Friday, December 19, 2008

Astronomer vs. pop science TV

Here's my review of Hugh Ross's Why the Universe Is the Way It Is (Baker, 2008). It was originally written for a Christian news magazine but, due to a mixup, someone else had published a review first. So I thought I may as well put it up here. Also, below the review, I have placed some selections from the book in earlier posts put up here:

Canadian-born astronomer Hugh Ross reminds us that Stephen Hawking said, in his all time science bestseller A Brief History of Time: “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”

But Hawking, along with a great many other cosmologists, then devoted his career to attempting to explain it all away. The resulting efforts—including speculations about hypothetical other universes—are widely reported, not because they are very convincing but because their anti-theistic assumptions are part and parcel of the current understanding of science.

Ross begs to differ. His book consists of two parts: Why does the universe show the puzzling features that it does, and how can we integrate a Biblical explanation with a scientific one? He recounts that he became a Christian as a young adult after a skeptical study of the Bible (and other “holy books”) convinced him that “no human mind or collection of minds alone could have produced the sixty-six books of the Bible. These books contained information their writers couldn’t have known and concepts they couldn’t have begun to imagine apart from supernatural inspiration.” Now this is a daring claim, one I will leave to scholars. At any rate, the experience started him on the path to founding Reasons to Believe, a Pasadena, California-based ministry aimed at scientists, based largely on insights from astronomy, physics, and more recently, biology.

Ross patiently explains why the universe is so big and so old—because life as we know it could not otherwise exist. Of course, a skeptic might reply that God could have ordained things differently. But the skeptic is never asked to explain how, exactly; skepticism is apparently a full time job. Curiously, Earth is also in the darkest location in the galaxy and therefore the best for observing the heavens). Ross joins many theistic astronomers in taking this as a sign that humans were meant to explore the universe.

So far so good. But then, in the latter half of the book, Ross turns to the Scriptures and I become uneasy. Let me begin by positioning myself as far as possible from one popular brand of “theistic evolution,” according to which evidence for God in nature is suspect “because one day science might find a reason for all that, and then what will become of your faith?”

Let me be clear: Science has found a reason for fine tuning: It is necessary for life. Further delving into the universe is likely to uncover still more such evidence. Fine tuning is also precisely what the Scriptures tell us to expect when they constantly praise God’s “handiwork.” The only alternatives are to say that human reason is meaningless or that there might be a zillion flopped universes out there (and many pundits do say these things). But these alternatives do not recommend themselves easily to a reasoning mind.

My uneasiness stems from the fact that Ross, taking a literalist approach to Scripture, tries to understand subjects like the New Jerusalem in terms of physics. It’s interesting, yes, but alarmingly trite. I think that Paul’s approach— "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9 NIV)—is wiser in the long run. Paul and other Christian mystics usually cannot describe authentic visions of the world to come, as I learned while working on The Spiritual Brain. (See especially 2 Cor 12:2-4, where Paul makes that explicit.)

It’s not a question of preferring faith to science. We simply cannot speak intelligibly of the world to come, even if we are sure that it exists, for the same reasons that we cannot speak intelligibly of an eleven-dimensional structure, even if we are sure that it exists. We do not have language for it.

Those cautions aside, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is is a must-read for intelligent Christians and an excellent antidote to the “lost in the universe” nonsense that dominates pop science TV.

Some selections of interest from the book:

Why some self-proclaimed skeptics need a universal swivel joint in their necks ...

The nothingness of nothing as seen by scientists

Does our solar system occupy a unique position in the universe or just an ordinary one?

Extraterrestrials: Several million UFO reports later, the state of the question