Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Are We Shying Away From Exclusivity?

I was at an Episcopal funeral service recently and something puzzled me.  The gospel reading was from John 14:1-6a.  The puzzling part comes from the "a". For those of you who do not know, when you are citing to only the first part of a verse you denote that with an "a" following the verse number.  Similarly, when citing only the last part of a verse, that is denoted with a "b."  So this gospel reading stopped in the middle of verse 6.

Why is that particularly puzzling?  Here is John 14:6: "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'"

The reading proudly declared that Jesus is "the way and the truth and the life," but stopped short of affirming "No one comes to the Father except through me."  Over the past 24 hours I have pondered what possible reason there could have been for stopping right in the middle of this verse.  Perhaps there is some innocent explanation.  But given the trend in many churches today, I am left wondering.

Jesus clearly declared that His way was the only way.  His was a claim of exclusivity.  In our postmodern culture, many people find that to be offensive, so far too many churches have watered down the gospel and slip into a practical universalism.  We all are simply expressing different paths up the same mountain, so to speak.

This may be a less offensive message, but it clearly is not what Jesus taught.  Truth, by its very nature, is exclusive.  This is one of the most vigorously resisted, yet easily proven propositions in the marketplace today.  Simply put, to disagree is to argue "It is exclusively true that truth is not exclusive," obviously an unsupportable argument.

So Jesus' statement was a most reasonable one.  The only pertinent inquiry is whether it was true.

This is why I am left sratching my head.  I have tried to come up with some reason why the reading would have stopped right in the middle of such a prominent and important verse.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Inflation, Superstrings and Teleology

            Former atheist Antony Flew abandoned his atheism and now believes in God.  When he wrote about the reason why he suffered this reversal of philosophy he largely attributed it to the teleological argument; i.e., the observation that many of the properties of the universe appear to be so finely tuned that even miniscule modifications in one would render life as we know it impossible.  For example, “if the strong force coupling constant, which determines the strength of the strong force that binds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus, were slightly less, the electrical repulsion between protons would cause all atoms except hydrogen to break apart, thus eliminating the possibility of complex life forms such as ourselves; in contrast, if this constant were slightly greater, all the hydrogen would have been burned to helium, thus causing stars to burn too quickly for life to evolve” (Robin Collins, “Design and the Many-Worlds Hypothesis” in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, ed. William Lane Craig, 2002).  This is but one of countless examples, including the cosmological constant, electromagnetism, the gravitational force, the neutron-proton mass difference, the mass of the electron and many others.

            In any other arena, when we witness the type of precision we observe in the laws of the universe we immediately conclude it is the result of intelligence.  Nobody looks at a personal computer and believes it arose from blind chance.  There are too many complex interactions involved.  An intelligent mind must have been behind it.  Of course, this line of thinking would lead to the conclusion that an intelligent mind is also behind the precision in the universe.  That conclusion is obviously unsatisfactory to naturalists, so they argue that the appearance of design is actually illusionary.  One approach to this argument is to claim that ours is not the only universe.  There are in fact countless universes, each one containing physical laws that vary slightly from the others.  In the vast majority of these universes life is impossible, but we happen to live in the one in which the laws lined up properly so that we came into being.

            There are many multiple universe theories, but perhaps the most promising are those involving an inflation field and superstring theory.  This is how it works.  Our universe allegedly began from an extremely small region of space that underwent enormous expansion as a result of an inflation field.  That field imparted a very large energy density to the space as it expanded.  The expansion in turn caused the temperature of space to decrease.  As the temperature dropped, new universes were formed much like water droplets form when water vapor expands and cools.

            If true, this would account for the creation of multiple universes, but not for the variation in physical laws from one universe to the next.  For that, we have to turn to superstring theory.  According to this theory, all matter is ultimately made up of strings of energy that are vibrating in 10 or 11 dimensions of space-time.  6 or 7 of those dimensions are so compacted as to be unobservable.  The shape of those dimensions, however, dictates the vibration of the strings, which in turn affects the masses of fundamental particles and the resulting forces between them.  If, as the inflationary theory suggests, the universe began in a state of extremely high energy, these dimensions would go through rapid variations in shape, causing different masses of fundamental particles and varying physical laws from one baby universe to the next.

            These theories are truly fascinating.  At present there is (to my knowledge) no experimental data to support any of them, but that does not mean we should not explore them and see where they lead.  After all, how will we ever know if a new idea is true if we discard it before even exposing it to critical evaluation?

            Some atheists point to inflationary/superstring theories and claim that they defeat the teleological argument because, if true, they demonstrate that a designer is not necessary to explain the apparent fine-tuning of the universe.  But is this true?  What the skeptic raising this argument fails to realize is that even if the “universe-generator” proposed by their theory explains the fine-tuning in our individual universe, the fine-tuning in the universe-generator itself still presents them with the same explanatory problem.

            In order for this theory to be true, “there must be one or more mechanisms that: (1) cause the expansion of a small region of space into a very large region; (2) in the process allow for the generation of the very large amount of mass-energy needed for a universe containing matter instead of merely empty space; and (3) allow for the conversion of the mass-energy of inflated space to the sort of mass-energy we find in our universe.”  Collins, 135.  The inflation field satisfies the first need.  The second comes from Einstein’s theory of General Relativity that showed that space expands at an enormous rate.  The third requirement is met because as space expands, the amount of energy in space also enormously increases, giving us the energy needed to form the type of matter needed for our universe.

            So we have the inflation field and General Relativity working in harmony together to run this universe-making machine.  Without either one, the machine does not work.  You also need all the intricacies of string theory to be true.  Why should high energy cause the compacted dimensions to vary in shape in the manner necessary to alter the vibration of the strings?  Certain background laws of physics must also operate for string theory to hold true.  They cannot vary from one universe to the other; otherwise string theory, itself the alleged mechanism for bringing about the variation, would cease to operate.  Why should these background laws be such as they are?

            The problem is that the skeptic explains one level of fine-tuning by proffering another level of fine-tuning that must be explained.  Some critics would claim that this is simply a matter of inserting a “God of the gaps.”  “Sure,” they respond, “we may not know how the fine-tuning of the universe-generating machine is to be explained as of today, but that does not mean we should resort to inserting the existence of God.  If superstring theory has taught us anything it is that we may be able to explain apparent design through purely naturalistic means without the need to resort to a designer.  Given time, we will come up with a naturalistic explanation for superstrings as well.”

            Actually, what superstring theory teaches us is that we may be able to explain apparent design through a method that is equally complex and also creates the appearance of design.  This too begs for an explanation.  But then that new explanation would also need to be explained, and the next, and the next and so on, ad infinitum.  By constantly explaining things by means of answers that themselves require an explanation for their existence, the skeptic has invited an eternal regression of explanations.  In order for a causal chain to reach an ending, it must have a beginning.  In other words, the skeptic claims “a” caused “b” which caused our current state “c.”  As a practical matter they work backwards, observing “c” and trying to come up with an explanation for it, “b.”  When it is pointed out to them that “b” appears to require its own explanation they come up with the new explanation “a.”  But what are we to do if “a” also seems to require it’s own explanation?  In order for the causal chain to ever reach “c,” there must be some initial, self-explanatory, self-existent cause that started the chain moving in the forward direction.  There must be an initial cause.

            As long as the naturalist’s explanations continue to appear to require design, we must eventually arrive at the existence of a designer.  Inflationary and superstring theories do not alter this conclusion.  They simply move it back one level.

            Some may object that God Himself requires an explanation for His existence.  First, this is contrary to the very definition of God, who is a self-existent being.  Leaving that aside, however, only things that exist within time require a cause.  If something exists outside of time it does not change, and therefore never goes from a state of non-existence to one of existence.  Therefore it does not require a cause.  Theism teaches that God created time and therefore is not subject to it.  Inflation theory, however, requires the “cooling” of the universe in order for these baby universes to be created.  This requires the existence of time in whatever state in which these universes are created.  Therefore, inflationary theory itself requires an explanation.

            In conclusion, I personally am fascinated by inflationary and superstring theories and find their potential interrelationship to be a very promising notion for how the laws of our universe could be so finely tuned (assuming multiple universes exist; an assumption that is unnecessary given theism, but certainly not in any way damaging to theism).  However, the skeptic who claims that these theories, if true, would eliminate the logical need for a designer have not fully explored their logical implications.  In reality, we are no closer to removing the need for a designer than we were when we began.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Does God Stay Silent to Drive us to our Knees?

I was listening to a sermon the other day in which the pastor was talking about suffering, and he made an observation that I thought was worth sharing.  I apologize, but I started listening in the middle of the sermon, so I don't know the name of the pastor.  It was a radio program and about the best I can do to give credit where credit is due is to admit that the thoughts I am about to share are not my own.

The pastor told the story of someone caught in an addictive behavior who prayed nightly to God to remove the temptation of this addiction.  But for years the inner inclinations remained.  Most of us ask why God remains silent in the face of such persistent prayer.  A key question that many of us overlook when asking this question, though, is whether we would really be as persistent in our prayer life if we did not have that constant thorn in our side.  Struggle has a way of driving us to God and forcing us to recognize our inability to overcome everything this world throws at us on our own.  When all is going well, we do not often acknowledge our need to rely upon God.  This could result in far more disasterous (and eternal) consequences that far outweigh the temporary suffering we face in this world.  So perhaps God allows some suffering to continue precisely because He knows that without it a person will never come to see their need for Him and never come to true faith.

It is a sad truth that even the most devoted Christians do not pray as often as they probably should.  Our own difficulties, however, are usually what drives us to our knees.  How would our prayer life be if God removed all pain from our lives?  What would our relationship with Him look like if we never spoke?  Perhaps God knows that for certain people, if He granted their prayer requests too soon, they would never pray again, and the relationship would be lost.

I admit to not having reflected too deeply on this pastor's comments just yet, but they piqued my interest enough that I thought they were worth sharing in case anyone else wanted to contribute their thoughts.

God bless.