July 23, 2006

Deducing God from Nature

Psiomniac and I have been having an interesting exchange on the subject of faith, reason, and the scientific support for theism. His latest volley contains some good food for thought, and I've spent some extra time on a reply that I've chosen to share here as a separate post.
[Psiomniac said:] I think you are right about the main area of disagreement being the relative strength of the rational case for theism. I think the so called 'anomalies' [faced by the atheist in foundational areas of science] that you mention [like the origins and design of the universe and consciousness theory] are either questions of detail or genuine areas of inquiry.
I think that some of the problems faced by science at this juncture in the road are not just quantitatively different than it has addressed thus far (like learning more about physics and chemistry so we know how stars work), but qualitatively different (like facing the reason for the very origin of matter and the finely tuned laws that allow things like stars and life to exist). But the great utility of science has led many like yourself to have great hope that it can give us answers to even the most intractable questions. For this reason, for some, there is nothing that theists could ever point to that would be conclusive proof of their case, since it can always be said, "Give us time, we'll find the answer eventually."

But I haven't millennia to wait in order to make my commitments. I must, as with every generation before me, take what is offered and apparent to me at this time. Some would say that we are living in the greatest age for the scientific support of theism. I've even heard it said that if you want a hardcore atheist to debate, don't go to the hard sciences department, go to the humanities department. While I'm not sure that I agree that the scales are tipped any more heavily in this age than they were in ages past, I will say that the problems in this age that strict materialism faces are at every point where the deepest questions about life and meaning reside. Theism, at least my brand, answers those concerns in a very systematic way. I find it eminently reasonable; especially when I bring all other things, like philosophy, history, psychology, sociology, and ethics, into the equation.
What really matters is the methodology employed in order to conduct such an enquiry. This is where I think theism falls down.
I have news, theists are right there beside the atheists doing scientific research in every way that you would affirm (e.g., the head of the Human Genome Project is a Christian). It is in the interpretation of that data where the debate lies. I think that what you are really implying is that while we can test natural processes, we can't do experiments to test for God. I am sympathetic to the concern, but it is a philosophically tenable difficulty given the premise that there could be a God; simply because we have this difficulty does not invalidate the existence of God. God, by nature, is transcendent and a personal agent. This makes it difficult both materially and causally to pin Him down. For this reason, the best way to "test" for God is through the effects of what He has done. But if one is tenaciously committed to finding a material explanation for all effects, no matter how many divine fingerprints are found upon it, then one will never arrive at a divine conclusion.

And do you suppose that scientists are perfectly objective in their methodologies and anxious for their own theories to be refuted? I just recently read the following passage in Nancy Pearcy's book, Total Truth, that speaks to this very issue:

"The famous duo who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, Francis Crick and James Watson, freely admit that anti-religious motivations drove their scientific work. 'I went into science because of these religious reasons, there's no doubt about that,' Crick said in a recent interview. 'I asked myself what were the two things that appear inexplicable and are used to support religious beliefs.' He decided the two things that support religion were 'the difference between living and nonliving things, and the phenomenon of consciousness.' He then aimed his own research specifically at demonstrating a naturalistic view of both."
The thing is, the truth doesn't come easy. Anyone can make a miraculous claim and say they were inspired by god or whichever deity and if they are charismatic enough they may even start a cult. . . . I remember a case of a so called 'psychic' who had undergone investigation and who had produced statistically significant results under laboratory conditions. . . . What happened in fact was that the results could not be replicated. It then took thousands of researcher-hours to uncover the telltale statistical patterns that are the signature of fraud. . . . You see the difficulty here? This is people we are dealing with. It takes one charismatic individual to set a problem and then thousands of research-hours to realise that the solution is fraud. Zip back now to Palestine 2000 years ago, when there were no researchers. . . .The theistic framework doesn't even make it to first base in the methodology stakes.
I sympathize with what you are saying, and I have an inverse concern. Even if the New Testament portrait of Jesus is true (as I have come to believe), there are so many ways that the evidence for it could be obfuscated and equivocated. How can one ever get past the uncertainty and the layers of just-so stories lain down by the skeptics? While there may be no smoking-gun argument against it (and there have been centuries to try), being distant history, it still leaves persons wiggle-room for their doubt. For this reason, one may start by affirming that the testimony of Scripture and the church Fathers is all in order and is reasonable as far as it goes (assuming one will grant the premise that a God could exist to make sense of it all), and then move on to look at other factors in life and the cosmos that the claims of Scripture would serve to make sense of.

I am also increasingly convinced that the doctrine of the illumination of the Holy Spirit is epistemologically necessary in order to overcome both the predisposition not to believe such a thing and the difficulties in knowing with any kind of certainty that it is so. It is not that I think it unreasonable, or contrary to all the indicators to be found in life, (indeed, the more I look, the more astonishingly plain it becomes); it is that things like data, perceptions, beliefs, and biases are so philosophically and psychologically complex, and most persons are so unaccustomed to thinking carefully, that I am amazed that so many people come to the same conclusion I do about Christianity, or, more accurately, that I have separately come to conclude that classical Christianity is true.

Ultimately, I don't think that there is a problem with the theistic "methodology" in this area. I simply think that it is a matter of the natural complexities of dealing with history and recorded testimonies. It is a different kind of science than mathematics and chemistry, which does not reduce well to formulas and repeatable experiments.
You KNOW the truth already, so it is obviously true that the heavens declare his glory, you just have to articulate how it declares it well enough and we will get it.
I agree in general that people often simply shape the facts (some facts anyway) to fit their preferred truths, but the funny thing here is that the very thing that set me on the road to Christianity was the teleological and cosmological arguments. In a very real sense, the heavens did declare the glory of God to me. And I am not alone in this: Antony Flew is but a recent example of an antagonist of Christianity whose skepticism has been eroded by the design argument. It is a fiction that every Christian begins his life as such and simply rationalizes his way through it.
You cannot start from a position of knowing god loves you, deduce the way cosmology must play out if this is the case (brilliantly I must say) and expect that it will be credible that you are swimming with the current of evidence.
I think there is a compliment in there, and the fact that you seem to believe that I am doing a plausible job of weaving my tale means that I am at least not being irrational. Perhaps my premise is ultimately untrue, but it is at least consistent with the data that I am presenting.

And isn't this how science works? Does it not test the data against its hypotheses? It is not so important where those hypotheses originate, but it cannot be said to be a respectable theory if it does not have explanatory and predictive power. I suggest that theism does so; it simply does not pass your explanatory filter.
I think that there are many processes in the universe that are observable that give rise to structure through blind algorithmic processes. Like the formation of a snowflake.
You are right; though you assume they are "blind" processes and not the regular, orderly, direct actions of God to sustain the universe (but that's another discussion). This is indeed a remarkably ordered universe, which is invested with a great deal of potential by its very forces, material, and constants. But this is one of the very things that begs for an explanation!
So wouldn't it be more honest to admit that the generation of universes better fits this analogy than the analogy of being designed? Surely I have legitimate epistemological objections to the validity of postulating a designer as a solution, since all of a sudden we are going the wrong way in terms of explanatory gradient if we do that.
It is an unjustified leap to assume that some "natural" and law-driven process, like we see within this universe, is the very thing that brought those laws into being in the first place. I think that when you get to the point of originating causes, all bets are off.

I would also say that we could look at the analogy of "mind," which we also see examples of in this universe, and make an analogical connection between that and the effect of the universe itself. Since mind is a natural thing, even by materialistic standards (though not adequately explained), is it not a natural candidate for an explanation? Indeed, I have heard world-class physicists propose that our entire universe is nothing more than a computer simulation originating from a prior advanced civilization — this being based on the analogy of what human minds can accomplish in relation to the environment we find ourselves immersed within.

The multiverse hypothesis is not something that suggests itself from anything we see in the universe (like the flight of galaxies suggests the big bang) so much as it is an attempt to explain the remarkable nature of the universe itself without admitting the obvious: that the universe is exquisitely designed because it had a Designer. It is the same as telling someone who has just won the Powerball jackpot for the thousandth time in a row, "It's really not so incredible if you consider that there are an infinite number of worlds populated with people just like you. This was bound to happen to one of them, and you just happen to be that one." I think they could be forgiven if they preferred the explanation that someone purposed that they should always win.

And one last thing: in order to avoid personalizing the "cause," you are willing to compound your entities to require infinite universes and at least one, grand universe-barfing machine. How this "machine" is constructed such that it spawns universes, and why we should believe that each one must be purely random in its physical laws (so as to yield fortuitous order in at least one) I do not know. Nor am I certain how we would ever know such things; it will always be a matter of faith to those committed to materialism. A theistic cause is at least a premise which has hope of secondary support within the cosmos — the Causer may choose to get involved after the fact.
The vast majority of structure we see in the world is not overtly designed (unless you want to beg the question). It is the result of the iterative application of simple rules. A designer is more likely, by analogy from what we observe, to be a product of such processes than a cause.
Since the vast majority of what I "see in the world" is its surface, which is dense with biological strata, I would have to take issue with this. That is because biology is not merely "the result of the iterative application of simple rules," like gravity forming stars from molecular clouds or molecular attractions forming crystals; biochemistry, according to naturalistic theory, is the product of random chance applied to supposed chemical processes. For example, while there may be repeatable chemical pathways to the formation of some amino acids, there are no biochemical rules or pathways that inevitably result in amino acids lining up in polypeptide chains (like Na Cl lines up into crystalline structures) short of the aid of a ribosome working at the direction of the DNA. Nor are there any known laws of physics which would invest chemicals with information content. Finding such pathways and processes is the holy grail of evolution, and since that is the very foundation upon which it depends, I do not know why we should find it plausible (even ignoring its other faults) until such time as it does so.

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July 08, 2006

The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 3)

It's in the Stars
(Part 3 in a 4 part series)

Now that we know where we need to be positioned in this universe, let's look at the kind of local habitat we would need to support life.

The first thing that life needs is a safe and stable home. It needs to be warm enough to facilitate chemical reactions, but not so hot that complex molecules break down. It needs a usable energy source, yet protection from damaging energy sources like cosmic and high-energy radiation. It needs a diverse source of key materials, but the ability to isolate from volatile materials. And it needs this environment to be stable for a long period of time (an enormous period of time if you insist on presupposing evolution).

Now, I don't wish to be accused of begging the question here. I'm not just implying human life or "life as we know it"; I'm talking about any kind of complex, sentient life that would be a candidate for (or result of) God's special attention. We do, after all, have a fairly good grasp of chemistry and the kind of general conditions that must prevail in order to support complex chemical bonds and reactions. And unless God wished to "ensoul" a molecular cloud (which would lead to interesting problems of where one "person" ends and another begins), then we must look to certain constraints.

The obvious solution to the habitat problem is a planet, which, of course, would be dependent upon a star for its energy supply. An alternative might be something like an interstellar dust cloud or nebula. But while these may be candidates for the formation of simple materials upon which life is based, they offer nothing like the kind of stability, protection, and concentration of resources that can be found on a planet.

So a solar system it is then, but first we need a proper star. Unfortunately, not all stars are created equal. We know by example that our own kind of star is a good host, but when astronomers call our sun "average," it is not that the majority of stars are like it; it is more due to the fact that our star falls right in the middle of some important stellar classifications. Indeed, our sun is anything but average. To begin with, 90% of all stars are smaller than our own. If anything could be said to be an average star it would be a red dwarf, the most common type. But for several reasons, these are bad candidates for a parent star.

These smaller stars output far less energy, so a habitable planet that hoped to maintain a reasonable average temperature (and liquid water) would have to hold a close orbit. Unfortunately, close-orbiting bodies have the effect of putting the least massive partner into gravitation (or "tidal") lock. This is where one side of the satellite body always faces what it is orbiting. For instance, the same side of our moon always faces us, and this is true for nearly every other moon in our solar system. Having a planet tidally locked to its sun would be devastating to the climate of both sides of the planet.

Being close to your sun also means that you are susceptible to greater exposure to its miscellaneous undesirable emissions, like solar winds, flares, and general radiation. Just because a star may give off less of the energy you need does not mean that every other emission is proportionately smaller. In fact, these red dwarf stars have been found to have a rather erratic and volatile nature. At worst, these common stars are unsuitable for life. At best, life would be downright nasty under their dominion.

Of course, not all stars are smaller than ours. Stars can be up to 150 times the mass of our sun. Unfortunately, larger stars are even worse candidates as a host star. I'll mention just three reasons why.

First, large stars tend toward the blue end of the spectrum, which means a greater abundance of ultraviolet radiation, among other things. This would not only have an adverse effect on life's biochemistry, but would cause toxic chemical reactions in the very atmosphere of a planet (like ionizing it).

Second, adding mass to a star does not proportionately increase its energy output, it exponentially increases it. This means that even if it were possible to maintain a hospitable planet around one of these infernos, it would have to be positioned in a distant orbit that would nullify the temperature-balancing effects of short seasons (assuming the planet is even tilted on its axis). More on this later.

Third, contrary to what you might expect, the larger the star the shorter its life-span. This is because the increased gravitational pressure causes the star's fusion engine to run more efficiently. (Of course, I am assuming that the reader knows that stars are nothing more than giant fusion reactors, which spend the bulk of their lifetimes fusing hydrogen into helium). In the same way as the energy output increases, and for the same reason, the lifespan exponentially decreases with mass. So a star only 1/4 again the size of our sun may have its lifespan reduced by half. And the largest stars number their years in the millions (or hundreds of thousands), rather than 10 billion like our own.

A shorter star life is not only bad news in the general sense that shorter is worse, but it is bad because a shorter lifespan serves to condense the lifecycle of the star in a way that causes a briefer possible sweet-spot. You see, during a star's main sequence burn phase it grows progressively hotter, brighter, and larger. Where a planet may once have rested comfortably within the habitability zone it could quickly find itself on the inside of it if its star were too large. Our own planet has been slowly "moving" from the outer edge of its zone to the inner edge. But because of the smaller size of our sun this progression has happened slowly enough to give us a long life-window and to permit complex planetary adaptations (e.g., the reduction of carbon dioxide so as not to trap the increasing level of solar energy).

It might be worth mentioning here that, for the reason I just discussed, these planetary habitability zones are not as broad as they may at first appear. In reality, any planet with the hope of long-term habitability must begin at a very narrow position on the outer portion of the zone so that it will stay within it as long as possible while the star progressively increases in luminosity.

But what about the stars with approximately the same mass as our sun? Surely there are plenty of these out there in such a big galaxy. Well, that may be, but there is more to making a star than mere mass. The amount and mix of heavy elements it contains — its "metallicity" — controls its burn rate, energy output, and variability. And its spin rate affects things like its magnetic activity, which drives its flare intensity and frequency.

When looking for twins of our own star (which SETI scientists seem to think very important) there are a lot of sensitive variables that we are only beginning to understand. In fact, even using the criteria that we can understand and measure we have found, to date, precisely zero solar twins, that is, unless you wish to loosen up the criteria for "twin" (which they intentionally do for solar "analogs"). The closest contender of the thousands of candidates reviewed is 46 light years away, but even this one has its problems. Here are just two quotes that point out some of the notable differences.
"HD146233 [also known as '18 Scorpii'] is the only star in the ELODIE library which merits the title of solar twin because it has passed the filter of all methods [of identification]. It is not however a perfect twin and differs from the Sun by its higher [Lithium] content [3 times as much], slightly higher age (6 Gyr against 4.6 Gyr for the Sun) and higher luminosity (Mv = 4.77 against Mv⊙ = 4.82)." (Source)

"18 Scorpii's activity cycle [it has actually been classified as a variable star] may be of greater amplitude than Sol's and that its overall chromospheric activity level is noticeably greater than Sol's. Hence, this otherwise excellent solar photometric twin therefore may be a less perfect spectroscopic twin." (Source)
At 46 light years away, and being a relatively small star, 18 Scorpii is too dim to see with the naked eye. Even assuming that this star were a solar twin, thus being a prime candidate for a habitable system, this means that of all the stars you can observe in the night sky not a one of them is much like our own. Even extending your vision with binoculars and low-powered telescopes, you will only include a couple of possible candidates (the runner up is 126 light years out).

There's just one other very important thing I'll mention by way of requirements for the host star itself: it must be a loner. If it has one or more companion stars, then any planet's hope of maintaining a long-term, regular orbit (i.e., constantly remaining in a habitability zone) is slim to none. This further narrows the field of available parent stars in that more than half of all solar systems are binary, or greater (the percentage being lower for red dwarves and higher for large stars).

So far we've seen that when considering the ideal home for life we not only must consider the galactic neighborhood, the kind of galaxy, and the position within the galaxy, but the very details of the star as well. All factors make a dramatic difference to the stability, longevity, and energy output. It is no mere bias that leads us to consider our own Sun as the benchmark of habitability; it is the perfect star on theoretical grounds, by comparison, and by experience. Either ours is the only possible kind of star able to support complex life like our own, or God simply delights in exceeding requirements.

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