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Science and God were put on trial this summer… now you must be the judge

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Unbelievable? recently gave us a “summer of science”. Now it demands a verdict says Erik Strandness: when it comes to the origins of life… whodunnit?

One of the common school practices in the United States is for returning students to write a short essay on how they spent their summer vacation. During the month of June Unbelievable? similarly gave us a wonderful “summer of science,” but now calls on us to reflect on what just happened.

We have been given the opportunity to test the God Hypothesis by listening to various experts scrutinize the data, so now it is our job to either deny that a god exists or do the hard work of identifying who he/she/or it truly is.

The Detectives

J. Warner Wallace has written several excellent books applying the science of detective work to explorations of faith. In, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, he made the case that the natural world was like a crime scene littered with pieces of evidence pointing to a creating intelligence.

Unbelievable? in like manner, brought in a series of highly qualified scientific detectives to also comb through the crime scene evidence…

Philosopher of science, Stephen Meyer, examined the scene and suggested that it was the work of a Master Mind while his discussion partner Physicist Brian Keating was uncomfortable pursuing a conviction until each piece of evidence was rigorously tested in the lab.

 

Theoretical Astrophysicist Luke Barnes noted that the crime appeared to have been in the planning stages for billions of years while his foil Theoretical Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder suggested it was a victimless crime that required no further investigation.

 

Paleontologist Gunter Buechly got his hands dirty by examining the fossil evidence and concluding that it was a staged crime carried out with time sensitive precision while his interlocutor, the Computational Biologist Joshua Swamidass, sensed that God was guilty but was clever enough to not leave behind any biological finger prints.

 

The summer of science concluded with a Big Conversation between Theoretical Physicist Paul Davies and Physicist Jeremy England tackling the biggest question of all – why do we think there is a crime scene in the first place?

Whodunnit?

While a scientific story that features fine tuning, biological information, and ecological order is remarkable, we cannot ignore the far more profound fact that 7 billion people believe it’s a “Whodunnit,” and while concluding that a “mind” was behind it all is provocative, it’s hardly a satisfactory final scene for a laity steeped in crime dramas who are on the edge of their seats waiting for the guilty party to be apprehended.

It Takes One to Know One

Men go to gape at mountain peaks, at the boundless tides of the sea, the broad sweep of rivers, the encircling ocean and the motion of the stars, and yet they leave themselves unnoticed; they do not marvel at themselves. (Augustine)

Sadly, we focus so much attention on the crime scene that we fail to consider the detective. Isn’t it stunning that humans are the only creatures on the planet capable of stepping outside the circle of life to see how it spins?

Why not just navigate the world rather than obsess over a map maker? I suspect it’s because when a mind observes the world it can’t help but feel it is looking into a mirror. One of the things Davies finds quite surprising is that the planet is filled with “comprehending organisms,” but if you are a Christian, then an image bearer trying to rethink God’s thoughts isn’t surprising at all. I guess it takes one to know One.

Mind Your Manners

Scientific research has unveiled layer upon layer of complexity prompting many scientists to look past simplistic Neo-Darwinian evolution and offer mind-oriented theories such as ‘directed panspermia’, cosmic computer simulation, and panpsychism. Interestingly, those who are uncomfortable with these theories of outside intelligences retreat into their own minds and enter the abstract realm of mathematics in order to formulate a theory of everything.

However, the mathematical realm isn’t an adequate safe space to shield one from designing intelligences because not only is it immaterial but it is also suspiciously calculating. It is like a scientific Holy of Holies where God and man come together in a meeting of the minds. In the Jewish Temple, the high priest had to be ritually clean prior to entering, so maybe we should exhibit a bit more reverence and mind our manners whenever we enter that sacred mathematical space.

Back to the Books

Humans throughout time have entertained the God hypothesis because of their reading of the book of nature. Unbelievable? has summarized this data and given us the Cliff notes but now we need to hit the (holy) books and ask – Will the real God please stand up?

As Meyer mentioned, general revelation only takes us so far, so if we want to identify the deity behind it all then we must begin to look to special revelation. As it turns out, the book of nature isn’t a separate volume but a preface to a larger revelatory tome. Thankfully, most religions have handed down creation stories that explain the connection between matter and maker, soil and spirit, and dirt and deity, therefore, we have enough data to determine which holy book opens up when we turn the last page in the book of nature.

Turn the Page

Unbelievable’s summer of science has revealed some startling facts. The universe had a beginning and unfolded sequentially within very fine-tuned parameters. Life appeared out of nowhere. Life became progressively more complex requiring increasing amounts of biological information. Life became conscious. Life began to contemplate itself.

Most creation myths describe primal gods arising from a watery chaos and then propagating through acts of sex, sacrifice, or murder. Each member of the resulting pantheon was then given specific natural powers designed to hold up some aspect of the physical world. Unfortunately, the resulting cosmic order was a bit tenuous because the gods didn’t always get along with one another, and like spoiled Millennials, needed to be regularly cajoled into doing their jobs. Sadly, worship, rather than being fueled by praise for the remarkable way the world was created, was driven by fear that it could fall apart at any moment if the gods weren’t given incentives to show up for work.

A simple reading of each of these creation myths not only reveals just how monumentally different the Genesis narrative truly is but also how remarkably it corresponds to the scientific data.

Speaking His Mind

Whether you take the Genesis account literally or not, you have to be impressed by how well it matches the world around us. It not only details how the cosmos was created but assures us that no gods were killed in the process.

It presents an orderly account of change over time from infrastructure to inhabitants, non-life to life, simple to complex, and instinct to consciousness. It describes a God who uses paleontological pauses for dramatic effect – ‘day one, day two…’

It depicts a speaking God who infuses increasing amounts of complex biological information into the universe through daily communications – ‘And God said…’

It explains why we not only find the natural world interesting but breath-taking, because God saw that it was good.

It explains why there are unique creatures capable of investigating, imitating, and artistically representing the cosmos because they were created in the image of God.

Finally, it explains why the cosmos operates in an ecologically very good way.

Speak When Spoken To

While many people point out that a speaking God is an anthropomorphism or a metaphor, I would argue that it remains a quite remarkable one because it accurately describes the world we see in the laboratory. It may not be literally true, but it is the only creation story that conceptually makes sense of the orderly appearance of information we find in our scientific investigations.

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard. (Psalm 19:1-3)

Sadly, many scientists, threatened by a cosmos that proclaims His handiwork, instruct nature to only speak when scientifically spoken to. It seems odd that the very discipline that prizes intellectual rigor would deny intelligence to the other end of the microscope. Have we become so snobbishly smart that we feel the need to berate the universe for its stupidity? Science ironically tips its hat to the intellect but then doesn’t allow it any say in the matter.

Interface Discussion

The summer of science appropriately ended with a Big Conversation featuring Paul Davies and Jeremy England discussing the origins of life. The reason it was an appropriate capstone for the series was because it got down to the nitty gritty of what divides science and religion –the interface between non-life and life, matter and mind, spandrels and spirit, and elements and emergence?

For Davies the complexification of existing life is far less impressive than the move from non-life to life:

“The transition from the earliest microbes to what we see today, of course is an enormous amount of complexification, but it’s got nothing on that first step of going from a mish-mash of chemicals to the first living thing because all the complexity of the biosphere is in the individual organisms and not in the subsequent ecology.”

Davies compared the situation to that of computer hardware and software where we can discover the chemical hardware in nature but have a difficult time explaining where the software instructions came from. He recognized that defining life was a difficult proposition but felt it ultimately boiled down to “Chemistry + Information” where the “+” represented a mysterious interface.

Lost in Translation

Davies highlighted the problem by describing the interaction between nucleic acids and proteins where information encrypted in one is then decrypted into another. Cellular information processing system begins with transcription or copying of the DNA code into a portable RNA form. The nucleotide language of the DNA is then transcribed into the nucleotide language of the RNA and then transported into the cytoplasm where it is then translated into the amino acid language of proteins.

While one could perhaps dismiss transcription as a mindless material process, one must think twice about translation. Who made sure that the meaning of one biological language would convey the same meaning in another biological language? Even if you believe that life began in some warm little pond, you need to ask yourself who taught DNA to strike up a conversation with proteins, who enrolled nucleotides in amino acid 101?

Return of the God Hypothesis

Our Unbelievable? summer of science provided evidence that the world is extremely fine-tuned, complex, organized and information rich. This has prompted many scientists to ask if maybe the universe is the result of a thought experiment, and inspiring those of a religious persuasion to tinker with the identity of the Thinker.

The historically popular God hypothesis has returned for our consideration. Natural revelation has made this hypothesis plausible, but it is only when we turn to special revelation that we can discover his/her/or its identity. We, therefore, need to bring all holy texts to the table and ask which one best incorporates the book of nature into the larger life narrative. I believe that it is in the opening chapters of Genesis that we find the best harmonization of science and religion because it describes a God who spoke an intelligible universe into existence and then created beings equipped with the divine voice recognition software capable of scientifically investigating the etymology of His creational words.

The crime scene is open for all to investigate and Unbelievable? has assisted us by bringing in some of the finest detectives in the world to help us sift through the evidence. General revelation suggests that there is a master mind behind it all but now we are called to take it to the next level and round up all the divine suspects and review their special revelation rap sheets, because if we don’t, our spiritual longings will forever remain a cold case.

Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.

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