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Science & religion, origins, and consciousness

"Weinberg vs. a designed universe"
An essay donated by Don Stark

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"God knows whether Dulcinea exists on earth or not,
or whether she is fantastical or not. These are not
matters where verification can be carried out to the full."
Cervantes, Don Quixote

If religion is to be viable it cannot abandon to science natural phenomena such as quantum mechanics, as if quantum mechanics were the property of science and not the common property of us all. Nor can religion abandon philosophy as if all philosophy were vain philosophy. Logic is not hostile to faith. The truths of philosophy and mathematics and the mysteries of quantum mechanics and outer space belong to nature, and nature belongs as much to religion as it does to science. If science has arrived at a demonstrable truth, then that truth belongs to religion. If philosophy has arrived at a logical truth, that truth belongs to religion. All demonstrable truth belongs as much to religion as it does to any other discipline, and should compel religion as much as it does any other discipline. Moreover, it is the job of religion to make sure that the truth that science or philosophy arrive at are verifiable by scientific and logical methods. That means that religion can only benefit from a knowledge of science and philosophy's methods. If religion holds science to what it can prove by physical evidence, about whether the universe is designed or not, religion will be consoled by what science finds.

Religion's blessing and curse, however, is that it is not bound by the methods of science or of logic. This difference is at the heart of the debate between religion and science. Science is compelled to use demonstrable models, and they would compel religion to do the same if it is to be believed. But religion is not driven by physical demonstration but by faith. Unless it is bound by love for humanity in general, religion is dangerous. Few people make this point more often than the late Carl Sagan. His "Demon Haunted World" accurately describes the world of carnage that religions have wrought. 2 However, it is logical that if carnage fills our world, religious people have wreaked most of it, because most people in the world, and in history, are religious. Were the world and history peopled with atheists their carnage may have equaled religions; we don't know. But if the Stalinist, Maoist and Pol Pot eras are any indication, perhaps we are better off with the devil of religion we know rather than the atheistic devil of which these eras have given us a mere peek.

Scientific theories fail to explain why there is something rather than nothing. It is a failure shared by religious and philosophical theories as well. Religiously speaking, if there is no god, we do not know why there exists something rather than nothing. If there is a god, we don't know why he created physical existence rather than to have left it uncreated. And as to philosophy's pursuit of why there is something rather than nothing, logic never arrives conclusively at an original cause of which existence is the effect. Lacking such proof, how shall I, a professed Christian, demonstrate that it is more logical to conclude that the universe exists because it was created, than it is to explain that existence just is -- that ours is an accidental universe as scientists describe it.

Scientists almost always confuse the parameters for this debate. They are physicists, but usually resort to non-physical moral and ethical arguments against arguments for design. To illustrate this confusion, consider Physics Nobel prize laureate, Steven Weinberg's "A Designer Universe?" found on numerous web searches in physics and cosmology. 3 This is an essay about whether or not the universe shows signs of having been designed. Weinberg is a physicist so I assume that he is asked to give a scientific assessment of this question. His essay, however, is hardly a scientific argument against design. It is an ethical/moral argument against a benevolent designer. As such his very frame of reference is not physical but psychological, that is, spiritual. If his argument disproves a theory that says that a spiritual force created the universe, it will have done so by spiritual means.

Weinberg's first point is that he cannot talk about the universe as designed unless he has "some vague idea of what a designer would be like." This is no scientific premise. One may find a humming, turning metal alloy machine -- something of a giant Paley's watch -- and have no idea of its purpose or its designer and suspect that something designed this thing. The several polished and oiled parts are together by no volition of their own -- metal can't think -- in an assembly of balance and complexity. Since the assembly was obviously devised, and metal cannot devise, it is logical to conclude that something other than the individual parts devised and assembled this machine. The reason for this machine's existence, whatever it is, is not in the parts but in the parts as they function together toward some mysterious end; remove a part and the machine no longer hums and turns. These things we may know about the machine that tell us virtually nothing about what the designer is like. Should we find that this machine exists to bring pain -- a torture machine -- then we may ask about the morals of the designer, but that is no physics question. It is not logical therefore for a physicist to conclude that because the machine is a torture machine it can't have been designed, because no designer this intelligent would create a torture machine. In fact, we are part of this particular machine, this world, and the most fundamental question to begin with is one we must ask ourselves: how can psychological (spiritual) questions be asked in and about a purely accidental material world? Is there, in fact, such a thing as good and evil upon which to found an ethics?

This world is often a torture machine, whatever else it may be. Any of us have a legitimate reason to ask why, Weinberg included, but we ask from a moral/ethical reference, not a scientific one. It's a question that many Christians -- but by no means all -- avoid or dismiss with the story of The Garden of Eden. The art and matter of Eden itself demands interpretation. It is a story too complex to be used as a historical justification or dismissal of the question of why there is evil in the world. Surely the eating of forbidden fruit is no infraction grave enough to have brought the wrath of God down on all humans, none of whom were born at the time of the infraction, and none of whom were guilty except Adam and Eve. To insist that god was justified in condemning all humankind because of the infraction of their first parents is to make nonsense of our God given moral compass, Milton notwithstanding.

One can accept that the laws and the individual parts of the universe are so assembled that it is illogical to conclude that the parts assembled themselves or were assembled accidentally, without having to explain the moral reason for why they were assembled as they were. Existence is horrible at times, and I don't know why. But physics compels me to believe, or at least to consider, that the universe was intelligently assembled -- it turns and hums. If I accept science that tells me how unbelievably improbable our path has been from the big bang to now, I cannot logically not consider it. Once I consider that possibility, then I have an insight into Leibniz's question -- why something rather than nothing --that physical matter alone could never ask. Once I ask this psychological question, I am compelled to ask another: why is this something designed as it is and not otherwise? Atheists should feel compelled to ask why there is something rather than nothing, and theists cannot escape asking why the something is created as it is and not otherwise. Both must realize, however, that neither answer can be perfectly satisfactory, probably because we could not understand the answer if it were told us.

Weinberg says that:

"the human mind remains extraordinarily difficult to understand, but so is the weather. "We can't predict whether it will rain one month from today, but we do know the rules that govern the rain..."

He sees nothing, he says, about the human mind that is beyond the hope of understanding than is the weather. Let me suggest that should Weinberg ever perceive the weather perceiving us and asking why, from moral or scientific reasons, it and we exist, then he would surely be convinced that the laws that rule the weather have suddenly taken on a complexity that the weather's simple material cannot account for.

Weinberg follows the weather observation with the observation that "human beings are the result of natural selection acting over millions of years..." This brush stroke, prevalent among cosmologists, conceals more than it reveals. It is not significant that it took a long, circuitous rout to arrive at intelligent life -- the human being. The primary significance of human beings is their intelligence, and to say that it took us a long time to gain intelligence is no explanation for what intelligence is or how we posses it. Should the weather or a plant or animal evolve to ask the questions humans ask, then unless we can give a better explanation than that they came to do so "over millions of years of breeding and eating," we must admit that we cannot account for intelligence. We know it is there, we know that it deals with thought and logic and mathematics -- which have no material existence -- but how it is there and why it is there and what it is, we do not know. Here is what Roger Penrose of Oxford (under whom Stephen Hawking received his Doctorate) says:

"A scientific world-view which does not profoundly come to term with the problems of conscious minds can have no serious pretensions of completeness. Consciousness is part of our universe, so any physical theory which makes no proper place for it falls fundamentally short of providing a genuine description of the world. I would maintain that there is yet no physical, biological or computational theory that comes very close to explaining our consciousness and consequent intelligence..."1
I do however, share Weinberg's opinion (with the exception of subjective experiences which can't be used in an objective essay) that the fundamental principles of nature appear to be "utterly impersonal." But I don't agree that they are "without any special role for life." If one considers number as special, rather than size, then the myriad life forms on earth alone, living in every drop of water and covering every speck of land with plants and animals, show that life is special. The number of these complex organisms rivals the number of stars we can observe in our sky, or stars and planets that have come to exist since the big bang.

Life's role is special if an exception to Newton's second law of thermodynamics is special. Newton's second law of thermodynamics declares that, as a general rule, things tend to chaos. Life, however, exists as an exception to this general rule. It stops chaos in its tracks and rearranges matter in an order more complex than the whole physical universe. That it came together repeatedly over billions of years and against virtually impossible odds makes it special if "special" has any meaning.

In his "Designer Universe?" Weinberg maintains that the universe is not so finely tuned to accommodate life as some physicists have argued. The example these physicists give is the occurrence of carbon, which is essential to life, and the narrow parameters within which carbon is produced. Weinberg shows how the parameters for carbon are not as close as these physicists suppose they are, because carbon can be produced in ways that these physicists have not taken into account. I have no idea who is right, I am no physicist, but I do know that however essential it is to life, carbon is not life, especially not conscious life. One may know that gas is necessary to make his car run and have no conception of what an internal combustion engine is. It is unlikely that Weinberg can tell how conscious life began if he cannot tell what it is.

Weinberg is right that science explains more adequately than religion what the natural laws are, and why, if they were "slightly different" we would find ourselves in "logical absurdities." But that point only emphasizes the balance in the machine, the why of which science has no idea. He is also right that religious theories are infinitely flexible, such that they are useless in describing the laws of nature. He is wrong, however, in saying that the tuning that brought about life is not as fine tuned as some scientist claim, and religion is right to say that such fine tuning is absurd if not miraculous. Perhaps these things are not as fine tuned in some areas, but in others they are fine tuned to a mystifying degree. We can't know how fine tuned things have to be to bring about the universe -- what fine tuning is there between is and is not? It is telling that in precisely the instance when his expertise is called on, it fails him. "I have to admit that, even when physicists will have gone as far as they can go. When we have a final theory, we will not have a completely satisfying picture of the world."

Nor will religion, at least not Christianity. Christianity knows that it cannot have a completely satisfying picture of the world until God makes the world -- including Christians -- more satisfactory, until He reconciles the world to himself (II Cor. 5: 18, 19; NIV).

Weinberg concludes his essay with a personal note about his own reasons for not believing in a designer: his mother died of cancer, his father was destroyed by Alzheimer's disease, and scores of his second and third cousins were murdered in the holocaust. For him, he says, "signs of a benevolent designer are pretty well hidden." Weinberg's reasons for atheism are good reasons. They shake me because I have no answer for why a good god would allow such misery to continue. I consider my own argument for design shallow when compared with the questions the existence of evil compels me to ask. But in hopes that there will be some reconciliation between Weinberg's misery and my own near ecstasy at times, I must point out that Weinberg's description of pain and death in the world is drawn from a moral/ethical framework that physics cannot account for, and upon which religion rests. Valid though his argument is as a moral/ethical observation, it does not dismiss a designer as the most probable reason for this turning, humming well organized mechanical device we call the universe.

References used:

  1. Roger Penrose, "Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness," Oxford University Press (1994), Page  8. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

  2. Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan, "The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle i the dark." Ballantine Books, (1997). Read reviews or order this book

  3. Steven Weinberg, "A Designer Universe?, PhysLink.com at: http://www.physlink.com/

Both of the above books are often available used from Amazon for a few dollars plus shipping.

Copyright © 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2009-AUG-27
Latest update: 2009-AUG-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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