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Worldview Watch

periodic commentary and analysis on news items from a worldview perspective

 previous issue                                               issue #31  posted 3 / 26 / 2013                                           archive of all  issues

God, Science, Faith

in the news:  One week after physicists using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN announced confirmation of their discovery of the so called "God particle", National Radio Astronomical Observatory (NRAO) astronomer Deb Shepherd gave a talk "From the Infinite to the Subatomic: Where Do We Find God?"   The flyer announcing this hour long presentation  described Shepherd as "after being an agnostic for 40 years, she became a Christian in 2009 and has since devoted herself to Christ". During the talk Shepherd said of God, "He is both great and small" and, besides embracing "God is Love," admitted to likening God to "a fractal...a never ending pattern".  In surveying the vast physical extent of the universe she briefly mentioned the Higgs Boson--the accepted name of the "God particle"--a term neither physicists nor theologians like!  In a previous discussion I've heard her postulate, "God has written two books--the book of nature and the Bible."   

commentary and analysis (by Stephen P. Cook, project Worldview,  I applaud Dr. Shepherd's courage in sharing her conception of God in such a public manner.  Her connecting God with the mathematical pattern known as a fractal doesn't surprise me, nor her crediting God with "writing the book of nature." I know many scientists are comfortable with deism: a belief in Monotheism (worldview theme #8A) and a Creator God who is believed to not interfere with the workings of the universe, which proceed according to natural laws. As for fractals...I know many physicists conceive of a universe in which everything, including seemingly discrete, widely separated matter, is actually connected in a way they feel can be mathematically described.  I've likened some of these schemes to the "All is One" viewpoint of  Mysticism  (theme #7A).  Also seems Shepherd's God/fractal idea isn't far from pantheism: the belief that God is everywhere, inherent in all things--part of some people's Belonging to Nature (theme #27) orientation... 

...But it seems a great leap from there to Belief in a Personal God (theme #8B). Add to that,  like for most Americans Valuing Traditions and Traditional Gender Roles (theme #34), male gender.  And her conception of God has Him talking. Indeed, while apparently accepting evolution and disdaining much of Religious Fundamentalism (theme #9A), Shepherd  nonetheless believes in something this orientation is founded on: a God who communicates with people through words in sacred books. (I'm curious whether she feels God's word appears just in the Bible, or in other sacred religious texts like the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, etc?)  I find her beliefs interesting since she is a scientist--someone who undoubtedly values The Scientific Method  (theme #6): gathering data through observation and experiment, testing hypotheses with careful analysis, and after examining reproducible results as they relate to the framework of existing knowledge, drawing appropriate conclusions.

Can such methodology justify Belief in a Personal God? Consider one behavior that generally accompanies such belief: prayer. The overwhelming majority of Americans, True Believers (theme #2A) will point out, at least occasionally pray. Anecdotal evidence abounds as to its value, they stress. Skeptics (theme #1B) will dissent and cite numerous carefully controlled studies-- such as a three year one involving church groups praying for 1800 patients undergoing heart bypass surgery. The results, reported in the April 4, 2006 issue of the American Heart Journal, found no statistically significant difference in the survival or complication rates of heart patients who were prayed for versus those who were not.  

While I have no doubt that praying enriches many lives and that Belief in a Personal God provides an important source of psychological comfort to many millions (perhaps billions?) of people, I'm convinced that such belief largely rests on faith, which I define as "firm belief, complete confidence and trust in something for which there is no proof, often associated with religion and typically linked more to the one's  feelings / emotions  than one's rational / analytical side."  The certainty such faith requires is antithetical to the philosophy of science, which much more readily embraces skepticism.  This I define as "the doctrine that true knowledge in some areas is impossible, and that knowledge is always accompanied by uncertainty and doubt." 

To many, attempts to make sense out of Reality begin with doubt and uncertainty. [See Humbly Unsure (theme #1A).] Few people other than scientists appreciate that all measurements have an associated uncertainty, and that the best descriptions of nature at the most fundamental level involve probabilities, not certainties. [Example: Have physicists proved with absolute certainty they've found the Higgs Boson? No, the March 14th announcement supposedly confirming the discovery really means that the newly completed analysis builds a stronger case than existed last July when a preliminary announcement was made.  That announcement reported a mere 1 in 588 million chance of explaining the data as being due to random background effects (5.9 sigma) rather than a new particle.  It stressed the new particle may not be the long sought Higgs boson.]

Turning from "God particle" to "God is love"... I have no doubt that if everyone believed and honored this--as well as seeming corollaries such as The Golden Rule (theme #16)-- the world would be a much better place. Sadly, for many the current state of the world inspires, not righteous indignation, but Cynicism (theme #36A).  Despair upon contemplating this led one time young idealistic evangelical Christian Bart Ehrman, now a leading Biblical scholar at the University of North Carolina, to eventually become an agnostic. "There is so much senseless pain and misery in the world that I find it impossible to believe there is a good and loving God who is in control..." he writes in his 2009 book Jesus, Interrupted--Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible.  

The scientist in me likes the idea of physicists using one of the world's greatest tools of discovery, the LHC, to experimentally gather data relevant to the age old questions of how the universe began and how it will end. The Higgs boson can be connected to creation: it's what is believed to give particles their mass. Similarly the exact value of its own mass (seemingly measured at roughly 126 times that of the proton's) is believed to be critically important to whether we live in a stable or unstable universe. Some physicists think this number portends the universe's catastrophic collapse billions of years in the future. 

My intellectual curiosity extends to the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) as recent publication of my paper "SETI--Assessing Imaginative Proposals"  suggests. I look forward to the day when radio astronomers at one of the world's greatest observatories (like NRAO's New Mexico VLA, ALMA in Chile, Arecibo in Puerto Rico, etc.) announce they have data that indisputably answers another age old question, "Are we alone?" Having that answer would dramatically impact conceptions both of God and of humans' place in the universe.  And, like some creationists,  I'm interested in "How did life on Earth originate?" So I was excited by a report in MIT Technology Review two weeks ago entitled "Astrobiologists Find Ancient Fossils in Fireball Fragments".  This work, of a team partly based in Cardiff, Wales (including Chandra Wickramasinghe who I met at a conference in Budapest in 2009), seemingly bolsters the argument that life originated in deep space and was brought to Earth by hitching a ride on meteoroids or comets. 

Finally, whether one's worldview is based more on science or more on faith, if it truly works to make people happy and make the world a better place in the long run, I respect it. What motivates many people interested in science, religion, or both, I'm convinced, are certain feelings: of wanting to understand, of mystery that pondering "the big questions" invokes, of cherishing wonder and standing in awe over certain beautiful aspects of existence.   

Additional Comment: A reader who attended Deb Shepherd's talk and stayed for the discussion writes, "So we have an accomplished scientist who firmly believes in the scientific method for acquiring knowledge, but who also believes that knowledge/Truth can be obtained through supernatural means: i.e., revelation, conversation with God and the Bible. My problem is this:  One may develop a logical metaphysics by either route--the scientific or the supernatural one--But how does one believe both at the same time?  Does that not create an untenable psychological challenge, with perhaps serious problems, if the contradiction is realized?" To which Stephen Cook replied, "One of the things that Project Worldview tries to help people get at involves parts of a worldview that are contradictory. You realize it's difficult to reconcile belief in the supernatural
(miracles, magic, etc.) with belief in the scientific method--many people don't!" 
(added April 10 2013)

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