Eric Metaxas missed the mark, but Lawrence Krauss missed the dartboard

As the world shakes off the dust of the Holiday Break and gets into 2015, here’s something to catch up on from the last week of last year. On Christmas, Eric Metaxas wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed (here’s the Google search) claiming, in its headline, that scientific findings bolster the evidence that God exists.

Specifically, he cites the fact that, despite constantly finding new planets, our astronomers aren’t finding any new life (Area 51 rumors notwithstanding). Predictably, atheists bristled; Arizona State University Professor Lawrence Krauss wrote an unpublished letter to the editor that sought to debunk Metaxes’s claim.

Krauss correctly answers Metaxas’s first main point – that the known conditions for life to exist on Earth are not the same as the conditions that might give rise to other life forms. (Heck, are we even looking for life forms based on silicon or boron? They found some on Star Trek.) The fact that we haven’t found little green persons is a poor point and Metaxas should have left it alone.

Krauss doesn’t mention it, but even Metaxas’s points about the numerically unlikely evolution of life on Earth don’t hold up well. Those who believe in infinite universes with infinitely various timelines would suggest that, if every single possible outcome is represented, then there would have to be a universe were Earth existed as it does today.

Krauss misses Metaxas’s best point – and, since he buries it so deep, maybe he missed it too:

[T]he odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here… Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? [Emphasis added.]

The key phrase is “talking about existing.” As our scientists explore the universe, they find that things make sense. Early mathematicians discovered that every single circle has the same ratio of its circumference to its diameter (pi). Before he put figs in cookies, Sir Isaac Newton discovered laws of physics. The gravitational force between any two objects in the universe is determined using a constant value, which physicists just pinned down this year (though approximations have been around for centuries). It’s not just that the universe developed as it did, but that it develops according to laws and rules which is somewhat amazing.

Krauss replies that the appearance of design is not design, and he’s right. There’s nothing there to prove that a cosmic Creator wrote the laws. Yet it’s undeniable the laws are there. There’s a parallel there from the Book of Genesis (1:2), too:

[T]he earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

This is what makes the supposed divide between religion and science so fascinating: The themes of the scripture don’t contradict scientific discoveries, nor vice versa. (The literal words may be a different story, but it’s hard to be overly concerned about that when factoring in the difficulty of translation, changes in humanity’s frame of reference, and linguistic changes over multiple millenia.)

Krauss and I may agree that Metaxas didn’t make the strongest case he could have in his Christmas op-ed, but it seems we are coming from different points. The snide derision of “Christian apologists,” implies that anyone who points out the similarity between scientific findings and Christian teachings, or who believes in intelligent design, is some kind of Lyle Lanley huckster peddling a bill of goods rather than someone looking for common ground with secular scientists.

One might call that type of opposition fanatical, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re just devout.

The False Dichotomy of Science vs. Religion

Kudos to Science Guy (and Newhart nemesis) Bill Nye and Creation Museum founder  Ken Ham.  Many of those who disagree on the question of how the Earth was made don’t talk to each other.  These guys went the other way.  (And they got into it, too, the video at that link is almost three hours long.)  At the very least, that shows that both are sincere in their science-based approach to problem solving.

But there is a problem when this type of debate is played out.  Folks like Ham says the Earth is just 6,000 years old.  Folks like Nye says our world couldn’t have been constructed in six days.  Interlopers like to say this is science versus religion.  

So what’s a year, and what’s a day?  Those are pretty relative terms, since they are based on a single astronomical relationship: the Earth’s motions around the Sun.  Days are shorter on Saturn, and years are longer on Venus.  For a God who created the universe, these are small measurements.  

We do know that there are laws of physics.  When the crap hit the fan during the Apollo 13 mission, NASA was able to calculate a plan to use the gravitational forces of the moon to slingshot the spacecraft home.  The moon’s forces, though not completely understood, behaved in a predictable way.  The busted tin can with three astronauts on board reacted to those forces in a predictable way.   Astrophysicists call that science, but if you sit back and think about it, it’s a miracle.  (And not just because they math they got right was really, REALLY hard.)

We know that moons orbit planets, and planets orbit stars, and stars orbit giant mysterious centers of galaxies.  We know those galaxies stretch out over incomprehensibly vast expanses of the cosmos, yet form patterns as well.

How miraculous is it that those forces and reactions are intelligible?  How amazing is it that out of the black emptiness of space came the forces of gravity and dark energy that created suns, planets, galaxies, moons, asteroids, quasars, black holes and a bunch of stuff we haven’t even figured out yet?  

Read the first passages of the Book of Genesis, then read a scientific account of how planets are formed.  It’s great that Ham and Nye had a civil and good-natured, discussion about the origins of the universe.  But did they really have anything to disagree about?

 

Weather or not it’s proof of climate change…

It’s cooled down a bit lately, but the last few weeks have seen the worst of what Summer offers in and around the Beltway.  A massive windstorm knocked out power in Alexandria, and heat indexes made mowing the lawn such and incredibly dangerous activity that it was to be avoided at all costs. (That’s the story we’ll go with.)

What does it all mean?  For some it’s unequivocal evidence of man-made climate change:

During their recent coverage of winter storms, Fox News has repeatedly mocked former Vice President Al Gore and cited the cold and snowy weather to attempt to discredit global warming. Fox News and other right-wing media routinely use snow to cast doubt on global warming, and internal emails from Fox News’ Washington bureau show that in the past Fox employees have been instructed to question climate science.

Wait, wait, no, I’m sorry, that’s an old Media Matters story, back when the eighteen feet of snow dumped on the Eastern seaboard was just “weather.”  There’s a difference, you see, between weather and climate, so a cold winter doesn’t mean anything for those looking to disprove global warming.

Yet this week, the anti-Keystone XL organization 350.org sent an email to their subscriber list highlighting the recent heat wave as evidence that radical environmental change is afoot.  Their leader, Bill McKibben, sarcastically needled global warming skeptics in the Daily Beast:

Please don’t sweat the 2,132 new high temperature marks in June—remember, climate change is a hoax…  On Friday, for instance, Washington set all-time heat records (one observer described it as like “being in a giant wet mouth, except six degrees warmer”), and then shortly after dinner a storm for the ages blew through—first there was five minutes of high wind, blowing dust and debris (and tumbleweeds? surely some tumbleweeds), followed by an explosive display of thunder and lightning that left millions without power.

That’s 350.org, whose big idea was to fund a giant ice sculpture on the steps of the U.S. Capitol spelling out the word “HOAX.”  You see, they were going to disprove climate skeptics by melting ice in July.  That was before they slammed on the brakes – ostensibly because they would appear insensitive to people suffering the heat wave, but more likely because it was just a really silly idea.

You can’t spend the winter preaching that weather and climate are different things, then using the summer heat to support the need for environmental action.  That’s not a scientific argument, that’s political hackery – though, come to think of there’s probably more money in simple hackery.

Hawking’s “Hail Science!” Moment

Stephen Hawking possesses one of the most brilliant minds of our time. And since he can ponder and comprehend the most complex theories of the nature of time and space, you know the man understands how to sell a TV show.

That was likely part of the impetus between Hawking’s Sunday night debut episode of Curiosity on Discovery networks, provocatively subtitled: “Did God Create the Universe?

Spoiler alert if you haven’t caught it in reruns yet: Hawking says no.

Much of the informational content – the description of the Big Bang, the discussion of the nature of gravity and the theoretical descriptions of the creation of stars – were nothing new to anyone (like myself) with an addiction to documentaries about space. In fact, Hawking himself has covered that ground in previous shows for Discovery networks.

That leaves Hawking’s religious opinions as the only new information in the show – and unlike his understanding of the laws of physics, he doesn’t appear to grasp the fundamental concepts of religion. Like so many others who seek to draw some type of dichotomy between science and faith, Hawking tries to establish a false choice. “Did we need a God to set it all up so that the Big Bang could… bang?” he asks. “I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine Creator.”

The thesis is that the Big Bang and everything that came after are wholly consistent with the laws of physics, with no need for “divine intervention” to spark existence.

That’s a fair assessment, but completely parallel to the concept of a universal Architect. That the machinations of the Universe are intelligible does not preclude the presence of divinity. In fact, the idea of laws of physics which govern so rigorously and unfailingly the motion of each cosmic body – from supermassive stars on down to subatomic particles – seems to give an awful lot of power to Whoever it was that wrote those laws, doesn’t it?

In fact, let’s take it one step further and consider the Big Bang, in Hawkings own words:

“Follow the clues, and we can deduce that the Universe simply burst into existence… but I’m afraid we have to stop a moment, before we get carried away by fire and noise. At the very beginning, the Big Bang happened in total darkness, because light didn’t exist yet. To see it, we’d have needed some type of cosmic night vision. But even this, a view from the outside, is impossible. Again, it sounds strange, but space didn’t exist then either.”

Another account of those momentsis probably more familiar to most people:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.  And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.

The latter is, of course, the beginning of the book of Genesis, which is certainly no science textbook. The juxtaposition proves nothing, though it does seem interesting that the description of the creation of the Universe written in ancient times mirrors so closely the result of centuries of astronomical research.

Putting the items side-by-side does demonstrate that even where they intersect, science and religion need not clash.  Forcing a choice between God and the laws of physics is like arguing whether the stuff you learn in history or English is more correct – both subjects are occasionally intertwined, but distinct.

Similarly, someone who studies math and science should also be able to appreciate the beauty and symmetry of the universe without being accused of being irrational.  Isn’t it amazing that the ratio of every circle’s circumference to its diameter is the same (pi)?  Isn’t it fascinating that electrons buzz around nuclei, nuclei buzz around each other, planets buzz around suns, suns buzz around the centers of galaxies?  This type of view of the natural world most likely inspired Georges Lemaitre, who first proposed what would be called the Big Bang theory in 1927.  You might also refer to the good professor by his other job title, Monsignor.

Of course, for all the discussion it has raised, you can say this about Hawking’s thesis: it makes for very provocative television, even when the factual subject matter has been done before.

Cross posted at PunditLeague.us.

Where education really happens

The other night, I got to witness first hand some of the hard work being done by the Oakton High School robotics team.  Two teams of high school students build machines to accomplish certain tasks, controlled by both pre-programming and direct remote controls.  It’s pretty amazing stuff to say the least.

What struck me about the room was the presence of community volunteers.  There were parents and teachers, of course, but also folks with no children or job at the school.  I spoke at length with one mentor, who had retired from his career, and gave some of his free time to the robotics team.  Several encouraged me to become a mentor as well.  When I joked that I doubted I could match the students’ knowledge of the subject matter, the reply was an only half-joking suggestion that the important thing was asking a lot of questions anyway.  The students don’t need people to teach them knowledge, just someone who can help them think through problems.

This became apparent when watching the students – tinkering with sensors, motors, nuts, bolts, and computers with a mix of determination and invincibility.  Whatever challenge they saw in their robots – a program not performing as expected, a misfiring sensor, or wheels failing to grip an incline – there were never questions about whether solutions existed, just an eagerness to find where they were hidden.

(There was a corporate sponsor too, which is good because the competition can cost a team up to $8,500 just to build a robot.)

It’s interesting that some form of the gizmos these high school students were building in a near-deserted school may one day exploring Mars.  It’s also interesting that few of the participants were getting paid any money to turn an unused high school shop class room into the staging are for the next generation of technology.  Even for just a few hours, it was nice to see a place where commitment to education was not measured in dollars and cents.

The era of the Citizen-[INSERT PROFESSION HERE]

First, came the citizen-journalists – the bloggers in their pajamas whose reporting overturned Walter Cronkite’s old chair and dumped out Dan Rather.

Then came the citizen-politicos – the self-organizing crusaders who organized largely online but made a difference in the real world, giving alternating advantages to the left in 2006 and 2008 and the right in 2010.

And now come… the citizen scientists.  An English gas worker has discovered four new planets by analyzing public data at his home computer.  No telescope, no university observatory, no office – just a proficiency for math and the love of the game.  It’s legit, too, as the University of California has given the discovery a seal of approval.

This may explain why people have been slow to support environmental regulations with drastic economic impacts.  The previous argument – “Trust us!  We’re SCIENTISTS!” – can’t carry weight.

 

Everyone quit breathing!

The Obama administration is expected to name carbon dioxide a pollutant today – which makes it easier to regulate without Congressional approval.  According to second grade science class, carbon dioxide is one of the essential ingredients for life – plants need it for photosynthesis.   Still, too much of anything is bad, which begs the question of whether dihydrogen monoxide – a substance which can now be found on over three quarters of the Earth’s surface – is next: