Faith Demystified – Richard Dawkins and Atheism
Richard Dawkins is a world class evolutionary biologist. Lately he has been seen as one of atheism’s greatest proponents. In his 2006 book The God Delusion he contends that there is no god and that religious faith is a delusion. In the same year he founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
Dawkins is a radical skeptic, and we need skeptics. Skepticism insures that science is always self-correcting. Without radical skepticism we would be continuously duped by all sorts of falsehoods.
Skepticism is also an antidote to the general puffery of religious doctrines. In religion there is normally no proof of anything. Believers are asked to accept religious teachings on blind faith, or to trust in “divine revelation.” Any doubt, even a healthy skepticism, is often described as a lack of faith. Typically, the faithful are not allowed to asked questions such as, “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” Asking a question like this is seen as an attack on biblical fundamentalism and therefore an attack on faith itself.
Dawkins skepticism is a great defense against uncontrolled religious puffery. And for that we should all be grateful. The only way to answer the question about Cain’s wife is to realize that the creation stories are mythological stories, and not the recounting of historical events.
Skepticism can be taken too far. Ultimate skepticism would be to not except anything without absolute proof. I cannot prove that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I would certainly expect that to happen. Spirituality begins with the concept that our reality is larger than our grasp. By contrast, Dawkins would say that if he cannot see, hear, or touch something it does not exist.
If I could have a chat with Dawkins I would share with him the following story. An astronomer images a galaxy using visible light. The image produced is real and indisputable. To Dawkins the galaxy is what is captured in that image, and nothing more. The part that Dawkins misses is that there is more to the galaxy that we cannot see in visible light. Images taken in infrared, ultraviolet, or radio waves would show a very different image, with more and different features and aspects of the galaxy. So, Dawkins original view of the galaxy in visible light is correct but not complete. There is more to the galaxy than the original image could depict.
What we see depends upon what filters we choose to use. One could say that Dawkins does not see beyond the mundane world because he lacks the necessary observational tools. Dawkins seems to be a reductionist, saying that the universe is this and no more. That reductionism is every bit as much a bias as is a religious conviction.
Modern cosmology describes a universe that is not only more bizarre than we know, but even more bizarre than we can imagine. Quantum mechanics tells us that a particle can be several places at once. M-theory tells us that there are eleven dimensions of space and time. Hawking radiation means that black holes actually evaporate. Dark energy says that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. Under these circumstances a limited field of view means that we will miss much of what is happening. There is a lot of stuff going on out there that we do not understand.
There is more than one possibility in any circumstance. Light is both a wave and a particle. An electron can be several places at once. A storm can be both helpful and hurtful depending on whom you ask. The difference between a wildflower and a weed is that one is wanted and the other is not. Propositions can be true and false at the same time. We need to be very careful when setting the bounds of the universe that we do not leave out many things that do not fit into our reductionist preconceptions. The universe could be both created and non-created. The only difference may be in the filters that we choose.
On another topic I would also like to discuss consciousness with Dawkins. This is one of the frontiers between biology and spirituality. What is consciousness? We might also call this the self, spirit or even soul, although Dawkins would resist these words. Is our consciousness simply the electronic emissions of our gray matter, or could it be something more? Is consciousness something that could be captured and stored outside of the body? Could it be transplanted like a kidney? Imagine the possibility that a consciousness could be transferred from one body to another, or from a body to a computer chip. This is a question that needs to be answered in the near future.
The Spirituality of String Theory
String Theory or its close cousin M-theory, with their ten or eleven dimensions, is a universe beyond our comprehension. Cosmologists are still struggling with its workings and what it means for our existence. The origin of String Theory was in trying to describe what happened before the Big Bang. Cosmology and theology are drawing ever closer together as both sides seek to answer such basic theological-cosmological questions as:
- Where did we come from?
- Where are we going?
- Are there other worlds like ours?
- Why is there something rather than nothing?
Perhaps the most theological question raised by cosmology today is:
Is there a design for the universe, or is it simply the result of random chances raised to the billion-billion-billion-billionth power in some cosmic roll of the dice?
There are scientists of all stripes on both sides of this divide. Both sides can make elegant and impassioned arguments to support their positions.
The old paradigm of science vs. religion basically required that you had to choose one side or the other. Either you could check the weather forecast or pray for rain. Either you could believe that everything happens by the uncaring forces of random chance. Or, you could believe in divine providence.
In the old “normal-space” view of the universe, we were bound by the three dimensions of space plus one of time. We lived in a series of boxes divided by walls, floors and ceilings representing height, width and depth. Anything that did not fit into such three-dimensional boxes was simply not part of the normal-space universe and could be ignored.
But the three dimensions of normal-space could never capture all that was happening. For example, Chinese acupuncture seems to have no medical connection to our physiology. Perhaps a better way of stating that is that western medicine cannot make that connection. And yet acupuncture seems to be providing health, strength and vitality to its adherents. The skeptic could say that any benefit derived from acupuncture could be purely delusional, caused by wishful thinking or caused by the placebo effect. But let’s not be hasty.
Acupuncture involves the flow of a special energy called “qi “, which travels along meridians of the body. But these supposed meridians appear on any western anatomy charts. The literal translation of qi is wind, breath or gas but is often translated as life force. The equivalent word in New Testament Greek is pneuma, which means air or breath but is usually translated as spirit.
Visualizing String Theory requires the ability to think in paradox, where two seemingly contradictory ideas can be held together with a sense of deeper harmony. Paradoxical thinking requires a more expansive view of the universe than does our ordinary normal-space existence with its notion of certainty. Perhaps there is some efficacy to acupuncture, even if western medicine cannot understand it. This is neither to support nor deny acupuncture, but only to suggest that there is more going on in the universe than we can comprehend with our limited, normal-space thinking.
Perhaps the extra dimensions in String Theory give us the space to allow for dimensions of existence that we have previously thought of as magical, mystical, spiritual or religious. And, here is a radical thought. Perhaps String Theory not only allows for the mystical, but perhaps even requires it.
Energy conduits enter our homes to provide radio signals, electricity, clean water, natural gas, telephone service, Internet access, and a host of other connections to the outside world. These special conduits or channels enormously affect the normal-space boxes in which we live, and provide a host of special powers that would have been seen as miraculous even a few hundred years ago. This analogy may help us to explore the extra dimensions of String Theory. Perhaps one of the String Theory extra dimensions is a channel for qi, a force that we cannot access until we understand it.
As a Christian, and more specifically a Calvinist, I have always found the universe to be a sacred place filled with divine logos. “Logo” is Greek for “word” in standard New Testament usage. But it means more than just the spoken word. It also means order, pattern, or design. When we speak of divine logos, we are speaking about the divine order that pervades all things. It covers the birth of the universe, the mating habits of tsetse flies, the DNA molecule, the Van Allen radiation belts, the formation of the planets, and the life cycles of stars.
To perceive the divine logos in all things is to live in a spiritual dimension. And now, String Theory may allow such a metaphysical statement to be incorporated into an expanded view of the universe. Perhaps there is actually in the physical universe a place beyond normal-space where spirit dwells.
Try to envision a universe with nine spatial dimensions and one dimension of time. Such is the emerging view of our universe according to String Theory. Or, if you prefer the closely related M-theory, you will have to live with a universe of ten spatial dimensions and one of time.
I used to lie awake nights pondering where the extra dimensions were to be found. I would concentrate on a corner of the room, where two walls and the ceiling met, and try to envision a fourth spatial dimension. Our whole world view of normal space is constricted to three spatial dimensions, length, width and height. Trying to envision anything beyond those is very difficult.
But the extra spatial dimensions are not like the familiar width, length and height. Rather, they seem to be curled up inside of ordinary space as the image above suggests. They are closer to us than our own skin, and yet the open up to the very edges of our universe and perhaps beyond.
To envision String Theory, we must leave behind our normal concepts of space. Normal space that is bound by boxes demarcated by width, length and height. String Theory does not involve a fourth or fifth box dimension, but something much more exciting.
Think of the extra dimensions not as spaces but as channels or conduits. Our houses are not just boxes stacked together. What makes our houses actually work are the conduits that supply us with water, electricity, heating and cooling, and connectivity. When we flip a light switch, we expect the light to come on. We do not need to know the location of the electrical wiring, and so we do not even think about it.
Of course one could argue that these conduits are simply small boxes hidden within the big boxes of the house, and that would be technically correct. An electrical cable actually does have dimensions, and does occupy specific spaces within the walls, ceilings and floors of the house. But there are no dimensions to a Wi-Fi signal. There is no wiring schematic to show where the WI-Fi signal runs. It seems not to exist in ordinary space. Because Wi-Fi is totally disembodied, it makes an even better analogy for extra dimensions.
For most of human history, if you wanted to send a message a long distance, you would have to entrust it to a human (or string of humans), who would bodily carry the letter to its destination. A human being, moving under her or his own power, can cover something like 32 kilometers (20 miles) per day, and that assumes the most optimal terrain an weather conditions. At the end of the War of 1812, hostilities continued for more than sixty days after the war had officially ended because of the difficulties in spreading word of the wars ending to remote frontier regions.
Radio communications were as much a part of the universe back then as they are now. The problem was that the combatant in 1812 lacked the understanding of radio as well as any technological infrastructure to exploit it.
Today is a much different world. It is now possible for a person in Nome, Alaska to play a chess game with someone from Pretoria, South Africa, and to conclude that game real-time within in five or ten minutes. In the old days it would have taken many years of postal chess, where one move at a time would have been mailed from one participant to another, with each move requiring weeks or even months to arrive at its destination. We have achieved on this planet a state of simultaneity. And what I mean by that is that whatever happens at any place on the planet is now knows instantly across the whole planet, or at least in those places that have the technological infrastructure to tap into the planetary communications grid.
But once we leave the confines of this planet, that state of simultaneity vanishes. On earth, light speed communication counts as instantaneous, as radio waves can circle our planet seven-and-one-half times in one second. As we reach out into space, even a signal to Mars can take up to forty-five minutes. There is no need for a message to Curiosity telling it to, “Look out for that rock!” because by the time the message gets there, the rock will be just a distant memory.
Captain Kirk could always call Star Fleet Headquarters on “sub-space” communications links.
Now back to String Theory. What if some of these extra dimensions could provide us with simultaneity throughout the universe? This unfamiliar concept would totally change our society, not to mention our conception of the universe.
Think of two stars that are 10,000 light years apart. Now let us assume that both have civilizations and that both of these civilizations construct radio telescopes at the same time. Can we call this a simultaneous event? I think not because these two civilizations are not aware of each other’s presence. It also works to say that they are not aware of each other’s presents. Because of the messaging time, neither could be aware of the other’s existence for at least 10,000 years. A signal followed by a response would take at least 20,000 years. After such a long time interval one or both of those civilizations could have died out, or have been pushed back into the Stone Age.
Civilization on earth has only been around for 10,000 years. Civilization refers to the creation of walled cities, the development of agriculture, and the creation of writing and mathematics. The earth has had radio telescopes for only 100 years, and really good ones for about 50 years. While radio has been around since the late 19th Century, there was not much in the way of outbound radio messaging that could be intercepted in other star systems until World War II. Thus, our messages have been streaming out for only about sixty years to star systems in a sphere with a 60 light year radius. The Milky Way Galaxy has a radius of some 60,000 light years.
Now, let us suppose that String Theory allows for one or more of the extra dimensions to function as a channel or conduit through which connectivity is possible. Imagine if these two civilizations could sit down for a friendly game of chess in real time.
Somehow logic demands that there be universal simultaneity. We have just not discovered the technology to understand and exploit that technology. String Theory gives us at least the possibility of knowing what is happening on Proxima Centauri right now, without the need to wait 4.2 years to receive the message via light waves.
Paradoxes are common in both cosmology and in theology. Indeed, this shared quality demonstrates how these two seemingly diverse endeavors are really quite similar, if not two sides of the same coin.
A photon can act like either a wave or a particle depending on what is being tested, or what question is being asked.
Relativity and Quantum Mechanics both are needed to describe the universe, and yet these two views of the cosmos cannot live together in harmony. Relativity describes the very large, while Quantum Mechanics describes the very small. These theories clash in such arenas as black holes, where very large massed converge in very small spaces causing the mathematics to break down.
Matter can be thought of as frozen or congealed energy. The rock in your hand feels solid and permanent, but is really only a lump of frozen energy. And it is not permanent at all, but ephemeral. One common understanding of dark energy is that all atoms will be eventually ripped apart and normal, baryonic matter will be no more.
The speed of light is the cosmic speed limit, except that this speed limit does not exist for space itself. The theory of Inflation, first proposed by Alan Guth, requires that at the Big Bang space expanded vastly faster than the speed of light. This means that the universe is vastly larger than our horizon. We can see 13.5 billion light years in any direction, because that is the age of the universe and is as far back in time as we can see. But if we could stand at that horizon, we could see an additional 13.5 billion years further on. Our Universe seems to be paradoxically both bounded and boundless.
Even our Universe may not be all that there is. String Theory and M (or ‘Brane) theory suggest that our Universe is not alone. Rather, the image of our Universe is more like one soap-bubble among countless others.
Theology is impossible without paradoxical thinking. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Unless a believer can fully hold to these paradoxical understandings then they have not understood the incarnation and what it means.
The Holy Bible was written over some 1,400 years by hundreds of human hands. They represent many different viewpoints and cultural epochs. They record the spiritual saga of the Jews and the early Christians, written from a human perspective. And yet somehow there is divine inspiration to be found within.
The Universe was created according to the laws of science. It was formed from the Big Bang, evolved according to inflation, general relativity, special relativity, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, evolution, genetic mutation, chaos theory, random chance, fractals and a host of other scientific
principles, known and unknown. And yet somehow it was created by God and filled with God’s logos, or divine order that permeates all things.
A good example of this divine logos is the concept of fractals. Fractal math describes how large items can be structured by simple repeating patterns. The architecture of a leaf is a fractal pattern with cells and veins growing out of the repetition of simple patterns. The arrangement of the limbs and branches of a tree are also derived from fractal patterns. Fractal patterns can create vast and elegant constructions from a few simple codes. This coding can be computer code or DNA. Coastal redwood trees can grow to over 360 feet in height. One of the joys of living in Northern California is walking through forests of these giant trees that grow to form living cathedrals. And yet, through the miracle of fractal algorithms, the seeds of these magnificent trees are no bigger than a grain of rice.
John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed Tradition, wrote that to study the creation is to study the creator. His words provided the theological foundation for all of modern science. Cosmology links science and theology.
We live in a Universe that is beyond all comprehension. And yet, the paradox is that we can learn to comprehend it. And that might be the ultimate paradox.