Sunday, August 13, 2017

Pathways to God

I'm reading God's Universe by Owen Gingerich, a Christian and a scientist. From the Amazon abstract:
We live in a universe with a very long history, a vast cosmos where things are being worked out over unimaginably long ages. Stars and galaxies have formed, and elements come forth from great stellar cauldrons. The necessary elements are present, the environment is fit for life, and slowly life forms have populated the earth. Are the creative forces purposeful, and in fact divine?
Reading this book is a little bit of a surreal experience. First of all, after investing so much energy in previous years, I have recently been avoiding science-faith crossroads books. It is an overcrowded genre, with a great mishmash of poorly written, poorly argued crap--if I may be so blunt. Bucking the trend, Gingerich's book is well written. In terms of clear, concise writing and a knack for pedagogy, Gingerich reminds me of my favorite popularizer of theology, R.C. Sproul. You may agree or you may disagree, but you must acknowledge the author's skill at making his point with few words (but not too few). But the second reason I am introspective regarding God's Universe is that I have yet to find myself disagreeing with anything he has written. It's as if we have exactly the same views on the intersection of science and faith. This is not common for me. I usually disagree with my own posts not long after I write them. Furthermore, I actually prefer to read people with whom I disagree. But here I am, throughly enjoying God's Universe.

Gingerich emphasizes the Aristotelian distinction between essential and final causes. Using an example from another Christian and Scientist, Sir John Polkinghorne (it would be so cool to have the title Sir) about why the water in the tea kettle is boiling, we have:
  • The essential cause is the detailed physics of heating a liquid and coverting it to a gas.
  • The final cause is because we want some tea.
What I write from here is really my own spin, though I'll use an example from Gingerich and make a very similar point. If you want to see it made better, buy his book. My take is free.

The business of science is, primarily,  to investigate the essential cause (the how) of a phenomenon. The business of  theology is, primarily (but not exclusively), to celebrate the final cause (the what). 

However, it you make that clean of a distinction you are back to Gould's well-meaning but sterile Non-overlapping Magisteria.  That's a pleasant place to be, and most secular scientists are satisfied with the non-overlapping world view. It's safe. 

I don't think we need such an absolute delimitation. in fact, I think it is very wrong. However, we have to be careful not to make the mistakes (and they were legion) of the ill-concieved Intelligent Design movement of the first decade of the current century. ID was a theological, pedagogical, scientific, and political disaster.

Let us look an example from God's Universe. Gingerich reminds us that Lecompt du Nouy (1883-1947) computed the odds of a protein assembling from primordial soup at something like 1 in 10243. This means, of course, it would never happen. Not once or twice, somewhere in the vast universe, but never. This would be approximately the same odds as picking a correct proton from all the protons in the entire visible universe (about 1080). And then doing it again, and then a third time. Ain't gonna happen.

No, if you are an IDer, you scream: ergo design. But not so fast. Scientists, looking at those pesky essential causes, have discovered pathways. Chemical potentials, chemical reactions, basic physics, etc. Assembly is not random, it is the consequence of physics. They may not have the full story, but they understand how assembling a protein does not require a random convergence of its components.  If you hitched your wagon to du Nouy's improbability, you have egg on your face (even if you steadfastly refuse to admit it.) 

But (and Gingerich emphasizes this) we, as scientists, don't need to claim design with the seeming impossible (only deceptively) existence of a protein. We can strengthen our faith, with the small 'i' small 'd' intelligent design of the pathways. The essential causes that we might first relegate solely to the scientists also, if we look for it, testify to the glory of God. Because there is no a priori reason to expect that a godless universe will create the necessary pathways. Tweak a few things--say the ratio of the mass of the proton to the electron, and things go to hell in a handbasket.

That is the lesson here. The seemingly cold, godless essential causes that scientists look for are not some non-overlapping magisterium. They are, properly understood, proclaiming the glory of God. So much so that the scientist, above all, is without excuse.

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