Monday, September 2, 2019

Challenge to Christianity: The Problem of Evil

Usually when scientists do multiple experiments to test a theory or model, there will be some experiments that seem to be just a little bit outside of the model predictions. There are almost always a few experiments that are in slight conflict or contradiction to the expectations, even when the model is otherwise well established as being accurate. In science these outlying experiments are often simply due to the nature of statistical analysis. For instance, one out of ten experiments is expected to be about three standard deviations from the average. Sometimes an outlier occurs because the measurement is not very accurate, so it appears to be far from the average but is still sensible given the uncertainty. Sometimes we don't have enough data to make definitive conclusions. In any case, it is important to evaluate if contradictory measurements have reasonable explanations or if they are a real problem for the model being tested.

This is the fourth blog post in which I am applying some of the same criteria that scientists use to test whether or not a theory is true to the claims of biblical Christianity in order to gain insight into whether or not Christianity has objective credibility. The first three questions that have been addressed were, (1) Is the data logically self-consistent?, (2) Is there enough evidence to support the hypothesis?, and (3) Is the hypothesis compatible with other known data? In this post we ask the question (4) Is contradictory evidence conclusive? Nothing is known to 100% accuracy, and every theory or model has some evidence that may appear to contradict the theory, those outlying experiments. But an idea that is valid will have reasonable explanations for those deviations so that the model remains credible.

One of the major challenges to Christianity is the problem of evil and suffering: how could a good and omnipotent God allow evil and suffering? I believe this may be the hardest philosophical question to answer, not just from a Christian worldview, but from any worldview.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Explanatory Power of a Biblical Worldview

As a professor of physics at a research university, I will often get unsolicited papers from non-scientists that propose an entirely different perspective on some known physical phenomena, maybe the electromagnetic force, or how atoms behave. In almost every case I can quickly glance at the paper and recognize that the proposal cannot be true. I may be accused of being arrogant or biased because I quickly dismiss these new ideas with apparently very little thought. But, in reality, most of these ideas can be readily discarded simply because they contradict known data and experiments.

For example, a student once came into my office with an idea that he had been working on since he was very young about how electricity might be described and modeled. It was apparent that, although his idea was clever and inventive, it did not coincide with some of the things we know about the electromagnetic force. Rather than squelch this student's idea outright I simply informed him that since he was a freshman physics major he would learn a lot about electricity during the next four years of college. I suggested that he compare what we know about how the electromagnetic force works with his model and see if his model was able to accurately describe what we know from experimental observation. If it didn't, he'd have to revise or reject his model. If it did, his model may be correct.

In any effort to determine if an idea is true or not, it is vital to compare the predictions of the idea with what is already known to be true. If an idea contradicts known truth, then the idea cannot itself be true.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Evidence for Christianity

If you flip a coin a number of times and 60% of the time the coin shows "heads" while 40% of the time the coin flip shows "tails" would you conclude that the coin is a fair coin that is properly and unbiasedly weighted? As the question is stated, there is not enough information to accurately answer it. For instance, if you flip the coin ten times, it is quite probable that the coin will be heads six times and tails four times. A six to four split should happen about 21% of the time, so such a pattern would not be unusual in 10 coin tosses. But suppose instead you flipped a coin 1000 times and it showed heads 600 times and tails 400 times. That is still a 6/4 ratio but the probability of this pattern appearing is 4.6×10-11. Clearly a coin showing 600 heads and 400 tails is not a properly balanced coin. In order to make a definitive statement about the coin there must be enough data, or evidence, to support the hypothesis. (In reality, it seems to be impossible to make a "weighted" coin by adding weight to one side, but a coin can be made to land on a preferred side by bending it.)

This is the second installment in a series of blog posts dealing with some general questions that can be used to try to determine if a certain proposition is true or not. These principles can be applied to a scientific experiment or to the claims of Christianity to ascertain what conclusion is likely true. In a previous blog post I asked the question of whether or not the data was logically self-consistent. Regarding Christianity, I claimed that the Bible itself is a self-consistent book, and that the message of Christianity regarding the person of Jesus, the character of God, and the nature of humans is also self-consistent.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Race to the Moon

On this 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight to the moon, I would like to express some thoughts on the role the early days of manned space flight played in my life and my appreciation for the people who were instrumental in sending humans to the moon, which inspired a whole generation of current scientists. In contrast to many of my blog posts, this one will be autobiographical with little direct connection made between science and Christianity.

I spent eight and a half years of my childhood, from when I was five years old to when I was thirteen years old in Huntsville, Alabama, the city where the Saturn V rocket was designed and where the bottom stage of the Saturn V rocket was built and tested. During the 1960's and early 1970's, Huntsville was among the cities most involved with manned space flight, along with Houston where mission control existed and Cape Canaveral where flights were launched. I was fascinated and captivated by manned space flight. If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew, up I would have probably answered that I wanted to be an astronaut. Some kids could name their favorite sports heroes, but I could name all of the astronauts. The remarkable achievement of humans going to the moon, pushing the boundaries of technology and adventure, inspired a whole generation of scientists. I know that my interest in science and technology, which eventually led me to becoming an experimental particle physicist, was spawned and nurtured because of the accomplishments made in the race to put humans on the moon.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Is the Data Consistent?

Psychological experiments have shown that people tend to embrace evidence that confirms their already-held beliefs while overlooking evidence that conflicts with their beliefs, a phenomena called "confirmation bias." As a scientist who consistently analyzes data, not only must I be careful to avoid confirmation bias, but I must also take precautions against the opposite effect, which would be to bias experimental data with the goal of finding something new rather than just confirming what is already known. Many of the great discoveries in science have been made when the data shows an unexpected result rather than a confirmation of an already known effect. In short, it is important to be able to sift through the data in an unbiased way to try to determine the truth of a proposition. To assist me in this endeavor, I have developed an informal list of questions to ask that serve as a guideline to follow for determining the truth of an idea while trying to minimize bias.

In this blog I have regularly claimed that Christian beliefs are evidentially based, and not just a product of blind conviction. As a thinking person, a scientist, and a Christian, I have a desire to determine what is true about spiritual ideas and to try to avoid simple confirmation bias when examining evidence for Christian truth claims. Consequently, it may serve as an interesting exercise to apply the general principles I have developed for determining the truth of a proposition to certain spiritual claims and ideas. If the claims of Christianity are objectively true, then they should hold up under an examination that uses reasonable criteria to determine their validity.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Is There Life Out There? Another Step Toward Its Improbability

It seems that much of the current research in astrophysics and space science is focused on the search for extraterrestrial life. Whether we are sending probes to Mars, searching for extra-solar planets, or looking for water on moons and planets in our solar system, a major goal of these efforts is discovering environments that are suitable for life, or even finding evidence of life itself. The question of whether or not other life exists is not only an important scientific question, but maybe even a philosophical, sociological, psychological, and theological question as well.

Much of the search for extraterrestrial life has centered on whether or not a planet or moon is in an orbit that permits its surface to retain liquid water. The presence of liquid water is certainly one of the most important requirements for complex life. If a planet's location is too close the star it orbits then it will be too hot and water will boil away, and if a planet is too far from the star, all the water will freeze. The habitable zone is the region in which the planet's orbit is just the right distance from the star to harbor liquid water on its surface.