Bad is Bad

December 3, 2012

There is an excellent article on the Huffington Post (it’s not often you will hear me say that) called Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion which compares the bad thought processes that go into bad religion and bad science. As biologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake notes:

Bad religion is arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant. And so is bad science. But unlike religious fundamentalists, scientific fundamentalists do not realize that their opinions are based on faith. They think they know the truth. They believe that science has already solved the fundamental questions. The details still need working out, but in principle the answers are known.

Here Sheldrake describes one of the most common thought processes I encounter in New Atheists. As I point out in our conversations the number of beliefs materialists hold as articles of faith, i.e. the naturalistic origin of the universe, our planet, life and consciousness, atheists often respond with the claim that they have confidence that science will explain these phenomena eventually because, well, science has already explained other phenomena. Sheldrake cites a term by science philosopher Karl Popper to describe this kind of thinking – he calls it promissory materialism:

Since the 19th century, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, nature is purposeless, and minds are nothing but brain activity. Believers are sustained by the implicit faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance “promissory materialism” because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Many promises have been issued, but few redeemed. Materialism is now facing a credibility crunch unimaginable in the 20th century.

The effect of this dogma is to cause a replacement of experimental science which yields observable and testable results with highly theoretical science which sucks up time, money and minds with no tangible results. Atheists are attracted to this kind of science because they are desperate to justify their beliefs in the materialism which underpins their metaphysical beliefs. I can’t count the number of times I have seen highly theoretical theories presented as ‘evidence’ by atheists that life can spring from non-life or universes can originate from nothing, or morals can evolve from animal brains. They do this because to not do so would open up the possibility that fully explaining the nature of the universe requires something more than the mindless phenomena we observe inside the universe.

And as more scientists adopt a hardened metaphysical materialism, they are increasingly wedded to these scientific dogmas. It is a rapid downward spiral.

As a Christian, I agree with Shledrake that there can be a bad sort of religious thinking that is unwilling to be revised in light of new evidence – but I also recognize that this same sort of fundamentalism exists in atheism as well, and that it is in fact New Atheism’s raison d’être.

Science, Faith, and the Multiverse

December 24, 2011

Good bit from Alan P. Lightman in Harpers on the overlap of theoretical physics and faith. He shares what I think is an apt analogy about where we are currently as observers of the universe:

If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles—to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are—is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is because we are here. The situation could be likened to a school of intelligent fish who one day began wondering why their world is completely filled with water. Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the entire cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water. For years, they put their minds to the task but can never quite seem to prove their assertion. Then, a wizened group of fish postulates that maybe they are fooling themselves. Maybe there are, they suggest, many other worlds, some of them completely dry, and everything in between…

The wizened old fish conjecture that there are many other worlds, some with dry land and some with water. Some of the fish grudgingly accept this explanation. Some feel relieved. Some feel like their lifelong ruminations have been pointless. And some remain deeply concerned. Because there is no way they can prove this conjecture. That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

Atheists often point to science as the methodology that will free us from reliance on faith – but as I have pointed out previously, atheists have to take a number of aspects of reality by faith or simply as ‘brute facts’. And as our knowledge of the universe expands so to do the number aspects of it that must simply be accepted, since they cannot be explored through observation or experimentation. The ‘multiverse’ appears to be one of those aspects of reality.

While it is undoubtedly true that science has many advantages over other methods of exploring the natural world; it appears certain though that the elimination of the need for faith isn’t one of them.

Our Planet Still not Ordinary

March 1, 2011

In their efforts to diminish the evident design of earth and the universe, atheists typically take one of two contradictory tacks – sometimes both, oddly enough. They either try to portray the earth as ordinary, in-line with the Copernican Principle; that our planet and life it supports are merely the product of a series of ordinary natural processes which one should expect to find elsewhere in the universe. Alternatively they try to portray earth as an isolated and particular place in a vast empty universe which was obviously not intended for life.

It’s a rhetorically necessary position because the more we know about the universe the more we realize the that the conditions for life rest on very particular parameters which aren’t contingent on the laws of the universe itself. In other words the criteria which support life could be other than they are and yet a series of independent and interdependent conditions exist which in turn allows life to exist on earth. If the universe were shown to be filled with life they could simply say, “See, life merely occurs when the right conditions are present – no design necessary”. When facing the mounting evidence that the rest of the universe is otherwise completely devoid of life, they respond, “Why would a designer create a universe that is so devoid of life? Obviously it’s not designed”.

Apparently there is no way to design a universe that would convince an atheist that it is in fact designed.

Yet, despite the contradictory protests, recent research continues to demonstrate that the conditions necessary for life to exist are even more particular than supposed, as we see in a recent article on ScienceDaily about the importance of solar tides in the existence of life:

Extrasolar planets, or exoplanets for short, have been known to exist outside our solar system since 1995. When searching for life in outer space, scientists focus on those exoplanets that are located in the habitable zone. This means that they orbit their sun at a distance where the temperatures on the planet’s surface allow for the presence of liquid water. Water is believed to be an essential ingredient for life. Until now, the two main drivers thought to determine a planet’s temperature were the distance to the central star and the composition of the planet’s atmosphere. By studying the tides caused by low-mass stars on their potential earth-like companions, Heller and his colleagues have concluded that tidal effects modify the traditional concept of the habitable zone.

In what way does it modify the traditional concept of the habitable zone? He concludes:

Heller said, “I think that the chances for life existing on exoplanets in the traditional habitable zone around low-mass stars are pretty bleak, when considering tidal effects. If you want to find a second Earth, it seems that you need to look for a second Sun.

This just adds one more factor to the criteria necessary for life to exist anywhere. Our little spot in the universe is looking less ordinary all the time.

Of course atheists keep contesting that the fine-tuned view of the universe, but the problem is the list of non-contingent necessities for our existence keeps growing. They may ignore it as coincidental, but at what point does coincidence looks like intention?

Low Hanging Fruit

October 25, 2010

In piece on First Things Joe Carter briefly fisks an article by skeptic gadfly Michael Shermer on Big Questions Online titled The Biggest Big Question of All. Joe takes a few brief jabs at the essay and rightly points out its immediate flaw, but I don’t think it goes far enough – indeed, there are many flaws in Schermer’s article.

In the essay Shermer attempts to lay out a sort of overview of competing theories about the origin of the universe. He starts with the idea that God created the universe, and dismisses it as a possibility as “The theist’s answer is an untestable hypothesis” because we are, “natural beings delimited by living in a finite universe” unlike God who is a being that is “outside of space and time” and thus unsearchable. Oddly it is the only possibility he dismisses, choosing to take every other bit of scientific speculation with undue seriousness.

The problem with that dismissal though is that last I checked every person investigating the origin of the universe is delimited by living in a finite universe (unless there are some infinite and eternal physicists I don’t know about) and all the proffered causes of the origin of the universe would be outside the universe. By that measure, every alternative he considers is equally untestable. Indeed, if by testability he means the ability to recreate, measure, and observe the conditions which led to the formation of the universe then indeed all such conditions would be untestable barring some incredible technological leaps.

So his essay fails even on that preliminary basis. But it fails further as he lays out the options – he parses out a series of scenarios that in actuality aren’t that readily separated. For example he considers the multi-verse, Brane-String Universes and M-Theory as if they are separate theories when in fact they are aspects of the same set of theories. Inflationary cosmology isn’t actually a ’cause’ of the existence of the universe, but rather a description of how the universe unfolded. And the ‘Wrong-question’ point isn’t really even a theory, but rather a technical way of saying ‘just because’.

On closer inspection some of the options even ignore logic. For example the ‘Boom-and-Bust Cycle’ idea defies the fact that an actual infinite is impossible – but believing impossible theories isn’t a barrier to atheists like Shermer, provided the theory in question doesn’t allow for the existence of God.

On the whole, Michael Shermer does himself a disservice here. When laid side by side it quickly becomes apparent to anyone with an ounce of rational thought that the idea of God as the First Cause compares quite favorably to any of the scientific speculation offered to date.

Still Not Just a Pale Blue Dot

May 28, 2010

One of the operating principles of physical cosmology, indeed a central tenet of the materialist atheistic position, is the Copernican principle, or the notion that the Earth is not in a central, specially favored position in the universe. One of the great champions of this notion was Carl Sagan, who saw earth not as privileged, but one of billions of possible worlds that contained life in the vast Cosmos, a mere pale blue dot in the darkness of space.

Recent facts however suggest that this notion is at best premature, if not all together wrong. Despite the fact that we have catalogued over 300 exo-planets, none of them appears to be anything like earth in terms of its ability to sustain life. And we are discovering that our planet sits in a sweet spot/Goldie Locks zone in terms of its position in the universe, the galaxy, the solar system, and in terms of its geological make-up. We are in fact not ‘ordinary’ at all in cosmological terms, but very privileged.

Now comes one more bit of evidence to add to this notion. Scientist have found that occupying a habitable zone is even more complex than previously thought:

Astronomers hunting for planets orbiting nearby stars similar to the sun are looking for signs of rocky, Earth-like planets in a “habitable” zone, where conditions such as temperature and liquid water remain stable enough to support life.

New findings from computer modeling indicate that some of those exoplanets might fluctuate between being habitable and being inhospitable to life because of the forces exerted by giant neighbors with eccentric orbits.

A lone Earth-like, or terrestrial, planet with a generally circular orbit toward the inner edge of its sun’s habitable zone could be expected to remain within that zone, said Rory Barnes, a University of Washington postdoctoral researcher in astronomy. Adding a planet comparable to Jupiter to the system, however, and giving it a highly elliptical orbit — similar to most exoplanets discovered so far — can cause strange things to happen to the smaller planet, possibly causing it to cycle between habitable and uninhabitable conditions.

What is even more interesting is that having a large gas like planet in one’s neighborhood is actually beneficial, provided they are stable in correctly placed orbits – they effectively deflect and absorb objects coming in from the edges of the solar system that could bombard earth. But if the orbits vary widely, the potential effect is disastrous for inner planet – again we are privileged to not have that be the case in our solar system, an apparently rare condition.

So we are less a pale blue dot in the universe as we are a rare gem of great value; someone seems to want us here.