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Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Faith and Freedom to ask the Big Questions #1: So old, so vast. So insignificant?

First in a series of Faith/Science questions Cliff Martin presented for discussion.

Why is the Cosmos 13 billion years old, and yet man (seemingly the crowning achievement of Creation) has a history of 10 or 20 thousand years only? Does this say something about the possible purposes of God? Or are the skeptics right when they say Christians are ridiculous for believing we are anything special in light of our extremely short blip on the radar screen of cosmic history?

Also, why is the Universe so incredibly vast? If man is central to what God is doing in the cosmos, why is our part of the cosmos so extremely infinitesimal? Does this suggest anything about the plan and process of Creation, and the purpose of the cosmos? Or are the skeptics again correct in saying that Christians ignore this salient fact and are ridiculously self-important.

15 comments:

Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
I think of all the questions you presented, these may be the ones that have least troubled me. From my perspective, the findings of modern science (that the universe is so vast & humanity so small, that the universe is so ancient and humanity is so young), do not make the audacious claim of “a special place for humanity in God’s plan” any more difficult to sustain. Probably since humanity first attained consciousness and awareness of God (I would argues ten’s of thousands of years ago but it’s a tricky subject), we already knew we were “very small”. Creation (or nature if you want to call it that) has always evoked wonder and awe. The scale of our current conception of the universe is quite a bit larger, but I don’t think our awe and wonder have necessarily increased that much.

If one looked only at creation, God’s general revelation, then one could easily come to the conclusion that man is insignificant. But that is where Christian theology sharply diverges from “natural” philosophy – we also believe in God’s special revelation in the scriptures, and even more directly, in the incarnation in Christ. These do make it very clear that God has a special purpose for humanity.

How I answer these questions obviously opens up a lot of other issues (eg. What reason do I have to trust the scriptures or the fact of the incarnation) but I don’t think these are affected by modern science (at least not by the vastness, antiquity of the universe).

So I guess what I’m saying is that many of the other big science/faith questions do affect (sometimes dramatically) Christian theology, and a distinctively Evangelical theology. However, I don’t think these questions do. I’m not sure if this is your perspective or not. Am I missing something deeper in these questions? Is there something else that you are driving at?

Cliff said...

Steve,

Richard Dawkins finds Christians laughable because we attach such significance to our race in the mind of the Creator. He thinks that if God was after a race of people, his Created Cosmos is uneconimical to the extreme. It is on the order of a family of microbes floating on a fleck of dust in my home saying, "Ah, and to think Cliff built this entire house just for us!"

Of course, we need not let Dawkins frame the issues for us, but when I first read his comments, in which he wonders out loud why Christians never even ask the questions, I jumped out of my chair to say that I've been asking them for many years!

Perhaps the significance of these questions will be clearer once I relate a proposed answer. Before I do that, I'd like to know if anone else (if there is anyone else?) has asked these questions, and if they have a perspective they find satisfying.

~ Cliff Martin

Anonymous said...

Hi Cliff,

I did my wrestling with this somewhere between the ages of 11 and 16. I was very interested in science at a young age, and my mom (who worked part-time at the local library) would bring home the latest Popular Science and Scientific American magazines so I could be the first to read them. I quickly grasped the overall expanse of the universe relative to my little footprint, and that humans are a minor blip in the overall history of everything. For a while, I would lie awake at night questioning my own existence, wondering if we were just like a bunch of microbes living on a speck of dust in the back of a huge cosmic closet. At the same time, my faith was maturing and I was reading the Bible much more closely than I had before, going beyond the typical Sunday School stories and trying to take a bigger look at the overall story and meaning of scripture. By the time I was 16, I came to a few conclusions of my own which helped me sleep at night, although I still think about these questions from time to time.

Basically, it’s all about me. Well, not me in particular, but us as humans bearing God’s image. God prepared the universe, the earth, and everything in it just for us. Chris Tomlin puts it this way “Before the day, before the light, before the world revolved around the sun. God on high, stepped down into time, and wrote the story of His love for everyone.” (Chris Tomlin, “Made To Worship”, see the morning). Before the universe existed, God had a plan for us which involved the creation of a place for us to live.

The universe is so old because that’s how long it took before it was ready for us. It needed to stabilize, life needed to proliferate so there would be food and resources (like fossil fuels) available for us, the atmosphere had to have the right mixture of gases, the temperature had to be perfect. When everything was ready, God made us.

The universe is so big because God knew we would eventually develop the ability to see beyond the horizon, into space, and eventually send out space probes and even walk on the moon. Imagine how confusing it would be if our space probes kept bumping into some wall in space and our telescopes revealed that the stars were just lights embedded in the same wall.

Grasping the vastness of space, the complexity of life, and the innumerable conditions that needed to be in place to support life on earth, only reinforced the wonder and awe I have of the Creator. Coming to the realization that this was all done for me (us), really brings home the incredible love that God has for us.

Finally, in our perspective, the vastness of the universe may seem to be “uneconomical” relative to the space humans really need to survive, and the billions of years needed to prepare the earth for human habitation may seem to be unnecessarily long. But from God’s perspective, there is no limitation on the resources available to Him, so why not use however much or little He needs or wants to. When you are the master of Time, why worry about how long something takes to prepare?

Jac

Cliff said...

Jac,

Thank you for your comments.

Of course, it could be as simple as you suggest. God is not in a hurry; 13.7 billion years has little meaning from a divine perspective. And certainly he might have created the vast cosmos just to give us a more interesting view.

However, the scale of the Cosmos goes so far beyond any thought of providing man with a cool Universe to explore that such an explanation defies reason. If the universe were 1 millionth its size, we could still never exhaust its exploration before our own solar system ceases to be habitable. If his purpose was as you suggest, this is a major case of overkill!

The scale of our Universe suggests to us (or at least to me) that something else is going on here, perhaps something much bigger than we have imagined.

Hmm ...

Cliff

Steve Martin said...

And just to throw a curve based on my interest in "Speculative Science narrative" (maybe a better term than science fiction), there is the possibility that the universe is even more mind-boggling than our current conceptions allow. I know that there are Christians that will positively affirm that the “The Big Bang” affirms / proves creation ex nihilo. (And will gloat over the fact that “atheistic” scientists in the 19th century, who declared the universe was eternal, were proved to be wrong). I guess it’s always a possibility that God's “Let there be light” was the direct unmediated cause of “The Big Bang”, but I really think we need to be tentative in affirming connections between the scientific and the theological. What if we determine that “The Big Bang” is simply the last in a long line (possibly infinite?) of “Big Bangs” and “Big Crunches”? What if our universe that resulted from the Big Bang is simply one of many in the multiverse?

Cliff said...

Steve,

You are quite right about holding to our more speculative understandings with cautioned tentiiveness. However, I view the "multiverse" notion as a kind of desparate attempt on the part of athiests/agnostics to construct an eternal reality which requires no First Cause. The whole idea seems wildly fanciful to me. When Einstien saw how the expanding Universe led to the logical conclusion of a First Event and therefore a First Cause and therefore a Creator, he felt confident that we had "scientific proof" of God. Maybe he overstated things a bit. But for now, I've seen nothing to reasonably dislodge that conclusion.

Even having said that, the multiverse must remain on the table as a possibilility. But it is outside the realm of scientific inquiry (at least we know of no way that we will ever be able to look into previous universes.) And so while we can reconstruct the Big Bang from the evidence, the Multiverse must reamain in the arena of pure speculation.

~ Cliff Martin

Anonymous said...

Cliff,

The scale of the universe may seem like overkill to us now, but what if warp drives and worm holes become our reality? We used to think the earth was flat and the sun was small, and the stars beyond our reach. We used to think that 640 K was enough memory and a 56K modem was fast. As we progress in science and technology, we push our limits farther than they’ve ever been before, beyond what we used to imagine was possible.

It could also be that the universe is as big as it is as a necessary consequence of the chain of events God needed to create our own little place in the cosmos. Like the sawdust on my garage floor after I’ve built a coffee table. It was necessary to create the sawdust during the construction, but the sawdust itself has no purpose. It’s not a mistake or waste, just a natural result of cutting and sanding.

I’m definitely interested in hearing what ideas you might have regarding why the universe is so big.

Jac

Cliff said...

Jac,

Your statement, "It could also be that the universe is as big as it is as a necessary consequence of the chain of events God needed to create our own little place in the cosmos" comes very close to my thoughts.

If God were (for reasons we might discuss later) to create a universe large enough to ensure that a planet like ours would occur quite naturally at some point in universe history, how large would that universe need to be? As you know, the odds against the confluence of circumstances which make earth hospitable to higher forms of life (like us) are extremely high. Sized as it is, this inhospitable universe, left to natural processes and mathematical odds would likely produce one such planet, and probably not two. (Hugh Ross makes this point.) If God were to create this entire Universe in the Creation Moment we call the Big Bang and then, to a large degree, take his hands off, and if it were his desire to ensure that life would rise up somewhere in the Universe, he would make the Universe just about the size that it is!

This is a fascinating fact. But of course it proves nothing either way about God's purposes or his creative acts. (And it takes away your earlier ravings about how God took great pains to make this very special place for us.) However, it certainly means that we ought to look at the possibility. If it is true, and if it answers other perplexing questions, and if we can find corroboration in the Scriptures, then perhaps we should pursue the possibility.

This concept may sound deistic to some. Others might object to the notion that God would just throw the dice and hope planet Earth happens. I'm not sure either objection holds. I do not envision a distant or disinterested God. He is totally engaged in the affairs of earth. To be sure, Earth, and man, are central to all his purposes, and he is vitally involved in our lives. I can also see that when God created all in a moment, if the ultimate mix of elements were just right, an Earth like ours would be the sure result even if it occurred as a result of naturalistic processes.

I have many thoughts about why he might create in this fashion which we can discuss later. For now, just ponder the fact that this universe happens to be sized just about right to make the "natural" odds of an earth like ours roughly 1:1.

~ Cliff

Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,

Some fascinating stuff here. I can see we are going to have some very stimulating discussions! I think you are referring to what I’ve heard called the “rare earth” hypothesis. Ie. With known laws of physics & chemistry, the odds of producing a world capable of developing carbon-based life is very small and our type of world would be extraordinarily rare. I must say I haven’t really looked into this too much, although Simon Conway’s Morris’s “Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe” is on my to-read list. (I think this is his view).

Just to play devil’s advocate, are there those that have actually presented some math and estimated this probability to be 1:1 for the known universe? Do you have any recommendations? I guess what I’m getting at is that even if the probability is 1:1 for each galaxy, we are talking of millions of worlds like ours.

I think the opposite of the “rare earth” hypothesis is an extension of the “Copernican Principle” that argues that our world isn’t all that special. Owen Gingerich has some interesting comments on this in his book “God’s Universe”. Personally, I suspect that we don’t have enough evidence to say one way or the other if there are many worlds like ours. I’m not jumping on the SETI bandwagon or anything, but I wouldn’t write it off as a lost cause either. For me (quoting Larry Norman), “If there is life on other planets, I bet Jesus went there to die for them too”. (Now, that could start up a whole other theological discussion. :-) )

Re: Your comment on sounding Deistic – that is exactly what I was thinking. But, I’m now hesitant to make this accusation too quickly. I’ve found that TE, ID, and YEC all accuse the other two of being “deistic” - so my view gets accused of the same thing. Trying to understand divine action is really tough. Just quickly on your comment on “God taking his hands off”. My own view is that the universe would NOT go on by itself if God took his hands off; it would cease to exist (“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” Col 1:17).

Getting back to the most important question (for me): “What does the vast, ancient universe imply about God? What can we learn about God from his physical creation?” I think we need to be careful when jumping to conclusions (after all just because you’ve read a book doesn’t mean you completely understand the author), and I haven’t thought it through completely. However, one thing is very clear to me from his physical creation: God doesn’t seem to put a high value on efficiency. But then again, he doesn’t seem to put a high value on efficiency in bringing about his kingdom on earth either. If he did, he certainly wouldn’t have entrusted this task to sinful, selfish humanity.

Cliff said...

rSteve,

I do recall reading that the odds against an earth-like planet correspond in order of magnitude with the potential candidates in a universe this size. But now that I look, I cannot find it. I am aware that there is a hotly contested debate about whether the earth is rare or unique, or whether as Sagan and Drake and others have suggested, there could be millions of habitable planets.

So I may have overstated the case. Hugh Ross lists 154 criteria which must fall within quite narrow parameters. His conclusion is that it is extremely unlikely that even one planet such as ours would exist. Ross, of course, defends the idea of special progressive creationism and in keeping with his approach, he contends that the existence of the earth points to a special creative act. While he admits that not all the data is in, and our estimates could change radically in the future, he suggests that fewer than one trillionth of one trillionth of a percent of all stars would be likely to host a habitable planet without divine intervention.

So my hypothesis is speculative. We just do not know. And there are estimates on both sides of the ratio, some thinking multiple earths are likely, some (like Ross) contending their should not even be one except that the Creator willed it. If the truth is in between, it could then fit my hypothesis. I have other reasons for favoring natural processes. And, for me, the hypothesis accommodates the vastness of the universe better than any other alternative I’ve considered.

~ Cliff Martin

The Hugh Ross List:
http://www.reasons.org/resources/apologetics/design_evidences/200406_fine_tuning_for_life_on_earth.shtml

Anonymous said...

Hi Cliff,

Accepting that God made the universe so vast so that there would likely be a hospitable planet doesn’t take away anything from my ravings about the great care God took to create the earth. It’s very similar to the “in His Image vs morphed from apes” discussion Steve and I had earlier. Whether the level of interaction seems to be very direct (humans created through a unique process) or very indirect (humans evolved from apes), the interaction is still there. In addition to coming to grips with the vastness of the universe, my early education via the scientific magazines also opened up the secrets of the atom. Science generally accepts the existence of four basic forces in nature – gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. While there is much study on these basic forces, there is still much mystery. I attribute these basic forces to the direct interaction of God. As Steve put it, “if God took his hands off, it (the universe) would cease to exist”. As the source of these basic forces, God could make very subtle changes in things like gravity that would cause selected oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen atoms to congregate in a greater density in the area where the earth would be, ensuring the perfect conditions would be there. This subtle interaction at the subatomic level would also explain how evolution was “assisted” to ensure the correct mix of plants and animals, and possibly the precursors to humans.

I see God as being completely engaged in this universe to the extent that even the stray atoms floating the void of space feel His presence.

Jac

Cliff said...

Jac,

You are right! The two are not mutually exclusive. And yet, there may be something even more magnificent in the idea that God could design the Douglas Fir tree just outside my window, and all the flowers in our garden, and express all that design and creativity in a single instant 13.7 billion years ago, then watch it unfold just as he saw it in his mind's eye.

~ Cliff

Steve Martin said...

Good discussion Jac and Cliff. Thanks.

At the beginning of this thread I stated that the universe’s vastness & antiquity never bothered me that much. Cliff indicated first that Dawkins chides Christians for not thinking about these questions, and second that we don’t need to let him set the agenda or accept his conclusions. I agree.

I think this derision of Christians is similar to that encountered by the ancient Israelite nation. They were a small, virtually insignificant nation – even during their political heyday. During its latter years, Israel was run over by a series of invaders & more or less ceased to exist. Yet its prophets and priests continued to claim that their God was not only strong, but was Lord of the universe. To the nations around Israel, this was a ridiculous claim, a monumental farce. The non-Israelite gods were local gods but had demonstrated conclusively that they were greater than Israel’s God. Hadn’t their god’s helped defeat Israel? Israel’s God as Lord of the Universe? Come on. No god could possibly handle that job. And Israel’s God had obviously bungled even the simple job of protecting a nation of little consequence.

The ancient Hebrew writers’ continued to question why the Lord of the Universe let his name be dragged through the mud like this. It is only now, looking back at the historical context, that we can begin to answer some of these questions. The Lord of the Universe does not view the situation from a human perspective. The Lord of the Universe does not seem overly concerned about our views of smallness or insignificance. The Lord of the Universe was willing to participate in his creation and suffer with his creation. This is the perspective that has been helpful for me. As George Murphy’s book of the same title indicates, we should look at “The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross”.

Cliff said...

Steve,

Yes! That God enters into the suffering that is inevitable in the structure, indeed, the very physics of the cosmos is an imporant key to our understanding of evil and of his purpose.

When I quoted Dawkins comments about how strange he considers Christians failing to notice the implications of this question, it was not because I think his analysis is correct. Rather, it gave me a sense of personal gratification that I have been asking the very question for 20 or 30 years. I would like very much to have been in on that conversation just to say, "Dawkins, you're wrong. I do ask that question."

I don't take Dawkins' that seriously. However, if we can find a Christian understanding of the cosmos, based in the teachings of the Word, that actually does make better sense of the vastness of the universe, then I think it is worth the search. It might satisfy some to say he made it for our viewing enjoyment, or that that comparative scale of things is just not significant. But those answers do not solve the matter for me. I believe that we might find in the vastness of the universe one part of the answer to the question of God's ultimate purposes here.

~ Cliff

Anonymous said...

Modern humans have been around for 50,000 years.
The last common ancestor shard with other priamtes was somewhere between 5 and 8 myrs ago.
Hadit not been for a bollide impact at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary we would not be here.
Language ability probably arose 100,000 +/- years ago.
Cave paintings, burials with grave goods probably 30,000-50 or 60,000 years ago.
Religions we might recognise very vaguely today probably arrived with the domestication of plants and animals 10,000-12,000 years ago.
That would have been tribal, agricultural, fertility dieties - and the first were goddesses not male gods.
Very early humans would have realised the immense power conferred by the ability to GIVE BIRTH, something males are incapable of. Thus females would have been the first objects worshipped.
Archaeology and anthropology bear this out.