The Icing on the Cake

12 Jul

There are some things that I don’t understand in the often acrimonious debate that takes place around the subject of evolution. And I am not talking about geology or genetics. The lines between scientific fact, the subjective interpretation of objective data and deeply held personal convictions sometimes appear a little too blurred for respectful debate. Proponents of one metaphysical agenda or another appear to be seeking that which will uphold their own view rather than engaging in dialogue as such. Proofs and counter-proofs are lobbed backwards and forwards but, like WWI trench warfare which left millions dead with no real territorial gain, nothing of any import moves.

It is natural that we want to understand where we came from and how life began. That’s what science is about, the search for understanding. And in that search “God did it” will never be a satisfactory answer, always inviting the subsequent question “OK, but how did God do it?”. At this present time at least, whether one accepts spontaneous abiogenesis or insists on the need for a transcendent creator remains essentially a philosophical question; an end to the evolution-creation debate would not appear to be in sight.

For me, though, it is the wrong place to start. It’s like disputes about the icing (frosting, for US readers) forgetting that there is a cake. No cake, no icing. Argue as much as you like about the icing, but unless you understand the cake, it really is a secondary issue.

Life itself, including the complex life-forms that inhabit planet earth, needs an environment conducive to life. Sounds obvious, I know, but is often left out of the equation. Without Higgs bosons (yes, it’s them again – they have kept me inspired for the best part of a week now), one of the many particles that sprang into existence in the first milliseconds of the big bang, we have no cake. And I’ll say it again – no cake, no icing.

The balance that exists in and between all the other fundamental particles and forces that emerged from the void – if we can call it that, as before that moment there was not even empty space, no space, no nothing – is beyond calculation. Even the most optimistic probability theory defines such figures as, quite simply, impossible.

N49, the brightest supernova remnant in the Large Magellanic Cloud.
Image credit: NASA/CXC/STScI/JPL-Caltech/UIUC/Univ. of Minn.

Following the laws that govern how matter and energy behave, the building blocks of life were then formed over billions of years of intergalactic history. In the process known as stellar nucleosynthesis, stars became production lines of heavier elements, some of them turning supernova and spewing their innards across space, seeding the gas clouds that would later condense into stars and planetary systems such as ours with the atoms needed for life. Next time you are eating a banana, spare a thought for the generous self-sacrificing red giant turned supernova for the magnesium it contributed! All of the elements needed for living organisms exist, here and now, because of the way the universe is constructed and how it has thus been able to develop.

With all this in mind, for many, we are looking at something which lies beyond the realms of chance; by the constraints of any normal rational process, the universe would seem to have been designed for life. Perhaps this is why it is significantly easier for physicists to believe in a transcendent creator than for molecular biologists.

Others, however, prefer to posit the existence of an infinite number of parallel universes to explain why, in this one at least, we exist. Anything and everything will have occurred in one of these infinite gardens of possibility; who knows, in one of them, Andy Murray may even have beaten Federer at Wimbledon. Of course, no proof can ever exist for these alternative worlds. But likewise, neither will science ever be able to penetrate the all-but infinite heat and pressure of the split-second explosion that brought our universe into being and tell us what lay behind it, creator or otherwise. As Robert Jastrow says:

At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. (God and the Astronomers, 2nd edition, p.107.)

This is where we come back to faith and philosophical conviction. Whichever side of the debate we choose to stand on, we are left with the need to choose a “reasonable faith”, a conviction that most resonates with the world as we see it. And again, whichever side of the debate we stand, we will never have ultimate “proof” for our belief. However much evidence points one way or the other, the final word is spoken in faith. For this faith – either in the existence or the non-existence of God – is not in and of itself subject to scientific enquiry.

So please do not make the evolution-creation “icing” into the be-all and end-all, the touch-stone on which all else depends; salvation is by faith, not faith in Jesus and young-earth creationism. There is an astrophysical “cake” that carries, in my mind at least, a whole lot more weight. And remember – no cake, no icing.

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6 Responses to “The Icing on the Cake”

  1. synapticcohesion July 12, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

    “The lines between scientific fact, the subjective interpretation of objective data and deeply held personal convictions sometimes appear a little too blurred for respectful debate.”

    My beliefs have nothing to do with my rejection of evolution. Evolution’s lack of hard, detailed evidence and faulty conjectures are what makes me object to and reject evolution as a viable explanation on how life on Earth came to be.

    • eatingwithsinners July 13, 2012 at 10:55 am #

      Thanks for commenting – your opinion is very valid and worthy of respect. My issue in the whole question of evolution/creation is particularly with the fundamental lack of respect that often characterizes the debate, on both sides. This does not help anyone and does not contribute either to the advancement of knowledge or to a better understanding of faith. To contribute to dialogue from a place of deep personal conviction but respect for those who think differently is fundamental. Sounds like you are able to do that – well done!

  2. Simon July 13, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    I agree – it’s not the key issue – although of course an ‘evolution’ based approach poses significant problems for those who base their theory of atonement on a literal interpretation of the fall.

    Personally I’d very much like to see more reasonable and reasoned discussion of the ideas, as I find a black and white ‘I’m right, everyone else is either an idiot or an atheist’ (I have actually heard that said) very unhelpful in terms of engaging people with the gospel.

    Imagine how it must feel for an agnostic molecular biologist, creeping into the back of a church service, to hear a preacher who has no real scientific understanding of the process denounce evolution as a load of rubbish, and declaring it to be incompatible with Christianity. That kind of rhetoric is very unhelpful.

    • eatingwithsinners July 13, 2012 at 11:21 am #

      A “literal interpretation of the fall”… As you know, I don’t think there is such a thing as a “literal interpretation” – see this post: https://eatingwithsinners.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/the-audience-are-literally-electrified-and-glued-to-their-seats/ . So, I would say that no-one, even those who think that they espouse this view, actually has a “literal” interpretation of the fall. Do you know anyone that thinks that Adam and Eve conversed with a talking snake? Once that is taken as symbol, a representation of a deeper reality, our interpretation has become subjective, with the interpreter deciding where and how to draw the line between the literal and the symbolic.

      And yes, the “everyone else is an idiot” approach is most unhelpful to dialogue, whichever side of the debate it originates from. That is my main objection to Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”, for example – he has written some brilliant stuff in his time, but in this resorts to the kind of diatribe normally associated with fundamentalist preachers. Alistair MacGrath’s rebuke in “The Dawkins Delusion” is well justified. To get anywhere in all this we must accept the fact that sincere, thinking, nonest and educated people, with access to the same information, do not arrive at the same conclusions. That is a baseline for any dialogue that hopes to contribute anything of worth.

      And yes again, declarations by laymen – for that is what most preachers or church leaders are to the scientific establishment – rejecting the findings of contemporary science on a purely philosophical rather than scientific basis lead more often to ridicule than to anything else. Labeling the acceptance of certain theories as incompatible with Christian faith is short-sighted indeed. It is OK to honestly hold to the belief that the earth is 6,000 years old; to proclaim that others must believe that in order to embrace faith in God, when those others may share Dawkins’ opinion that this is “an error equivalent to believing that the distance from New York to San Francisco is shorter than a cricket pitch”, is counter-productive at best, and often downright damaging.

  3. Simon July 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

    agreed, I shouldn’t have used the word ‘literal’ – although I’m willing to bet that I do know someone who thinks Adam and Eve chatted to a snake in the Garden of Eden.

  4. afruitinseason July 16, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    We all function from a fiduciary framework….

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