Thursday, January 12, 2012

When Physics Becomes Metaphysics: Books Review for "New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy"

When Physics Becomes Metaphysics

Taking karate as a child, my instructor used to tell his students that the two most dangerous degrees of skill in the world of karate are the black belt (highest degree and most skilled) and the white belt (lowest degree and least skilled).  The student who achieves the degree of black belt is dangerous because he has the skill to harm and knows well that he can harm, yet he does not.  The student with a white belt is dangerous because he has not yet realized that he can harm and has not yet learned the restraint and self-discipline to not harm.

As an educator, I find in regards to the sciences, many of my students are white belts capable of tearing down philosophical arguments by means of science without the restraint, respect or self-discipline necessary to give an honest and thorough examination of any philosophical argument or scientific theorem.  Some of my former students who attempted the exercise of tearing down theological arguments, were more interested in trying to disprove God and validate their supposed atheism by using science with the same dangerous skill of the white belt. The result was that they not only did they show evidence of their misunderstanding of theology, but they also misrepresented science in the process. 

While studying and teaching theology for the past seven years, some of the questions my students proposed: “What does the Church think about a bouncing universe, if it’s true does it mean there’s no God?”  “How do we know there isn’t a multiverse or a parallel dimension?”  The questions were often prompted by some recent episode of Dr. Who or a special on the Discovery Channel or History Channel.  The viewing of complex scientific theories in such miniscule portions from companies more interested in ratings than honest science left my student with malformed ideas and theories of their own.  Yet, too often I was unable to respond directly to my students’ questions about the relation between God and science beyond “God created the universe and all that is in it.  So how can science, which tells us how the world works, oppose God who made the world work the way it does?”  Though it was an answer to my students, I never felt it was a sufficient answer.

How I wish I had Father Robert Spitzer’s book New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy five years ago when I started working with smart aleck students.  For Father Spitzer lays flat with black belt precision some of the very questions my students would ask me.

The purpose of the book “is to set out the specific evidential bases for this convergent probability in which science plays an integral role” (23). Spitzer does this by using John Henry Newman’s “informal inference,” which is an argument that takes into account all the evidence in order to make a compelling, converging, and convincing argument. Both Newman’s and Spitzer’s method are quite different from many of the more well known proofs for the existence of God, which seek to provide, in a single locale, an argument aimed to kill any doubt as to whether or not God exists.  Instead, Spitzer takes the reader on a philosophical, scientific, and metaphysical journey through the cosmos, beginning with the Big Bang and ending with the eternal longings of the human heart.  He clearly shows the numerous instances, often brushed off as mere coincidences when examined individually, for the necessity of the existence of a Creator.

Father Spitzer brings together all of the current scientific and philosophical coincidences and present them to the reader with the underlying question: “When do coincidences stop being coincidences?” Certainly one can ignore an isolated incident as just a mere coincidence, but how many coincidences, all of which point to the same conclusion, are required before they pass from coincidence to truth: three, ten, twenty? Yet, when those coincidences are brought out of isolation and presented together as a coherent whole, in intellectual honesty, they cannot be ignored. To view otherwise is like the man who erroneously assumes that it is only by mere coincidence that a group of musicians happened to assemble on the same stage, all wearing similar dress, with an exact number and complementary instruments, and who all happen to be playing melodies and harmonies that fit together as if someone arranged it to be so.

Though the book’s title is New proofs for the Existence of God, several of the proofs are not entirely new, as there are several lines of arguments which echo Aquinas’ Five Ways, and Chapter Four is dedicated to a Lonergain argument for an unconditional, absolute, simple and unrestricted reality.  The newness of the proofs lie not in philosophical methodology, but in the science Spitzer applies to the classic philosophical methods in providing both empirical and metaphysical data that supports the traditional arguments.  Spitzer inserts into several of these traditional arguments findings and examples from contemporary physics and demonstrates by appealing to the laws of thermodynamics, the universal constants, the radiation and entropy paradoxes, and the miniscule likelihood of an anthropic universe that God exists.

Divided into three parts and eight chapters, the first part is primarily concerned with the idea of a supernatural design in the universe and the limitations of the physical sciences.

In chapter one, titled “Indications of Creation in Big Bang Cosmology,” Spitzer explains how the Big Bang is believed to have happened, why the universe is not a “bouncing” universe, and the metaphysical implications of a beginning. Briefly stated, a bouncing universe is a universe that expands and once expansion has reached a certain point the universe collapses on itself and starts again; that is, the universe bounces back to its original state and starts the process of expansion anew. In looking at a bouncing universe, Spitzer appeals to the second law of thermodynamics and two paradoxes to help demonstrate why a bouncing universe is not plausible and indeed would not disprove God.

The second law of thermodynamics states that over time the flow of nature is an irreversible process moving in one direction, and gives testimony to the fact that the universe seeks equilibrium.  By nature moving in one direction, it becomes impossible for the world to expand, collapse, and bounce.  We know the second law of thermodynamics to be true because it is witnessed, though not acknowledge, by people everyday: hot coffee turning to cold coffee, youth growing old, and the pressure from a soda can escaping upon being popped open. In short, when science examines the way the world works, science sees the universe “moving” in one direction but never in reverse. Without the second law of thermodynamics being true, the universe would be able to move forward as well as backwards, which would make for an interesting universe more akin to science fiction than natural science.

Father Spitzer then appeals to the radiation paradox to further demonstrate why the universe is not bouncing.  The radiation paradox states that 99% of all light is background radiation and only 1% is from other sources.  With each ‘bounce’ all the visible light and background radiation would be folded into the bounce of the next cycle and become the background radiation of the new cycle.  Yet, this cannot be the case for two reasons.  First it violates the second law of thermodynamics and makes the universe into a perpetual motion machine.  Second it cannot be the case as new light sources (stars) are still be formed where as all the visible light is 1% now, that percentage increases with each new light source.  Therefore, the universe is not in a state for perpetual bouncing and at some point in time it had a beginning.

The second of the paradoxes Father Spitzer employs is the entropy paradox.  Entropy is the measure of disorder in the universe or the lost energy that in unavailable to be converted into mechanical work.  With a bouncing universe, one would expect the entropic energy to be exceptionally high.  However what is found is that at the moment of the Big Bang the entropy of the universe was “fantastically small” (29).  So small in fact that sciences has been puzzled by the fantastically small amount of entropy for years.  It is readily observed that the disorder of the universe is only growing in degree and never grows in reverse.  Therefore, if the universe had bounced or has been bouncing, the current universe would have originated not from a fantastically small entropy that science has been puzzling over for years but from a large, disorganized, entropic universe.

The second Chapter, “Indication of Supernatural Design in Contemporary Big Bang Cosmology,” focuses on three main points: “Universal constants” and the need of those constants in order for there to be an anthropic universe (gravitation force, earth’s distance from the sun, time, space, rest mass of a proton), the extreme unlikelihood of an anthropic universe, and whether or not there is a multiverse.  Citing physicist Sir Roger Penrose, Spitzer gives the likelihood (or the unlikelihood) of an anthropic universe as 1 in 10^(10^123). Random chance alone would have miniscule window in which to make a universe capable of sustaining life.  To get an idea of how incredibly unlikely an anthropic universe is, Spitzer writes, “This number is so large that if we were to write it out in ordinary notation (with every zero being, say, ten point type), it would fill up a large portion of the universe” (59)!

Part one concludes with an introduction to string theory by Dr. Bruce L. Gordon. The conclusion seemed unnecessary for the scope of the book.  This essay will certainly be slow going for those who are not up to date with modern physics and the terms used by the physicists. Moreover, the remainder of the text can be just as easily understood by skipping Dr. Gordon’s essay.

Part Two of the book is aimed at the philosophical proofs for the existence of God.

Chapter three and four are closely linked, as the author spends all of chapter three proving the existence of a simple, absolute, unique, and unconditioned reality, which Spitzer concludes is the Creator of all. Chapter four is spent in applying what was concluded from Chapter Three to Lonergain’s argument in Chapter four. Additions are made to the data from chapter three in that now intelligibility, understanding and being are brought to the forefront of the arguments.

Specifically in chapter three Father Spitzer’s seeks the one unconditioned reality, that is simple.  This unconditioned reality, a portion of reality not dependent upon other conditions of realities, is a necessity. There must be at least one unconditioned reality, argues Spitzer. If there is no unconditioned reality then the most fundamental component of creation is actually nonexistence itself, as it allows for only conditioned realities emerging from nothing (nothing can depend on nothing for its existence) or a circular set of conditions in which everything is dependent upon everything else for its existence.  Yet, because all is dependent upon each other it does not allow for the possibility of anything as “B” would be dependent on “A” and “C” on “B” and likewise “A” dependent on “C.”  Because each is dependent on the other the outcome is either nothing or everything at once.  So Spitzer argues for the necessity of at least one unconditioned reality.

The unconditioned reality must be simple because simplicity implies fewer restrictions and fewer boundaries thereby granting the simplest of reality the ability to do more.  Spitzer calls this simplest of realities “Absolute simple reality” which is “pure power and pure simplicity, pure act, pure inclusivity, pure being and pure capacity to unify all being” ( page ?)  Though Spitzer does not refer to the absolute simple reality as God, it is clear that that there is much of God echoing in the definition.  Moreover, it might be deduced that it is only by unbounded limitless nature and power of the absolute simple reality, that which is pure power, which is capable of crossing the infinite chasm of non-existence to existence. 

Currently the simplest of structures postulated in physics is the quark, which is/are the subatomic building blocks of the atomic particles.  But the question remains to be answered, are quarks the unconditioned reality Spitzer seeks or will physics find something smaller that makes up quarks?  Furthermore what keeps the quarks together?  One can only speculate it to be the pneuma.

Chapter five covers how an infinite past is not possible and why it is a mathematical contradiction to have an infinite set contained within a finite world. This chapter is interesting if the reader has any passion in the ontological nature of time and how the views of time have changed from Aristotle -- who viewed time as the measurement of change/motion – to Einstein where time not only measures motion but also effect reality and that the physical world (matter) effects the measurement of time, which is visible in Einstein’s famous E=mc2 where the relationship of time, matter, light, distance, and velocity are made clear, and how time has changed in contemporary philosophy with Whitehead and other philosophers where time became a “real aggregative structure” (179).  That is, time is the structure of the sum total of a collection of particles or particulars. 

Regardless of contemporary theorem, time sets a limit on existence -- something Spitzer implies but does not seem to draw out in the text.  If there is time of any sort, it implies that there is also space and matter.  For time is intimately connected to space and matter.  Without space or matter there would be no need for time.  Following from the informal inferences presented on the origins of the universe and the previous chapters it should be clear at this point in the text that matter has a beginning, and if there is matter there is space, and if there is matter and space there is time.  Therefore, because matter has a beginning it follows that time too has a beginning, and there is no infinite past.

 Upon reaching the end of chapter five, this reader is reminding of St. Augustine’s famous comment on time in his Confessions: "If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know."

Chapter six’s focus is on methodology and "the Impossibility of Disproving God," Spitzer gives three arguments on why God cannot be disproved. The first rests on the impossibility for a person to experience all there is to experience.  There is no absolute certainty to the claim that “God does not exist” until the person has experienced all there is to experience. The second argument falls in the realm of the intrinsic properties of God. Spitzer writes that God has no intrinsic properties; therefore, God cannot be contradicted by means of intrinsic boundaries. The third argument, piggy backing off the second, is set in the realm of non-contradiction. A contradiction assumes boundaries. God has no boundaries. God has no contradiction.

Also in chapter six is a section titled “The Tenuous Rationality of Atheism,” in which Spitzer spends less time writing about the rationality of atheism and more time explaining the problem of evil and the compatibility of love and suffering. Though, the root cause of atheism for the author lies not so much in bad science as it does in the poor defining of terms and false assumptions, on the part of the atheist, as to who God is. That is to say, the atheist misunderstands who God is.  It then becomes clear that the problem with the atheistic/Christian dialogue concerning God is based on the fundamental definition of who God is, and without the proper definition, a dialogue cannot happen. Anyone who has ever been to a Christian v. Atheist debate realizes that it is as frustrating as arguing with another over whether grapes or oranges taste more like apples.

Part Three of the book is aimed at what the author calls “the Transcendentals.”

In Chapter seven, Spitzer articulates the “five dimensions of absolute simplicity” Those dimensions are, being, truth, love, goodness, and beauty. There are many references in this chapter to previous chapters, especially chapters three and four. In chapter eight, Spitzer then connects the five transcendentals to the longings of the human heart. Specifically the heart longs for ultimate Home, ultimate Truth, ultimate Love, ultimate Goodness, and ultimate Beauty: the heart longs for God and Heaven.

In a world where the myth that faith and science do not mix and contradict each other is continually perpetuated, Father Spitzer’s book is a charitable answer dispelling that myth. Father demonstrates genially that it is completely reasonable to believe in God and still do honest science. His philosophy is accurate; his language is specific, and his theology is insightful.   Lastly, Upon completion of this book, I find myself able to have a fuller conversation with my students as well as the odd fellow I meet at the pubs and cafes who try to use science as a means to attack God. 


Julie said...

Hi Paul,
I'm not sure if you remember me, my name's Julie LaBelle and I was a junior counselor at Camp Kahdalea in 2006 when you were there as well. I somehow came across your blog and really enjoy reading it!
I wanted to thank you for the book review- it's especially helpful and interesting to me right now because I'm taking The Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics at FSU right now! I've really loved them, especially Philosophy of Science because what we encounter is that belief in science is much like belief in God-- we know a lot from experience, but there's still a lot we don't know.
I'd love to pick up Fr. Spitzer's book, maybe after the semester's over!
Thanks again,

Randy said...

You might have a parenthesis wrong.

(10^10)^123 is the same as 10^1230 which would not fill the universe. It would be 1,230 characters. You might mean 10^(10^123). That would be a number that might fill the universe in 10 point type.

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