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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Science & the Search for God, part 1

In a previous post, I indicated that The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion & the Search for God,* (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994) by Kitty Ferguson, is the best book on science and religion that I have ever read. Why is that so? Well, I like books for the same sort of reasons as other people. I like to be entertained. (That's not the strength of Fire, although it's written well.) I like to learn something. That is a strength of Fire. I like to read things that reinforce my own prejudices. (Well, don't you?) My relevant prejudices are set forth here.

I wish to summarize and discuss the book, in several parts.

Ferguson's aim is to examine how science is done, and, especially, to show that science cannot disprove Christianity, and that science and Christianity are compatible.

I normally don't discuss the acknowledgements -- that's the way that the book spells it -- section of a book, but, in her acknowledgements, Ferguson indicates that a number of people read all or part of the manuscript, and answered her questions. These individuals include a few world-class scientists, namely Richard Dawkins, Alan Guth, Stephen Hawking, and Steven Weinberg. Dawkins was formerly a professor at Oxford. He is a recognized scientist, but better known for his popular writing on scientific subjects -- see here -- and, in particular, his outspoken atheism. Guth is a professor at MIT, and the champion of the multi-universe idea. Hawking was a professor at Cambridge, occupying the professorial chair once held by Isaac Newton. He is best known for his thinking on the origin of the universe, and does not believe that any God was involved in that. Weinberg is a Nobel laureate in Physics, and an agnostic, or perhaps an atheist.

There were other people, more sympathetic to Ferguson's aims. The most prominent of those is John Polkinghorne, who was a physics professor at Cambridge, until he resigned to study for the Anglican priesthood. Polkinghorne has written over 25 books on the relationship between science and Christianity. They are relatively short, and readable. His main argument is that science and Christianity are compatible -- both are valid.

Apparently, all of these people, and more, read and commented on some or all of Ferguson's book. Their willingness to do so, and her willingness to want them to, speak well of Ferguson, and them. Another reason this book appealed to me is that I don't see how it would be possible to legitimately argue that she has put forth claims that are not supported by mainstream science, or that she has ignored evidence that might indicate that there was no Divine Creator. She hasn't made any claims that cannot be supported.

The first chapter is about how we experience things, such as a particular chair that Ferguson got from an ancestor. That may not seem important, but it is a fundamental question. How do we know, for example, that our senses are not deceiving us?

Ferguson says that scientists, knowingly or not, made the following assumptions about the universe, in, say, the seventeenth century:
1) It is rational. That is, it has patterns and predictability.
2) It is accessible. It is possible to learn about it.
3) It is contingent. It could have come to exist with different properties, but either chance, or purpose, caused it to be as we know it.
4) It has objective reality. Truths about the universe may be discovered, independent of the seekers' knowledge or biases.
5) It is a unity. The laws of physics are the same throughout the universe. (paraphrased from pages 8-9.)
Furthermore, those same assumptions were shared by theologians.

She correctly points out that all five of these assumptions have been challenged by modern science. Perhaps the most obvious evidence for that is quantum physics, which claims that, at the sub-atomic level, we cannot measure or predict both the position and the momentum of a particle accurately. And, furthermore, this is true in principle. (See here, for the Wikipedia article on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.) Unless there is a profound change in our understanding of how physics works, more expensive, better designed instruments cannot remedy this unpredictability. Another thing that modern physics says: "According to quantum mechanics, the vacuum state is not truly empty but instead contains fleeting electromagnetic waves and particles that pop into and out of existence." (from the Wikipedia article on Vacuum state, accessed June 29, 2010.) These fleeting entities are also unpredictable in principle.

So, at least at the sub-atomic level, the universe is not rational. But, I hasten to add, and Ferguson agrees, we still act as if the universe was rational, and as if it possessed the other four properties, and we should, so long as we are aware of the exceptions. There may, of course, be exceptions that we don't know about.

Ferguson concludes her second chapter** by saying:
It may be an act of faith alone, a flying in the face of some contrary evidence, but few of us would succumb to complete pessimism or abandon the scientific quest. Few of us would say that the human race and individuals among the human race can't know anything meaningful about the universe. Some of us do go on doing science, and others search for God, and still others do both, or keep their options open, or merely cope on a day-to-day basis -- continuing to assume that the universe is rational, contingent, open to our scrutiny, has underlying unity, and that there is such a thing as objective truth. (p. 34)

*I chose to use an abbreviated form of the subtitle for the title of this blog post, as it is more likely to mean something to others than the book's main title.

**The first chapter is introductory, and only four pages long.

Thanks for reading. I hope to continue this series soon. It's worth it for me, if no one else ever reads it.

*  *  *  *  *

See here for the next post in this series.


FancyHorse said...

Thank you. This is an interesting post. I'll be interested in reading the rest of the series.

I have long felt that science is not contrary to Christian faith and the teachings of the Bible. It is discovering God's creation!

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you, FancyHorse. I agree.

Pete DeSanto said...

Hi Martin,

Why should the average person not go about their day as if the universe is rational? This is a very instinctive thing with little bearing on the things we concern ourselves with in science! I'm reminded of a little ditty Feynman so amusingly quoted:
A centipede was happy quite, until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg comes after which?"
This raised his doubts to such a pitch
He fell distracted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

As it is Ferguson seems to be following a God of the Gaps track here. I'll have to read the book to get the whole gist, I guess.

Martin LaBar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Pete DeSanto.

Yes, that's what the average person should do. But the scientist who wants to do more than manipulate the laboratory plumbing and electric devices ought, perhaps, to think about the foundations of our ability to do science.

As to God of the Gaps, let's put it this way. Ferguson has a short section later in the book entitled "The Death of the God of the Gaps."

Martin LaBar said...

P. S. I spelled a word incorrectly, and deleted the evidence.

Pete DeSanto said...

I read that section on Amazon...God stepping in "wherever and whenever things look random?" Invoking chaotic systems and QM as the realm of a god is as silly as invoking fire as the realm of gods in ancient religions. That is clearly a God of the Gaps even if Ferguson does not wish it to be so. She has confined god to working within our ignorance of the universe. Quite a difference from the god of any religion I know.

Although, I might posit that the lint in my pocket is acting to tip the probabilities in my favor so that I shoot below my handicap in golf tomorrow ;)

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Pete DeSanto.

I am holding a copy of the book, with that section, before me. I don't see the phrase you quoted. (I may be missing it.)

I do see this, on page 205: ". . . one would be well advised to found one's faith on something other than the hope that science won't be able to explain much of what is presently a mystery to us."

I don't see how Ferguson is pushing a God of the Gaps theology. Others certainly have, in the way you have described, and she is warning against it, if I understand her correctly.

I hope you do well in golf.

Pete DeSanto said...

It's on pg 220 in the paragraph that begins "Let us finally return...?

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Pete DeSanto.

That page isn't in the section I referred to, but it's in the book, all right, and it does, indeed, read like she is proposing a God of the gaps theology.

I need to think about that one, and deeply.

God willing, I'll get back to you on this one, but not for a few days, most likely.

Thanks again.

Pete DeSanto said...

Thanks Martin. What I've read so far seems a little less clear than others who have taken a similar approach (Giberson, Plantinga, etc.), but she did a good bio on Hawking, so maybe it's the subject matter.