Monday, January 25, 2010

Cosmological Despair is so Eighties

I spent much of the weekend as a chaperone at the Franklin Institute, field trip destination for all who grow up in the Philadelphia area. The program was a thrilling catechesis in the nature of reality, from a compelling basic chemistry lecture, to marine biology, human anatomy (we slept by the giant heart), and ending with deep astronomy. As the lights dimmed within the Institute at night, Philadelphia's Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, just outside the window, became more visible, prompting afresh the question: What has Christianity to do with science? Let's let the Franklin Institute gift shop answer that question. I wandered in and picked up a book at random, just to see what popular science looks like today. Here's what I came across in The View from the Center of the Universe, co-written by University of California astrophysics professor Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams:
Many years ago a friend of ours, who is both a Catholic priest and a philosopher of science writing books on astronomy, visited our home for several days. Every few hours he interrupted whatever he was doing and went off to read his Bible. One day Nancy asked him what he thought was real: the scientific story or the biblical stories. "The Bible is the word of God," he responded. "It's universal truth." "Then do you think there could be aliens on other worlds?" she asked. "Of course," he replied. "What a waste of a gorgeous universe if all those trillions of planets are uninhabited!" "If the Bible is universal truth," she puzzled, "How can it be true for aliens we know nothing about?" Our friend's reply has been an inspiration for us for years. "Universal does not mean ultimate," he said. "The Bible could have the same relationship to alien morality as Newton does to Einstein." Moralities, he was saying, could encompass one another. In the same way that Newtonian physics remains true everywhere in the universe on special size-scales, a biblical understanding of morality could in his opinion remain true under certain circumstances even if humans discover alien wisdom that is far deeper and more advanced, because alien wisdom could encompass, rather than overthrow, that understanding.
I'll admit to being not that interested in alien life forms until any are actually discovered, but this priest nicely models how to help people pursue their vocations without losing their faith. The message got through pronouncedly, for by the end of the book, the two authors evolve - not despite of, but through their study - from skeptics into theistically inclined anthropocentrists:
We both started in the existential camp ourselves. In Joel's widely read 1984 lectures about the Cold Dark Matter theory, he said that if the bulk of the matter in the universe is not made of atoms, "that is yet another blow to anthropocentricity: not only is man not the center of universe physically, (as Copernicus showed) or biologically (as Darwin showed), it now appears that we and all that we see are not even made of the predominant variety of matter in the universe!" Humans are indeed not. But it was pure interpretation to conclude that not being made of the predominant variety of matter is somehow a blow and rules out human centrality... The entire existential facade of despair and stoicism flips inside out if we simply view the universe from the inside, where we indisputably are. Once we made this mental shift and opened our eyes to the view from the center of the universe, we not only kept discovering more ways that we are central: we found that doing so evoked the opposite emotions from the existential stance - not despair but hope, not resignation but excitement. These may be equally arbitrary emotions, but they lead to nonarbirtrary actions..."
And, I might add, nonarbitrary beliefs like the Incarnation. The book is, admittedly, popular science; but so was Carl Sagan's Cosmos. In addition to complementing Stratford Caldecott's ongoing thesis, perhaps the moral of the The View from the Center of the Universe is this: Next time you encounter a skeptical cosmologist, relax. Give them time. If they're good, they may end up refuting their earlier, skeptical selves. I might have looked out at the kids I was chaperoning and said, "Boys and girls, I'm old enough to remember back when people use to lose their faith through the study of science!" It would have been great for a laugh, but I doubt they would have believed me.