May 30, 2020

Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 7.

Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 7.

Chapter 9 is entitled The Things God Has Made: How Science Enlarges Our View of Life and Death.  Wallace gives a lot of talks at churches.  A frequently asked question is, “What happened before the Big Bang”.  On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable question, when people ask this they are picturing something existing before all the stars and galaxies show up, even if it’s just empty space waiting around for the big boom.  So he’ll explain that empty space is not a thing.  Even space containing zero normal matter and set to a temperature of absolute zero – a condition known as the quantum vacuum – simmers with short lived electromagnetic fields and particle-antiparticle pairs popping into and out of existence.  The answer is that nobody knows what happened before the Big Bang because there was no space or time for anything to happen in.  Both space and time were produced by the Big Bang; and it stands as a wall with no seeing through it or around it.  He will usually tell the audience that, as sensible as the question sounds, asking what happens before the Big Bang is a little like asking what’s south of the South Pole.  The question is out of bounds by definition.

Wallace’s point is that the question is not just prompted by scientific curiosity but there lurks a theological question as well.  Behind the question he hears, “Yes, all this evolution business is fine, but it’s really God that wound it all up and let it rip, right?  People want to make sure that he hasn’t pushed God out of the picture, that there is a place for the Creator in an evolving cosmos.  But there is a faulty assumption at work here, the fallacy of God-of-the-Gaps.  It says God works in those places science can’t reach, such as before the Big Bang.  But the history of science shows that, time after time, science has advanced into quarters previously thought beyond its scope.  This kind of thinking results in God shrinking, because it means whenever science advances, God retreats.

But God is present in all creation, whether there exists a natural proximate explanation or not.  Wallace then invokes the anthropic principle: the philosophical consideration that observations of the universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it. Proponents of the anthropic principle reason that it explains why this universe has the age and the fundamental physical constants necessary to accommodate conscious life.  It’s the observation that life would not be possible anywhere in the universe if the values of various physical constants differed by small amounts.

My friend, the physicist David Heddle, liked to explain the responses to the anthropic principle fall into 3 categories with his poker analogy:

  • Suppose I take a deck of cards
  • I tell you that unless I shuffle them and deal you a royal flush of hearts (one try) you’ll die
  • And then I do just that…

There are three competing explanations…

  1. If I didn’t deal that way, you’d be dead, and we wouldn’t be talking about it, so no big deal.
  2. There are an infinite number of universes, in most of them you died, but there is an infinitely large subset in which you lived.
  3. The dealer cheated so that you would live.

The point is that nothing is evidence for God or everything is.  The world is a miracle, as are we in it.

But the story is not all starlight and fine, sturdy creatures.  If you turn the coin of evolution bright side down and consider its opposite face, you’ll encounter a nasty, brutish affair that runs on chance and death.  You’ll see that Homo sapiens is riding the leading edge of a great red tsunami, a four billion year tidal wave of violence and suffering.  Here Wallace recites the litany of evolution; death is the rule; survival is the exception.  The horrors of parasitism, the endless deaths of creatures so that a few survive, matriphagy – the eating of offspring by the mother – common in scorpions, spiders, and crabs.  Even big mammals like chimpanzees, sloth bears, and lions, are known to eat their young without warning and without known cause.

These too, are the things God has made.  “God’s eternal power and divine nature” has apparently been expressed by billions of years of inefficiency, arbitrary suffering, and violence.  God may have opted for the long road, but it’s a hard and bloody one, too.  Wallace has two thoughts about this.

First we often forget how shocking is the fact that we find ourselves in within a universe in the first place and are able to bear witness to it, know it, form sentences about it, and communicate with one another about these things we call life and death.  We should periodically be reminded of the gratuitous and astonishing gift of existence.  Art and stories and poetry and music and science and walks in the woods and acts of love large and small have the power to draw us back into the wonder, the fountainhead of both faith and science.

When we lose our capacity for wonder, we dishonor existence and forfeit the ability to place death and suffering in their proper context.  The thought of that great red tsunami will overwhelm us only if we fail to back up, take a larger view, and see all life as a gift.  I do not mean to downplay death or minimize suffering but to suggest wonder, which I think of as a pointed awareness of and gratitude for the gift of existence, as an antidote to their poison.”

Second, the Creator has not abandoned us on this beautiful but bloody planet.  God knows firsthand the worst our violent universe can dish out.  God weeps, God suffers, God dies, and God lives.  Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection reveal a truth of the universe as fundamental as relativity and quantum mechanics…

Jesus, no less than you and me and T. rex, was born into the flow of evolution and is therefore intimately bound up not only with human beings but with every single creature that has ever lived and will ever live, no matter how strange or insignificant…

When we accept evolution, we see that God is woven into the very fabric of all material reality, not just the human or even the conscious part of it.  In taking on the violence and suffering inherent in physical reality, Jesus transforms it, revealing the great love of God for all creatures and all things everywhere, here and throughout the cosmos.”

Comments

  1. so evolution is seen as an ‘unfolding’ of Creation only in God’s time, not in ‘ken ham time’

  2. “We should periodically be reminded of the gratuitous and astonishing gift of existence. Art and stories and poetry and music and science and walks in the woods and acts of love large and small have the power to draw us back into the wonder”

    Funnily enough, I think this is a direct contradiction to the idea that “God of the gaps” is a fallacy. It is science that is full of holes, and will remain so because it has deliberately chosen a restricted-but-powerful tunnel vision, compared to the entirety of human experience.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says

    “We should periodically be reminded of the gratuitous and astonishing gift of existence. Art and stories and poetry and music and science and walks in the woods and acts of love large and small have the power to draw us back into the wonder”

    And how would / could all those good things exist without the backdrop of this Universe?

    On occasion I cannot help think back on my own life, some of the very stupid decisions, some of the grievous and shameful choices, and think “If I could change that…” Yet, once removed/changed everything – everyone – else would change. It’s ultimately unthinkable, some decades on.

    In one way the notion of there-is-no-story-without-catastrophe is Sick. In another way, I cannot help but see how it is True.

    “””The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.””” — Tolkien. The same notion.

    Perhaps I simply lack sufficient imagination – or perhaps there is no other way. Or perhaps another way is even more nightmarish than this one.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      Indeed, Adam, I very much relate to the point you are trying to make. In that regard, check out Father Freeman today (https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2019/12/18/getting-our-heads-back-together/)

      “The great Christian tradition, as evidenced in the works of the early Church fathers, understood that our existence was a gift, the gift of the One who alone truly exists (“the Author of our being and our God”). Equally, He is the Good; He is the Truth; He is Beauty. Such things are not defined in themselves and then referred to God. Rather, it is seen that, apart from God, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty would have no meaning (nor existence). We long for and desire these things because we inherently long for and desire God Himself.”

    • Hi, I connect with this and the post (book is on my reading pile). My thoughts wander to what is this God we speak of really like? Some parts seem so reasonable and understandable but there are other parts that just seem to slip away from me and are illusive and slippery.

      It sure seems like one can look at all this scientific information and conclude Yup => God or conclude Nope => NOT God. Seems a toss-sup. Why am I in the Yup God category? Grateful that I am but amazed that this gift is mine and somehow trusting GOd sorts it all out for those who are in the Nope NOT God category.

      • Your comment resonates with me, Peter. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

        –> “It sure seems like one can look at all this scientific information and conclude Yup => God or conclude Nope => NOT God. Seems a toss-sup.”

        Yep. And I think the same can be said for those who don’t concur with scientific information: either they believe there’s a God involved with the world or they don’t.

  4. ” Art and stories and poetry and music and science and walks in the woods and acts of love large and small have the power to draw us back into the wonder, the fountainhead of both faith and science.”

    ‘the wonder’ seems to be something we are born with and experience more easily as children and then . . . well, something goes sideways and we no longer can ‘see’ the world in the same way as before . . . but myth and ‘story’ are in our DNA and will ‘surface’ given a chance, if not consciously, then in our dreams.

    I think we hold ‘memories’ in our DNA from ancient times and places where our ancestors lived . . . it’s just my own theory, but it would at least explain why we seem so drawn to places we’ve never been before as though there was some ‘recognition’ (deja-vu). It’s like we want ‘to go home’ but we don’t know where it is or how to get there, but still we ‘know’ this and it helps to understand a bit more about THE ‘story’ of our ‘origins’ in this world and why it is that ‘home’ is sensed as a “destination” as we sojourn toward our “destiny” as human ‘persons’ in this life . . . some thoughts

    maybe ‘imagination’ is a gift from God, so to us ‘The Story’ can be envisioned and we can ‘relate’ to it from a far-off memory of ‘Eden’ before ‘the Fall’ in some part of us, especially since Our Lord ‘assumed’ our very humanity into Himself in order to save it in the Incarnation, and some part of us that has no words ‘knows’ of this connection to the very ground of ‘being’ itself which our Maker . . . some thoughts that don’t make ‘sense’ rationally, but wonder goes beyond reason into another realm just beyond the horizon . . . the place ‘where the sidewalk ends’ just ahead in another strangely familiar time zone ancient or future hence Tolkiens’ ‘all who wander are not lost’ . . . . and so is ‘trust’ born in what is unseen and yet ‘known’ with an assurance we don’t deserve but we cannot live without

    • it’s me, Christiane, who wrote this ‘stream of consciousness’ style which means I need more coffee NOW 🙂

  5. “Here Wallace recites the litany of evolution; death is the rule; survival is the exception. The horrors of parasitism, the endless deaths of creatures so that a few survive, matriphagy – the eating of offspring by the mother – common in scorpions, spiders, and crabs. Even big mammals like chimpanzees, sloth bears, and lions, are known to eat their young without warning and without known cause.”
    This reminded me of an ongoing email conversation I have going with my brother. Here is an excerpt:

    “For instance, I have been watching an eagle nest cam on the internet for the last month or so. Lots of great stuff going on there but a lot of not so happy fish and squirrels and smaller birds. Daily death is the essence of sustaining life. That is a transformation that is fundamental to everything. Now is that all because of our fall? Did our sin create the predator and prey and that whole business was never meant to happen? There is a fundamental, passionless violence at the core of earthly existence. Does that say something about my Creator that I have to contend with and sort through? Certainly you could say that Jesus absorbed it completely when he cried out, “why have you forsaken me?” He experienced every violence this world could dish out and was left alone to do it.”

    This is a very small part of a lengthy and winding conversation about the nature of God and whether or not He evolves or is static in nature but the main point here is that violence in the universe seems essential to existence. We are left to sort out the meaning of that and the answer we come up with will certainly inform our perception of the Lord. My brother and I have differing views.

    • Good morning, Chris S.

      my son lives on the water on Douglas Island across from Juneau AK and on his deck he frequently has eagles land for a little while . . . . the place is enchanted, you know with bears and eagles and whales

      Chris, you must enjoy watching the eagle’s nest even on the internet . . . may you someday see them as they are in the nature

      . . . . my son says that when he moved in to the house on the island, there was a giant porcupine came into the backyard and boy howdy did my son feel like the place was enchanted then for sure.
      I told him the porcupine came down off the mountain to welcome him . . . well, it made sense to me. But then, in my old age I’m allowed to understand about these things again . . . ’cause the ‘second childhood’ has begun in earnest and I very well intend to enjoy the heck out of it, you bet. 🙂

      • You crack me up! That’s so funny. Thanks for your thoughts. That second childhood will surely make for a seamless transition into heaven when the time comes. Just one note-The convo with my brother has spanned a couple of years so I’m not sure when I was watching the eagles but it was probably early summer. Absolutely intriguing!

  6. –> “When we accept evolution, we see that God is woven into the very fabric of all material reality, not just the human or even the conscious part of it. In taking on the violence and suffering inherent in physical reality, Jesus transforms it, revealing the great love of God for all creatures and all things everywhere, here and throughout the cosmos.”

    I’m guessing even those who don’t accept evolution would say the same thing, that they see God woven into the very fabric of all material reality, etc etc.

    • Iain Lovejoy says

      You are right, I think. This concept of God was around way before Darwin was even heard of. It would be more accurate to say that if you accept evolution you need to have this concept of him to accept God at all. I think it also the case that those who insist that evolution is incompatible with the belief in God (whether Dawkins-style atheists or Ken Ham-style creationists) do so because they don’t have this idea of God. They both seem to.have more a “child with Lego set” concept of God, where his creative power consists of having forced creation into a shape according to his whims rather than nurtured and developed it into what it has become and of interfering with the order of nature, rather than being responsible for its order in the first place.

  7. Burro (Mule) says

    This is the way of this world in the day of that other’s;
    make yourselves friends by means of the riches of iniquity,
    for the wealth of the self is the health of the self exchanged.
    What saith Heracleitus?–
    and what is the City’s breath?–
    dying each other’s life, Living each other’s death

    Charles Williams (italics are his)
    “The King’s Coins”
    Taliessin Through Logres

    The (vicarious) Exchange of Energies appears to be the Point of the Universe, whether in the Web of Biology or in the furnaces of the stars, and it seems to be exceptionally violent process. Something is always forcibly ceasing to be in order to be incorporated or transformed into Something Else. A verse that always comes to mind when I meditate on these things is from the Douay Bible “The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent carry it away.” Flannery O’Connor used this verse as a title for a deeply disturbing short novel, which I recommend.

    For all our faults, God loves the War Monkey. There is something about us that reflects Him more accurately than did our more phlegmatic Neanderthal cousins, wherever they may be.

    • Curious and wonderous, the whole thing. Very compelling thoughts.

    • Iain Lovejoy says

      Neanderthals were at least as violent as we were: there are a number of finds of Neanderthals having died by violence, and several uncovered incidents of apparent cannibalism. In so far as speculation as to differences in mental capacity go, if there was a difference the evidence suggests it consisted in poorer social skills, language skills and less ability to function in larger than family groups. They also seemed to have less ability (or perhaps desire) to innovate, with tools etc remaining identical for 10s of thousands of years.

    • Something is always forcibly ceasing to be in order to be incorporated or transformed into Something Else.

      But it is only the willing self donation of Christ that transforms the agony-pocked fabric of existence into Eschaton. There is no taking in his gift, only giving.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        That’s what puts Him at the center, the Clearinghouse, as it were.

        Usurp the center and it will fry you.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        Besides, I don’t know if what you say is strictly true. Father Andrew once said about the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem that ‘they died in His place so that He could die in our place.

        • Father Andrew once said about the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem that ‘they died in His place so that He could die in our place.

          That sounds like theology using the Holy Innocents to usurp the center.

        • Getting used to dying is an advantage in this game.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    When we lose our capacity for wonder, we dishonor existence and forfeit the ability to place death and suffering in their proper context.

    In the history of SF, from the Pulp Era to the Golden Age (1920s through 1970s), litfandom called this “SENSAWUNDA”, and it was perhaps THE major selling point of the genre.

    When the avant-garde “New Wave SF” of the late Sixites aged into “get SF accepted as High Literature”, along with acquiring all the bad habits of Trendy High Literature, they lost that SensaWunda. Now we have a struggle going on between the Old School SensaWunda types (“To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before!”) and the More Woke Than Thou litsnobs who gave us Sociopolitical Mundane SF (“Celebrate DIVERSITY and Eat Your Brussels Sprouts! IT’S GOOD FOR YOU!”).

    (The term “litfag” is occasionally used for Over-Woke Litsnob. The “fag” in this has nothing to do with any sexual orientation, but an attitude of Avant-Garde, Am I Not Edgy snobbery smugly jumping on bandwagon after bandwagon of What’s Deep and Edgy. I do not know how the word “fag” first got applied to this attitude.)

    • HUG, I concur. Robert Heinlein (at least up to Time Enough For Love), Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, et al did project that sense of “WUNDA”.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Anderson was one of my favorite authors during my college years. And all those used-bookstore copies of Sixties/Seventies ANALOGs gave me a Grand Tour of Golden Age SF.

        You read because you want to read for the SensaWunda. Today’s Litfag Sociopolitical Mundane SF is just vaccinating young people who 40 years ago would have devoured SF against the entire concept. (“It’s Assigned Required Reading! IT’S GOOD FOR YOU!”)

        One of my Old School SF Litfan contacts is “Jordan179” in the Bay Area. Here is one of his essays on today’s “Mundane SF”, i.e. “From SensaWunda to the Parent-Teacher Conference in Interstellar“:
        https://fantasticworlds-jordan179.blogspot.com/2011/05/damon-knight-and-conceptual-ancestry-of.html
        Make sure to go down the links in the Introduction section to his other essays for a complete perspective on the subject..

        Jordan’s blog also has some bang-up reviews of obscure antique SF. Unfortunately he’s also been quite active in MLP fanfic, writing Pony as if it were Golden Age. (40-50 fics — only about 1/3 of them completed — and over 500 blog entries over at his FIMFic account:
        https://www.fimfiction.net/user/137586/Jordan179 .)

        That and financial problems mean he has not been so active on his older blog, but he approaches Pony as if it were Old School SensaWunda SF . (If the SF publishing industry was still where it was in the Fifties and First 1960s, we’d probably both be published authors.)

  9. It’s late but I have to ask, how is the God of Evolution not an unspeakable monster?

    • Burro (Mule) says

      If Pain is the worst thing that could ever possibly Be, maybe you’re right, but I don’t want to go there. There has been a distinct lack of soul-blinding pain in my life, and even I can’t speak that far above my pay grade..

      But I have spoken to men and women who have taken the worst this ab-surd Universe can dish out, a God Whose behavior in those situations smelled uncommonly like Chance, and have come out unbowed and unbroken, even …grateful. They have trampled down Leviathan in his den, and I do not wish to break communion with them.

      • How is it that you are in communion with them? Because of having spoken with them?

      • Mule, sometimes what comes that is perceived as ‘trouble’ ends up being a transformative experience of mercy and we do not know this sometimes until many decades later in life . . . when we can see it from that distance and how it ‘worked’ and begin finally to make some sense of what happened there

        like the Greek philosopher wrote thousands of years ago, this seems to be eternally true:
        ” . . . even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God ”

        . . . a group home for the severely disabled . . . a child who cannot speak gets up and limps/walks to a shelf and takes a musical toy and goes over to a resident on a stretcher and places the toy very, very gently into his hands as we watch and there are no words in existence to describe our gratitude for having been allowed to see something so holy as was this most gentle act of human kindness

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And the God preached from so many pulpits ISN’T?