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.

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.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Is the Evidence for the Big Bang Really Weak?

When I was a teenager and young adult I read a few books by Christians who wrote about the subject of science and Christianity. All of those books promoted a young earth that was only a few thousand years old and questioned the validity of scientific discoveries and ideas that led scientists to believe the universe and earth were billions of years old. As a young adult I did not really have the knowledge or resources to ascertain the strength or validity of their arguments. However, when I was working on my Ph.D. in particle physics I decided that if I were to eventually be a scientist, as well as a Christian, then I should do my own independent study of what the Bible says about science and the evidence from nature, and consider the strength of the arguments I had been presented. By that time in my life I had taken formal science, theology, and logic classes and had the tools to personally investigate the truth about this subject.

Every once in a while something will come up that reminds me of my journey as a young adult to find the truth and prompts me to share my findings with others. As I have stated in my last few posts, a reader of my blog directed me to a few videos by young earth creationists and reiterated some of the arguments they made about the scientific evidence regarding the age of the universe. As I watched those videos and read the questions posed, I was taken back to my days when I was first investigating these subjects. Though the subject and context are different, the statements made on the videos that tried to cast doubt on the scientific discoveries about the age of the universe follow the exact same pattern used by proponents of a young universe decades ago. If you are a Christian or non-Christian, young earth creationist or old earth creationists, and you want to know what is the truth, not simply be indoctrinated, then it is worthwhile to consider these kinds of videos and the validity of their arguments. As a Christian, I follow and worship the God of all truth, so I have no concerns about investigating the truth and seeing where it leads. Only someone who is so indoctrinated in their beliefs that they don't care about the truth would be reluctant to critique the evidence for their beliefs to see if it stands up to facts and reasons. So let's investigate some of the details and tactics used by speakers in these videos to promote a young universe in an attempt to understand both truth and the God of all truth.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Big Bang: Are We Missing Crucial Pieces?

In the last three blog posts I have discussed some of the details still being investigated about the big bang and subsequent development of the universe and our solar system. Some of these issues are used by young earth creationists who claim the universe is only a few thousand years old in an attempt to discredit the big bang. I have addressed (1) poor strategies used to cast doubt on certain scientific discoveries, (2) issues with the formation of our solar system, and (3) fine tuning observations that are addressed by cosmic inflation. These particular subjects were brought up by a reader of this blog who asked about them and directed me to a few videos by young earth creationists. The list of questions asked by this reader have all been answered except for two: what about the missing antimatter, and what about the missing population III stars? Let's try to determine whether these are truly missing and, if so, what does their absence say about our understanding of the origin of the universe.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Some "Problems" with the Big Bang

In 1936 Albert Einstein wrote, "One may say 'the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.' ...The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle."1 This remark is often paraphrased as, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." Of course I agree with this statement made by one of the smartest human beings who ever lived. Like Einstein, I find it quite remarkable that our universe is comprehensible and that we can discover and explain how it works and then precisely describe its workings using the language of mathematics. One of the most amazing facts that has been discovered by observing the universe has to do with its very origin and subsequent development. It is unlikely that any scientist who lived when Einstein was born in 1879 would have predicted that our universe would provide unambiguous insight about its history almost all the way back to its very beginning. Yet that is exactly what has occurred. From Edwin Hubble's 1929 discovery that all galaxies are moving apart from each other with a relative speed that is linearly dependent on their separation distance, to Arno Penzias' and Robert Wilson's 1964 discovery of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation which is the residual heat from the infancy of our universe, to the accurate measurements of the CMB spectrum made by the Planck satellite in 2010, the universe has provided an amazing, accurate, and remarkable story of its beginning. All of the observational evidence and theoretical calculations tell a consistent story about the big bang origin of our universe: that all of space, time, matter, and energy came into existence nearly 14 billion years ago.

Over the decades starting in the early twentieth century, the scientific evidence that supports the big bang origin has become stronger and stronger. As described in a previous post, scientists were reluctant to accept the big bang partially because of its philosophical implications. If our universe had a beginning then it may have had a beginner. But because of the overwhelming evidence, scientists now agree about the origin of the universe and its development from about a trillionth of a second after its origin until now, although there is much discussion about what may have happened before that time since we have little observational evidence concerning the first trillionth of a second of our universe.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Formation of the Sun and Solar System

We as scientists do not fully understand all the details about the history of the universe or how the universe works. I don't think that statement would surprise anyone. Yet, some Christians will portray certain scientific proposals as being completely untrustworthy because there are certain processes and details we can't fully explain. Its as if I were to try to explain how an internal combustion engine works but because there are some details I don't understand you were to claim that my entire explanation is false.

In my previous post I quoted a reader who stated, "You did not address the supposed problems with Star Formation and Planet Formation and Moon Formation. Problems include: the Angular Momentum of our sun, the Accretion of gas clouds, and the Accretion of planets and moons. In line with this is the distant mature galaxies." This reader then directed me to a video on the web where a Christian who believes the universe is only a few thousand years old (a young earth creationist) brought up these and other supposed problems in an attempt to discredit the current scientific understanding of how stars, planets, and our solar system formed. The lecturer was implying that since there were some unsolved problems with our understanding of the formation of these objects, then the entire scientific proposal of star and solar system formation was unreliable. I disagree with the lecturer and the premise of the question. From my perspective it is possible that the overall big picture about a scientific process could be completely reliable and substantiated even if some of the details are not yet understood. I would think that most reasonable people would agree with me.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Addressing Challenges to the Ancient Universe

As a scientist who is also a Christian I am sometimes criticized by both scientists and Christians for my beliefs and statements. Some of my scientific colleagues think I am deluded or crazy because I believe in a personal God while some of my Christian brothers and sisters think I am a heretic or blinded because I believe in the big bang. In this blog, in my speaking, and in my writing I try to show that belief in the biblical God, the Bible itself, and the science of the big bang are not only based on abundant evidence, but are completely compatible with each other.

Within the Christian community, particularly in the United States and a few other countries, there are a significant fraction of people who have a firm belief that the Bible teaches the universe is only a few thousand years old and that all of the science that seems to point to a much older universe is a misrepresentation or misunderstanding of the facts of nature. In previous posts (such as here and here and other places) I have mentioned this belief in young earth creationism (YEC) that is held by some Christians including certain Christian leaders I have great respect for. There are true followers of Jesus with diverse views about the age of the universe and how God created the universe and created humans. The views are so widely varied that I would estimate something like two-thirds of Christians will some day find out that they were wrong in their beliefs about how God created the universe and humans and in what time frame. Furthermore, the issue of the age of the universe and God's method of creation is a "non-essential" issue, one that does not affect a person's eternal destiny. In such issues Christians need to follow the advice of Marco Antonio de Dominis who was the first to write, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity."

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Why The Universe? Critiquing Sean Carroll


When answering the question of why something exists one can certainly first appeal to the mechanism or cause for its existence. A painting exists because a brush applied paint to the canvas. By carefully observing how the paint is applied to the canvas we can learn quite a bit about technique and why the painting looks the way it does. Using radiation we can probe what lies underneath the paint to see rough sketches and changes to any underlying pigments. To some scientists, the mechanism of how the paint is applied to produce the finished product is the limit of what observations from science can tell us since science deals with laws and mechanism. But of course, there is much more to the story of a painting because there is an artist behind the brush strokes who created the painting with purpose, the real "reason."

When cosmologist Sean Carroll discusses "Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing" he claims, "The best we can ask is whether we can imagine laws of nature that fully account for how the universe behaves, even at the earliest moments."1 As pointed out in my previous post Carroll's search for the cause of the existence of our universe has certain constraints and presuppositions that will restrict any conclusions. These include (1) his answer will be limited to mechanisms and cannot include reasons, (2) he is incorrect in assuming that finding a mechanism eliminates the need for a creator (3) he makes the false assumption that laws and mechanisms have the causal ability to implement, (4) he constrains all answers to the natural realm thus eliminating any supernatural creator, a priori. Despite these problems, I find Carroll's writings to be thoughtful and insightful and worth reading and critiquing. I also find that his ultimate answer requires a transcendent creator despite his insistence that it does not.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

If you search on the internet for the phrase, "Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?" you will find a host of articles, many by philosophers but some by scientists, that discuss this profound question. The book by Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something From Nothing, which I have discussed in a previous post will probably appear near the top of your search engine. Last June, the cosmologist Sean Carroll added his name to the list of those writing about this subject with the article "Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing?"1 and a reader of my blog asked me to comment on Dr. Carroll's article.

In general, although Sean Carroll is an atheist, I find his writings to be quite reasonable and thoughtful, unlike some other atheist scientists whose writings and lectures indicate that they have done little research regarding the vast history of dialogue among deep thinkers in regards to these important philosophical and theological questions. In a previous post I highlighted one of Dr. Carroll's talks in which he honestly pointed out that almost all hypothetical ideas about the origin of our universe do not solve the problem of the initial low entropy state at the big bang, except for a small class of models that he favors. He objectively shows that most of the proposals that attempt to remove God from the origin of our universe flatly fail because they do not give the correct initial conditions.

At the beginning of the recent article Carroll points out that there are at least two ways to interpret the question of "Why there is something rather than nothing?" That question could be asking either for the mechanism or for the reason for our universe. On the web site philosophytalk.org a similar idea is developed when the author writes, "To get us started thinking about it, let’s distinguish between reasons and causes. When we ask why something is the case, depending on our purposes and what kind of explanation we seek, we might be asking for a reason, or we might be asking for a cause."2