December 14, 2019

Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 3.

Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 3.

In Chapter 4- Strangers, Friends, Lovers: Cooperation, Not Competition, Wallace continues to expand on his version of Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA: that faith and science occupy separate spheres of influence with science covering the empirical universe and faith covering the moral and ethical universe.  His metaphor is that faith and science meet and go out for coffee.

What happens next?  Well, what happens when you meet someone new? You ask questions… You look for common ground… At the coffee bar, they take a corner booth and promptly discover that they’ve both been misunderstood…  Science complains that everyone thinks it’s always super-objective and universal, the final word on everything.

“People think I show the whole world exactly, precisely, as it is, science complains, “But I see through my own lenses.  I do not provide unbiased and complete information about all things.  I ask and answer only certain kinds of question.  I do not stand outside the world.  I am a part of it and share its messiness and uncertainty.”

“I’m misunderstood also”, says faith.  “So many people think I depend only on private and personal and touchy-feely emotions!  It drives me bananas.  I, too, live in this world and am likely to see it clearly as anyone else.  I, too, have methods and norms.  I, too, am shaped by reality.  I am at my best when I engage the world as it is, just like you.”

Then Wallace supposes that faith and science hit it off completely.  They fall in love and get married, and in the words of Jesus become one flesh.  He thinks this perspective is most commonly expressed in two kinds of theology.  The first, he says, is natural theology, that looks not to the Bible or Christian tradition, but to reason and nature and science for clues about the character of God.  In other words, learn about someone by considering the things they create.  The second kind is process theology; that attempts a complete synthesis of science and Christianity.  It rejects divine omnipotence and claims God creates in cooperation with his creatures and is not in complete control of the universe.

All three perspectives he outlines – strangers, friends, and partners in marriage – emphasize cooperation over competition, and maintain that faith and science share a common status, like two fundamentally equal human beings.  In the next chapter he considers how either science comes to rule over faith or faith will come to encompass science.

In Chapter 5- A Universe with a Point: How Science Enlarges Faith, Wallace tries to deal with the words of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg who said, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”  Wallace says that science indeed cultivates wonder and fills his mind but “leaves his heart stranded in the midst of a vast alien dance”.  And yet he says not a single person inhabits a world without a point.  None of us has lived a single meaning-free moment.  He says:

Even experiences of meaninglessness point to this truth, for it is out of our craving for meaning that such feelings arise.  We continually think and speak and write and act on the basis of values like love.  Questions of purpose and meaning (what should be) occur to us at least as often, and nearly always more urgently, as questions of science (what is).  We are bound to morality and driven by love, the greatest of Christian virtues.

And he points out the love that goes far beyond natural affection and gives the examples of Oscar Schindler, Rosa Parks, and James Harrison, an Aussie who donated his unique antibody-laden blood once a week for sixty years, thereby saving 2.4 million lives.

Wallace sets up the “two roads diverge” dichotomy between faith and science.  Down the first road we are moral creatures coughed up by an amoral universe, saddled by evolution with the unshakeable sense of value and an obsession with meaning.  We are, he asserts, doomed to live out our short and difficult life in a cosmos that doesn’t care about us or our choices. We may endure a while, but all things will eventually wind down in the face of endless cold and infinite time.  The universe will not be tamed: it will swallow us.

He says down the second road, our morality and sense of values reveal something as actual and fundamental as energy, time, space, and light.  We belong in the universe no less than electrons and quasars.  We cannot stop living our lives as if love were real and as if it matters ultimately.  So, he says, maybe it is real and does matter ultimately.

Of course, there is the famous quote from Richard Dawkins, from Out of Eden:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

The Ask an Atheist” site expands on that somewhat with:

This is really a two-part question that deserves unpacking. The first part is: “Did the emergence of life in the universe have a purpose?” In brief, atheists believe that it did not. Atheists would prefer that life have a purpose just as theists would. However, just wishing something to be true does not make it true. Atheists believe that any meaning that we can derive from life can only be done here and now.

This brings us to the second part of the question: “Do our lives have purpose?” Each of us, atheists and theists alike, want to achieve something in our lifetime. Purpose can be anything from finding happiness to raising kids to ending hunger and suffering. This is the kind of purpose we each find in our own lives. From this perspective, life most definitely has a purpose!

Wallace quotes P.Z. Meyers from The Happy Atheist:

You don’t have a heavenly father at all.  You’re a mediocre product of a wasteful and entirely impersonal process.  We’ve done the paternity tests.  We are apes and the descendants of apes, who were the descendants of rat-like primates, who were the children of reptiles, who were the spawn of amphibians, who were the terrestrial progeny of fish, who came from worms, who were assembled from single-celled microorganisms, who were the product of chemistry.  Your daddy was a film of chemical slime on a Hadean rock, and he didn’t care about you – he was only obeying the laws of thermodynamics.

Wallace then re-writes Meyers thusly:

You have a heavenly father.  You’re an amazing product of his ongoing creation project.  We’ve discovered a lot about that project, which has been going on for billions of years.  We are human beings, the descendant of apes, who were drawn from earlier smaller primates.  Our lineage also includes reptiles and amphibians and fish and worms and even single-celled organisms.  Like a flower that grows from the dirt itself yet is not itself dirt, we have been gradually assembled out of chaotic and disorganized elements.  You were formed from the dust of the ground, given the breath of life, and carry the image of a loving and creative Father who is crazy about you.

Wallace then forces the point home, that no matter which meta-narrative you choose, no scientific experiment or observation can distinguish between them.  These statements differ only in what is not scientific about them.

Comments

  1. “. . . We belong in the universe no less than electrons and quasars. We cannot stop living our lives as if love were real and as if it matters ultimately. So, he (Paul Wallace) says, maybe it is real and does matter ultimately. ”

    this so clearly makes sense to me

    it reminds me of a quote by CS Lewis, this:
    ” If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning”

    I love how Paul Wallace helps me connect the dots. 🙂

    There is a story in Gail Sheehy’s book ‘Passages’ that tells of the discovery of an ancient skeleton from prehistoric times. This skeleton gave evidence of being a disabled, crippled individual who had survived into early adulthood.

    This archeological evidence of a person born and living to adulthood with such devastating disabilities does credit our ‘pre-historic’ ancestors with having been more ‘humane’ in their treatment of one another than we had thought.

    THE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE OF HUMANITY TOWARDS THIS ONE HELPLESS BEING, gives us a chance to re-think our own sense of superiority over the early humans of that ancient time.

    Maybe the ‘miracle’ of Creation has got more to do with the presence of ‘love’ than with physical strength?

    • Shout-out to Susan in Australia. Stay well and safe. God Bless!

      • Susan Dumbrell says

        Hi Christiane and anyone reading here today.

        Well, the cooler weather has arrived in parts of our State but the fires are still burning, they are just waiting for the temperatures and winds to rise again mid next week. Some fires are in unreachable country. Aerial bombardment is the only option for some of them.
        A number of fires have been started by arsonists. How do they get their thrills? Seeing other people suffer?
        One fire in a Sydney suburb was lit by an arsonist so they aerial bombed it with pink fire retardant. This has caused some interest from the TV camera aerial shots. Their expensive homes are covered in pink in a stripe through their suburb.
        The retardant will wash off home owners have been assured.
        There have been 4 deaths, 200 homes or businesses destroyed and uncountable injuries.
        Our town has been spared the fires so far. We have had disastrous fires over the 50 years I have lived here.
        We draw breath while preparing for next week, and it isn’t even Summer!

        Susan

  2. It seems to me that no matter how many times we trot out this argument, regarding how science is not in a position to affirm or deny the idea of the inherent, enduring, and transcendent meaning of existence, an argument I agree with, many atheists will continue to believe and assert or imply that science and a scientific way of thinking actually supports the idea that it does not have such a meaning. I’m not sure it’s a fruitful discussion; we seem to just go round the same argumentative circle again and again.

    • For the likely few atheists and other not necessarily atheist but extremely skeptical readers of this blog I pose a question, and a request: Do you believe that science is neutral in the question of whether or not there is transcendent meaning in the sense that it is discussed in this blog post, or do you believe that science, and more specifically a scientific way of thinking, favor the idea that there is no such meaning? If the latter, would you please outline the reasons why you believe it favors that idea.

      • Science simply doesn’t have the methodology to address “transcendent meaning”. However if from that perception of “transcendent meaning” you make truth claims about the world then those truth claims science can address.

    • The First Principles (there is Ultimate Meaning/there is no Ultimate Meaning) have already been selected; all else is the mustering of arguments to support our convictions.

  3. Burro (Mule) says

    I have two friends. Over the years I have appreciated both of them for their invaluable counsel. A lot of people have tried to tell me that they don’t get along, or that to maintain the friendship of one I have to reject the other, but I have not found that to be the case. The truth is that they have different interests and different areas of expertise, and they move in different circles.

    One is very good for the practical day-to-day issues; the best way to do something, the quickest way to get somewhere. He is very good with questions that begin with ‘How’. The other friend is better at figuring out what is going on inside other people, at evaluating things in the classical sense of assigning them value, in figuring out the best way to live with other people. She is very good with questions that begin with ‘Why’.

    My friends know each other. Their different orientations sometimes makes it hard to for them to communicate with each other but I don’t believe that means that they should be deadly enemies.

  4. Iain Lovejoy says

    “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”
    This quote really, really annoys me. It is typical Dawkins in that he makes a completely baseless, irrational assertion in an entirely faked “more in sorrow than anger” voice as a substitute for anything resembling evidence or argument. He seems quite unaware that there is almost no meaningful content to what he saying.
    What “properties” is he talking about? How is he saying the universe would be different if designed or purposeful? What does he even mean by “design” or “purpose” in this sentence? Unless he is an amoral sociopath he obviously believes some things are evil, some things good, so what does he even mean by “no evil, no good”? Does he notice the ludicrous self-contradiction of simultaneously denying the universe a purpose, motive or awareness and also anthropomorphosising it as “pitiless” and “indifferent”? He is a very good popular explainer of evolution and evolutionary biology, but as he plainly can’t be bothered to study it at all before pontificating about it, as soon as he departs from his specialist field into religion or philosophy he just ends up spouting this kind of utter drivel.

    • When someone wants to *join* a religion no one stops them and says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa: Are you an *expert* in Christianity/Islam/whatever? Go read 50 books and come back.”

      (I suppose the one exception to this rule is Judaism, which, to it’s credit, says to would-be converts exactly that: Go study and come back in a few years).

      No, it’s only ever people who *don’t* believe who are told they ‘don’t know enough’ to say so.

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        I have no problem with Dawkins being an atheist. What I object to is his writing book after book on the subject of religion whilst knowing nothing about it and not bothering to find out. I equally loathe Christian writers pontificating about Christianity who also don’t know what they are talking about.

        • Well like a lot of atheists, Dawkins was raised as a Christian. And so too most other atheists: Religion isn’t some strange unknown to us: Religion is the water we are made to swim in. Supposedly atheists do better than religious believers on tests of knowledge of scriptures, rituals, etc. Quite a few atheists are former clergy. I mean that’s almost an established life-path in itself. Are we to believe those people simply lost all their knowledge of religion when they stopped believing?

          • Iain Lovejoy says

            I am not talking about atheists generally, I am talking specifically about Dawkins, who speaks and writes utter drivel about religion that he would know was drivel if he bothered to check. Plenty of atheists talk knowledgeably about religion, religious people and religious belief. Dawkins doesn’t.

  5. Speaking of quasars, my friend’s dad was the late Allan Sandage. He was the Astronomer who first confirmed the existence of quasars, first determined a reasonable accurate Hubble’s constant, and made the first reasonably close determination of what most cosmologists believe to be the age of the universe. You can read about it on his Wikipedia page or NY Times bio.

    What is not as widely known about him was that in his late 50s he became a Christian. He did not see this as incompatible with his scientific research.

  6. So here’s the thing: You say faith answer’s the “why” questions and deals with “ethics and morality.”

    So: What do I do when I think it deals with them *really badly*? ‘Cause let’s face it, if faith stuck to the ‘easy stuff’ of morality–don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t adulter–we wouldn’t be in this situation.

    No, faith gets Weird: Don’t have the wrong kind of sex. Sever a small piece of flesh off your infant son’s (or daughter’s) genitalia. Don’t eat pork. Or don’t eat beef. Or do eat beef but not with cheese. Or don’t eat any meat at all. Go and tell other people that they are going to be tortured forever for not precisely agreeing with you.

    Don’t *you* kill, but all those Canaanites or Amorites or people of Jabesh Gilead? They totally had it coming. Even the kids. It’s fine to take the virgin girls as captives, though. For, y’know, certain purposes.

    In other words, what if the “Why” that faith proposes is appalling?