Shut up or Shut down?

So the government’s shut down over a presidential temper tantrum.  Like most people, I suspect, I haven’t really noticed.  Except for two things.  When I drove up to Ithaca over the holidays, some of the highway rest stops were closed.  It seems our government wants to share the misery of not being able to relieve itself.  Secondly, the NOAA weather forecasts are no longer updated as frequently as they should be.  I’m no expert on the weather—I did write a book on meteorotheology, which took quite a bit of research on weather in ancient times, but I know that doesn’t qualify.  Still, I rely on weather forecasts to get daily business done.  In particular, we were expecting a winter storm around here that had been predicted, by NOAA, to arrive around 11 p.m.

Okay, I thought, people will be off the roads by then, and crews will be out to treat the icy conditions by morning.  Seven hours early, around 4 p.m., I noticed a rain, sleet, snow mix falling.  The ice particles looked quite a lot like salt crystals, but I was pretty sure that the government doesn’t have that kind of pull.  In any case, when weather catches me unawares, I turn to NOAA since our government is apparently God’s own chosen one, figuring that the Almighty might know a thing or two about what goes on upstairs.  The current conditions, NOAA said, were “unknown precipitation.”  Apparently the government isn’t even allowed to look out the window during a shut-down.  Maybe it was salt after all.

So, among those of the “God of the gaps” crowd, the weather is perhaps the last refuge of a dying theology.  Their cheery refrain of “science can’t explain” has grown somewhat foreshortened these last few decades, but when unknown precipitation is falling outside all bets are off.  Come to think of it, Weathering the Psalms could’ve been titled Unknown Precipitation, but it’s a little late for that now.  A creature long of habit, I awoke just after 3 a.m.  Hastily dressing against the chill of the nighttime thermostat setting, I wandered to the window, wondering whether there would be a snow day.  It’s dark this time of night, as I well know, but in the streetlights’ glow it seemed as if no weather event had happened at all.  It’s just like our shut-down government to get such basic things wrong.  As long as I’m up, I might as well get to work on my current book on horror.  It’s only fitting.


Meet the Neighbors

I was called “moon boy” and was otherwise taunted in ways I care not to share. As a child I openly spoke about my fascination of life in space and was ridiculed in the way children specialize in executing humility. So it was with great appreciation, but not much surprise, that I read that water had been discovered on Mars. Where there’s water, there’s likely life. I won’t say “I told you so.” Life, although I know I’m being premature—I’m a moon boy after all—has been one of the many tools in the God-of-the-gaps bag. God-of-the-gaps thinking is where a religion, in the light of scientific explanation, backs and fills by saying only God could do x, y, or z. The weather used to be a gap, but meteorology and fluid dynamics have started to explain many of the things that happen in the atmosphere. But life—life! Life was something only God could do, and it was only here on earth. Mind the gap.

Mars_23_aug_2003_hubble

No, we’ve not yet discovered life on Mars. Those who spend every hour of their waking days combing at incredible magnification the photographs coming from Mars have suggested life forms. Some of them, I must admit, have been very intriguing. The official stance, however, has been that Mars is too cold for life because, as any trekkie knows, life has to be as we know it. I would venture to say that life will be announced on Mars before too long. Astronomers and astro-biologists are a cautious lot, but I think that life is probably a lot more common than we’ve been led to believe. And I have to believe that we’re not the most intelligent species possible. How else can we explain what’s happening in the run up to the Republican Convention? E.T. may not live on Mars, but somebody else might.

Often I ponder how strange our geocentrism is. Copernicus and Galileo more or less proved that we’re not the center of the universe. Reluctantly the church let go of that fiction, but scientists, in some measure, have held onto it. We are the only planet with life. Life on our planet is the most advanced that it is anywhere. And because we know that nothing travels faster than light there’s no possibility that life elsewhere has ever found its way here. To claim otherwise is to face a scientific inquisition. Water on Mars? Yes! This is a new chapter not in the history of the universe, but in appropriate humility in the face of the unknown. Take it from the moon boy—there’s a lot more yet to be discovered.


Super Stition

SuperstitionElijah is a folkloric character. Despite the common misperception, most of us who study religion know the difference between myth and reality. There are, nevertheless, lots of engaging traditions about Elijah. Even in our secular culture we joke about leaving a door open or an empty chair available for the disappearing prophet.

It is difficult not to like Robert L. Park. Reading his Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science was often a pleasure. I read Park’s Voodoo Science a few months back, and I enjoyed his supreme rationality very much. Many of the weird beliefs he decries clearly deserve his denunciatory treatment. Like many among the New Atheist movement, he believes that rationality, scientific thinking, will eventually displace religion completely. The final line of his book, “Science is the only way of knowing—everything else is just superstition,” however, maybe overlooking some vital information. In the first instance, scientists are humans too.

There’s no question that much of what Park writes makes perfectly good sense. The God of the gaps is gasping, indeed, dying. Double-blind prayer experiments just can’t work. Evolution does work. Quantum mechanics are abused by many New Agers. This all makes sense. There are, however, some gaps that rationality misses as well.

It has always bothered me that reality is much more than human senses reveal. Rationality is based on the premise that we have, or can discover, all the facts. There is an unseemly arrogance to it. We know, rationally, that “lower” animals experience sensory input unavailable to us. In many ways, Spot is more intelligent than his human “owner.” We use bloodhounds to find people for precisely that reason. We know that “bird brains” navigate in ways impossible for humans to emulate. Even a bee drunk with nectar can buzz its way home. And these are only the life forms that evolved on earth. Our rational knowledge is only a tiny fraction of all possible knowledge. And I’m not convinced that science is really the only way of knowing it. I just feel it in my gut. It’s a big universe out there, full of possibilities we haven’t yet encountered. Is the evolved human brain, limited as it is, the sole arbiter of reality? Is there some form of thought we have not yet reached? I will continue to enjoy reading books like Superstition. I will also, however, continue to leave the door open just a crack, in case Elijah does show up after all.


The Science of G-d

ScienceGodWhere, exactly, do science and religion come together? Since both are human mental enterprises, they must at some point at least glance off one another. Both religion and science attempt to make sense of human experience in the world, and, given the limitations of human time, being a true expert in both may be impossible. The John Templeton Foundation, as any religion scholar knows, supports research and awards handsomely those perceived to have succeeded, at least somewhat, in bringing the two together. A single lifetime, however, is not long enough for either, let alone both. Gerald L. Schroeder’s The Science of God illustrates this point. Subtitled The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom, and produced by a major publishing house, the pitfalls of applying the Bible to a scientific worldview become apparent almost from page one.

Somewhat unusual in the field, Schroeder is an Orthodox Jew addressing the questions that the Bible raises for science. He is also a credentialed physicist. Most attempts to force religion and science into bed together come from Christian researchers—secular scientists usually have a headache—and a hidden agenda is often not too difficult to discern. I read The Science of God knowing nothing of Schroeder’s religious sensibilities. By narrowing the focus from science and religion to science and Bible, however, I knew the enterprise was doomed without even opening the cover. The Bible is one of the least scientific of all human writings. That’s not to say it has no value, but it is an honest observation by a lifelong reader of the Bible who believes science has a proven track record for making some sense of the world. Schroeder begins with that most specious of arguments, the anthropic principle. Few ideas raise such ire in my limited scientific understanding. The suggestion that the universe is fine-tuned for life is a moot point in principio. Who are we to say that life wouldn’t have emerged if the Big Bang were one degree cooler or hotter? It might have been life with different parameters, but the anthropic principle seems to point to nothing more than the tenacity of life.

While Schroeder does raise some valid points, it is clear from his challenging of the fossil record that the Bible will only ever sleep uneasily with science. For a physicist, Schroeder spends an awfully long time using God-of-the-gaps reasoning to fill in biology. In a disguised day-age “hypothesis” he gives us the creation order of Genesis 1, while skirting around Genesis 2 where humans are created before animals. And, I’m sorry, but the Bible does not mention dinosaurs anywhere. It’s a pity really. Schroeder’s book addresses some important issues, but using the Bible as a measure of scientific credibility fails every time. The science of God, it seems, is more a concluding unscientific postscript, but without the philosophical sublimity.


Secret Life of Clouds

As April showers linger into May, I am reminded of April’s issue of Discover magazine. I picked up a copy on my way to Santa Barbara, and although much of it is beyond me, the article about microbes causing rain seems apt on days like today. Although I move in small circles, I hear many people commenting on how weird the weather has been this year. Mornings cold enough as to require a winter jacket, and evenings where a light sweater is almost too much. And the rain. Now, I realize that weather is always a decidedly local phenomenon, but apart from the rare reader in Antarctica or the Atacama Desert, we all know rain. In the biblical world the rain, as with so many inexplicable things before the birth of science, was in the provenance of providence. God sent the rain as a kind of blessing to a parched land. Thunder and hail, however, we sure signs of his displeasure. Discover suggests that maybe the answer lies in some being that is tiny rather than astronomically large.

The question that has frequently eluded answer among meteorologists is why some rain clouds rain while others don’t. No one really knows what the trigger might be—thus cloud seeding has often been a hit-or-miss proposition. Douglas Fox explores the possibility that, in his words, “The Clouds Are Alive.” Scientists can now measure the microbial life that survives in the sub-frigid temperatures high in the atmosphere above us. Amazingly we continue to discover that where we once thought conditions were too hostile, life manages to thrive. When I was a child scientific orthodoxy declared deep ocean trenches near volcanic vents far too acidic for anything to survive. Now we look at the clouds and see life. Not exactly the angels some theologians expected to find hovering above, but life nonetheless. And if the microbes are there, they might survive on a world as chilly as Mars (which, I hear, is even chillier than our apartment in winter).

One of the favorite gaps for the famous God-of-the, is the weather. As a symbol of what is beyond human control, indeed, the largest perceptible environment in inner space, the sky remains aloof from our tampering. Even so we’ve found ways to pollute our firmament. And now we’re discovering we’re not alone up there. The idea that the clouds are full of microbes sounds more like a Stephen King plot than an intelligent design. Actually, it is good old evolution in action. Life is surprising in its ubiquity. We’d once convinced ourselves that it was rare and could only thrive in environments similar to ours. Now we know that even on a terrestrial scale of survival, we are wimps. Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining. Little did they suspect that the light might be shining off of microscopic life.

The life from above


God in the Machine

“O brave new world! That has such people in it!” Or at least such software. A couple of days ago my wife pointed out a news story on MSNBC rounding up the year (2011) in science. The story contains eleven science videos that challenge our perceptions and show us directions we are going, whether we want to or not. The first video shows what happens when Cornell University researchers connected two Chatbots to each other and allowed them to carry on a conversation. Like my own experience with Cleverbot last year, the conversation soon turned to God. Even artificial intelligence seems interested in the eternal questions. I should put a finer point on it: artificial intelligence derived from the dubious wisdom of the Internet. We are getting closer and closer to replicating the human brain electronically—even my iPhone scares me at times—and yet, to engage in conversations with humans (or each other) these intelligences must know about God.

Many theories exist about the origins of the god concept. Scientists argue that it is hardwired in our brains, that it is genetic, or that it is merely socialization that gives us this idea. The truth is that nobody really knows. The religious take this as license to claim that territory for the god of the gaps—if we can’t answer a question, God rushes in where angels (or logic) fear to tread. The truth is more likely that we don’t yet have the tools to flesh out (or psych out) our theories on why the supernatural is an indispensable component of our thoughts. If artificial intelligence takes its cues from human intelligence, however, it is a certainty that god will be part of the equation.

People possess a deep need to feel unique. Our uniqueness is part of our religion. Humans are “the crown of creation,” the only animals (debatable to some) with souls (debatable to others). Even the Chatbots get confused when God-talk comes up. Mentioning God leads one Cleverbot to ask the other if it is Christian. God is not limited to Christianity, of course, nor is the divine limited to monotheism. The old science fiction chestnut of a robot takeover, however, seems to have missed a salient point: if robots are programmed by humans, they will have God in their silicon chips just as surely as we do in our carbon-based brains. The god in the machine. Many atheists have declared the death of god, but we have placed the divine into our apps and devices and software. When the robot apocalypse comes it will include at least some Cleverbots declaring that the rationale to eliminate humans is heresy. Torquemada meets Iron Man. Already 2012 feels less safe than 2011.

Robot preacher of the iron age?


Expanding Universes

If you’re one of those people who has trouble finding your car keys, it looks like things are only going to get worse. We all knew the universe was expanding, but now that the smoke has cleared from this year’s Nobel Prizes (there was smoke, wasn’t there?) it is now common knowledge that instead of slowing down, the expansion is actually accelerating. Kind of makes you wonder who’s driving. Being somewhat of a science news junkie, I already knew of the increasing rate of expansion, but seeing it in the news again made me ponder the theological implications of it all (despite not being a theologian). Where do we locate Heaven in a rapidly expanding universe that is ripping itself apart? Why didn’t the prophets in the Bible see this coming? What is anybody doing about it?

Physicists have had to postulate a new culprit in this unexpected scenario. Dark energy must be driving the expansion and the universe most be mostly composed of dark matter. Besides apparently being the substance between the ears of Tea Partiers and certain public officials, nobody really knows what dark matter is. The darkness of the name here is to be understood as “unknown.” We can’t see it or sense it, but it can be weighed—at least on a universal scale. Not only are we not the center of God’s universe, we are vastly outnumbered by something that we can’t even see.

Of course, it will only be a matter of time before some religious specialist suggests that God is the dark matter or the dark energy of the universe. Classic god-of-the-gaps thinking. If we can’t explain it, it must be God. That God, however, suffers the embarrassing phenomenon of shrinkage. At one time that Gog (God-o’gaps) was in control of the weather, until NOAA came along. At one time that deity held the nucleus of atoms together, until the strong and weak nuclear forces were discovered. At one time that God knocked off the dinosaurs. Well, maybe the jury’s still out on that one. The danger of conflating God with science is the inevitable effacement of divinity. Our universe has proven unfriendly to deities. Depending on how medieval we’d like to get, we might suggest that dark matter must be all those angels dancing on the heads of pins. While you ponder that one, I’m going to look for my car keys while I still can.

There it goes...


God of the Gaps = Poof!

In Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, according to MSNBC, he declares that God is not necessary, physically speaking, to get the universe going. The only people who should be surprised here are those who took Hawking’s final lines from A Brief History of Time too literally: “However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.” I remember being a bit surprised when I read that the first time.

Whose eyes are watching you?

At some level, it seems, many people took comfort in knowing that one of the greatest scientific minds alive had left a door open for God. The great cosmologist looking through a theoretical telescope and seeing God on the other end looking back. There was a symmetry here, a sense of rightness. Some, to gauge by the reactions reported, feel that Dr. Hawking has betrayed us in stating the obvious. God was never to be found in the petri dish or under the electron microscope. According to the theorists of a theological stripe, God has no quantifiable qualities that might be measured. As the article states, the only God to disappear here was the God-of-the-gaps.

As a young, undergraduate religion major, when I first heard that God-of-the-gaps was bad philosophy/theology, I was a bit surprised. (I spend a lot of time being surprised.) If God has no explanatory value in the real world, whence deity at all? If religious folks behaved better, there might well be cause to suggest that the evidence for God comes in human kindness and charity. Unfortunately, religious folk quite often instigate the hatred and suffering that scars much of human society. No, Stephen Hawking has not killed God, just as Friedrich Nietzsche did not commit deicide in the nineteenth century. If the God-of-the-gaps is gone, nothing of value has been lost. The minds of theological thinkers will only have to be stretched just a bit farther.


God Said “Let There Be Life”

The news has been buzzing with the human creation of the first synthetic cell. Religious leaders in the theologically litigious world of western religions are not quite sure what to make of this one. Is it life? If so, by definition, people could not have created it; only God creates life. Right?

Life is one of those hazy concepts that, although it may easily be described, is difficult to define. What exactly is a “life force”? Where does it come from? It seems to have arisen naturally on the primordial earth, and likely has developed elsewhere in the vast universe as well. Traditional theisitic approaches to religion claim that this is God’s trump card, the ace of spades in the game that is existence. Only God gives life, takes life, and gives it back again. Human efforts to replicate the process are bluffs.

No wonder religious leaders don’t know what to make of this development! This is the final gauntlet to be thrown down. Once life itself is explained, the god of the gaps may vanish forever. In the 1950s amino acids were created in a laboratory. Not quite sixty years later, cells have been replicated. There is still time for religious leaders to contemplate where all this is going. Of course, many stake their beliefs that 2012 may take care of all of this and life will forever remain in the provenance of the divine.

Amino acid or cosmic SOS?


Incredible Shrinking Saturdays

As a kid Saturday afternoon was devoted to the science fiction repertoire offered to B-movie connoisseurs on commercial television. There were only about a dozen channels in those days and one of the local Pittsburgh stations had the demographic of teenage boys’ viewing habits down to a science. Now that people tell me I’m grown up, although they won’t give me a full-time job, the temptation is there to let the television do the thinking for me. Actually, I only allow myself to watch TV on the weekends; it never gets turned on until Friday night. The rest of the time is spent getting ready for classes or looking for jobs.

Anyway, yesterday I decided to watch I movie I first saw as a tween (“kid” as they were called in those days), The Incredible Shrinking Man. The Christmas tree was set up and decorated and the snowstorm scheduled to bury the East Coast was doing its job quite well. So I settled in to remember old times. I’ve mentioned before the mild social criticism of 1950s sci-fi, and seeing this film as an adult yielded the same results. When Scott Carey realizes he’s shrinking, the doctors figure out that he had been exposed to radiation — a perennial plot device in Cold War movies — and the various creatures of the natural world become deadly threats. His cat, and, of course, the basement spider, both try to kill him.

Then, as the realization dawns that he will eventually shrink down to nothingness, Carey reflects how the infinite and infinitesimal are the “ends of a circle.” And in a movie where the divine is not previously invoked, he ends his relentless deflation by narrating, “To God there is no zero. I still exist.” When technology (medical science) and human help (his wife stays with him until he is the size of a cockroach, and only leaves when she believes the cat ate him) fail, the 1950s audience falls back on God. Theologians call this thinking “God of the gaps,” where God, the ultimate deus ex machina, is used to explain what human reason can’t yet figure out. It is still prevalent in Fundamentalism and most forms of contemporary Christianity. If belief in God relies on having unexplained phenomena, the question of who is shrinking becomes challenging indeed.