Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Does the Universe need God?

Participants to square off in New Orleans at the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum

Does the universe need God?

Ask this question to the average American and they'll say 'yes'.  They believe in God and consider the most important part of the universe to be close to home, which it is.  The universe is a personal thing.  The interpretation of the question is likely to have been "Does the sum total of my experience include God?"

Ask this question to the average cosmologist - a scientist who's specialized branch of physics seeks to explain the deep origins of the universe - and the answer will overwhelmingly be 'no'.  But from reading Sean Carroll's very detailed recent answer to this question, it's clear that the cosmologist's interpretation of the question is: "Does the theory of the origin and evolution of stars and galaxies require a supernatural factor?"

Here's my challenge to Sean Carroll (which I hope someone will pose to him during his upcoming debate with William Lane Craig): Please reconsider your definition of 'universe' to include the entire body of observed phenomena.  As a thought experiment try to design a universe from top to bottom in which you account for the uneducated emotion-driven average human being's craving for explanations of the things that give them joy and make them suffer.  Would the result include some sort of religion? If you had to design a religion for some arbitrary human culture, given a clean slate, what would it look like? Come on. Here's your chance to play God.

Scientists are notoriously reluctant to taint their theories with anything overtly supernatural--anything that defies logical explanation.  It's a bias they take great pride in.  Physicists in particular, including cosmologists, have uncompromisingly high standards of 'purity.' Einstein originally introduced the 'Cosmological Constant' into his theory of relativity as a 'Fudge Factor' and regretted it.  (In this case his choice was famously justified in 1998 when physicists discovered that the expansion of the universe was accelerating.  Einstein's lowly cosmological constant suddenly became the simplest, and thus the preferred explanation for the acceleration.)

But as a veteran Ph.D. meteorologist (also a branch of physics), I've had first hand experience with the utility of so-called 'Fudge Factors.'  Your daily weather forecast would be impossible without them.  Science strives for explanations of the natural world that satisfy the 'Four P's' - they must be as Powerful, Precise, Predictive, and Parsimonious as possible.  But when forecasting the weather it's wise to include a fifth 'P' - replacing that Pristine standard of Purity with Plain old Practicality.

The atmosphere is full of turbulence, and physicists will tell you that the result of turbulence is that even if you had a perfect observation of every molecule in today's atmosphere, you could still not predict the weather a few months from now with much accuracy--and if you tried, the calculations would be so complex and computer-intensive that it would take all the world's supercomputers together more time to crank out the prediction than it takes the actual weather to occur.  So us practical meteorologists, working on a budget and with strict time constraints, liberally sprinkle our weather and climate forecast models, even the best ones, with what we call 'Parameterizations' - a fancy term for 'fudge factors'.  If you let the 'Parsimonious' directive apply to the result as well as to the theory, then theories that include parameterizations are actually best.

Stepping down another rung or two below meteorologists on the ladder of 'purity' in science, we come to the biological sciences, social sciences, economics, and finally psychology.  Here there's not much hope of starting with any sort of theoretical equation.  Instead scientists design and perform double blind experiments and analyze the results using statistics.

And this brings us full circle.  Social scientists, economists, and psychologists are tasked with studying things like religion.  Maybe religion is just a 'Fudge Factor' that parameterizes some very complex, not yet understood, neuron-synapse nature/nurture biological process.  But just as with weather forecasting, behavior forecasting is surely more successful if such Fudge Factors are taken seriously.

In scientific study of religion, God is a part of the universe because His impact is demonstrable and reproducible.  Just as examples here are two discussions of the economic impact of Churches and of supernatural beliefs on society - a society of which even Atheists are beholden to partake.  Yes, God drags Atheists into his equation despite their best efforts at denial.

Bottom line: people are part of the universe, and their supernatural beliefs affect it.  They may not have an effect on the origin of the universe - on the physics of cosmology - but who's to say whether they have an effect on its destiny?  (I see a book in this -- what if some alien super-race prefers to make contact with and parlay only with Earth's Evangelists/religious leaders rather than secular government leaders?) Then if universes are in any way cyclical or interactive or self-replicating, then ...

This brings me back to my challenge to cosmologist Sean Carroll--design a religion for the people that doesn't compromise anything that science tells us.  I've tried it. It's an amazingly eye-opening exercise.  The religion that resulted is the one depicted in my seven book novel series 'Eden's Womb'.

I base my culture's religion on Ancestor worship.  They consider God the 'First Ancestor' (until this mysterious new spirit named Naja shows up).  I make the Gods equal partners with their mortal counterparts in sustaining and impelling their world toward the greater good.  I infuse the culture with a healthy outlook regarding evil spirits--they are to be quarantined and forgotten, not blamed for man's ills and suffering.  The suffering is caused by the random indifferent Chaos all around us, producing good and evil effects equally.  Our task (oops, I mean the task of my fictional culture), is to "accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative."

Finally I let the people have their 'blind faith'.  Not everything has to be explained.  Contradictory viewpoints do not need to be reconciled by brute force, or even by courteous debate.  Even physicists have experience with coming to terms with what seems to be contradictory evidence. Wave-Particle Duality and the interpretation of other weird effects of quantum mechanics are primary examples.

In the Judeo-Christian Bible (as I interpret it) God chose to give up His omnipotence in order to grant humans free will.  This transformed the universe from a boring place without surprises into an epic quest, in which men and their God strive through the ages to achieve mutual understanding - reconciliation.

"True" says one devout Christian fundamentalist with whom I've had many long, in-depth discussions, "but at the same time God retains His absolute sovereignty.  Both can be true.  You accept this on Faith, not through reasoning (though if you're an incurable disputant you don't give up trying: check Molinism).  Put in its most parsimonious form: Both absolute sovereignty and free choice can be true because God is greater than you can conceive."

Got it.  It's not an appeal to authority.  Nor is it a 'God of the Gaps' argument.  Until physicists come up with their "Ultimate Theory of Everything" there's an objective reality out there that is greater than any of us can conceive.  It might be an indifferent reality describable by cold equations on a piece of paper.  Or it might be a conscious vital construction intended to be experienced rather than understood.  We can't say.  The point is that we don't need to try to reconcile it all with our logical faculties.  Instead we should seek to embrace the opposing views that experience provides us - learn how to accept both sides of an argument equally.

Because they may both turn out to be true.  As I've already said in a previous post, in my universe Paradox is the only true and real God.

1 comment:

  1. Here is a link below:
    One can go through this link and decide for oneself whether the universe needs any God or not.