Unexplained doesn’t have to be supernatural

1913. Some experiments just revealed the structure of the atom. A positively charged nucleus with electrons turning around. The problem? The known laws of physics at that time cannot explain it. According to XIX century physics, the electrons should eventually crash on the nuclei [1].

It took quantum mechanics to solve the conundrum.

The atom doesn’t break any laws of physics. It is not supernatural. It’s just that back in 1913, the laws it follows were unknown.

 

100 years later, same pattern. We know that some 13 to 14 billion years ago the universe was extremely dense and hot, and that it has been expanding since then. This is what we call the Big Bang. But we do not know how it got there in the first place. Why? Because we do not know the laws of physics that apply before.

It’ll take quantum gravity to solve the conundrum.

The pre–Big Bang era doesn’t break the laws of physics. It doesn’t have to be supernatural. It’s just that as of 2022, the laws it follows are still unknown to us.

Unexplained doesn’t mean supernatural.


Footnotes

[1] The Niels Bohr’s article linked is for free here.

On Leonard Susskind’s Theoretical Minimum

I just finished watching Leonard Susskind’s Theoretical Minimum. A series of 6 + 9 courses on theoretical physics. An adventure. Really.

The first 6 are the “Core Courses”. The next 9 are the “Supplemental Courses”. Save a few exceptions, each course amounts to some 10 lectures, nearly 2 hours each. In total, that gives you 15 x 10 x 2 = 300 hours of physics. It took me 1 or 2 years to complete the program.

What about the level of the course? To start with, you must be fluent in calculus. All the more than Susskind frequently forgets a sign or a constant here and there, or simply drops one when he doesn’t want to drag it further into the algebra. For the rest, if what I write below rings more than a bell, then it’s OK.

Each lecture comes with a short summary on its YouTube page.

Short version: Fantastic.

Longer version: Here are some comments

  • Susskind’s emphasis is on physics more than math. It’s clear that he masters most of contemporary theoretical physics. He sees the unity of it all and wants to convey it to the audience. On many occasions I found him “Feynman-like”.
  • His exposition of the Dirac equation is stunning. It can be found in Lecture 6 of the Particle Physics 1: Basic Concepts course.
  • About this unity thing: he starts with Classical Mechanics. Why? Because there you introduce Lagrangians and Hamiltonians… which prove useful all the way to String Theory.
  • More about this unity thing: When treating the harmonic oscillator in Quantum Mechanics, he does NOT even analytically solve the Schrödinger equation. His emphasis is purely algebraic. For example, he shows you how such and such operators add or take 1 level of excitation to the system. There, he has already in mind Quantum Field Theory with its creation and annihilation operators. Indeed, the harmonic oscillator is found useful all the way to String Theory (again).
  • In fact, after listening to him, I now find that one of the deepest laws of physics is this Lagrangian formalism. From Classical Mechanics to String Theory, the same pattern pops up everywhere: you find the Lagrangian and the rest follows.
  • Students ask many questions and he always replies with kindness. I don’t remember him ever even suggesting a question was dumb.
  • In fact, most questions are profound. He has smart students. Questions and answers are worth listening too. I remember one student asking if the Covariant Derivative in General Relativity has common points with the Material Derivative in Fluid Dynamics. Susskind’s answer was “well, never thought about it but yes, I think you’re right”. Asking such a question means you really understand what you’re being taught.
  • When introducing you to new stuff, he always starts from known ground. Even String Theory starts with the harmonic oscillator.

A few minor negative points:

  • I would have loved something on Loop Quantum Gravity, but no. I guess Carlo Rovelli does a great job at teaching it (probably my next journey).
  • On his own admission, he really doesn’t like Supersymmetry (SUSY) nor its math. I found his course on SUSY very confuse. For example, I may have missed something but I don’t remember he ever explained why Grassmann Numbers were needed for SUSY.
  • He likes to eat a snack while teaching and then speaks with his mouth full, which tends to be quite unpleasant. Yet, he does it only once in each lecture.

What is a theory ? Forget about the dictionary

The Science & Faith debate is often the scene of a sub-debate around the meaning of the word “theory”. For example, someone will claim, “evolution is just a theory”, intending to lower it to the level of a simple hypothesis. The opponent will then be quick to point out that a “theory” is more than a hypothesis. Usually follows a boring semantic ping-pong where dictionaries act as rackets.

The problem is that when it comes to using the word “theory”, scientists don’t really care what dictionaries actually say. The same “theory” sticker can be put on highly speculative ideas, as well as on knowledge thoroughly verified by experience and/or observation. Let’s see an example of each.

 

String Theory is currently one of the best candidates for the unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity. Whether in French, English or Spanish, it is always called this way: String Theory. Yet, this is a highly speculative theory that has not yet received any experimental or observational support. Not that we don’t want to do it. It’s just terribly difficult. As a result, here’s chapter 7 of string theorist Joseph Conlon’s book, Why String Theory ?, probably the shortest chapter in the history of scientific literature,

Now let’s move on to another theory. Quantum field theory is the most successful version of quantum mechanics, a scientific adventure that began almost 100 years ago. Whether in French, English or Spanish, it’s always called this way: quantum field theory. But here, we’re talking about the theory best confirmed by experience or observation. The record in this respect is held by the measurement of the “abnormal magnetic moment of the electron”, where the theory/experiment agreement reaches the equivalent of a 3 cm accuracy over the Paris-Madrid distance. Much of today’s industrial world relies on quantum mechanics. In short, it’s far more than just a guess.

 

So we are dealing here with 2 theories that are completely different from each other as to their speculative character. The first, string theory, is so far completely speculative. The second, quantum field theory, is experimentally confirmed with an incredible degree of precision, and you use it every day. However, both are designated by the same word “theory”.

 

What is a theory? I’m afraid a dictionary may not replace a genuine understanding of what we are talking about.

 

Parable of modern times (among others)

Any resemblance to actual situations may not be purely coincidental.

 

The sacred texts of this religion included the book of the prophet Nhyno Ferrher. One of his Psalms had the following verses,

We call it the south

Cause time is so long there

That life sure will take us

More than a million years

And we like to stay there

In lieu of “And we like to stay there”, some manuscripts had “and always in summer”.

Debate raged between some factions.

Some atheists were adamant: this religion was flat stupid. How can one claim to live a million years? And then what is this business of time “so long”? And on the top of it, “always in summer”? Just how can time last if seasons don’t change? And how could seasons don’t change anyway?  Do these guys think they live on something like the Ursa Minor Beta planet of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where it is nearly always Saturday afternoon just before the beach bars close? Without a doubt, these believers were completely numb.

Others, fervent believers, thought on the contrary that this Psalm showed that there was a time when indeed people lived a million years. There was no room for doubt since, moreover, the text said “sure”. And “sure” means it’s sure, right? In addition, for these faithful, “time is so long there” prefigured, as clearly as precociously, Einstein’s Relativity and its stretchy time, irrefutable proof that the text was inspired.

Between these 2, a crowd of music lovers, believers or not, were just happy to listen to this wonderful Psalm, wondering what was wrong with the others.

Fortunately, nowadays, nobody would fall into such pitfalls, isn’t?

No, energy is not always conserved

Energy conservation: what is at stake

The law of conservation of energy comes up from time to time in the science and faith debate. In various ways. Let me just bring up 2.

  • Some will invoke it to argue that the universe must be eternal, since if there is energy in it, and if this energy is conserved, then it has always been there. Indeed, if I have 1 Joule (unit of energy) in my pocket and if this Joule is indestructible, then it must have been there always. Logical, isn’t?
  • Others want a universe with a supernatural beginning, which would be a proof of the existence of God. They will therefore claim that if the Big Bang was the beginning [1], then it could not have been natural. Otherwise, the energy the universe contains today would have suddenly pop up at the Big Bang, violating the conservation of energy. Therefore, the beginning must have been supernatural. Logical, isn’t?

The problem is that the law of conservation of energy, sometimes called “the first law of thermodynamics”, does not always hold.

Picture a photon undergoing redshift as it travels through space. Its wavelength goes down, together with its energy. Question: where does this energy goes? Answer: nowhere. It is lost. Let’s see what happens.

Energy conservation: when it fails

What I am about to tell is not revolutionary at all. It’s about 200 years old. If it’s surprising, it’s simply because it takes a few years of college to hear about it. If doubt persists, you can always watch Leonard Susskind, Stanford big shot, telling the exact same thing to his students.

All known laws of physics have their limits. That is, circumstances where they will stop making predictions that fit reality. Fluid mechanics doesn’t like it when it’s too small. Newton’s laws don’t like it when it’s too fast or too small. Etc.

And the law of conservation of energy, what is its limit? Well, energy conservation doesn’t like change. What does it mean? Simply put, it means that if an experiment done yesterday gives the same result as if done today, then energy is conserved [2]. It’s called “time invariance”.

So yes, energy conservation relies on an assumption, too.

Obviously, the time invariance assumption is almost always met. Your cellphone, 24/7 experiment, works the same today than a month ago. Yet there is an “almost”. To understand it, we just have to imagine a situation, or a time, where doing an experiment yesterday cannot give the same result than today.

An example? The moments that followed the Big Bang, precisely. At this time, the universe is expanding rapidly. Try to reproduce today an experiment made yesterday, when all the dimensions of your lab are doubling every day! If space itself does not hold in place, goodbye time invariance… and goodbye energy conservation. If energy is conserved in the experiments conducted nowadays, it is because on their scale, the expansion of the universe, which indeed keeps on going, is completely undetectable [3].

The law of energy conservation is capricious. I’m afraid it slips away when some need it most.


Footnotes

[1] I won’t even discuss the fact that the Big Bang may not have been the beginning.

[2] Less simply put, it means that if the Lagrangian of your system does not explicitly depend on time, then energy is conserved. On this topic, and many others, I strongly recommend the discovery of the marvelous Noether’s theorem.

[3] And in fact, inexistent, as proved by Einstein and Strauss in 1945.

A collapse is possible

Translated from “Un colapso es posible”, published in the Spanish journal Acontecimiento n. 138, 2021, pp. 10-12.

I don’t know what André Malraux meant by “The 21st century will be spiritual, or it won’t be”. What I do think is that the 21st century could be the one of the collapse of our civilization, which of course does not prevent it from being spiritual.

I am used to explaining this in a four-months college course. Summarizing it in some 1000+ words without looking like a lunatic announcer of the apocalypse, is an interesting challenge. I will be as synthetic as possible, perhaps to the detriment of style.

What is the problem?

80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal). A stable percentage for decades. When we burn them, these fuels emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2). In the atmosphere, they act like a blanket: they heat up. As a result, the global temperature has increased by about 1 degree (Celsius) in the last 100 years. Under a business-as-usual scenario, it could increase 2 or 3 degrees more during the 21st century. Minus 4, it’s an ice age. So plus 2 or 3 would mean a planet where billions of people would just have a hard time to live. The challenge of the 21st century is to bring this 80% of fossil fuels down to 0% in the next 50 years.

Why is it very difficult to solve?

Clothes, food, computer, car, chair, desk… everything I use requires energy for its production, its transport, its operation. The heart of our civilization beats with oil, gas, coal… and their emissions. According to the International Energy Agency, they fell 5.8% in 2020, due to COVID-19. And we all saw what it cost. Well, achieving zero emissions in 50 years means such a reduction every year, for the next 5 decades. Here are a few reasons why achieving this is a considerable challenge.

  • Replacing fossil fuels with “green” sources is not easy, even materially. To supply the world’s energy consumption, it would be necessary to cover two Spains with solar panels. Or fill up twenty Spains with wind turbines. This is why we started with fossil fuels. They are more practical. The other sources are much less so, be it for the room they require. We did what children do when they eat: starting with the cool dishes. Broccoli always come last.
  • If there is too much CO2 in the atmosphere, why not extract it? There is a technology that achieves just that from solar energy. It is called a tree. How many do we need? A forest as large as Spain contains around 1 year of global CO2 emissions. So, to suck up a year of global emissions, you need to plant 1 Spain of trees, and of course wait for it to grow. Since it’ll take a few decades to do so, it will take just as long to absorb your single year of emissions.
  • The energy transition has only just begun. Worldwide, sources such as solar, wind or geothermal, generate less than 2% of production.
  • Clean energy production is growing. But production from fossil sources has grown 4 times more since 2000. The world is like a patient on diet who eats 100 more grams of vegetables… and 400 more grams of Nutella.
  • Speaking of diet, I wish there were few fossil fuels left. Thus, we would be obliged to reduce their exploitation. But no. There is a lot of coal left, for example. Regarding its need to cut fossil fuels, the world is like a patient who must go on a diet in a delicatessen.
  • When looking at how global energy consumption is shared, a bad surprise comes up. There is no dominant activity. Hopefully, for example, transport used 80% of our energy. We would then know that we can cut emissions by 80% by decarbonizing transportation. But no. Transportation represents only 14%. In other words: if all the planes, cars, trucks, motorcycles in the world turned green tomorrow, we would only gain 14% of emissions. The whole industry set green? Minus 21%. All green electricity production? Minus 25%. All buildings energetically carbon neutral? Minus 7%. There is no public enemy number 1. There are several.
  • An energy transition takes about 50 years, even when stimulated by the market.
  • It is not the western countries that are raising emissions. These ones have not increased in the last 30 years. It is the developing countries that push emissions up. An Indian, for example, uses 4 times less energy than a Spaniard. But he/she wants to reach the Spaniard’ standard of living. And achieving it is a matter of energy, that is, for now, a matter of emissions.
  • Some climate science to finish. So far, we were in the “easy” part. Even Exxon got it right… in 1982. More CO2, more temperature, and that’s it. We are now entering a climate zone where anything can happen. For example, the permafrost, the permanently frozen layer of soil in northern Russia or Canada, is thawing. Doing so, it releases methane, another greenhouse gas. These emissions then generate more warming, which in turn generates more thawing, generating more emissions, etc. Passed a certain threshold of heating, the vicious circle can be activated. If that happens, permafrost emissions will skyrocket, regardless of what we’re doing, until it has released all the methane it contains. Now, eight more vicious circles have been identified. They are interconnected, so that triggering one can trigger others. Their activation thresholds are difficult to pin down, but several scientists believe that we are getting closer.

So, “Foutu pour foutu?” [1]

This doesn’t look good. In fact, one just has to read authors like Joseph Tainter or Jared Diamond to see that the collapse of a civilization has nothing exceptional historically.

Some say that if Spain were to bring its emissions down to 0 tomorrow, the world’s emissions would drop by only 0.6%. They are right. The possibility then arises to conclude, “Why should I do anything at all if everything depends on the Chinese or the Indians? “Foutu pour Foutu”, give me my SUV!”.

Although I understand such an attitude, I think it is deeply flawed. It loses sight of the fact that global warming is only a symptom. A symptom of a deeply unethical attitude towards nature.

Nobody, when looking at a forest, thinks, “I would cut this all and put a huge parking there”, or when discovering a seabed, “I wish there were plastic bags here” [2]. However, this is what humanity has been doing for millennia in its understandable desire to live better and better; that’s why the problem is complicated.

Global warming is only a symptom of a deeper evil: the use and abuse of the earth as if it were a tissue. When we were 100 million, it was not so perceptible. With almost 80 times more people, the consequences are catching up with us.

“Foutu pour Foutu”, give me my SUV! “, comes to say that I can be a jerk on the Titanic. Quite the opposite. It is about deciding to be an angel, even on the Titanic, regardless of the consequences, in the same way that no one says “I love you” to a loved one to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What’s that you say? Hopeless? -Why, very well!-
But a man does not fight merely to win!
No-no-better to know one fights in vain!

Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Act 5, Scene 6


Footnotes

[1] “Foutu pour foutu” is a colloquial French expression. It means something like “ruined for ruined.” It is also the title of a remarkable documentary made by 2 young French people that can be viewed for free here (in French).

[2] There are plastic debris in the deepest trench in the world, the Mariana trench. Human footprint in the abyss: 30 year records of deep-sea plastic debris, Marine Policy, 96, 204, 2018.

Science always questions itself? Well, no.

  • Do you think the sun might not rise tomorrow?
  • Do you think your GPS might not work tomorrow because of a change in the laws of nature (and not because of a breakdown) ?
  • Do you shun surgery for fear that the laws of physics that govern the electronic devices in the operating room, might change during it?
  • Do you avoid airplanes only for fear that the laws of fluid mechanics may change during the flight?

If you answered “no” four times, then you trust the laws of nature enough to entrust your life to them. So do I. And so do all the people I know.

Indeed, the sun will rise tomorrow “because” of Newton’s laws (conservation of angular momentum). The same Newton’s laws dictate the equations of fluid mechanics ruling the flight of your airplane, and in the absence of damage here or there in a satellite, your GPS will keep guiding guide you tomorrow if electromagnetism, quantum mechanics and general relativity are still the same.

What do we mean then when we say “science always questions itself”?

It seems to me that we are eventually only talking about scientific issues that are not yet solved. We are certainly far from the last word on the mysteries of dark matter, dark energy, the origin of the universe, high temperature superconductivity, quantum gravity, etc. So many areas where, for sure, “science can completely question itself”. For example, it is quite possible that in 100 years we will no longer talk about dark matter. Here is, for example a list of more than 2,000 articles that mention an alternative.

As for electromagnetism, quantum mechanics or general relativity, it is precisely because science no longer questions them within their respective range of validity (the nuance is paramount), that industry seized them to make technological toys… that we would not buy if their operating principles could be “questioned”!

Can you imagine buying a device with a sticker on the box that would say “Warning, for unknown reasons, this device may not work tomorrow”? Me neither… Seems we both admit “settled science ” definitely exists.

So, “science always questions itself”? No, not necessarily. For the contrary, read Barjavel.

Scientist and believer (3): does science contradict the book of Genesis?

In two recent articles I identified 3 reasons why some are surprised that a scientist can be a believer:

  1. Scientists are people who only believe what they can see and touch. So they are people who can’t have faith.
  2. Science explains a lot of things. We don’t need God to explain them.
  3. Science contradicts the book of Genesis.

After addressing the first reason, then the second, I finally come to the third: Does science contradict the Genesis account? If indeed we consider that the account of Genesis is historical, that it describes events that really unfolded in the literal sequence and on the timescale it tells, the clash with, to name a few, cosmology, geology, biology, paleontology, glaciology, so many fields which are not the monopoly of abominable atheists, is inevitable.

Let’s see this.

Is Genesis history?

I became a Christian in 1993 while studying for my PhD in physics. The compatibility between science and Genesis has never been a problem for me. Why? Simply because from the start it seemed obvious to me that Genesis was not a book of history or science. I never felt compelled to consider historical, real, days and plants before the creation of the Sun, a tree of life and another one of the knowledge of good and evil, a man who gives names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals in a single 24 hours day (Gen 2.20), a God walking in his garden in the cool of the day (Gen 3.8) and who would have made trees that were pleasing to the eye (Gen 2.9)… for blind beings, since the eyes of Adam and Eve would not be opened until later (Gen 3.7), if the text is to be taken literally.

For me, making this story stick to the findings of science was like wondering about the Zip code of the Good Samaritan. The importance is not there.

The Church I was a member of did not teach this reading and it was not until some 15 years later that I learned to my surprise that some Christians considered the first chapters of Genesis as historical.

What about the original sin?

Shortly after learning that some Christians had adopted a historical reading of Genesis, I learned that many of them had done so because, among other things, of the doctrine of the original sin. The idea being, for example, that, quoted from here, “We would actually agree with the atheist that evolution, if true, would disprove the need for a savior”, or alternatively, as the title of this article sums it up very directly, “No Adam, No Original Sin, No Christ”. The subject is vast, and I invite the curious reader to consult this document which lists the position of 86 theologians on the historicity of Adam and Eve. The question of the original sin comes up often.

As I said before, the idea of ​​an historical reading of Genesis surprised me. Well, this original sin story surprised me as well. Indeed, the Church I was a member of did not teach this doctrine either and I thought it was the prerogative of Catholicism. Although I often disagreed with the Church of my Christian childhood (I left it in 2003), I do not deny its silence on the original sin. I still find that the expression “original sin” does not appear anywhere in the Bible (neither does turbocharge, I know), that this doctrine did not really take hold, I believe, until Augustine, that the Pauline passages which support it are far from being the clearest in the Bible, that verses like Ezekiel 18.19-20 clearly teach kids do not inherit the sins of their parents, and above all, that Jesus never spoke of any “original sin”. On the other hand, he clearly spoke of dying for our sins. And these were, and unfortunately still are, perfectly tangible.

Under influence?

Some could argue that a non-historical reading of Genesis is ultimately dictated by the “spirit of the age”. That if a twenty or twenty-first century reader does not take Genesis literally, it is precisely because he was told from kindergarten that the world is billion years old. In other words, the modern reader would succumb, consciously or not, to the pressure of modern science.

I don’t think the argument is valid, for the simple reason that the “non-literal” reading is nothing new.

Many ancient writers did not think, for example, that all the “days” of Genesis were literally 24 hours long. These include Justin Martyr (100-165), Irenaeus (130-202), Cyprian (200-258) or Victorinus of Pettau (250-304) [1].

Did they think the world was billion years old? Probably not. In the same way, they probably did not think the earth turns around the sun [2]. Did other early writers think the days of Genesis were literal 24 hours days? Yes of course. But as we can see, the “literal” reading of Genesis was not universally shared, even from the very first centuries of our era.

Conclusion

I really don’t think that science and Genesis are opposed for the simple reason that I don’t think Genesis is a book of history or science. In addition, the insistence on an historical Genesis raises another problem: if the universe is about 6,000 years old, as one can deduct from a “literal” reading, how is it that it absolutely does not look so [3]? That its apparent age goes in billions of years instead of thousands? Is God deceiving us?

I have already quoted some ancient authors. It is to yet another one that I leave the last word: Origen of Alexandria, early “Church Father” astride the second and third centuries, already wrote some 1,800 years ago,

“For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a Sun, and Moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky?
And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life?
And again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.”

Origen, De Principiis 4:16, 3rd century AD


Footnotes

[1] More, with references, here, or in David Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, Hendrickson 1998, p. 189.

[2] Geocentrism was unanimous until Copernicus. I got this from my friend Pablo de Felipe who is finishing a PhD thesis on a related topic.

[3] Recall that in view of the observations, there’s no debate on this since, at the very, very least, 100 years.

Scientist and believer (2): if it’s explained, it’s not God?

In a recent article I listed 3 reasons why some people seem surprised that a scientist can be a believer. Here they are,

  1. Scientists are people who only believe what they can see and touch. So they are people who can’t have faith.
  2. Science explains a lot of things. We don’t need God to explain them.
  3. Science contradicts the book of Genesis.

The first article discussed the first reason. I will here address the second one, well summarized by Physics Nobel Prize Steven Weinberg [1],

As science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations.

Let’s see this.

It’s not from the Bible …

When I started to read the Bible seriously in 1993, during my PhD in physics, I quickly realized that Steven Weinberg’s idea of ​​God was not from the Bible. Of course, the Bible talks about miracles without naturalistic explanation, like the resurrection of Jesus. But it also talks about perfectly explainable facts, which it attributes at the same time… to God. Some examples:

  • In Genesis 45.5, Joseph tells his brothers, “it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (NIV). Did an angel parachute him into Egypt? Not at all. On the contrary, the text goes on great lengths to describe, from chapter 37, the chain of events that led him to utter these words.
  • Exodus 1.1-13 recounts in detail the events that led the Egyptians to enslave the Israelites. Sounds like sociology. Oddly enough, Psalm 105.25 provides another perspective, “he [God] turned the Egyptians against the Israelites, and they plotted against the Lord’s servants” (NLT). Here again the Bible explicitly attributes an event to God, while at the same time explaining in detail how it came about.
  • In Psalm 71.6, the psalmist declares “you [God] brought me forth from my mother’s womb” (NIV). Did he miraculously gush out, like suddenly materializing out of his mother’s womb? Of course not. His birth probably required the help of a midwife, whose existence no one would deny on the pretext that the Bible says that it was God who brought the psalmist out of the womb.
  • Let us finish this far from exhaustive inventory with Acts 14.17, “he [God] did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons” (KJV). Here again, neither the rain nor the seasons are miraculous phenomena (I can hear some: “not miraculous for us, but for them?”. I’ll come back to it).

… nor from Jesus

So it seems to me that the Bible does not teach that “if it is explained, it is not God”. Jesus does not teach it either, as these passages from the Sermon on the Mount show, among others,

  • Matthew 5.45 “[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (NIV). Yet, neither the sunrise nor the sunset nor the rain are supernatural phenomena.
  • Matthew 6.26 “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (NIV). So it is God who feeds the birds of the air, while Jesus knew very well how they fed. Who would deny the existence of earthworms that birds eat under the pretext that the Bible says that it is God who feeds them?
  • Matthew 6.30 “God clothes the grass of the field” (NIV). However complex may the growth of a plant be, it is not miraculous.

One might object that the authors of the Bible did not know the mechanism of the seasons, for example. Granted. But they were certainly familiar with the course of childbirth or the feeding of a bird. Likewise, the enslavement of Israel narrated in Exodus 1 does appeal to motives that the author fully understood. These people did not only attribute to God phenomena that they did not understand. They also attributed to God phenomena that they understood very well.

So, this idea that God only fits where we don’t know what’s going on, the famous “God of the gaps”, does not come from the Bible. If denying God’s existence was just a matter of explaining something the Bible attributes to God, a bird’s breakfast would suffice.

I’ll leave the last words to wiser than me,

Weizsäcker’s book The World-View of Physics is still keeping me very busy. It has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved. Dietrich Bonhoeffer [2].

 

Either God is in the whole of Nature, with no gaps, or He’s not there at all. Charles Coulson [3].

 

For in him we live and move and have our being. Acts 17.28

 


Footnote

[1] Steven Weinberg, Newsweek, 23 mars 2008.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, letter to Eberhard Bethge, may 29, 1944.

[3] Charles Alfred Coulson, Science and Christian Belief, Oxford University Press, 1955, p. 22.

Scientist and believer (1) : Only believe what I see ?

More than a year ago, it was before the COVID, I found myself on a panel answering questions of the teens in my church. As the scientist on duty, I answered: “How can one be a scientist and a believer?”

When the evening was over, I asked her feedback to my youngest daughter who had attended. She answered straightforwardly, “Daddy, I didn’t understand anything to your answer”. That’s how I came to realize that there are a lot of reasons why people are surprised that a scientist can be a believer. I had answered the “wrong reason”. Having conducted my little investigation, I found at least three [1],

  1. Scientists are people who only believe what they can see and touch. So they are people who can’t have faith.
  2. Science explains a lot of things. We don’t need God to explain them.
  3. Science contradicts the book of Genesis.

I will shortly comment on the last 2 reasons. For now, I will rather dwell on the first one. I will do so through two anecdotes that, in my opinion, show that scientists are much more flexible than people think.

I will talk about marriage and Laurent Schwartz.

Marriage

What is marriage doing here? It’s pretty simple: when I married Isabel almost 25 years ago, my intention was to be united with her for life. When I saw her walking down the aisle, I didn’t think “well, let’s give it a try one or two years, and see what happens. After all, nothing is certain”. All the contrary, the idea was to finish my life with her.

Now, in this day of November 1996, what proved me with 100% certainty that we would stay together for ever and ever? Nothing. Of course, a bundle of clues gave me enough confidence to decide to marry her. But no time traveler had come from 2050 to certify “no problem, the future is clean: you end up together for better or for worse. Go ahead!”. In short, I had “faith” that it would work [2].

I’m not the only married scientist, and I hope the others didn’t get married wondering whether the warranty was 1 or 2 years. I then take it that a large number of scientists made at least once in their life a very important decision based on some kind of faith.

Laurent Schwartz

What is Laurent Schwartz doing in here? Laurent Schwartz was one of the top mathematicians of the last century, recipient of the Fields Medal in 1950. In his memoirs, he shared a remarkable anecdote. Rather than paraphrase him, I prefer to leave him the floor [3],

The great mathematician Boussinesq lost his wife. The day of the funeral started out quite beautiful,  but ended under a rainstorm. Everyone was soaked. Boussinesq married again, but again became a widower. The same meteorological phenomenon occurred during the second burial. When his third wife also died, the funeral took place under a beautiful blue sky, but everyone there brought an umbrella.

Let’s take a break. What were these people doing with an umbrella under a beautiful blue sky? What does the weather have to do with the burial of the third wife of poor Boussinesq ? Nothing. However, Schwartz is very clear: everyone [4] there brought an umbrella. As the rest of the quote shows, some, like us, were surprised,

Emile Borel, the grand guru of probability theory at the Sorbonne, turned to Polya, a foreign mathematician who happened to be visiting France just then, and said “Look, Polya, isn’t this ridiculous? We’re all university professors, I’m a probabilist, I know perfectly well that there is no relation at all between the weather and the funeral of Madame Boussinesq. Yet, I brought my umbrella.” “Well,” replied Polya, “we’re scientists, we work on observed facts. And it’s a scientifically observed fact that it often rains at the funeral of Madame Boussinesq.” [5]

Make no mistake. We are here in the presence of world class mathematicians. A Google search will quickly show the influence Emile Borel and Georges Polya had on the mathematics of their time. Yet, Borel, honest man as well as rigorous mathematician, laments to see that everyone at the funeral gave way to a kind of “superstition”, that the final joke of Polya highlights even more. 

So, do scientists only believe what they can see and touch? Seems not. It is perhaps one reason why those who excel in science, excel. But that’s another story.

 


Footnotes

[1] If you know of others that are fundamentally different, I’m interested.

[2] The fact that it works for now, doesn’t change anything. The idea is that this very important decision could not, in 1996, be taken 100% by sight.

[3] Laurent Schwartz, A Mathematician Grappling with His Century, Birkhäuser, 2001, p. 144.

[4] Noteworthily, the original, French version, doesn’t say “everyone”. It rather says, “all academics”.

[5] In the French version, Schwartz added after the quoted passages: “This story circulated some time and then fell into oblivion, because most of his protagonists were gone. Polya, whom I met in the United States in 1960, was probably the last witness to this case. I was curious if my memories were faithful and I begged him to confirm it, which he did. I am now the last custodian of this story that I am delivering to the public.”