Me and Katie Mack and the end of everything

With a side order of the meaning of existence

Am very much enjoying ‘The End of Everything’ by astrophysicist Katie Mack, which is, so far, a really fun and informed romp through apocalypsical possibilities. Well done to my enlightened kids for buying me this for my birthday (by strange coincidence, it also was on my Amazon wishlist).

I’m writing this in hospital (in March 2021) having just had one of my six-monthly assessments for the heart transplant list, and I took Katie Mack to cheer me up, and she has. (I passed the assessment, officially sick enough to need a transplant and well enough to tolerate one.)

I wasn’t entirely convinced, however, if I may say so, by what seemed to me a wobbly attempt to put a foot in two boats that seem to be far apart and drifting further.

Acknowledging an ultimate end gives us context, meaning, even hope, and allows us, paradoxically, to step back from our petty day to day concerns and simultaneously live more fully in the moment. Maybe this can be the meaning we seek.

Katie Mack, The End of Everything 2020, p 7.

The two boats are meaning and science. She’s already dismissed finding meaning outside of science:

  1. She’s read widely but no-one agrees with each other so there is no human consensus of opinion.
  2. She’s not sure she would believe anything anyway about the meaning of life if it was ‘written down for me once and for all in a book’ (p4) and couldn’t be derived mathematically or worked out through scientific scrutiny. Obviously, that statement doesn’t include stuff she herself writes, like that statement, even though that statement can’t be derived mathematically or worked out through scientific scrutiny.
  3. Nor does that statement allow any possibly of the transcendent. Er … if you only allow yourself to look at the material world, you’ll only ever see the material world. Odd to pre-filter reality like that.
  4. Plus, if you have to reach for cliches like ‘petty day to day concerns’ and ‘living more fully in the moment’, I am on the verge of concluding that you haven’t found meaning at all but are cramming the hole with words that are commonly available and quite funky but sadly a bit empty.

Here’s the thing. We get meaning from love. And actually, if you wanted consensus about that, ask anybody. Meaning and love are the two foci of the ellipse within which we live our lives. Science can describe, beautifully, the journey I am about to go on if I am ever let out of this hospital – first to my parents, 2 hours and 11 minutes from here, and then to my wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, wierdly, 2 hours and 11 minutes from my parents’ home. Science can describe everything about the journey except what it means to me and perhaps to them. Love says what it means. And in one sense, love says everything.

The war between science and faith is exaggerated

Tell ’em it ain’t so.

Fascinating, longish quote. Perhaps this article will help lift a finger or two off the weighing scale and bring things back to balance.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Most historians of science [do not] support the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Renowned collisions, such as the Galileo affair, turned on politics and personalities, not just science and religion. Darwin had significant religious supporters and scientific detractors, as well as vice versa. Many other alleged instances of science-religion conflict have now been exposed as pure inventions. In fact, contrary to conflict, the historical norm has more often been one of mutual support between science and religion. In its formative years in the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theology helped to popularise science.

The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. Many are prominent scientists. It would be superfluous to rehearse Richard Dawkins’s musings on this topic, but he is by no means a solitary voice. Stephen Hawking thinks that ‘science will win because it works’; Sam Harris has declared that ‘science must destroy religion’; Stephen Weinberg thinks that science has weakened religious certitude; Colin Blakemore predicts that science will eventually make religion unnecessary. Historical evidence simply does not support such contentions. Indeed, it suggests that they are misguided.

So why do they persist? The answers are political. Leaving aside any lingering fondness for quaint 19th-century understandings of history, we must look to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, exasperation with creationism, an aversion to alliances between the religious Right and climate-change denial, and worries about the erosion of scientific authority. While we might be sympathetic to these concerns, there is no disguising the fact that they arise out of an unhelpful intrusion of normative commitments into the discussion. Wishful thinking – hoping that science will vanquish religion – is no substitute for a sober assessment of present realities. Continuing with this advocacy is likely to have an effect opposite to that intended.

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy. Given this, science needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism.

Peter Harrison is an Australian Laureate Fellow and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He is the author of The Territories of Science and Religion (2015), and the editor of Narratives of Secularization (2017). His latest book is Science without God: Rethinking the History of Scientific Naturalism (2019), co-edited with Jon Roberts. This article first appeared in aeon the free online magazine of ideas, and was published September 7,2017

Not quite the sixth place of decimals

There are surprises in store

Image by (Joenomias) Menno de Jong from Pixabay

“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”

Albert Michelson, Light Waves and Their Uses (1903), 23-4. 1

It was probably a shame that Michelson, first American winner of the Nobel Prize, came up with this quote, since it was his careful experiments on the way the speed of light never varied that provided the initial information behind Einstein’s 1904 theory of relativity.2.

It was a further shame that he wrote in 1903, just at the edge of quarter -century of discovery and theory that would turn physics upside down – the most exciting twenty-five years physics has ever known. Physicists since (arguably) have just been adding footnotes

What do we learn from this? Arguably, beware certainty in scientists. Think of this. Over here (I won’t draw it but you can imagine it) is the totality of reality. Over here (I won’t draw it either) is Science, a tool for exploring this reality. This is all very fine, except for the problem that since we do not know what the totality of reality is, we have no way of judging how good our tool is. It might be, for example, like a torch that only lights up the shiny things in a vast cave. Or it might be like an optical telescope, blind to X-ray sources that light up the sky. Or it might be like a child’s understanding, or like a fly’s, relying (in the case of the child) in a badly incomplete model or (in the case of a fly) on a deep cognitive lack.

Scientists generally, in my observation, are not good at looking at the acts of faith that underlie their discipline. What part does prejudice play? Or confirmation bias? How limited is our ability to perceive? How observable is the Universe? Science proceeds on assumptions that the Universe is generally observable, that human failings are ironed out by the need to replicate results, and, more broadly that it ‘works’. By which they/we mean: ‘when we shine a light into the cave, we can see shiny things.’

We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know if we can know what we don’t know. And we don’t know, if we can know what we don’t know, how we will know it.

Apart from that, everything is absolutely fine.

A theology of slow mission

Not a programme, or a strategy, but a course of life.

Pixabay

We know how this ends.

Everyone dies, the Universe expands and cools, the last lights go out. It isn’t this.

It is — according to Christian theology — this. A resurrected Universe thrives. All things are united together in Christ.

I have written about how you can understand this in terms of the physicist’s idea of entropy. The little localized patches of low entropy that already exist, known to us as ‘life’, are the forerunners or harbingers or early hints of a total low-entropy takeover of time and space.

Another way of saying the same thing is the language of heaven and earth. Heaven is the low-entropy, eternal, invisible dimension or realm where Christ reigns. Perhaps it surrounds in some way our physical Universe. When people turn to Christ and lean into him, heaven enters their souls. They have a presence somehow in these heavens, ‘seated in heavenly places in Christ.’1 They belong to eternity, but they reside on earth. They belong to God’s people, to Jesus, and their future is secure. Yet they live on earth. What is their job? Their lives become about bringing the qualities of heaven into earth. They are routes by which heaven leaks into earth. Which is why prayer is important, as is weakness and perseverance, and the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. Eventually, heaven will burst out and flood over earth and Christ will be ‘all in all’. ‘Death’, as the Apostle Paul put it, ‘is swallowed up by victory’. 2

A lot of the New Testament lights up when we realize this. This is why we pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ 3, why ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness’ 4, why we ‘groan’5, why Paul tells the Colossians to bear fruit ‘in every good work .. [with] great endurance and patience’ 6, why ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ 7.

Here is a theology of slow mission. We pray, and do, and bear, and endure on earth. But we are not building the kingdom of heaven on earth like you build a cathedral. We are engaged in an act of life-giving. It is like when a plant puts all its strength into preparing a seed head.

It is also like the ways mothers live by pouring life into their children. The children live on into a future the mother doesn’t see. The mother doesn’t see the future because death stands between her and it, and that future is far removed from her current experience of protesting, messy babies. But she lives and gives life and her loving work will endure beyond death, bearing fruit in ways she will perhaps never guess. The coming of the Kingdom of God in the end will be a bridal day for a squalling creation.

This is why mission is and should be slow. Because it isn’t a programme; it’s a work of love. It’s why every little corner matters, as well as every grand vision. It’s a pursuit of Christ in the large and the small. We pour in all the knowledge of Christ and all the beauty and justice and patience and faith and love that we can, into this world, tugged along in our course by the Holy Spirit. We live, reluctant coals blown on by Jesus. We also groan: weak, sorrowful, disappointed, set back again and again. What we finish won’t look finished, until it all dies and rises again, and then we will see in Christ that it was.

Science’s naughty assumptions

Pretend that the Universe is the sort of Universe God would have made if he actually existed.

Sometimes it helps to hope something is true even if we can’t prove it.

For example, I often assume the people driving a bus or flying a plane are sober and competent and mean well. It would be too tiresome to have to check every time.

In maths, something called the Riemann Hypothesis is, as yet, unproven. But by assuming the Riemann Hypothesis is true, you can make great mathematical progress. All that progress would be able to be certified as proper maths if someone would only go and prove the Riemann Hypothesis.

The same is true of the whole of science.

The whole of science rests, I suggest, on two unproven assumptions. (I apologize ahead of time to any philosphers reading this. Take it as an indication that your jobs are vital.)

Here they are:

  1. There is such a thing as being. Things ‘are’. Reality is not, at least in the final analysis, a delusion.
  2. This material universe is self-consistent; it obeys physical laws. (If parts of it don’t obey consistent physical laws, such as what a toddler is going to do next, science cannot explore those parts.)

These two are science’s unproven naughty assumptions. Every scientific paper should start with a confession: ‘If the universe is real and obeys laws, which, fair play, we haven’t actually proved, then …’

Which is where theology comes in

The Apostle Paul claims that two facts are obvious about God, but they are widely suppressed. They are:

God’s being means being is. God has a relationship to the Universe similar to the relationship between a playwright and a play. The play’s real existence arises out of the being of the playwright, who is a different order of being. Hamlet (the play) is real because Shakespeare (the playwright) created it out of his own being.

God’s eternal power. The universe is consistent because it is upheld by the continuing command of a consistent, infinitely powerful God.

The world suppresses these obvious facts, Paul insists, because the world does not want to deal with God.

What’s interesting here is that science has to un-suppress these truths in order to progress at all. Science cuts a path through the mystery of the universe because it assumes truths about being and consistency that are coherently rooted God’s Godness. To do good science you have to make assumptions about the Universe which are perfectly in accord with the existence of God. These same assumptions are suppressed when we ask questions like ‘who am I and what am I to do?’ Some people unsuppress truths to do good science while suppressing them when they are asking about their own meaning and purpose. Arguably this approach is at least quixotic and inconsistent, and perhaps lacking coherence and integrity.

Some will disagree. You don’t need to believe in God, they would argue, in order to use science’s naughty assumptions with intellectual integrity. This is true. You could argue, for example, it’s all a mystery that we cannot fathom. Being is. The Universe is orderly. These are brute facts but they cannot be explained.

(Except they can.)

Why undercooked ideas make you grumpy and cross

I’ve had to swallow two arguments recently with fellow-Christians because having the argument would have been less worthwhile than the friendship or whatever that it would have taken away. One (a surgeon, though admittedly only an orthopedic surgeon if I remember) didn’t believe in evolution. The other, a management consultant, thought we might allow the possibilities of a Young Earth because ‘science is changing all the time.’

Wrong, and wrong, and wrongity wrong wrong. My friends were trying to pay a bill with the wrong coin. Neither had arrived at their wacky ideas through studying science. It was their attempts at Bible study, which were also not very good, that they had hurled like a custard pie into a scientific discussion, that led them astray. This you cannot do. You have to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s: critique science with the methods of science. Critique theology or bible-exegesis with better theology or bible-exegesis.

The same problem happens in reverse, of course, when scientists stray from their proper bounds and ask questions, for example about why anything exists. Science is equipped to measure, watch, count, predict. Surely it’s ill-equipped to find a rationale for being itself.

We know in part (in science); we know in part (in theology). Stirring two half-cooked things together and thinking a fully cooked meal will magically pop out is not going to work.

You can only have fruitful dialogue between science and religion when you stop nipping down shortcuts. Mostly this involves, like walking through an airport, by just following one path to the end, albeit with a friendly glance now and then through the glass to see what the other people in the different corridors are doing.

A recipe for incomplete knowledge and messy contradiction? That shows we’re on the right lines.

The pain-reducing effects of dancing together

The joy of team

VIMOS’s last embrace

Researchers at Oxford University did an experiment with communal dancing.

They gathered a group of strangers and taught them different dance moves. Then they put four of these strangers together and gave each person headphones. So any given foursome could have:

  • Same dance moves, different music
  • Same music, different dance moves
  • Same music, same dance moves.

After the dance floor experience, they tested their pain threshold by tightening a blood-pressure cuff on each of them.

It turned out that the synchronized dancers (hearing the same music and doing the same moves), had a much higher pain threshold than the others. 1

Why is this? Perhaps we have become wired to be rewarded when we work alongside other people toward a greater end. There’s a health-giving benefit to being a harmonious part of a team effort. Most of us have felt this at one time or another, the sense of wellness from a team of people achieving something together by each doing our bit.

Entropy, miracles and the Kingdom of God

Messier 1 (M1), Crab Nebula
The Crab Nebula, a stellar explosion, a little hard to put back into an ordered state. Photo: Robert Sullivan/ Hubble – creative commons @flickr.com

That brilliant and entertaining atheist Steven Pinker has defined ‘the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.’ 1

That might need a bit of explaining, not least to me. Entropy is, crudely, the measure of disorder in the universe. A low-entropy state is an ordered state; high entropy is a  disordered one. Because disorder is much more likely than order, disorder (high entropy) tends to be what everything leads to.

So you have a cold gas tank next to a hot gas tank. Open a valve between the two, and soon the temperatures of the two tanks will be the same. This is because there are many more ways for molecules to mix randomly than there are for all the hot molecules to be in one place and all the cold ones in another.  (This tendency for entropy to increase over time is the well known Second Law of Thermodynamics.)

Or consider all the molecules in your body. To get them all working together in some vast machine, called you, is hugely rare compared with all the possible way of arranging those molecules that do not result in a living you. This is one of the reasons we spend much, much longer being a corpse than we do being a living body; it’s just so much easier for all the molecules.

The only way to keep entropy low in this system– to keep your molecules in order — is to take energy from elsewhere, for example by eating a bag of french fries. So you can artificially maintain a local low-entropy state (your life and existence)  by adding energy from the outside (eating french fries).

A fridge works the same way. It keeps at a low temperature, compared with the rest of your kitchen, by taking energy from the grid and pumping heat out of the fridge into the kitchen. It’s a local low-entropy system. Your freezer compartment, more so. You and your fridge/freezer, therefore, thermodynamically speaking, are brother and sister.

Hence Pinker’s statement that the purpose of existence is to keep entropy locally as low as possible. So we feed babies, we heal sicknesses, we clean up mess, we order information pleasingly. Our whole life is about borrowing energy from elsewhere to keep our low-entropy show, otherwise known as human life and culture, on the road.

Because the Second Law always wins, this is a battle we must eventually lose — as individuals, as a species, as a planet, as a galaxy and maybe as a whole Universe.

Maybe.

Rereading the Kingdom of God in entropy terms, possibly.

Now we depart from Pinker.  Its interesting–at least to me– to re-read the Kingdom of God in terms of entropy.

When Jesus walked on earth, he clearly went round reducing entropy wherever he went: healing the blind, curing lepers, stilling storms (does that reduce entropy? I hope so), raising the dead and so on.

There are several  interesting thoughts that arise from this, none of which I am qualified to follow up.

  1. It is a mystery of physics why the Universe started in a low-entropy state. It is much more overwhelmingly likely (you would think not knowing any better) to start in a high entropy disordered state, if only because there are just so hugely many more disordered states out there than ordered ones. (Just like Tolstoy said: unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way; so many options.) Of course we don’t really know if some as-yet-unguessed physics made a low entropy beginning inevitable, but at the moment, it isn’t obvious. A low entropy beginning to the Universe is easy to explain theologically (though not cosmologically): God likes to start a new story on a fresh sheet of paper.
  2. Jesus evidently didn’t borrow energy from elsewhere when he went about decreasing entropy. At least we don’t read of it. He stills the storm in Galilee, but it didn’t get colder in Samaria. He feeds 5000, but not by sucking energy from elsewhere in the Universe, which is the kind of thing farmers do when they feed 5000 people – they take energy from the sun and grow crops. Jesus lowered entropy without borrowing energy from elsewhere
  3. That leads us to a thermodynamic definition of a miracle: ‘an inexplicable local lowering of entropy’. This kind of thing is impossible for us creatures, but is easy if you are God, who, it is claimed, created the whole show and holds it all up with the word of his power.
  4. Hence, the ability to decrease entropy without borrowing from elsewhere is a good thermodynamic definition of divinity.
  5. The new heavens and the new earth also seem not to be bound by the Second Law. Paul talks of a day when ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’ (Romans 8:21).
  6. So the final state of the Universe is a lower entropy state than now, not, as we would expect from the Second Law, a higher one. It is brought into order in Christ, not decaying into heat death. Paul talks  in Ephesians 1 about ‘ … when the times reach their fulfillment—[God brings] unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.’ (Ephesians 1:9-10)
  7. The Bible describes a universe starting in a low-entropy state and finishing in a low-entropy state, with all the business of the Second Law being merely a wrinkle in eternity due somehow to the rebellion of humans.
  8. This (maybe) helps us put miracles onto a more coherent footing. They are not merely  impulsive acts by a God whom (I like to think) occasionally lets his heart rule his head. They are the outliers of a low-entropy eternity breaking into our increasing-entropy, jumbled universe, the first rolling pebbles of the avalanche.
  9. See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears,a] we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. John 3:1-2 NIV.

 

You can still be meaningful

Size doesn’t matter

Galaxy
Thanks to Bernt Thaller for making this image creative commons on Flickr.com

A lot of people feel insignificant when they look at images like this.

That’s certainly an understandable response, but actually I think that’s a philosophical choice that we make. I think there’s another option, which is to think of how significant we are, not because we occupy a particularly important space in the universe – but because we are able to look around ourselves and comprehend something about the universe we live in, and to realise that we are actually at a stage in the evolution of the universe where life like us can exist and contemplate our purpose and our meaning. That’s where I think you get beyond what science alone can address – some of these deeper questions of meaning.

Jennifer Wiseman in “life in a purposeful universe’ www.scienceandbelief.org

How set theory could help the theologians

The great missiologist Paul Hiebert thought of this first and taught me it. He even wrote a paper on it. 1 So I’m just reproducing his ideas really.

Theologians do get into a pickle when trying to describe conversion, the way by which a person turns to Christ.

They get even more confused when they try to apply their theories to people who are other than sentient adults – unborn babies, children, those with severe learning difficulties, for example.

As Paul Hiebert pointed out, an understanding of set theory could help.

A ‘set’ is a collection of things: a tea-set, for example, is a collection of things you need to serve tea.

The set of all Christians

What does the ‘set’ of all Christians look like? Your average theologian will probably reach for the  ‘bounded’ set, which means:

Everything that is within these walls (that I define) is in the set. And everything outside the walls, isn’t.

How do you define the walls? Here are some ideas:

  • All the baptized
  • All who profess faith
  • All who (as I was once asked on the streets in Cambridge when I claimed to be already a Christian) ‘have been baptized as an adult and baptized in the Spirit and speaking in tongues as an initial evidence’ (I won’t say whether I passed or not).

The problem is that none of the walls work when faced with the Biblical evidences of God’s grace.

This may be because the ‘set’ of the Christians is not a bounded set.

The centred set

Let’s suggest another type of set: the ‘centred set’. Members of the set are not defined by the boundaries around them, but by their relationship to the centre, which is Christ. If you’re heading toward to the centre, you’re in the set.

If not, you’re not.

This means:

  • People a very long way away, but following a sniff of grace are in the set.
  • People who look really near (like the religious) but are not oriented to the centre at all, are not in the set.

This (it seems to me) fits much better with the Biblical data. I leave proving this as an ‘exercise for the reader’.

I talked about  some of this in my book More than Bananas, which you are invited to download for free from Internet bookshops: