Monday, March 30, 2015

A New Creation Story (A Guest Blog)

The debate on this blog about the fine-tuning argument continues. Here's a contribution from friend, fellow scholar, and philosopher Ric Machuga.

In the beginning there were ten gazillion Possible Universes floating about in absolutely nothing. The vast, overwhelming majority, however, were very uninteresting, even ugly, because hidden deep within their inter workings were the “Laws of Nature.” These Laws were even more abstract and ethereal than the ten gazillion Possible Universes, yet the Law’s hegemony was complete. They reigned omnipotently over all the mere “possibilities.” Nor was their reign a benevolent reign. You see, these Laws dictated that in all but one or two cases, any of these Possible Universes which ever saw the light of day would either collapse in a tiny, fraction of a second after their birth or they would expand endlessly and mindlessly without forming anything even so interesting as a single star, much less galaxies, supernovas, or elements other than hydrogen. Nonetheless, all these Possible Universes hoped and prayed that they would be picked by that Something or Someone who confers existence upon their mere possibly.
13.7 billion years after “Possibility 3,456,784,890,231,567” was chosen by the mysterious Something or Someone, scientists discovered what the Laws of Nature had timelessly dictated: of all the ten gazillion Possible Universes that could have been selected by the mysterious Conferer of Existence, only “Possibility 3,456,784,890,231,567” had hidden deep in its bowels the mathematical ratios that would allow it to create Stars, and then, iron, then stable solar systems, and finally scientists themselves.
Yet, this so called “fine-tuning” of their own universe came as a big surprise to many of these scientists. Ever since Copernicus and Galileo, scientists had adopted the metaphysical principle that there could be nothing special about the place where they lived. So when they discovered that there were ten gazillion other “possible universes,” all which would have been either totally boring or a mere flash in the pan, a heated debate began. Some scientists were bold enough to say that the fine-tuning of our universe strongly suggested that the “Conferer of Existence” must have been an extremely Intelligent Selector, elsewise how could she or he have known which of the ten gazillion possible universes would be able to produce them?
Other physicists and cosmologists were not willing to give up their metaphysical principle of non-specialness, and argued that in some strange place and way all these ten gazillion Possible Universes actually existed, so the fact that we happen to exist in this possible universe does not violate the supreme metaphysical principle of non-specialness. After all, if Possibility 3,456,784,890,231,567 had not been selected, then no scientist would exist to be surprised!
When St. Thomas Aquinas first heard this new creation story he was struck by its audacity. He had thought that the old story was sufficiently audacious—to be told that God literally spoke the universe into existence using nothing more than his own Word is not an easy concept to grasp! And even when we consider our mundane corner of the universe where we have direct experience, the intricate functionality of its organisms makes “our knowledge is so incomplete,” as he used to say, “that no one has ever been able to completely understand the nature of a single fly.”
Sure, Aquinas was willing to grant that since his time scientists had learned much about how things worked in our universe. But what new discovery permitted these physicists and cosmologists to speak with such confidence about what must happen in every conceivable universe? Doesn’t our understanding of the “laws of nature” derive from experience? So how could we have a clue about what “laws of nature” operate in merely “possible universes,” which by definition don’t even exist?
Besides, physicists and cosmologists are not the only kind of scientists. Biologists have also learned much, one of which is that the hegemonic “Laws of Nature” physicists and cosmologists so revere don’t reign unchallenged in the world of evolutionary biology. There “stochastic processes” (what Aquinas called accidental causes) also play a significant role. So are physicists and cosmologists really claiming to have figured out how these “stochastic process” work in the ten gazillion “other” (non-existent!) universes?

The more Aquinas thought about the developments in physics and cosmology over the last twenty years, the more audacious they appeared. Then he read a popular piece by Alan Lightman, himself a physicists, explaining that “Theoretical physicists are Platonists” whose hope and goal is to one day demonstrate that the entire universe is “generated from a few mathematical truths and principles of symmetry, perhaps throwing in a handful of parameters like the mass of the electron.” With a twinkle in his eye, Aquinas then exclaimed, “Now I understand. Today’s physicists and cosmologists prefer Plato’s world of ideal forms to Aristotle’s world of actual things and organisms!”

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.