0.00729735253 and Divine Providence

17 11 2012

Randomness or divine Providence. Which is it? It can’t be both, can it?

Or can it?

Though I am no trained scientist by a good stretch, questions of divine purpose and its relationship to indeterminate processes has been an on again/off again interest of mine for a long time, stretching back to my days at Princeton Seminary in the early 90s and to my many conversations with students (including then newcomer Bill Dembski) and faculty, such as T. F. Torrance who, fortuitously enough, I had had occasion to meet several times while he was studying at the Center for Theological Inquiry. Dr. Torrance and I spoke at length about his book The Christian Frame of Mind and about the convergence of the rational and moral orders and, as the subtitle of the book states, reason and openness. I also had an ongoing five-year conversation on this and related matters with my academic mentor, Jim Loder, while I was at PTS and which continued after I graduated in 1994. Jim introduced me to his friend Jim Neidhardt (with whom he co-wrote The Knight’s Move), and the three of us had some animated discussions about such things as the work of the Spirit in logic and transformation. My class with Diogenes Allen on the theology of Austin Farrer, and in particular Farrer’s provocative book Finite and Infinite, was another catalyst in my interest surrounding divine Providence and indeterminate processes.

My interests have continued since then, though in a strictly amateur capacity. For the last couple of years I’ve been intrigued with the question of the fine-structure constant and its relation to divine Providence, and whether such a conflict actually exists between what we understand to be indeterminate processes, on the one hand, and the monotheistic doctrine that God is omniscient and omnipotent, on the other. A recent paper (2010) published in the area of α (the fine-structure constant) suggests some pretty provocative ideas that have received little to no attention in the ongoing questions surrounding randomness and providence, and which, if the speculations the paper makes are true about the inconsistency of the fine-structure constant, would revolutionize the fields of both physics and theology. If the fine-structure constant isn’t so constant, then divine Providence and the scientific idea of randomness are not incompatible in any linear sense.

Randomness assumes there is order. The entire field of physics is based on the fundamental premise that certain physical laws are inviolable: the speed of light, the “law” of gravity, the conservation of mass-energy and momentum, the laws of thermodynamics, and so on. Each is a bedrock of physics. Recent work in the field of physics, however, has raised questions about these laws’ inviolability. A paper published in 2010 by John Webb and Julian King from the University of New South Wales in Australia, which examined the properties of what Richard Feynman called “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics,” casts a shadow over the hegemony of physical laws as science currently understands them.

The fine-structure constant is a number so precise that even the smallest deviation would create an environment unsuitable for carbon-based life forms. The reason for its precise value, however, remains a conundrum to scientists, even though the working assumption up to now has been that the entire universe operates within its exacting parameters. The Webb/King study’s findings appear to challenge this notion, leaving some to wonder if the fine-structure constant may not be so constant after all. There is still much work to be done in this area and far more studies to be conducted, to be sure, before an entire field of science does an about-face, and many theorists are dubious, to say the least, of the study’s findings, but IF the Webb/King study is right, the entire field of physics will be turned on its head and the assumptions we now have about the physical laws of the universe would have to be reassessed. They would no longer be inviolable laws, for starters. They would be, cosmologically speaking, temporary and localized conditions.

The theological implications of such an idea, were it to be proven, are profound. If the properties of α only pertain to this tiny corner of the universe, for example, then human beings can claim, with scientific confidence, a unique status for life. Nowhere else in the universe would such suitable conditions necessarily exist. Life is a one-off, in other words. Perhaps even a miracle. Such a finding would also mean that the whole idea of randomness would be moot, since there are no laws to violate in the first place. That is to say, God’s divine providence cannot be assumed to either mirror or violate the laws of nature since no such laws (given their now temporary and localized status) exist.

When God declares in Revelation 22:13, “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last,” his words take on new resonance in light of these provocative, albeit tentative, new findings. Perhaps God wasn’t being figurative after all, and the entire concept of randomness could be subsumed under God’s other imperial and cosmic declaration in Isaiah 55:9, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” What we see now as either randomness or the inscrutability of God’s providence is but a reiteration of God as α, which is (to quote Mr. Feynman) the greatest damn mystery of life.

See a fuller article on this in the Economist Sept. 2010 issue, entitled: “The fine-structure constant and the nature of the universe. Ye cannae change the laws of physics. Or can you?”


Rights and Wrongs (Dogma as Drama, Part II)

6 07 2012

In our culture of unbelief, or worse yet, bland belief, dogma is the bogeyman. Our culture prizes freedom of expression (though we are not free), self-asserted rights (though if you have to assert them, they were never your rights to begin with — think about it), and personal happiness (though what is personal happiness without communal well-being?). We lie to ourselves into believing that each one of us really does have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and so we rail against anything that appears to take that away. Dogma takes that away — or at least appears to. And so dogma is the bogeyman.

Clearly, we no longer know how to think straight. Truth has become a popularity contest. Take, for example, my statement above that self-asserted rights is essentially a contradiction in terms. Immediately you will say, “Well, that’s not correct. Look at the Civil Rights Movement. They had to assert their rights.” But who decided those were their rights to assert? Some unwritten moral code? Can someone please tell me where it is written that all men are created equal? Oh, right, the Constitution. But what gives the Constitution moral import to make such a claim? It’s a political treatise and nothing more. What gives it the status of holy writ? It’s a political and moral statement that, at best, half the population was willing to uphold. And if they (our forefathers) had to assert it, what gives them the right to do so? Some Constitution written prior to 1776? Maybe the Magna Carta, which itself was a political document that essentially asserted that the King must give his subjects (well, those who were free) some rights, and that his will to do so was not arbitrary. But who says?

You see, this whole notion of rights is simply a precedent-claiming impulse that dates back to — what? — the Constitution of Medina? According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “rights structure the form of governments, the content of laws, and the shape of morality as it is currently perceived.” Did you get that last statement… “the shape of morality as it is currently perceived.” Which means, of course, that rights can change at any time — and often have. So this idea that we have some “inalienable rights” to anything — rights that will never change — is untenable. It’s simply a way to make a provocative claim against the powers-that-be.

The opposite side of the coin of “rights” is the notion of “gift.” That our lives, our liberties, and our various pursuits of happiness are not rights in and of themselves, but rather, gifts afforded to us either by our Creator or, short of that, by a particular political affiliation, is a basic tenet of gift-logic. We owe our allegiance to a god or to a country by virtue of their affording us things we don’t naturally have. And so, our lives, liberties, and happiness are not things we can claim but, instead, are things we must celebrate.

But how is all of this related to dogma? I had to establish that we don’t think straight (which, ironically, is where the etymology of the word “rights” comes from — straight thinking) in order to make the predicative claim that dogma, far from being something we should avoid because it constrains our natural liberties, is something we should embrace because we don’t have any natural liberties to begin with and only dogma, a set of normative truths set down by God for the benefit of the community, can safeguard the mysteries of life. Sure, there is much dogma that is useless and, worse yet, destructive. But the Christian Church in the orthodox main has, I believe, stayed the course of God’s will in aiming true the basic dogma of the faith.

Dogma, of course, only makes any sense in a world shot through with Divine Intention. A world bereft of holiness has no room for dogma since — let’s be honest — it has no room for liberty. If it really is just dog-eat-dog and our existence is one big cosmic accident, than any notion of “rights” can only and ever be understood as claims made based on “the shape of morality as it is currently perceived.” They can change at any time, in other words.

And so dogma protects us from ourselves, from our mercurial ways, our selfish genes, our bankrupt notions of freedom. Great minds down through the ages have understood this basic, underlying reality. People like Dorothy Sayers, for example, who resisted the tempting claims of modernism, which purported to give us greater freedoms by insisting, for example, that humans, along with everything else, were just aggregates of atoms. By reducing us to mere accidental animals, we could suddenly be as free as animals; that is, guided only by our instincts and not by any arbitrary set of rules. Of course, these moderns did live by an arbitrary set of rules called “rights,” which gave them the false security to talk about the virtues of the jungle. It’s always easy to talk about the virtues of the jungle in a zoo, where the threats to one’s “rights” remain locked behind bars.

The Anglican Church, Sayers observed, was much like the person claiming the virtues of the jungle in a zoo. It dumbed down the gospel and made it tame, and then preached the virtues of belief. Sayers, however, saw through this chimera:

“Official Christianity . . . has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist on too much doctrine. . . . The fact is the precise opposite. . . . The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man . . . and the dogma is the drama” (see Christopher R. Armstrong’s book Patron Saints for Postmoderns (IVP Books, 2009).

I conclude this entry with a long quote from Sayers herself, which sums up the point I’m trying to make here: that dogma, far from being the thing that inhibits our freedom, is the thing that allows us to claim any freedom to begin with:

“It is . . . startling to discover how many people . . . heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion what it is. If you tell them, they cannot believe you. I do not mean that they cannot believe the doctrine: that would be understandable enough, since it takes some believing. I mean that they simply cannot believe that anything so interesting, so exciting and so dramatic can be the orthodox Creed of the Church.

Somehow or other, and with the best intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-nature bore — and this in the Name of the One Who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which He passed through the world like a flame.

It is the dogma that is the drama — not the beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death — but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.”