Sunday, April 15, 2018

Are Miracles Unscientific? Part 2

In "Are Miracles Unscientific? Part 1" several features of miracles were discussed. I defined a miracle as an exceptional action of God within the natural world, distinct from the usual processes of nature, for some specific purpose of God, which can have detectable consequences. I established that if there is a transcendent God who created the universe he could certainly intervene in unusual ways at times. Finally, I listed some different definitions of science including a broad definition based on the etymology of the word science, which means "knowledge" that would certainly admit miracles as a possibility. The last two paragraphs of that blog entry set the stage for this follow up entry on miracles. Because miracles are not repeatable events they cannot be established through a strictly controlled scientific experiment but can be reliably confirmed using a scientific and historical investigative method, in the same way other past events are established beyond a reasonable doubt.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Are Miracles Unscientific? Part 1

The question of whether or not miracles are scientific is a multifaceted question having to do with the definition of miracles, the definition of science, and the characteristics of God. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a miracle as an "extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs" such as "the healing miracles described in the Gospels." The second definition listed is "an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment" such as "the bridge is a miracle of engineering." Of course any controversy over miracles involves only the first definition, not the second. We can assume that the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” was not a miracle, though it was certainly an exciting and unexpected sporting outcome. I would define a miracle as an exceptional action of God within the natural world, distinct from the usual processes of nature, for some specific purpose of God, which can have detectable consequences.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Changing My Mind

As far back as I can remember in my life I was interested in science and technology particularly in the manned exploration of space and the human endeavor to land a person on the moon. As a teenager and young adult, this interest in science combined with my Christian faith motivated me to read books on the integration of science with Christianity. Most of the books I read during those years promoted a "young earth" view of the Bible and science stating that the universe was less than 10,000 years old and that scientists were misinterpreting the data when they proposed that the universe started with a Big Bang almost 14 billion years ago. At that time I was not aware of much material written from a Christian and biblical perspective that promoted an "old earth" view of the Bible that agreed with the scientific timescale of the universe as determined by modern observations.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Are Earth-like Planets Common?

It seems that every few months newspaper and magazine headlines will declare something like "Scientists have discovered an Earth-like planet." Such headlines probably lead the reader to imagine a planet with an environment much like we see on Star Trek or Star Wars where we could land our spaceship, take off our spacesuit, and frolic around the countryside. But what do scientists mean when they say that they have discovered an "Earth-like" planet? How likely is it to find a planet that can support higher life forms (defined as anything more complex than bacteria)? Are planets like the earth common or rare? Let's explore the answers to these questions.

When scientists say that an Earth-like planet may have been discovered, they actually mean one of three things. Either (1) the planet is in such an orbit around its central star that allows the temperature on the planet to possibly harbor liquid water, or (2) the planet is about the same size as the earth, or (3) the planet is solid and rocky rather than gaseous. Of course any one of these criteria, or even all three, does not actually give us a true Earth-like planet. We know that our moon is in the correct location to contain liquid water, but it is not "Earth-like." We know Venus is about the size of the earth, but it is not "Earth-like." We know that Mercury is rocky and not gaseous, but it is not "Earth-like." So none of these criteria really give an Earth-like planet. Headlines and sound-bites are not meant to be precise but to draw attention, and it is much more exciting to proclaim an "Earth-like" planet has been found rather than a "Venus-like" planet (if even that could be claimed).

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Looking for (the) God (Particle) in all the Wrong Places

I have talked with many skeptics who claim that they do not believe in God because he has not conclusively demonstrated his existence to them. When asked how God might demonstrate his existence to their satisfaction I usually get an answer that consists of some criteria in which God would do something so spectacular that his intervention could not be denied. A classic example is that if God would miraculously regrow the limb of an amputee then the skeptic would believe in God. I addressed this issue to some extent in my post titled "Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence." I personally don't think that even such an extraordinary event would convince most skeptics of the existence of God. Would they actually have to see the limb as it grows back? Would they accept that the limb had grown back miraculously if a number of people including the person's doctor claimed that the limb was gone and now it is back?

Suppose I was to propose an experiment to test for God in which 1000 people prayed that a miracle would occur. Would that be a valid test for the existence of God? Actually, from a scientific perspective that could not, even in principle, be a valid test regardless of the results, either positive or negative, and could not be scientifically accepted. In any test involving a person with volition and the ability to make choices, the test is considered biased and invalid if the person knows she is being observed and can change her behavior to influence the test. In any test of God, he would know he is being tested and could change his behavior to influence the test. Consequently, regardless of the outcome of the test, it would be considered scientifically invalid.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Probing the God Particle

Almost six years ago headlines throughout the world declared the discovery of the "God Particle" at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The name "God Particle" is not used by any physicists but is the popular name in the press for the particle that physicists call the Higgs Boson or simply the Higgs, named after Peter Higgs, one of the theoretical physicists that proposed its existence in 1964. In an earlier post, I discussed the discovery of the Higgs Boson and its significance within the standard model of particles and fields. Although the discovery of the Higgs made international news, there has been a lot of hard work that has been done since that discovery was made. In experimental particle physics the discovery of something new is often the easiest part of the process and the hard part is trying to really understand what has been discovered. Much of my research life since 2012 has been dominated by further studies of the properties of the Higgs Boson.

Why do physicists spend so much time and effort studying something that has already been discovered? What is the motivation and the expected outcome? There is a complex and comprehensive mathematical model of nature that particle physicists use. This model makes detailed predictions about what we should expect to find in our experiments. One of the most exciting possibilities is to discover something in the data that does not fit the models. When that happens, and the discovery can be confirmed and verified, it means that we have found something new that we did not know before. That is the most thrilling outcome for an experimental physicist. It is always nice to confirm something that has already been predicted. But it is even more exciting to find something not predicted and then have to figure out what previously unknown secret of nature has been discovered.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Testing the Experts

A reader recently asked some important questions about how a non-expert can evaluate the opinion of the experts and determine whether or not the expert opinion has real validity. For instance, should the non-expert simply agree with the majority opinion of the experts? (You can find the discussion in the comments section within my post on The Grand Design.)

I have thought a lot about this question as has the reader who asked the questions, but I still don't have a definitive answer. So in this post, I will try to link together some diverse thoughts on this topic. Maybe my credentials as one of those "experts" in particle physics has helped me develop a worthwhile perspective.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Reports of the Death of String Theory may be Greatly Exaggerated

In a recent podcast, Dr. William Lane Craig discusses my blog post about the book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. In his remarks, Dr. Craig says that he is surprised by Hawking's reference to String Theory because String Theory seems to have some fatal flaws. I have heard from others that String Theory has not lived up to the promise it seemed to show about 10 or 20 years ago. In this post, I will describe what String Theory is, why some people think it may be in trouble, and some theological implications of String Theory.

String Theory is a theoretical idea in physics that proposes that the most fundamental objects in the universe are one-dimensional objects called strings. In String Theory, the fundamental particles that we currently know make up the structure of the universe including leptons, quarks, and bosons, are composed of one-dimensional objects that are described as vibrating strings. Just as different vibrational modes of a guitar string will give different musical tones, so the different vibrating modes of the strings give rise to different particles.