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?”

Narnia, and the Danger of Becoming an Accidental Christian

“I don’t think I ever really feel in danger of accidentally believing… or stumbling into it.” Laura Miller

I’m listening to the Unbelievable? podcast replay of the discussion with Holly Ordway & Laura Miller: A convert and skeptic in Narnia. As always, I find the conversation on the Unbelievable! podcast intriguing and thought provoking, as the podcast usually engages people on opposite ends of the thought spectrum.

Holly Ordway and Laura Miller had similar experiences in reading the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. They read them as young children and loved the books purely for the fantasy. When they were older and discovered that the books had fairly obvious Christian themes and symbolism, they felt betrayed.

Laura Miller explained here sense of betrayal in that the fantasy world as she imagined it turned out not to be what she thought. The discovery left her feeling like she was on the outside looking in.

As I think about it, the allure of the Chronicles of Narnia is exactly the sense of being on the inside, of discovering a world through the back of an ordinary wardrobe that is unknown and unseen by adults. As a child, nothing quite intrigues like a secret adventure found in your own house that is unknown by your parents.

The experience of finding a whole new world quite by accident, and in a wardrobe that has been in your own house all along, is a fantastical and intimate experience for any child. That intimacy, perhaps, is what gave way to the feeling of betrayal.

The discovery of the Christian symbolism, allegory, and themes “hidden” in the Chronicles of Narnia may have seemed like the unveiling a secret behind the secret world she loved for its own sake. The secret that lured her in as an unwitting child was betrayed by a secret behind the secret that left her feeling that she was not as intimate with the fantasy as she thought.

The secret behind the secret turns the story on its head. The secret, the real secret, was hidden from them.

It’s almost like the experience of losing one’s innocence. In a moment, the childlike naivete is forever undone. A person will never be the same. Those books can never be approached the same way again.  The magic is lost.

I am reminded of a series of dreams I had as a child. I had a dream one night in which I held on to Silly Putty, and some combination of the Silly Putty in my hand and my wishing allowed me to fly. It was the most exhilarating dream I ever had. It seemed real, and the realness of it lingered after I woke.

I had the same dream the next night, but I became more aware of the fact that I didn’t know how it worked. I was still able to fly, but the sense of me not knowing the magic behind the flying haunted me.

The next night I had the Silly Putty in my hand, but my wishful thinking didn’t work, try as I might, to make me fly. I could not recreate the magic, and I never had another dream of flying.

I felt in my own dream experience that I had tapped into some magic quite by accident, and I could not reproduce it because I didn’t have the knowledge of the magic. In Laura Miller’s case, the discovery of the hidden secret behind the secret, the Christianity behind the secret entrance at the back of the wardrobe into another world, undid the magic for her.

She says that the world of Narnia was no longer as she imagined it when she first read the Chronicles. that knowledge was the undoing of her own understanding of that world. She could not recreate the magic. Some adult turned the lights on, and it was gone.

She says that the world of Narnia was no longer as she imagined it when she first read the Chronicles. that knowledge was the undoing of her own understanding of that world. She could not recreate the magic. Some adult turned the lights on, and it was gone.

I am putting some words to what she said, but I can feel her sense of loss. It was the same sense of loss I felt when I found that I could no longer fly.

It seems to me, however, that the experience I had is somewhat the opposite of the experience Laura Miller had, though the sense of the loss of the magic is the same. In my case, a lack knowledge about the magic flying was my undoing, or so I felt. In Laura Miller’s case, the knowledge of the Christianity behind the Chronicles of Narnia was her undoing, or so she felt.

She had developed her own image of that fantasy world of Narnia, and discovering Christian themes and allegory in the Narnian world fabric betrayed her own imagining of that world. The imaginary world she created in her own mind vanished in the light of the knowledge that the Narnian world was not quite as she imagined it.

I read the Chronicles of Narnia in college as a very new Christian. The way those Christian themes played out for me in the pages of those books were like technicolor on a black and white screen. The nuance and subtlety in which Lewis wove those themes into a beautiful story was inspiring. Images from those books live in my imagination still today and color my theology.

Laura Miller had a distasteful experience of religion as a child. She didn’t get into much detail, though she says she grew up Catholic, like I did. I don’t want to be unfair to Catholics or Catholicism, but I can relate to her negative feelings.

I have not listed to the whole discussion yet, because of some statements Laura Miller made at about the 24 minute mark inspired me to set off down this rabbit trail. It began with her characterization that “believers” live in a reality that “operates on another plane that, if I am lucky, I can fall in a hole and be in the reality they live in”.

She says, “I just don’t experience it that way”, meaning life, I suppose, though I don’t want to put words in her mouth. I encourage you to go back and listen to the conversation yourself. This statement, however, sets the stage for what said that gave rise to my thinking today, which is this:

“I don’t think I ever really feel in danger of accidentally believing… or stumbling into it.”

She goes onto to explain her interpretation of Lewis’s past: that “he found himself wanting to believe…. and then he was able to find the pathway… towards the thing that he wanted. She goes on to say, “I don’t really feel that desire…, and it’s kind of impossible to accidentally, or sort of inadvertently, to come into a state of a desire to believe”. She concluded, “I have emerged from all kinds of literature from all kinds of faith without feeling [such a desire].”

Her comments about “accidentally believing” or “stumbling into” faith, or “a desire to believe”, as she puts it, is what inspires me to write today. It begs for some thought and comment.

Continue reading “Narnia, and the Danger of Becoming an Accidental Christian”

“If I Were God….”: An Exploration of the Human Heart and Need for God

Photo Credit to Tyler Drendel, a sunrise at Fermi National Laboratory in Batavia, IL

The last episode of the Unbelievable? Podcast (May 21, 2022) featured Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins on Biology, Belief and Covid: Can science and faith be reconciled? Justin Brierly has set the standard for facilitating thoughtful, civil conversations on opposing views of the world, like faith and atheism.

In this particular conversation, Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project and well-known scientist who professes religious faith, just finished explaining briefly why he came to believe in God at the age of 27. Richard Dawkins, the very well-known scientist and “new atheist”, responded this way:

“If I were God and I wanted to create life, maybe even human life, which is part of the expectation of a religious person, I think I would not use such a wasteful, long-drawn-out process. I think I would just go for it. Why would you choose natural selection, which has the possibly unfortunate property that it could have come about without you? Why would God have chosen a mechanism to unfold His design and chose the very mechanism that would make Him superfluous?

Dawkins speculated that God might have thought, “I wonder what would happen if I set up a primeval, self-replicating molecule and leave it to see what happens.” Dawkins called such an experiment “interesting” and sympathized with the thought of God experimenting in that way. Then he added, “If I wanted to make complex life, I wouldn’t choose that astonishingly wasteful, profligate – cruel actually – way of doing it.”

Dawkins focused on the suffering that comes from competition and evading starvation. He focused on the weeding out process of some animals starving to death, being eaten by predators and succumbing to disease. Dawkins summarized, “It is not a benign process at all.”

Dawkins admitted that this line of thinking is “not a good argument”, but it is what “struck” him as Francis Collins was talking. Indeed, I have heard Richard Dawkins say similar things in debate and in his writings. This line of thinking is obviously compelling to him, good argument or not.

I don’t want to be overly critical of Dawkins. I am not here to blast him or judge him. We all have a judge, I believe, and it isn’t me!

Dawkins is not an ignorant man, obviously. He is a foremost scientist who is a very poignant and elegant communicator and champion of the evolutionary paradigm. His many books and body of work speak to his exceptional intelligence. As people go, he is at the top of the food chain in scientific knowledge and understanding.

Francis Collins is good company for Dawkins, having advanced the relatively new science and understanding of human DNA, perhaps, further than any person before him. Yet, these two men have diametrically opposed views of whether God exists. Neither of them is an intellectual slouch.

I am writing, though, on what Richard Dawkins said. Just as Dawkins was “struck” by what Collins said to respond in the way he did, I am struck to respond by what Dawkins said.

His instinct or intuition or line of thought – whatever you want to call it – was to consider, “If I were God….” Dawkins gravitated toward comparing what he would do if he were God and the world as it exists. Dawkins’s point is, ultimately, that he finds the world as it exists not to live up to what he would have created if he were God.

Let’s examine that line of thinking.

Continue reading ““If I Were God….”: An Exploration of the Human Heart and Need for God”

Who is My Neighbor? And Who is a Neighbor to Me? The Discomfort of Grace.

Grace is exercised among people who are not like you, who challenge you, who are uncomfortable to be around.

I have often touted the Unbelievable Podcast on Christian Premiere Radio in the UK, and I do it again here. I recommended the episode on Philip Yancey live Q&A on faith, doubt and the future of the US church: Saturday 19 March 2022. Much was discussed in the episode that I could write about, but one thing stands out above the rest to me this morning. Philip Yancey said,

“It’s easy to find a church, to gravitate toward a church, where people look like you, and smell like you, and vote like you.”

Most of us go to churches like that. It’s a human tendency to gravitate toward people with whom we have the most connections, to settle in with people with whom we have the most in common, to spend time with people most like us, but Yancey says,

“That’s not the way to exercise grace. Grace is exercised among people who are not like you, who challenge you, who are uncomfortable to be around, people who are immoral. That’s where to exercise grace.”

Such a radical statement challenges most of us, I think. I am guilty of settling into churches where I feel most comfortable, but what if God wants me to engage in a church, or in groups, or with people with whom I feel uncomfortable? Would I be open to that possibility?

Jesus often urged people to love their neighbors. When I think of my neighbors, I think of the people in my neighborhood who I know and spend time with. If you are like me, you probably think immediately of your neighbors you know, but what about your neighbors you don’t know?

Jesus knew that people tend to favor those who are like them when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 25:30-35) In the parable, an unidentified man is attacked by robbers, stripped of his clothes, beaten and left for dead. (Luke 25:30) Three people come along and see him lying there: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.

The priest and the Levite were the people most like the man who asked the question that prompted the parable. He was an expert in the Law of Moses, a Jewish leader.

He actually began with a more esoteric question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turned the question on him, asking “What is written in the Law?” (Luke 25:25-26)

When the man responded, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,'”, Jesus answered anti-climatically, “You have answered correctly…. Do this and you will live.”

That might have been the end of the conversation, but the expert in the law “wanted to justify himself”. Perhaps, he wanted affirmation that he was reading the law correctly. Perhaps, Jesus to acknowledge his deep moral thinking. Perhaps, he wanted to prove his expertise in the Law. Whatever he was thinking, he asked, “[W]ho is my neighbor?” (Luke 25:29)

I feel like the man wanted Jesus to engage him in a deep a theological discussion, but Jesus deflected the attempt with the parable. The expert in the Law wanted to make it difficult and complicated, but Jesus kept it simple.

Maybe the expert in the Law was more interested in affirmation that he was a good person who deserved to inherit eternal life. Maybe his question was motivated by his own recognition that some people are harder to love than others. Perhaps, he knew that his own stake in eternal life depended on the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Maybe he didn’t really want an answer; he just wanted to debate.

He is specifically identified as an “expert in the Law”, and the initial question, and the follow up question, read to me like he was wanting a deeper, philosophical conversation with Jesus. He didn’t really want a simple, straightforward answer. He wanted to debate, but Jesus wouldn’t go there with him.

I am also relatively certain that the answer Jesus gave him was not at all what he expected. It certainly what he was looking for. It likely cut him to the quick. Both he and and the wider audience who was listening in.

Continue reading “Who is My Neighbor? And Who is a Neighbor to Me? The Discomfort of Grace.”