November 17, 2019

A Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 2.

A Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 2.

In Chapter 1- Two Ways of Seeing the Sun: Through the Eyes of Faith or the Eyes of Science? Wallace describes the childhood experience he had when driving with his family.  As they crossed the Mississippi River, the late afternoon clouds broke and the sun shone with bright rays illuminating the landscape.  Awed, the 8-year Wallace exclaimed, “That’s the Glory of God”.  The innocence of the child’s exuberance made an impression on his father that he loved to retell and retell the story, much to Paul’s embarrassment.

Partly due to that embarrassment, as Paul got older, he much preferred the scientific view of the sun; gigantic fusion machine, driven by gravity, formed from a vast cloud of dust 5 billion years ago, and in a couple of more billion years would exhaust its hydrogen fuel and go dark forever.  He was particularly pleased to learn the sunbeams are called crepuscular rays, crepuscular rays or “God rays” are sunbeams that originate when the sun is below the horizon, during twilight hours. Crepuscular rays are noticeable when the contrast between light and dark are most obvious.

Of course, he misunderstood his father’s love of the story, thinking he did it to embarrass him couldn’t have been farther from the truth.  His response, recognized by his father, was immediate and true in the way of children and saints.  Wallace says if he had been older, he might have quoted Saint Francis:

Be Praised, Lord, through all your creatures,

Especially through my lord Brother Sun,

Who brings the day; and You give light through him.

And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!

Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness. (Canticle of the Sun)

Wallace says he became that “science-nerd” guy; who can never take a metaphorical or artistic view of anything without breaking it down into its mechanistic components.  Fans of C.S. Lewis will remember Professor Kirkpatrick or “the Great Knock” from Lewis’ semi-autobiography, Surprised By Joy:

We shook hands, and though his grip was like iron pincers it was not lingering. A few minutes later we were walking away from the station.

“You are now,” said Kirk, “proceeding along the principal artery between Great and Little Bookham.”

I stole a glance at him. Was this geographical exordium a heavy joke? Or was he trying to conceal his emotions? His face, however, showed only an inflexible gravity. I began to “make conversation” in the deplorable manner which I had acquired at those evening parties…. I said I was surprised at the “scenery” of Surrey; it was much “wilder” than I had expected.

“Stop!” shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?”

I replied I don’t know what, still “making conversation.” As answer after answer was torn to shreds it at last dawned upon me that he really wanted to know. He was not making conversation, nor joking, nor snubbing me; he wanted to know. I was stung into attempting a real answer. A few passes sufficed to show that I had no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word “wildness,” and that, in so far as I had any idea at all, “wildness” was a singularly inept word. “Do you not see, then,” concluded the Great Knock, “that your remark was meaningless?”

I prepared to sulk a little, assuming that the subject would now be dropped. Never was I more mistaken in my life. Having analyzed my terms, Kirk was proceeding to deal with my proposition as a whole. On what had I based (but he pronounced it baized) my expectations about the Flora and Geology of Surrey? Was it maps, or photographs, or books? I could produce none. It had, heaven help me, never occurred to me that what I called my thoughts needed to be “baized” on anything. Kirk once more drew a conclusion—without the slightest sign of emotion, but equally without the slightest concession to what I thought good manners: “Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?”

Wallace, having adopted such an outlook, became to some of his family and friends somewhat obnoxious.  But, during his high school and college years, he thought he had to choose between these two options, which he dubs the “faith view” versus the “science view”.  He chose science, which struck him as the “grown-up” view and real.  Beside it, faith seemed childish and made-up, like a crutch for people who couldn’t handle facts.  God, he thought, was something you’re supposed to believe in until you learn physics. As he says:

How are we to see the sun, and by extension, the cosmos?  On the one hand, the sun glorifies God, bears the likeness of its creator, and stands as an unmistakable marker of God’s presence and steadfastness and power. On the other hand, the sun fuses millions of tons of hydrogen into helium every second and stands as an inevitable product of an impersonal cosmos, a writhing nuclear dynamo blazing its way toward permanent gloom.

Eventually, Wallace comes to see that faith and science are not contradictory, but complimentary ways of viewing the universe.  In chapter two: I’m Pretty Sure My Life was Changed by a Second-Grade Field Trip: The Problem Shows Up and Grows Up, Wallace explains why, as a high school and college student, he saw them as so contradictory.  The second-grade field trip was the aforementioned field trip to the planetarium, where Wallace became captivated by astronomy.

This Kepler Space Telescope image shows our position in the galaxy and the target area the telescope used to search out extrasolar planets across 3,000 light-years of space. The small blue circle on Earth shows the approximate extent that our radio, TV, and telecommunications signals have reached in just over a century since radio was first used. Galaxy painting by Jon Lomberg. NASA/Kepler

The “problem” that Wallace encountered is that which have talked about many times on this blog; the contemplation of deep space and deep time.  The fact that there are 100 billion stars in our galaxy and at least a 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Scientists estimate that the Milky Way could contain upwards of 50 billion planets, 500 million of which could be in their stars’ habitable zones.  Multiply that out (5E108 X 1E1011 = 5E1019) and you have a number most of us cannot comprehend.  And that is just the number of possible habitable planets in the universe. Add to that the countless number of deaths of creatures that brought evolution to point of producing us.  And our little tiny planet in that vast universe will one day no longer exist as our sun eventually runs out of fuel, expands into a red giant during the throes of death, and vaporizes the Earth.

The reality of deep space and time is a Modern problem and the answers to the dilemma it presents to us Moderns is not amenable to quoting some bible verses and Wallace, to his credit, does not attempt any simplistic answers.  In fact, he lists the problems… and leaves them there for the time being.  He concludes the chapter with the following:

Metaphors often help simplify such big messy problems. For our current task, we’ll imagine faith and science as two people and ask what kind of relationship they might share.  We could imagine many kinds of relationships, but in the next chapter, we’ll focus on faith and science as enemies, and the following one, the two as strangers, friends, and partners in marriage.

Chapter 3 is How Not to Chessbox: Faith and Science Face Off.  Chessboxing is just what it sounds like, where competitors switch off from playing chess to boxing.  His point is that chessboxing attracts those who value total competition of mind and body.  He says if faith were content to play its traditional role of connecting us with God and providing ethical and spiritual direction, it would never square off against science.  And if science were content to explore the cosmos, extend life spans, and build better mousetraps, it would never compete against faith.  In other words, he is invoking Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA; non-overlapping magisteria.  When faith or science overstep their “magisteria” Wallace says they make a mess of it.

As an example of faith making a mess of it, he cites the Creations Museum in Kentucky, and the whole Answers in Genesis schtick.  AIG wants to assert they accept modern science, gravity, atomic physics, and cell biology, for example, but reject what they call “historical science” meaning the modern science conclusions regarding the origins of the universe and the earth.  Because they have what they consider superior knowledge to scientific induction; the Bible’s first person account of creation.  From an AIG article about “worldviews”:

There is only one truth source for the past as it concerns the beginnings of the universe, earth, and life—and that is the eyewitness account God gave to us in the book of Genesis. Everything else is merely human opinion, imaginations, and ideas—subject to fallible thinking.

Wallace points out that the scientific consensus is the product of centuries of cautions and critical coordinated work performed by the best scientific minds in the world.  If the universe really was created six thousand years ago, we are forced to conclude that it was meticulously crafted to throw us off the trail and makes God to be a deceiver.  That, of course, is nonsense and the problem is really the nature and intent of the Genesis account.  Are modern readers of Genesis really supposed to read into the account a modern scientific interpretation?  As Wallace says:

Faith shouldn’t stand opposed to humanity’s best knowledge about the biological and physical world.  When it does, it shrinks itself down to a set of rigid and empty beliefs that bear no relation to the heart of Scripture or to the actual cosmos.

On the other hand, science is capable of revealing what is, but cannot reveal what ought to be.  The scientific method cannot be applied to questions of meaning.  Whenever, someone tries to use it that way the “meaning of life” is inevitably given to reduction to the component mechanical parts.  That is not to say that non-theistic philosophy can be applied, it can.  But the honest atheist will admit they are engaging in philosophic speculation as much as any theist.  My point is that it is still a different category of human knowledge.  In the final analysis, “God did it” and “the universe did it” are the same answer.

My contention is that it takes a person to judge meaning… always.

Comments

  1. To engage in questions of meaning, whether religious or not, always involves metaphysical assumptions, either tacit or overt. I don’t see how such assumptions can be avoided in questions of meaning. In addition, there is always a metanarrative involved in those questions and the discussions that follow from them; they always involve a universal framework as the setting for the meanings they find.

  2. I’ve always been mystified by accusations describing scientific explanations as “reductionist”. It seems to me to betray a massive lack of imagination. How can one confront the processes involved in planet and star and galaxy and universe formation and not be utterly astounded? Who can contemplate the Hubble Deep Field without astonishment? Only a narrow and constricted consciousness. (This is what is most sad about YEC. What a rinky-dink little world to try to live in!)

    As for “meaning”, much of reality as we perceive it has no meaning. Not because it’s meaningless but because it’s beyond all that. What does chlorophyll “mean”? What does Continental Drift “mean”? That’s asking the wrong question. Actually I don’t think we derive meaning – we create it. This surely is part of being the ‘Imago Dei’.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      I would agree. The problem with questions of meaning are the answers to the questions of meaning. This is because those answers are bound to the time and culture and individuality of the one who answers. One cannot test the imbued meaning. Its success is bound the psychology of the receiver.

    • I don’t see that creating meaning and deriving it exclude each other. It’s both/and. The ability to make meaning out of the given world, chlorophyll, continental drift, etc., is itself derived, and points to an overarching meaning that transcends the ability and is its source.

      • Fr Stephen writes that meaning is neither created nor derived; it’s discovered. I like this – fits with revelation and love.

        Dana

        • Christiane says

          beautiful comment, Dana

          Robert F. mentions the word ‘transcends’, and I wondered if ‘transcendence’ is maybe a part of what Wallace is meaning here (?)

          “The basic tenets of Transcendentalism are these three:

          A firm belief that God is present in all aspects of Nature, including every human being (this is the concept of the Over-Soul)
          A conviction that through the use of intuition everyone is capable of learning of God’s existence
          The belief that all of Nature symbolizes the spirit, and the world is good ”

          The writer Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote these words in his essay on ‘Self-Reliance’:
          “”The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify to that particular ray.”

          Something about Wallace’s writing reminds me of Emerson’s comment, and also about how our poets sometimes write about beauty being born to remain unseen

          I like the idea that we are ‘witnesses’ to the beauty of Creation, that it touches something in us and resonates with a chord that ties us to our Creator even though we cannot know this with the mind, but only with the heart

        • Yes.

        • Perhaps Fr Stephen is a greater artist than he realizes.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      (This is what is most sad about YEC. What a rinky-dink little world to try to live in!)

      The word (coined by an old Sluggy Freelance online comic) is “PUNYVERSE”.

      The attraction is twofold:
      1 (The more legitimate) — It’s small enough that I can understand it.
      2 (The less legitimate) — The Smaller the Pond, the Bigger a Fish I Can Be.

      P.S.Ever notice that in the “Faith & Science” category here, the majority of postings have to do with “Darwin vs BIBLE”?

    • “How can one confront the processes involved in planet and star and galaxy and universe formation and not be utterly astounded? Who can contemplate the Hubble Deep Field without astonishment?”

      Answer – nerds. And nerds come in both scientistic and theological flavors.

  3. A coworker of mine died yesterday. We worked in the same company, but not departments. I had gotten to know him gradually over the last few months during shared break times. He was in his fifties, unmarried and without children, with serious heart and kidney problems stemming from lifelong diabetes. We discussed politics and music, agreeing in the former but not the latter, and our casual work friendship easily might have become a deeper, longer-lasting friendship, given time. Because of his high risk for not surviving kidney surgery, he decided to forgo it, taking one day at a time. His doctor told him one day his heart would just give out; my friend described to me waking up in the middle of the night and feeling his heart valves struggling to open and close. I mourn the loss of my new friend; in the last weeks he had isolated himself from conversation, not wanting to talk about his feelings, his fears, but having to deal with them nonstop internally. The news of his death hit me hard, and even knowing him as little as I did I’m grieving — may he rest in peace. Science will never be able to tell me the meaning of his life, or death; but they have a meaning that survives his passing, and will survive mine and that of all those either of us have ever known, and even the passing of this planet — of that I’m sure.

  4. {off topic

    David Cornwell, I left you a note in yesterday’s comment stream.

    Dana}

  5. I will admit to having seen more than one glorious sunset and feeling sorry for anyone who didn’t believe it was the expression, the art and joy, of a living sentient God who took tremendous pleasure in sharing it. The science is also astounding but can’t include the warmth of a love and personal expression. Wonderful though it may be, the science is only ever an intellectual journey. Occasionally I say something like, “Fine work tonight Lord. You really brought your A-game.” There’s revelry and joy in the thing.