up some criticisms of Darwinism, I expected him to push back. Instead, he told me that biologists were well aware of its deficiencies. I was taken aback by this, because we certainly don’t hear about them in the popular news, let alone in classrooms. I asked him why biologists weren’t publicly acknowledging these deficiencies, and he said, “We don’t want to hand a victory to Christians.” I was floored by this response, because it was one of the most unscientific things I’d ever heard anyone say.

Unfortunately, this sort of dogmatic and unscientific approach to science is becoming more prevalent the more science becomes divorced from its Christian roots. It also trickles down to the popular level, especially with the “I f—ing love science” crowd. These are the people who neither understand how science works nor respect its limitations. You can often recognize them by the way they declare “evolution is a fact” or say that the science of climate change is “settled” or refer to anyone who is skeptical of popular opinion as a “denier.”

But it’s not just the science fetishizers; many people, even some who practice science, fail to understand that science is not merely a body of facts and explanations, but that it’s a system of knowledge held together by a particular worldview. This is what’s referred to as the philosophy of science. From Wikipedia:

Philosophy of science is a branch of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions concern what counts as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the purpose of science.

However, we can express it more simply:

  • The purpose of science is the search for truth about our material universe.
  • Any discipline or process that follows all of the available evidence counts as science.
  • The scientific pursuit of truth is based on the faith that our universe (including our own minds) operates according to natural laws.
  • Everything else is elaboration and details.

Recently, I discussed the Christian foundation of modern science, which consists of three core principles:

  1. Christian belief: the utterly counterintuitive biblical notion of linear time.
  2. Christian faith: faith in a deliberately ordered and knowable universe created by a rational being.
  3. Christian purpose: the obligation to test every claim; an obligation to understand God through study of the natural world.

There would be no modern science without #1 and #2. I said in a previous post that it could perhaps be argued, in principle, that while #3 did in fact play a significant role in the development of modern science, it was not absolutely necessary. In practice, however, I believe #3 is as essential as the first two.

newton

It is an undeniable fact that the great pioneers of modern science were Christians who wanted to know the mind of God. From Mitch Stokes’ biography of Isaac Newton:

For Newton, “To be constantly engaged in studying and probing into God’s actions was true worship.” This idea defined the seventeenth-century scientist, and in many cases, the scientists doubled as theologians.

I am not saying a person has to be Christian in order to be a good scientist. Just as you can have moral individuals who aren’t religious, you can have good scientists who aren’t Christians. But by the same token, just as you can’t have a moral society without religion, you can’t have a thriving scientific culture without Christianity.

As with any institution, the continued survival of science depends, not on the beliefs and conduct of a few individuals, but rather on the overall vigor of its culture. Science that is mostly practiced by people who believe what they are doing is a form of true worship is less susceptible to corruption than science that is mostly practiced by people who are motivated by other considerations.

There are many reasons science can go off the rails, but history and human nature tell us that the two greatest corrupting influences on science are:

  1. the desire for approval. Sometimes this is to gain social acceptance or accolades, but it is also sometimes necessary to maintain employment or funding.
  2. the desire to cling to a cherished idea or worldview.

Christians are not immune to these corrupting influences. We are all fallen and we live in a fallen world, after all. But the point is, a sincere desire to understand the mind of God is far less likely to lead to corruption than a desire to win someone’s approval or to get a lot of money. Christianity is necessary to resist this corrupting influence, not because Christians are inherently better people, but because the struggle against the desire for worldly things is coded into the Christian way of life.

But how do Christians guard themselves against the desire to cling to a cherished idea? No matter how principled you might be, it is still possible to fall into the trap of ignoring uncomfortable facts and conclusions because they seem to contradict your favorite interpretation of scripture. However, not surprisingly, all it takes is faith to avoid this trap.

In Part II, we’ll look at a lesson on good science from an unlikely source, some of the great Christian revolutionaries in science, and where science is falling into corruption.

Why do scientists believe in untestable theories?

strings

That is the question being asked by philosophers of science.

Physicists have long relied on a notion advanced by philosopher Karl Popper, that a theory is scientifically valid if it is falsifiable. But in recent years, many serious physicists seem to have abandoned this model. String theory, for example, is one of the most exciting ideas in modern physics. But it’s not testable—so how can physicists be confident that it’s sound?

Physical science is increasingly moving in the direction of accepting ideas that are practically or fundamentally untestable, but, contrary to popular sentiment, the reasons for it are not arbitrary.

According to philosophy of science researcher, Richard Dawid, there are three reasons a physicist will believe in an untestable theory:

  1. the theory is the only game in town; there are no other viable theories.
  2. the theoretical research program has produced successes in the past.
  3. the theory turns out to have even more explanatory power than originally thought.

Any of these arguments by themselves is not enough to convince a physicist that an untested theory has merit, but all three together are pretty powerful. That said, this powerful combination still doesn’t replace empiricism as the gold standard for determining scientific truth. It’s as though we’re circling back to the protoscientific methodology of the ancient Greeks, who relied on thought experiments, because they mistrusted experience. While it’s true that our perceptions can be subjective, the history of science clearly points to the superiority of thought + empiricism over thought alone.

My personal opinion as to why a lack of empirical support in science seems to matter less and less is that the empirical nature of physical science is rooted in Christianity, and science is increasingly divorced from its Christian roots. I’ll discuss this more next week.

Image credit: String Theory II by Digital Blasphemy 3d Wallpaper

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss an atheist’s not-so-clever attempt to dismiss the Argument from Contingency and the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

JB is arguing science and faith with an atheist friend and asked for a bit of help with the science. JB’s friend sent him a link to “Arizona Atheist,” who attempts to refute two of William Lane Craig’s arguments for God’s existence. Despite AA’s bold claim to have “demolished” Craig’s arguments, it is in reality such a weak and muddled attempt that it hardly seems worth commenting on. However, since it’s apparently cited with some frequency by those seeking to refute Craig’s arguments, it’s worth getting into it.

The first argument is the Argument from Contingency, which goes like this (quoted from the link):

1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
3. The universe exists.
4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1, 3).
5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God (from 2, 4).

Now this is a logically airtight argument. That is to say, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is unavoidable. It doesn’t matter if we don’t like the conclusion. It doesn’t matter if we have other objections to God’s existence. So long as we grant the three premises, we have to accept the conclusion. So the question is this: Which is more plausible–that those premises are true or that they are false?

Since the logic is airtight, the only way to attack this argument is to show that any of its premises are wrong. AA goes after Premise 1:

According to modern physics, however things can seemingly happen without cause. There are several things we observe that appear to have no cause. For example, “[w]hen an atom in an excited energy level drops to a lower level and emits a photon, a particle of light, we find no cause of that event. Similarly, no cause is evident in the decay of a radioactive nucleus.”

This constitutes a very weak attack on Premise 1, for two reasons:

  1. Just because we find no cause doesn’t mean there is no cause. Note the tacit acknowledgement of this with hedge words like “seemingly” and “evident.”
  2. AA has misunderstood the argument. The Argument from Contingency doesn’t address events, it addresses existence. The photon exists, and it most certainly has a cause — an electron in an atom dropping from a higher energy level to a lower energy level. The products of radioactive decay exist, and they likewise have a cause — radioactive decay of a nucleus.

Next, AA goes after the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which goes like this:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument is similar to the Argument from Contingency, but differs in that it rests on the “controversial” nature of Premise 2. (As we’ll see, it’s only controversial in the sense that you can sort of dispute the standard interpretation of big bang cosmology if you accept some strange assumptions.) AA therefore primarily goes after Premise 2, but not before first dismissing Premise 1, again on the erroneous basis that “things can seem to happen without cause.” (Note how he once again hedges and does not state that things do happen without cause, just that they “can seem to.”)

AA then goes on to attack Premise 2 in one of the most desperately feeble attempts to dismiss reason and evidence I have ever seen. (Why are atheists constantly held up as champions of reason? I have seen no evidence that this stereotype is warranted.)

Craig supports the validity of Premise 2 with both philosophical and scientific arguments against an infinitely old universe. For the latter, he cites work by theoretical physicist Alexander Vilenkin, who figures prominently in AA’s refutation.

AA awkwardly begins his refutation by stating,

Again, as I’ve said already, just because Craig can’t imagine an infinite universe doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Simply arguing that it’s impossible without any proof is no argument.

Craig rejects an infinitely old universe, not on the basis of his inability to imagine an infinitely old universe, but on the basis of what he demonstrates is a logical impossibility. At this point, it is incumbent on AA to show in what way Craig’s philosophical argument for Premise 2 is flawed or to provide evidence contradicting it, but he doesn’t do this. Instead, he supplies a quote from Vilenkin, which is irrelevant, because it doesn’t address any of the premises, but instead disagrees with the interpretation that Premise 3 implies the cause is necessarily God*.

Okay, now for the bit where AA completely abandons any reasonable standard for evidence and reason. The prevailing paradigm of modern physics is that the universe began to exist somewhere (somewhen?) between 11 and 17 billion years ago in a sudden event called the big bang. There is loads of evidence for the big bang, which is why virtually no one believes the steady-state cosmological model anymore. Now, even though the standard interpretation has been that the big bang represents the creation of the universe from complete and total nothing, there’s a wrinkle: in actuality, it’s not entirely clear what sort of a beginning the big bang represents. In spite of the mounds of evidence supporting the big bang, there is a limit to what we can know about it. As physicist Alan Guth put it, the big bang theory “gives not even a clue about what banged, what caused it to bang, or what happened before it banged.”

AA rests his entire case against the Kalam Cosmological Argument on this wrinkle, even after Vilenkin’s commentary on it should have convinced him otherwise.

Vilenkin is an author of a theorem that shows pretty conclusively that the universe cannot be past-infinite; in other words, it has a finite age. But does this necessarily imply a beginning? In a correspondence AA initiated between Vilenkin and the late atheist physicist, Victor Stenger, Vilenkin comments that his theorem does not prove that the universe must have had a beginning, however

…it proves that the expansion of the universe must have had a beginning. You can evade the theorem by postulating that the universe was contracting prior to some time.

First of all, it doesn’t disprove that the universe had a beginning. Second, what this essentially means is that the big bang could represent, not the beginning, but one of many “beginnings.” If the universe is cyclical, that is, if it bangs and expands and then contracts and crunches, and does this over and over for eternity, then the universe is effectively eternal, and this is what supposedly negates Premise 2.

That could kind of, sort of maybe present a very weak argument against Premise 2 — its chief drawback being that not only is there no evidence for it, there is no known way to test it — except that AA inexplicably goes on to quote Vilenkin stating that it also happens to be theoretically impossible given what we assume about the nature of time, and that even if we grant that something very weird happens at time = 0 to allow a contracting universe, it still effectively supports Premise 2:

This sounds as if there is nothing wrong with having contraction prior to expansion. But the problem is that a contracting universe is highly unstable. Small perturbations would cause it to develop all sorts of messy singularities, so it would never make it to the expanding phase. That is why Aguirre & Gratton and Carroll & Chen had to assume that the arrow of time changes at t = 0. This makes the moment t = 0 rather special. I would say no less special than a true beginning of the universe.

So, AA’s refutation of Premise 2, his “demolishment” of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, rests not on the standard, accepted interpretation of the prevailing paradigm of cosmology — that the universe began to exist billions of years ago — but on the untested, unproved possibility that Vilenkin’s theory is wrong, that you can somehow get around a beginning, but at the cost of accepting something that is “no less special than a true beginning of the universe.”

I’m genuinely confused by AA’s response to Vilenkin’s comments. How much do you have to hate evidence and reason to read Vilenkin’s responses to these questions about his theorem and still conclude that it supports your case?

Having gone through this exercise, the absolute worst you can say about the Kalam Cosmological Argument is that Premise 2 is not 100% proven. But we already knew that. If you know anything at all about how science works, you know that nothing in science is a done deal — you can’t ever prove beyond doubt that any scientific theory is true — which is why Craig says “that for an argument to be a good one the premises need to be probably true in light of the evidence.” That is the standard by which all of modern science has operated for centuries. For something to be considered “true,” it only needs to be probably true based on a preponderance of evidence to support it and with no evidence to seriously contradict it. By this standard, it is true that our universe began to exist 13.8 billion years ago — which means we are reasonably assured Premise 2 is true, and therefore the Kalam Cosmological Argument is a legitimate argument. Given the weight of evidence and reason, it is far more supported than an untested — and untestable — theoretical exercise in exploring alternatives.

AA says he does not think philosophy is the best way to get at the truth; it’s reasonable to assume that he thinks science is, and yet he does his level best to ignore it to avoid accepting the conclusions of two very powerful arguments in favor of God.

Incidentally, two years after AA posted his attempted refutation of Craig’s arguments, Vilenkin announced — at Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday celebration, no less — that there is just no getting around a beginning for the universe.

—–

* I don’t know what Vilenkin’s arguments are against Premise 3 implying the cause is necessarily God, but there is a case, however weak, to be made on the basis of an eternally expanding and contracting model of the universe. If it’s correct, it renders God superfluous. However, not only is this model theoretically unlikely, it’s physically untestable.

Astronomy in a nutshell

 

ngc1569

If a flea paused in his epic journey through
the weave of the homespun trews of an ale-sodden
Hebrides husbandman, and bent its thoughts on the
grand design of the cloth, striving to grasp not just
the mechanics of the warp and weft of the loom,
but the overarching vision of the weaver, would
you be surprised?

If a single note in a symphony, battered and whirled
by woodwinds and violins, paused for a heartbeat
to consider and assemble a vision, not just of
the entire piece of music, but the conductor and
composer behind the oeuvre, would that raise an
eyebrow?

Yet, astronomers, the carbon of their cellular
structures the product of some helpless exploding star
aeons ago, look out upon the entire cosmos, and ponder:
niggling away at countless points of light, in
search of a reason for every detail of its component
weave of light and sound; every aspect of its overall
structure bent by their basilisk gaze. All the while,
swept along willy-nilly on a tiny dust-mote planet,
scorched by an incandescent sun, gnawing on other
carbon life-forms for their sustenance, and quenching
their thirst with dihydrogen monoxide and knowledge
(and maybe beer as well).

The cosmos, looking down on this, can only gasp in
amazement at the unmitigated intrepidity, the
sheer audacity, of these tiny beings and their
grandiose goals and dreams. And that courage, that
vision, in a nutshell, is astronomy.

— G. P. Orris

Dwarf galaxy NGC 1569 image credit: NASA/Hubble