One Unique, Spiral Galaxy.
One unique spiral galaxy. A commonplace yellow star. Orbited by 8 planets.
On one of those planets, a blue one, a species is increasingly aware of what a remarkably beautiful universe this is. We are asking questions about that universe in this century that no one has asked before in history.
We are living day by day, just as it dawns on us that the earth was made… (by the stars) (by God).
Does God Exist?
Tonight, the Discovery Channel unveiled its fascinating new show, Curiosity. It will be my favorite pop show, along side of Hawking’s Into The Universe.
The discerning mind however, just as was necessary with Isaac Asimov’s popular explorations of science in another generation, must be employed.
Why? Worldview is everywhere. Just because we like something, or it has great graphics and storytelling, doesn’t mean it’s all true.
The topic – “Does God Exist?” opened the show, and physicist Stephen Hawking, along with a cast of theistic, agnostic and atheistic scientists (and one theologian) reflect on this fundamental question.
First, Hawking articulates the conclusion “We don’t need God for this universe to have been created.” He goes on, “…And any idea of heaven, or afterlife, does not exist.” Of course, Hawking is presented over and against those who declare him a heretic.
Then, the roots of our understandings of God, god or gods in primal times were explored. Belief in supernatural meaning being applied to mysterious events, was of course, debunked. With a little knowledge, the Vikings could have been more, more, … like us. The reasoning of the Greeks and Aristarchus’ questioning of the gods causing eclipses, is touted as a moment of “liberation.”
Hawking is right. The “God of the Gaps” is a dysfunctional way to dig into faith. Some things may be explained – but “why” is a question that will always exist.
He then goes on to discuss the “Laws Of Nature,” not saying why they exist, but that they exist and replace God.
Their cause is not explained – just that they do. Welcome to lack of application of the question once again – “Why?”
“Laws govern,” Hawking says, “Not God.”
Second, fellow scientists from different backgrounds speak.
I won’t take the time to articulate their positions. Astrophysicists, Cosmologists, Physicists and Theologians spoke, from a variety of perspectives.
How Fellow Scientists Responded.
How fellow scientists from a variety of viewpoints responded to Hawking’s claims was fascinating.
One was left with the sense that Hawking’s big statements about cause and meaning – to his fellow scientists – were made by a private human being. I.e. They did not affirm that his statements of meaning were speaking, necessarily, for the scientific community.
What We Saw.
Now, I am a Theist (and a Christian), and at the same time hold a high regard for science. My cards are on the table.
I’ve been entranced by two things since I was young – by the stars, and by spirituality.
Both captivated me, spun me around, and became the pivot points for most of my inner conversation (and outer) throughout life.
I felt atoms in my bones, music in my heart, and an encounter in my soul, since before I could articulate what was going on.
But that is not what we’re here to talk about – what happened in the show?
Hawking spoke brilliantly about “What and How.”
Then, he began to conjecture about “Why,” and “Meaning” as if it were a scientific conclusion – a strange direction for a man so committed to the language of objectivity and the scientific method.
As the scientists were interviewed, it was clear: Every scientist represented seemed somewhat uncomfortable with the conclusions Hawking was voicing about God and the afterlife. Some were directly uncomfortable with his definitive conclusions; all were somewhat uncomfortable that he was making them as a scientist. He was explicitly changing the scientific game, and taking it into the realm of fact statements about unknown metaphysics.
When people make fact statements about things they simply don’t know about, we call them ignorant, or worse yet, fundamentalists.
Science itself, for some of those on the panel, was in danger.
In other words…
Stephen Hawking was making a faith statement based on his knowledge. First, let me say that is the best way to make a faith statement. Many theists could use a strong dose of curiosity and exploration to overtake dogmatism. I include myself when suggesting that others take that prescription. We can all learn more.
Back to the discussion. For Hawking, his definition of God required that God create the universe. Doing his math and physics, he felt he didn’t need God to explain this particular universe. For his metaphysical money, he felt that if any alternate (and to him, more simple and elegant) way of describing universal origins could be presented, within the realm of scientific integrity, that would disprove God’s existence.
There is only one problem – an alternate story doesn’t make it true – it just makes it an alternate story. Faith in anything, at the beginning of the show, was presented as primal and outdated (the Vikings and the Wolf swallowing the sun in a solar eclipse). Now, Hawking was presenting his own “faith” story, albeit based on his gathering of knowledge to date.
The scientists were then welcomed to speak – atheists, agnostics and theists.
All of them, to a person, came back to this. Hawking would sacrifice the objectivity of science to conjecture like this. He was not making science statements, but rather faith statements (non-faith statements in this case, about things which he doesn’t actually know like the gravitational pull of planets or the stoppage of time in a black hole).
In fact, the laws that create not just one universe, but the possibilities of multiverses (multiple universes), are still a mystery. String theory welcomes this mystery.
One scientist asked, “Where did those laws come from, and why do they work?”
Words like elegance, majesty, magnificence and beauty flew around the table, but the question of “Why” kept eluding them. Miracles and strange metaphysics were put on the table. More “whys” were considered.
But ultimately, whether various approaches seem more logical, or intuitive, or neither, the following statement is true when it comes to the cause behind this awe-inspiring cosmos:
“Everyone Has Faith In Something.”
Atheism takes faith.
Theism takes faith.
Make no mistake, life is a leap of faith. One’s evidence is math for their leap of faith. Another’s is an encounter, a story, an experience, an epiphany.
No one knows exactly what the afterlife, if it exists, will be like. It takes faith to believe it exists. It takes faith to not believe it exists.
Faith has clues, and ancient stories, behind it, dating back to the beginnings of humankind. For some, the diversity of those stories disproves them. For others, threads are visible in those stories, and they wind back to primal truth – not superstition.
(Note: Having said this, every faith must be weighed on its own merits, and not lumped in with every other spiritual system. There are many ways to govern a nation – but not all of them are alike and we would do well to tease their stories and results apart to discover one that seems to rise above the others. I.e. All faiths are not the same. their creational and redemptive stories are radically different, and must be weighed.)
For Hawking, and some scientists (so important – many of the world’s greatest scientists are theists), just as protons can “pop” into being, so too a universe (or multiverse) can “pop” into being.
Let’s get this straight. A meaningless “popping into existence” or a meaningful “popping into existence” (a naturally occurring phenomenon or a naturally occurring phenomenon catalyzed by the Will of God) both take faith to embrace.
You can overlay your own meaning, or lack thereof, onto your facts. We can overlay almost any meaning on any fact. The motives behind the meaning we attribute may be more important to study than the fact.
Stephen should have said this, but he didn’t. Some of his fellow scientists alluded to it though. They felt the hole in the logic as it appeared. Science is in danger of losing its role when it ventures into statements of meaning.
In my mind, Stephen’s story is compelling, but not in contradiction to faith.
For my part, Hawking’s discussion actually led me to greater belief in God, not away. Go figure.
Christianity – A Brief Reason For The Embrace.
So, why would one set of human beings hold on to a (Bronze Age) faith with roots deep in the soil of the very ancient story of the Hebrews? With thousands of faith-systems existing on the planet, why choose this one?
First of all, faith is different than religion. Religion is the set of tracks that faith runs on. Many people who lose their religion, have not lost their faith. They are figuring things out. Their faith, on some levels may still be intact, but needing a fresh system to support it.
Christian faith – why choose it?
I won’t dishonor my readers with a long story, and this is a late night post. When I hear cosmic mysteries slammed into belief statements and argumentative slop, I cringe. I apologize to my atheist and agnostic readers for thoughtless declarations from those who have faith in Jesus Christ as God that are narrow, lack study beyond biblical focus, and are even dehumanizing to you as a person. Every Christian should be cross-trained in many disciplines, rather than shouting in fear against a world that is learning more every day (albeit, a world that is also overlaying new definitions of meaning on their fresh discoveries).
However, Christianity may not be as narrow as it seems, specific as it is (in time, place, ethnic roots and story). We may want an angel to drop off the story – but it may be in its very specificity and humanity that it’s merit lives.
Here is all I will say on this at this time.
I have been drawn to many meta-narratives throughout my life. Atheistic evolution has had it’s attractions to me. Zen buddhism intrigued me for a time (I like wide open space). It’s a big cosmos, and it’s all buzzing with complexity and grandeur. The mystery runs strong, and my spiritual experiences have always been riveting, encompassing and moving as I sought to nestle into a faith worth holding (note again, atheism as well as theism takes faith – a conviction related to things we don’t fully know about).
Now, not all stories about God or god or gods or no god are the same. And not every story about God is best understood by the historic acts of those who have also claimed to possess that faith (enter the Crusades, and other horrors doing violence to the central teachings of Christ on love, peace-making, acceptance and forgiveness).
Every story must be weighed for how compelling it is in the face of all that we actually know, and experience, and feel (welcome emotions into the process rather than just reason). In a new world filled with different ethnicities and worldviews now on our doorstep, each story must be carefully weighed.
Christianity offers me a God who deals in blood and bone, in humanity and frailty and dust and cosmic meaning. It offers an ancient narrative of self-giving Love, human dignity, a Personality at the center of the universe, a self-revealing divinity, explanations of war, hate, divorce, beauty and ultimate reasons behind both vast creation and the next few moments of your very, very significant life.
Of course, Stephen, we need an afterlife if we fear the unknown of death. But what if we actually need that story, and are attuned to discover it for a reason? What if those afterlife narratives are all different and should be weighed on their merits?
More than this, in Christianity, Love will not remain hidden, smiling as we make metaphysical guesses in our ignorance. Christianity says that God reveals. Sure, he does it through a human tribe, amidst a history of human tribes. Is that offensive? To me, it makes it so human it feels divine. From the Old Testament to New, it is a strange unveiling, and professed followers of this God have drug many of those ideas through the dehumanizing mud of hatred and violence and political quest.
I’m sorry. But it doesn’t make Christianity less true, just as science is not diminished in its truth by its arrogant, caustic and even dehumanizing fringes.
Galileo Is One Of My Heroes, Too.
For Hawking, Galileo is one of his heroes. He happens to be one of mine as well. Galileo was a Theist, blind as he apparently was in matters of faith due to his time and place (this would follow from Hawking’s argument that we are getting smarter with our incrementally building information). He was a Christian by profession in fact, and Hawking would suggest the need for God has been slowly replaced since his time.
“Science” Hawking says, “Is a simpler alternative.”
Since when, in the complex micro and macro universe we all study, is simplicity the goal? Could it be that the question of God is actually one that is complex, should be complex, like Astrophysics? Could it be that the question of God and specificity of faith should take great time and great attention?
Now it is true that atheistic science describes the complexities of friendship, love, joy, hate, the sexual experience, family connection in raw, anthropological, dry statements of fact. The cortex looks for patterns (unique to humans), and creates stories around the patterns (enter the power of stories to human beings). A mountain is beautiful because your ancient ancestor thought she could find food there. Social constructs exist out of raw need and a desire to dominate for food and water access. Color is just that – color. It’s interesting, and helpful.
But, again, are any of these things that “simple” by any definition? No, they are all quite complex, and deserve a complex answer. (Current atheists do give complex descriptions of these things, but to say that their answers are simpler and more elegant, is untenable to me. That’s for another time.)
A list of encounters across my life and those of others close to me – relationships, dramatic (and not so dramatic) answers to prayer, moments of raw metaphysical encounter, uncanny dreams and senses of things beyond my knowing, defy (to some degree) scientific measurement. You might examine my brain, and find the area where apparently the sense of God’s presence exists biologically. It would be quite red, I think, on the screen.
Give me a more compelling story of meaning, and I’ll be open to hearing it. The problem of evil has been presented as one of the primary reasons faith is unreasonable. I suggest that is only true in some universes, and the way we see our unanswered questions.
So far, a more compelling story hasn’t presented itself to me. (At this point, I hear my atheist friends saying “That’s because you’re deluded and need to believe it is true.) I confess, there are moments I have asked myself this, as deception is a sting and a horror in this world.
But, I don’t think I need to believe it. I think that I want to. I choose to. I am privileged to be believe it.
Science Is A Gift Helping To Shape Faith, Not A Replacement For Faith.
Back to the show. One of the scientists was afraid that Hawking’s statement would further the notion that great scientists are arrogant. I think not. There are enough humble scientists, great in their fields, to keep us away from that assumption. I enjoyed reading one the other day – I was grateful for the humility while he made his case, contrary as it was to my perspective.
(Fundamentalism weighs a belief immediately to see if it fits into his/her current belief system; curiosity and the spirit of discovery temporarily suspend disbelief and welcome an internal and external dialogue. Again, we’re looking for compelling stories.)
However, when a scientist declares that his science has defined ultimate meaning, that logic has led he or she to the place of determining if God exists, he or she steps outside of their sphere of expertise. However, as a human being, Hawking can say whatever he wants. Every scientist can. Good on him to commit himself. But to say that this is a scientific statement, lacks integrity with the scientific method.
To say “I don’t know that God exists, therefore He doesn’t,” and to say “In the face of my limited science, I declare that there is no afterlife,” in the face of the limited knowledge we have (brilliant as we can be), is actually a faith statement as “ignorant” as some scientists accuse others of being.
It’s like the Soviet cosmonauts who declared that God didn’t exist because they went to space and couldn’t find Him. If you’re not looking for God, then all the majesty of the universe will never convince you. But, your heart may. Welcome it into the equation, cerebral and logical as your gift may be.
Imagination, in this case, may lead us to reality, rather than to delusion. We do want to believe things, and can make ourselves believe them – but some things, we feel and are moved by and transcend our logic. When my wife and I kiss, there are biological and psychological triggers that fire. However, our kiss defies the math that seems (on the surface) to make it.
A Discoverer Is Different Than A Creator.
For Hawking, he has always been fascinated by the stars. I was as well, but didn’t have the gift set to become a Cosmologist or scientist. I ended up in the arts, and in the worlds of spirituality and creativity.
I did however, love the stars as deeply. But when I stared at the stars, I felt an overwhelming Presence. My Cause, my Reason. Since I was a child, that Presence was near. Through the crises of life, that Presence lifted me, strengthened me, and has restored the damaged lives of others with elegance and stunning beauty before my very eyes. The story of Jesus expands my understanding of that Presence, enlarges it, lifts it.
It doesn’t narrow it or make it smaller. It makes that Presence expand in my mind to embrace the fullness of my humanity at the same time that it embraces the fullness of every nuance of which Hawking so refreshingly speaks.
The words of Jesus expand the universe to its logical majesty, and define what it means to be truly human. All the strokes are there. Those scriptures don’t talk about microbiology, string theory, gravity, dark energy or aerodynamics. They don’t intend to – those things are for us to discover, basking in the meaning of what it means to be human that the scriptures afford.
Great scientists should come to conclusions and voice them, like Hawking. I’m grateful that he said what he did. He makes me happy.
But to make faith statements with human humility, not knowing what is beyond our knowing (as if we’ve been behind the blackboard of the elegant math), is as vital for a scientist as for any Christian.
Apparently, as Hawking said, if we have the right ingredients, we can create a new universe.
But wait; we can’t. And if we could, we’d have to use the matter, energy and space (or just energy and space – Einstein) that already exists. But we don’t. And an alternative way of speaking about the big bang, or creation, or origins doesn’t mean it’s true – it just means that it’s an alternate story (compelling as it may be to some, and yet less compelling to me as the story of creation).
After this show, it’s clear again – at least to me. The story of God as cause of laws, and energy and space – mingled with the joy of His nearness I feel as I write my scattered thoughts tonight, is stronger than ever.
Sure, I need to believe it; just a like a scientist inebriated on the vapors of a wild discovery needs to believe we can know everything because we have learned so much by honoring curiosity.
Some have given their lives to that faith. I have given my life over to my own faith, ever since I was a small boy looking at the stars. It didn’t begin in a church for me, as it didn’t for Hawking.
It began in a star field.
Even a child knows that a new discovery doesn’t make you the author of anything.
It only makes you a discoverer.
One of my favorite Cosmologists is George Ellis. His writing and activities as a cosmologist (who worked with Hawking and stood for justice in his native South Africa) are worth studying.
“The Sun, with all the planets revolving around it, and depending on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as though it had nothing else in the Universe to do.” Galileo Galilei (Natural Philosopher, Mathematician and Astronomer – 1564-1642)