Can Science Explain Everything?

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A mathematician, a judge and an ambassador walked onto a train. It sounds like the beginning of a joke but the mathematician was John Lennox, who is well-known for his lectures about Christianity, and his new friends were completely serious about their investigation of his beliefs. We don’t know what happened in the end, but all three of them clearly recognised the significance of the conversation. Continue reading

The Universe Within

Universe within coverI often mention the wonders of scientific discovery, but sharing one’s latest finding with a wider audience is difficult. Even the clearest analysis needs a huge amount of translating before anyone outside of the field, let alone a non-scientist, can appreciate it. I recently read The Universe Within, a book that succeeded in getting me genuinely excited about geology, which is a rare feat (apologies to geologists, I just lack the necessary training!) It also got me thinking about human history.

Neil Shubin is a paleontologist who’s fascinated by the deep history of the planet. The main narrative of the book centres on the origin of the universe and our place in it, with a good dose of geology on the way. Each chapter is a story of exploration and discovery, introducing the main—and often colourful—characters involved, and ends by showing what the cosmic or global upheavals described have to do with us. The overall message is that we, our bodies, and everything about them that makes us human, are the products of processes that started when time itself began.

Shubin is a fantastic teacher, and he tells a good story, using intrigue and suspense to carry the reader along. Continue reading

Fatherhood and Suffering

© Ruth Bancewicz

Jesus used parables to demonstrate how God reveals something of himself in nature. For example God is compared to a shepherd, his word is like seed, and beautiful flowers in a field are an example of God’s lavish provision. (Alister McGrath, The Open Secret)

But any attempt to experience God by enjoying the beauty of the world will quickly founder unless the issue of suffering is addressed. Much suffering is caused by humans exercising their freewill in selfish ways, but at times death and disease seem to come through ‘natural causes’. The god of the Enlightenment, conceived by well-to-do men in their carefully tended estates, was a distant (deistic) creator of a good world. This philosophy fell apart as people became more aware of suffering and natural disasters occurring around the world. How could a good god allow such monstrous things?

What about the Christian understanding of God? If God is all-powerful and all-loving, then why do we suffer so much? I won’t address the ins and outs of Christian understandings of God’s good creation and the fall. The upshot, though, is that creation is a cracked mirror, reflecting only part of God’s glory. It has been suggested to me that because creation is somehow fallen, natural beauty is not an effective way to God – but I’d challenge that for the following reason.

Jesus often compares God to a father. But no dad is perfect, and some people are unfortunate enough to experience very bad parenting. Somehow the existence of terrible fathers didn’t stop Jesus using fatherhood as an analogy for God. Why?

I think our flawed human experience only makes Jesus’ illustration more effective. We know what is expected of good dads. At times we see glimpses of perfection, and we want more. Rather than shying away from using fatherhood as an analogy for fear of misinterpretation, Jesus knew that our best parenting moments shine out as an illustration of God’s love for us.

On that basis I think that nature, while flawed, can at times be an effective illustration of God’s own power, perfection and beauty.

Wishing away the Higgs Boson – Reflections of a PhD Student

CMS detector, Large Hadron Collider, by Square87, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

This post is the result of an interview with Anna Walker, a PhD student in Physics at University of Wisconsin-Madison. It’s interesting to hear the thoughts of someone at the very beginning of their career in science, and to see some familiar themes emerging.

A lot of people come into grad school thinking they’ve got everything figured out, but by the end of the first year you realise that you know nothing. I think it ought to be that way, especially in a field like physics.  I can make predictions and I can do experiments, but in the end I have to be humble about what I actually know. There’s a sense of awe that hits me when I read through a paper or textbook and learn about the way the world works. I try to keep my eyes open so I can see ways in which the physics that I’m studying is actually bringing glory to God. If I’m jaded it’s very easy for me to lose that sense of childlike wonder at the universe and dismiss what I’m seeing as simply mechanistic.

I’m studying the interaction of atoms with each other and with light. The ultimate aim is to make measurements in different technological applications. For example, one of my fellow students is attempting to detect a foetal heartbeat by using atoms to measure changes in magnetic fields. I am developing a system that uses a tiny volume of rubidium vapour, the atoms of which are aligned and controlled with a laser in order to detect changes in magnetic fields. It’s precise and time-consuming work, but I really like tinkering with things and working with my hands. At the moment I’m trying to create the right sort of magnetic field. It’s interesting because I’ve come up against several brick walls where I can’t seem to go any further. With all the circuits I’ve built before it’s been fairly well known how to deal with the problems, so it’s been exciting to go through the process of starting from the basics. In principle what I want to do should be possible, so it’s a matter of finding the best way to do it.

Of course physicists will recognise that we don’t know very much about the way the world is, but I find that a lot of them don’t think about that on a day-to-day basis. They’re thinking more along the lines of how much they actually do know. Scientists are always trying to get to that next level of understanding of the universe, and they think that if we go just one more step further we’ll understand why everything is the way it is. I find that ironic. At the beginning of the last century, physicists thought they had everything figured out – but it was just the tip of the iceberg. The quantum mechanical revolution came along and changed everything. Now I think we’ve pushed the boundaries as far as we can with what we know, and there’s probably going to be another revolution of the quantum mechanical sort that will blow our minds and we’ll realise that we really had no idea what was going on. Take the Large Hadron Collider. I’m sure that part of every physicist wants there to be no Higgs Boson [the particle that the LHC is hoped will discover]. Either this particle has to be there or we have to revolutionise everything we know about physics. It would be exciting to witness that revolution.

Science and miracles

I’m a scientist who believes that miracles can happen. I don’t think I’m all that unusual. I could name a lot of other scientists who believe the same thing, and from time to time they make themselves known – as in this Nature article.

First of all, what’s a miracle? Miracles are signs of God’s particular grace to his people in particular circumstances. They are events that happen in response to prayer or a desire to connect with God. Their mechanism or timing defies normal scientific reasoning, and show us something special about God’s character. I think this is a Biblical definition of a miracle – a sign; a wonder; something that shows us how amazing God is and how much he loves us. And a miracle doesn’t HAVE to defy scientific explanation – some miracles are ‘ordinary’ events with incredible timing.

Why should a scientist believe in this sort of thing? Put quite simply, if God created the universe he can do what he likes with it! We know from experience that things in the universe can often be reduced to ordered, rational principles, like the ‘law’ of gravity, the speed of light, and so on. I believe that God sustains the universe: if he wasn’t there the whole thing would disappear. And God chooses to sustain things in an orderly way – so we get seasons, patterns and the ability to do science. But is God bound by these laws? I don’t think so! Why should he be? Occasionally he chooses to act in a different way: in a way that defies scientific explanation, and the resurrection of Jesus provides a powerful example – something that all Christians believe happened.

Going back to whether a scientific explanation can be found for a miracle, I think our desire to find stories that defy scientific explanation is a symptom of our scientific culture. If you want to say anything significant these days you need some sort of scientific evidence to back it up, and Christians often buy into this. This makes it extremely tempting to spend a lot of time justifying miracles – especially miracles of healing – as events that cannot be explained scientifically, and dismissing miracles that can be explained scientifically as nothing remarkable, when something very remarkable indeed has happened – someone prayed and God acted.

The Bible doesn’t differentiate between miracles that defy scientific explanation (like Jesus turning water into wine) and those that don’t (like the wind blowing all night and driving the waters of the red sea back – the picture in this cartoon I think overdramatises it a little, but it was nonetheless an incredibly remarkable event that etched itself on a whole nation’s consciousness for thousands of years afterwards) – both types of event are possible, and both are ‘signs and wonders’ pointing to God’s incredible power and care for us.

More importantly, Jesus recognised that miracles alone will do nothing to convince people that God is serious about caring for us. Miracles were an important part of Jesus’ ministry, and are still important today, but some of the people who watched Jesus heal person after person were the same people who cheered for his execution. And Jesus himself said that even if someone rises from the dead people still won’t believe if they don’t want to. It’s only within the whole picture of what Jesus came to do that miracles really make sense.