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Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Language of God, Chapter 3, by Francis Collins

A previous post gives the contents of Chapter 1, and the bibliographic and author information for The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, and another post describes Chapter 2.

Chapter 3 is entitled "The Origins of the Universe." In it, Collins describes the history of our knowledge of cosmology, and the evidence for the Big Bang. He believes that science has no explanation for (or knowledge of) what came before the Big Bang. He describes current scientific thinking on the origin of the sun, and of the earth. Then he takes up the Anthropic Principle, which, more or less, is the idea that the universe is particularly hospitable to human, and other, life. (Here's the Wikipedia article on that important subject. There is also a web domain dedicated to the subject.)

One of his most remarkable statements is the following:
Altogether, there are fifteen physical constants whose values current theory is unable to predict. They are givens: they simply have the value that they have. This list includes the speed of light, the strength of the weak and strong nuclear forces, various parameters associated with electromagnetism, and the force of gravity. The chance that all of these constants would take on the values necessary to result in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life forms is almost infinitesimal. And yet those are exactly the parameters that we observe. In sum, our universe is wildly improbable. (p. 74) Collins, of course, is not the first person to point this out, but he does a good job of doing it again, and it is worth frequent reminders. It is, of course, possible that some theory will come along that explains why the velocity of light, or other of these constants, is what it is now.

He goes on to argue that cosmology points strongly toward a supernatural origin of the universe, and would say that such a position is academically defensible.

As the last topic of the chapter, Collins tackles the status of the first part of Genesis. He does not believe that it was meant to be taken literally, and says why. He quotes St. Augustine on the subject: In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. (p. 83 of Collins)

Thanks for reading.