Another failed attempt at reconciling science and religion

On Monday I received in my mailbox a hand-delivered notice informing me about a series of three evening lectures that were to be given at my local community center this week. The first one was yesterday and was on the topic “Science and Faith-What the universe can and cannot tell us about God”. Since it is a topic I am interested in and was nearby and I had nothing to do at that time, I decided to go and find out what it was about. The notice said that these events are organized by a group named Gospel Odyssey.

The audience was small at the beginning, consisting of just five young people (I guessed high school or college students) and me, though later during the talk another two adults and four young people entered. The speaker was a pleasant forty-something man who introduced himself by stating that he had BS and doctoral degrees in physics (condensed matter), which of course perked my interest as a fellow physicist.

After starting with a quote from Psalms 19:1-3, he showed a series of slides that scaled size scales by factors of ten, going from a proton to the large scale structure of the universe. This was all standard science stuff that many have seen. I was glad to hear him say that the Earth Universe was 13 billion years old, so he was not a young Earth creationist at least. But it was clear from the biblical quotes that he interspersed into his talk that he was a Christian.

His basic argument was the familiar one that the universe is fined-tuned, and that this implied a creator. He had three pieces of evidence for fine-tuning. One was the familiar one that the density of the universe seemed to be exactly equal to the critical density but the other two pieces of evidence (that the net electrical charge is zero and that there are three spatial dimensions) were not the ones you normally hear and are not usually considered problematic.

He then went on to pose three questions and give his answers.

Q: Can science prove god? A: No
Q: Can science disprove god? A: No
Q: Is there a contradiction between science and god? A: No

He went on to expand the last point by saying that there were three categories of knowledge: science, faith, and superstition. The conflict was actually between science and superstition, and it was superstition mixed up with faith that created the perception that there was a conflict between science and faith. He said that faith was not intended to fill in the gaps in scientific knowledge but that it was superstition that tried to do that. He said that science enabled us to appreciate the workings of god.

He divided humans into body, soul (in which he included the mind), and spirit and said that that the first two represented the ‘how’ of life and were accessible to science but the third (spirit) gave the ‘why’ of life and was what had filled a void in his own life and gave it meaning.

He then opened it up for questions but there were none. I had not been planning to say anything, hoping instead to hear what the young people might ask but as there seemed to be nothing coming from them, I asked some questions to get the discussion going. I asked him how, if there was no contradiction between science and god, he could account for things like the resurrection of Jesus and other miracles that flatly violated the laws of science. He said that god had the power to intervene and violate the laws of science if needed and it was clear that he took the biblical accounts of Jesus walking on water and so on as literally true. I asked him if Jesus had a bodily resurrection and was lifted into the sky, whether that meant that his body was floating around in the universe. He said that Jesus’s physical body was in heaven. I asked him how it could be that Jesus’s physical body crossed the boundary from the physical universe to heaven and he said that Bible was silent on this.

So his assertion that there was no contradiction between science and god was basically true by definition because god was allowed to intervene to do anything he wanted whenever he wanted and this was not counted as a contradiction. I asked him if that meant that the miraculous events reported by other religions (Islam and Hinduism and Judaism) should also be taken as interventions of god and he said he did not know much about those events in those religions to make a judgment about their veracity.

After the talk ended I had a brief and friendly chat with him. It turned out that he got his undergraduate education at Case Western Reserve University but a couple of years before I arrived here and he got his doctoral degree from Harvard before turning to evangelism. He is now the pastor of a local nondenominational church. So his path was diametrically opposed to mine since I started out as an ordained lay minister in the Methodist Church but became an atheist after I got my doctoral degree.

He seemed like a nice guy and I would have liked to explore issues further with him but did not want to hog his time when there were a few young people around who seemed to want to talk to him

However he is giving another talk on Thursday on whether biblical principles should inform government and I may go to that too, since I suspect that my views may differ from his.


  1. colnago80 says

    Prof. Singham should have asked him if the claim in the Book of Joshua that the Sun stood still in the sky for a day actually happened. If he answered yes, he should be called on to explain how come nobody else on earth made note of such an event. other then the folks who authored that particular volume. If it actually happened, god would have had to not only suspend the laws of physics but would have had to either put everybody else on earth to sleep for that time period or gave them amnesia after it was over.

  2. says

    What I am curious about is how he thinks he makes a distinction between faith and superstition. It appears that he believes that parts of his faith are inaccessible by science (take his view on the spirit, for instance). I’m assuming he then believes that superstitions are accessible by science (but that perhaps science just hasn’t found the answer yet). In which case, I’d like to see a list of things that he thinks are faith and things that are superstition and why he believes one case is inaccessible but not the other. I would not be surprised to see numerous instances of special pleading.

  3. jamessweet says

    As for the three spatial dimensions thing, I think there is some truth to that (i.e. that it’s important for life-as-we-know-it), in that for instance it is very difficult to imagine complex life existing in two spatial dimensions. IIRC, in one of Dawkins’ books (or maybe it was somebody else… Sean Carroll? Julian Barbour?) he had a diagram of a 2-dimensional “dog”, basically showing that you can’t have a tube that runs through the entire body if you are restricted to two spatial dimensions — which would be a problem, now wouldn’t it?

    In any case, an important question about the fine-tuning argument is: If evidence were uncovered suggesting that perhaps these quantities aren’t so fine-tuned after all (e.g. some variation of the multiverse is shown to be true; convincing reasons why the quantities have to be what they are are shown, etc.), would that then contraindicate a belief in god?

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    I was glad to hear him say that the Earth was 13 billion years old

    Ack! Earth is ~ 4.6 billion years old, the universe since the Big Band is ~ 13.7 years old.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    What I am curious about is how he thinks he makes a distinction between faith and superstition.

    Simple. Superstition is other people’s religion.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    he had a diagram of a 2-dimensional “dog”, basically showing that you can’t have a tube that runs through the entire body if you are restricted to two spatial dimensions — which would be a problem, now wouldn’t it?

    Not necessarily. You could do away with the tube and have interactions only at the surface. Or you could open and close the tube over the time dimension. I.e. a “mouth” opens up to ingest something, then closes back up once it is inside. When it is processed, another opening appears to let the remainder out. I suggest a reading of Flatland by Edwin Abbott to help realize your dimensional bias.

  7. colnago80 says

    Victor Stenger has addressed the issue of fine tuning in several books and articles. He points out that the supporters of this argument only look at modifying one fundamental constant at a time. However, it is a multivariate problem and they appear not so fine tuned when more then one is allowed to vary more then one at a time. It could very well happen that a change in one fundamental constant that seems to be adverse to life may be compensated for by varying another fundamental constant.

  8. Matt G says

    That stupid fine-tuning argument. The best counter-argument I’ve come across comes from Douglas Adams. The puddle of water exclaims that “this hole I’m in fits me perfectly – it must have been made just for me!” Are there other good ways to show people the inadequacy of fine-tuning arguments? I came up with one about a seed truck exploding in a huge parking lot, and the one seed that fell into a crack containing soil.

  9. Chiroptera says

    Well, even if the universe were fine tuned for life, I don’t think we would have any real idea how likely a god created it until we observe all of the fine tunded universes and check to see what proportion of them were created by gods.

  10. says

    The puddle is the best one I have seen for most folks Matt. It gets the point across and is short and funny enough. I have a longer one that gets to the heart of things a bit better for folks willing to try to convince me.

    “Well of course we would expect the Geochemistry and Biochemistry of the universe to develop within the constraints of the nature of reality. This is entirely unsurprising because we expect chemistry to happen. This also says nothing about the origin of those constraints, and bears no resemblance to “tuning” at all because that directly implies some sort of goal-directness. Can you show me evidence of this goal and examples of this “tuning” being carried out?”

  11. Matt G says

    Exactly. The Anthropic Principle, correctly expressed, goes like this: “if this universe didn’t have these precise constants, then this universe couldn’t exist”.

  12. says

    These morons need to establish their particular version of god before they can discuss anything else. After all…

    Q: Can science prove the Invisible Pink Unicorn? A: No
    Q: Can science disprove the Invisible Pink Unicorn? A: No
    Q: Is there a contradiction between science and the Invisible Pink Unicorn? A: No

  13. Mano Singham says

    Exactly. The examples he gave of superstitions were of beliefs that were not part of Christianity.

  14. says

    Actually, I think Flatterland by Ian Stewart, or Spaceland by Rudy Rucker, would be better choices. Spaceland, in particular, addresses the physiology of 2d “humans.”

  15. Matt G says

    Yes, we are the way we are because of the nature of this universe, the universe is not the way it is because of us. As Neil DeGrass Tyson, Phil Plait and others have brought up, the universe is hugely inhospitable to us.

  16. invivoMark says

    As a scientist, he should know how and why science lets us explore the human body and mind (let’s not call it a soul! Blech!). We know how the scientific method works, and why it gives us more reliable answers than other methods.

    What method does this person propose to answer his “why” questions about the human “spirit”? How does this person know that those answers are correct?

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    I prefer my version of the Anthropic Principle: “The Universe must be such as to admit the creation of wankers within it at some stage, because there’s no escaping wankers.”

  18. Reginald Selkirk says

    Yes, but that doesn’t prove that the universe was created expressly for the purpose of creating wankers.
    It could be for cockroaches instead.

  19. Corvus illustris says

    A dimension n > 3 might cause more trouble than n = 2. The physics becomes troublesome because stable orbits don’t exist (I think this is due to Ehrenfest but IANA physicist). Mathematically, at n = 4 you can have periodic Newtonian potentials or (equivalently) have a classical potential theory on a space that looks like S^1 X R^3 (the first “space coördinate lies on a “flat circle” rather than a line) with the “flat metric.”

  20. Matt G says

    Given how plentiful bacteria are, shouldn’t we say the universe was created for them? After all, they were here first, and they will still be here loooong after we’re gone.

  21. colnago80 says

    Is this true for all values of n for inverse attractive laws r^-n? For a 3 dimensional space, only n=2 produces stable orbits.

  22. MNb says

    “Q: Can science prove god? A: No
    Q: Can science disprove god? A: No
    Q: Is there a contradiction between science and god? A: No”
    I don’t reject this a priori as it’s hard to prove that science and god are impossible to reconcile. But there is a question apologists never ask themselves: “which god?” The christian one is causal. The fine-tuning argument, as Herman Philipse has shown, is dependent upon the cosmological argument (no first cause, no fine-tuning). How does your fellow physicist combine this with the probabilistic nature of modern physics? God isn’t supposed to play dice, is he?

    “god had the power to intervene and violate the laws of science if needed”
    This paints a whimsical image of god – one that pushes away reason and logic if he prefers to. Unless your fellow can tell us which standards god uses to decide when it’s necessary and when not.

  23. Matt G says

    I refer to this being as the Intelligent Driver, whom I will not name, but who COULD be the Christian God (nudge, nudge, wink wink).

  24. MNb says

    If no, because of metaphor, he should be called on to explain how he determines which parts are to be taken literally and which parts not. Of course science can (the branch of science called history of antiquity) but that will lead to the conclusion that the Resurrection is also a metaphor.
    Because history scholars also reject supernatural explanations.

  25. MNb says

    It’s another trick of apologists to equate fine-tuning with the anthropic principle. Then they can claim they have Stephen Hawking behind them.

  26. Matt G says

    Reminds me of a saying: either evolution happened, or god created the world to make it look that way. I don’t know the source.

  27. wscott says

    since the Big Band is ~ 13.7 years old

    (emphasis mine) Wow, I knew swing had been around awhile, but… 😉

  28. MNb says

    The one given by Herman Philipse is even better. A fly lands on the White House and claims that the building is specifically fine-tuned to provide him with a place where he can rest.

  29. MNb says

    The nice aspect of the fly analogy is that it makes clear how immodest the fine-tuning argument is. And modesty is claimed to be a christian virtue.

  30. wscott says

    The conflict was actually between science and superstition, and it was superstition mixed up with faith that created the perception that there was a conflict between science and faith.

    That’s actually an interesting way of framing it. Or at least marginally original. It almost echoes Gould’s non-overlapping magisterial idea, with superstition in the middle as an inappropriate mixing of the two. Not saying *I* buy it, but I can see it resonating with some of my Liberal Nonjudgmental Theology(tm) friends, who basically believe the world works according to the Laws Of Science until/unless it’s acted on by God (ie – a miracle). Obviously I disagree with that, but their beliefs give them no cause to be actively anti-science so I can live with them.
    However, if he’s just defining superstition as other people’s faith, then he fails at his own cosmology.
    I was going to suggest Douglas Adams’ puddle too, but I see others beat me to it.

  31. Corvus illustris says

    Wikipedia from google produced the link at the bottom of this (under “Anthropic Principle” via the commodious vicus of recirculation), which with Bertrand’s theorem (you quoted the negative-exponent half) says all I know about the subject. The question of a fundamental solution to the flat Laplace equation with a compact factor in the underlying space came up long ago when it wasn’t known that the Jessen toroid (product of countably many flat circles) admitted a (pre-)sheaf of continuous functions that behaved like the harmonic functions in R^n.

  32. wscott says

    I’ve heard that too; don’t know the original source. Like I said, I can live with people who believe the latter, because generally they accept that biology, etc describe how the world actually works (even if “only” most of the time) and therefore don’t see science as the enemy. As one theist friend puts it: I get my science from science books and my spirituality from the Bible, not the other way around.

  33. Rob Grigjanis says

    How does your fellow physicist combine this with the probabilistic nature of modern physics? God isn’t supposed to play dice, is he?

    Hey, you don’t think that wavefunction collapses itself, do you?

  34. Matt G says

    And how do your friends KNOW when a miracle has occurred? How do they distinguish among what a particular person doesn’t understand, what isn’t known to science (yet?), and divine intervention?

  35. Corvus illustris says

    God isn’t supposed to play dice, is he?

    Einstein was assuming a fair game–though in the versions that claim to be more authentic, he just says that he can’t believe that the Old Boy shoots dice

    “god had the power to intervene and violate the laws of science if needed”

    Look, this hypothetical deity (with all the usual properties beginning with omni- ) doesn’t need to violate the laws of physics–he just loads the transition probs of the Great Markov Process so that things come out to match the biblical narrative.

  36. jamessweet says

    I just want to highlight how much interesting discussion there is to be had about the feasibility (or not) of complex life in otherly-dimensioned spacetime. (And for what it’s worth, I have indeed read Flatland ;p ) If I had more time, we could have a whole thread just about that. It’s interesting stuff — and how very boring to just stop the conversation with, “Welp, three looks pretty good, ergo God.”

  37. jamessweet says

    The “puddle logic” counter-argument is a pretty good one, but not a comprehensive counter-argument. For instance, limiting ourselves only what we know for sure about physics at present, it is much easier to imagine universes without even stars and galaxies and whatnot. Just a bunch of diffuse clouds of matter. I guess you could argue that maybe a “puddle” could evolve to fit that, but that starts to stretch credulity. Stars and planets are a much more plausible way for complex life to appear, and a universe without stars and planets does not really seem like a reasonable “puddle” for complex life to settle into.

    The phrase in boldface is the deal-breaker for the Argument from Fine-Tuning, I think. There are all sorts of ways in which this apparent fine-tuning might be explained away. We don’t know yet which one is correct, but nearly all of them are more plausible than “goddidit”.

  38. jamessweet says

    Matt G has basically pointed out the problems with such a belief. As wscott rightly defends, it’s generally not really a problem in practice, especially for people who believe (without any particular reason — see next sentence) that miracles don’t happen at all anymore… But such a worldview has deep epistemic flaws. It lacks any decent way of distinguishing truth from non-truth. Which is fine in practice most of the time, but it is potentially dangerous.

  39. says

    Because god is supposed to be all-powerful, fine tuning arguments are actually arguments against a(n all powerful) god; they are actually arguments for atheism.

    Let’s say that “possible universes” are represented by the numbers on a side of dice in a jar. Further let’s say that one die has a 3 on all sides and another is a normal die that is labeled 1 – 6. Given that there’s an equal amount of 1 – 6 die and 1-all-sides die in the jar, if I grab a die at random and roll it, and I tell you that I got a 3, which is more likely: That I grabbed the normal die or that I grabbed the die that has a 3 on all sides? Applying Bayes Theorem it’s more likely that I had grabbed the die that has a 3 on all sides.

    This is the problem with the fine tuning argument. An all powerful god is closer to the 1 – 6 die than the 3 on all sides die. As a matter of fact, an all powerful god would be better represented by an infinite sided die since an all powerful god is unfalsifiable and can create whatever universe he wants and simply have humans live in there just because he wants them there.

    Following the math of Bayes Theorem, the more possible numbers there are for the die as opposed to the die with the 3 on all sides, the more likely it is that, upon rolling a 3, that I grabbed the 3 on all sides die instead of the die with more possible numbers. Similarly, the more possible universes a god can make, the less likely it is that said god made this one. This is the fate of any “evidence” for god since god “can’t be disproved”.

  40. Matt G says

    I know a priest who gave a sermon about a man in India who had prayed for his sick wife. As the story went, an aid shipment arrived, and sitting on top was exactly the needed medicine in just the right dose. My question for him is: exactly how did that medicine get there? Did god put it there, or did a person? If a person put it there, did god direct him, thereby creating the miracle? In which case, did/does that person have free will, or did god control that person’s will to effect the miracle?

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