content top

The “We’re Not Special” Ideology

The “We’re Not Special” Ideology

“We’re not special” is not a scientific statement. It’s an opinion. It’s a simple way of expressing what has become known as the Copernican principle. Copernicus himself did not explicitly hold this when he realized Earth was likely not the physical center of the universe. In the generation after Copernicus, isolated thinkers like Giordano Bruno interpreted this as a demotion of Earth. It did not become such a widespread view until recently.

Carl Sagan asked in the original Cosmos, “Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” Sagan had requested that, as Voyager 1 left the solar system in 1990, it turn its camera around to take one last picture of Earth. Presenting this image before an audience at Cornell, he reflected on all the people that have lived on Earth, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” His speech is worth reading in full. Interwoven in the beautiful prose, however, is the assumption that the Earth is unimportant since it’s just a dot in this image.

Just because the Earth is small when it is compared to the vastness of space does not make it insignificant. Assumptions of the homogeneity and isotropy of the universe lead to accurate scientific cosmological models. Making the step from these principles to the Copernican principle, however, is an unjustified ideological leap.

The fact that “the Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life” rather speaks to me of its importance. If the Earth were not as small as it is, then its surface gravity would be too strong for life as we know it. If the Earth didn’t orbit a G-type star, the circumstellar habitable zone could easily be less stable. If our Sun were a member of an elliptical galaxy or closer to the center of our spiral galaxy, or even in the spiral arms rather than between them, interactions with other stars would be more likely, which could more easily disrupt the stability of our solar system. So many places in the universe are inhospitable to life. We live on a planet where life is possible. I think that is enough to challenge Sagan’s claim that we are deluded to think “we have some privileged position in the universe.” Authors Jay W. Richards and Guillermo Gonzalez of The Privileged Planet challenge Sagan and the Copernican principle with a thesis that not only is our planet well suited for life, but it is also well suited for discovery. Although I am unsatisfied with its presentation of the “intelligent design” view as scientific, I highly recommend watching the thought-provoking documentary and even reading the book.

The fact that in the Pale Blue Dot image the Earth lies in a sunbeam is indeed, as Sagan says, an effect of geometry and optics. Just from that, however, there is no way to prefer one philosophical view over another. The worldviews that clash over the Earth’s significance or insignificance are entrenched enough that I do not expect any amount of scientific discovery to settle the dispute. The science we discover certainly inspires wonder, and we need to keep doing science. We also need to reason more rigorously and integrate the different ways we can come to know things. By doing this, we can sort fact from opinion and identify any unjustified leap before falling for a conclusion that could lead us down a dark or deluded path.

I believe it is pertinent to close this post with a related quote from St. John Paul the Great: “If knowledge of the unmeasured dimensions of the cosmos has erased the dream that our planet or our solar system could be the physical center of the world, not by that is man diminished in his dignity” (translation from Italian).

Read More

The Origin of the Universe

The Origin of the Universe

The origin of the Universe is one of my favorite topics at the interface between science and faith. I’ve spoken on this several times (which I’ve kept track of on my Talks and Presentations page). The most recent occasion was the first time it was recorded. You can view it here. It took me a while to upload this because I wanted to find the right video-editing software to superimpose images I refer to. As this was the first time I’ve given this talk without an accompanying slideshow, I decided to provide handouts to the audience at least for my introduction, featuring the Hubble Deep Field. One of my goals for the next year is to record and produce a higher-quality video just for online viewing. For the time being, this is what I’m able to provide. The first half-hour is my talk; the second half-hour is Q&A.

Both science and faith have something to say about the origin of the Universe. 20th-century developments in physics enabled us to do scientific cosmology and investigate the properties of the Universe as a whole. Multiple pieces of evidence — such as the cosmological redshift, cosmic microwave background radiation, and abundances of primordial elements, to name a few — support the Big Bang cosmological model, which tells us that the Universe has been expanding for about 14 billion years. This, however, seems to clash with the creation account of Genesis. Do science and faith disagree here? Not necessarily. Genesis was not meant to be a physics textbook; certain passages do not have to be interpreted literally. Genesis tells us that God created the Universe out of nothing (ex nihilo) and that he created humans in his own image and likeness. These are philosophical and theological concepts. The Big Bang is a scientific model. Science, reason, and faith are all different ways of knowing truths that we need to learn how to integrate. Two truths cannot contradict each other. The same God that created the Cosmos can also enter it. He made the Universe intelligible because he wants us to know about it; yet he also wants us to know him. We don’t have to discredit our power of knowing Nature in order to discover God through Scripture. Neither do we have to throw away Scripture to accept all the new and exciting discoveries of Nature.   For a complete understanding of reality, we need both science and faith.

Read More

The Church’s Role in Science

The Church’s Role in Science

Last month I spoke at the Vandal Catholic Encounter on the topic of the Church’s role in science. Here is a link to the video recording. I apologize for how much you’ll have to strain to listen and see. In the future I hope to write an article to revisit the topic in more depth and perhaps do a different video recording.

In summary, the Church is not afraid of science. In fact, the Church embraces science and uses it. For example, in the lifetime of Galileo, though before the disagreements over cosmology surfaced, the Gregorian calendar reform took place. This calendar reform used humankind’s improved knowledge about the seasons, thanks to the science of astronomy. When Galileo first used a telescope and discovered Jupiter’s moons not orbiting the Earth, he began to promote heliocentrism openly. He was right about the Earth orbiting the Sun and about interpreting some passages of Scripture metaphorically. The Church and many people at the time held Galileo’s ideas suspect and asked for proof. Galileo was wrong that the tides prove the Earth’s motion; the tides are caused by the Moon and Sun. For promoting heliocentrism so vehemently after he had promised not to, he was sentenced to house arrest, where he lived the last decade of his life. Proof for the Earth’s motion came in the 19th century with Foucault’s pendulum. Pope St. John Paul II, on October 31, 1992, asked for forgiveness for how Galileo was treated (although by no means was he tortured or killed; rather, he was given first-class lodging during his trial in Rome). John Paul also said, “In fact the Bible does not concern itself with the details of the physical world, the understanding of which is the competence of human experience and reasoning.” (Read a translation of his speech here.) Not only does the Church recognize the role science has in advancing human knowledge about the universe we live in, but the Church also has a role in science. Institutions like the Vatican Observatory that participate in relevant science are an excellent example of this.

Read More

Einstein’s First Forerunner: St. Augustine

Einstein’s First Forerunner: St. Augustine

 

Today, August 28, the Catholic Church ordinarily celebrates St. Augustine’s feast day. This year, however, his feast is liturgically overshadowed since it fell on a Sunday. Nevertheless, it’s still an appropriate occasion to recall the contributions of St. Augustine. St. Augustine is recognized as a Father and Doctor of the Church, and most Catholics are aware of his insights into theology and the spiritual life. His writings are the most referenced source of the Catechism of the Catholic Church after the Bible. What few people may be aware of is that he seems to have had inklings of the relativity of time long before Einstein developed his Theory of Relativity.

St. Augustine’s Confessions are written as a prayer and discuss a variety of topics. An oft heard quote from them is “You made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Confessions, Book I, Chapter 1). Hundreds of pages later (in Book XI), he considers the question that people were purportedly going around asking in his day, “What was God doing before he created Heaven and Earth?” St. Augustine was not impressed by the facetious response that some people would make, “God was preparing hell for those who pry into such mysteries.” Rather, he argues that this question is simply not well posed, since it assumes that there was time before creation and it implies that time is absolute. On the contrary, St. Augustine says, God created time and space from eternity. As a result, there was no “before” that applies to time except after creation. I like to explain the relation between time and eternity in terms of a river and a nearby mountain. From the summit, one can see the whole river at once (or at least from one horizon to another; no metaphor is perfect), just as from eternity one can see and, in a certain sense, access all of time.

Even after St. Augustine, not everyone has understood time in this way. Isaac Newton treats time and space as absolute (see this article), and it can be argued that absolute notions of space and time are more intuitive. Probably for this reason was Einstein at first dismissed for his Theory of Relativity. Only after observations backed up his theory was he vindicated.

I think it unlikely St. Augustine would have suspected that a clock on an object approaching the speed of light would measure less time as having passed. Relativity was clearly a contribution from Einstein. Nevertheless, St. Augustine was one of the first thinkers to pry into the nature of time and come out with a good grip on many of its aspects. A certain story St. Augustine tells elsewhere in the Confessions (Book VII, Chapter 6; paraphrased in this article on the conventionality of simultaneity) has been recognized as the “earliest recorded example of an operational definition of distant simultaneity.” St. Augustine was evidently ahead of his time 😉

+

As St. Augustine was in his final days in the city of Hippo, the Vandals, an invading Germanic tribe, arrived and began to lay siege to it. After he passed away, they would burn the city. Interestingly enough, the team name of the University of Idaho (where I am in graduate school) is the Vandals, and the Catholic center on campus is called the St. Augustine’s Catholic Center. Was that done on purpose?

Read More

Fine-Tuning in the Cosmos

Fine-Tuning in the Cosmos

This image is a three-color composite of the Chandra Deep Field South. Take a moment just to look at it in wonder. Pretty much every object in the photo is a galaxy, containing billions of stars.  The area of space in this photo takes up only one part in 375,000 of the entire expanse of the celestial sphere. Everywhere else we’ve looked, we’ve also seen myriads of galaxies. The Cosmos is awe-inspiring.

Another amazing feature of the Cosmos is that it seems fine-tuned for life. When a guitar is fine-tuned, the length of its strings have to be just right in order for us to hear the right sounds. When we talk about the Cosmos, fine-tuning means the astonishing precision of the physical constants and the initial conditions of the Universe. We observe that if certain values for the physical constants, such as the gravitational constant, were slightly different, carbon-based life in this Universe would not have been possible at any point. Other examples of fine-tuning could also be given, such as the so-called large number coincidences and the triple alpha process.

What is important, though, is what is implied by fine-tuning. Fine-tuning is done for the sake of something else. It points toward an end, a purpose. There is intelligence involved. Even the atheist Fred Hoyle admitted that it really made sense to say there is intelligent fine-tuning. In his words, “A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question” (Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections.” Engineering and Science, November, 1981. pp. 8–12).

There is either a purpose for the Universe or there is not. Intuitively, we believe that nothing happens without a reason. Based on that, we might naturally come to the conclusion that the Universe was probably caused by an intelligent Agent. Alternatively, we could cite the Anthropic Principle, which states that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the type of life that observes it. Fine-tuning is, therefore, unremarkable. We would not observe the constants of nature and the initial conditions that we do if our Universe were incompatible with life. One thing the Anthropic Principle does not explain, however, is why anything should exist at all.

In conclusion, the Cosmos is beautiful. There are several examples of the finely tuned nature of the Cosmos: constants and initial conditions were set to an astonishingly high precision required for carbon-based life. The intelligible nature of the Universe points toward an intelligent Agent. So if we accept that there is a purpose to the Universe, what then is this purpose?

 

Read More
content top