Thursday, April 25, 2013

One Among Many Speculative Notions

I was watching a cable TV segment on "The Origins of the Universe" - it featured a theologian amidst a number of scientists - and clearly was centered on the idea of whether or not the universe was created by "god".  Of late, there seems to be a lot of cable "history" and "science" programming that has a focus on religion.  A curious trend, that.

Anyway, it was interesting to watch the show because I suspect that many non-scientists failed to grasp the amount of misinformation generated during the course of the show.  It always seemed the rather arrogant theologian got the "last word" a lot during the discussions, which represented something of a religious bias in the show.  He always was able to get in some dig about the science, without the scientists being given the chance to respond to his "arguments".

A key notion in the whole discussion of the origins of the universe is that all of the proposed versions of how the universe began are nothing more than speculation.  No one can actually claim to know the answers, for sure.  (Unless they're religious believers who always know all the answers!)  For the purposes of this discussion, I'm using the word "speculation" in this context to mean unvalidated hypotheses.  Ideas are a dime a dozen - anyone can have an idea that purports to "explain" something.  The tough part is to develop convincing evidence to substantiate an idea.  The 'god hypothesis' is nothing more than one among many speculative ideas.

Diverse ideas are out there in the physics/cosmology community about what caused the universe to come into being with the so-called Big Bang.  The science underpinning the Big Bang itself and its aftermath is on pretty firm ground these days.  That the universe began in an unimaginably powerful singular event can be, and has been, tested with observations.  The preponderance of the evidence supports the idea.  The evolution of the universe from that moment to the present is mostly in very good agreement with what we think we know about the laws of the natural world.  Given the Big Bang, it seems that science has a pretty good handle on what happened later - not every detail, of course.  One sticky detail is the origin of life on the Earth - but given life, it seems that evolutionary biology can take it from there.  A key principle in science is to know the limits of what science can say about a subject.  Scientists are generally pretty careful about that.

The issue we constantly confront in arguments with religious believers is that science can offer no evidence to confirm (or deny) their ideas of how the Big Bang (or the first life on Earth) came to be.  Scientists can speculate, but we presently don't have the capability even to test any of the scientific ideas that seek to explain these mysterious events.  Therefore, all those scientific ideas are on the same playing field as the ideas of religion - with the very important exception that scientific ideas must conform to logical principles (including mathematical logic) and be plausible in the context within which science operates.  Religious "explanations"  seem to be little more than modest elaborations on the notion that "god did it" - an idea that actually explains nothing!  If our "answer" is "god did it", that gives us absolutely no useful information.

Imagine someone from another planet landing on the Earth and finding a watch.  On the face of the watch is the word "Bulova".  A watch is obviously a manufactured artifact, but the fact that it was created by "Bulova" gives our alien visitors absolutely no information about its intended use, or how it works to accomplish that intent, or how it was manufactured, or why it was made in that particular way.  Science seeks to "explain" things in terms of how and why natural objects and processes work the way they do.  It does not seek to associate those objects and processes with some entity.  That some entity might have created natural objects or processes is to postulate something that may or may not even exist.  Before seeking to "explain" things in terms of a proposed entity, one first would  have to establish that such an entity exists.  This, of course, has never been done.  The fact that there is no absolute proof this entity does not exist is completely irrelevant!  If the evidence of how and why some object or process works leads us to the hypothesis that a creating entity was involved, as it surely would for our watch example, that remains at least a logical possibility.  Distinguishing natural objects and processes from those created by an advanced entity should be easy.  Certainly, if alien visitors found a watch, it would lead them to postulate a 'watch creator' that understood the operating principles and possessed the capability to assemble raw materials into a watch.

But what about a rock?  Or a bird?  Or the weather?  What evidence about these objects and processes leads us to postulate a creator?  Complexity?  Hogwash!  Complexity arises spontaneously in the natural world from the nonlinearity of the physical processes.  Simplicity would be far more demanding of an explanation than complexity!

The 'god hypothesis' is exactly on a par with all the competing ideas of scientists about the origins of the universe (and life on Earth).  Except that it's possible in the future that science will find ways to test the scientific hypotheses and perhaps a comprehensive explanation will emerge from the scientific method.  Unfortunately for religious believers, unless the putative 'god' chooses to reveal himself in some obvious and unambiguous way, there is no such possibility for finding evidence on behalf of an entity that can do acts of creation without following natural physical laws.  You can't use logic and evidence to underpin an irrational belief.  Religion recognizes no limit on what their putative "god" can do, and believers assert that they know the explanation for everything - their god did it!  End of story.  Their arrogance (and ignorance) is palpable!

No comments: