God is not some old man in the sky with a long white beard

Sometimes people are saying that God is out there. I was looking around attentively all day but I didn’t find anybody there. I saw neither angels nor God. — Gherman Titov (1935-2000), astronaut

As promised, here is another post wherein I illustrate some of the ways my scientific training influences my faith and interpretation of the bible. In the previous post, I discussed space-time and what I think are the implications for freewill. Today, I would like to talk about how science impacts my (necessarily limited) understanding of who God is and the concept of heaven.

Before delving into it, I have a brief note on my choice of title: I do not know a single Christian who believes God is some old man with a long white beard or that he should be found somewhere floating in space as the above quote suggests… As far as I can tell, this is a straw man (also see my previous post on other related logical fallacies) used mainly by non-believers. Maybe it has to do with famous artwork such as the one in the featured image (this painting is the “Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel)?

Ok, let’s get started. If God created the universe (space, time and matter) from nothing as the bible suggests (see my previous post), then He is not “of” the universe. That is, God is not made of the stuff of the universe: atoms, normal matter (baryons), or even dark matter or dark energy.

The image of God

A sceptic once asked me what God “looks” like to me. I was puzzled, was he referring to Michelangelo’s painting or was I meant to provide some profound explanation? This question is much more complicated than it sounds. I do sometimes wonder what Jesus meant by: “you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:8-10) or about what it means for humans to be made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27)?

There is much mind-blowing science, from physics to biology, involved in our ability to see. We see objects because they reflect light in our direction. Light is both particle and wave (notice the word “and” rather than “or”, light is really both). For this argument, light is most helpfully understood as made-up of tiny particles, we call those photons. When photons hit objects, some of them bounce off. The photons that bounce off objects can reach our eyes. Our brain interprets the frequency of those photons as colours and, for each eye, seamlessly computes where they came from to translate this information into a three-dimensional picture. All these processes involve matter, stuff, the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, etc… however as we said before, if God created these and established the laws of nature, and if He is not made of stuff, how can we be made in His image?

I am no theologian, but when saying humans are made in God’s image, I do not think Genesis is talking about an image in the scientific sense, i.e. involving photons as above, or our good looks. Rather, I think this passage points to a deeper truth: an image that isn’t seen by our eyes. The concept of the “soul” comes to mind. In other words, the image of God in which we are made must transcend this universe. I think here His image is the bit of the divine in each of us.

Mind the gap

Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it.Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Since God is not part of the universe, He is not some yet-to-be-understood scientific process, physical force or theory such as dark matter or dark energy. Thus, God cannot really be god of the gaps (in its simplest form): only allowed in science’s yet-to-be-explained bag of oddities. A creator God would not be threatened by scientific inquiry and our attempts to figure out how the universe works. In fact, the God of the bible delights in human inquiry.

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. — Proverbs 4:7

A bit on heaven

And what of heaven? Is it a “real” place in this universe? Well, I don’t know, but consider this. The tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) tells a story of a time when all humans spoke one language. Wanting to be like God, people began to build a tall tower to reach to heaven. They wanted to look down on everyone else and be like God. The story says that God was angry at their attempt and to stop their progress, He confused their languages. This made cooperation impossible and stalled the project.

After reading the story of the tower of Babel, my 5-year old asked me “where is heaven?” Great question… I replied with a question of my own: “do you think people in the story could have built a tower tall enough to reach heaven? Is heaven in the sky?” She joyfully laughed at the idea. It was obvious to her that “no! Space is in the sky”!

While the story of the tower of Babel may not be historical or scientific fact, I do think it is useful for teaching basic Christian principles. While being made in the image of God confers all humans a degree of divinity/worth, the story of the tower of Babel also highlights that nobody is “better” than everyone else in the eyes of the Creator. It also emphasises that we are not to think of ourselves as gods.

He/she/they?

When referring to God, I (like most) typically use the pronoun “He”, although I do not think God is actually a gendered being. Both men and women were created in God’s image: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Gender is something biologically useful to humans (and other life-forms) for our survival as a species. I don’t personally see how/why God needs to be gendered… I do not think this is a crucial aspect of faith.

My point is…

My point is not that God is not a man, or that he isn’t to be found somewhere up in the sky, though those are true

My point for the last 2 posts is that everyone has a worldview, a lens through which they see the world. Science and faith both form part of my worldview. It is inevitable that my scientific training will influence my faith. I recognise that it is also inevitable that my faith will influence my perspective as a scientist.

Consider the following unfortunately worded and contradictory positions:

Finally, from what we now know about the cosmos, to think that all this was created for just one species among the tens of millions of species who live on one planet circling one of a couple of hundred billion stars that are located in one galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies, all of which are in one universe among perhaps an infinite number of universes all nestled within a grand cosmic multiverse, is provincially insular and anthropocentrically blinkered. Which is more likely? That the universe was designed just for us, or that we see the universe as having been designed just for us? ― Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design

It is crazy to postulate a trillion (causally unconnected) universes to explain the features of one universe, when postulating one entity (God) will do the job. —
Richard Swinburne, philosopher, Oxford University

As a theist, I am quite agnostic to the proposition of a multiverse and indeed open to the idea, which is currently untestable. What I observe is that people’s diverging positions about theism do not amount to their intelligence, education or their understanding of science, but to their worldview. I would argue that it is beneficial to science as a whole when people from differing backgrounds/worldviews come together to tackle scientific questions because they see the problem through a wider range of angles. To maximise the benefits of diversity, we must learn to value other perspectives instead of demonising or diminishing those who think differently.

Space-time, free will and purpose

In the next 2 posts, I would like to share some ideas that illustrate how my scientific training has influenced my reading and understanding of the bible. These thoughts are not confined to the realm of science (i.e. not testable) and I have taken creative liberties in my speculations. Furthermore, while some (probably most) of these ideas have been echoed by others in the past, the views expressed in the following posts are my own and do not represent those of the church or scientists as a whole. Also, as a scientist and a student of life, my understanding is fluid and may change with time as I get exposed to new evidence.

Whisper words of wisdom…

Let me start with a song: Psalm 139. This song was written by king David who reigned around 1000 BC. The psalm touches on the topics of God’s omnipresence (God is everywhere) and God’s seeming knowledge of the future. In particular, David’s song suggests God is aware of our every decisions before we even make them… for many, this raises concerns about our free will and agency in the world. If God knows everything we will do before we do it, what choices do we really have? And if we do not really have a choice, how can we be held accountable for our actions? I believe physics has some insights for this conundrum.

In the beginning…

In discussions of science and faith, the book of genesis is often a big can of worms. Many theologically trained people have provided well researched comments on genesis. I will not explore those right now, but I will reiterate that the bible is not a science textbook. In my (possibly simplistic) view, the bible is helpfully described as a compendium of books recounting the story of God and His people passed down (first orally then in writing) over many millenia. It has a mixture of literary styles and is best interpreted within its context (historical and cultural) and genre.

Genesis is chronologically the first (although probably not the first written) “book” in the modern bible, and it is itself a compendium of stories possibly written by multiple authors. There are many wisdom nuggets one can glean from genesis that underpin the Christian worldview (actually that of the major monotheistic religions). One important one, is the statement that God somehow made the universe (it actually says “the heavens and the Earth” [Genesis 1:1], which I interpret as meaning “the Earth and everything beyond it”). If God made the universe, it is logical to assume He is not of it. In fact, my interpretation (and that of many others before me) is that the bible suggests that such a God would be outside of space-time.

What happened before the Big Bang?

A common question I get asked when giving public lectures is “what happened before the Big Bang?” or some variation thereof. I quite like how some have explained that this is analogous to asking someone “where were you before you were conceived“? (Although there are some theories within which this question may be legitimate.) I like Stephen Hawking’s analogy also:

ONE CAN REGARD IMAGINARY AND REAL TIME AS BEGINNING IN THE SOUTH POLE, WHICH IS A SMOOTH POINT IN SPACE-TIME WHERE THE NORMAL LAWS OF PHYSICS HOLD. THERE IS NOTHING SOUTH OF THE SOUTH POLE, SO THERE WAS NOTHING AROUND BEFORE THE BIG BANG. — Stephen Hawking

According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, time is another dimension. We know of and observe 3 dimensions of space and one dimension of time. If modern theories like string theory are correct, there may be many more dimensions. I note that these theories are currently untestable, so I will stick to Einstein’s theories, which are incomplete, but well tested. As 3 dimensional beings embedded in the so-called 4 dimensional “space-time”, we perceive time as flowing, but Einstein’s equations tell us that time is another dimension. Actually, we still don’t understand the reason behind why time flows in a single direction (or the origin of the second law of thermodynamics), but that’s beyond the scope of this post. Suppose that God created the Earth and everything beyond it (i.e. space), and time is a dimension like the 3 dimensions of space, then it follows that God would also have created time.

God creating time has several interesting implications. First of all, He would be outside of time. So just like “what happened before the Big Bang”, questions about what God did *before* He created the universe don’t make sense because the word “before” is only meaningful in the context of time.

Famous physicist and atheist Stephen Hawking thought “the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing“. Many have objected that Hawkins doesn’t really mean nothing physically speaking here, but maybe that is a topic for a future post. Hawkins statement is a statement of faith by a (albeit famous and smart) scientist, not to be confused with a statement of science. Hawking believed nothing created itself, and to some that is less offensive than God creating everything. As you might guess, I agree to disagree on this point.

Also, if one accepts that God can be everywhere at once (omnipresent) as Psalm 139 suggests and time is a dimension, then it is reasonable that God is also “everywhen” (omnichronic, not sure this is even a word). In my experience, God’s omnipresence is broadly accepted within Christianity.

This also resolves the apparent contradiction of free will vs destiny/purpose. If God can be everywhen, we can still make decisions although whatever we decide is unlikely to surprise Him because he’s already “then”…

Well.. ’nuff said for today. I’m keen to have a conversation and curious to hear your respectful comments/thoughts on this topic.

PS: There are a few passages in the bible where God seemingly changes His mind following human intervention. A quick google will swiftly bring a list of contradictory verses about whether God can or cannot change His mind. Could the conflict again have something to do with limiting God within time?

PPS: A really nice visualisation of time as a dimension is found in the movie interstellar [featured image]. When Cooper (the protagonist) enters the black hole, he is able to float around between different time snapshots of his daughter’s bedroom. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s a good watch. This is one of my favourite scenes and shows time as another spatial dimension where Cooper is able to float freely back and forth between various times. I should explain that nobody really knows what happens inside a black hole because the laws of physics as we understand them do not hold inside black holes, so the movie took some artistic license there.

Image credit: The featured image is taken from here and is a snapshot of the movie Interstellar.

Am I not even wrong?

Uluru (Ayers Rock) in outback Australia where I am spending a week as the “astronomer in residence” answering questions from curious astronomy enthusiasts.

I am spending the week in Uluru (or Ayers Rock) in the Australian outback as astronomer in residence. It is one of the most amazing places I’ve had the privilege to visit. It has been a great time to reflect as 1) I’m alone a lot because I don’t really “know” anyone here; and 2) nature has a way to help me process and organise my thoughts.

Wisdom from Uluru

Reading about some of the aboriginal stories while I have been here has made me mindful. Aboriginal Australians boast the world’s oldest civilisation! Like discussing the size of the universe, it is humbling to let that fact sink in! I have read about some of the stories that locals teach their children based on the various features on the face of Uluru. Informative signs around the rock also instruct tourists like myself that these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the level of interpretation, and that deeper layers of meaning are revealed through storytelling as children grow up. These rock features and the stories they recount have been like scriptures, passed on through the generations over tens of thousands of years! No book could have survived that long, but this tradition of storytelling preserved the culture through millennia!

I also found that the stories, although meant for children, were extremely wise. They indicated that aboriginals care for the land that they journey on and endeavour to leave it better than they found it. For example, travellers would help the bush regenerate by carefully burning strategic areas of the bush before leaving each year to allow regeneration (seeds from many Australian plant species require fire to germinate). I think the world could learn a thing of two from this ancient wisdom… at the rate at which we are destroying planet Earth, I doubt we will even survive another millennium…

IT IS UP TO US TO LIVE UP TO THE LEGACY THAT WAS LEFT FOR US, AND TO LEAVE A LEGACY THAT IS WORTHY OF OUR CHILDREN AND OF FUTURE GENERATIONS –Christine Gregoire

Legacy

What legacy are we leaving for future generations? Will that legacy last 50,000 years?

In this day and age, we attach value to financial gain. Many funding agencies and universities now demand an economic return on their research investments. The merit of a scientific work is often associated to the number of times it is cited or referenced.

After submitting previous posts, I have eagerly (more-like obsessively) monitored my website stats to try and evaluate whether or not I was wasting my time writing all these ideas down. Very few people have read or responded, re-tweeted or liked my posts so far. At first this was disheartening, but then I realised that the ideas that matter most probably do not fit in a tweet… Sadly also, few people have the time to read long posts (it’s ok y’all, no hard feelings, I’m in the same boat)…

Of the 162,957 refereed astronomy papers published between 2010 and 2015, 131,335 of them have never been cited (NASA-ADS)! When I published my first paper, my masters thesis adviser said something I will never forget: “let’s hope the paper is not not-even-wrong”. He was referring to this staggering proportion of scientific work that go un-cited. At least if a paper is wrong, someone might care enough to debunk it, and give it one cite in the process…

But does the value of an idea match its number of likes, retweets or citations? Are all worthwhile pursuits inherently popular?

NOT EVERYTHING THAT COUNTS CAN BE COUNTED, AND NOT EVERYTHING THAT CAN BE COUNTED COUNTS — Albert Einstein

Van Gogh was never famous as a painter during his lifetime. Fermi’s seminal paper on weak interaction was rejected at first because “it contained speculations too remote from reality to be of interest to the reader” (that’s 1930’s wording for zero likes). These are but two examples of unpopular pursuits that left a legacy.

I have spent many years pondering the intersection between science and faith. I enjoy writing these thoughts down, it helps me to synthesise them. Even if it helps just one reader on his/her faith or scientific journey, it was worth my while!

One thing I do know…

converted PNM file
Colourful stellar nursery. Image credit: NASA

I’ve been agonising about this post for many months now. Thanks to Larry’s preaching up a storm (on John 9) last Sunday, I think I’ve finally found the words!

I did not grow up in a particularly religious family. We did go to church every so often for Easter or Christmas, and I also attended a catholic high school for 3 years. In other words, I was exposed to religion before coming to faith, but I did not buy it. I have no idea why one day the Christian narrative suddenly made sense… There was no lightbulb/fiery bush moment for me, just a penny dropping one day.

The apostle Peter wrote that we should always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in us. So here is my attempt at explaining the basis for my faith. This is not a proof.

Proof is a word which in English has several different meanings. And in its most rigorous sense you only get it in pure mathematics. Starting with a set of axioms, using an agreed system of logic coming to a conclusion. But you do not get that anywhere else outside of pure mathematics. Not even in the natural sciences. — Prof John Lennox (mathematician, Oxford University)

Scientists gather evidence and compute the probability of a hypothesis being correct given the evidence. As more evidence is collected and evaluated, our level of certainty (or doubt) in a hypothesis is updated accordingly.

After coming to faith, I looked for a church. A friend brought me to a pentecostal church that gathered on the campus of my university. It was a small congregation of very passionate believers. I did not understand the half of what was going on in that gathering, but I had a sense of peace. I had no idea what a pentecostal church even was to be honest. The people of that community were imperfect but real, loving and genuinely welcoming. Believers talked of things like miracles, speaking in tongues and the resurrection. I still don’t know all that much about how these things work, but one thing I do know, is that my life has never been the same!

Much of the evidence/events that underpin my faith could be dismissed as simple coincidences or confirmation bias. At some point however, too many “coincidences” become an untenable hypothesis and the most logical explanation is that there is a God. I think my life story is highly highly improbable without God.

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish. — David Hume

So… I don’t know a great many things about God, life, the universe and everything (or how 42 happens to be the answer really). One thing I do know, is that the evidence for God’s benevolence and presence in my life is overwhelming. This is where my hope lies.

Shake the dust off your feet

This post has been marinating for many months as I searched for the best angle to discuss this topic. It is probably going to be controversial, so please if you don’t want your toes stepped on, read the following with a willingness to move your foot.

 

In previous posts I have discussed how I have felt discriminated against by certain colleagues forcefully pushing their atheistic worldview on me. That said, I am very aware that Christians are not without blame when it comes to pushing their worldview either.

Why are we doing this to each other? Whatever happened to the golden rule?

DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO UNTO YOU — Jesus Christ (Mat 7:12)

The above is the Christian version, but this reciprocity principle is found in most major religions and ancient civilisations. I guess there are few such near universal principles, so my hunch is that there is a lot of substance to this ancient wisdom. Unfortunately, it’s opposite: double standard, is far too common. For example, allowing discrimination against LGBTQIA people on the basis of religious freedom is a double standard. If you don’t want to be discriminated against, do not discriminate!

It is not the majority of respectful believers/atheists who are most remembered, but the few extremist protesters harassing patients outside abortion clinics, shooting into a crowd of Christmas shoppers or significant spokespeople of questionable ethics. This makes perfect sense scientifically because our brains are wired to focus on the negative. This is great news for our survival, but maybe not so much for our mental health or societal cohesion. As a friend put it: “in order to survive, we need to focus not on the cute puppy on the other side of the street, but on the cars as we cross”. The problem is that even when it is not a question of life or death, we still focus on our differences rather than our commonalities.

I recently shared that I experienced religious discrimination in academia in response to a comment on an article in The Conversation entitled “Why Australia needs a Religious Discrimination Act”. An atheist reader had commented that she had never witnessed religious discrimination and that in her experience, it was Christians who were pushy. Not surprising, as it is usually pushy disagreeable people who are most remembered. Obviously, discrimination is not a one-way street… Another reader replied to my comment by saying: “If people kept their religiosity and personal belief systems choices PRIVATE, as they should be, none of this [discrimination] would be possible.” This same sentiment was also echoed in the recent debate about religious symbols in the public sector in Quebec. Making religion a taboo is not the answer.

For many years, I did try to keep my faith private and operated as a sort of “undercover Christian” in academic circles, but this led to significant anxiety and a lot of guilt due to my feeling of hypocrisy. My faith is part of my identity, so it cannot easily be repressed. Telling someone to keep their religion private is no different from telling someone to keep their sexual orientation, gender or culture private. Anybody else seeing the double standard here? It is ridiculous to think that my faith would never come up outside of home. Should I avoid introducing my Church friends to my work colleagues? Should I also lie about where I was on Sunday morning when asked by a non-Christian?

I think what we need is not to hide who we are, but to learn to accept that others will not agree with us and that it’s ok. Those who know me well know I am an open book, so for me  being undercover is an untenable option. Christians are called to share their faith, not shove it down people’s throat or harass them. Jesus himself said that if people reject him, we are to “shake the dust off our feet” (Mat 10:14). In other words, other people’s choices and identity are not your responsibility. As Rob Bell so eloquently says:

YOU CAN’T TAKE PEOPLE WHERE THEY DON’T WAN’T TO GO — Rob Bell

so please stop trying…

 

Featured image: Dust lanes in galaxy NGC 7049. Credit: NASA, ESA/Hubble and W. Harris (McMaster University, Ontario, Canada)

When worldviews collide

I am deeply saddened and worried by certain posts that have been filling my social media feeds these days. It seems we have lost our capacity to respectfully disagree. Both in Quebec, where I grew up, and in Australia, where I currently live, worldviews have been clashing on the political scene. Sadly, these collisions are leaving behind a trail of hurt that could take a long time to mend. The repercussions on these diverse societies are profound. Authoritative imposition of a given worldview prevents public discussions of ideas, but the latter underpins democracy…

While I do not wish to have a debate on these issues now, I do want to point out that the way they are discussed, especially on social media, is very toxic. How can we instead foster respect and inclusion when worldviews collide?

I have had countless pleasant disagreements at the intersection between science and faith. By pleasant disagreement, I mean a conversation that despite disagreeing sometimes profoundly both parties left the conversation feeling heard and valued. What made those discussions pleasant? Conversely, unpleasant disagreements usually involved some unfair dismissal of someone’s views.

I DISAPPROVE OF WHAT YOU SAY, BUT I WILL DEFEND TO DEATH YOUR RIGHT TO SAY IT — Evelyn Beatrice Hall

Two axioms

There are two simple axioms I take as self-evident to justify why I personally try to not dismiss anyone off hand.

First axiom: “nobody knows everything”. I cannot prove this, but I believe it to be true. If we accept this axiom, then logically: 1. I don’t know everything, and 2. others don’t know everything.

It also follows that there is potential for two people to actually learn something and benefit intellectually from each other on topics where their knowledge may not intersect.

Second axiom: “nobody has proven or disproven the existence of God”. I guess people have vastly different ideas about who/what “God” is and some look at the same piece of evidence and come to opposing conclusions. Even my own understanding has changed as my relationship with the divine, christianity, the bible and science have evolved and matured over the years. So although mutually exclusive, both “God exists” and “God doesn’t exist” require faith, neither is proven fact. The only position that doesn’t require faith is agnosticism.

I also note that christians don’t always agree with other christians (this is also true of scientists). I think this is normal and perfectly healthy. By axiom 1, if there is a God who created everything, and nobody knows everything, it follows that nobody fully knows God. In other words, if God created everything, he/she/it cannot fit inside a box (or book) small enough to be fully understood by human thought.

My recipe for pleasant disagreements

Sifting through my memories, I have identified 4 ingredients that I think foster pleasant disagreements. As usual, these ideas stem from my experience (so far) and may not apply to everyone. As with cookbooks, feel free to experiment, substitute ingredients and improve as you see fit to make it your own. I also note that these ideas easily apply to any discussion on a contentious issue.

First ingredient: humility

One thing that both scientists and christians usually agree on is that there are facts and truth. Since nobody knows everything, it is possible others may know something I don’t know. In fact, I know others know many things I don’t know as I learn from others daily. While it is unproductive to argue about a fact, it is perfectly reasonable for two people to hold contradictory opinions based on their separate knowledge, experience and interpretation/thought process. So even when disagreeing, one may learn something from the other person’s viewpoint.

Second ingredient: stick to the arguments

… or “don’t make it personal.” In other words, if you disagree, offer a valid counter-argument or simply say why you disagree. I think it is common practice to discredit witnesses in court in order to invalidate their testimony, but a discussion isn’t a trial or a debate to be won. In my previous post, I highlighted that many arguments against scientists of faith are logical fallacies, these should be avoided.

Furthermore, assuming someone needs rescuing, is brainwashed, immature or stupid sets up a false hierarchy where one person feels that somehow their thought process is superior. A conversation is moot under such patronising assumptions.

Third ingredient: embrace the tension

As a young christian, a fellow believer once explained to me that the bible is full of grey areas. Many years later, I am still unpacking the multiple layers of this very wise statement. Likewise, for most of life’s problems, there isn’t a simple right or wrong answer; there is a spectrum of grey possibilities. The same is true with worldviews: there is sometimes no way to determine which (if any) is right, yet we all believe our own is somehow better. What’s more, people evolve. The same approach may work one day, but not the next day (those of you reading this who have raised children know exactly what I mean). I have learned to embrace the grey areas of life as opportunities for growth.

Fourth ingredient: empathy

Pleasant disagreements for me have usually involved (care)full listening, a willingness to see the matter from each other’s perspective and open acknowledgement of the other’s thought process. We don’t necessarily agree with every decision that has led to a given conclusion, but it is helpful to retrace the logic behind it. Simple affirmations like: “I hear you” or “I get it” validate the other’s experience. This usually leaves room to respectfully explore other possibilities together. I found statements like “have you thought of…” or “what if…” are good ways to open up respectful discussions.

I’d like to hear from you. Please let me know if you agree, disagree or would like to add something, I welcome all respectful comments on this blog.

DISAGREEMENT IS SOMETHING NORMAL — Dalai Lama

Featured image credit for this post: NASA, Holland Ford (JHU), the ACS Science Team and ESA https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/heic0206b/

the “great rift” is a logical fallacy

There is undeniably a fierce debate between the fundamentalist ends of the religious and humanist spectra. In my experience, extreme voices on either side of the rift are a minority, yet they are drowning the moderate viewpoints. In his book (which I admit I haven’t read), Michael E. Hobart refers to the apparent  conflict between science and religion as the “great rift”.

But is this great rift real? Are science and religion really mutually exclusive?

Before delving into this, let me put out a disclaimer. While I am trained in mathematics, physics and astronomy, I have no formal theological training and I’ve mostly looked into christianity…  So if there are readers out there who are more versed in theology and would like to weigh in on anything I say, that would be most welcome! I have spent many years wrestling with questions of science and faith and my thinking has greatly evolved over the years. For that reason, I think it likely that, say 10 years from now, there could be parts of this blog that I will no longer agree with. After all, “only fools and dead men don’t change their mind” (John H. Patterson). With that said, let’s get on with it!

When I took Philosophy 101 in college, our lecturer taught us to recognise some of the most common logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are invalid arguments that often sound convincing but prove nothing.

Here are some commonly used in the science vs faith “debate” (to name a few).

1- Personal attack (ad hominem): when someone attacks the person instead of their argument. Discrediting or questioning the motives of a person doesn’t disprove his/her argument.

2- Appeal to ignorance: because nobody has proven something (e.g. the existence of God), it doesn’t mean that it is not true. Conversely, if nobody has disproven something, it doesn’t mean it is true.

3- Generalisation: this is a bit like stereotyping and usually starts something like “all christians […]”. It only takes one counter-example to disprove a generalised statement. Generalisations are extremely hard to prove and very easy to refute.

4- False dichotomy: this occurs when an argument is unnecessarily polarised. For example, “there are two types of people, those who love cats and those who hate animals”. Clearly there are other positions one could hold.

5- The straw man: this logical fallacy is a bit more subtle. Think of someone attacking an argument that the other person was not even defending in the first place. Here’s a common objection to the “scientific” validity of the bible: “the bible says pi = 3”! My first reaction to this comment is “wow, that’s amazing!” Seriously, rather than cast doubt on the validity of the bible, I think it is pretty close given the historical context and intention of the Old Testament! The bible is not (and never claimed to be) a mathematics textbook is it?

Let’s evaluate some common statements and see how they stack up logically.

The first is one I have too often encountered: “Christians are stupid […]”. Is this true? Three simple words commit two of the above logical fallacies: ad hominem and generalisation. The statement that christians are stupid is easily disproved by finding one intelligent christian. Let’s pick one of the founders of modern cosmology: Georges Lemaître.

Actually, let’s digress a bit because this is a fun story. As evidence for the Big Bang theory was mounting in the 1950s, the catholic authorities stated that the fact that the universe had a beginning was aligned with the biblical narrative of creation. A position that was recently echoed by Pope Francis. Ironically, this same theory is also touted as counter-evidence of the same tenet! There’s been some back and forth on this topic, but the important point here is that two people can look at the same piece of evidence and come to opposite conclusions…

I recently attended an astronomy conference. During his/her talk, a fellow astronomer said that visiting observatory X (which I shall not name to preserve anonymity) “is the closest thing to a spiritual experience you’ll ever have as an astronomer”. Few attendees seemed to react to this (I assume unintendedly) loaded statement, which carried the underlying assumption that no-one in this very large audience had ever had or would ever have a spiritual experience. The speaker’s statement was an unproven generalisation. I’m an astronomer and I have had plenty of spiritual experiences, therefore the statement is easily falsified by one counter-example.

How about this one: “one cannot both be a scientist and have faith”? This is again a generalisation, which is really easy to disprove! Can you think of one believer scientist? How about yours truly? Not enough? Let’s go to town! Back in 2009, a survey showed that 51% of the scientists in the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe in “God or a higher power”. The proportion of scientists who ascribe to a faith of some description was found to vary geographically across the globe, with over “half of scientists in India, Italy, Taiwan and Turkey self-identify[ing] as religious” (Elaine Howard Ecklund).

Need I say more to prove that one can be both a scientist and a person of faith? For good measure and for the benefit of those who are new to wrestling with this idea, let me throw in the names of (some) contemporaries who are vocal scientists of faith:

And may I also add

  • Mike McArgue (Science Mike), who is not a trained scientist by his own admission, but a great scientific mind (IMHO) and advocate for science and faith.

These are but a few examples of the people who inspire me and have had an influence in my life as both a christian and a scientist.

Interestingly, non-religious people are more likely to think there is a conflict between science and faith than believers. Might there be a lack of understanding of what it actually means to be religious or have faith amongst non-religious people?

So is it true that science and religion cannot coexist? Clearly for a significant fraction of professional scientists, they do! It only takes one counter-example to disprove the point. Therefore, one needs not choose between science and faith, this is a false dichotomy. There is no need to give up one’s faith to do science and there is no need to give up science to encounter spirituality. The great rift is a (actually two) logical fallacy(ies)! QED

I DON’T HATE ON “BOTH SIDES” TO FEEL SUPERIOR. I COULD FEEL SUPERIOR ON EITHER SIDE. I HATE “BOTH SIDES” TO SHOW THEM THAT THERE ARE MORE THAN TWO SIDES. ― T. J. KIRK (A.K.A. THE AMAZING ATHEIST)