September 21, 2020

Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 8.

Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 8.

Chapter 10 is entitled, At Home with Miracle Max: How Science Expands Our Understanding of Miracles.  Wallace begins the chapter by reviewing the Miracle Max scene from the movie, The Princess Bride where the characters Inigo and Fezzick bring the seemingly dead “Man in Black” to Miracle Max in a last ditch effort to get their quest back on track.

The money quote from the scene is when Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) says, “Well it just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead.  There is a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.  Mostly dead is slightly alive. Now all dead – with all dead, there is usually only one thing you can do.”

“What’s that”, asks Inigo.

“Go through his clothes and look for loose change.”

Wallace says this scene has something to teach us about miracles that challenges the common understanding of the word.  He then recites the story of Grayson Kirby who in 2014 was thrown from a vehicle and thought to be dead on arrival at a hospital.  He was put on the array of machines and was in a coma for ten days.  Doctors gave him a 5% chance to survive and even if he survived he would never be the same.

He made a full recovery, which the doctors could not explain.  But his friends and family credit to it to their Christian faith and prayers of people around the world who responded to their pleas on Facebook.  He appeared on the Steve Harvey show and told Harvey there wasn’t a doubt in his mind that prayer got him a miracle.

Wallace says that in most people’s minds there are two worlds.  First is a natural world where doctors and other scientist see and understand.  In that world Kirby had no hope.  But prayers lifted to God enter the second world of the supernatural where God hears the prayers and reaches down into the natural world and heals someone like Kirby.  But Wallace says the biblical authors did not have this strict dichotomy:

“The biblical authors felt no such need, because for them, the division between natural and supernatural did not exist.  Miracles were special events, but they were easily integrated into a world in which God acted everywhere, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in big ways, but all the time and with human beings in mind.  There were miracles and there were non-miracles, but no bright line was drawn between them.  Miracles were woven seamlessly into the Bible’s cosmic tapestry.

Our worldview is unbiblical.  This a fact, not a judgement.  We see things differently than the authors of Scripture did.  The world has changed in many ways since the Bible was written.  In particular, science has radically altered our view of God’s creation and our place within it.”

Wallace then points out that a number of prominent scientists claim that science disproves miracles.  In their viewpoint scientific knowledge trumps every other form of knowledge, and there should be no room anymore in anybody’s thought process for parting seas, virgin births, water turning into wine, or resurrection from the dead.  Science has proved all these things impossible, they didn’t occur because they couldn’t occur, and any other explanation for them, no matter how far-fetched, is more reasonable than miracle.

He then lays a large part of the blame for this on Isaac Newton.  Newton formulated the basic laws of mechanics and gravity in his 1687 brilliant work Principia.  Newton’s overall view was that objects move because external forces make them move.  Newton ruled out freedom because every effect had a cause.  Causes lead to effects, which themselves are causes for subsequent effects, and so on forever.  Now Newton himself did not eliminate God or miracles, but his mechanical viewpoint eventually spread out to encompass all things and events, including biological, cultural, artistic, and religious activities. He effectively removed God from the universe except as divine tinkerer, who only occasionally intervened.  As Wallace says:

“There are no surprises in such a universe, and no miracles. If we could somehow know the precise location and speed of every particle in Newton’s cosmos at the present time – and in that cosmos, there’s no reason in principle why we couldn’t – then we could know the past and predict all events out into the infinite future.  This impersonal and closed universe, fixed and predetermined, hold little in common with the God-saturated, miracle-rich world of Scripture… Newton as much as anyone, separated the natural from the supernatural and laid the foundation for our definition of miracles.”

This mechanical view of the universe has largely ruled Western thought since Newton’s time.  It why scientists like the late Stephen Hawking viewed reality as fully explained by natural causes: “Because there are laws such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.”  Or Richard Dawkins to say: “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.”

But here’s the thing, Wallace says, science has moved on since Newton (and Hawking and Dawkins as well).  Quantum mechanics contradicts Newton.  At the quantum level, well defined and absolute limits restrict what we can know; the future can’t be predicted, and the past can’t be known, even with perfect knowledge of the present, which we absolutely can’t have.  Newtonian cause and effect does not exist; matter smooths out into waves, indefinite and ghost-like; systems occupy multiple states at the same time; particles spontaneously pop into and out of existence; and information seems to travel instantaneously from one place to another, apparently breaking even Einstein’s cosmic speed limit.  This counterintuitive but real world lies at the roots of everything.

Quantum mechanics points out the insufficiency of the mechanistic view of the cosmos.  In addition, we have no idea what theory may lurk beneath quantum mechanics.  But we do know now that the world has not been sealed off as a kind of closed mechanism; it unfolds moment by moment, open and always new.  The science of quantum mechanics has taught us that the division we have created between natural and supernatural does not correspond to anything in reality.  There is only one world, and God is always working in it.  Sometimes this looks like science and sometimes it looks like miracle, but it is always there, ever drawing us toward new understandings, new relationships, and new life.

 

Comments

  1. Iain Lovejoy says

    The Dawkins quote is just classic Dawkins – basically meaningless rhetoric made to sound science-y. The Hawking quote is more interesting – it starts “Because there are laws such as gravity … ” I think most theologians and theist philosophers (and theist scientists for that matter), at least those that hold to the classical theist concept of God, would see the flaw in Hawkings’ reasoning right there. The very existence of ordered, predictable laws such as gravity, the whole intricate, beautifully contrived mechanism of the universe which produces and sustains the world wecsee around us is by far the strongest argument for God. It is not random but ordered and the very scientific laws that Hawking points to as explanations for the universe *are*, effectively, the universe, and the thing that requires explanation.
    I am a bit wary of invoking quantum theory in defence of God – it feels a bit God-of-the-Gaps-y to me. As I understand the “Biblical” world view, *all* things that happen are equally the work of God. In the main he operates in known, predicable ways: you plant the seed, he makes it grow, he brings the rain from the sea onto the land and makes the water flow downhill to the sea again, he moves the stars and planets in ordered courses that can be plotted and predicted and operate in known ways etc etc. All these were “natural” laws which I suspect they understood as similar concepts to the “scientific” laws we refer to today, and sought in a similar (if less systematic) way to understand them and how they operate. If things happened in unpredictable, unaccountable ways to further the aims of God (“miracles”) I am not sure that it would to them matter much whether the event could be traced back to God arranging it through a juxtaposition of “natural” events and “natural” causes or through some other (to us thus far) entirely inexplicable mechanisms. Quantum theory is just one other natural / scientific mechanism by which God operates.
    I think what Newton and various other discoveries, and perhaps even more our spectacular technological advances, may have done is fool us into thinking we know everything and can do everything, perhaps also that because we understand the operation of natural laws we are somehow also responsible for creating them, or at least making them work. Perhaps this is our tower of Babel which quantum discoveries and (so I understand it) ever more confusing cosmological discoveries are about to throw into disarray?

  2. Quantum mechanics points out the insufficiency of the mechanistic view of the cosmos. In addition, we have no idea what theory may lurk beneath quantum mechanics. But we do know now that the world has not been sealed off as a kind of closed mechanism; it unfolds moment by moment, open and always new.

    It also points up the insufficiency of schools of theology that so emphasize the sovereignty of God that the freedom of human beings (and the rest of creation!) is in effect nonexistent. The world is not “sealed off as a kind of closed” divine “mechanism”.

    • And if you reply that those rules are not in effect valid, be prepared to answer my follow-up questions: Then why is it wrong (as I believe it must be wrong) to insist that there are “alternative facts” to explain political and social realities and events? And, if it is wrong to so insist, how, apart from using the tools of logic, do we distinguish between the real facts and unreal “alternative facts”?

      • I meant to attach this comment to my comment below.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Simple.
        If they agree completely with MEEEEEE, they are Real Facts.
        If not, they are Fake News.

        • only convenient truths allowed in trumpland

          • David Greene says

            And “alternative facts.”

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            And in SJW-land.
            Which in many ways is a funhouse-mirror reflection of Trumpland.
            Like Communism and Objectivism, which is which?

            When things get this polarized you’re in the position of the German people in 1933. Whichever extremist faction wins, the rest of us lose.

            • given a choice, I’d opt for whichever ‘faction’ refuses to hurt immigrant children

            • The German people of 1933 were not neutral and helpless pawns of opposing political factions. The vast majority of them were fully on the side of National Socialism; especially when it manufactured economic successes and seemed to restore national pride after the defeat of WWI, they zealously threw in with it. The believed National Socialism was saving their nation.

    • David Greene says

      Yes!

  3. Question: If “Newtonian cause and effect does not exist”, if “systems occupy multiple states at the same time”, if “information seems to travel instantaneously from one place to another, apparently breaking even Einstein’s cosmic speed limit”, if this “counterintuitive but real world lies at the roots of everything”, does this mean that the formal rules of logic, which preexisted and stand behind the thinking of Einstein, Newton, the Enlightenment, science itself, the philosophies of the Middle Ages and the Classic era, are not valid?

    • It seems to me that the classical laws of logic are intrinsically linked to the idea, and experience, that physical reality is in certain fundamental ways consistent. The principle of non-contradiction, which can be stated thus, “A thing cannot both be and not be in the same respect and at the same time,” is a principle drawn from the consistency of natural phenomenon; if quantum physics rejects such principles along with the underlying consistent physical realities that support them, such as when it says that “systems occupy multiple states at the same time”, what tools are we left with to distinguish between truth and error, or between the truth and a lie?

      • Well, the thing is, those Newtonian laws *do* work to a reliable degree. Electric current flows, planes fly, apples fall, and rockets can be very precisely aimed at other planets in very complex orbits. Taking quantum physics into account, what we seem to have is Order consistently arising out of chaos.

        Now, where have I heard that before…? 😉

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > those Newtonian laws *do* work to a reliable degree

          Yep. It is easy to slip into a binary|boolean error; Newton was not wrong, neither was he “right”. He accurately observed the consequences of a system he had no hope of perceiving.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            And Newtonian physics WORKS as long as you’re not at the point where relativistic effects become measurable and macro enough that quantum effects are not measurable.

            As an aside, “Quantum” is also used in fringe literature as a catchall explanation for a lot of paranormal woo-woo. Which just confuses the issue.

  4. A few standard tropes jump out at me with the story of Mr. Kirby, who I’m glad is still with us, enjoying his life.

    Q1: Why are physicians’ estimates of recovery probabilities treated as ex cathedral pronouncements rather than just their best guesses?

    Q2: But assume a physician is indeed highly accurate in her assessment. If she says 5% of such patients as have a particular injuries or illnesses will survive, doesn’t that mean she thinks…. some of them will survive? Like, 5% maybe? Why then dub such occurrences miraculous at all? It’s precisely what she predicted.

    Q3: Why does the fact that a doctor can’t explain the nature of the recovery mean there was a miracle? Isn’t this just a run of the mill God of the Gaps argument?*

    * Life is too short to try to insert 6 grammatically correct hyphens in this sentence on a smartphone.

    • Re: “ex cathedral” pronouncements bring to mind a song by Steve Taylor, ca. 1987, letting us know about the prior state of a discotheque.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      This. Apart from the very valid ex cathedra argumsnt, consider that a 5% survival rate implies that 1 in 20 such patients will survive. Taking account of the number of motor vehicle accidents, finding such survivors is barely a surprise. Apart from which medical science is very much still developing. New things being learnt, other ideas being discarded. While mr Kirby and friends can take hope and joy from their faith, a fine and wholesome thing, to use this wonderful event as a de(i) facto argument is intellectually a bit less than rigorous, it being full of gaps….

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        To be fair, what was said was that there was only a 5% chance of simply surviving, and if he survived he would “never be the same” – I.e. 0% chance of a *complete* recovery, which is what actually happened, and what is lacking is an explanation of how there was a complete recovery, when such a possibility had been ruled out. *That* is the surprise, not simply that he didn’t die. (Still doesn’t actually amount to proof of anything necessarily, however.)

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Anyone else:
    Does that “Quantum Entaglement” illustration remind you of a Crop Circle?

    • David Greene says

      No, not any I’ve yet seen pictures of. But since you brought it up I’m expecting one sometime soon 🙂

  6. Some quibbles on this fine after-Christmas morning. (i love my relatives you understand but quiet and solitude is fine too.)

    It’s not that Newton is wrong. On a macro-level his view gives a workable description of the reality we encounter. The problem is reconciling the data we receive on the macro level and with that at the Quantum level. It will take a Newton or an Einstein to do that and unfortunately those sorts of folks don’t come along every day.

    The Quantum world is every bit as deterministic as the Newtonian world. It’s just that Quantum reality is probabilistic and contingent. I’m afraid we really are going to have to abandon the concept of what’s called “libertarian free will”, the idea that at each discreet moment we are able to make completely independent , completely autonomous choices. What seems to be the case is that our choices take place on both a conscious and pre-conscious level. It’s all us; we just don’t have immediate access to the entire process.

    The facts of the world in which we find ourselves are disturbing and counter-intuitive. But it’s like Rumi’s famous parable of the group of blind men feeling the elephant and assuming the part they touch constitutes all their is.

    I hope everyone had a good Christmas. What will the New Year bring?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      “”” I’m afraid we really are going to have to abandon the concept of what’s called “libertarian free will”, the idea that at each discreet moment we are able to make completely independent , completely autonomous choices.”””

      It is not necessary to abandon what essential no one ever proposed.

      • Really, no one? I don’t know how to respond other than to point out that my description is what most people mean by free will.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          Yep, sticking by my statement.

          There is “free will” and there is “at each discreet moment we are able to make completely independent , completely autonomous choices”, The later is proposed by nearly no one; push a free-willer even with a nudge and the – obvious – caveats and qualifications come forth.

    • I can accept the idea that both the Newtonian and Quantum levels of the world are equally deterministic, but I see no compelling reason why I should accept that either is mechanistic. The world is not a mechanism.

  7. Adam Tauno Williams says

    “””Doctors gave him a 5% chance to survive and even if he survived he would never be the same.”””

    There is also that thing, which most Doctors will freely admit, that these numbers, or the “6 months to live”, are largely plucked from thin air – they themselves aren’t really science. They are ‘gut’ calls based on previous experience. Not worth nothing, yet the “6 months to live” estimates are wildly non-predictive in individual cases.

    Even Experts – real ones – are using more intuition than Science. Which is not to say that their intuition (informed intuition) is not more valuable than some rando’s intuition.

    They felt beating the 5% was miraculous. How about my coworker who has told 6 – 12 months and was dead inside of a week? We have to take both side of the distribution.

  8. Rick Rosenkranz says

    Interesting post and discussion.

    I’m a sports nut. As such, when I’m out-and-about I’ll often pull up ESPN and look at box scores. One of the things I enjoy immensely (and even chuckle at) is the “probability of win” shown at the top of each game’s Gamecast. I’m not sure exactly who calculates this percentage, but I’m not sure I need to be told that a football team that’s ahead 34-10 with 8 minutes remaining is “97%” likely to win. I know that just by looking at the score, the time remaining, and the teams involved. Is it really 97%? Could it be more like 99%? (In 4 more minutes it might be.) Could it be more like 95%? (Likewise, maybe something will change in the next four minutes to bring that percentage down). All I know is whether it’s 95%, 97% or 99%, the odds aren’t good that a team down 34-10 with 8 minutes left is going to win the game.

    But amazingly, every now and then… yes, every now and then… some team that had only a 3% chance of winning at some point during the game — a team that looked as good as dead — came back to win the game. Was that ” a miracle”? The team that was as good as dead might sure think so. The team that lost? Not so much. Or maybe it was just “the percentages”; maybe it was time for one of those “as good as dead” teams to win.

    Hey, if I was Grayson Kirby and injured so badly that the doctors figured I was as good as dead but then ended up living… yeah, I’d probably attribute that to God and prayer. But in reality…? Maybe it was just because 97 other folks died before me to move the odds in my favor.

    It’s like I posted a couple days ago: God didn’t create the Earth to kill, He created it to be life-giving.

    Unfortunately, it’s not so perfect any more and it does a lot of killing. That said, I do believe He has a hand in some sort of life-giving protection and healing.

    I’m rambling. Maybe this post will spur some comments that make more sense…LOL.

  9. Rick Rosenkranz says

    Dang. Comment lost in moderation, or lost in the ethernet, or deemed unworthy by the fickle gods of social media posts.