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Chicago Tribune January 11, 2004

The Deity and the Data: How Science is Putting God Under Its Lens

By William Hageman

Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine

January 11, 2004

It's 7:30 on a Sunday night in Cambridge, Mass., and some 500 college students are forgoing "60 Minutes" and "The Simpsons" to fill Auditorium B at the Harvard Science Center and hear two middle-aged men discuss the origins\ of the universe. The title of the debate: "Does God Exist?"

Not a new question, to be sure. But an array of recent scientific discoveries and insights have cast that question in a dramatically new light, forcing philosophers and theologians to reconsider millennia-old propositions.

Over the next three hours, two of these thinkers, Quentin Smith and William Lane Craig--"rock stars in the academic firmament," according to the evening's moderator--will verbally spar over the theological implications of the Big Bang, four-dimensional space, the Hartle-Hawking equations and the nature of time.

Smith, professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University and a poet and painter who has written 10 books and hundreds of papers, is firmly in the atheist camp. He would tell you that science has placed him there. Craig, a research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, Calif., and author of more than 20 books, feels equally strongly that a divine intelligence guides cosmic events. No new scientific evidence seems to have caused him to reverse his position.

By the end of the evening, of course, nothing is really resolved. A post-debate survey by the moderator shows overwhelming support for Craig's position. That's not suprising, considering that a number of students were thumbing through their Bibles during the discussion.

"I get a very strong feeling that [audiences] don't get what Bill says or what I say," Smith reflects later. "If I had an argument that refuted what Bill Craig says, I don't think the audience would be interested. I have this--almost--feeling of futility."

Nonetheless, the two have a regular road show going. They co-authored a book, "Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology" (Oxford University Press) in 1993, and they have publicly debated the issues several times. Nor is interest in the subject confined to philosophers. Similar discussions are taking place among physicists, cosmologists, astronomers, biologists, chemists and a raft of other scientists who never used to dabble very much in metaphysics.

"Subjects like the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the nature of time and the nature of consciousness are now firmly on the scientific agenda," says Paul Davies, a professor of natural philosophy in the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Macquarie University in Sydney. "This means scientists are revisiting the age-old big questions of existence--but in doing so, they are deploying new concepts. This has obliged theologians to engage in old debates on new terms."

Science and religion "are discovering that when people who are thoughtful and open sit down at the same table together, it turns out they're not at war," says Karl Giberson, editor of Research News & Opportunities in Science and Theology, a monthly publication dedicated to the issue.

Lord knows, both sides have plenty to talk about.

Start at the beginning--literally--with the creation of the universe.

The prevailing layman's understanding of what science has to say on the subject is that there was a Big Bang, something akin to a fiery blast that spewed matter throughout the void of space. For the religious, that could easily be seen as a moment of creation by a supreme being, even if it occurred 13 or 14 billion years ago, as astronomers estimate it, instead of the 6,000 years ago implied by the Bible.

But unbeknownst to the lay person, that view has evolved.

For one thing, says Smith, the Big Bang was never seen by physicists or philosophers as a fiery explosion that sent matter hurtling through space, because that presupposes an empty space through which the matter moved. He says the Big Bang was the expansion of space itself, and at the initial moment, there existed only a "singularity," a zero-dimensional point that instantaneously became a three-dimensional space that has been expanding ever since. Born in the same moment would have been matter, energy and time, he notes.

But Sean Carroll, assistant professor at the University of Chicago's new Center for Cosmological Physics, offers a caveat, one that raises the possibility that the primordial explosion was not the beginning, but just part of a pre-existing chain of events.

"[The Big Bang] is just one picture, the most conventionally accepted one," he says. "Of course, we don't have any direct experimental evidence of what happened at very early times, so we should keep an open mind. There may very well have been something before what we think of as the Big Bang."

Does that mean a higher power was in place orchestrating things? Not to Australia's Davies. In a speech he delivered when he was awarded the $1 million Templeton Prize for progress in religion--the world's largest prize for intellectual endeavor--he called "misconceived" the image of a supreme being "who deliberates for all eternity, then presses a metaphysical button and produces a huge explosion."

Davies pointed to physicists James Hartle and Stephen Hawking, who, he said, believe this coming-into-being of the universe "need not be a supernatural process, but could occur entirely naturally, in accordance with the laws of quantum physics, which permit the occurrence of genuinely spontaneous events."

Moreover, those events could have happened in a much larger context, say, of a cosmos of which ours is but a small part, says Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, of the University of Texas.

Noting that it is "still a possibility" that all of creation emanated from the Big Bang, Weinberg points to new ideas that have only recently emerged.

"There's increasing attention directed to [the] possibility that there really wasn't a singular moment of creation," he says, "but instead our Big Bang is just an episode of expansion in a much larger universe, where big bangs are going off all the time and may have been going on for eternity. That's not confirmed yet; it's just a very plausible possibility."

This notion is part and parcel of "inflation theory," first articulated in 1979 by Russian Alexi Starobinsky. The theory describes the very early stages of the universe, when it is thought to have undergone a rapid expansion in an infinitesimal fraction of a second, followed by decelerating expansion.

One inflation theorist, Stanford University cosmologist Andrei Linde, argues that the universe is a huge, growing fractal--a structure that generates larger structures whose parts are smaller versions of the whole--that constantly produces more universes. In addition, most of these universes do not have the right conditions for the evolution of life; in a small percentage, however, the constants are just right, leading to the ascent of plants and animals.

This idea of an inflationary universe has given new life to an old philosophical concept, the multiverse. Our universe, once considered the whole show, the fullness of God's creation, is now thought by many scientists and philosophers to be a small part of an infinite collection of universes.

There are many different ideas of multiverses, of which Linde's is the one taken most seriously.

But Smith has a theory of his own, the Black Hole Origination Theory of the Universe, which says that each universe is the residue of an exploding black hole that was previously created in another universe. A black hole is formed when a massive star collapses, creating matter so dense even light can't escape its gravitational pull. The black hole sucks in matter from surrounding stars and then explodes, Smith says, producing a new universe with a different set of physical properties and varying fundamental laws of nature.

Max Tegmark, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, takes that idea even further, saying that astronomical observations support the idea of parallel universes. "In infinite space, even the most unlikely events must take place somewhere," he wrote in last May's issue of Scientific American. Thus one can imagine an infinite number of inhabited planets, which "have people with the same appearance, name and memories as you, who play out every permutation of your life choices."

Infinite variations of us? If you are drinking coffee from a blue mug while reading this, Tegmark says, somewhere in space there's a version of you doing the exact same thing. And somewhere there's another one drinking decaf. Another using a red mug. You got up at 8:17 a.m. today? There's a version of you who did the same, as well as a version who got up at 8:18, or 8:19, or 8:20, and so on. The possibilities, like the universes, are endless.

So where does all this leave God?

First of all, science and theology are not altogether incompatible. God could still be running the show, even if the show is unimaginably complex.

"God is an infinite being. So it makes sense that if the universe reflected God's infinity, then the universe itself should be infinite," Says Robin Collins, professor of philosophy at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. "You would expect it to reflect the attributes of God."

Alvin Plantinga, of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, agrees. "I don't think there is any difficulty there. You could think of [self-replicating universes] as just one more step in our discovering, you might say, the greatness of God's creative power."

But what about the dignity of the individual in a system so swollen with other versions of oneself? And what does it signify for the relationship of that individual to the Infinite?

Collins says none of these alter egos would be "you"--that is, identical to you--even though they might have indistinguishable physical features. "One issue that comes up is, 'Are you simply a material being?' Typically, theists don't believe you are. There would have to be some other sort of input, a consciousness, or soul."

Moreover, the very intricacy of the system would seem to imply intelligent design. Where some scientists see the universe we inhabit as the result of pure chance, Collins and others say it's part of a plan, called fine-tuning.

According to adherents of fine-tuning, our universe is so precisely put together, so finely tuned to accommodate life, that even the most minute change in its basic properties would make life as we know it impossible. For example, if protons were 0.2 percent heavier, they could decay into neutrons, destroying atoms; if the electromagnetic force were 4 percent weaker, there would be no hydrogen and no normal stars.

"If we could twiddle a knob and change the existing laws, [of physics] even very slightly, the chances are that the universe as we know it would fall apart," Davies says. "Certainly the existence of life as we know it, and even of less elaborate systems such as stable stars, would be threatened by just the tiniest change in the strengths of the fundamental forces."

Others have pointed out that not only do the numbers seem special, they are interconnected, so that a slight change in only one or two would rule out the emergence of life.

"So people are looking at it and saying, well, this is kind of amazing how all these physical characteristics of the universe have to be so finely tuned to accommodate life," Giberson says. "What's the source of this fine tuning? And that's one of the central questions of science and religion."

The theist view of the source is obvious--God. Collins, though, isn't firmly in the same corner. "A lot of theists have thought about God when this fine-tuning evidence comes up," he says. "They envision God as sort of setting the constants for the universe by hand, and I would expect God to do things in the most elegant way possible. It's more elegant to have either those constants follow from some set of laws, so God chooses the right set of laws that would entail just the right constants . . . or to do it by means of multiple universes."

The U of C's Carroll, on the other hand, takes the view that our universe may not be as finely tuned as many believe. He says we just don't know enough to judge.

"It's supposed to be tuned to allow for the existence of life, but we have very little idea about the conditions under which life would or would not exist," he says. "We should be humble about these questions."

Interestingly, the two sides have something fundamental in common: faith. "Extreme multiverse explanations are . . . reminiscent of theological discussions," Davies observed on the New York Times Op-Ed page earlier this year. "Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith."

The science-religion debate has accelerated in recent years, but not because scientists and theologians are seeking each other out to discuss recent developments. A more ancient motivation is at work.

"There's money in it," Carroll says.

One source of money is the Templeton Foundation. Established in 1987 by investment banker John Templeton, the Pennsylvania foundation's mission is "to pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science through a rigorous, open-minded and empirically focused methodology."

To that end, the foundation funds research programs, lectures and college courses to encourage a dialogue between science and religion. It also sponsors forums--two recent ones were "Universe or Multiverse," and "Brain, Mind and Emergence"--both at Stanford University--and hands out the annual $1.2 million Templeton Award, sort of a Nobel Prize for religion.

Davies believes that religion needs to catch up with science, and therefore the Templeton Foundation's mission is important. He points out that religion is a powerful force in many societies, including ours, yet mostly it is rooted in concepts that are hundreds, if not thousands of years out of date.

Davies repeats an oft-cited example: Hippocrates was a brilliant physician, but you'd be worried if you went to your doctor with a complaint and he reached for Hippocrates' book to heal you.

"We can have respect for ancient scriptures, but we need to embrace them and move on," Davies says. "Many theologians embraced change in the face of science long ago, but many simple believers are still wallowing around in 19th Century notions. The Pope has given his blessing to Darwin's theory of evolution, but churches in America are full of people clinging to Adam and Eve fairy stories as if they were literally true. It's deeply worrying."

Craig believes the dialogue also is necessary for scientists. "Often, scientists are ill-equipped to discuss philosophical issues," he says. "They may not have the philosophical tools to reflect on the presuppositions of what they believe. The scientist brings the facts, the theologian brings the idea of God, and the philosopher brings the analytical skills to root out the hidden assumptions, the unexamined presuppositions or the logical consequences not evident on the surface.

"If you ask a particle physicist, 'What are the implications of your view?' " Craig continues, "they'd give you a blank stare. They know how to do calculations, but not how to reflect on the data."

Adds Simon Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary paleobiology at the University of Cambridge" "Though most of my colleagues certainly would disassociate themselves immediately from me in this respect, I'm very happy with the idea that you can understand creation from both a religious viewpoint and a scientific viewpoint. But this is not the sort of thing my colleagues want to be told. And they probably think I'm slightly mad, you know?"

Davies, too, can see common ground that both sides can stand on. He considers the origins of life and consciousness as neither the result of a Creator's hand nor "stupendously improbable accidents." He sees them simply as the natural result of the workings of the laws of nature.

Others find no room for accommodation. "I enjoy discussions, but what I would not like is some sort of synthesis of religion and science," Weinberg says. "I think that progress of humanity away from religion has generally been a healthy one, and I wouldn't want to see reconciliation. It's a progress that has been very largely driven by the expansion of science, and I wouldn't like us to give up that progress that we have made."

Smith sees his debates with Craig as carrying the day for science. "I say science implies atheism," he says. "They're desperately trying to say no, science implies theism."

He estimates that 10 percent of philosophers--"the best minds in their fields"-- believe in God. "Religion has had a big swing since the 1970s. [Theists] came up with brilliant arguments for theism. It used to be the tendency was to ignore them, but now more of them are becoming philosophers, and if you ignore them, they could become the majority. I'm trying to put my finger in the dike, to stop this onslaught of theism."

But the battle may never be won by either side.

"I cannot imagine any time now or in the future where a particular scientific discovery would either entirely negate religious sensibilities or entirely confirm them," Conway Morris says, "You could take the view that in the end religion is being constantly eroded by science, but that doesn't ring quite true, inasmuch as . . . these discussions refuse to die."

Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune

File Date: 1.11.04

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