Sunday, September 30, 2012

Has Hawking killed God?

Stephen Hawking is, without question, one of the greatest British scientists to have ever lived but, I think he may have over-reached himself. In the final programme of a recent 3-part Grand Design television series (broadcast in the UK on the Discovery Channel recently), Hawking posed the question "Did God Create the Universe?" There was very little I had not already heard in this programme; and I felt that the way in which the whole 'God of the Gaps' meme was dramatised was a bit lame: Hawking politely (but very firmly) placed God in a box marked “superseded and unnecessary superstition”. However, one thing was new; the bluntness of Hawking’s ultimate conclusion that – because both space and time did not exist before the Big Bang and quantum mechanics makes the spontaneous creation of energy possible – there is no need for God to exist and no time for him to have existed. Unfortunately, this is not proof that God does not exist. Indeed the existence of God is no less plausible than multiple universes; 22 dimensions of space-time; or the supposition that we are all in The Matrix-like virtual reality of a superior race. However, I was left with two concerns: A seriously disabled but brilliant scientist like Hawking would not want God to exist because ultimately (1) his chronic disability would seem ‘unfair’; and (2) his life’s work would seem ‘pointless’ (i.e. “God did it!” is not a scientific explanation). Therefore, whilst I appreciate his predicament, I am inclined to think that scientific attempts to explain the existence of the Universe and/or dismiss the existence of God are unwise. As it happens, however, I completely refuted the entire premise of Hawking’s third and final programme several years ago (see 'A Brief History of Science' below). This may have only been posted here four years ago; but the final paragraph was actually first written down by me over 25 years ago when I was an undergraduate geology student. Nevertheless, for those pushed for time (ha ha), the essence of my argument is this: The human mind is incapable of comprehending either infinity or eternity (i.e. an absence of time) but that does not mean they do not exist. On the contrary, science tells us that at least one of them is a reality and, therefore, the same could be said of God. For those that take the time to read the rest of this "blog", you will discover that I am not a fan of Richard Dawkins either; as I think it is intellectually dishonest to claim there are no questions science cannot answer. People like Stephen Hawking, George Smoot (Wrinkles in Time) and Paul Davies (The Mind of God) do not do this. However, if you want a really interesting read, I would recommend Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion (2007), by Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas. If you follow this link (to amazon.co.uk) you will even find a review of the book I recently submitted.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Did Darwin Kill God?

Absolutely not! With my thanks to the presenter, Dr Conor Cunningham of Nottingham University, I should like to summarise why I think the programme bearing this title (first broadcast on terrestrial TV in the UK on 31 March 2009) was so good... At the outset, Dr Cunningham made it clear that he is an academic theologian and philosopher; but also a Christian and, clearly, a student of history too. However, none of this prevented him from interviewing people that hold widely differing views for the programme and just allowing them to talk (not arguing with them); even when he would clearly not agree with what they were saying... Over and beyond that, however, the programme was a plea for a ceasefire in a totally unnecessary battle between science and religion. Dr Cunningham's case being founded upon the fact that Young Earth Creationism is primarily a 20th Century invention.

Being a geologist, much of this was not new to me, but I was delighted to discover that I am not the first person to have reached the conclusion that such fundamentalist views give people an easy excuse for not dealing with the person and work of Jesus Christ. For example, this was the view of St Augustine a (354-430 AD); and was the conclusion reached by Thomas Aquinas in 1273 AD as well.

Notwithstanding all of the above, I clearly have much to learn (or unlearn) about Intelligent Design (ID), as Dr Cunningham's view is clearly that Evolution is a Fact. However, whereas I accept that ID may be a flawed hypothesis, I still do not accept that Evolution is without flaws itself.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Welcome!

The content of this blog started life as a website, so the posts that follow should be read in the order they appear (i.e. like chapters in a book). Obviously, the advantage of a blog is that it makes it very easy for people to comment on what I've written, which is something I would welcome (although I make no guarantee about the timescale of any response from me).

Who is this God Character Anyway?

There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 16:25)

The late Douglas Adams is probably best remembered for “The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy”; the book in which the Babel Fish appeared. The name is a reference to the story recounted in Chapter 11 of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, in which God is said to have confounded mankind's rebellious nature by introducing lots of languages, so as to make communication between tribes and nations much harder.

However, in Adams' comic masterpiece, if you stuck a Babel Fish in your ear, you were instantly enabled to understand anything said to you, in any language, anywhere in the Universe (hence http://babelfish.altavista.com). Here's what the "Hitch-Hikers Guide" has to say about the Babel Fish...

'Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

'The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

'But”, says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by you own arguments, you don’t.”

'Oh dear”, says God, “I hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

'Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

It seems likely that Adams was not seeking to do God any favours here, but the fact remains that there is some truth in what he says (which is partly what makes it funny). After all, the Bible does say “…without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that he exists…” (Hebrews 11:6).

A Brief History of Science

"One of our greatest discoveries has been that the universe has not existed forever but that it had a definite beginning in the Big Bang, about 15 billion years ago." Stephen Hawking

For at least the last 3000 years, philosophers and scientists have been on a voyage of discovery. At times they have undoubtedly wandered up some blind alleys; but generally they have been exercising their powers of intuitive deduction to better our understanding of the Universe.

However, in the Big Bang Theory, the sensitivity of the initial conditions required to ensure that the Cosmos lasted long enough for the complexity we see around us to develop (in just the right way to bring about useful things like solar systems) is truly mind-boggling. Faced with the remarkable way in which we are indeed suited to our surroundings, a common way for removing the need for a Creator or Designer is to say that, had it been any other way we would not be here to observe it. However, many perhaps more open-minded scientists, such as Paul Davies (1992) and George Smoot (1993), do not accept this argument. They remain honestly bemused by the massive improbability of the Universe being the way it is – able ultimately to support life - purely by chance. Why is it, then, that despite all of this, in many spheres of life and culture, Christianity has continued to be marginalised?

For some Christians the (young) age of the earth is a non-negotiable article of faith, but for most it really is not an issue. Yet, it seems many scientists never give Christianity a second thought because they think it’s unscientific and that all its adherents have got their heads buried in the sand. However, even if someone has reservations or doubts about Darwin’s theories (and those which have followed), that does not mean that they must therefore believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old! As with many things in life; it just isn’t as simple as that.

So much for science and theology; what about philosophy and theology? One of the things that distinguishes humans from animals is our ability to reason. Certainly, within the animal kingdom, there is a great range in the complexity of thought processes of which any individual type of animal is capable. A baboon can be seen to display behaviour that indicates an ability to think and learn (and thereby to interact with its surroundings), which a goldfish clearly does not. Nonetheless, however clever apes, whales, or dolphins may be, it is widely accepted that humans are the only ones capable of pondering the nature and purpose of their own existence.

Philosophy and theology have had a long, healthy, and productive relationship. However, to believe simply that one grew from the other is to fall foul of the central plank of humanist ideology; as many anthropologists believe that “man created god in his own image”. This is not just a very neat summary of their beliefs, however, it is also of course a clever-sounding reversal of Genesis 1:26 – “God created Man in His own image.”

Their argument goes something like this: Early Man found many things in the world about him scary and beyond comprehension. So, in order to rid himself of fear, Man invoked the existence of gods, identifying each with an aspect of nature that worried him, such as thunder and lightning, for example. As Man’s understanding has increased – so the argument goes – the scope or necessity for gods has decreased. This is often referred to as the “god of the gaps” theory. Charles Darwin fell into this trap when he put it on record that the problems he could see with his theory of evolution would be solved by the advancement of science in the years to follow. However, this has not proved to be the case...

Nevertheless this utopian dreamlike view of science and scientists has since lost little of its popularity, despite being entirely intellectually dishonest (in my opinion). Surely, it would be more honest and humble to admit that, although there are some things about which we can be fairly certain, for example that the sun will come up tomorrow, there are other things that we should admit that we may never know (or, at least, never be able to prove scientifically)? However, there are also some things that are just not in the domain of science to be proven or understood: Surely it is outrageous to suggest that the finite - indeed spatially very limited - mind of Man could ever fully encompass, comprehend, and understand a Universe that is infinite? (and if not infinite then, also that which lies beyond it – but that is another question altogether).

A Brief History of Geology

Geology is a particularly alluring field for premature attempts at the explanation of imperfectly understood data.” (Dana)

Geology has to choose between the rashness of using imperfect evidence or the sterility of uncorrelated, unexplained facts.” (Gregory).

In the 18th and 19th Centuries, those who held to the view that science would have all the answers were sadly at odds with a religious establishment that had become suspicious of the motives of all scientists - and considered that, rather than being the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, science was the pursuit of lies and deception. However, ironically, it was hundreds of years earlier, that a Catholic Priest from Poland, named Copernicus, got the ball (or should I say globe) rolling by suggesting that the Earth revolved around the Sun (and not the other way round). Then of course came Galileo, his great Champion. Both men came to be viewed by the Catholic Church of the time as heretics; considered to be peddlers of pernicious and dangerous lies, and were even threatened with excommunication from the Church.

So it was that, in their turn, Hutton (the first to find clear evidence [on the south-east coast of Scotland] that the Earth was indeed very old) and Rutherford (the first to try and calculate a sensible age for it) were, at first, denounced and derided by the established Church of their day. But you don’t have to be a geochemist or a geochronologist to work out that the Earth is very old; it really is a "no-brainer" - there are literally mountains of evidence indicating that the Earth is very old and that all its fossil-bearing rocks could not possibly have been deposited in one go. (For example, consider the size of the Grand Canyon - given the extreme slowness of the erosional processes that have produced it; or the thousands of metres of sediments built-up beneath the Mississippi delta - all deposited on a shallow sea-bed that must, therefore, have been subsiding for a very long time). What is also clear, however, is that over geologic time there have been numerous catastrophic floods of the kind recounted in the Bible (in the Story of Noah and his Ark) - in the Middle East and elsewhere on the globe. However, early, na├»ve thinking on the age of the earth had, in fact, already been abandoned by most theologians, even before Darwin was even out of nappies.

Yet, if it is amusing to consider that it was only at the very end of the last century that the Catholic Church officially conceded its error in insisting the Sun orbits the Earth, then it is equally sad that many Evangelical Christians today still feel that it is necessary to try and defend the notion that the Earth is not actually very old. This is “sad" because, post-Darwin, so much of what scientists have discovered actually supports belief in the existence of some sort of Creator (with the possible exception of String Theory, which attempts to side-step the issue by invoking 12 dimensions and numerous parallel universes!).

If Age is Not the Issue...

"A great many problems in the debate between theology and geology can be resolved if we reject theistic evolution and biblical neo-catastrophism... by rejecting theistic evolution we reject faulty theology... [and] by rejecting neo-catastrophism we reject faulty science." Davis A Young

Less than 200 years ago, Christians were well-represented and respected in scientific circles, and 50 years ago were well on the way to recovering from the fall-out from the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and “Descent of Man” nearly 100 years earlier. However, within the last 40 years Young Earth Creationists have jettisoned the notion of a flat earth, but resurrected many of their old unscientific or pseudo-scientific ideas (and invented some new ones), thereby presenting many with a stumbling block on their potential journey to faith.

So it is that many are handed an easy, ready-made, excuse for failing to consider the implications of the facts of the life, words, acts, death, and empty tomb of Jesus; by the strict, and unnecessarily literal, interpretation of some parts of the Bible.

In addition to realising that “age is not the issue”, it is important to appreciate the fact that the Bible is not a scientific or historical textbook. Furthermore, no single part of it should be used in isolation as a means of defending or denouncing any particular world-view, or in defiance of observed reality. The Bible should be rightly considered as a divinely-inspired work, comprised of 66 different books, written over thousands of years, and penned by a variety of different human authors: It is comprised of many different literary styles; allegorical stories, morality tales, poems, songs, letters, diaries, prophecies, as well as the documentary-style texts. Therefore Christians can claim, with considerable justification, that the Bible should be viewed as “a history of revelation and a revelation of history”.

However, the Bible does not set out to define How things are, but rather Why they are: Some things are within the domain of scientific endeavour, and others are not. In amongst the text of every part of the Bible you can find seeds of truth (if you are willing to look and/or able to see). Possibly the most famous example is to be found in the very first sentence of the Bible: “In the beginning God created…” But there are also passages in the Bible that point to the following:

that everything on the surface of the Earth originates from interstellar dust in space - "...for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust." (Psalm 103:14);

that the Earth was at first just covered in water - "...the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters." (Genesis 1:2); and

that the first land emerged from beneath the waves in the form of volcanic islands - "...[God] set the earth on its foundations... [He] covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains, but at [His] rebuke the waters fled..." (Psalm 104:5-7).

In these respects (and many others) it was truly “way ahead of its time”. Therefore, I believe that the statement...“In the beginning God created…” still confronts cosmologists today with the same truth and potency it did when first perceived some 5000 years ago.