Friday, March 13, 2015

AAAS "Perceptions" Conference

Is there any way to bring together religious and scientific communities? The early church thinker Tertullian famously posed the question, 
“What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” 
What can the church have to discuss with those outside? Or more contemporarily, the physicist Lawrence Krauss has asserted, 
“Science is only truly consistent with an atheistic worldview.”
 There would seem to be, from either the religious or scientific, no connection.

But we’re about to hear some different answers this week through a conference put together the world’s largest scientific organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, as it’s better know. “Perceptions,” is a day-long event that certainly has its share of superstars: Nobel Laureate physicist William D. Phillips, well-known Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, celebrated author and speaker Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, and President of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson.

All this arises from the work of AAAS’s DoSER, or Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, a program, which is 30 years old and is now headed by Jennifer Wiseman, an MIT and Harvard-trained astronomer of no mean standing. Having served as Senior Program Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA, she’s now Senior Astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. As she commented, 
I believe it is important to rejuvenate our congregations with a sense of joy and unity in contemplating the magnificence of Creation, with forefront scientific knowledge.”
That summarizes quite a bit about this conference.

Yes, the participants may be worth listening to, but what are they going to address? I know there will be origins (which means evolution versus creation), climate science, global health, science and the religious communities. I mentioned that last one, because that’s where I’ll make a contribution, through a project I’m directing on how 18-30 year olds view science and faith, is to take part on a panel with other members of religious communities (both Jewish and Protestant) which have sought to bring science to faith.

My experience is there’s a lot to talk about and that the students I’ve been interviewing want to know how to bring the two together. In fact, one sophomore told me religion and science are like “peanut butter and jelly—you can’t have one without the other.” The metaphor may not work for all of us, but I got the point. Despite the fact that over 2/3rds of 18-23 year olds see—or perhaps better, hear about—a conflict between religion and science (may they caught Lawrence Krauss on YouTube), many want to find reconciliation.

Here's my summary for today's talk in just three points:
  1. Yes, integrating faith and science can be done, and it’s an important task.
  2. Do this work through relationships, particularly with scientists we know.
  3. Take it in steps. Begin the dialogue. You don’t have to finish it in our conversation.

To be sure, there obviously some contrasting perspectives, like the 20-year old sophomore who told me, “A lot of people think we’re going to figure everything out one day.” If that’s the perception, it’s going to be hard for this conversation to gain much traction. But, I suppose, that’s what this conference is designed to help sort out.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

More on the Fine-Tuning Argument (A Guest Blog by Dave Montoya)

What gives validity to the fine-tuning argument, I think, and separates what it is describing from other events in the universe is the definition of design, which entails things being Specifically Arranged for a Purpose. This is what allows us to distinguish between a crime scene and an accident and, yes, probabilities enter in. 

When someone is found dead, the police show up and start looking around to determine first if it was an accident or if there was “foul play.” How do they know foul play when they see it? They look for things having been “arranged for a purpose” (in this case the purpose being to bring about someone’s death). So, if they find that the person was killed by rat poison and they find that the spouse had bookmarked several websites about poisons and then they find a receipt showing that she had bought rat poison and they find rat poison in the cheerios, which happens to be the victim’s favorite cereal, and so on, then they become suspicious. And yes, they are counting. As each “part” in this arrangement lines up toward the End (purpose) of getting this person dead, the detective concludes “murder” and makes an arrest. Could those things have happened by some kind of random chance? Of course, but any reasonable person would respond with a loud, “Unlikely!” (which is a probabilistic term).  

The problem with the philosopher Ric Machuga’s “1 out of 1” rebuttal (the probability of something that's already occurred is 1) is that if applied consistently, detectives would be out of line making arrests and juries could not convict. The defense could simply assert that sure this LOOKS like a murder, but this was the 1 time when everything lined up just right by random chance but really there was no mind behind it. 

Here’s another, and I think, better example: Say Joe goes to play the lottery and wins! Despite the odds being really low that Joe should win, no one claims a miracle or thinks that there is anything but randomness behind Joe winning. But then, Joe wins again… eyebrows would raise. If Joe won a third time, there would be an investigation! Why? These are all highly improbable events. Why the big change in our thinking as Joe goes from winning once to winning 3 times? The reason we aren’t suspicious that Joe won once is because we know that SOMEBODY HAD TO WIN. It’s a Lottery. People enter and someone always wins. Even though the chances of JOE winning are low, the chances of SOMEONE winning are 1 out 1. It just happened to be Joe. So while we think Joe is very fortunate, we don’t suspect a mind behind his winning. But when he wins twice and then three times, we get suspicious because while we know that it’s a 1 out of 1 chance that SOME person will win, we know the winner should be random… but this is not looking random… this is looking designed… that is, ARRANGED for a PARTICULAR PERSON (Joe) to win. The best explanation for Joe winning once is just dumb luck. The best explanation for Joe winning 3 times is Design, a specific arrangement of things for a particular purpose or function. 

The fine-tuning argument notices that things seem specifically arranged for a purpose: To produce and sustain life. It looks more like a crime scene than an accident. Yes, the arrangement of Mt Lassen’s molecules at this very moment is a once in a lifetime, improbable event and yet it happened. But it is not arranged THAT way for THIS purpose and so it does not impress (except maybe aesthetically, but that’s another story – and it can have many many many different arrangements and still impress that way; but life’s parameters are narrow, as are the parameters of all designed things). In contrast, the arrangement of the universe, its constants and properties, initial conditions, the earth, the solar sytem,  etc , etc are such that it seemed to have had “life in mind” which leads one to reasonably conclude that indeed a  mind was at work. Mt Lassen won the lottery once. How nice.  It looks like Joe (Life) won the lottery many many many times over. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Fine-Tuning Argument: Is it Successful?

I'm working on a paper on fine-tuning to present to the Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science. I'm interested to know what you think.

The argument from fine-tuning is successful or unsuccessful depending on what we ask of it. It does not successfully prove that God as the Designer exists if proof means a knock-down, drag-out, deductive proof, the conclusions of which cannot be denied. It does, nonetheless, offer evidences of God’s design, which is what we would expect from a Designer and is more supportive of theism than of naturalism. 

Two specific points must be dealt with right away. First of all, a clarification: here we are in the realm of suppositional arguments, which proceed as follows: If we suppose there to be a God who desired the universe, we should expect that this universe would have evidences of the design. The fine-tuning of various physical constants is consistent with God’s design. Therefore it is reasonable to assert that God exists. 

I mention this to clarify how the argument works or doesn’t work. We cannot expect more of the fine-tuning argument than it can deliver.

Secondly, a definition: What is the fine-tuning argument? I’ll let Wikipedia be my guide: 
the conditions that allow life in the Universe can only occur when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range, so that if any of several fundamental constants were only slightly different, the Universe would be unlikely to be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, astronomical structures, elemental diversity, or life as it is understood.
What then are those specific parameters that are fine tuned to create a universe with moral, intelligent life? Physicists have identified over thirty discrete, precisely calibrated parameters that produced the universe we know. Even one of these parameters could be described as “wildly improbable.” Oxford physicist Roger Penrose comments that the “phase-space volume” requires a meticulous fine-tuning such that the “Creator’s aim must have been [precise] to an accuracy of one part in 1010 123 ”—a number almost impossible to write, “1” followed by 10123  zeroes.

So far this might seem conclusive to many readers. So here's the best argument against fine-tuning: it’s a tautology. Simply put, we are already here in this type of universe. It’s just as intrinsically improbable that a person named Greg is typing on a MacBook pro at California State University Chico on the fine-tuning argument because his friend and colleague Ric offered a challenge, etc., etc. But we don’t offer that set of data as evidence for a Designer.

Fair enough—I’ve already conceded that this is not a deductive proof for God that leaves no room for disagreement. It is a suppositional argument that offers confirmation for the judgment that this universe has design and that design is confirmed, to some degree, by the incredible particularity of its parameters.

I offer a counter analogy. Suppose that tonight is my wedding anniversary. In one scenario, when Laura arrives home I declare, “Laura, I’ve been planning to celebrate this anniversary big time!” I immediately call a pizza company to deliver, grab a piebald set of napkins, glasses, and plates (there’s nothing washed of the same set), fumble through some music on my iPod for background, etc., etc. Second scenario: before Laura arrives home, a limo picks her up, with my in the backseat, pouring Veuve Clicquot into luxurious champagne flutes, and I say, “Here’s to our anniversary!” We arrive home, and a chef is set to serve dinner at our house on a candle-lit table with crystal glassware while a string quartet plays in the background.

Which of the two scenarios has more specific parameters and therefore better supports my contention that I really intended to celebrate my anniversary?

All the widely calibrated, fine-tuned parameters have led some to agree with the conclusions of Freeman Dyson, the physicist who has spent many years at Princeton’s famed Institute for Advanced Study: 
The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense most have known we are coming.
I join hands with Dyson. Fine tuning adds scientific evidence that God created the world out of love for us in order that we could be in relationship with our Creator. This confirming evidence in the structure of creation appears to be the fingerprint of God.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Toward A New Paper on the Natural Knowledge of God

Since recently I've been putting my more finished pieces on my Huffington Post blog, I thought I'd offer in this blog a more unfinished, academic fragment, a theologia viatorum, as it were. Here goes:

Is there natural knowledge of the Triune God who reveals?

Lake Tahoe offers an easy answer to this question
The question I intend to address is not whether the attributes of God can be known through natural theology (which I define as systematic reflections on the Deity without recourse to special revelation). Instead I am asking whether one attribute of the Triune God is that this God acts in self-revelation so that all human beings have some natural knowledge of God. 

Since this natural knowledge is so broad, I might also call it "transcendence." Instead of a natural theology, this might be termed a “theology of nature” (with Ian Barbour) or better “the natural knowledge of God” (Wolfhart Pannenberg). The latter term better fits my purposes.

Here then is my proposition, set in the clearest terms I can find: it is in God’s nature to reveal, and this fact creates the natural knowledge of God.

This focus implies some negatives. I am not seeking to prove God’s existence. Natural knowledge of God is not a proof for God. Instead I am elaborating on the implications of belief in the Triune God who reveals.
I am also not, like Alvin Plantinga, emphasizing the importance of evidence or rationality for belief in God, which is certainly a critical question. I am pursuing the question of whether God is known, in some way, to all human beings
As a related issue, I am particularly interested in how this knowledge applies to the health of the church and to what degree the natural knowledge of God can be enhanced by the natural sciences. Cognitive science, for example, has discerned common structures in human cognition that lead to religious faith.

So my argument is disarmingly simple: If the church confesses that God takes the initiative in revelation, then it is consistent to discover that God has acted in self-revelation so that human beings have some natural knowledge of God. The character of that natural knowledge is what I want to unfold in the paper I'm working on.

What do you think?

Friday, January 30, 2015

My Intellectual History, Part Deux

My first specifically academic training in the particulars of science and theology transpired in the classroom of Diogenes Allen when I took his Introduction to Philosophy at Princeton Seminary. (Incidentally, these lectures later became his book, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction.) Dr. Allen (to this day, I would never call him “Diogenes”) started with the need to integrate theological insights with science, especially those of scientific methodology. It was intriguing, but I wasn’t quite sure what he was doing. In fact, I recall a conversation with a co-seminarian, John, where I presented him with the question, “Why is Dr. Allen so into science? I’m not sure I understand.” John’s response: “Because science has a certain precision” (and therefore astonishing success). Though I was later to labor in the fields of the historical, even “scientific,” study of the Bible at Princeton, the specific work in which I’m now engaged, bringing together science and theology, was for me embryonic at best. 
      After my Master of Divinity at Princeton, I received a fellowship and a grant for a year’s study in Heidelberg and Tübingen, Germany—with renowned minds like Jürgen Moltmann and Hans Kung, and especially the then up-and-coming light, Michael Welker. Welker guided my inquiry into the concept of the world (and how it relates to God) by guiding me toward the thought the mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. (Incidentally, Whitehead’s intricate and complex theory language—though putatively English—proved to be often more difficult than learning German.) It was a glorious year. Studying under the shadow of the Heidelberg Castle with this brilliant scholar and his double PhDs (one in philosophy, one in theology) constitutes, in my book, inspiration. 
      After that superb year away, I returned to California and started my PhD at the
Graduate Theological Union (GTU), where theology and science represented the best game in town (or at least on GTU’s Holy Hill). I began to set Whitehead’s thought in conversation with the theology of Karl Barth, that is, to compare a scientist with a theologian. I remember encountering my two mentors there, Ted Peters and Bob Russell. (This eventually became my book, God and the World.) In experiencing Bob in the classroom—lecturing, for example, on the relation of quantum theory to divine action—I encountered someone brilliant in three fields: theology, science, and philosophy (which are themselves really each sets of disciplines). There I observed Bob doing the work he loves so well: bringing together this sometimes messy, and often electrifying, combination
of theology and science with his characteristic wit, brilliance, and profound kindness. Ted, my dissertation advisor (or Doktorvater, as he and the Germans would call it), could as easily unveil the insights of genetics, Trinitarian theology, and the mythology of the Egyptian god Ra. Both Ted and Bob fully convinced me, as a student of theology, of the imperative to take in the importance of science. Actually, they also made the bridging of theology and science both enjoyable and compelling.

      It’s something I’m even more convinced of almost twenty years later.