Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Does Physics Lead to God?

Dr. Bruce Gordon, associated with the Discovery Institute (which promotes Intelligent Design) published an interesting article entitled "Divine Action and the World of Science: What Cosmology and Physics Teach Us about the Role of Providence in Nature."

In an earlier article Dr. Gordon criticized young-earth creationism (YEC). He maintained that it was scientifically falsified, and, accordingly, presented an embarrassing obstacle to Christian faith. Instead, he advocated, the truth of Christianity should be given a "credible intellectual defense" in the modern world, "recognizing the full intellectual power of modern science and historical scholarship".

His present article is presumably part of that intellectual quest.

Scientific Proof for a Beginning?
Dr. Gordon argues that Big Bang cosmology is well-confirmed, justifiably believed, and points to a moment of creation, 13.7 billion years ago, when our universe--even spacetime itself--came into existence from nothing. This implies a transcendent Creator (p.252). 

For proof of a beginning of our universe Dr. Gordon refers to the (late 1960's) singularity theorems of Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking. However, these proofs assume general relativistic big bang cosmology under certain conditions. One can construct general relativistic cosmologies where the theorems do not apply. Further, general relativity no longer functions at high densities, when some form of quantum gravity must be used. Dr. Gordon acknowledges that we do not yet have a consistent quantum theory of gravity (p.254), so that at high densities the pertinent physics becomes highly speculative. That being the case, we cannot rule out the possibility that the present expansion was preceded by a previous contraction, so that there never was a past singularity. Indeed, it is not even certain that the observed galactic red-shifts should be interpreted as indicating expansion, although that is the current majority view.

In short, Dr. Gordon fails to provide definitive scientific proof for the beginning of our universe a finite time past.

Does Matter Exist?
As to quantum theory, Dr. Gordon contends that it is incompatible with the existence of material substances. Rather, it is best explained by an occasionalist idealism of the sort advocated by the Christian philosophers George Berkeley (1685-1753) and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). Dr. Gordon asserts (p.297), 
On this view, then, what we take to be material objects are mere phenomenological structures that we are caused to perceive by God and which have no non-mental reality. They exist and are given being in the mind of God, who creates them, and they are perceived by our minds as God “speaks” their reality to us. What we perceive as causal activity in nature is always and only God communicating to us—as immaterial substantial minds whose bodies are also phenomenological constructs—the appropriate formally structured qualitative sensory perceptions.
Thus only minds and perceptions exist. It should be noted that Dr. Gordon does want to leave room for other free (mental) agents. Thus he defines occasionalism so that "God is the sole efficient cause of every state of affairs in the universe that is not subject to the influence of freely acting creatures."

Implications of Idealism
What are we to make of this?

Clearly, Dr. Gordon's idealism does have a number of advantages. It stresses the need for God not just to create the world (or at least our perceptions of it), but also to providentially sustain it from one instant to the next. It stresses also the immanent nearness of God, who is the direct cause of all we perceive. Further, since there is no matter, nor any inherent physical laws, it leaves ample room for miracles, which are simply irregular manifestations of God's actions. It certainly is an improvement on materialism, which has no place for mind nor miracles.

On the other hand, if Dr. Gordon's idealism is true, then stars do not really exist, not even their light that seems to hit our eyes (which also have no physical existence). Then the physical universe is huge illusion, like a computer simulation, and our lives are like a virtual reality game, played within the matrix of God's mind.

It is not at all clear to me how this fits in with Biblical revelation. Is the Bible just another empirical perception? Can the Bible convey propositional truth to us? If so, the Bible certainly seems to speak of a material creation, with real mountains, trees, animals, human bodies; the incarnation of Jesus involves a real physical body, etc. Dualistic views that include both matter and mind seem to accord much better with Biblical teaching.

Realism or Idealism?

Moreover, Dr. Gordon seems to be contradicting himself. The first part of Dr. Gordon's essay presumes scientific realism, the assumption that the entities described by scientific theory (e.g., atoms, stars, black holes, gravitational fields, etc.) exist objectively and mind-independently. Yet the idealism with which he ends up denies the existence of any non-mental reality. This is more in tune with a non-realist view of science, such as instrumentalism, which views theories merely as useful fictions enabling us to make useful predictions of future phenomena.

In particular, Gordon's idealism entails that Big Bang cosmology, with its13.7 billion year age of the universe, has no actual non-mental existence. Such reasoning seems to defuse his earlier scientific case against Young Earth Creationism.


Dr. Gordon ends his article,

In summary, not only is divine action detectable in the origin of the universe and the fine-tuning of its initial conditions, regularities, and constants, quantum physics reveals it to be necessary for the causal integrity and phenomenological coherence of the universe from moment to moment. Fundamental physical theory does not just reveal the mind of God to us, it reveals to us that we live in the mind of God...(p.298)
Are these far-reaching conclusions warranted?

It seems to me that Dr. Gordon places too much confidence in mainstream cosmology, much of which is highly speculative (e.g., inflation, dark matter, dark energy). Further, he takes insufficient account of the fact that our worldview largely controls how we interpret data, and how we choose theories. Since big bang cosmology contradicts Biblical teaching, Dr. Gordon's commitment to big bang cosmology subverts Biblical authority, and thus undermines the Christian faith he purports to defend.

It would therefore have been more prudent to avoid any actual commitment to mainstream (i.e., naturalist) science. One could simply argue that mainstream science leads to an apparent origin of the universe, an apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life, and a denial of the existence of matter, all of which have no plausible naturalist explanations. Hence naturalist science itself challenges naturalism.

Of course, a committed naturalist could well deny this conclusion, and embrace a beginningless cosmology, opt for an interpretation of quantum theory that retains real matter, argue that our scientific understanding is still incomplete, etc.

The proper Christian response to the deficiencies of naturalist science is to promote an authentic Christian epistemology that gives full weight to the Bible as the inerrant, authoritative word of God. This should encourage Christians to develop alternative scientific theories that interpret our perceptions of the physical world in the light of Scripture, rather than naturalism.


JohnV said...

Dr. Byl:
I've only read part of Dr. Gordon's two online articles. It strikes me right from the start how the theme he presents is so one-sided, non-objective. I mean, we who are on the side of the historical integrity of the Bible do not get the same leniency as to assumptions as he does.

For example, he can assume Penrose and Hawking's theorem as a predicate; we can't even get away with that on something as plain as day as God's existence (i.e. Anselm's ontological argument.)

I'm still reading, but you can be sure that I'm actively seeking those " Big Bang cosmology is well-confirmed, justifiably believed" proofs which he boasts of. If he has such obvious proofs, why would he base his argument on a speculation as a premise? Why not prefer more solid ground?

That is usually the way with old earth cosmologies, including those trying to reconcile the Bible with old age. Instead of citing actual proofs they usually resort to "most scientists agree...", etc. I fail to see how that avails from a scientific standpoint; yet these are invariably presented as scientific arguments. In Encyclopedia Britannica you'd expect better, but that too amounts to a "most biologists" basis. Very unscientific!

I'm still waiting for an actual scientific criticism of the Bible's account of origins. Maybe Dr. Gordon will yet come through, though I doubt it. He's off to a very, very dubious start, as far as I've read.

I write this ahead of time simply to say that I find your summary of his argument a very apt summary, as he states it in his abstracts and introductory comments.


steve said...

Yes, that is ironic. While theistic idealism is one philosophical solution to the conundra posed by quantum mechanics, it obliterates a realist objection to young-earth creaitionism.

JohnV said...

Dr. Byl:

Following is my reaction to Dr. Gordon's essays. This is not a critique, but just my reaction. Hopefully it tells him why he misses the mark he intended to hit.

Dr. Gordon begins one of his essays with the following theme and basic premise:

“So does the reality we inhabit bear the hallmarks of transcendent intelligent causation, and does scientific investigation lead us to its discovery? In a word, yes. It is the purpose of this essay to show how the evidence from cosmology and quantum physics enables us to infer it....

Big Bang cosmology—the currently accepted model for the beginning of the universe—has its theoretical basis in general relativity”

He mentions just a couple of “confirmed predictions” that this theoretical basis has survived. We should assume from this that there have been many such predictions which have been confirmed. But that is where he stops as far as confirmation for the theoretical basis is concerned: he uses the term “well-confirmed” in one of his essays.

This start displays his philosophical grounding. For him the term “accepted” weighs more heavily than it ought to for a scientist. This same bent shows up again when he discusses, although far too briefly, the status of the “anti-intellectual fundamentalists” who refuse to recognize the “currently accepted model for the beginning of the universe.” Without any thought as to relevancy, he would seem to include those with sufficient reason to not believe the Big Bang; to his way of thinking every disbeliever of the Big Bang regardless of reasons is simply being dismissive of science. He seems not to realize that he is guilty of being dismissive of true faith by just lumping them all into an easily refutable category of argumentation. He seems to have spent no time exploring the depth of the Christian confessions, which includes a deeper appreciation of what natural revelation speaks with authority than modern science seems to have.


JohnV said...


So, basically, Dr. Gordon doesn't understand why some of us do not go along with his convictions. Quite simply, he doesn't address our concerns.

For me it is the ease with which he dismisses Sola Scriptura. Many do not notice this, but scientific objectivity is closely tied to Sola Scriptura: only the facts, only what is absolutely true. So it is not surprising to see him easily dismiss objectivity as well.


JohnV said...

ctd. (again)

As for Dr. Gordon's stated theme, the Big Bang as a proof of God's existence, he seems unfamiliar with the debate itself. His is just a variation of Aquinas' system, a combination of a couple basic concepts within Aquinas' five proofs. But very basic, as he is easily willing to take giant leaps in logic (a "leap of faith" of the blind kind, and not of the Christian kind) here as he does in his science.

Okay, I'm done now.

I usually do not spend much time on articles that are not directly tied to people in our federation of churches. I generally keep to my own circle because that's where I have a responsibility to speak out.

But the theistic evolution side is quiet in that circle right now. And I think it is important to re-establish key points of the issue that the pro-evolution side puts into the shadows so as the be enabled to carry their arguments forward.

I agree with you, Dr. Byl: if Dr. Gordon's theory of beginnings fails, which it does, then it would imply that this pointing to a transcendent creator also falls away. He does more damage than good by tying a proof of God's existence to such a poor grounding.


Anonymous said...

Idealism does not undercut realism. It only undercuts the idea that material substance is something solid. If Berkeley's arguments are correct, and I think they are as strongly supported as a philosophical theory could be, then our idea of matter as anything other than perceptual qualities fails. It doesn't mean that God may not organize our perceptions in a systematic whole.

john byl said...

Hi Blake

The relevant question is not whether our perceptions are organized by God in a systematic whole (I grant that), but whether there is anything physical beyond our perceptions. Scientific realism, as I noted, holds that theoretical entities such as atoms and stars exist objectively and mind-independently, contrary to idealism.

If you want to comment further, please use your real name (see rules below).

Anonymous said...

I don't think the use of the word "illusion" would be appropriate for theistic idealism, since ideas in the divine mind- contingently actualized in creation- are the only sort of thing which has ontological content in the first place. A thing being present "only" in Mind does not make it unreal, but infinitely real, since this is the eternal, infinitely personal reality. After all, "God remembered" is the hope. Death is to be "forgotten" by God. I am not sure why theistic idealism leads to antirealism. There really are theoretical truths. The mental is real. God really does actively operate and govern the cosmos according to mathematically rich patterns.

I'm not sure Dr. Gordon's view on causality, but Christian idealism is compatible with real causality for this reason: a thing's set of causal relations, its being the efficient cause of another thing acquiring X property, is really intrinsic to its nature. The principle of that nature is the idea in the Mind of God contingently realized in the creative act. All things are governed and sustained as exactly what they are by God. The only reason that I can use a hammer to strike a nail is because God sustains me in what I am, the hammer and constituent parts as what it is, and the nail as what it is. But I, in moving the hammer, utilize my capacity to actualize its potential for motion and pressure which, in turn, actualizes the potential of the nail to break through wood in its being pressed.

God is actively sustaining and upholding this entire system. He is causing the hammer to do X to the nail and the nail to do Y to the wood. But this isn't arbitrary: He created me, the wood, and these metals, with certain intelligible natures which entail this set of causal relations.

I would make the analogy of music. A symphony certainly has its own internal mathematical structure. It is written according to certain patterns of repetition and beauty. Music can even be mathematically quantified and understood to some degree. But the existence of that symphony doesn't make a single sound. The orchestra needs to actively realize the idea of the symphony according to its internal patterns and principles. God is the Divine Musician who actively works to sustain creation according to its regularities, acting "specially" within it but consistently with its overall order to carry the symphony to its next movement. The incarnation of the Word and His resurrection from the dead utterly transformed history, given the internal causal principles of the cosmic system. But it did so in a way that fulfilled creation's original purpose. As Tolkien contrasts the music of Illuvatar and Melkor, Melkor's is pure, meaningless repetition. God's is newness drawn out of the consistency.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the double comment!

Per your comment on scientific realism entailing the existence of atoms "mind-independently", on the theistic idealist view they certainly exist independently of our minds- which I think what matters to the realist view. They don't exist independently of the Mind of God. If the realist wished to define theistic idealism out of the classification of realism, I suppose he could, but I don't see anything at all about Christian idealism which is logically incompatible with the key ideas of realist phil-of-science. Such a definition would be arbitrary. Physical states are not denied by theistic idealists, but are understood to be particular instantiations of divine mental states. They're just as real as everyone else thinks- the difference, I'd argue, is that if you press others hard enough, they won't be able to give an account of the ontological content they are attributing to "matter." I don't think that anything other than theistic idealism is metaphysically possible as reality- if the logic is explored to its full conclusion, other views would end in self-contradiction, IMO. So to describe the creation as "less real" than on dualist views wouldn't make sense- there's no other way that things actually could exist. This is what it means to exist and to be real. "Truth" is reality as it is seen by God. We are to conform our minds to His and see creation rightly.

john byl said...

Hi Thomas

I concur with much of what you say about idealism, regarding the reality of mental states and causality.

Of course, then we have to differentiate between two types of ideas; type M concerning ideas of material things and their causal relations, and type N concerning ideas of non-material things. Which just brings us back to the usual problems of how these two types of ideas relate. And then Dr. Gordon's interpretation of quantum mechanics leads to the conclusion that type M ideas are really just type N ideas...

Other questions arise. If scientific realism entails that certain type M ideas exist, even if we can't experience them ourselves, what is the status of Big Bang cosmology? Are we to suppose that we would have experienced a type M experience of the Big Bang had we lived 14 billion years ago? Who was the recipient of such ideas at that time? Or is Big Bang cosmology just a type N idea, conjectured from our experienced type M ideas? How were our minds created? From certain type M ideas (our parents)? It seems to me that idealism raises more problems than it solves.

Thomas Hamilton said...

I'll make this my last comment since I don't want to clutter your blog.

I find Nicolas of Cusa to be deeply insightful as to the nature of existence in relation to God's knowledge of things. To take the classic question- "If a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a noise?" There's a profound insight in this question, one that intuitively recognizes that the mathematical correlative to the qualitative exzperience of sound is a correlative, not the experience itself. For the theistic idealist, the answer is to challenge the premise of the question. The essential nature of the tree includes its producing certain qualitative experiences. And the giver and receiver is God, who constitutes all things as what they are by His knowing all creation simultaneously from each perspective- thus the perfection of His omnipresence.

A creaturely mind is therefore constituted by the actualization of the potential (a second potency, i.e. one not necessary for God to be God) for subjective experience that belongs to God's omniperspectival existence. Since God is Existence itself, for us to exist means to be sustained in that existence by God's sovereign and creative will, giving something of Himself to us. We have a particular perspective in virtue of our partaking of a certain of God's perspectives.

As a young-ager, I don't think Big Bang cosmology is accurate, but if it were, the receiver of that qualitative experience would be God who gives all perspectives their ontological content. The material, rather than being an alternative to the ideal, is, on my view, a particular instantiation of the ideal: it is a thing existing in a state of partial potentiality. The cosmos which we identify as material is webbed together so that particular things serve as the efficient cause (i.e. actualizing a natural potential) in other things, with God being the Prime Mover who provides for all things their actuality and their capacity to be efficient causes. Thus the cosmos grows towards maturity corporately, as a single body. This contrasts with the angels who were created instantly, as a host, and perfectly actual.