Two Ways Scientists Justify the Big Bang + Why this Matters

An important philosophical argument for God’s existence is called the Kalam Cosmological Argument. It is deceptively simple to describe:

1 – Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2 – The universe began to exist.

3 – Therefore the universe has a cause.

When you explore the candidates for the cause of the universe, you find that only God meets the necessary criteria (timeless, spaceless, immaterial, powerful, personal, transcendent).

One of the fascinating things about this argument is that modern science and cosmology give solid support to premise 2 – “The universe began to exist.”

The ancient Greeks supposed that matter was eternal, ordered by the gods, and so the universe was eternal too. Hebrew thought introduced the idea that the universe was created ex nihilo (from nothing). It was a Muslim philosopher, Al Ghazili, who first posited the Kalam in the 12th century to challenge lingering Greek influences around the nature of the universe.

Today, while there are cool philosophical arguments that support both premises of the Kalam, I’m going to highlight some cool scientific supporting evidences in this blog.[1]

 

Premise 2 of the Kalam says that “The universe began to exist.” Do we know that scientifically?

 

1 – The Expansion of the Universe

Einstein discovered when forming his General Theory of Relativity that the universe behaves either like it is expanding, like on the surface of an expanding balloon, or contracting as if someone was letting the air out of it. Friedman and Lematre confirmed this with their own theory.

And then – Edwin Hubble made a fascinating discovery. Thru his telescope, as he looked into the sky, he began to notice something. Light waves from the distant galaxies had a red shift. What does this mean?

What happens when you hear an Ambulance in the distance…and it gets closer and closer to you? The sound of the siren changes. What does it do? The pitch gets higher. That’s because the sound waves emanating from the siren that hit your ear are getting squeezed closer together. And when the ambulance passes you…what happens then? The pitch drops again, because the sound waves are extending again.

Well, light also has properties that cause it to behave like a wave. And the red shift is the equivalent to the ambulance passing you and driving away. The red shift is extending of the light waves. And this is evidence that the galaxies are moving away from us. It’s almost as if we are at the centre of a cosmic explosion – but we’re not. If space is like an inflating balloon, and all the galaxies sit on the surface, then from the point of any one of those galaxies, everything is moving away as the balloon inflates. If space is expanding, then there must have been a point when this expansion started.

Scientists refer to the initial cosmological singularity, the boundary when both space and time started. Energy and matter were created at that point – the Big Bang. It’s not that something exploded in space at the Big Bang. Rather – at that event, everything came into existence.

Scientists appeal to the red shift evidence to support this theory. And the expansion rate of the universe might be variable too. But none of those negates premise 2 of the Kalam. It supports it. They also observe cosmic background radiation, which seems to be a residue from the Big Bang event. The universe observably had a beginning.

In 2003, Borde Guth and Vilenkin added to this understanding when they observed that any universe that has been expending (such as ours) cannot be infinite in the past. Rather, it must have an initial space time boundary.

 

2 – The Thermodynamic Properties of the Universe

The second law of thermodynamics states that unless energy is being fed into a system, that system will become increasingly disorderly. You can think of this a little turning on the hot tap in a warm bath. The hot water enters the system and the hot water gradually dissipates, until the temperature is consistent everywhere. When it comes to the universe, the second law suggests that at the initial cosmic singularity, energy was created. And since that point, energy has been dissipating throughout the universe. Eventually, like the water in the bath, the temperature in the universe will reach equilibrium, being consistent everywhere. And at that point, it is believed the heat death of the universe will have occurred.

The question then becomes, “If that’s the case, and the universe is infinitely old, why hasn’t it already reached its inevitable heat death state?” Think of the universe as a bit like a car. You put fuel in there and it will run for a finite time until it runs out of fuel and must then stop. Because our universe is still running, this suggests that we still have fuel in our tank. So – not only is the universe therefore not infinitely old, but in a few billion years, presumably the universe will die.

 

Conclusion

1 – Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2 – The universe began to exist.

3 – Therefore the universe has a cause.

 

Scientific observation supports the claims of the Kalam, particularly premise 2.

There are some interesting ways to object to this evidence and try to refute the Kalam. And – I will summarise some of those in another blog. But – a very common objection might be this. If I am claiming that God created the universe, and God is timeless, then why isn’t the universe eternal and timeless as well? If the universe is clearly NOT timeless, then does that undermine belief in God as creator?

No. To explain how a timeless cause (God) can produce a temporal effect (the universe) requires God to be a personal being with free will. The universe was not brought about by some kind of supernatural, immaterial timeless mechanism. Rather, the immaterial personal and incredibly powerful person God chose spontaneously to create a new thing, the universe. And everything within it. Isn’t it interesting that this basically describes the opening statements in the Bible?

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”[2]

[1] William Lane Craig, On Guard Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, (Lee Vance View: David C. Cook, 2010), kindle edition, loc 1131 – 1649, synthesised and summarised.

[2] Genesis 1:1, NIV.

Why Doesn’t God Save People From Natural Disasters?

If God exists, then why do people die in natural disasters?

It is always a heart breaking tragedy when people die as a result of tornadoes, earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis. But – I’m not convinced we can blame God for the death of these people, or claim God doesn’t exist. There may be good reasons for all this.

 

We Can’t Blame God for Natural Disasters

First – if God’s responsible for setting up the universe, the matter, energy and physical laws that comprise it, then there are going to be some parts of nature that are essential for our survival, yet also lethal if we get too close. For example, the cosmos if full of suns. Cosmologists estimate that important materials were cooked in suns during the early eras on our universe. Suns are where the essential elements of matter were prepared. Also, clearly the energy given off by our particular sun is vital to our survival on this planet today. But what would happen if we got too close? Crispy! Not good for us.

Second – if we choose to walk around or live close to areas of natural risk, then we make a personal, conscious choice. I have many friends who live out in California in the US. They live close to the San Andreas fault. If there’s an earthquake, then they have chosen to live there and put themselves in harms way. You can’t blame God for the San Andreas fault line. Plate tectonics are just how nature operates. But if we choose to get too close – its possibly not going to be good for us.

Thirdclimate change is probably going to be the cause of many human deaths as time passes. That’s a tragic thought. But it seems that here, we are reaping the results of our own societal choices. You cannot blame God for that either. If he gave us a climate, we broke it. Not him.

Fourth – for one reason or another, one day you and I will die. We cannot stop it.

 

Why God Usually Does Not Save People from Natural Disasters

But if God loves people (as Christians claim) then why doesn’t he miraculously rescue people from natural disasters? And prolong their lives?

Well – I think sometimes he does choose to rescue people. I’ll give you a personal experience that may point to this at the end of this blog. But – I’ll be honest. I think God rescuing people from natural disasters is unusual, it’s not the normal flow of events. It’s a miracle. It’s abnormal.

So why doesn’t God want to rescue us from natural disasters?

Well – the Bible tells us that the core problem of the human condition is that we have chosen to reject God’s sovereign role in our lives. God’s created us to relate to him as God. And we have chosen to make ourselves God instead. We worship people and ourselves instead of God. Think of that as cosmic rebellion.

If God was always to rescue people from every potentially harmful event in life, what would this do? If a divine hand prevented every avalanche, every bullet and oncoming car…what might happen?[1]

First – it would take away the consequences of our rebellion towards God. We would be deceived about the consequences of our separation from God…which is not a good thing. It’s not good to live as if I am my own God. If the real God were to encase us in cotton wool – and prevent us from experiencing the consequences of our choices – then we would never experience the reality of these consequences. If we want to live apart from God then – fine. But, there’s a risk for us in doing so.

Second – it would FORCE people who DO NOT want to worship God, to worship God!! Cos there is a big hand in the sky. People who don’t want to bow the knee, suddenly find themselves thinking they better bow the knee to God. They have to…because of the sky hand…so resentfully, they do. No – that’s not how God works. He wants us to come to him willingly, not under coercion.

Third – as I understand the God of the Bible, I don’t think he wants us to stay comfortable with the idea that its okay to live separated from him by our rebellion against him. He doesn’t want us to think humans can live successfully in separation from him. So – the risk of natural disaster may be a possible event that encourages us to come to God to get right with him. Why? So that when we DO eventually die, we will spend forever with him afterwards as he intended. There’s a hint toward this in the New Testament. Check out Luke 13 for some hints there.

 

 

A Time God DID Save ME From a Natural Disaster

Here’s a final thought. Earlier I said that – sometimes, for his own reasons – God DOES rescue people from natural disasters. So – what’s my evidence for saying this?

It was 21st October, 1971. I was 3 years old. My mother intended to take my baby sister and I to Clarkston shops in Glasgow. My dad had taken the train into work that day, leaving our brand new car at home so we could use it for our shopping trip.

Around lunch time, my mum got us ready and bundled us into the car, strapping us in for the short journey from East Kilbride to Clarkston. She climbed into the drivers seat, and put the key into the ignition and turned it. Nothing. She tried again. Nothing happened. What was going on? My Dad had used the car yesterday! It was – a new car!! They had never had troubles with it before. She pumped the gas pedal, she waited a while and tried again. The car was dead. Frustrated – she realised she wasn’t going to the shops that day. She bundled us OUT of the car again, and went back into the house.

A few hours later on the radio, news of a devastating gas explosion in Clarkston broke on the radio. Twenty two people were declared dead at the scene. It was later described as the worst peacetime explosion in Scotland’s history. And – with a deep sense of shock – my mother realised that if we had managed to get to the shops that day, we would have been in the middle of it.

My Dad came home from work, and my Mum told him the shocking news. They both felt great relief that we had not managed to go shopping that day, and we were safe. And then – a thought occurred to them. What about the car?

My dad took the car keys from my Mum, walked down the drive and opened the car door. He sat in the drivers seat and turned the ignition. The engine burst into life on the first attempt.

 

I think – sometimes, and for his own reasons, God decides to save some people from the effects of natural disasters. I think on 21st October, 1971, that may have been what happened to me, Annie and my mum.

 

[1] Peter van Inwagen, The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy, in Philosophy of Religion A Reader and Guide, General Editor: William Lane Craig, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 370 – 393.

Why Is there Something Rather Than Nothing?

Why is there something rather than nothing? It’s a bit of a head scratcher. Can we answer this question?

In the 18th century, German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz observed that the answer cannot be found within the universe itself because the universe is full of things which also began to exist. The explanation for the existence of the universe must therefore be found externally to it. So, for Leibniz, God becomes a necessary explanation for why anything exists at all.

His argument goes like this:

(1) – Everything that exists has an explanation for its existence.

(2) – If the universe has an explanation of its existence, then that explanation is God.

(3) – The universe exists.

(4) – The universe has an explanation for its existence.

THEREFORE – God is the explanation of the universe.

 

People will often try to tear down this argument by attacking premises (1) and (2).[1]

Premise (1) – Everything that exists has an explanation for its existence.

First attack – if (1) is true, then surely that means God himself must have an explanation of his existence too!

Not so fast. Leibniz said two different kind of things exist:

A – Things that cannot NOT exist (like numbers). They have a necessity in their nature, so they must exist.

B – Things that are CAUSED by something else and aren’t necessary (like people, planets and house plants).

So in answer to the objection – no. God does not need an explanation for his existence, because he is necessary in his nature for the existence of the universe, and so he must be uncaused.

 

Second attack – (1) is true of everything IN the universe, but not of the universe itself.

This sounds like a case of (what Craig describes as) the Taxicab fallacy, which happens when someone seems to arbitrarily jump in and out of a system of thought when it suits them. In this case, someone may just arbitrarily decide the universe cannot have any explanation for its existence when they don’t like the idea that God created it. So this objection doesn’t hurt the argument, but it does reveal our metaphysical preferences.

 

Third attack – the universe cannot have an explanation, because for it to do so requires a prior state of affairs. But nothing existed prior to the universe.

Well – this statement seems to just presuppose atheism! We require atheism to be true, and assert that nothing existed prior to the universe. But this is simply begging the question, and its misrepresenting Leibniz. For him, the prior state of affairs involved God.

 

So we’ve seen that these attacks on premise (1) are not successful.

 

So, what about attacks on premise (2)?

Premise (2) – If the universe has an explanation of its existence, then that explanation is God.

First attack – it’s not God who exists necessarily by his own nature. It’s the universe that exists necessarily!

So here, it sounds like the universe is being seen as a God substitute. The problem is, we can’t really view nature this way.

Why? Think of the things that we know about that exist in the universe. The planets, stars, people, animals, plants…are any of them necessary? To say something is necessary in its nature, is to say that this thing cannot NOT exist. Well – all of the things we observe in the universe COULD very well NOT exist. And – the way things work – none of them will exist forever!

If the things in the universe do not exist necessarily, then how can we logically conclude that the universe itself exists necessarily? That seems arbitrary…the taxicab fallacy again?

 

Second attack – I’m not interested in (2) because actually, if atheism is true then the universe has no explanation of its existence.

Well now the atheist has a problem. He said this:

If atheism is true then the universe has no explanation of its existence.

Well – in that case, an equivalent statement would look like this:

If the universe DOES have an explanation of its existence, then atheism is NOT true!

From our discussion, it seems very reasonable to propose that the universe DOES have an explanation of its existence, so it is not looking good for atheism.

 

Third attack – what does it even mean to say the explanation of the universe is God?

Well surely it means the explanation is not composed of matter, energy and is not part of space and time. All of these are natural aspects of the universe itself. God is outside of these aspects. That makes him:

  • Nonphysical
  • Immaterial
  • Beyond space and time
  • Yet…God is a personal and wilful and creative being

These sound like very basic descriptions of a religious definition of God. And – specifically – they give a basic outline of the Christian conception for what God is like.

 

 

Conclusion

These attacks on Leibniz argument aren’t very successful.

Why is this? I think it is because it seems very reasonable to assume that the universe exists and has a cause that is located outside of it. And this cause is a necessary, nonphysical, immaterial being that is beyond space and time. Which sounds like most people’s definition of God!

[1] William Lane Craig, On Guard Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, (Lee Vance View: David C. Cook, 2010), kindle edition, loc 839 – 1058, synthesised and summarised.

 

Are We Just Star Dust?

He rolled his eyes at me. “How sad that you need approval from some external deity. I am happy with my life as it is. I make meaning for my own life, thank you very much. I need approval from no mythological deity.”

I nodded. “Well – I’m glad you are happy with your life. I’m also happy with mine – so that makes two of us! But the issue here isn’t how we FEEL about our lives. Rather, the question is how we make sense of our lives. You say there is no meaning beyond the natural world. We are physical beings and nothing more. Is that what you are saying?

“Yes,” he announced.

“Well,” I continued, “I’m sorry but – there’s a problem with your statement. The problem has nothing to do with whether or not we are open to receiving approval from God or anyone else. Rather – the problem is about the assumptions you are making around the truth and the importance of your words.”

He raised his hand and replied abruptly. “Enough of your talk about God and absolute meaning. I am happy with subjective meaning…I give my own life its purpose. This is important…everyone needs to grow up and do this, particularly religious people.”

I laughed. “Okay. I hear that you think this is important. My question to you is why? Why is it important? And to whom?”

He stopped, a quizzical expression on his face.

I pressed on.

“I hear from many people that we are just physical beings in a physical universe. Neil deGrasse Tyson announces that we are star dust, and we should be happy about that. If all we are is physical stuff…then Neil’s words are meaningless. And – so are yours.”

“Why?” he retorted? Perhaps because Neil says them after Carl Sagan before him, my friend thinks that gives them more meaning. But – if Neil and Carl Sagan are right, their words have no meaning.

I continued. “Because what you are saying is – we are ONLY brains, constructed of biochemistry, composed of atoms that were cooked in the stars. There is no human soul. No God. Right? In that case, I don’t see why the words and thoughts of any of our minds are any more significant than other natural events…like the sound of the wind blowing in the trees.”[1]

Do you see the point I am making to my friend?

1 – if all we are is physical, then everything we do and say and think is ultimately physical.

2 – if everything we do is simply physical, then nothing we do is any more significant than other physical effects in the world. Trees swaying in the wind, for example.

Conclusion: we might think we are profoundly creating our own subjective, personal purpose for our lives. We may write and produce a TV series like Cosmos, even.  But actually nothing we do or say or believe actually matters. It’s not true or false, profound or pedestrian. It simply is. We simply are. Like swaying tree branches.

If that is the case – then what we say to each other does not matter, and has no consequence when it comes to truth or significance.

 

What does this mean? Well, my friend is kidding himself about subjective meaning for his life. He doesn’t even manage subjective meaning for his thoughts!

 

YET – if there IS objective meaning and purpose, and a God who has constructed reality to make it so? Well, that’s a whole different thing! Then, a human being’s words DO matter, because they either point towards or away from that ultimate, objective reality that created us. They either help us to get closer to it, or further away. They help or hinder. Words become more than just physical motions and sounds. They become pointers to the objectively real.

 

If something in the Universe ultimately matters, then we can do science, we can understand morality, and art moves us for a reason.

 

How interesting that everyone talks as if their words matter, and their thoughts are significant. Perhaps this fact about how we speak – and the assumptions we make about the importance of our words and thoughts – undermines the whole enterprise of atheism and shows it to be self-refuting? Because unless there is a God … our lives are meaningless. But if there is nothing but physical matter – whatever I believe about anything (God included) doesn’t matter and isn’t true or false. So atheism becomes a self-refuting and pointless exercise.

That doesn’t sound like the world we actually live in…

[1] C. S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, The Weight of Glory, (New York: Harper One), 139.

“Evolution” Doesn’t Get You To Human Morality

Over the weekend, I represented my university – BIOLA – at the Unbelievable Conference in London. It was so great to promote their MA programs in Christian Apologetics and Science and Religion to attendees.

One chap spoke to me at the stand, and confessed that he was wrestling with the moral argument for God. I pointed out that these arguments didn’t get you all the way to Christianity…tho they do point to a form of ethical monotheism.

I asked with his problem was. He explained that, he feels evolutionary arguments seem sufficient to justify moral behaviour. So where does that leave God? After all, surely moral actions are ones that preserve the species. And those species who are NOT moral, won’t survive. So species that survive…are moral species.

First – if we are just physical beings, then morality is an illusion. There is no right and wrong, we just have physical brain compositions that may differ from other people…but that’s okay. He responded, “That’s not what I’m saying.” But – I think it is. As soon as you allow for an evolutionary type of explanation for human beings, you cut God out of the picture right away. Evolution is about chance and necessity, it is an unguided process. And not even God can guide an unguided process – that idea makes no logical sense to me.

Second – you can’t really get a hard ought from evolution. When people express moral statements, they do so with force. A moral “ought” isn’t just someone’s opinion. They state it as a demand, not a suggestion. He disagreed with me that evolutionary arguments don’t account for this. But – to my thinking – you need a Moral Law, not a social convention or accepted behaviour, to account for this ought. You also need a personal source to this Moral Law before whom we feel guilty when we inevitably break the law and justify ourselves for doing so.

He wasn’t convinced.

But there are two more problems here.

Three – why is it right for a species to survive? Why is this morally preferable over death? If the fittest must survive, this suggest an element of competition between individuals. Rabid self-interest. What does it benefit me for the species to survive? Perhaps my survival is tied to the species’ survival? Yes – but why is it morally preferable for my people to survive and not die out?

Four – evolution only gets you to survival. It’s doesn’t get you to truth. Alvin Plantiga pointed this out.[1] Caveman A may think the way to hug a tiger is to run away from that tiger. Caveman B may think you need to wrap ones arms around the tiger to hug it. Caveman B dies pretty quickly, and makes a great meal for the tiger. Caveman A survives by running away. But – even though he survives – this does not mean his beliefs are true. In fact, his belief was false, but he survived anyway.

The point here is – moral oughts are understood to be important and true statements. But evolutionary justifications are inadequate to justify true statements. They don’t require something to be true…just to be promoting of survival (even if they are false).

 

My conclusion is that evolution doesn’t do a good job of justifying morality.

[1] Alvin Plantiga, Warrant and Proper Function, (Oxford University Press).

Is My Brain Me?

I often hear people saying that I am a complex, biological computer which is located between my ears. I am my brain…my central nervous system…that is me.

Or is it?

 

Fictional stories increasingly today suppose that my mind…or me…is not just my brain. Rather, I am contained within my brain…like a file on a hard drive. And so, before my body dies…my mind will be able to be saved, uploaded to the cloud. I’ll be able to survive the death of my body. Russell T Davies touched on this in his recent series “Years and Years.”

 

These ideas suggest either – I am my brain, or – I am contained within my brain, but can be relocated elsewhere if necessary.

 

I think both of these extremes is mistaken, and I’ll tell you for why.

1 – I Am My Brain

Daniel Dennett has expressed this idea, saying “mind … is the brain, or, more specifically, a system or organization within the brain that has evolved [like our] … digestive system has evolved … the human mind is something of a bag of tricks, cobbled together over eons.”[1] I am my physical brain, physical matter, and chemical biological processes at work. Dennett is basically essentially that “You, your joys and sorrows … sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells.”[2]

Is there a problem with this idea? I think there are MANY problems with this idea. Here’s one.

Let me ask you a question. Does the truth matter to you? Do you need to know where you stand? Do you hate fake news? Do you hate it when people lie to you, and do you try your best to tell the truth? Well – why? Because if my brains just a biological computer…that’s an odd state of affairs.

I say that because if we are our brains, then we result from physical processes. A bit like digestion (Dennett even makes this comparison!) But if my thinking is no different to my digestion…then consider this. The words “true” and “false” are meaningless for digestion. Physical processes are just physical processes. If that’s the situation in our digestive tract, then it’s also the situation in our brains too. Right?

Well hang on. Say I’m a Christian and you are an atheist. Well – then those beliefs are simply how our particular brain chemistry behaves. So what?

But of course – we cannot leave it that way. Truth matters to us. We want to know that we are believing true ideas, and we aren’t being misled by a lie. But if we are just physical…that simply should not be the case! But if we are MORE than just our physical brains…and there’s more to the universe than just stuff…then perhaps that’s why truth is so important to me.

So – that’s one reason I don’t buy that I’m just my brain.

2 – I Am Contained Within My Brain

This idea treats me like a file on a computer disk. What’s that? Well, it’s data, represented as ones and zeros on the disk. So – this idea presupposes that everything about me can be encoded digitally as ones and zeros (or in some other encoding scheme).

The problem is – this idea is confused. I do actually contain information, and my mind can assimilate and use information. So – I cannot just be information. Me – my person – must transcend information in a significant way.

What do I mean? Well first, my body is composed of cells, and those cells are like biological factories teeming with … you guessed it … information. The DNA molecule holds a lot of it.

But also, I assimilate information. As I write this blog, I am generating information that didn’t exist before. And as you read it, you are assimilating that information and considering the arguments that are contained within it. So – me as the producer and you as the receiver – we are both personal minds, who deal in the currency of information.

Consequently, we cannot therefore be decomposed down to information alone. Sure, someone could scan our bodies into a computer. But we would not be there afterwards, though a detailed map of our physical makeup could be.

This idea of me being contained within my brain –  mistakes me “the person” from the information that I deal in and am composed of. It requires me to be physical again, and decomposable to my component parts. But – as we learned before – my mind cannot be physical, this makes no sense.

 

So – if both these ideas don’t describe reality, what are we then? Well – I think the strongest argument can be made for this:

 

3 – I Am a Body With a Brain and also a Mind, or Immaterial Soul

J P Moreland argues the following:[3]

  • I’m aware of myself as distinct from my body. When we shake hands, you aren’t meeting my hand, rather you are meeting me, and we are interacting physically.
  • If I was only physical, then you could describe all there is to know about me from the outside in. But, you can’t.
  • I appear to have free will and moral responsibility.
  • I am the same self over time, even though I age and my body changes (I gather grey hairs, nose hairs, etc) This suggests I’m not my body or my brain, I am my soul.

 

 

If J P Moreland is right, then I am NOT just my brain. I am an immaterial self.

So this suggests that its possible I can survive apart from my body. But I won’t survive as decomposed information. I am an immaterial person with a future on the other side of death.

Surely that’s worth using my mind to think about?

 

 

[1] Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell Religion as A Natural Phenomenon, (Penguin Books, 2007), 107.

[2] Mark D. Linville, The Moral Argument, In The Blackwell Companion To Natural Theology, edited by William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 433.

[3] J. P. Moreland, The Soul Why It’s Real and Why It Matters, (Moody Press, 2014).

 

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

RESPONDblog: The Danger of Scientific Consensus

When discussing scientific theories, it can be tempting to appeal to the consensus view of scientists when we want to silence a new theory that we don’t like. This has been done to me in online discussions by people who disagree with my position. And – frankly – I’ve not really known how to respond beyond just saying, “okay…if you say so!” However – I’m coming to think that an  appeal to consensus is not only unjustified, but its also dangerously unscientific.
In his book “Undeniable”, the biologist Doug Axe recounts his experience as an undergraduate student sitting one of his first University exams. One test question asked which macro molecule was most apt to have been the first “living” molecule. Doug decided to give the correct answer to the question, but he then decided to continue his answer by pointing out why he felt that no molecule actually had what it takes to “start life off” by itself. He did this anticipating extra credit from his professor for his creative thinking.

What he got – was marked down.

Why?

Because, “we students were expected not only to know current thinking in biology but also to accept it without resistance. We were there as much to be acculturated as educated.” (1)

Axe goes on to point out that in the conclusion of the first edition of Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species”, Darwin voiced his hope that scientists would stop rejecting his theory of evolution, and one day they might gradually take it on board. To Darwin’s surprise (I’m sure), within a period of just three years, we read in the sixth edition of the book that

“Now things are wholly changed, and almost every naturalist admits the great principle of evolution.” (2)

What caused the change? Was it a scientific discovery? No – because as Axe points out, Darwin would have recorded the discovery and attributed the change to it. (3) No, instead “peer pressure is a part of science…scientific interests compete against one another for influence…might the sudden change in Darwin’s favour have been more like a change of power than a change of minds.” (4)

Human influence and power turned the tide opinion. Not scientific discovery. Ironically – it was Darwin at the time of his book’s first edition who was the one straying from the herd…not complying with the consensus view at the time on the origin of biological life. Consensus doesn’t move us forward. As Axe says, “those rare people who oppose the stream are the ones to watch.” (5)

In other words – scientists from the past were influenced by human factors as well as data factors. Possibly more so. Our deference to consensus seems to be about sticking with the herd and not straying too far from it. And discouraging others from straying from the consensus view. If that was true for scientists back then – its sure to be true now. Arthur Koestler talks about this principle in play during the formation of cosmology. It’s also present in biology too.

Now – I’m not suggesting accountability is wrong. Not so – our colleagues keep us honest. What I am criticising – is consensus. Or to put it another way – “group think” holds creative scientific discovery back. It hurts scientific understanding by slowing the formation and adoption of new theories.

Here are three observations about the scientific process and the dangers of group think:

First – this suggests to to me that it takes courage to be the one to stand up and disagree with the consensus – and propose a new idea. It takes courage to put forward a new theory, and back that theory up with evidences. Courage is required because, inevitably, rejection will follow from your peers.

Second – it also suggests to me that scientific consensus does not equate to truth. I wish Darwinians today could wrap their heads around this. Just because the consensus of scientists agree on something does not make their theory true, however scientifically orthodox it may currently be. Rather – the consensus is simply that. The widely held public view of qualified people today. Tho in private – they may say something else entirely.

Thirdly – it suggests to me that anyone who rejects a new theory based on the views of scientific consensus is missing the point of science, and actually behaving in an unhelpful and non-scientific way. Consensus is just the current status quo. Humanity needs people of courage to stand up and propose something that’s new so it can be examined and tested. To simply reject this on the basis of personal and consensus led bias…seems unscientific and harmful to the scientific enterprise as a whole.

The answer to a new scientific theory is not, “Don’t be so silly. No one else believes that because its stupid.” Rather – the answer should be, “That’s an interesting idea. Let’s test it together.”

Scientific consensus is harmful to the progress of scientific understanding.

Michael Crichton, who went to Medical school and taught anthropology before he authored books like Westworld and Jurassic Park, stood against scientific consensus much more strongly then either Doug Axe or myself. He calls the notion of scientific consensus “pernicious…and the refuge of scoundrels, because it’s the way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled.” Oh – how familiar that problem is to me today.

I’ll end with a Crichton quote.

“I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period. . . .

I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way. .” (6)

(1) Douglas Axe, Undeniable How Biology Confirms our Intuition That Life Is Designed, (Harper One, 2016), 3.

(2) Online Variorum of Darwin’s Origin of Species: first British edition (1859) comparison with 1872, http://test.darwin-online.org.uk/Variorum/1859/1859-483-c-1872.html

(3) Axe, 5.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Axe, 6.

(6) Michael Crichton, “‘Aliens Cause Global Warming’Links to an external site.,” reprinted in Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2008.

RESPONDblog: Galaxy Quest + My Limited Worldview

The movie Galaxy Quest tells the story of a group of washed up actors, tired and bored of living with the enduring fandom around their old space opera TV show from 20 years ago. It introduces us to Jason Nesmith, the actor who played the captain on the NSEA Protector space ship in the space opera. And he’s signing autographs at a fan convention…when suddenly and finally he explodes in a “Shatner-istic, get a life” way. Who does he explode at? Branden – a geeky fan who is asking for an autograph, while also pressing him on a tricky episode plot hole that Nesmith couldn’t care less about.
Nesmith roasts him.

“It’s just a TV show. You got it?!”

The movie also tells the story of a group of alien beings – the Thermians – who have been watching Nesmith’s old TV Show from outer space…and have come to believe that the stories told in the show are actually real, rather than just hokey entertainment.

Now, in addition to their viewing habits, we learn the peace loving Thermians are facing an oppressive and controlling space gangster called Sarris who wants to oppress them. They fear Sarris…yet are actually quite technologically advanced. So they decide to emulate their heroes on the TV show and build an advanced space ship to fight Sarris…and they make the ship look and behave just like the NSEA Protector.

They make it work in exactly the same way as the ship on the show. So…the computer will only work if the girl on the bridge repeats all the data the computer provides the bridge team. And the controls for the ship’s pilot are laid out just as the actor playing the pilot pretended to fly the ship.

BUT – the Thermians have a problem – they cannot use their cool spaceship technology to defeat Sarris. They are smart enough to build their ship. They aren’t brave enough to use it.

Their solution? They decide to naively travel to earth…find their heroes from their favourite space TV show…and take them back to their planet to pilot the ship and defeat Sarris for them! After all…these guys are their heroes…and have defeated evil many times on the show. They’ve watched it on their equivalent of TV. They think its all real.

And for some cool and interesting reasons – read pride and boredom here – Nesmith and his crazy, LA based actors from the cast say “yes” to the Thermians’ request…and travel to their alien planet to man the new and very real NSEA Protector space ship. What they don’t bank on, however, is the very real jeopardy this puts them in. And so these actors must work out a way to cope in this conflict…and survive.

I’ve been sitting in a class at BIOLA University taught by PhD professor John Mark Reynolds this week. And he reminded me of the coolest part of Galaxy Quest.

What’s the coolest part?

During their conflict with Sarris – Nesmith and his crew find themselves running through the bowels of the ship to find the engine room…so they they can diffuse the reactor and stop the ship from exploding. While doing this, they realise that – in the course of the original TV show run – they never did an episode of the show where they visited the bowels of the NSEA Protector. So – they have no idea where to go to find the reactor to diffuse it. Worse – they have no idea what do do if and when they get there.

That’s a big problem. So what do they do?

Genius idea. They contact the geeky kid Branden that Nesmith roasted during the fan convention at the start of the movie. The kid who had grown up watching the show, who bought and pored over the deck plans of the NSEA Protector. Who knew this show and the ship inside out.

Nesmith contacts Branden…but before he can ask him for help finding the engine room…Branden stops him. Not realising the very real jeopardy Nesmith is in, Branden blurts out…”Look. About the convention. I know its just a TV show. I understand completely that’s its just a TV show. There is no ship…I’m not a complete brain-case…you know?”

And Nesmith responds with three words that transform Branden’s life.

“It’s all real.”

And without hesitation…and with a whoop of confident delight…Branden explodes. “I knew it. I just knew it!!!”

Here’s what’s cool about this scene. It poses a question to us.

What if my settled view of reality…actually is more about me just settling for a narrow perspective…the little bit that I understand. And dismissing the notion that there is so much more to know! Right now – I simply don’t fully understand everything that could be known about life and reality. But there’s a future awaiting me…

Further – what if that future reality is bigger…and more amazing than I could understand today. What if it truly is bursting with goodness, with truth and beauty in a way that I’ve yet to know on this planet…so its greater than I can fully comprehend right now. So much so…that when I finally DO experience it…I might just go slack jawed…and then burst with something like…

“I knew it!! I just knew it.”

Just like Branden.

And maybe then we will reflect back…and remember. We had a suspicion that there was more to life than just this one…we had this inner sense of it…maybe from our time as a child. But we’ve grown up since then. We’ve allowed other people to convince us otherwise. We’ve cooperated as others have systematically robbed us of our hope for ultimate goodness, truth and beauty.

What a shame that has happened.

One day – we will know. We will know it for ourselves in a fresh and wonderful way. And we’ll just exclaim, “You know what? I knew it!”

I’m looking forward to the day when I begin to really experience the full wonder of creation. In the here and now…I’m living in just a fraction of it…I sense that that’s true. But there is SO much more to come in the reality that’s to come.

Why do I think that? Well…because there’s this person in history called Jesus who transformed the world with his goodness, his beauty and the truth he brought to this planet. His beauty…in what he did and said. And it all culminated in his defeat of death and his invitation to join him in the bigger reality that is to come. This points to a future reality, a bigger sense of knowing reality as it truly is in all its goodness, its truth and its beauty…in a sense that I can only imagine today.

What a shame so many of us have been duped into thinking that our narrow view of the world is the right and only one…when we haven’t given ourselves the chance to consider that there is so much more that is awaiting us.

Do you know what? My anticipation is rising…there’s going to be a whoop of delight that’s going to burst out of me that day when I see that which I confidently expect to see in the reality to come with Jesus.

I knew it. I just knew it…!

RESPONDblogs: Do Any Natural Explanations for the RESURRECTION Work?

When it comes to identifying the most plausible explanation for an event…we start by gathering the eyewitness evidence and testimony about this event. And once the evidence has been marshalled, we then begin the job of finding a theory that best fits all the evidence and gives an explanation FOR the event.

This process will throw up many different theories. But the better theories will be the ones with the widest explanatory scope. In other words, the theories which best fit with the most of the available data. We have a problem to deal with when we have theories that require us to throw some established data away. Any explanatory theory that requires us to throw data away is not a good theory.

 

In the 1st Century, over 500 people in and around Jerusalem claimed that Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead. It sparked a movement that in 2016 has 2.5 billion followers – CHRISTIANITY. Why did it spark this movement? Because the resurrection of Jesus confirmed the claims of Jesus – that he was the Messiah, God himself, and he had come to begin setting up God’s Kingdom.

I’ve attached below the uncontested historical facts that Christian and non-Christian historians agree on surrounding the death of Jesus and the birth of the Christian Church.

I’ve also gathered the bulk of the natural and supernatural theories that have been proposed over the last 2000 years since the claims of Jesus’ Resurrection were first made. There are 13 theories which try to explain the Resurrection event. What you can see – is that all the naturalistic theories bar one have a big problem. The numbers under each theory indicate which elements of historical data we must throw away if we are to stick with this theory. These theories have poor explanatory scope. They require us to throw established facts away. They are not good theories.

There are only two theories that fit with all the established facts. One naturalistic theory – and one supernatural theory.

EITHER

Jesus was an alien. I don’t find this explanation convincing. Because “Jesus is an alien” in a Star Trek way basically just paints a bullseye around the facts…and fires the Starship Enterprise at it. This explanation ironically explains nothing at all. But personally I like this theory because I love space movies. And I think in a very real sense…that Jesus was alien…but he wasn’t from another Galaxy. He simply wasn’t originally from our Universe.

OR

Jesus was who he said He was and God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead at that point in history to confirm the ongoing narrative that had been running for millennia…and continues to run…about the establishment of the Kingdom of God. It fits with a Judeo-Christian understanding of the past and the Christian expectation for the future. It clarifies it, and it explains it in a powerful way.

 

It seems to me as I look at the data and the possible theories, that the one that best fits the data, is the explanation that the first Christians themselves proposed. That on the first Easter Sunday, God raised Jesus from the dead.

 

1 – HISTORICAL FACTS

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. He was buried.
  3. Jesus’ death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope, believing that his life was ended.
  4. The tomb was discovered to be empty just a few days later.
  5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.
  6. The disciples were transformed from doubters who were afraid to identify themselves with Jesus to bold proclaimers of his death and resurrection.
  7. This message was the centre of preaching in the early church.
  8. The message was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus died and was buried shortly before.
  9. As a result of this preaching the church was born and grew.
  10. Sunday became the primary day of worship.
  11. James, brother of Jesus, who had been a sceptic was converted to the faith when he also believed he saw the resurrected Jesus.
  12. A few years later, Paul was also converted by an experience which he, likewise, believed to be an appearance of the risen Jesus.

[1]

 

2 – NATURAL AND SUPERNATURAL THEORIES

[2]

 

[1] Craig Hazen, Evidence for the Resurrection, Biola University.

[2] Ibid.

RESPONDblogs: Is Theology Compatible With Computer Science?

SAMSUNG TECHWIN DIGIMAX-340
SAMSUNG TECHWIN DIGIMAX-340

A friend proposed recently to me that “the problem with doing theology in science…is that you end up looking for God in the things that you see.”

 

And this statement raises two questions for me

  • is it possible to be a genuine scientist and also be a Christian?
  • is it right to look for evidence of God in the things that you see?

 

 

Well, personally I became a Christian when I was 7 years old. I distinctly remember the experience – and I also am aware of the affect it has had on my life in the years…the decades since. When I was 21 I graduated with an Honours Degree in Computer Science…as a Christian…and have worked in this field for close to 25 years.

Initially I worked in the Broadcast Industry, developing the early automation systems that made complex TV broadcasting more doable for the army of people that it took to make broadcast telly work in the 1990s. I spent many happy days up at BBC TV Center……geeking out at where they used to make “Doctor Who” in my childhood. Latterly…I spent my working life helping other people who were themselves developing complex software systems. I used my experience to – hopefully – make their jobs easier.

Did I use the scientific method in my career? Absolutely I did. It is at the core of the software engineering principles I learned both at University and as I worked in Industry. Was I also a Christian? Yes – I distinctly remember being so. I still am, by the way.

 

Is it possible for a real scientist to also be a Christian? Some people say that Christianity is anti-reason. In my experience, the atheist position is just as welcoming to unreasonable, unthinking and obnoxious people as the Christian position is.

 

I’ve never found the need to separate Christianity from logic and reason. And I’m not alone. I listen to podcasts from “Reasons to Believe” – a scholarly organization employing cosmologists, biochemists and philosophers who develop testable computer models that work to follow the hard observable data, while also recognising and embracing the historic Judeo Christian claims.

 

 

So what? Well it seems to me to be head scratching-ly short sighted to accept therefore the New Atheist,  “Science is at War with God” narrative. Clearly – it’s not Science that’s at war with God. It’s only a subset of Scientists today who don’t subscribe to the claims of Christianity…and a small but vocal number who like to shout about it.

 

Coming back to where I started this blog, I think what my friend meant to say…was this. It is not possible to be a Scientist who is committed to NATURALISM…and be a Christian. By Naturalism – I mean the belief that all there is…is a Universe which is a closed system governed only be physical laws. I agree that one can’t be a committed Naturalist and a Christian. But my friend’s smuggling something controversial in here. He’s implying that only naturalistic Scientists are genuine scientists.

 

So – is that true?

 

Well naturalism views our Universe as a self-contained unit, a place where cause and effect reign. We don’t like thinking about what caused it…but the laws of physics and material process is king to the Naturalist. But here’s the thing. Those material processes are also king to Christians who do Science as well! When I was developing a software application to perform video field accurate control of a Broadcast A/V Mixing Desk using an RS-422 based serial protocol at 38k4 baud…I was applying principles of logic, of CPU architecture and my understanding of software engineering. I wasn’t praying that it would work – I would work to build the thing correctly SO THAT IT WOULD work. (OK – I’ll admit it…sometimes I was praying…please let this bug be fixed now)

 

I think one difference between a Naturalist and a Christian is actually found not in our understanding and respect of material processes. Rather it’s in our personal recognition that these material processes that operate in our Universe…are not just an end in themselves. There is a bigger narrative at play here. Our Universe is not the result of chance and necessity. We have become convinced that it is the result of intention, personality and design. There’s a God who is responsible for creation.

 

How did we become convinced of this? I will grant you – I didn’t become a Christian by learning the laws of Physics! I didn’t study the behaviour of electrons thru a transistor and therefore wind up in church the following Sunday. I don’t know anyone who did. But I do know people who look at our exquisitely ordered Universe and scratch their heads, “I wonder whether there is a God after all?”

 

So – I agree. You can’t be a Christian and a Naturalist…that’s true for Scientists, Authors and Shop Keepers. But clearly you don’t HAVE to be a Naturalist to be genuinely good at any of those professions. To claim otherwise…is just mistaken. Now there will always be one voice that claims – the Christian Scientists are the rubbish ones. Well – it takes hard work to be good at anything…whether we believe in God or not! Let them be measured by the quality of their work. I was always happy for that to be done to me as a software engineer.

 

 

What about the other question – is it right to look for evidence of God in the things that we see? Well – again – if we are a committed Naturalist…then this won’t be happening. But my argument is this. If we do open our eyes to this evidence…what we will find may challenge our Naturalistic presuppositions to the core.

I find the argument from “Information in Biology” to be particularly compelling (as a Computer Scientist myself, that’s predictable). The cells found in all living things contain mind bogglingly complex Nano machines for processing and replicating pre-existent information that is found in DNA and in the epigenetic systems that influence animal body plan construction. Life is rich in complex information. Information that a Naturalistic worldview does not have a reasonable explanation for IMHO.

I’m not saying – it is so complex that God must have done it. Rather, I’m saying that the most plausible explanation for this information rich biological complexity is that it was designed by a creator. And that creator sounds very much LIKE God.

I’m reminded of this quote from Stephen Meyer:

“Yet we know from our uniform and repeated experience that some types of phenomena – in particular, information-rich sequences and systems – do not arise from mindless, materialistic processes. For just this reason, no rational person would, for example, insist that the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone in the British museum must have been produced by purely materialistic causes such as wind and erosion.”[1]

I suggest that the argument from information points to a Designer. I’m not smuggling in the notion of a Designer – rather I’m saying that a Designer is the most plausible explanation for the complexity we see in nature. This argument doesn’t identify who that Designer is. There’s only so far that this evidence takes us. But coming back to my friends at RTB, something happened to convince them as scientists that the claims of Christianity were true. Something took them the next step – from simple intellectual assent – to belief in Jesus Christ.

For myself, that something was the discovery that God isn’t distant and unknowable. He comes close to us and speaks to us. He has done in recorded human history primarily through the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But he also does so now – I know He does cos he did so with me. He will make the first move. He will speak to our hearts and soften us towards him.

The real question is – will we let him?

[1] David Klinghoffer, Debating Darwin’s Doubt, Discovery Institute Press Seattle, 147.