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.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

God and the Nobel Prize

A religious skeptic recently told a friend of mine, "If someone were to find proof of the existence of God, that person would win a Nobel prize." It is certainly true that proof of God would be a monumental accomplishment worthy of great recognition, though I'm not sure which Nobel prize would be given for such a discovery: chemistry? peace? literature? After thinking about this for a while, it could be argued that there has already been a Nobel prize awarded for a scientific discovery that gave "proof" of God: the Nobel prize in physics in 1978.

Of course, in a scientific context, nothing is ever really proven to be absolutely true. Our theories and hypotheses may be tested and verified to the point that we believe they are most likely universally valid, but we don't say they are absolutely proven because if we were to find any exception in any circumstance to any general law then that law would not be absolutely true. Nevertheless, we certainly have overwhelming evidence that certain ideas seem to be always correct and we can call that "proof" in the context of this discussion about proof of God. With such a definition, we could say that the theory of special relativity is proven or that the principle that energy is always conserved is proven.

The story of the 1978 Nobel prize actually begins in 1927 when the Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre proposed that the universe had a beginning, something he called the "primeval atom" or "cosmic egg."1 Lemaitre’s idea was not taken too seriously by most scientists because it was published in a fairly obscure journal and there was no evidence for such a beginning. But that changed in 1929 when the astrophysicist Edwin Hubble published a paper showing that galaxies were moving apart from each other; the universe was expanding.2 The implications of this discovery were recognized by scientists, theologians, and philosophers. If the universe were expanding now it must have started to expand at one point; it likely had a beginning. For many reasons, some philosophical and theological, scientists were reluctant to accept that the universe had a beginning. Many alternatives were proposed and evidence for these alternatives was actively searched for, with no positive results.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Magnificent Moon

The earth is unique in our solar system, being the only planet that has one single large moon. Over the last few decades scientists have realized that our moon plays a significant role in order for the earth to support complex life forms. The gravitational pull of the moon on the earth is responsible for high and low ocean tides, which bring nutrients to tidal flood zones and allow for a diverse and thriving ecosystem near coastal regions. Tides also play a role in a global temperate climate because they affect ocean currents that move water around the globe.

Perhaps the most important feature of the earth-moon system is the relatively large gravitational pull of the moon, which stabilizes the tilt axis of the earth. The earth rotates around an axis that is tilted about twenty-three degrees from a line drawn perpendicular to the plane of its orbit. Because the earth's axis is tilted, we have various seasons: summer, spring, winter, and fall. When the earth’s orbit is on one side of the sun and it is tilted in such a way that the northern hemisphere gets direct sunlight, then it is summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere. When the earth is on the other side of the sun so its tilt gives direct sunlight to the southern hemisphere the seasons are reversed.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

A Primer on Various Views About Origins

The Bible is very clear about the fact that God created the universe and that humans were created by God in his image, a distinction that separates humans from all the other animals. On the other hand, the Bible is not clear on when and how God created the universe and humans. Consequently, even among Christians who believe the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God there is a difference of opinion about the methods God used to create the universe.

Sometimes it is valuable to review the very basic ideas about a topic. One of my readers asked me if I could very simply describe each of the major views held by Christians about how and when God created the universe and humans. I am answering that question with this basic primer about views on origins held by Christians and non-Christians. These can be broadly classified into four categories by answering three questions: (1) Did God create the universe and humans? (2) Did the big bang occur? and (3) Does macroscopic evolution occur?

The first question is straightforward. Is God the ultimate creator of the universe and human life? The second question has to do with the origin of the universe. Did this universe come into existence about 14 billion years ago and did the planet earth form about 4.5 billion years ago? The third question asks whether or not macroscopic evolution is the mechanism by which all species came into existence. Although most evolutionists do not distinguish between microscopic and macroscopic evolution, that distinction is necessary when discussing origins. Microscopic evolution allows small changes within species. It is the process of minor genetic change that allows things like bacteria to become resistant to certain antibiotics. When distinguished from macroscopic evolution, microscopic evolution does not produce new species or major new functionality. The process of microscopic evolution is accepted by people in all four categories. Macroscopic evolution is the claim that all life has developed from previous common ancestors through a natural process in which those small genetic changes compound and eventually form new species and new functionality.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Was the Big Bang Really the Beginning?

The headline declared "The Big Bang Wasn't the Beginning, After All" and in the accompanying article astrophysicist Ethan Siegel made the definitive statement that "the Big Bang is not the beginning of the Universe!" That seems to settle the question once and for all, and to put all of us theists in our place. That declaration should shut the mouths of theists who keep insisting that the big bang is the beginning of the universe and that the origin of the universe requires some kind of transcendent cause, a cause that looks a lot like the traditional view of God. It appears that the headline and the decisive pronouncement by Dr. Siegal has made the argument for God from the origin of the universe null and void. That is, unless you actually read and understand the article itself.

I recommend you do read the article. It is a very nice synopsis of the historical development of our current understanding about the origin of the universe. In the article, Dr. Siegal describes the observation that space itself is expanding and cooling, leading to the conclusion that the universe was once much more dense and hot in the past. He recounts the "breathtaking confirmation" of the big bang made in 1964 by Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson, who discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, the residual heat from the hot big bang. He steps us back through time as the universe becomes hotter and denser and we encounter three milestone events, a time when it was so hot that neutrons and protons could not form nuclei, a time when matter and antimatter could spontaneously form from energy, and a time when a quark-gluon plasma existed with no individual protons or neutrons. He affirms that all of these events have been confirmed to be true in that we've observed the physics that explains these events in the laboratory, and made observations that remarkably match theoretical predictions.