Exploring the Edges of Our Knowledge on Matters of Science and Faith

As often is the case with me as I read, listen to discussions, and watch YouTube videos, a number of strands from those media come together. I am going to attempt to weave some of those strands together today as I tackle the edges of our human limitations, dark matter, and knowing God.

In a recent discussion between Saleem Ali and Stephen Meyer on the Unbelievable! podcast, Some things that Ali said prompted me to want to respond. I wrote of the discussion recently in What is the Basic Order of the Universe? Bottom Up? Or Top Down? But, today, I want to take my observations a bit further.

Saleem Ali has a background in chemistry and environmental studies, and Stephen Meyer has a background in physics, history and the philosophy of science. In their discussion, Meyer argues that our study of the physical world reveals evidence for a God who created it (a top-down design). In Ali’s response, I agree with his statement that certain things are unknowable to human beings because of our empirical limitations.

Ali said these things to highlight that we cannot know with scientific certainty that God exists. I agree with that. I would simply add this: Because science is the study of the natural, physical world, and humans are creatures of the natural, physical world, we are constrained to the limitations of the natural, physical world in our scientific endeavors.

Ali also admits that we may not ever be able to know the origin of the causes of the universe, or of the origin of the laws of physics, or of the origin of life because these things would require us to search beyond the parameters of the constraints of the natural, physical world in which we are bound.

Since we, ourselves, are physical creatures in a world that is limited by physical constraints, we may never know with scientific certainty what else exists.  

This assumes, however, that we have no capacity to know of anything that exists beyond the natural world. Some people are content to foreclose the idea that we are incapable of knowing anything that is not material and physical in nature. I am not convinced, and I see evidence that we are not so limited.

We have basically two choices: 1) assume that the existence of the universe is nothing more than a brute fact; or 2) assume that the universe had a creator. We can either resign ourselves to agnosticism or choose to test one of those two assumptions.

I made the assumption that the universe makes more sense on the premise of a creator, and I have been testing that hypothesis ever since. I won’t apologize for making that assumption, and the degree to which I have tested that assumption has not left my unsatisfied.

To those people want to judge me on that point, I say that you may be in a worse position than me to be a judge. I assume an intellect far greater than me created me with intellect. I do not trust it on my own account. On what basis do you have confidence in your intellect and agency that derived merely from inert, unintelligent matter?

To the extent that you believe your reasoning power evolved from lower life forms, why do you have confidence in the reasoning of a monkey’s mind? I say this not of my own accord; I am applying Darwin’s reasoning that he applied to own his convictions. (See Reflections on Faith and Atheism and Universal Design Intuition and Darwin’s Blind Spot))

As hints of the painter appear in his painting, our study of the natural world can (and does I believe) give us hints of the God who created it. We see the personality of the painter in his painting as we see the personality of God in His creation – including the creation of human beings.

I cannot prove that, just as I could not prove the painter by virtue of his painting. If I had no connection with the painter and knew no one who knew him, my knowledge of him would be mere speculation. But, I would be right in assuming a painter.

Ali says that finite creatures such as ourselves are going to encounter a certain amount of mystery and awe, but that mystery and awe does not necessarily validate a theistic explanation. Mystery and awe by themselves do not warrant a conclusion that God exists. I agree with him on the statement, as far as it goes, and I think we need to be candid about these things.

If God exists, who preexisted, and caused the universe and all things that we know to come into being, including ourselves, we may be cut off from knowing that God and from viewing that causality by our physical limitations and the physical limitations of the universe in which we are bound. Even if the universe hints of Him, we may be incapable of knowing Him by our own abilities because of our limitations.

The only exception I can think of would be for such a God to reveal himself in some way to us. Of course, that is the claim of theism.

We do not know the painter of a painting unless we meet him, and we cannot know the God of the universe unless we “meet” Him in some way. We might be able to track down the painter of a painting, because that painter exists within the same bounds of the same world as we do. Because of our limitations, however, God would have to introduce Himself to us.

That is the claim of people who claim to have “met” God in some fashion. We can explore those claims as we can explore the claims of anyone who witnessed an event or met a person we we have not met ourselves, but let’s lay that aside for the moment.

Continue reading “Exploring the Edges of Our Knowledge on Matters of Science and Faith”

What is the Basic Order of the Universe? Bottom Up? Or Top Down?

Stephen Meyer says, “I think nature is actually telling us something”

Digital golden ratio

Where does order in nature and the cosmos come from? Stephen Meyer & Saleem Ali recently met up with Justin Brierly on the Unbelievable? podcast to discuss the nature of order in the universe. Saleem Ali’s focus on the comparison between natural order and human social systems in his book, Earthly, Order, is the backdrop for the discussion with Stephen Meyer, who wrote Return of the God Hypothesis.

Saleem Ali’s book, Earthly Order: How Natural Laws Define Human Life, explores the linkage between natural order and societal order. He ultimately argues that mankind should synthesize social structures to match the order found in the natural world for the benefit of mankind and the environment in which we live. In reaching this conclusion, Ali devotes attentions to the beauty of natural order, which he sometimes calls design.

Saleem takes the consensus, scientific approach to the natural order. He assumes that natural order developed from the bottom up: that stars and planetary systems formed from initial cosmological constants present in the fabric of the universe at the instant after the “Big Bang” and that life formed spontaneously from inert matter into self-replicating molecules that grew exponentially more complex over time.

Saleem Ali is the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware. He has a B.S. degree in Chemistry and Environmental Studies from Tufts University, 1994, and M.S. degree in Environmental Studies from Yale University, 1996, and a Ph.D. in Environmental Planning, Department of Urban Studies and Planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000. Stephen Meyer, who also wrote Signature in a Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, has degrees in physics and earth science from Whitworth College, 1981, and an M.Phil. in history and Ph.D. in philosophy of science from Cambridge University, 1987 and 1991.

In Return of the God Hypothesis, Meyer attempts to show that what we see in nature is better explained by a top down model of order. He argues that “specified complexity” defies a bottom up explanation, and begs for a top down approach. He claims that this is a not a “god of the gaps” argument. Rather, it is the natural conclusion to be drawn from what we observe: that the specified complexity we observe in the world always comes from a mind.

Meyer doesn’t necessarily chart new ground in the evidence or the methods he uses to reach his conclusions. He using principals consistent with good science and the evidence revealed by modern science to argue that they point in a different direction than the modern scientific consensus. He argues that the evidence we see in science is better explained by the conception of top down order and it points to a particular kind of top down order.

I am not going to attempt to describe either book more than what I know, most of which can be gleaned from the descriptions of those books and the descriptions provided by both gentlemen. I am also not going to attempt to get too deep into the conversation between Ali and Meyer. You can watch their interaction yourself if it piques your interest. (Linked in the photo below.)

Saleel Ali’s perspective is the one you have heard. It is the perspective that is included in every textbook (by law). It is grounded in the predominant view: that the universe is self-organizing, and life is self-replicating. His responses to Meyer reflect a carefully guarded reluctance to allow for intelligent agency in the design we see in the natural world.

Stephen Meyer and other people, some religious and some not at all, are questioning the propriety of that reluctance to allow for intelligent agency, or what we might simply call “mind”, in or behind the processes that created the universe and life in the universe. One argument in favor of that view is derived from the scientific experiments intended to show how life evolved on earth, says Meyer:

“I love these new approaches in the origin of life and the simulation experiments that are done to test them. I think that they are telling us something, though, about the importance of, as Thomas Nagel put it in Mind and Cosmos[i], that in addition to physical order there is a reality of consciousness and mind, and, we can see hints of that in life…. You see this actually in the origin of life simulation experiments that are conducted to test these new models, because the logic of simulation experiment is to try to reconstruct conditions that we think might have been present on the early earth, and then see what happens in the present. So our knowledge of those cause and effect processes that we see ensuing will help us reconstruct what might have caused life to arise on planet earth.”

These experiments are a kind of “reverse engineering” of the conditions that might have given rise to life from the inert chemistry of the primordial earth, assuming that life developed in that way. Reverse engineering requires an enormous amount of intentional effort and creative design. It also suggests that our efforts at reverse engineering proves an initial engineering that was also the product of intentional effort and creative design. Meyer continues:

“There is something that has emerged invariably from these experiments, and that is to get the chemistry to move in a life relevant direction, the chemist repeatedly has to impose constraints on what the chemical reactions would naturally do. If you have got reagent A and reagent B, and they are combined, they will make A/B, but they will make a whole slew of versions of A/B…. The chemist has to fish the A/B version three out of that gamesh of possibilities…. What the chemist is doing at that point is excluding some options, electing another…. [Often]what they will do is just buy the reagent that they want off the shelf that has already been purified by an intelligent agent. At each step along the way there is an impartation of information. If you exclude some options and elect others, you are imparting information into your simulation, and that information is invariably coming from the experimenter.”

The impartation of information, of influence, of direction is the activity of a “mind” – a causal agent. By agent, I don’t mean a compound that is, itself, a product of inert matter that always reacts according to its properties; I mean a “will” that is directed by “mind”. A billiard ball is inert until it is stricken by a person with a cue, and then it acts according to its properties and the laws of motion until friction causes it to slow and to stop. Meyer says:

“So, I think nature is actually telling us something. These simulations invariably require the imposition of intelligence to proceed in a life relevant direction. You have to ask, ‘What are they simulating?’ If this is something that is consistently arising in all simulation experiments, maybe they are pointing to a need for a top down explanation (explaining the origin of life) because all of the simulations require top down imposition of intelligence and information into the systems.”

These experiments intended to show the possibility that life might arise spontaneously, given the right conditions, are demonstrations of the importance of outside influence to cause it to happen – if indeed it can happen that way.

The famous Miller-Ulrey experiment still referenced in high school textbooks was heralded as proof of the concept. It comes woefully short, however, in demonstrating that life might have arisen out of a primordial soup. (I explored the limits of that famous experiment in What’s in Your primordial Soup?) In the Miller-Ulrey experiment, the experiment was done with elements that were not known to have existed in the early “primordial soup” of the earth at the time in which we know that life arose.

To be fair, though, they were just trying to show that it’s possible: that life can form on its own, given the right environment. On the other hand, it is a good example of the way in which an intelligent agent (the scientist) must jury-rig an experiment to try to produce the intended result he is trying to achieve.

Continue reading “What is the Basic Order of the Universe? Bottom Up? Or Top Down?”

Reasoning to the Best Explanation for Life

Whether the universe, which has the appearance of design, was actually designed is the question that is begged by modern science.

I recently read the book, Darwin’s Doubt, by Stephen C. Meyer, a Cambridge University Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Science. The book uses Darwin’s acknowledgment that the Cambrian Explosion posed a potential problem to the evolutionary paradigm as a springboard to explore that “problem” in detail. Thus, the title of the book is aptly named “Darwin’s Doubt”.

I have summarized the first ten chapters of the book in a different Blog, Perspective, starting with a summary of the first four chapters of the book. Read my blog if you want a summary description of the detail that Meyer explores without buying the book, though I strongly suggest buying the book if your are interested.

In this blog, I want to explore the basis for Intelligent Design, which is ultimately the theory that Meyer espouses. For Meyer, the key bases for Intelligent Design are 1) the argument from biological or genetic information and 2) the argument from physics or cosmology. Both arguments can be summed up in the statement that we live in a world so finely-tuned for life that it could not have happened by chance or unguided “natural law”.

If you are reading this, you may have encountered these fine-tuning arguments before. Biological fine-tuning focuses on the complex biological machines that exist for which, as the argument goes, prior information is necessary. Any discussion of that complexity begs the question: where did that information necessary to build the protein parts out of which the complex structures are made come from in the first place?

The evidence in physics and cosmology is the “fine tuning” that we observe in the constants and initial conditions of the universe and the “fine tuning” of the conditions necessary to make life on planet earth possible, fit for habitability and fit for scientific discovery. He calls this last observation (a planet fit for human scientific discovery) the “Privileged Planet Hypothesis”.

Meyer focuses, in particular, on the question: What cause is capable of generating that information? To answer that question, he takes instruction from Darwin. Meyer argues that we can use the same scientific method Darwin used to infer that the cause had to be conscious mind or intelligence. I will try to summarize what I think he means below.

Continue reading “Reasoning to the Best Explanation for Life”