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.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Eight Problems Facing the Science-Faith Dialogue with Young Adults

I’m not one of those people who believes that you can transform every problem into a “challenge” or an “opportunity.” With that in mind, as I think back about my interviews with young adults (18-30 years old) for my research project on science and religion, I see at least eight problems we have to face:
And yet another way to respond...
  1. Young adults sense that religion is against—is at war with—science (and vice versa, to some degree). They may not actually feel it themselves, but they hear it on the news.
  2. Therefore they don’t think the integration of religion and science is possible.
  3. The topic of science and religion seems too heady, takes too much effort, and is not connected with pressing life issues.
  4. Speaking specifically of Christianity, the Bible seems outdated and unscientific.
  5. In terms of the church’s often not embracing the LBGT community, religion seems uninformed by science and therefore actually immoral.
  6. Many emerging adults would rather Google, than go than go to a congregation, in pursuing of answers about science and religion.
  7. Interesting to note: Many students I’ve interviewed, even if they’re not traditionally religious, have difficulty with evolution, especially that “we came from monkeys.”
  8. It’s hard to decide on one religion in light of all the possibilities for spirituality, which makes it difficult to know what religion to bring to science.
How do we solve these problems? My hunch is that the Christian church has to be honest about them, and neither leave its core commitments nor sidestep the problems.

      I’ll leave it there for now. What do you think?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why I'm Interested In How Young Adults See Science and Religion

In relating science and religion, I fall into the Integration camp—that is, I agree with those thinkers that conclude the two need to make a difference to each other by learning from one another. I’m also fascinated by how emerging adults (18-30 year olds) understand this interaction of science and religion. It might be worthwhile to comment briefly on how I came to find all these strands compelling and why I’m seeking to wind them together in the current grant project I’m working on, Science for Emerging, Young Adults. 
      The precipitating event seems reasonably clear: I became a Christian as a first year college student at age 18—that is, during what is now know as “emerging adulthood” (a term coined by the psychologist Jeffrey Arnett in 2000—and that’s most likely why faith for 18-30 year olds will continue to allure me. My conversion also occurred in the secular environment of UC Berkeley. (In other words, “Go to Cal and become a Christian” should sound like an oxymoron.) I wasn’t nurtured from the cradle in the Bible Belt. All this means I’m also absorbed by the challenges and questions that an unbelieving culture presents. And often those arguments against faith derive from science (or science poorly understand and misused). Nevertheless, the issues of science qua science were not at first at the forefront of my faith. Instead, as a literature major during the Berkeley years, I was more engaged with the overall questions of culture. During my undergrad, I was much more concerned with religious pluralism (and still am); it’s a topic I confront through my C. S. Lewis book in “Jesus and the Crisis of Other Myths.” For the purposes of this brief essay, I’ll merely say that I, with Lewis, believe that truth can be found in many other narratives, religions, and philosophies (“myths” for Lewis), but that in Jesus the full revelation of God is present and that Jesus fulfills the longings of all human hearts. That doesn’t mean science was absent in my earlier theological development. Science, as a part of culture, emerged more gradually, primarily first as a way of integrating my faith with wider human knowledge, as well as ways that our culture resists and impugns faith.

      Later—after a sojourn in business—I continued my academic study in the history of Christian thought, and I found that science often posed a barrier to belief. Put simply I began to encounter the “warfare thesis” (science and religion are two warring forces with the former clearly winning), a position associated with Andrew Dickson White in the 19th century and Richard Dawkins in ours. I also realized that this view was challenging, but simplistic... More on the next steps in a future post...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Written During the Month of St. Clive (i.e., November)

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, there was a longer version lurking behind it (which didn't fit within the WSJ word count). So I'm posting it now (and, incidentally, it's a short summary of my new book on Lewis.)

CSL memorial in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey
C. S. Lewis was born and died in November (116 and 51 years ago, respectively). Despite his long tenure as an Oxford and Cambridge scholar of Medieval and Renaissance literature—for which he could justifiable be remembered as one of the great lights of English academics—he remains best known as a popular spokesperson for Christianity, with a fourth major film poised for production from his landmark fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia. His bestselling books (with millions of copies sold) defend Christian belief by answering questions that a doubting public might be struggling with. As Anthony Burgess once commented in the Times Book Review, “Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half-convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way.” Thus, for many, the patron saint of intellectual doubters is Clive Staples Lewis and November is the Month of St. Clive. 
            This brings me to a concern. Many might conclude that Lewis represented the Christian Answer Man, and more importantly, that these responses to struggles and doubts came effortlessly to his pen. However fluidly ideas emerge from his writings, I don’t believe resolving crises was painless for Lewis. Instead, in reading him for 35 years, I’ve learned each of those responses came through crises and pain. That is what makes him continually compelling.
      Debra Winger, who played Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, in the film Shadowlands, when asked to evaluate C. S. Lewis, replied: 
He may make difficult questions accessible. I don’t think he makes answers ‘easy.’ I don’t think he answers questions. He discusses them.
Lewis doesn’t ultimately give us answers—he invites our response.
      And so his readers learn to engage their questions, grasp Lewis’s resolutions and ponder their own answers. That’s why I think his words have spoken to—and continue to resonate with—millions of readers.
      The crises that Lewis faced were substantial—his beloved mother’s death when at age nine, being sent within several weeks to a series of boarding schools which he detested, fighting and being wounded in World War I, living through the Great Depression and World II, caring for his alcoholic brother and for Janie Moore (the mother of a friend who died in WWI) who slipped into dementia toward the end of her life, and finally, experiencing the death of his wife, Joy. For these reasons alone, Lewis had to work through the crisis of suffering and death.
      And how did he work through those crises? His stepson Douglas Gresham records about Lewis’s response to the death of his wife, 
He did what he always did under extreme stress. He sat down at his desk, and looking into himself and carefully observing what was happening deep in his mind where we keep our inmost secrets, he picked up his pen and an old exercise book and began to write.
      So write he did. He wrote about the crises he faced with atheism, with the Christian faith, and those he faced simply as a human being. The first category I will summarize briefly. The middle—especially his crisis with the Bible—might be the most surprising.
      Lewis tells us that he became an atheist around fourteen, but that his prickly, cynical unbelief wasn’t entirely satisfied because he sought something beyond this world. He called this Joy, “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Joy led him to conclude that nothing in this world could satisfy. 
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy,the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
He looked beyond this world and in his early thirties (recounted with pardonable overstatement) became “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” The point here is that Lewis did not emerge from the womb as a man absent of doubt who glided gradually and effortlessly into prominence as a leading spokesperson for Christian orthodoxy. He struggled, and that struggle and resolution animate his writing.
      The middle set of crises easily deconstruct the misunderstanding of St. Clive as patron saint of easy answers to puzzles about Christianity.
      As he pondered conversion, Lewis had to grapple with his love of myth, which he spoke of as “at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” How could he believe in the Bible in light of all the other myths he treasured?
      As a literary scholar, he how to read a book and prized what books bring. “There is nothing in literature,” Lewis determined in his famous academic study, The Allegory of Love, “which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.” He read the Good Book full of narratives, meaningful stories. He believed the Bible “carries” the word of God and that derives its authority from the one Word of God, Jesus Christ. He was by no means a fundamentalist, who believed every word from Scripture contained literal truth or that the Bible equals the Word of God. Instead, Lewis interpreted the Bible as a literary text, which is certainly not the same as taking the text literally.
      Finally, Lewis also took on crises that no human being can avoid—suffering, death, and what I call “the crisis of feeling.” The latter is that problem we face when emotions don’t lead us to contentment. Put another way, if life is supposed to feel good, what happens when it doesn’t? Feelings—particularly the emotional rush of life—remain for many the final arbiter of truth and decision-making.
    And yet Lewis found his own wisdom hard to take when his wife, Joy, died. The pain was excruciating and left him feeling “concussed.” Not only had he lost someone he cherished, but he saw his own life replayed—Joy had two young sons whom she was leaving behind at almost the same age as Lewis and his brother at their mother’s death. His anguish disturbed easy answers, and his searing honesty remains the most arresting feature of A Grief Observed, the book he wrote just after Joy’s death: 
Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.
Yet as the book progressed, he resolved that even God himself does not respond to every inquiry: 
When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’
Lewis himself did not receive every answer he longed for. And that, in the end, brought a resolution that transcended his understanding.

      So, if indeed November is the Month of St. Clive, and if Lewis has become a somewhat universal symbol of Christianity, let us not conclude that the best life can be discovered through the uncomplicated resolution of all crises, nor the easy answer to every problem. Instead, let Lewis model for us an engagement with crises and a life that lies beyond easy answers.