It was nearly 25 years ago, on the night of my 16th birthday. To celebrate, I had invited a number of my buddies over for a role playing game. Clearly, we were party animals. I had set up a scenario that was supposed to play out as the characters in a desperate battle for survival against an overwhelming alien strike force. I miscalculated. The aliens were obliterated in one volley of missiles. Seriously…one. In retrospect, I can think of a whole bunch of ways to fix that scenario, but that’s not why we’re traveling down memory lane.
Somewhere along the way, we did presents and cake or some such thing. One guy, the youngest of our number had a few too many sodas and got on an obnoxious sugar and caffeine high. Hours later, a bunch of us, many of my oldest friends, then and now, sat around on the retaining wall under a sky that was uncharacteristically clear for July in Los Angeles.
We sat. We talked. We joked. We pontificated.
Somehow, the conversation turned to the universe, the infinite universe. We began speculating on the notion that in a truly infinite universe, every scenario that does not violate the laws of science must exist somewhere in spacetime. Somewhere, there was an Andrew that grew up to play first base for the Dodgers, or became a paleontologist or a fighter pilot. Somewhere, there was a world where, for good or for ill, I, or a parallel me, made, not just one decision differently, but every decision that I ever made differently in every way possible. And it wasn’t true for just me, but for every being in the universe.
Because that’s what sixteen year-olds do on a Saturday night, right?
Oh, and we weren’t high. Aside from the afore-mentioned caffeine, there were no drugs involved.
At some point in this discussion of the fabric of reality, I turned my eyes skyward to that clear night sky with stars, those visible in L.A. staring back down at me. At that moment, the universe seemed very big and earth felt like little more that a tiny rock floating in space. It was pretty mind blowing.
Now, I’m not here to put my vision of an infinite universe or multiverse or whatever, up for scientific analysis. I know it wouldn’t hold up…probability, randomness, all that good stuff. I bring it up as a prelude to the infinite universe concept resurfacing in a wonderful way.
I almost missed it. We’d gotten the kids to bed and were debating what to watch when I saw that we could catch the last few minutes of the premier of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I quickly saw Neil deGrasse Tyson walking though a magnificent forest making reference to global warming. Then he was on a cosmic calendar talking about how, when the whole of time was scaled to 1 year, recorded history did not start until 14 seconds before midnight on New Year’s Eve. He shared about his meeting, at the age of 17, with Carl Sagan and how he had been inspired to not just pursue science, but inspire others to do the same.
The next night, we watched the whole episode, and four nights later, with nary a debate, we showed it to our kids as a Friday night movie.
I could wax poetic about the wonder of seeing my children watching, devouring this show, but that would imply that I did not feel that same wonder, even with 40 years of a reasonable understanding of science under my belt.
I was a little young for the original Cosmos, but I remember watching Jacque Cousteau with my dad. It was back before science programming was relegated to cable channels that, in turn, threw science under the bus in favor of such sensationalism as Ancient Aliens and Doomsday Preppers.
This is needed programming. In an age where science is under attack because it is telling us things that we don’t want to hear or that don’t match up with some religious views, we need Tyson’s full throated advocacy of the scientific method and the findings derived there from.
Tyson is right to include the history of science and the history or persecution of scientists in Cosmos. He’s right to talk about evolution and climate change, even though it upsets some people.
I read an article about creationists demanding equal time on this science program. They don’t deserve equal time because creationism is not science. I am yet to see a creationist interpretation of the origin of the universe that can be reached through the scientific method.
Let’s use an example from the second episode, where Tyson explores evolution. He describes the process of random mutations in DNA strands that lead to, for example, a bear being born with white fur instead of brown. In the right environment, say the arctic, that fur becomes an advantage. The animal with the advantage reproduces more, spreading that useful DNA at the expense of its brown-furred brother. Generations later, you have polar bears.
Now, in describing the process, Tyson calls the mutations exactly as science calls them. Absent a pattern or discernible catalyst, the mutations appear random, and that’s how science perceives them. Is science right? Are they truly random? Maybe there’s a process or catalyst that causes mutations that science has not yet discovered. Maybe some mutations have causes…radiation? pollution? Gamma Rays?… that can, ultimately be observed while others don’t.
Now, looking at mutations from a faith perspective is a different story. I’ll use myself as an example. I’m a person of faith, a Christian, so I see the same story of genetic mutations, and at least in the positive ones I see what could be the hand of God. I see a creator at work, trying stuff out, thinking through improvements, taking joy in the creative process. Now, some people would say that this violates the idea of an omniscient God because it suggests things like trial and error and a creation that is less than perfect. I reject that reasoning, because, once we get past the first two books of Genesis, we see a whole lot of imperfection.
Think about it. Adam and Eve sin. Cain kills Abel. Every human that is God’s creation, which is to say all of us, according to my belief, is imperfect and trying to get better.
Now, I fully admit, that I’ve filled in a lot of gaps here. I’ve taken the unexplained and filled in a narrative that is consistent with my personal faith. I can envision God in the role, among other roles, of a joyful tinkerer in His heavenly workshop experimenting with His creations and trying to make them better. But, I can’t prove it. I can’t record it. I can’t demonstrate it in a way that another person could repeat and verify. I can’t prove it scientifically. It’s what I believe. It’s what I have faith in, but it’s not scientifically provable, and therefore does not belong in a science narrative.
Some people have objections to this approach to reconciling faith and science. I’ve heard the term “God of the gaps.” It suggests that, by allowing God to fill in the gaps that exist in scientific knowledge, the advancement of knowledge and subsequent diminishment of those gaps also diminishes God.
I reject that notion. Let me illustrate.
Have you ever wanted to cook a large roast? The larger the roast, the longer it takes to cook. If you want or need it to cook faster, you cut in half or quarters. This increases the surface area through which heat can be absorbed into the roast and thus reduces the cooking time.
Likewise, when our knowledge allows us to stop looking at a rock as just a rock and lets us see it as a collection of molecules and atoms and subatomic particles, we have expanded the surface area through which God can impact the universe. Likewise, as we look to the heavens and realize that we are one planet of many orbiting one star of many in one galaxy of many in one supercluster or many in one vast observable universe of, possibly many, we can look at creation as so much more vast and grand than our one little world. Suddenly, God is a being who can exist among the tiniest of subatomic particles and can shape the vastness of the observable universe, and, at least from a Christian perspective, wants a loving relationship with each life He creates.. When you look at it that way, it’s kind of hard to say that science diminishes God.
Science is a tool, a powerful one. We can use it to try and kill God, but that would be an improper and futile use. Likewise, we can use it to prove God, but that would be, at best, a waste of time. Science, true science that stays true to the scientific method can do neither. It’s agnostic. There will always be a far horizon of knowledge, beyond which lies faith. There will always be a smaller subatomic particle waiting to be discovered. Those are the limits of knowledge, and science allows us to expand the universe encompassed by those limits, but science will never, ever have all the answers. Science will never prove nor disprove the existence of God.
Which brings us back to Cosmos…
There are some creationists who criticize the show as disrespectful to people of faith. They’re wrong about that. Tyson acknowledges the controversies and even some of the arguments of creationists, and he does so respectfully. He does not give them any scientific ground or equal time. He dismisses the idea that something is too complex to be natural, and the fact that science does not have all the answers yet (and never will) as outside the realm of scientific inquiry.
The reason is quite simple. When you say, something like “It’s too complex to be random, therefore it must be God,” or “Science hasn’t provided an answer, so it must be God,” you are shutting down further inquiry. You stop asking questions and science never, ever stops asking questions. It shouldn’t. We shouldn’t.
Now, you may want to call me out on the fact that, mere paragraphs ago, I envisioned God as that happy tinkerer, tweaking His creation through those “random” genetic mutations. Is that not precisely what science precludes?
It would be if I were treating that as a scientific conclusion. It’s not. It’s a faith-based conclusion. Science sees randomness and keeps looking. Faith can go where science cannot. It can go to that which is unobservable. And what of the “keeps looking” part? Well, I suppose it depends on one’s individual approach to faith. I for one want science to keep looking, to keep searching for answers. That search does not threaten my faith.
I started out saying that Cosmos is a show that we need right now. I believe this because we need an understanding of science and the scientific method. We don’t all need to be scientists, but with the number of pressing issues in our world that are scientific in nature, it is critically important, in our roles as citizens and decision makers, that we understand the rigorous nature of science so we can apply those findings in an intelligent and informed way.
When it comes down to it, the origins debate takes nothing from Jesus’ command that I love God and love my neighbor. It does not change His advocacy for the poor and marginalized. However, scientific research can inform my ideas and actions in furtherance of my efforts to carry out His commands.
Whether through an evolutionary process or through instantaneous creation, God gave us senses to take in the world and brains to process the information we take in. Let’s use those gifts to learn about the vastness and intricacy of creation, and to do so in the faith that God is not endangered by what we learn.