Monthly Archives: June 2015

Creation or Big Bang Evolution?

The effectiveness of contemporary objections to Christian belief derived from the discoveries of natural science depends on misunderstanding or distorting science’s domain, scope and competence. In the last two weeks I’ve worked on clarifying these misunderstandings and distortions. As I said last week, modern science attempts to explain data derived through the five senses by creating theories that predict future empirical states that, if they occur, support the explanatory theory. I realize this oversimplifies things a bit, because for different natural sciences—physics, chemistry, biology—the particular intermediate theoretical languages differ.

Physics and chemistry are highly mathematical, whereas biology, while still mathematical, adds other types of relationships among the things it studies, specifically function. The category of function is needed in biology because this science deals with organisms, which are obviously organic wholes in which molecules, cells and organs contribute their part to the proper functioning of the organism. Hence biological explanation involves showing how each part functions in relation to the higher systems and finally to the total organism. However, in all natural sciences a transition from one state of the empirical world is related intelligently to a future (or past) state of that same empirical world by means of an explanatory theory that explains why the transition took place as it did.

In modern natural science, all the explanatory theories used to explain transitions from one empirical state to another appeal to the physical properties of the prior state to explain the change in form that is manifested in the subsequent state. There is nothing objectionable in this restriction. This is what empirical science does. But when thinkers claim that everything real and every event that occurs must be explained by the physical properties of the things involved, that empirical method is the only way to truth, and that all truth can be stated in empirical terms, they are grossly distorting science’s domain, scope and competence. Given this false assumption about science, objections to Christian belief based on particular scientific discoveries (Big Bang, biological evolution) are redundant; for the objectors have already ruled out belief in divine action in their presuppositions. But if you do not accept the assumption that everything real and active is physical and empirical, you need not accept the conclusion that the big bang and biological evolution compete with belief in God and God’s all-pervasive action in the world.

The Big Bang

The Big Bang theory relates the present empirical state of the universe to earlier states and ultimately to the earliest state to which accepted physical laws apply (between 15 and 20 billion years ago). The theory accounts for certain empirical observations of the present universe: the universe appears to be expanding; the further away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving away from us; the uniform (or near uniform) background radiation in every direction; and much more. These observations are combined with the theory of relativity and quantum physics to conclude that at some finite time in the past the universe was so compact that everything in it was in one place (the singularity), that space and time had not yet emerged, and that the temperature was virtually infinite.

Let’s not get hung up in a discussion of the Big Bang’s scientific truth right now. Instead let’s remind ourselves that even if its empirical claims are true, it cannot rightly claim to be the whole truth. The Big Bang is not a theory of everything. It does not cover the same ground as the Christian doctrine of creation. It does not even speak the same language. It is a theoretical account of the development of the present cosmos from a previous state. It begins with an already existing universe, and it describes and accounts for the changes from earlier to later stages of the cosmos with theoretical articulations of the physical properties of the elements within the observable world. On a theoretical level it speaks the language of mathematics. That is the secret of its explanatory power but also of its poverty. It cannot speak or understand another language. There is absolutely nothing in the Big Bang theory that explains away or rules out the action of God in calling the universe into existence, giving it the form it has, guiding it to the place it is, or leading it on to the destination God has in mind. The Big Bang cannot explain or rule out the reality of the qualities we experience or the mind we possess or the freedom we exercise. It cannot explain or rule out meaning, truth, beauty or moral law. It cannot tell you who you are or why you are here. If you have other grounds on which to believe in the reality of God, our minds, the intelligibility of nature, the moral law, human freedom and creativity, and the meaning of cosmic history, the Big Bang theory of cosmological development poses no rational threat at all to those beliefs. It’s simply a non sequitur, irrelevant, beside the point. As a cosmological theory, it’s elegant. As an objection to Christian belief, it’s lame.

God is Not Just (Or Even Primarily) A Mathematician!

Last week we explored the consequences of the early modern shift from the organic model of the world to the mechanical model. When we imagine the world and every process within it as working like a machine we place ourselves outside of everything and every process in world. Our point of view is always that of an external observer of how the surfaces of things relate to each other. The external viewpoint is maintained even if we modify the metaphor to include waves, fields and strings. And the interrelationships of particles, waves or fields can be described scientifically only in mathematical terms.

Today let’s think a bit more about what science is, what it does, and what it can and cannot do; and I will apply this to the question of Big Bang Cosmology and divine creation. As I pointed out above mathematics is the native language of modern science. All other languages are at most pre-scientific; yet as we will see, science cannot rid itself of all pre-scientific concepts. As a most conspicuous example take the concept of a “thing.” Things are designated by names and properties. Its name designates a thing as a whole in its difference from other things: This is a dog, not a cat or a chair or a star. Its properties describe the distinct intelligible aspects that make the thing what it is and identify it as such: Cats meow, dogs bark and rivers flow. One of the properties of things is quantity. It seems to me that the only things that have only the property of quantity are numbers; and I even have doubts about this: can a thing have only one property? In general, the meaning of a thing cannot be fully described by expressing its quantity.

Pure mathematicians use only numbers and quantitative operations in their science. But as soon as you attempt to understand the empirical world in mathematical terms like physicists do you leave pure mathematics and begin to speak of things. And empirical things are more than numbers and can appear to us only through their non-quantitative qualities. The importance of this transition cannot be overstated; for it means that even physics, the most mathematical of all the sciences that study the real world, cannot escape the language of things and qualities into the clarity of pure mathematics. In order to increase our understanding of the world we experience through the senses physicists must tell us what things they are measuring. What is the mass of an electron? What is the electromagnetic charge of a proton. Physicists must relate their mathematical formulae to something we experience through the senses or their work illuminates nothing. And what is a proton or an electron or energy…or any of the other things physicists name? The answer cannot be a mere quantity! That would be a number. It must be a quantity of something. And things have qualities!

Physics and other natural sciences pride themselves on being empirical, that is, their goal is to explain theoretically the world we experience through our five senses. A scientific theory should be able to predict the occurrence of some event in the empirical world and the measure of success is whether or not its predictions turn out to be correct. Hence natural science begins with empirical experience and ends with empirical experience. Between the beginning and end of the scientific process scientists abstract from these empirical experiences aspects that are amenable to theoretical generalization, ideally in mathematical language. But when scientists abstract only the quantitative information from empirical experience what do they lose? What is the status of this ignored information?

On the purely empirical level, before the operation of our minds in reading the sense data, we receive only physical impacts that cause physical and chemical changes in our sense organs. But unless we are completely skeptical about our ability to know the external world, we understand that raw sense data encode information that are decoded by the mind. The information communicated by the senses to the mind includes the quantitative properties of things, but it also includes the other properties as well. Galileo dismissed all properties other than the quantitative as secondary. He considered such qualities as color, heat and cold, and smell to be mental reconstructions of more primitive mechanical qualities and these reconstructions do not tell us the truth about the external world.

But Galileo’s dismissal of qualities as secondary is blind to a huge fact: the sense data that the mind decodes and experiences as qualities is itself information. And information is created only by minds and is understood only by minds. Galileo and modern science in general are so focused on quantitative information that they relegate other types of information—esthetic and moral and religious—to the subjective realm. But why privilege quantitative information over qualitative information? If we read novels like physicists read nature—strictly as physicists, not as human beings who happen to be physicists—we would examine the quantitatively measurable properties of the paper and ink but completely miss the story. If however we read nature like we read novels we would find ourselves united with another Mind for an inside view of that Mind, its beauty, goodness and power. Why shouldn’t the Creator use the physical properties of the world to impact the senses, which the created mind decodes into various qualities, which in turn makes meaningful esthetic, moral and religious experience possible?

Next Week: I did not get to the Big Bang today. Next week, I promise! Hint: All physical theories of cosmology relate one empirical state of the cosmos to another state by way of theoretical explanation of the transition from a previous to the present state. Big Bang Cosmology is no different. It is not a theory of creation. It is a theoretical account of the development of the present cosmos from a previous state. On a theoretical level it speaks the language of mathematics. That is the secret of its explanatory power but also of its poverty. It sees numbers where we see color and hear music and feel the cool of the evening air! It can’t read the messages of running water, a singing bird, a sunset, the smell of a rose, the touch of a loved one. But these too speak truth! God is not merely a mathematician! God is also a composer, an architect, a lover, an author and a painter. Perhaps math is merely the medium whereas love, life, goodness and beauty are the messages!

Can Science Show There is No God?

For the past five weeks I’ve dealt with objections to Christian belief that arise from the experience of evil. Today I will begin to examine objections inspired by modern natural science. In general, people who object to belief based on science argue that science has discovered fully natural, lawful explanations for processes and phenomena that were in the past explained by the existence and activity of God. If belief in God is an inference from observed effect to unobserved cause, belief in God is no longer warranted. Since the beginning of the scientific revolution so many secrets of nature have been given natural explanations that there is no longer any reasonable expectation that we will find any place within nature for God to act. Even if natural science cannot prove there is no God, the argument continues, it has closed so many gaps in nature so tightly that belief in a God who created and is active in the world has been robbed of its explanatory power and hence of its rational basis.

Before Galileo and all the way back to Plato and before, the world was conceived as a combination of body and soul. In analogy to the human being, the world body was animated by a soul that enabled it to move. The distinction between dead matter and living soul was self-evident. Matter possesses no power to move itself or cause any change in something else. Only soul is active and causal. When people living before Galileo looked up into the sky they assumed that the movements they saw there were the result of the rotation of all things around earth, which is the center of the universe. The Sun, Moon, the planets and the stars moved around earth propelled by the world soul. It was a spiritual universe in which the activity of God and the spiritual world was obvious. Movement (the visible effect) was explained by soul (the invisible cause). And all of this was made doubly certain by our experience of our minds and souls in relation to our bodies and the external world.

Galileo and those that followed him argued that we should adopt a new analogy or model to help explain how the world works. Instead of the organic model of soul/body in which soul exercises its causality mysteriously by an internal organic connection, such as that we experience between our minds and our bodies, we should think of the world as a machine in which wholly material parts (ultimately atoms) interact with each other only externally. Movement is transferred from one body to another by external impact. In this way the mystery is removed from movement and change within the world, because mechanical interactions involve only relative spatial location, magnitude and direction and these can be comprehended by the clearest and most precise of all the sciences, mathematics.

Perhaps Galileo believed that there were spiritual and organic aspects to the world whose working cannot be explained by the mechanical analogy. But soon there were those who argued that everything and every process in the world can be explained exhaustively by mechanical principles, that is, by external relations comprehended in mathematical language. All movement in the physical world is cause by impacts of physical objects on each other. All phenomena are caused by atoms that come to be arranged spatially by purely natural means. Hence no inference from the beauty, intelligibility, fittingness, complexity and order of the world to a spiritual cause, i.e., God, is warranted.

Much more could be said in response to this argument than I am going to say. Those who know something about contemporary physics know that the mechanical model is no longer held to mirror everything and every process in the physical world. It applies only approximately to a narrow range of the world. The idea that the world is made of unbreakable atoms that relate only externally has been exploded. Other analogies and models now play a part: fields, waves, strings, etc. Causality is no longer central to scientific explanation and quantum discontinuity or indeterminacy has been added to continuity and determinacy, introducing again a sort of mystery into nature. Many of the arguments against belief that were forged in the post-Galileo era no longer carry any weight. Nevertheless the impression still remains that somehow scientific explanations of physical processes exclude the activity of God.

In response to the arguments derived from the mechanical model, I want to remind you that what occurred in the early scientific revolution was a shift from the organic analogy to the mechanical one. But why should we prefer a mechanical analogy? From where do we get it? The answer to this last question is obvious: From everyday experience. We see simple machines like the fulcrum and lever or complex ones like the mechanical watch and are impressed with how easily we can understand them and how readily we can describe them simple spatial and quantitative terms. But machines are outside of us and we have no capacity to get inside them. Hence we assume they have no inside, no consciousness, no soul and no mind. Then we extend this analogy to the whole universe and conclude that the universe has no inside, no consciousness and no mind. But we do not know this! We have assumed it based on our experience of simple external objects.

My simple answer to the argument from natural science to unbelief or skepticism is as follows: The metaphors of machine, fields, waves and all the others derive from common sense observation of the external world. But there is one object in the world to which we have a most intimate relationship, not external but internal, that is, our own being, body, mind and soul. We experience within our very selves the power of causality and movement and freedom as our own acts. And that is something one can never experience in an external way! All physical science is but an extension of common sense experience of the external world, so of course science will never reveal the spiritual/mental dimension of the world. Only by taking our internal experience of ourselves as primitive and self-evident can we gain access to a spiritual dimension of the world.

Why not take our most direct experience of reality as the deepest window into that we can experience only indirectly? I consider it completely absurd to allow external and indirect experience to overturn the compelling impression of internal and direct experience! After all, both are human experience understood only in the mind. In empirical experience we use without noticing the power of our minds to construct internal images of things outside the mind from sense impressions. But in the mind’s experience of itself we experience the creative and constructive power of the mind directly. If we allow internal experience to have its proper say, the world will no longer appear as a meaningless machine or a mindless interplay of energy fields or a random world of quantum probabilities. (Don’t forget that these are but images or models in our imaginations!) It will appear as beautiful, meaningful, intelligible and spiritual. It would make perfect sense to view it as an expression of the mind of the Creator.

Future Posts: What is science, and what are its limits? Do the Big Bang Cosmological Theory and the Theory of Biological Evolution contradict belief in a Creator who exercises providence in and over the world?

Would You Torture a Child to Bring Universal Harmony? The Rhetorical Argument From Evil

The most potent argument challenging belief is not an argument at all. The other two arguments from evil discussed in previous posts attempt to maintain a logical form and a rational tone. Not this one! It rehearses in exquisite detail the horrors of war, the ravages of sicknesses and the savagery of human cruelty. It speaks of holocausts and genocides. It places the believer in a completely untenable position. The suffering described is so horrible, so unforgiveable that voicing any hope for redemption or for any good to come from it makes you sound like you are trivializing it.

The argument is sometimes called the “emotional” argument from evil, but I think it is best labeled the “rhetorical” argument from evil. I prefer this designation for the argument because it attempts not to persuade believers but to silence them with sarcasm or nauseating descriptions of suffering. It pictures those who believe in a kind Heavenly Father who takes care of us as fools blindly following an optimistic theory in face of its obvious refutation or as unsympathetic listeners unmoved by the most horrendous human suffering. In this setting believers are placed in the dilemma of either remaining silent and giving tacit assent to the argument or speaking and sounding foolish or cruel.

Voltaire’s book Candide is the most famous example of using sarcasm to attack belief in that God allows everything happen for a reason. The book tells the story of the misadventures of Candide and his companions as they witness and endure terrible wickedness and suffering. Dr. Pangloss is a blind optimist who believes that everything happens for the best. His constant refrain is that “this is the best of all possible worlds and everything happens for the best,” which sounds absurd in the context of Voltaire’s description of the death, dismemberment and suffering they encounter. What makes Pangloss seem foolish is not his deep faith that God will work all things for good but his silly presumption that he can see this with his own eyes and his tactless voicing of this opinion.

The most famous example of using agonizing and nauseating descriptions of wickedness and suffering against belief is the conversation between Ivan Karamozov and Alyosha his novice monk brother in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov. Ivan explains to his younger brother why he rejects God’s world and plans to kill himself when he turns 30 years of age: “Yet would you believe it, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s, and although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept” (p. 203, Norton Critical Edition)! Ivan tells story after story of innocent children tortured by heartless adults. But the most agonizing is the story of a little girl tortured by her own parents:

“These educated parents subjected this poor five-year-old girl to every possible torture. They beat, thrashed, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, turning her whole body into bruises; finally they reached the highest refinement: in the cold, in the frost, they shut her up all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn’t ask to be taken out at night (as though a five-year-old child, sleeping its angelic sound sleep, could be taught to ask)—for that they smeared her whole face with her excrement and made her eat that excrement, and it was her mother, her mother who made her! And that mother could sleep at night, hearing the groans of that poor little child, locked up in that vile place! Can you understand that a little being, who still can’t even comprehend what is being done to her, in that vile place, in the dark and cold, beats herself with her tiny little fist on her strained little chest and cries her bloody, unresentful, meek little tears to ‘dear God’ to protect her—can you understand that nonsense, my friend and my brother, my pious and humble novice, do you understand why this nonsense is necessary and created? Without it, they say, man could not have existed on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil, when it costs so much? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the little tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’”

Ivan concludes that no possible good that could be achieved is worth even one tear from that little girl. “I don’t want harmony, for the love of humanity, I don’t want it. I would rather remain with unavenged suffering. I’d rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong” (p. 212). Alyosha the believer is completely silenced. There is nothing to be said.

Ivan Karamosov is the literary expression of what came to be known in the mid-20th century in response to the Holocaust as “protest atheism.” Protest atheism contends that any effort to find meaning in horrendous events of suffering diminishes that suffering and dampens our enthusiasm to fight against evil. The “unavenged suffering and unquenched indignation” must be kept alive for the victims’ sake. Their suffering must not be made a means to a higher end.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, the rhetorical argument from evil is not a logical and rational argument. Now I think we can see what it is. It expresses agonized rebellion against forgetting and minimizing the suffering of the victims of the evil that human beings do to each other. And it expresses an irrevocable commitment to keep alive the determination to fight against such evil. Christian believers can and should share these concerns. We must. To believe that God will dry every tear does not mean that the tears were not cried or were cried in vain. No. Hope in God does not exclude weeping for ourselves and others who suffer. Faith that God will make all things right does not mean that we are relieved of the duty to denounce evil as evil and fight against it with all our might.

These thoughts are expanded greatly in the 25-page chapter (“The Rhetorical Argument From Evil”) in my soon-to-be published book, The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (InterVarsity Press, 400 pages). I will be saying more about his book when it is released this fall. Here is the link for the book: