Sunday, July 3, 2005

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith

The debate over Intelligent Design usually focuses on the biological component of Design theory and thus many lay-people may be unaware that there is also another, even more powerful design argument based on physics. Some writers have written on this topic for the general public, Hugh Ross, for one, but perhaps the best book I've found that deals with this issue is a work by University of Delaware physicist Stephen Barr. Barr's effort is entitled Modern Physics and Ancient Faith and is an erudite and very comprehensive treatment of the support that contemporary physics gives to belief in a cosmic Designer.

The scope of Barr's study encompasses not only physics but also mathematics, philosophy, and theology. His scholarship and learning are impressive yet the book does not swamp the reader with math or recondite technical concepts. Barr explains the concepts of physics which bear upon the matter of design lucidly and cogently.

The framework upon which the arguments of the book are hung is a comparison of the worldviews of materialism, the belief that matter is all there is and that all phenomena are ultimately explicable in terms of material processes, and theism, the belief that behind the phenomena of the world there lies an intelligent mind which has created and ordered the cosmos.

For at least two centuries materialism waxed strong among philosophers and scientists. Materialism was based upon the evidence of our senses, it was the philosophical foundation for science and thus of knowledge. If we couldn't test a hypothesis empirically without invoking immaterial entities and explanations it was dismissed as literal nonsense. Theism was based upon speculation and putative revelation. It was not knowledge, it was faith. Theism began to diminish among educated people during the Enlightenment, and its complete demise was prophesied repeatedly throughout the twentieth century.

Gradually, however, it began to dawn on philosophers and scientists throughout the last century that advances in physics were reversing the momentum that materialism had achieved. It was beginning to become clear that theism was more compatible with the phenomena being discovered by scientists than was materialism and that materialists were having to resort to the most bizarre, untestable hypotheses in order to save their worldview from utter loss.

There were five developments in particular, Barr calls them plot twists, which support the theistic view and which are difficult to explain in terms of materialistic atheism:

1. Big Bang cosmology entails that the universe had a beginning. This is a vindication of the theistic view and a shock to the materialists who were convinced that the universe was eternal.

2. The deep mathematical structure of the universe possesses a beauty, elegance, and complexity that seems incompatible with the materialist notion that the universe just is, that its existence is simply a brute fact that needs no explanation.

3. The physical parameters that govern the universe are so precisely set that deviations of the most exquisitely minute amounts in any one of dozens of these would have made the existence of a universe in which life could emerge and thrive impossible.

4. Increasing evidence from physics, mathematics, cognitive philosophy and neuroscience is leading people who think about these things to the conclusion that there's more to human understanding than just a physical brain. There is increasing evidence that there's something more than matter which comprises our cognitive apparatus.

5. The unfolding of the implications of quantum mechanics has undermined one of the major materialist arguments against free-will, i.e. the idea that in a closed universe there is no opening for freedom. Quantum theory has also raised a powerful argument against materialism in that "a careful analysis of the theory suggests that observers lie, at least in part, outside of the description provided by physics." In other words, one of the entailments of quantum physics, some are arguing, is that there must be something about observers of physical systems that is itself non-physical.

There are, Barr argues, only three ways to explain these phenomena naturalistically: They are the product either of the laws of nature, natural selection, or chance. He argues that only the last of these avoids logical difficulties which beset the other two. Even so, for the universe and life to have arisen in the form it has by chance requires that the materialist resort to "infinities of unobservables." They have to posit an infinitely existing universe or an infinite number of disparate universes, or an infinite number of discrete domains in the present universe, or a near infinite number of planets (to account for the emergence of life), or they have to posit an infinite number of worlds constantly splitting as observations and choices occur. As Barr says, "It seems that to abolish one unobservable God, it takes an infinite number of unobservable substitutes."

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith goes into a great deal of detail about each of these developments or plot twists, and although some of it may seem a little arcane, particularly the discussion of symmetries in physics, almost all of it is quite accessible to the interested layman.

As mentioned above, this is one of the best books available on the contemporary argument for the existence of a transcendent intelligence based on the physical facts of the cosmos. We recommend it to anyone interested in the intersection of science, religion, and philosophy. A published review of it can be found here and the book can be ordered here.

Helping Africa

Amidst all the talk about yesterday's Live 8 concerts and the G8 summit talks Herb London suggests a few pointed questions. Recalling that twenty years ago similar concerts (called Live Aid) were held which raised a couple of billion dollars for African relief he wonders what ever became of that money? Who received it? What was it used for?Who is accountable for it?

"Moreover," he notes, "over the last decade government and private charities have poured over $25 billion into Africa for seemingly little effect. In fact, Africa has had an aggregate g.d.p. reduction of about 25 percent since the Live Aid concerts two decades ago."

Live Aid was derisively called Band Aid by some who argued that unless the corruption which causes poverty on that continent is removed, financial aid is little more than putting a band aid on a gangrenous limb. Throwing money at poverty salves the conscience and makes us feel like we're doing something noble, but if, as Peter Baur, the father of development economics noted, "foreign aid is little more than poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries," then are we really doing anything other than wasting precious resources?

As Hudson says:

Without question the issue at hand is poverty in Africa, but overlooked by well meaning rockers is that as long as tyrannical governments control the distribution of funds those targeted for relief never get it. Starvation is indeed a problem in many parts of Africa, most especially in the Sudan. But in this nation emergency food relief sent by the U.S. and others is used as a weapon to subjugate designated enemies of the government. This has been a pattern observed earlier in Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

"Eliminating poverty anywhere in the world," he goes on to say, "is a worthwhile, if utopian, goal. But, money alone won't do it when those funds aren't used to address the problem. All the serenades of 'We Are The World' and 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' won't amount to a hill of beans unless there is accountability for the billions of dollars that will be contributed."

It is ironic that the people who are most concerned about the terrible level of poverty in Africa are relatively mute about demanding the ouster of the tyrannies which are responsible for it. Perhaps the attention currently being focused on the suffering of the African people will cause a few of those whose hearts sincerely break over the deprivation and misery of these people to realize that in order to bring relief and justice to those in need one must sometimes employ force. Throwing money at the poor just empowers their oppressors and makes their problems even more severe.