Tag Archives: Science

Neil Shenvi lectures on the relationship between science and religion

Another great 42-minute lecture by Dr. Neil Shenvi.

Speaker bio:

As it says on the main page, my name is Neil Shenvi; I am currently a research scientist with Prof. Weitao Yang at Duke University in the Department of Chemistry. I was born in Santa Cruz, California, but grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. I attended Princeton University as an undergraduate where I worked on high-dimensional function approximation with Professor Herschel Rabitz. I became a Christian in Berkeley, CA where I did my PhD in Theoretical Chemistry at UC – Berkeley with Professor Birgitta Whaley. The subject of my PhD dissertation was quantum computation, including topics in quantum random walks, cavity quantum electrodynamics, spin physics, and the N-representability problem. From 2005-2010, I worked as a postdoctoral associate with Prof. John Tully at Yale where I did research into nonadiabatic dynamics, electron transfer, and surface science.

Outline slide: (Download the Powerpoint slides here)

Lecture:

Summary:

  • Science is often considered to be in opposition to religion, because it answers all the questions that religion asks
  • Thesis: 1) Science and religion are compatible, 2) Science provides us with good reasons to believe that God exists
  • Definition: what is science?
  • Definition: what is the scientific method?
  • Definition: what is religion?
  • Where is the conflict between science and religion, according to atheists?
  • Conflict 1: Definitional – faith is belief without evidence
  • But the Bible doesn’t define faith as “belief without evidence”
  • Conflict 2: Metaphysical – science presuppose naturalism (nature is all that exists)
  • First, naturalism is a philosophical assumption, not something that is scientifically tested or proved
  • Second, methodological naturalism in science doesn’t require us to believe in metaphysical naturalism
  • Conflict 3: Epistemological – science is the only way to know truth (scientism)
  • But scientism cannot itself be discovered by science – the statement is self-refuting
  • Conflict 4: Evolutionary – evolution explains the origin of life, so no need for God
  • Theists accept that organisms change over time, and that there is limited common descent
  • But the conflict is really over the mechanism that supposedly drives evolutionary change
  • There are philosophical and evidential reasons to doubt the effectiveness of mutation and selection
  • Evidence for God 1: the applicability of mathematics to the natural world, and our ability to study the natural world
  • Evidence for God 2: the origin of the universe
  • Evidence for God 3: the fine-tuning of the initial constants and quantities
  • Evidence for God 4: the implications of quantum mechanics
  • Evidence for God 5: the grounding of the philosophical foundations of the scientific enterprise
  • Hiddenness of God: why isn’t the evidence of God from science more abundant and more clear?
  • Science is not the only means for getting at truth
  • Science is not the best way to reach all the different kinds of people
  • There is an even deeper problem that causes people to not accept Christianity than lack of evidence
  • The deeper problem is the emotional problem: we want to reject God’s claim on our lives

He concludes with an explanation of the gospel, which is kinda cool, coming from an academic scientist.

I am a big admirer of Dr. Neil Shenvi. I wish we could clone him and have dozens, or even hundreds, like him (with different scientific specializations, of course!). I hope you guys are doing everything you can to lead and support our young people, and encouraging them to set their sights high and aim for the stars.

UPDATE: Dr. Shenvi has posted a text version of the lecture.

Related posts

Does reading science fiction predispose people to atheism?

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

My friend ECM thinks that science fiction that people read when they are younger causes them to believe that the religion is anti-science and that the progress of science always disproves religion. The stories they read colors their views of science and religion for life, before they ever get to assessing evidence. And that’s why when we produce evidence for them in debates, they will believe in speculations rather than go where the evidence leads. So they believe that maybe unobservable aliens caused the origin of life, and that maybe the untestable multiverse theory explains the fine-tuning of cosmological constants, and that maybe this universe has existed eternally despite the well-supported Big Bang theory which shows that the universe began to exist. Maybe, maybe, maybe. They seem to think that untestable speculations are “good enough” to refute observational evidence – and maybe it’s because of all the science fiction that they’ve read.

Here’s an article in the American Spectator that talks a bit about it.

Excerpt:

A magazine I frequently write for (not this one) recently published a review of a book of essays advocating atheism. The reviewer pointed out with some enthusiasm that a large number of the contributors were science-fiction writers.

This left me somewhat nonplussed. I publish a good deal of science fiction myself, I have also read quite a lot of it, and I am quite unable to see why writing it should be held to particularly qualify anyone to answer the question of whether or not there is a God.

[…]Historically the contribution of the Catholic Church to astronomy was massive and unequalled. Without it astronomy might very well never have grown out of astrology at all. Cathedrals in Bologna, Florence, Paris, Rome and elsewhere were designed in the 17th and 18th centuries to function as solar observatories. Kepler was assisted by a number of Jesuit astronomers, including Father Paul Guldin and Father Zucchi, and by Giovanni Cassini, who had studied under Jesuits. Cassini and Jesuit colleagues were eventually able to confirm Kepler’s theory on the Earth having an elliptical orbit. J.L. Heilbron of the University of California has written:

The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.

Science fiction is, by definition, fiction, that is, it deals with things which are the product of a writer’s imagination and are not literally true. In any event, what is and what is not science fiction is hard to define. Simply to say it is about science is meaningless, and while some science-fiction writers are qualified scientists, many are not. Probably even fewer are trained theologians.

Science fiction makes the mysteries of the universe seem easy to an atheist. Everything can be easily explained with fictional future discoveries. Their speculations about aliens, global warming and eternal universes are believed without evidence because atheists want and need to believe in those speculations. In the world of science fiction, the fictional characters can be “moral” and “intelligent” without having to bring God or the evidence for God into the picture. That’s very attractive to an atheist who wants the feeling of being intelligent and moral without having to weight actual scientific evidence or ground their moral values and behavior rationally. The science fiction myths are what atheists want to believe. It’s a placebo at the worldview level. They don’t want cosmic microwave background radiation – they want warp drives. They don’t want WMAP satellite confirmation of nucleosynthesis – they want holodecks.

Why do people become atheists?

My theory is mainly that atheists adopt atheism because they want pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, without any restraints or guilt. They want to believe that sex without commitment has no consequences, especially a consequence like God judging them for it. Another contributing factor may be that atheists want to be thought of as smart by “the right people” – to sort of blindly accept whatever the “smart people” accept without really searching out reasons or dissenting views. They do this so that they are able to look down at some other group of people so they can feel better about themselves and be part of the right group – without actually having to weigh the evidence on both sides. And lastly, atheism may also be caused by weak fathers or abandoning fathers. But I think that ECM’s science fiction theory has merit, as well. I think that all four of these factors help to explain why atheists believe in a discredited worldview in the teeth of scientific progress.

I wonder if my readers would take some time out to investigate whether their atheist friends have been influenced by reading science fiction and whether they still read it.

Walter Bradley asks: what is religion really supposed to be about?

Dr. Walter L. Bradley
Dr. Walter L. Bradley

This lecture is based on the book “Truth in Religion” by famous philosopher Mortimer J. Adler. At the time of writing the book, he was not a Christian, but there is still a lot of value in the book for Christians who are trying to understand what religion should really be about.

About the speaker

The speaker is one of my top 3 favorite speakers of all time in Christian apologetics, Dr. Walter Bradley. (The other two are Dr. Stephen C. Meyer and Dr. Michael Strauss)

Here’s a biography:

Dr. Bradley received his B.S. in Engineering Science and his Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Texas in Austin.

Dr. Bradley taught for eight years at the Colorado School of Mines before assuming a position as Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in 1976.

During his 24 years at Texas A&M, Dr. Bradley served as Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University and as Director of the Polymer Technology Center, and received five College of Engineering Research Awards. He has received over $4,500,000 in research grants and has published over 140 technical articles and book chapters. He has also co-authored “The Mystery Of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories. He is a Fellow of the American Society for Materials and of the American Scientific Affiliation and serves as a consultant for many Fortune 500 companies.

You can read more about his recent research on how to use coconuts to make car parts in this article from Science Daily.

The MP3 file is here. (31 minutes + Q&A)

Topics:

  • what is pluralism?
  • what is multiculturalism?
  • what is relativism?
  • some propositions are true culturally – just for certain groups in certain times (cultures)
  • some proposition are true trans-culturally – true independently of what anyone wants or feels
  • Mathematical truth is trans-cultural – it is true regardless of cultural fashions
  • Scientific truth is trans-cultural – it is true regardless of cultural fashions
  • Some truths are not like this – cooking traditions, clothing traditions and greeting traditions
  • These kinds of truths are NOT trans-cultural, they vary by culture
  • The question is – is religion true like math and science, or true depending on the culture
  • Some people think that your religion depends on where you were born or what your family believes
  • Religions make conflicting claims about the way the world really is, so they can’t all be true
  • And these conflicts are at the core of the religions – who God is, how can we be related to him, etc.
  • So if religions convey trans-cultural truth, then either one is true or none are true
  • If they are not trying to convey trans-cultural truth, then they are not like math and science
  • Let’s assume that religion is the same as trans-cultural truth
  • How can we know which religion is true? 1) the laws of logic, 2) empirical testing against reality
  • Logical consistency is needed to make the first cut – self-contradictory claims cannot be true
  • To be true trans-culturally, a proposition must at least NOT break the law of non-contradiction
  • According to Mortimer Adler’s book, only Christianity, Judaism and Islam are not self-contradictory
  • All the others can be excluded on the basis of overt internal contradictions on fundamental questions
  • The others that are self-contradictory can be true culturally, but not trans-culturally
  • The way to proceed forward is to test the three non-contradictory religions against science and history
  • One of these three may be true, or they could all be false
  • We can test the three by evaluating their conflicting truth claims about the historical Jesus
  • Famous skeptics have undertaken studies to undermine the historical Jesus presented in the Bible
  • Lew Wallace, Simon Greenleaf and Frank Morrison assessed the evidence as atheists and became Christians
  • There is a lot of opposition in culture to the idea that one religion might be true
  • But if you take the claims of Jesus at face value, he claims to be the unique revelation of God to mankind
  • Either he was telling the truth about that, or he was lying, or he was crazy
  • So which is it?

Why don’t religious people ask if their religion is true?

People seem to be chicken these days about claiming that their religion is true. It’s easier to say that my religion is true for me, and your religion is true for you – reduce it to personal preferences. So long as everyone is sincere about what they believe, then that’s the most important thing, right?

But it is NOT TRUE that you can believe whatever you want as long as you are sincere – sincerity doesn’t mean that you can’t be mistaken. I can jump off the top of the Sears Tower and be sincere in my belief that I will float down like a feather, but that doesn’t make my belief true. If you want to have a good relationship with God, you have to know things about him, not just have sincere beliefs. You have to know whether he exists and what he is like – really. It’s not enough to have sincere beliefs that are not actually true.

I think that God’s existence and character can be assessed and known based on logic and evidence. I think that God exists independently of whether I want him to or not, and I think that his character and desires are not the same as my character and desires. And I don’t really care what my neighbors think of my disagreeing with them, my goal is not to keep silent and to just get along with them and be happier in my community.

God’s first commandment to us is not to love our neighbor – that’s number two. Number one is to love him. And how can we love him, if we don’t want to know him. And how can we love him, if we don’t tell people the truth about him when they ask us?

That message is not going to win us a lot of friends, but our job as Christians is to tell how and why God stepped into history. Jesus expects us to be his ambassadors and to carry out the task of evangelism faithfully, and to suffer with him and – if necessary – to be rejected like he was rejected.

How the WMAP satellite confirmed nucleosynthesis predictions and falsified atheism

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Prior to certain scientific discoveries, most people thought that the universe had always been here, and no need to ask who or what may have caused it. But today, that’s all changed. Today, the standard model of the origin of the universe is that all the matter and energy in the universe came into being in an event scientists call “The Big Bang”. At the creation event, space and time themselves began to exist, and there is no material reality that preceded them.

So a couple of quotes to show that.

An initial cosmological singularity… forms a past temporal extremity to the universe. We cannot continue physical reasoning, or even the concept of spacetime, through such an extremity… On this view the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself.

Source: P. C. W. Davies, “Spacetime Singularities in Cosmology,” in The Study of Time III, ed. J. T. Fraser (Berlin: Springer Verlag ).

And another quote:

[A]lmost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the big bang.

Source: Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, The Nature of Space and Time, The Isaac Newton Institute Series of Lectures (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 20.

So, there are several scientific discoveries that led scientists to accept the creation event, and one of the most interesting and famous is the discovery of how elements heavier than hydrogen were formed.

Nucleosynthesis: forming heavier elements by fusion
Nucleosynthesis: forming heavier elements by fusion

(Source)

Here’s the history of how that discovery happened, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) web site:

The term nucleosynthesis refers to the formation of heavier elements, atomic nuclei with many protons and neutrons, from the fusion of lighter elements. The Big Bang theory predicts that the early universe was a very hot place. One second after the Big Bang, the temperature of the universe was roughly 10 billion degrees and was filled with a sea of neutrons, protons, electrons, anti-electrons (positrons), photons and neutrinos. As the universe cooled, the neutrons either decayed into protons and electrons or combined with protons to make deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen). During the first three minutes of the universe, most of the deuterium combined to make helium. Trace amounts of lithium were also produced at this time. This process of light element formation in the early universe is called “Big Bang nucleosynthesis” (BBN).

The creation hypothesis predicts that there will be specific amounts of these light elements formed as the universe cools down. Do the predictions match with observations?

Yes they do:

The predicted abundance of deuterium, helium and lithium depends on the density of ordinary matter in the early universe, as shown in the figure at left. These results indicate that the yield of helium is relatively insensitive to the abundance of ordinary matter, above a certain threshold. We generically expect about 24% of the ordinary matter in the universe to be helium produced in the Big Bang. This is in very good agreement with observations and is another major triumph for the Big Bang theory.

Moreover, WMAP satellite measurements of mass density agree with our observations of these light element abundances.

Here are the observations from the WMAP satellite:

Scientific observations match predictions
Scientific observations match predictions

(Source)

And here is how those WMAP measurements confirm the Big Bang creation event:

However, the Big Bang model can be tested further. Given a precise measurement of the abundance of ordinary matter, the predicted abundances of the other light elements becomes highly constrained. The WMAP satellite is able to directly measure the ordinary matter density and finds a value of 4.6% (±0.2%), indicated by the vertical red line in the graph. This leads to predicted abundances shown by the circles in the graph, which are in good agreement with observed abundances. This is an important and detailed test of nucleosynthesis and is further evidence in support of the Big Bang theory. 

“An important and detailed test”.

For completeness, we should learn how elements heavier than these light elements are formed:

Elements heavier than lithium are all synthesized in stars. During the late stages of stellar evolution, massive stars burn helium to carbon, oxygen, silicon, sulfur, and iron. Elements heavier than iron are produced in two ways: in the outer envelopes of super-giant stars and in the explosion of a supernovae. All carbon-based life on Earth is literally composed of stardust.

That’s a wonderful thing to tell a young lady when you are on a date: “your body is made of stardust”. In fact, as I have argued before, this star formation, which creates the elements necessary for intelligent life, can only be built if the fundamental constants and quantities in the universe are finely-tuned.

Now, you would think that atheists would be happy to find observations that confirm the origin of the universe out of nothing, but they are not. Actually, they are in denial.

Here’s a statement from the Secular Humanist Manifesto, which explains what atheists believe about the universe:

Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.

For a couple of examples of how atheistic scientists respond to the evidence for a cosmic beginning, you can check out this post, where we get responses from cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, and physical chemist Peter Atkins.

You cannot have the creation of the universe be true AND a self-existing, eternal universe ALSO be true. Someone has to be wrong. Either the science is wrong, or the atheist manifesto is wrong. I know where I stand.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

How likely is it for blind forces to sequence a functional protein by chance?

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

How likely is it that you could swish together amino acids randomly and come up with a sequence that would fold up into a functional protein?

Evolution News reports on research performed by Doug Axe at Cambridge University, and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Molecular Biology.

Excerpt:

Doug Axe’s research likewise studies genes that it turns out show great evidence of design. Axe studied the sensitivities of protein function to mutations. In these “mutational sensitivity” tests, Dr. Axe mutated certain amino acids in various proteins, or studied the differences between similar proteins, to see how mutations or changes affected their ability to function properly.10 He found that protein function was highly sensitive to mutation, and that proteins are not very tolerant to changes in their amino acid sequences. In other words, when you mutate, tweak, or change these proteins slightly, they stopped working. In one of his papers, he thus concludes that “functional folds require highly extraordinary sequences,” and that functional protein folds “may be as low as 1 in 10^77.”11 The extreme unlikelihood of finding functional proteins has important implications for intelligent design.

Just so you know, those footnotes say this:

[10.] Douglas D. Axe, “Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds,” Journal of Molecular Biology, 1-21 (2004); Douglas D. Axe, “Extreme Functional Sensitivity to Conservative Amino Acid Changes on Enzyme Exteriors,” Journal of Molecular Biology, Vol. 301:585-595 (2000).

[11.] Douglas D. Axe, “Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds,” Journal of Molecular Biology, 1-21 (2004).

And remember, you need a lot more than just 1 protein in order to create even the simplest living system. Can you generate that many proteins in the short time between when the Earth cools and the first living cells appear? Even if we spot the naturalist a prebiotic soup as big as the universe, and try to make sequences as fast as possible, it’s unlikely to generate even one protein in the time before first life appears.

Here’s Doug Axe to explain his research:

If you are building a protein for the FIRST TIME, you have to get it right all at once – not by building up to it gradually using supposed Darwinian mechanisms. That’s because there is no replication before you have the first replicator. The first replicator cannot rely on explanations that require replication to already be in place.