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Faith and Science: A Personal View

March 9, 2009 on 3:55 pm | In Politics, Q & A, cosmology |

There are a lot of people reporting, right now, on the new memo that President Obama has just signed about science, stem cell research, and his administration’s policy:

Obama said scientific decisions should be based on facts, not ideology. He said advisers should be selected based on their credentials and experience, not their politics.

Now, there are very vocal opinions on both sides of this issue, and as you would suspect, I think that in matters of scientific research, every scientist must live with their own conscience, but that science exists to serve humanity, and the research we’re doing will doubtlessly serve to have a positive impact on mankind. Once one major cure or treatment comes out of stem cell research, whether it’s for cancer, Alzheimer’s, or diabetes, I think that the debate over stem cell research will subside when it’s clear that the benefits to doing it can be so substantial.

But instead of looking at it from an economic perspective, or even from an ethical perspective (I’m still tired from doing that last week), I’d like to look at the deeper, underlying issue: whether people can come closer to realizing truths about existence from either faith or science. I also think it’s worth asking yourself, at the end, whether there’s even a right or wrong answer to this.

So rather than talk about stem cell research, I’m going to address perhaps the most interesting question of all: the very question of our Universe’s existence. My friend Brian has a cousin who is a baptist minister, and today’s question comes from him, via YouTube:

Did the Universe have a beginning? …it seems that most cosmologists do believe that the Universe had a beginning. If this is true, and you believe this, then please explain how you, in your mind, resolve the idea of something coming from nothing, uncaused.

Now, let’s start with a little scientific information about the Universe itself. We turn our eyes, telescopes, detectors, instruments, and brains towards the tiniest subatomic particles and to the farthest reaches of the heavens to learn about it, and to listen to what it tells us about itself. (Semantics: I’m going to define our Universe, for this discussion, as consisting of every single particle and every little bit of space and time ever conceivably connected to us, either visibly or invisibly.) Here’s a basic rundown:

  1. The Universe is big. It isn’t infinite, though, it’s finite in size, at about 94 billion light years from end-to-end.
  2. The Universe is old. If you took the longest-lived thing ever on Earth and gave it 10,000 lifetimes in a row, it would be only about 2% as old as our Sun and Earth are. The Universe is “only” about three times as old as our Solar System is.
  3. The Universe has a lot of stuff in it. About 1,000,000,000,000 stars in each galaxy, and about 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the whole Universe. Considering each particle of matter and energy as a separate entity, there are about 1090 particles in the entire Universe.

All of this, combined, tells us that our Universe is tremendously large, tremendously old, and full of an incredible amount of stuff. It is truly vast. However, all of it is finite, including the amount of information in it. Does that imply that there’s an intelligent force outside of it that created it?

No. It doesn’t tell us that this isn’t the case, either. But it does tell us something profound about science; specifically, it tells us something about the theoretical limits of science. Let me give you an analogy, the exploding grenade:

If you watch the individual fragments of a grenade during (or even after) an explosion, because you know the laws of physics and how a grenade works, you can figure out where the grenade exploded, how powerful the explosion was, and what the grenade was made out of just based on what you see. You can even tell, if you’re extremely careful and understand the physics of grenade explosions really well, how quickly and in what direction the grenade was moving when it exploded.

But what you can’t tell, based on looking only after the fact, is how the pin got pulled, and by whom or what.

So, my contention is that if we want to know about the Universe, the best source we have is to look to the Universe itself, and see what it tells us. But if we want to know what caused the Universe, although there are things we can definitely learn a number of things about it, our total amount of possible scientific knowledge is limited by the amount of information available. For instance, we are mounting evidence and may be able to someday prove that cosmological inflation caused the Big Bang to happen, and created our Universe. But then you could ask, “what caused or created the inflating Universe that gave rise to ours?” Again, we can come up with some ideas about it, and possibly some signatures to look for (although there are presently no good ideas), but at some point, you run out of information. It isn’t that something came from nothing; it’s that something came, period. We simply don’t have enough information to say that it came either from nothing or from something else. And we certainly don’t have enough information to determine what the dynamics were that caused it to come into being in the first place.

When you have no information, science is useless. And at that point, all you have left is logic and reason, and those are your only weapons against the darkness of ignorance. Science can get us far, can get us so much further than we’ve ever been before, but even science has its limits. And hence, to the many atheists that read this site, I encourage you to respect the religious beliefs of others while steadfastly standing by the scientific truths that we have discovered to be valid and factual.

We ought to all be above petty bickering here, as I think everyone is seeking to understand our Universe’s very existence, and hence we must use all of the available tools. I encourage you to recognize that religious studies can be a logical, rational pursuit as well, and that both science and religion have limits to the truths they can uncover. This one in contention here — what brought the Universe forth into existence — is still obscure to all of us.


17 Comments »

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  1. I have no problem respecting people with religious beliefs - probably I’m weird, prejudiced and irrational too, in more ways than one. But I can’t really respect the beliefs themselves. Just because there are limits to the answers science can provide, it doesn’t follow that any old patriarchical nomad religion that one happens to be born into is even remotely acceptable from a rational perspective. On the contrary, we know that it isn’t.

    Comment by jeppen — March 9, 2009 #

  2. Nice response, Ethan. I like the grenade analogy. Science and faith operate in separate spheres that are not necessarily incompatible. Religion (as opposed to faith) is another matter since literal interpretation of dogma can contradict science (e.g., universe created in 7 days, etc.). You’re right that both groups should respect each other.

    Comment by Brian — March 10, 2009 #

  3. I appreciate your comments on the subject. However, I’m not seeing another option aside from an infinite regress of finite causes or “something from nothing”. Perhaps you could help me there. I have another question: Why do we have to refer to religion and science as “groups” as if they are utterly distinguishable? I know of several scientists who are quite religious.

    Comment by Robert — March 10, 2009 #

  4. Jeppen, religion is a lot more to many people than a creation story. While I agree that the scientific story of creation has superseded all of the old religious ones, it does not mean that the “old nomad religions” are without value to many of their adherents.

    Brian, I like the grenade analogy, too! Thanks for showing me your cousin’s video.

    Robert, thanks for joining the discussion here. What you’re asking of me is a huge order: to tell you what all of the options are in a realm completely outside of all of the experience of the natural world. You’ve conceived reasonably of two options: an infinite regress of finite causes or “something from nothing,” which is really a finite regress of finite causes. It’s inconceivable to us, in our experience, that something could happen uncaused. And yet, at least at the quantum level (the extremely small level), things appear to happen uncaused all the time. In the quantum world, the following things happen: balls at rest at the bottom of hills spontaneously roll uphill, birds in cages spontaneously find themselves outside of the cage (with the cage unchanged), and matter that never existed spontaneously springs into existence, stealing the energy it needs to exist from space itself. These are analogies, as they don’t work for real balls and real birds, but they do work for tiny quantum particles, and they apply to every single quantum particle.

    When you hear the word “singularity,” you think that it must’ve come from somewhere. But when I hear it, a little bell goes off in my head telling me that things are energetic enough, dense enough, and small enough that these quantum rules are now important. Which means that things happen without a deterministic cause. So, I’ll grant you that it’s true that we can’t conceive of something happening on a very large (non-quantum) scale without a finite cause in our world today. But when our entire Universe was on a quantum scale, it’s very conceivable that whatever happened to cause its existence happened uncaused.

    I do place religion and science into separate groups; a scientific theory, a scientific process, and a scientific endeavor are completely separate enterprises from anything religious. Science requires physical evidence. Religion not only doesn’t require physical evidence, it requires the exact opposite: faith in the absence of conclusive evidence. Now, my viewpoints on religion are twofold, and they’re personal.

    First, in terms of a moral code, an ethical code, in helping people find meaning and purpose in their lives, in terms of compelling people to be forces for good in this world, religion has the power to be a tremendous force for good in the world. Personally, I have borrowed small aspects of what makes something right, good, or best from a variety of religions, but I have found that my own mind is far superior for helping me live well in my life than any code ever put forth by any religion I’ve ever been exposed to. However, sheep often need a shepherd, and I recognize the utility and importance of religions on that front. I suppose my personal conclusion is that I make a lousy sheep. I always have.

    The second thing that I view about religion is the question of the existence of God. When I was a small child, perhaps inspired by the burning bush story, the picture I had in my head of God was a giant whose body was on fire with his back turned towards me, who looked a lot like my dad. That is to say, I no longer believe that, and although it may be cute, it isn’t rational. Now, science can tell us many things about the Universe, just as it can tell us many things about that grenade. But it can’t tell us whether the number of causes are finite or infinite, or whether anything happened uncaused. Similarly, if you can only see the grenade after the explosion, you can’t know who pulled the pin, or even if it’s possible that there never was a pin at all. This is an instance where even looking at all the evidence around you, even looking at all the evidence that exists, it is not possible to draw a scientific conclusion, and here, it is reasonable to use the tools of logic and rationality, as well as the knowledge about our Universe that we have, to try to make sense of it all. Personally, I look at all the order in the Universe and how intricately all of the forces of nature, how the fundamental constants are balanced, and I am forced to conclude that there must have been some force, some cause that gave rise to it. That’s my personal view of what God is. It may be some 5-dimensional kid with a chemistry set, or some omnipotent mad scientists with a bunch of dials who created us, or it may just be a law of nature outside of the ones we understand, but whatever it is, we don’t have a name for it, and I think “God” is the most appropriate one we have for it.

    Comment by ethan — March 10, 2009 #

  5. While I understand the very real religous (or spiritual) mentality, i.e. the feeling that there is some greater than self “other” that pervades most of the worlds religions, the absoluteness claimed by some of them is little more than arrogance and hubris. In particular, the Abramic religions seem to evidence an egoistical political yearning, i.e. the yearning for the “I” write large that has access to the ultimate power and truth originating from some father figure creator who provides “me” with the right to impose “my” will on all else. By positing this creator and claiming a special relationship to him, the believer is given license to claim that because “it is His will” I may do anything I wishe without reason or regard to effects on anything else. Thus, this “first cause” becomes essential to ultimate political empowerment.

    In the sciences, the “first cause” problem exists only for a “big bang” model of the universe that makes no attempt to postulate possible pre big bang conditions. There exist many cosmological models e.g. steady state, continuous creation, curvature, colliding branes, Lynds “clock face” model, other “bouncing universe” models, etc., for which a first cause is irrelevant because the universe is seen as either eternal, or time itself continually resets, or time is not a fundamental parameter at all. It may, of course, be argued that many of these models are not scientific because they are not falsifiable (at least not as originally formulated). We cannot, however, assume that all such models will remain unfalsifiable, perhaps we have overlooked something, somewhere, either in our observations, or in our modeling, that will provide real evidence that the universe either began at some inexplicable point time, or that it simply is. There no advantage to assuming the existence of some uncreated universe creator over assuming the existence of an uncreated universe.

    Comment by Tim E — March 10, 2009 #

  6. I encourage you to recognize that religious studies can be a logical, rational pursuit as well,

    Unfortunately it seems to me that it is logical and rational in exactly the same way as Mornington Crescent and Oxford Mao are.

    Comment by Sili — March 10, 2009 #

  7. Robert,
    Ethan gave a nice response to your questions, but I wanted to weigh in on them too. First, just because some scientists are religious doesn’t mean that science and religion as ways of knowing overlap. They don’t. Science relies solely on evidence to test hypotheses. Religion does not require evidence at all and instead encourages faith in belief of things that cannot be proven scientifically. I agree that one can be a scientist and be religious as well, but the two worldviews are necessarily distinct.
    Your original question on the origin of the universe was answered pretty well by Ethan. Basically, he’s saying that as far as we can tell the universe is finite in space and time. It had a beginning. The part that perhaps you tend to overlook is that the quantum laws of science apply to things compressed into small scales like singularities. They’re very wacky, but experiments over and over again confirm them. Thus, our normal ideas of causation don’t really apply on the small scales, especially those with high energies like the Big Bang. Quantum physics is something I encourage you to learn more about because many people who study it have seen connections between it and spirituality.
    As could be expected in a discussion of this type, I’m not surprised to see some debate on whether there is or can be a God. That’s not really something you asked in your original question, though. Ethan said it very well when he wrote: “Personally, I look at all the order in the Universe and how intricately all of the forces of nature, how the fundamental constants are balanced, and I am forced to conclude that there must have been some force, some cause that gave rise to it. That‚Äôs my personal view of what God is.” Maybe God is some being outside our normal universe who set up our universe so that life could exist. Maybe there is just a law of nature we haven’t discovered yet that could also account for these things. That’s the mystery.

    Comment by Brian — March 10, 2009 #

  8. Ethan, of course religion is of value to some of its adherents. So is alcohol or even LSD. But on the whole, these things are not really sound. Users flee reality and the need to deal with issues that hinders them to experience the same happiness unaided and without self-delusion. Furthermore, they all damage systems/cultures around them, as Steven Pinker recently pointed out in the case of religion:

    “Jerry Coyne applies rigorous standards of logic and evidence to the claims of religion and to the attempts to reconcile it with science. Many scientists who share his atheism still believe that he is somehow being rude or uncouth for pressing the point. But he is right to do so. Knowledge is a continuous fabric, in which ideas are connected to other ideas. Reason-free zones, in which people can assert arbitrary beliefs safe from ordinary standards of evaluation, can only corrupt this fabric, just as a contradiction can corrupt a system of logic, allowing falsehoods to proliferate through it.”

    Comment by jeppen — March 11, 2009 #

  9. The problem is often not religion per se, but specific religions, which make assertions about testable objective facts. You can be as respectful as you like, but when someone makes the assertion that the Earth is 6,000 years old, and then begins drawing conclusions from that “fact”, you can’t just go along with it.

    I do believe that religion and science can coexist, but religion needs to understand that its place is not to tell people what is; its place is to tell people what ought to be. There, of course, science has nothing to say. As Obama also pointed out, these scientific advisors are there to ensure that policy makers are well informed, not to make policy themselves. Science alone cannot do that. Science can tell you, “If you do A, X will happen, and if you do B, Y will happen,” but it can’t tell you whether X or Y is more desirable.

    And what applies to religion applies to politics…

    The reason it was such a problem in the last administration was that they wouldn’t take the above statement and then say, “We choose Y.” They’d lie about what A and B would cause so that whichever they wanted to do sounded more desirable to more people. It was dishonest science, but not for its own sake - for the sake of dishonest policy-making.

    So if a scientist said, “Hey, more CO2 might cause more climate change,” instead of replying, “Well, we think the economic costs are greater than the environmental costs,” they’d say, “No, CO2 won’t cause more climate change!” If it was, “Stem cell research might lead to a cure for these diseases,” they’d not say, “We think it’s more important not to destroy embryos, which we see as living people,” but instead, “No, you can’t cure anything with that stuff!”

    That Obama is willing to listen to scientists and make informed decisions is actually separate from his differences in policy with the Bush administration. It just so happens that I generally agree with Obama’s policies, but anyone of any political bent is well-served by making properly informed decisions.

    Comment by benhead — March 11, 2009 #

  10. I will bookmark this blog, because of this post, and the subsequent intelligent discussion…thank you!

    Comment by Justin — March 19, 2009 #

  11. I really enjoyed your blog and so I wanted to attaced the following in hopes that it will help bring more joy to the lives of your readers.

    “Life With Woody” 10 inspirational quotes than can improve yourself

    It might take a little coffee or probably a few rounds of beer or any other booze you could get your hands on when it comes to relaxing after a hard day’s work. Well, yeah I’m guilty about that one as well, unless I’m caught dead wearing a lampshade over my head after a few rounds of vodka‚Ķ half-naked! Okay, bad example and I apologize to everyone reading this after getting nightmares about me in that state of drunken stupor.

    Just don’t ask how it happened, please.

    But what’s really interesting is that how do people go through the usual part of life when faced with vein-popping stress? I mean, the new age thing like Zen or yoga is one of the good things and it actually works. Is there room for the intellectual side of people who can actually smell the roses-in-a-can while on the move? It kind of had me thinking that there really must be something in this ‘mind-over-matter’ thing.

    Humor is indeed the best medicine there is whenever you are. I mean anyone can pay good money to listen to a comedian just to make you wet your pants after laughing so hard. Despite of what’s been happening, and to those who has gone though the ordeal, it’s better to just laugh while facing the troubles with a clear mind than anger with a clouded vision. One of my favorite celebrities of all time may have to be Woody Allen. Now this is one guy who gives you the in-your-face bluntness that he pulls out with gusto, even without even trying. You can talk just about anything with a man, and he’s bound to mock the subject and you’ll end up laughing rather than being upset about it.

    Woody Allen has this to say:

    1. “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” It sounds good to me, I mean the practicality of all things does involve money but it doesn’t have to take an arm and a leg to get it.

    2. “I believe there is something out there watching us. Unfortunately, it’s the government.” ‘Nuff said.

    3. “There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?” This happens to be one of the classic ones. I mean the issue about life’s little problems isn’t all that bad, until ‘he’ shows up.

    Sure, relationships can get complicated, or does have its complications that probably any author about relationships is bound to discover it soon. We follow what our heart desires, unless you’re talking about the heart as in the heart that pump blood throughout your body.

    4. “Love is the answer, but while you’re waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty interesting questions.” And if you want more, just keep on asking!

    5. “A fast word about oral contraception. I asked a girl to go to bed with me, she said ‘no’.” It sounds, ‘practical’, I think.

    And when it comes to everyday life, he really knows how to make the best out of every possible scenario, and it doesn’t involve a lawsuit if he strikes a nerve.

    6. “Basically my wife was immature. I’d be at home in the bath and she’d come in and sink my boats.” I never had a boat in my bathtub before. Just staring at it while soaking in hot water makes me seasick already.

    7. “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” If it rains, it pours.

    8. “I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.” It could get worse when you’re guzzling on beer‚Ķ or mouthwash, and it happened to me once!

    9. “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” At least he doesn’t smite us with lightning, and I’m thankful for that.

    And despite of what may happen to all of us in the next ten, twenty, or even thirty years, I guess we all have to see things in a different kind of light and not just perspective. I can’t seem to imagine life without any piece of wisdom that could guide us. Whether we’re religious or not, it takes more courage to accept your fears and learn how to deal with them is all that matters when it comes to even just getting along.

    And to sum things up, here is the last nugget of wisdom to go by… however, whenever, and wherever we may be.

    10. “The talent for being happy is appreciating and liking what you have, instead of what you don’t have.”

    Ciao!

    Comment by Michael — May 27, 2009 #

  12. We know not only God is unvisible, but many things else. Perhaps atheists see things by eyes only, not heart and mind. In fact our eyes cant even see virus, bacteria or microbs unaided. We can’t see electricity, radio frequencies, gravity force, electron, atom,satan, angels. My question is: Do not them all exist? We take this to ponder:
    The evil acts of voodoo. A shaman read his mantra some 5 kilometres away, suddently his victim here collapses. Can science explain to us this unseen mechanism, how it works; can scientists bring his microscope to see that mechanism ? My second question is: Doesn’t it EXIST ? You CANNOT use your science lab or microscope to see God ! He can see you..but you cant see him.

    How about telepathy ? For example I’m remebering my friend in Africa now, at this moments…he also ‘accidently’ remembering me at the same time. Do I unkowingly communicate via cosmic aided mechanism or else? Doesn’t it (telepathy, hypnotism etc) exist ? Can science see it (the mechanism of tetepathy, hypnotism etc)in lab ? Doesn,t they exist ? In fact thousand of things around us (not only God) that really exist.. but..we CAN,T se them.

    Comment by Nasaei Ahmad — June 22, 2009 #

  13. Science can’t tell me anything about what’s really important to me: love, happiness, (natural) beauty, meaningfulness. Science did, for a while, appeal to my brain (it feels good to feel smart), but once I saw that it really is a dead end, I wised up…

    Now I feel much better.

    So, what’s so great about science?

    Comment by Ronald — May 17, 2010 #

  14. I was very pleased to find this website. I wanted to thank you for your time for this wonderful post!! I definitely enjoy reading it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you blog post.

    Comment by real estate nashville — June 14, 2011 #

  15. I would like to point out my affection for your kind-heartedness supporting people that must have guidance on your area of interest.

    Comment by Bryce Fortna — September 6, 2011 #

  16. […] Fonte: Starts with a bang […]

    Pingback by Religi√£o, ci√™ncia e arte: em busca de uma sociedade equilibrada « Sociologia Pol√≠tica — July 27, 2012 #

  17. Got my first letter yesterday! Loved it. I feel like I’m a element of something great that is definitely just starting to happen. Feeling a strange sense of community around it all. Maybe you’re on to something here! Who would have ever considered that people today would actually print out words on paper just to have it sent with the mail to another person’s mailbox. Next thing you know, peoe is going to be growing their own food and walking or riding bikes everywhere. It’ll never work, damn progress.

    Comment by Vilma Brisendine — October 14, 2013 #

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