Monday, April 15, 2013

Another "Ask the Pastor" Response

A few months back, I addressed an "Ask the Pastor" question from the ELCA Living Lutheran Website where I believed the responses given were a bit inadequate.  Today, I sense the urge to do so once again.

Today's question is a very important one raised by Bob Lawrence from Chicago:

It’s evident that violations of the laws of nature do not occur in our universe. Christianity depends on the existence of events that violate those laws. How can an intelligent human being be a Christian?

The responses given by fellow clergy are predictable and do little to actually further the discussion.  Essentially, they say, "We live by faith not by science or the laws of nature." or "We don't understand or know all the laws of nature."  Admittedly, these statements are true; however, they will not convince Bob or anyone else who comes with Bob's premise to give faith a shot. 

A congregation member of mine, Rick Shilling, is very prominent in the world of heat exchange engineering.  He is a tremendous person of faith as well as a very, very good scientist.  He and I have written the following response.  Rick's additions are distinguished by being in red print :

An excellent question, Bob, but I would like to challenge the premise a bit.  Which laws of nature are you referring to?  The laws of Quantum Mechanics or the Laws of General Relativity?  I hope you are aware that these two theories dominate the discussion of the way the world works.  Quantum Mechanics deals with the subatomic world and General Relativity deals with large objects.  They both work very, very well; yet, we also know they are incompatible.  You cannot extend General Relativity's laws into the Quantum world, because they do not work well there and vice versa.  This has troubled scientists, and, at least for a time and quite possibly still, the Holy Grail of science was a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) which brought these two areas into accord.  It still hasn't been found, and, in fact, it is quite possible that it will never be.  Why?

One must take up the study of mathematics for a little while, particularly the proof of a German mathematician by the name of Kurt Goedel.  He wrote a rather short paper On Formally Undecidable Propositions in Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I where he proved the limitations of all but the simplest of systems of thought and logic.  Goedel wrote the paper in such a way that its implications spilled over into the realms of not only mathematics but science and philosophy as well.  Long and short of it, each and every system of thought is limited.  It cannot cover all of the bases.  Exceptions will always arise.  Let that sink in a moment.   (I direct your attention to Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design, where if you can overlook his poor attempts to play philosopher in the name of atheism, you can find a good intro explanation of a new concept in physics called “m-theory” where specific sets of scientific “laws” are used only within defined length scales since their inaccuracies are too great outside of these length scales.)

It is because of Goedel that the term scientific law has basically been abolished.  (Ever wonder why Einstein’s theory of relativity is still called a theory after more than 100 years of successful testing, more than most any other accepted scientific theory had undergone in the past before being called a scientific law ?)The term is kept around out of respect for Newton and others who first formulated the concept; however, science does not talk in terms of certainty any longer because we have discovered that no law is always true at all times and in all circumstances.  Again, take a moment to let that sink in.

When it comes to dealing with interactions in the world, scientists now talk in terms of probability.  There is high probability and low probability.  There are even cases of extremely minute probability--for instance the probability of a person being resurrected from the dead.  It is highly improbable, but it is not impossible--at least according to science.   In engineering, where scientific laws are applied to development of real world technologies, the use of probabilities and/or safety factors in design are always included to protect the public.

This means, Bob, unfortunately, your premise is flawed.  However, the confusion is understandable and common.

First of all, the secondary education system performs a disservice to its students by teaching the "laws of physics" as if they were immutable truths instead of very accurate approximations best suited for use within certain limits. This "new" understanding became widespread in the practicing scientific community in the early decades of the 20th century but, unfortunately did not filter down to the masses. In addition, universities avoided teaching the full implications of Godel since they did not wish to sow uncertainty among their students who were struggling under heavy course loads. Nowadays, many university professors have never learned that much of Godel and proceed merrily along as if all things were determinant.

Secondly, there are some Christians who adopt a simplistic understanding of what they read in the Bible that cannot easily be defended. This is because as human beings we always "fill in the blanks" of everything we read in our attempts to understand. For most children, the Bible is understood as God performing a series of magic tricks without realizing that the magic tricks are their additions of what they have read to try to understand it. If a reader has not learned how to separate his "filling in of the blanks" from the actual written text, this reader can incorrectly misinterpret new learning as in conflict with what he believes is written in the Bible. Unfortunately, the public protests of some of these Christians get disproportionately high exposure, sometimes drowning out the majority of Christians who do not see any conflicts and are quite comfortable with both science and Christianity.

Thirdly, there are some in the atheistic community who cannot accept the fact that atheism is also a choice. This has to be troubling, if one believes in the infallibility of man or science and then discovers some of the limitations of science or of human thought. Often, some write a protest in defense of atheism by trying to use science and a childlike understanding of Christianity to prove their point. This has always failed and probably always will because neither science nor mankind is completely infallible. There are always choices that must be made.

The Christian faith does not rest upon the necessity of natural laws to be broken.  In fact, it is quite compatible with what we have come to understand as the way the world works.

And as those of us who believe in God begin to understand more and more about how the world works, we marvel at God's handiwork.  Far from a "God of the gaps" approach, we see intricacy and wonder.  We are stupefied by the physical constants and how they are just right to support intelligent life.  We marvel at how evolution brought about thinking, intelligent beings out of primordial, unthinking sludge.  Far from dismissing what science has shown us about the natural world, we embrace what science has shown us about the majesty of God.  It's not that difficult to be an intelligent person and believe in God--even the Christian God.  Just ask Francis Collins who headed up the Human Genome Project.