Friday, March 22, 2013

Point of View

The winter has been long, cold and wet. My garden planning is done, Dooley the dog is tired of beating me at checkers and I can’t go for a walk because my boots are wet and drying by the fire. To add to my cabin fever misery my dad just sent me an email telling me he saw a TV show about a virus that is killing a lot of bats, specifically the Small Brown Bat. On summer nights Dooley and I ritualistically celebrate dusk and the nightly appearance of our very own Small Brown Bats that feed above the river. I cannot imagine an evening without the bats. Anyway…

I was going to write a very dry post about why I am using glass blocks to divide the different pH zones in my garden. But, because I am feeling blue today and I don't really want to write, I thought I would just post something I wrote last week in response to a letter from my Nephew Ira. It’s a little off track from what a blog about living alone in a cabin with a clever dog, cantankerous goats and excitable chickens should be. It’s mostly about science. Not the science that tells me a single stalk of corn is going to use 50 gallons of water in its life cycle or why the smoke goes so conveniently up my chimney, but the largely theoretical science of cosmology; the study of the origins of the universe.
 (If you thought to yourself, “uh oh” or the words “science” and “origins” makes you queasy, you may want to skip this one) 

Uncle Roger,

Hello Roger and Dooley….…..I have been watching two shows on the Science Channel. One is a series called Stephen Hawking’s Universe and the other is Through the Wormhole. Both are about how theoretical physicists think our universe works. Both shows present a picture of the origin of the universe in which a God would not be necessary for creation. I also read your post "Looking Up on a Clear Night" where you hint at many of the things the shows have been talking about but at the end you "Thank God" for the stars. How have you reconciled the conflict between a belief in modern cosmology and a belief in God, or have you?

Curiously, Ira 

Dear Ira,

Wow.  I am honored that you felt me worthy of such a weighty question.  I want you to understand that any conclusions I may draw in this letter are not absolutes, they are simply choices. I encourage you to continue asking questions and seek other points of view throughout your lifetime so the choices you make for what you believe will become a source of comfort rather than conflict. Now, let me give this a try.

Although I don’t have the math skills to understand all the implications of Einstein’s general or special theories of relativity I can appreciate the beauty and the elegance of the ideas they describe, just as I can for Newton’s laws before Einstein and the marvels of quantum theory being worked out by today’s theoretical physicists. At the same time I consider myself a modestly spiritual person and I suppose a purely scientific approach to understanding the origins of, well, of everything could be construed as a conflict with the idea of a Divine Creator. I don't see it that way.  I cannot answer your question, Ira,  by pitting Science and Religion against one another in terms of a "conflict" because they are so fundamentally different. I hope that does not dissappoint. 


The argument for a Divine Creator is well known. In essence, it relies on faith, the remarkable and seemingly perfect order and complexity of life and nature, and the authority of divinely revealed religious texts like the Bible, Torah and Koran. As such, it provides no empirical foundation to argue for or against its validity. It stands on its own and is not subject to testing.  For believers, that is its strength, and for non-believers, its weakness. For some, believing in a Divine Creator is a choice, for others it is the only choice.

Science, on the other hand, is not a dogma or ideology like religion. It is a process of observing and describing how things appear to work using the time tested tools of hypothesis, theory, experimentation, observation and, especially with the cosmos, mathematical “proof”. The scientific method is not just a single recipe. It requires intelligence, imagination, and creativity. In this sense, it is not a mindless set of standards and procedures to follow, but is rather an ongoing cycle, constantly developing more useful, accurate and comprehensive models and methods. Ultimately science is the interpretation what we observe. Even today our quest for understanding our origins through science must be taken as a work in progress. Although the goal of science might be truth, its history tells us that we are far from completing the journey. So let me address your question, not as an argument for or against God, but as a cautionary lesson in science.

Point of View

As late as 1915, science believed the universe to be a static and eternal thing. It was an idea consistent with what we knew and embraced as immutable laws of nature. With the advent of new technologies like orbiting telescopes and highly sensitive instrumentation that reach far beyond the limitations of our human senses, and with mathematical models created by the likes of Einstein, cosmologists now believe that the cosmos is wildly dynamic and quite possibly finite. These new ideas are also consistent with what we know and embrace as immutable laws of nature. We didn’t change what we believed; technology allowed us to change our point of view and thus created a new understanding of how these natural laws formed the universe. Our ability to see deeper into space and farther back into time gave us a startlingly different perspective.

For the sake of brevity, I will assume you easily accept that the earth revolves on its axis and orbits the sun because we see it and feel it with the rising sun and changing seasons. We accept the idea of gravity and its relationship to the proximity of large bodies of mass because, again, we can feel it and observe it.  The physics of how suns ignite, consume their hydrogen fuel and die or the forces that allow new suns and planets to form from the elements created in the death of a star are also reasonably easy to accept because in appearance they are similar to processes we might see in a foundry or behavior of a liquid floating in the absence of gravity in a space shuttle video. It becomes more difficult, however, when we cannot rely on simple observation and science tells us that time moves slower for a person standing next to a boulder than for a person standing in a field or that the color of car coming towards us at a high rate of speed is slightly bluer and then becomes redder when it going away from us. This relativity of energy, time, space and mass and the effect it has on light, subatomic particles and gravity is usually the jumping off point for simply accepting the theoretical physicist’s description of the universe and yet these ideas are fundamental in fully understanding a  scientific description of the birth of our universe.

Even if most of us accept most of what science believes and we try to imagine a universe formed from a “big bang”, in most vigorous discussions of Divine Creation vs. a purely scientific model of our beginnings,  the conversation usually comes down to the one question we can all put our arms around: If science is correct and our universe was formed from a “big bang” and all matter came from a sudden and explosive single point, how did that single point come into being?  It must have been created.  Something can not come from nothing, right?  “Not necessarily”, says science.


Recently, as I’m sure they must have discussed in the shows you have been watching, science has demonstrated that on a subatomic level, particles do not always conform to the same laws as their larger and more stable atomic cousins that we all learned about in high school chemistry class. The study of these quirky particles is called quantum physics. In quantum physics the notion of “nothing” has changed. In fact, the evidence suggests that “nothing” (the absence of everything) is impossible. The math supports this claim and the study of particles in supercolliders provides empirical and observational proof for people like me who can’t do the math. A Nobel Prize was even awarded for this mathematically complex idea. The theory roughly states that virtual mass (mass, of course, is a quantity of matter) pops in and out of existence in what we once believed was empty space. In other words, according to particle physics, a true state of nothing does not and cannot and never will exist. This, of course, could explain “something out of nothing” and allow for a model of a purposeless universe born from a Big Bang.  It could also suggest that life itself may ultimately be a consequence of circumstance, nothing more, and nothing less. A very humbling thought. Just as it is difficult to disprove a God, it is equally difficult to disprove this current notion of “nothing”.  Wild stuff.  Some theologists have claimed that since science could not explain the “something out of nothing” problem, they just changed the definition of nothing. I love a good conspiracy theory. 

(It just occurred to me that this “matter popping in and out of existence” theory could also explain why we have never been able to capture Big Foot..hmmm?) 

Another Point of View

So, now, let’s use all of this complex science and instead of looking back to our beginnings, let’s look far into the future. Cosmologists describe our universe as expanding as a direct result of the force of the big bang and base it on a red shift in the frequency of light in observable heavenly bodies (remember the speeding car?). This means that galaxies, like our own Milky Way, are moving farther and farther away from each other with increasing speed. (I always imagine it as firing a shotgun and sending out an expanding spray of buckshot). It is believed that in a hundred billion years or so, barring some unexpected cataclysmic event, the speed of the expansion will exceed the speed of light (which is allowed for in Einstein’s General Relativity theory) and from the point of view from any individual galaxy the rest of what we now call the observable universe will “wink out”. From an observational stand point, it will no longer exist. There will be no remaining evidence of a “big bang”,  an expanding universe, or dark matter which are all essential to much of what science believes it understands about the mechanics of the origins of the cosmos.

Sadly, in one hundred billion years, our solar system will be long gone (enjoy the sunshine while you can), lost in the violent death of our sun, but since the universe obviously allows for life, let’s suppose another newer planet in one of those lonely galaxies develops a civilization that is able to contemplate their origins. Even if they develop the best telescopes they can, and evolve their own theories of relativity, gravity and quantum physics, their conclusions, based on what they have left to observe, will be that that their universe is static and eternal. Despite their best intentions and technology their science will ultimately conflict with ours. Ironic, huh?
What I Believe

Therefore, understanding our universe seems to depend heavily on point of view and “truth” in cosmology becomes conditional at best.  The very same science that thinks it can suggest a Godless universe also suggests a universe that may defy complete understanding. So, how utterly silly is it (in my opinion) to presume that the tiny window of time and space scientists have been or will ever be able to observe, can ever present irrefutable evidence or describe an argument that can totally exclude, in any form, a Divine Creator.
In 1985 Pope John Paul II gave an address to participants of a Vatican Conference on Cosmology (of which your Stephan Hawking was a participant) and said:

 “Our view of ourselves, of God and of the universe is radically different from that of people in the Middle Ages. We see ourselves situated in a much larger context - in a much vaster and much more intricately, even delicately, complex world and universe.

We can reach out and grasp its inner workings and designs, plumbing its depths with questioning reverence and with awestruck imagination. Of course, that picture must always remain tantalizingly incomplete.”
I love that last line. It says it all.
Science can be a wonderful thing, Ira, but remember, it has it's limitations. In 1539 Martin Luther is said to have remarked about new ideas in science, "So it goes now. Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing others esteem. He must do something of his own". I fear this may be the for be the case for a number of the theoretical physicists today who are competing for grants and peer recognition and for that reason I do not currently include many of the new theorys you may have seen discussed on your TV shows in my view of cosmology. My experieince is; a new idea is not necessarily a better idea. Still, I am open to possibilities.
In choosing what to believe in science I suggest you begin with what you understand, then learn all you can about what you don't from as many sources as you can. As your knowledge grows your beliefs will evolve and offer you new choices. Belief without understanding is pointless. 


On our recent drive back from Florida, Dooley confided that he had spoken recently to God (“Dooley the Dog Talks to God”). He cryptically told me that things might be changing soon and I should keep a clean pair of underwear handy. At the time I attributed his confession to a possible overdose of Dramamine, however,…….

……as I sit in my little cabin on this cold, wet, winter afternoon, smoking a Swisher Sweet Outlaw Double Barrel Rum Cigar, I confess that I choose to believe in the science of a 13.7 billion year old expanding universe born from a big bang, and a planet full of life created from the elements wrought from furnaces of exploding stars because the science that  support these ideas all conform with the simple principles of physics, chemistry, biology, and geology that I can and have observed in my short time on this Earth.  I cheerfully accept the profound cosmic humility that this suggests.  However…..

…I also confidently choose to believe in the possibility that Dooley may have spoken to a God capable of creating such a beautiful, complex and tantalizingly mysterious universe and I am very comfortable with that.

Uncle Roger   
(Dooley says "Hi")













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