Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Orthodox Religions and Natural Science in the Modern Age

I am trained as a physicist. Over the years I have kept up with the scholarly literature in theology and 

in natural science about the relationship of religion and natural science. Natural science provides an 

an account of mechanism, while theology provides an account of purpose and meaning. That Genesis

provides an account of the creation of the world in six days, say, can be shown to be a remarkable 

account of social structure (Edmund Leach). That astroparticle physics can provide an account of the

origin of our universe initiated by the Big Bang, shows a parallel among the elementary particles and

the stages in the Big Bang's cooling down in the first three minutes.  There is a substantial 

theological and philosophical and poetic literature that suggests that God stands outside of time. 

The best modern accounts of biological evolution incorporate how organisms form ecological

niches, and so evolution is surely influenced by those organisms' capacity to self-organize (whether

or not consciously, for pattern formation does not need an organizer). 

The blog passage below compares the faith of literal believers in the Hebrew Bible with the beliefs of

natural scientists. It should be noted that theologians have long argued about how to read the Hebrew

Bible, and a literal reading has never been ascendent--for it is the meaning of the Bible's text proves

crucial, not its proposed mechanisms. And in fact, natural scientists have thought long and hard 

about how something can come out of nothing, how what we call consciousness might arise from 

matter we take as not conscious, and  how nonliving matter might be a source for living matter. For 

example, you have to think hard about what you mean by nothing, and what you mean by something

if you want to make sense of the problem. You need to understand that what we call time

is not a tick-tock clock but the path of physical processes. To ask about what was there before time,

makes little sense until you have a notion of what was there that could mark time before.

If one believes that the Hebrew Bible's account of Genesis is true, surely that is a matter of faith, a

wonderful human capacity. If one believes that the astroparticle physicist's account of the origin of

 the universe is correct, that is a matter that might well be corrected by future discoveries 

in astronomy and particle physics--but for the moment it does account for many of the deepest

questions that have concerned us for millennia. Genesis is true because it gives an account of society, 

the Big Bang would seem to be true since it gives an account of our universe and what we see and 

detect. [By the way, there is lots of argument about the mechanism of that Big Bang, what is called

inflation, but most of us will have to let the physicists & astronomers do their work and find out if it 

holds up (my impression is that it holds up reasonably well, but interesting experimental results

are likely to be found in the next five years). I like to keep faith for religious commitments, while

natural scientific commitments are best described as variously well attested to. To have faith in 

natural science or in the Los Angeles Lakers strikes me as misplaced. 

By the way, the use of magic in the next paragraph is very interesting. Magic is the fact that words we say make the world happen. As far as I can tell, neither the religious realm nor the natural scientific realms are readily subject to magic, unless that magic is canonical.

First, the notion of the “big bang” reflects the premise that the universe began when, all of a sudden, everything came into existence out of nothing, with no explanation of how this happened or where it all came from.  Second, the story of the evolution of life on this planet reflects the initial premise that inorganic material – the primordial soup – spontaneously gave rise to organic entities, with no explanation of how non-living matter can, all on its own, suddenly become alive.  Third, this perspective assumes that consciousness emerged along with increasingly sophisticated nervous systems and brains, with no explanation of how organic matter develops a capacity for cognition and information processing.  These three claims – that the whole universe magically emerged out of nothing, that organic life magically emerged out of inorganic chemicals, and that mind magically emerged out of matter – require no less faith, and are no less fantastical, than the belief that God created the world in six days.  from A Blog by a USC colleague

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