Human Understanding Evolves

by Karen A. Bellenir

In February 2014, the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum in Faith and Culture hosted a debate regarding God and cosmology. William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll presented the opposing points of view (watch the video). Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in California and a prolific author whose writings are disseminated through an organization called Reasonable Faith. Carroll, the author of several books and a physics blog, is a theoretical physicist and professor at Caltech where his research areas include cosmology, gravitation, and quantum mechanics. The two men faced off over a question regarding whether current cosmological understanding has theistic implications.

According to Craig, contemporary cosmology posits an initial moment, popularly identified as a Big Bang, in which the universe came into being. Craig believes this lines up nicely with a theistic perspective that the universe was created by something or someone before or outside it. He seemed to imply that this unnamed entity was God, but for the purposes of the discussion at hand, he left that question open ended. Carroll disagreed. In his perspective, asking a question related to what was before or beyond the first moment of time was a question without meaning. He likened it to asking where the film goes in a digital camera.

Carroll's reasons for holding a naturalistic perspective were well presented. According to his view, the physical realm—the arena of phenomena able to be examined by scientific methods, that is things that could be counted, weighed and measured, or otherwise poked and prodded—represented the entire whole of reality. He discarded the possibility of a nonphysical, spiritual reality as a failed hypothesis. According to Carroll, theism is more like a computer bug than a feature of reality because it lacks a stable definition and doesn't produce results that are predictable. He complained that proponents of a theistic world view, when confronted with perplexing data, simply adjust their explanations.

He didn't mention that the same could be said of naturalism. Here's an example: A model of the universe was developed by an early natural philosopher, Aristotle. He described a version of reality in which the earth stood at the center of things and everything revolved around it. Eventually, it turned out that some predictions didn't go as smoothly as hoped, so adjustments were made. As the centuries progressed and additional details emerged, more elaborate adjustments were needed. Eventually scientists had to reorganize the model with the sun in the center.

History soundly criticizes Roman Catholic authorities for lamentable actions they took as this saga unfolded. Today's audiences typically hear the story cast as one in which religious rulers tried Galileo and found him guilty of heresy because he denied the truth of Christian scriptures that explicitly claimed that the earth stood in the center of the universe. This version of the story overlooks an important detail. Biblical text actually makes no such assertions. A lot of ecclesiastical creativity had previously gone into the effort to interpret certain Biblical verses in a way that could be reconciled with the Aristotelean model. Those interpretations were what the Church authorities prized. Galileo got into trouble because he said those interpretations were not the best way to understand the text. Unfortunately for him, the priestly folk felt they alone had the right to interpret what scriptural passages meant. Maybe at this point they held a conclave to complain about the unpredictable scientific community that changed its definitions and explanations for every passing fancy.

Yet, science does this all the time. The ancients held a notion that four elements—earth, water, fire, and air—served as the constituent components of all matter. Later scientists came up with a notion that atoms were the smallest parts of matter. That is until subatomic particles proved to be smaller. Electrons were one type of subatomic particle, but today's scientists don't think of electrons as particles. They think electrons are probability waves. And so it goes.

According to Carroll, this is the nature of how science is supposed to work. A model is adopted and tested. What proves false is discarded and replaced with something else. Yet, when ancient theists posited a model—for example, that a specific god's character was essentially tribal—and later theists considered a broader range of experiences and interpreted existing information in light of an expanding human knowledge base, naturalists cried "Foul!"

Perhaps the surest conclusion is that people learn and grow in all realms of existence, physical and spiritual.

In the context of the debate, however, the notion that theism was poorly defined was just one among several criticisms Carroll made. He offered a litany of assumptions regarding the type of world a person might expect to find in accordance with the principles of naturalism versus those of theism. His assumptions were carefully enumerated and thoughtfully presented. They deserve responses. In order to foster ongoing dialog between naturalists and theists (or people of other spiritual perspectives), future blog entries will discuss them.