Saturday, May 30, 2009

Scriptural Prescience

Theologian, author, and publisher Kenneth N. Taylor is well known for producing The Living Bible, a paraphrase/translation. The first installment, Living Letters, appeared in 1962. While comparing different translations of Hebrews 11:3, I referred to Ken Taylor’s translation of that verse: “By faith – by believing God – we know that the world and the stars – in fact, all things – were made at God’s command; and that they were all made from things that can’t be seen.” Taylor’s footnote for that verse says, “Perhaps the reference is to atoms, electrons, etc.” This footnote was really an eye-catcher for me. Did the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews possess scientific insights to match his inspired theological truth? Perhaps he did. If so, he wrote without benefit of any scientific knowledge of atoms, atom structure, or characteristics of atomic particles. Those discoveries would wait seventeen centuries.

We’ve stated that “physical constants” in the created world of matter are analogous to operational rules of athletic games, for example. We might also cite adherence to the rules of music, architecture, language, and a host of other human activities, as necessary for successful, pleasing outcomes. Knowledge of most of the physical constants is beyond the comprehension or interest of the non-scientist. Let’s reference just three familiar fundamental physical constants we may recall from high school chemistry: The masses of the electron, proton, and neutron have been determined with incredible precision and with a negligible error bar. Each of these masses is a fundamental physical constant, one of dozens of physical constants. Our very existence depends on their precision. But unlike athletics, music, or language, where sloppy adherence to the rules would merely result in a poorly played game or an inferior product, different values for the physical constants would result in no game or product at all. In other words, our universe as we know it would not even exist.

Masses of the proton and neutron, components of the atom’s nucleus, are almost identical. The proton has 99.87% of the neutron’s mass, but this small difference is extremely significant. If the neutron were slightly heavier or lighter, our cosmos would be chaotic and life would not exist. The proton is 1836 times more massive than the electron. If this mass ratio were minutely higher or lower, insufficient chemical bonding would preclude the possibility of the array of molecules and compounds necessary for an orderly cosmos or the existence of life.

Physicist Max Planck (1858-1947), originator of quantum theory, was a believer in God, although perhaps not a personal God. His brilliance and familiarity with the many physical constants far more esoteric than those discussed above enabled him to propose new groundbreaking theories. Planck’s musings in a 1937 speech come from a scientist daily immersed in the coherent world of nature: “According to everything taught by the exact sciences about the immense realm of nature in which our tiny planet plays an insignificant role, a certain order prevails – one independent of the human mind. Yet, in so far as we are able to ascertain through our senses, this order can be formulated in terms of purposeful activity. There is evidence of an intelligent order of the universe.” This is a noteworthy observation from a scientist of Planck's stature.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Physical Constants

Our last post mentioned “physical constants” as analogues to football’s “rules of the game.” Encyclopedia Britannica defines physical constants as fundamental, invariant quantities observed in nature. Let’s amplify this idea to help us appreciate our physical world. Even young children understand the necessity of rules to govern mundane activities, from mealtime to playtime to bedtime. They learn to understand the connection between rules and the orderliness and enjoyment of their lives. When they challenge the rules and “push the envelope,” they discover the unhappy results, although often their nature still feeds on the challenge.

For most people who do not perceive science as a subject of high priority, physical constants would not contribute to light banter or conversation starters over a cup of coffee. It’s easy to understand that such conversations would generate unease in many people, if not actual fear. In our post-modern life experience, it is easy to observe our surroundings unthinkingly and see air, plants, animals, and stars as simply matter to sustain and entertain us. Our everyday society is not oriented to explain such esoteric concepts as invariant light speed, the charge or mass of an electron, or the fine structure constant. We are more oriented toward utility than discovery. We feel more enlightened by discovering how to operate a machine than by discovering how the machine operates.

At the most fundamental level, we now understand that no matter could exist or interact and no energy could do its work without obeying the constraints of a multitude of physical constants. For example, light travels through space at an invariable speed. The electron has a fixed charge and a fixed mass. For sports enthusiasts, the parallel would be a tacit awareness that enjoyment of their favorite spectator sporting event would be impossible without the players’ strict adherence to the game’s rules. In other human experiences, the same rule-adherence principles prevail, whether we are enjoying the chef’s culinary specialty, our favorite musician’s performance, or even inspecting the result of the annual spring cleanup of our home’s landscaping. In either the physical realm of matter/energy interactions or in human activities, the pairing of events with operational rules governing those events is a given.

Contemplate: could we enjoy the meal, the music, or the landscape manicure without being aware of the operational rules governing their preparation? At some level, yes, we could. But how much more enjoyable and satisfying is it when the “consumer” understands the guidelines needed and used in preparation of the final product?

To acknowledge God as the Master Creator is to acknowledge both His creation of matter and His creation of the physical constants--the cosmos’s rules of operation. The world’s most brilliant scientists have shared with us their discoveries of dozens of physical constants. As I learn more about them, I will share the discoveries with my readers, trying to achieve a level of enhanced comprehension and appreciation. The writer of The Book of Job gives clues that he may have had a high level of awareness (Job 37:14-15 The Message): "Have you noticed all this? Stop in your tracks! Take in God’s miracle-wonders! Do you have any idea how God does it all?"

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Rules of the Game

Over the years my enjoyment of the game of football has been increasing. This game offers a level of complexity which I had not recognized in my earlier years. The offensive and defensive options are fascinating because they are nearly limitless. But football and other sports would not be possible without a strict set of rules. The National Football League rulebook extends well over 100 pages and close to 100,000 words. Just imagine what football would be like without adherence to the rules of the game!

In the universe we call home, all matter and energy and the behavior of every physical system must play by “the rules.” What are these rules? Scientists develop descriptive scientific laws based on “physical constants.” The behavior of matter under all conditions must adhere to the constraints of these physical constants. Most people do not or would not care to study a list of these physical constants or their mathematical quantifiers. They would say these constants are boring and esoteric, and for people who are not scientists, perhaps they would be correct. After I downloaded the NFL rulebook, I realized that spending an afternoon buried in the nuances of football rule technicalities would be tedious, at best. But then, I do enjoy watching the nuances of the football game.

What spiritual lessons could we learn without making the science boring and tedious? Is there a way our science educators could make science more fascinating, perhaps by presenting the physical constants as “rules of the game” to our sports-loving young people? Could pastors and church education leaders, on occasion, bolster the science/faith connection by connecting even mundane activities with a little reverent awe for the rules governing them? In my opinion, the answer is an enthusiastic “Yes.” Many years ago a relative posed this question to me: Who is the author of the physical laws which govern this universe? At that time I had not thought very deeply about that challenge. Since then, I have become more thoughtful and appreciative of what scientists call the laws of nature which depend on a well-defined set of physical constants.

When God created this universe, He also created the physical constants on which all natural laws depend. It appears these rules of the game have been divinely masterminded just as surely as football’s rules of the game have been set in place by the masterminds of the game of football. Without rules and strict adherence to the rules, both the natural world and the game of football would be chaos. In future posts we will take a closer look at more physical constants--the rules of the game.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Spurgeon's Science

Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), the 19th century “Prince of Preachers,” is said to have preached to ten million people, delivered 3600 sermons, and produced 49 volumes of theological commentary. He frequently delivered his messages to audiences of 10,000 or more without even the benefit of electrical sound amplification. Lately I have examined his commentary volumes on Psalms. This “Treasury of David” consumes four inches of shelf space. It consists of overviews of each Psalm, expansive comments verse by verse, and a collection of “explanatory notes and quaint sayings” collected by Spurgeon from the writings of dozens of other commentators of his day. My thoughts run along these lines: How could one man, in a lifetime of 57 years, have been so productive?

In researching his writings on Psalms 19 and 29--the subject of our 5/5/09 post--I encountered several of Spurgeon’s statements which are far ahead of their time with respect to their insights regarding the relationship of science and scripture. Spurgeon’s introductory remarks on Psalm 19 follow: “We may rest assured that the true ‘Vestiges of Creation’ will never contradict Genesis, nor will a correct ‘Cosmos’ be found at variance with the narrative of Moses. He is wisest who reads both the world-book and the Word-book as two volumes of the same work, and feels concerning them, ‘My Father wrote them both.’” Opening his exposition of Psalm 29, he further says, “Thus we have God’s works and God’s word joined together: let no man put them asunder by a false idea that theology and science can by any possibility oppose each other.”

Some of my conversations with fellow Christians in the Young Earth camp have uncovered their belief that the special revelation of inspired scripture holds domination over the general revelation of our natural world. Such beliefs overlook many important points far beyond the scope of this brief discussion. These fellow-Christians insist on interpreting the six Genesis creation days as consecutive, 24-hour periods which occurred within the past 6,000 to 10,000 years. They claim their view of scripture, along with their interpretation of “yom” (day) in Genesis 1-2, predominates over the findings of good scientific research which reliably indicates that the earth and the cosmos are of great antiquity.

Several well-known scientists/theologians have endorsed the idea, implicitly or explicitly, that the general revelation of nature is tantamount to the 67th book of the Bible. Mistakenly, these scholars have been accused of “adding to” the Bible. God has provided many sources of truth, biblical and extra-biblical. We must not reject any of those sources because they contradict our interpretation of the biblical revelation. Rather, we must strive to eliminate wrong interpretations in both special and general revelation. The former includes scripture hermeneutics; the latter embraces interpretations of the scientific data. This is an ongoing process, enabled by our God-gifted abilities. Charles Spurgeon’s statements should not be seen as “inspired,” in the same way scripture is inspired. They may, however, be viewed as wise statements worthy of serious thought.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Knowledge: True Belief

One of the most fundamental and controversial topics of our day relates to how we may have knowledge that God exists. Did He create the cosmos we observe? Did He originate the laws which govern it? This blog presents scientific evidence as support for these beliefs. In my last post I made a strong case for the evidential approach based on the voice of God expressed in nature. I proposed that God speaks to us through the natural order as though with a voice and that the voice is intelligible to human observers.

The same evidential approach is used by theologians to strengthen belief in the authenticity and truth of scriptures and the events they describe. Archeological and literary documentation is eagerly sought from extra-biblical sources to affirm the accuracy of scripture. Evidentialists seek to confirm Genesis creation events and creation time scales by citing supporting scientific evidence for their explanations. Such evidence may fall short of proof beyond any doubt, but all agree that the standard of absolute proof for historical events is impossible. We may only claim that the preponderance of evidence leads us to a reasonable conclusion.

Achievement of true beliefs (knowledge) in the field of Christian apologetics is not a simple matter. There are other systems of epistemology which follow different paths to the acquisition of knowledge. One is called “reformed epistemology” which posits that belief in God is “properly basic.” That means humans may innately and intuitively hold a belief in God’s existence which needs no support from previous beliefs. Alvin Plantinga, a well-known Christian philosopher, defends such a belief as entirely rational, and has developed other convincing arguments that there are good reasons to accept theism as true. Another similar approach is presuppositionalism, which states that we cannot achieve a true belief about reality without first acknowledging the existence of God and the truth of the Bible. In our quest for knowledge, presuppositional apologists claim autonomous human reasoning from evidence is subject to error and unable to lead us to true beliefs.

So what are we to think? Is there a role for “properly basic” beliefs? I’ll answer by asking if our innate, intuitive sense of the reality of the Creator is valid. I think it is. Is there a role for presupposition? If we humbly acknowledge some deficiencies in our reasoning power and possible weaknesses in our evidence, we might agree that some conclusions, on occasion, may be subject to revision. In this “Science/Faith Connection” blog we will continue to adhere primarily to the counsel of I Thes. 5:21 (NIV): “Test everything. Hold onto the good.” Testing involves acquiring and evaluating evidence. In the 21st century, there has never been a better time to gather and evaluate evidence in order to acquire knowledge.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

God's Voice in Nature

Two centuries ago, many believed that theology was the “queen of the sciences.” Tacit acceptance of this belief by a substantial segment of the populace began to erode quickly at roughly the time Charles Darwin was boarding The Beagle for South Sea research ventures. Those journeys led him to propose the theory of evolution in 1859. We must be careful not to over-generalize the sentiments of centuries ago, or even the sentiments of today. But the climate of respect for the idea that the world of nature speaks of God and His works is still waning in our secular world.

Majestic Psalm 19 uses terms such as declare, proclaim, and pour forth speech in reference to the heavens. Their voice and words are understood by people of all languages to the ends of the world. Romans 1:20 (NIV) states, “God’s invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” It is as if the natural world speaks with words, inviting observers to use reason and logic to help them understand how God has worked, and what His qualities are.

Psalm 29 uses the word voice seven times to describe the reality of God manifest in nature. This Psalm describes a literal raging, thunderous tempest at sea which proceeds inland, shredding great trees and then shaking the surrounding mountains and wilderness. Readers may wonder what is more powerful and impressive. Is it the destructive storm described? Or is it the cause and effect events resulting from the properties of matter? Earth’s atmosphere is composed, innocently enough, of tiny air and water molecules. Obeying natural, physical laws, however, these tiny bits of matter produce the astonishing events described in Psalm 29. How did the matter originate, we might ask? And how did the natural laws which govern those events originate?

Humans have been endowed with considerable creative ability, a tiny reflection of God’s creative ability described in the first chapters of Genesis. When our fellow humans produce a “creation,” whether it be a clothing fashion, a culinary delight, a literary or musical composition, an object of art, a simple craft, or a dwelling, they often sit back when it is finished to contemplate the finished product. In a sense, the product speaks back to the maker, reminding him and other observers how it was designed and built. It also speaks of its own beauty, function, and value.

God contemplated His own works as the creation days progressed. God observed that His works were “very good.” In a sense, the creation spoke back to its Maker of the design characteristics, function, and beauty it possessed. Today the creation also speaks to us, highlighting the work and character of the Maker. Against this background, there are many contemporary arguments about whether the concept of intelligent design is really science. The believing scientists of several hundred years ago who began to revel in the discoveries enabled by scientific method in the early days of the scientific revolution would have been surprised to see how things have changed.