Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Acquiring True Beliefs

How do we acquire our scientific and theological beliefs? Do those beliefs depend more upon objective evidence or our own subjective choices? Do our beliefs depend upon truth (what is really real), or do they depend upon what we choose to believe, regardless of the reality of truth?

There are many examples of evidence, strong and weak, we could either accept or reject. Let's take just three examples -- evidence for the Big Bang (subject of our three previous posts), evidence for molecules to man evolution (strong Darwinism), and evidence for divine creation (sudden appearances of new species in the fossil record with no antecedents). Believing or disbelieving should not be merely a matter of selecting our preferences, like choosing among menu items at a restaurant. Have we ever observed people rejecting good, reasonable evidence to embrace, instead, a belief contrary to that evidence? On the other hand, sometimes folks choose to accept beliefs for which good, supporting evidence is weak or non-existent. Acquisition of our belief systems is driven by the manner in which we accept or reject evidence.

Big Bang cosmology has profound theological implications. The Big Bang concept is an example of a scientific proposal which has generated sharp disagreement among theologians and even some scientists. Convincing evidence for it was discovered in 1965 and it received a powerful evidential boost in 1992. Scientific support for it has been accelerating ever since. Most scientists now accept it as a true picture of cosmic history and reality, but a few continue to challenge the concept. Many theologians endorse it as exciting evidence that our universe had a beginning (Genesis 1:1) in a stunning, transcendent creation event, while others mock it as preposterous. Doubting scientists and theologians alike find their previous beliefs challenged and threatened.

Overshadowing our beliefs, whether they relate to the physical reality of our universe or to our theology, is the concept of truth. There are hundreds of references to truth in sacred scripture. Truth sometimes stands apart from what we choose to believe.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fine Tuned Engineering

The "Big Bang" was a derisive term first used by astronomer Fred Hoyle to poke fun at the concept of a super hot, sudden expansion event bringing the universe into existence from an infinitesimally small point, and expanding ever since. Hoyle, the scientist whose Steady State universe (no beginning, no end) was replaced by a radically different concept, made fun of the new evidence by making it sound like a destructive explosion such as a dynamite blast.

In reality the Big Bang was not destructive, not chaos-producing at all. Rather, it was an event demanding "engineering" billions of times more precise than the most exacting engineering feats ever produced by man. Dozens of cosmic characteristics such as the strength of nuclear, gravitational, and electromagnetic forces, masses, and numbers of atomic particles, must have been exquisitely fine-tuned in order for life to be possible anywhere in the universe at some future time. In addition, many other fine tuning requirements are needed in our galaxy, our solar system, and on our planet earth in order to support life. The chance that such favorable conditions exist anywhere else in our universe is remote beyond comprehension. A universe exhibiting the characteristics necessary to support life is said to operate with the "anthropic principle." This term became popular several decades ago and is still in use.

Scientists had theorized that the Big Bang, if it occurred, should have produced detectable left-over radiation, like glowing embers from a died down campfire. Arno Penzias, with Robert Wilson, using equipment at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, discovered this radiation in 1965. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978 based on the significance of his discovery in establishing Big Bang cosmology. Many other discoveries since then have established the certainty of the Big Bang event beyond any reasonable doubt. Over the years Penzias has made many theological statements relating to the fine tuning of the universe and the Big Bang creation event. In 1992 he said "Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say 'supernatural') plan." Dr. Penzias is still alive. He has made many statements affirming Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning GOD CREATED....."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The "Big Bang".....Various Viewpoints

The "Big Bang" calls to mind several different viewpoints. Let's discuss three very different opinions (not the only ones).

(1) Naturalistic scientists accept the validity of scientific research and discovery which has shown (a) that the Big Bang happened, without question, (b) how it happened, in great detail, and (c) when it happened, with surprising precision. The entire universe began as an infinitesimally small point, has been expanding ever since, and is still expanding. These scientists shrug off any consideration of a possible supernatural component to these astonishing events. To scientists immersed in philosophical naturalism, the events of the Big Bang "just happened," without apparent cause, but with plenty of effect. Atoms and molecules were now present which much later self-organized into complex, unique life forms, including man, according to their belief system. A BEGINNING, however, is a theological concept which troubles naturalists.

(2) Young earth creationists see the Big Bang as an absurd proposal. This event does not fit with their belief in a cosmos and multiple creatures fully formed and created within the last 10,000 years. According to them the great apparent age of the universe, as measured by light billions of years old arriving on earth only now after a journey of billions of light years, is merely an illusion, along with hundreds of other independent evidences signaling earth's enormous age. One writer emailed me wondering why we need such "atheistic science" when God's word is so plain.

(3) Theistic old earth creationists see the Big Bang as God's initial creation event in our realm, bringing time, space, matter, and energy into existence from nothing in one moment of time in the very distant past (13.73 billion years ago). They see a definite change in frame of reference between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. Verse 1 speaks of the initial creation event. Verse 2 speaks of conditions on earth's surface roughly nine billion years later. The earth was then ready for additional creative acts such as the sudden appearance of plentiful microbial life followed by additional creation events of new life forms in future eons at widely spaced intervals as conditions became favorable. The fossil record clearly shows this sequence. The very sudden appearance of truly modern man in the middle east sometime in the last 100,000 years was the pinnacle event in the creation sequence. God could have accomplished all of this in one microsecond or in six days. But God is not bound by our time dimensions. He operates both within them and outside them.

Cosmic history beliefs of theistic old earth creationists described in (3) above conform with belief in a supernatural creator, the record of scripture, and the findings of science, but views (1) and (2) do not agree in all three. Let's strive for discernment in such matters, treating those who disagree with love and respect.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Before Time Began

In the beginning..... People are fascinated with beginnings, whether they are beginnings in our lives, beginnings of the human race, or beginnings of our universe. Since 1950 there have been two major scientific beliefs concerning our universe and whether it had a beginning.

The steady-state hypothesis, prevalent until the 1960s, held that the universe was basically changeless over time. In the steady-state view there was no beginning and no end of time. In other words, what we see always existed and always would exist. Fred Hoyle popularized this hypothesis around mid-century. During the 1960s, Big Bang cosmology replaced steady-state. With the Big Bang, there was a BEGINNING to our universe. Space and time, matter and energy, had a beginning ex nihilo, out of nothing. The creative agent, the uncaused cause, was God Himself. The Big Bang concept is in vibrant harmony with Genesis 1:1.

A quote from Astronomy magazine, October 2007, speaks of the overwhelming accumulated evidence that a Big Bang actually occurred. "Every instant of every day, evidence that the universe began in a cosmic fireball stares us in the face." Hundreds of independent scientific tests confirm the truth of the Big Bang, intricate details of what happened, and precise knowledge about when it occurred (13.73 billion years ago). These are not mere speculations. Skilled scientists have discovered details of the sequence of events and how elements first formed. The order of events and the strength of the forces acting in those first moments had to be fine tuned to an unimaginable degree, or else our universe could not have become the life-friendly place it is. If blind chance had been the agent there would have been no fine tuned cosmos, then, or now.

The New International Version of the Bible speaks of hidden wisdom (I Cor. 2:7), grace given (II Tim. 1:9) and hope promised (Tit 1:2), all before the beginning of time. These are startling verses, confirming the truth that the time and space dimensions of our universe were created by God transcendently -- from outside of our cosmos. He created, out of nothing, the time/space/matter/energy of our existence. Science has discovered many truths, and our Bible spoke about them long ago.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Evidence? Proof?.....Anyone?

Biblical faith is based on logic, reason, and evidence. It is not blind. If faith is an evidence-supported belief system, does science support faith? My answer is an enthusiastic "Yes." People searching for God, as well as those who doubt God's existence, frequently ask for proof or evidence. Proof which satisfies the searcher or the skeptic is an extremely difficult standard to meet. Perhaps it is an impossible standard. Evidence, on the other hand, is plentiful, especially if we agree there is a relationship between effects and causes in our universe.

Scientific knowledge of living things -- their unique beauty, their complexity, their operational systems -- supplies powerful evidence for the handiwork of a creator. Take, for example, the eleven major systems of the human body we study in biology classes. I'll mention only three, the circulatory, nervous, and immune systems. A description of the bodily mechanisms for the operation of any one of our systems fills multiple volumes. Not only must each system work properly, but it must integrate and coordinate with ten others.

When we feel pain or become ill, the cause may be a minor malfunction in just one area of just one system. It is small comfort that ten other systems are working properly. The pain or illness may signal our need to attend responsibly to proper care of our bodies.

My mother frequently quoted Psalm 139:14 to my brother and me from her King James version: "I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well." Is this proof to convince the skeptic? the atheist? No. Is this evidence to convince us that purposeless random chance and natural selection is the cause of our "fearfully and wonderfully made" bodies? I choose to embrace the evidence for a CAUSE, the God of Psalm 139 and all inspired scripture.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Rational or Irrational?

Atheist authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are currently having their time in the sun. Their books and live broadcast debates with Christians are very popular. These adherents of atheism enjoy calling believers in supernatural creation/design in our universe "irrational." Many believers in God and God's apparent actions are troubled when doubters wave the "irrational" banner, like cheerleaders at a pep rally, provoking applause from the audience. What's a believer to do?

A dictionary search connects rationality with reason. In turn, reason is defined as thinking in a connected, sensible, and logical manner. Belief in an omnipotent Creator (the CAUSE) more powerful than His creation (the EFFECT) should strike us as reasonable. Effects have causes. Design implies a designer. Both statements are logical. Belief in the existence of God who has acted to produce our universe from nothing is certainly not irrational.

In contrast, believers in God have reason to accuse atheists of being irrational when they ascribe the current order, constancy, and predictability of the universe to randomness and chance. Even the theistic evolutionary beliefs of some Christians who attribute evolutionary speciation to unknown or uncertain processes -- can those beliefs be said to be more rational than belief in supernatural creation? Atheists and agnostics claim there is no evidence of the existence of God. The evidence of the natural world, however, does not support their belief system, but rather, ours.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Sense of Wonder

When I retired from the profession of science education, one of my most respected colleagues presented me with a book entitled "The Sense of Wonder." It was my hope that I had instilled the same "sense of wonder" in my students I had always felt while studying the world of nature. Whether it was the macro-cosmos visible through telescopes, the micro-cosmos seen through microscopes, or the vast array of wonders to be observed by our naked eye, I wanted my students to experience the wonder. In this post, let's share a few wonders together.

Have we considered the sharp color images our eyes, like an expensive camera, take of our surroundings each waking moment? Each image really consists of billions of "data points," all transmitted to our brains via electrical impulses through the optic nerve. Our brains then make sense of the billions of messages, integrating them into one meaningful image. How "wonder"-ful is that? Digital camera technology has nothing on the human body!

What about the hundreds of different electromagnetic wavelengths passing silently and harmlessly through our bodies at this very moment? We need receivers such as cell phones, TV sets, and wireless modems to detect and convert them to sounds and images, but billions of these waves are ever present in our environment. The human mind, of course, is the final interpreter of the messages transmitted.

Finally, the night sky, pinwheeling around Polaris (the North Star) each 24 hours, is a sort of reverse picture of the earth observer's 24-hour ride on rotating spaceship Earth. That ride is exceedingly quiet and smooth. It wasn't easy for folks prior to Copernicus in the 16th century to figure out what was really moving! Even now people must understand the effects of moving frames of reference whether riding in an automobile or on planet Earth. We'll save other wonders for a future post.

Let's close with "The Message" Bible translation of Romans 1:19-20: But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can't see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of His divine being.