Tag Archives: Science

Lessons in Humility

Our forebears thought the sky was a solid dome above the Earth, in which the stars were embedded.

By the second century AD, we had realized that the planets were out in space, but we still thought the Earth was the center of the universe.

In 1543, Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, arguing that Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun. This offended our self-image so much that when Galileo supported the idea, we imprisoned him.

The Copernican view was finally accepted, but we still thought we were exceptional because the laws of physics were different on Earth than in the heavens. Isaac Newton changed all that. In 1687, he published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, proving that a single Law of Gravity could explain movements in both heaven and Earth.

A century after Netwon, thanks to the tireless work of William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, it became known that our solar system is embedded in a gigantic galaxy, the Milky Way. When Friedrich Bessel measured the distance to a nearby star as 11.4 light-years, people were agog.

In 1920, we learned that, not only were we not at the center of the solar system, but our solar system was not at the center of our galaxy. Later in that decade, we would learn that our galaxy was but one among many.

Close on the heels of that discovery, Edwin Hubble proved that the universe is expanding. We were becoming a smaller part of the whole all the time. And at an accelerating rate: at the close of the century, we realized that the universe is flying apart faster and faster.

Working the expansion backward, Alexander Friedmann had suggested, in 1922, that the universe could have been born in what we now call the Big Bang. Even Einstein initially called the idea “suspicious” but by mid-century, it had begun to take hold. Apparently we are even less than the dust of the Earth: we are detritus from a random quantum fluctuation.

In 1600, Giodano Bruno got himself burned at the stake for, among other heresies, suggesting that the stars were suns much like ours, with inhabited planets. It was not until the time of America’s Civil War that conclusive proof was found that he was right about the suns, and not until after the first Gulf War that he was right about the planets.

When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that our world was almost certainly the only inhabited one in the universe. The scientific consensus now seems to be that life on other worlds is inevitable.

I was also taught humans were the only animals who could reason or use tools. I just finished a book about an African Grey parrot who could hold an intelligent conversation, in English, infused with a mischievous sense of humor. Many species have been observed not only to use but to make tools.

Our self-concept has come a long way from being the apex of creation, in a domed terrarium made especially for us to inhabit, only a few thousand years ago. We now know we are specs on a pale blue dot that orbits a larger, white dot that occupies a not-so-special place two thirds of the way down one of the spiral arms of a galaxy that has, at its center, a supermassive black hole.


rsz_black-hole-milky-way

Coming toward us at 110 kilometers per second is the Andromeda galaxy — three times as large at the Milky Way and with its own supermassive black hole. Fortunately, space is so vast that it will be 4 billion years before the galaxies collide. Our best guess is that when they do, the Earth will first be pulled toward the dual black holes and then ejected to intergalactic space.

But nobody will be here to witness Earth’s ignominious end. Three billion years earlier (only a billion from now) the radiation from the Sun will have grown so intense that it will have extinguished the last spark of life on our planet.

Life was born here 3.5 billion years ago, and has less than 1 billion to go. Now that we are well past middle age, perhaps it is time to reflect on our accomplishments.

If we can be proud of anything, it is this: that we have discovered the vastness of space and time in the universe, and our correspondingly humble position in it. After centuries of fighting against our change in circumstance, we may also be proud of having exchanged our offense for awe.

Living in the Questions

From the time I first heard the phrase as a young man, I have struggled to understand why “living in the questions” would appeal to anyone. Aren’t answers the entire point?

As I’ve written elsewhere, I derive much aesthetic satisfaction from my molecules having finally aligned themselves so that they have some clue of how the universe works. The answers — at last!

Or so I thought, until I read Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Greene speculates about nine plausible ways that parallel universes (“the multiverse“) might exist. In fact, most of them entail an infinite number of universes.

Just when you think you have one universe down pat, along come infinity more.

It’s unlikely that I will live to see any of those multiverse theories proven or disproven, but who knows — when my grandparents were born, the existence of other galaxies beyond our Milky Way was not even known. If our knowledge could expand from one galaxy to over 176 billion in less than a hundred years, maybe one additional universe will show up any day now.

We made this progress because we never stopped asking questions. When we found an answer, we said, “Fine. What’s next?”

What if we hadn’t done that? We would be living in the same misery as pre-scientific peoples throughout the world. Misery? Yes, misery: ravaged by disease, driven by superstition to sacrifice their own children, and orders of magnitude more likely to die in war.

So there’s a question for us to ponder, and then ponder more deeply: To what extent do we owe our happiness to ceaselessly asking questions about the world?

 

 

Why the Big Bang Does Not Imply a Creator

If nobody is around and there’s a Big Bang, does that mean Someone clapped?

Where I come from most people would say yes. As Robert Jastrow famously put it:

Consider the enormity of the problem. Science has proved that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks: What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter or energy into the universe? And science cannot answer these questions…

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Law of the Cosmos. What a talent that man has for explaining things!

He points out that even in light of the Big Bang, it’s quite possible that the universe is both infinite and eternal. “But wait!” you say. “The Big Bang means there was a beginning, doesn’t it? And how can the universe start from a point and become infinite after only 13.7 billion years?”

While the Big Bang may have been the beginning of our universe, it could have been just one of an infinite number of Big Bangs in an eternal multiverse. The multiverse may be infinitely large and infinitely old.

There was a time when I thought the multiverse was just a wishful invention of scientists who were looking for any scenario that did not require a Creator God. However, as both Brian Greene’s book and Lawrence Kraus’s book, A Universe from Nothing, explain, multiverse scenarios are a natural consequence of the known laws of quantum physics.

Nor are these untestable speculations. You may have heard in the news recently that one key component of most multiverse models, known as cosmic inflation, has received stunning empirical support.

I like this continuation to Jastrow’s story from the Skeptic’s Play blog:

After staying a while to share some stories with the theologians, the scientist begins to explore the surrounding area. Soon he realizes that the mountain goes much higher, but the path is poorly marked and obscured in fog. He points it out to the theologians, but they cannot see the markings.

“How did you get this far?”

“God guided us here.”

“Can God guide you further?”

They cannot agree amongst themselves. Some declare they are already at the peak. Others speculate that there is no peak, and thus no reason to continue. Still others say, “Yes, God will guide us,” and begin to wander in the direction pointed out by the scientist, to become forever obscured in the mist.

The scientist prepares to leave, bringing only a few theologians with him. He slowly continues to scale the mountain, meticulously checking every rock, and occasionally backtracking for days at a time.

Those would not be the last theologians he would pass by.

If There’s No God, Then Where Did All This Come From?

When I made my exit from evangelical Christian faith, my friends’ most common objection was, “If there’s no God, then where did all this come from?” I heard this again recently, so I thought I’d write about it.

The first-cause argument for God has a long history, dating at least from Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. It seems persuasive:

  1. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. (Also put as “Something cannot come from nothing.”)
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

How could anyone object to that?

As it turns out, we can and should object to each of those steps.

1. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. I 

Not true. “Something” comes from “nothing” all the time. In A Universe from Nothing, physicist Lawrence Krauss explains why “nothing” is actually an unstable state (chapter 10). In fact, taking the admittedly non-intuitive, but experimentally proven principles of quantum mechanics to their logical conclusion, it is entirely possible that our entire universe arose from nothing.

2. The universe began to exist.

That five-word sentence hides two assumptions that can slip right by us.

First, scientists are increasingly convinced that it is incorrect to speak of “the” universe. Our universe may well be just one in an infinite set of universes — the multiverse. Universes may give birth to one another in a chain that extends to the infinite past — a chain that did not “begin to exist.”

Second, even if our universe is the only one, it does not make sense to speak of its beginning, as if there was a time before it existed. From the Big Bang arose not only space, but time. As Stephen Hawking says, to speak of anything before the Big Bang is like speaking of a point that is more south than the South Pole.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This conclusion of the syllogism is already in doubt because its premises are suspect. However, let’s grant the conclusion anyway: the universe has a cause. Would that lead us to the traditional God of Western culture? Not necessarily, for the following conclusions are equally valid.

  • The god who created the universe died in the process, like a woman who dies in childbirth. God used to exist, but no longer does.
  • A committee of gods created the universe.
  • God created the universe, and then let it run based on Laws of Nature. God does not care about what rules you live by, does not answer prayers, and does not offer salvation to humankind.
  • God created the universe not for us,  but for black holes. After all, there are many more black holes than people. We are just an accidental byproduct.
  • A natural process that we have not yet discovered created the universe.

When trying to prove the existence of God, the Argument from First Cause has a lot of emotional appeal. Upon closer examination, it does not get the job done.

Geocentrism and Free Will

The first topic I wrote about in this blog was artificial consciousness. The last post, with its pictures of watches, has me thinking once more about the mechanisms of thought.

Everyone agrees that we think with our brains, but most people believe that there is more to thought than the mechanistic interactions of atoms in our skulls. After all, they argue, we have free will (what could be more obvious?). Nothing that operates solely by the laws of physics could result in free will, so there must be something more — a non-material spirit that superintends our thoughts.

As an aside, I note that some have argued that the randomness of quantum physics gives enough wiggle room in neurochemistry to allow for free will. I don’t buy it. What could be less free than randomness? Randomness might leave room for insanity, but not for the rational free will that most people feel they have.

What most people mean by free will is that they have a free choice in a given situation, and they could truly take one action or the other.

I suggest that there is no evidence for this beyond our strong feeling that it’s true. How could there be any evidence? Once we’ve made one choice, the other is forever unavailable, because that moment in time, with all its conditions, will never exist again. It is beyond the reach of any experiment.

In fact, there is evidence that we do not have a non-material spirit that is able to affect the physical world. I’m thinking of prayer studies, which have failed to demonstrated that prayer has any effect.

We feel that we have free will, but feelings do not constitute reliable evidence. After all, the feeling of knowing is merely a brain state. As I related here, that brain state can be induced by means ranging from drugs to self-delusion. We all know people with strong feelings who are dead wrong.

What makes our feeling of free will so hard to shake is that we are in the middle of it. I am reminded of the geocentrists of old (and today!) who, living on a giant ball hurtling through space at almost 67,000 miles an hour and spinning at 1,000 miles per hour at the equator, were absolutely convinced that the ball was not only stationary, but immovable. (I do not mean to insult anyone who believes in free will. I only mean to say that I see a similarity with belief in geocentrism, which I am about to explain.)

How could geocentrists be so certain? It was because they were on that giant ball, moving with it. Plus, their bodies had evolved to be acclimated to the movement. If survival had depended on evolving sense organs that could detect movement through space, either they would have evolved or we would not be here to know that they hadn’t.

Because they lived on Earth, geocentrists had no clue that it was at the mercy of gravitational forces that were slinging it around faster than anything they had ever conceived of.

I think it’s the same with our perception of will. Because we are glued to our thoughts, we don’t realize that they are at the mercy of the laws of physics. We think we are the center of our will, when in reality we are just part of a much larger, possibly centerless, whole.

Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 5: Highlighting Your Comments So Far

This little series, which I expected would be nothing more than a record for posterity, has garnered much more interest in the present day than I expected. I’ve been particularly pleased at the insightful and important comments several people have left. They’re important because they reflect sentiments I’ve heard often, but which I had neglected in my posts. I’ve responded in their respective comment streams, but wanted dig them out of that relative obscurity and put them in this post where more people will see them.

And let me apologize at the start for not including every good comment. There were many, but this post is about 1,20o words as it is.

I’m going to start with the most recent posts because that’s where some of the most important conversations took place.

From Part 4: Romans 8:9:

Here, I said that I had not seen significant difference in the conduct of evangelicals versus the rest of the population, and neither had formal surveys. I argued that this was evidence against “a central doctrine of evangelical Christianity,” namely that Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who gives them the motivation and power to live better lives.

Jeremiah Dahl rightly observed that the central message of the gospel is not to become a better person. “If your only idea of sin was ‘being a bad person’, then of course I can see your predicament; but that’s not what sin is. The shopkeeper didn’t need to be saved from being a terrible person, he needed to be saved from his sin, from rejecting the God who created him. … [In the] words of Christ, he is without a doubt failing to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind’ which is what Christ commands before saying ‘and Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

I think Jeremiah is so correct that I considered devoting a whole post to presenting the gospel from an evangelical point of understanding. Ironic, eh!? :) Instead, I hope the following will suffice.

  1. Every person is sinful.
  2. The penalty for sin is death, which in this life means alienation from God and in the next means eternal separation from him, in hell.
  3. However, Jesus took that penalty on himself by dying on the cross. Because his own life was sinless, his death did not have to pay for his own sin. That uniquely qualified him to die in our place.
  4. We can avail ourselves of Jesus’ sacrifice by “receiving him.” Evangelicals differ on what this means. For some, it means to receive God’s free gift, no strings attached. Others say that in addition, one must turn from the old life of sin and resolve to follow Jesus as Lord.
  5. At conversion, the Holy Spirit indwells the believer, giving him new power for godly living. Jesus’ resurrection not only showed he conquered death for the next life, but gives us victory over sin in this life. As Romans 6:4 puts it,  “…we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” And two verses later, “…our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.”
  6. Importantly, we do not earn our salvation through good works, for salvation is God’s gift. Rather, we do good out of gratitude for what God has done for us, and out of simple love for him.

From Jeremiah’s comments, I gather that his evangelical tradition differed from mine on point 5. However, where I come from that was an important aspect of the salvation story, which is why, when I did not find it to be true, it shook my faith.

From Part 3: Prayer Studies:

etnotablog saw my argument about prayer studies as “thinly veiling the much more egregious question, ‘How could a loving God allow people to suffer and die?’  question.” He continues, “Looking at why, with or without prayer, a loving God would allow any person to suffer unjustly is a question that has less to do about the validity of prayer and more to do about the nature of God and His relationship to man. Or, even further removed, does God exist at all?”

Chris responded before I did, and did it well. “The Beagle points out that it is written in the Bible that the prayers of ‘the faithful’ will be granted. Then it is demonstrated [that] multiple groups of presumably faithful people did not have their prayers answered, not just for miraculous healing but for marriage repairs as well. This then forces one to question the validity of prayer as a means to achieving any sort of end.” He continued with much more that is worth going back to read.

I agreed with etnotablog on one point: “Prayer not working says nothing about whether a God or gods exist.” However, I continued, “It is evidence against the particular God-claims entailed in evangelical Christianity, and that was my point.”

etnotablog also made a point that comes up frequently when discussing scientific studies of prayer. Citing the episode From Luke 4 where the devil tempts Jesus to put God to the test, etnotablog asserted, “We can accept that prayer is a way to interact with God (of the Bible) and believe that there is power to heal and restore found in it, but at the same time we have been told that it will not be subject to tests and trials.”

To someone like me, this is tantamount to saying, “Prayer heals, as long as you’re not paying attention.” Scientific trials are nothing more than the most reliable way of paying attention that we have discovered so far.

Besides, Dr. Byrd was not “testing” God. He is a Christian, and was trying to demonstrate God’s power.  It seemed to me that his study has more in common with 1 Kings 18:16-40 than with Luke 4.

The conversation continued for quite a while from there!

From Part 2: Worthy Prayers:

Nathan thought that both Science and belief in God ought to admit that they don’t have all the answers. He closed by saying, “…at the end of the day, I don’t see any alternative than to take a leap of faith in one direction or the other.”

In response, I offered my posts,  Myth, Meth, MathSound MethodHierarchy of Methods, and Is Atheism a Faith?

Michael said, “Science concerns itself with the material whereas religion concerns itself with the immaterial.”

I responded, “The moment religion makes predictions about what will happen in the material world, it has stepped into the realm of science: it has made claims that are testable.” That’s what I went on to explore in Part 3.

There were other worthy comments, including those in Part 1, but I’m going to cut this short (shorter, anyway).

Next time, I’ll continue with my series, taking a fresh look at God as found in the Bible

Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 3: Prayer Studies

Just this week, a Christian I trust related a story of miraculous healing that was told to her by a Christian she trusts. It seems that a man had been in a coma for 30 days. In a scene reminiscent of Acts 19, a garment was conveyed from a man of prayer and laid over the invalid. A few more prayers and 5 minutes later — the man arises!

How can stories like that fail to restore my faith? By the end of this post, you’ll understand why I’ve become a little jaded.

Parts 1 and 2 of this little series brought us to the point where I was still an evangelical but my faith needed to be strengthened. I had heard that scientific studies proved prayer to be effective in healing the sick, and decided that would be a good place to start.

I did a lot of rooting around on the Internet. To the extent that I could trace the claims (most of them were unsourced), the majority originated with a study led by Randolph Byrd, M.D.. This report was typical:

One of the most quoted scientific studies of prayer was done between August of 1982 and May of 1983. 393 patients in the San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit participated in a double blind study to assess the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer. … The patients who had received prayer as a part of the study were healthier than those who had not. The prayed for group had less need of having CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) performed and less need for the use of mechanical ventilators. They had a diminished necessity for diuretics and antibiotics, less occurrences of pulmonary edema, and fewer deaths. Taking all factors into consideration, these results can only be attributed to the power of prayer. [emphasis mine]

My experience with creationists had taught me to check the facts, and then the facts behind the facts.

Lo and behold, it turned out to be true!! The prayed-for group did have better outcomes in 6 categories! (The seventh, “fewer deaths,” was not at a statistically significant level, even though it was specifically prayed for.) However, what the evangelical Websites and even the abstract of the study itself failed to mention is that no significant difference was found in the other 20 outcomes that were measured.

Are we to believe that God cares about whether someone needs diuretics but is indifferent to whether they have gastrointestinal bleeding?

The outcomes that did improve only did so to the tune of 5 to 7 percent compared to the control group. Are we supposed to attribute that barely noticeable result to the mighty creator of the universe?

There were also plenty of methodological problems, documented in this critique by Gary Posner, M.D.. But it gets worse. Following standard procedure in science, another group tried to replicate Dr. Byrd’s result. 

Christianity Today — more or less the official journal of mainstream evangelicalism — was good enough to report the result of the follow-up study.

The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), conducted under the auspices of Harvard Medical School, was by far the most comprehensive of its kind. The study required 10 years and $2.4 million…

The result: The group whose members knew they were being prayed for did worse in terms of post-operative complications than those whose members were unsure if they were receiving prayer. The knowledge that they were being prayed for by a special group of intercessors seemed to have a negative effect on their health.

The two groups that were unsure of whether they were receiving prayer were also compared. One group actually received prayer (the same group mentioned above), while the other did not. This time, the group that had received prayer experienced more major complications than the group without additional prayer. In other words, the study seemed to show that prayer—at least prayer from strangers—might be bad for one’s health.  [emphasis mine]

But in a manner with which I was becoming increasingly familiar, they find a way to spin the evidence 180 degrees. Christianity Today continues:

Ironically, STEP actually supports the Christian worldview. Our prayers are nothing at all like magical incantations. Our God bears no resemblance to a vending machine. The real scandal of the study is not that the prayed-for group did worse, but that the not-prayed-for group received just as much, if not more, of God’s blessings. In other words, God seems to have granted favor without regard to either the quantity or even the quality of the prayers. By instinct, we might selfishly prefer that God give preferential treatment to those who are especially, deliberately, and correctly prayed for, but he seems to act otherwise.

True to his character, God appears inclined to heal and bless as many as possible.

Folks, you just can’t make this stuff up. But it is so very typical of what I heard in the evangelical church.

Although I had hoped that checking out the studies on intercessory prayer would strengthen my faith, the studies and the untruthful or contorted reporting of them by evangelicals only made my doubts grow. Even where I had been assured there was hard evidence, there was none.

The image that kept occurring to me was that I was standing on a floor made of a thin sheet of balsa wood. It was cracking under me and I kept trying new places to stand, only to find that those cracked as well.

But what of the man who came out of the coma? There was a time when that one third-hand report would have been enough to keep my faith-batteries well-charged for months. Now I look at it differently. Just as Dr. Byrd cherry-picked a few barely positive outcomes to report in his abstract and ignored the other 20, so incidents like this must be taken in the context of the thousands of people who awake from comas with no prayer, or fail to awake after much prayer. Heck, people were probably praying for this man for the entire 30 days, and would have continued to pray for 300 more. If he had awakened after any of the other prayers, that would have been cited as equally miraculous. And if he had never awakened, we never would have heard about it.

People awake from comas all the time. Cancers go into remission, backaches are healed, and the lame walk. Healing any of those things through prayer doesn’t mean a thing unless done as part of a controlled scientific study. And all the studies have shown little if any effect. If God really wants to show his power and mercy, let him regrow the limb of even a single amputee.

There is actually an entire Website devoted to that suggestion: WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com. Read it and see if you can offer a reason why God would be in the miracle-working business … but only if the miracle is not too hard.

While you’re doing that, I’ll prepare the next installment in this series. You’ll hear why I came to believe that my fellow evangelicals and I embodied one of the strongest refutations of the evangelical faith.

P.S. -  If you think you have a killer miracle story, please be sure it’s not a magic trick or a fraud.