Finally someone figured this out…
I was recently watching an interview with theoretical physicist Alexander Vilenkin that was conducted as part of the Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s PBS series, Closer to Truth. A couple of things struck me about the interview. The first is Vilenkin’s humility. While he is certainly no believer and at most holds a Spinoza-esque view of an impersonal God, Vilenkin is certainly humble with regard to the idea of God. This is refreshing in light of the arrogance one typically sees amongst those scientists who are advocates of New Atheism. As a Christian I am never offended that someone doesn’t share my belief in God – in fact in a world where God allows men to choose their responses to Him, I would expect a certain number of people not to believe in God. But there is no reason for epistemic arrogance displayed by New Atheists, who have no warrant for the certainty they invest in scientism, materialism, and naturalism. So to see measured responses of the sort Vilenkin gives is refreshing.
But the other thing that strikes me about the interview is Vilenkin’s references to the underlying laws of physics which exist independent of the universe itself, as he calls it, a Platonic existence. For those who aren’t familiar with Plato, he imagined our universe was a reflection of a deeper reality, an ideal reality. To that end Vilenkin expresses the notion that mathematics itself isn’t merely a human a construct, but an underlying reality waiting to be discovered by us.
Vilenkin’s view here comport on some levels with those of another thinker, philosopher Thomas Nagel who recently wrote the book, Mind and Cosmos, which is a critique of the reductionist view of the universe suggested by Neo-Darwinism. Lest you take Nagel to be a creationist, he is in fact an atheist, though again a thinker of the sort Vilenkin is – thoughtful, epistemically humble and willing to be skeptical of things other atheists seem certain of. He suggests in his book that the universe has an inherent ‘mindfulness’, a tendency that inclines it to follow a path that eventually leads to us. In this he channels another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who believed the ends to which nature tends were inherent in nature itself.
Where both men seem to be arriving, albeit through different means, is at teleological view of the universe. For those not familiar with the term, generally speaking it means that processes bear attributes indicating they are being shaped toward an end – or that those processes have a purpose.
For most of human history humans have understood nature to be essentially teleological. Only in the 20th century did the reductionist notions of materialism and naturalism really begin to predominate in the sciences. But as Nagel points out, such reductionism essentially fails to explain certain aspects of nature – particularly the minds ability to explore the universe. More generally materialism fails to explain many aspects of the universe – it’s fine-tuning, the origin of the information driven machinery of life as well as human consciousness – or consciousness generally.
Of course Christianity has and continues to offer an inherently consistent answer to the question of the teleology we see in the universe. When Genesis describes God speaking the universe into existence it provides the bridge between the underlying principles, the forms that exist in the eternal mind of God and the reality that we experience as the universe. We see not only the receptacle of the natural laws that govern nature, a place both outside the universe and consistent with it, but we see how such laws could be invested in the fabric of the universe itself. A Christian view of the universe encompasses both Plato and Aristotle.
It also aids us in understanding why our minds comprehend the universe at all. If it is true that we are ‘created in the image of God’ then we derive from God the ability to conceptualize the principles that underlay the structure of nature – we are both the product of the mind of God, and we share with it the ability to comprehend its works.
That modern thinkers are beginning to see the underlying purpose of the universe is no surprise. If men are honest observers, whatever winding roads they might follow they arrive back at the same place despite their desires to end up somewhere else.
As a Christian I believe the universe was structured so that, as Romans says, “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” If that is true, then the simplest man or the most sophisticated thinker should be able to observe nature and have some notion that it exists for a purpose – and that certainly appears to be the case.
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.
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.