Saturday, October 2, 2010

Confessions of a Rocket Scientist

The penultimate chapter of How to Know God Exists actually has the confessions of two rocket engineers, Wernher von Braun and the somewhat less famous Jason W. Pratt.  Both marveled at the order, structure, and what Braun called "the inherent design" of the universe (though Ray quotes Braun as stating that a Designer is outside the realm of science: Braun as quoted seems to have thought that belief in God was quite reasonable but that there was no "scientific proof of God").   Both went the extra step and inferred, from apparent design, a Designer.

Pratt gets considerably more space (much of the article is quoted directly from an essay on his conversion) and takes a considerably more explicit creationist stance.   Pratt bases much of his case on the "thumbprint" of creation: the way a single set of laws exists and governs all manner of physical phenomena.  Although he prefers this "thumbprint of the Creator" metaphor, this is clearly the "natural law requires a Lawgiver" argument.  And I've long found that argument questionable: a Lawgiver requires regularities and consistencies of His own nature.  A Creator needs the very principles of logic and order that the "lawgiver" argument credits Him with creating.  Yet if the regularities of a supernatural Creator can exist uncaused, uncreated, and eternal, why cannot the regularities of a mere natural realm?

Pratt mounts, besides the "thumbprint" argument for creation, an argument against cosmological, chemical, and biological evolution.  Despite his engineering credentials, Pratt argues that the Second Law of Thermodynamics prevents the increase in order over time of "evolution," whether the formation of planets from interstellar dust, or the formation of life from nonliving matter, or the evolution of biological complexity and diversity.  

And therein lies the problem: when you have an argument against evolution that is also an argument against the possibility of snowflakes forming, seeds growing into plants, or refrigerators working, you have found something wrong with your argument, not something wrong with evolution.   All of these things represent local increases in order (e.g. cool air in one enclosed part of the room and warmer air elsewhere, rather than air at the same temperature throughout the room) at the expense of an overall increase in global or cosmic entropy.  The same applies to evolution: all the processes of evolution -- reproduction, inheritance, mutation, selection, speciation -- occur notwithstanding (and in perfect accord with) the laws of thermodynamics.  Even the flawed Urey-Miller experiment is fatal to a simplistic argument from entropy, since it resulted in molecules that were more complex than those the experiment started with.

Ray also quotes Pratt arguing that naturalistic origins are prohibited by the first law of thermodynamics.  This has no applicability to evolution or abiogenesis, of course, neither of which involves anything coming from "nothing."  As for the Big Bang, cosmologists, of course, have long been aware of the laws of thermodynamics.  Some have posited an initial singularity that already contained all the matter and energy of the universe, in one place, as highly organized a state as was ever possible, with all later organization emerging against the backdrop of an overall increase in the universe's entropy.  Inflationary Big Bang theory offers a seemingly outrageous possibility that is nonetheless consistent with physicists' understanding of the first law: the sudden expansion of the universe created a "negative energy" that could only be countered (keeping the total energy of the universe at zero) by the appearance of the "positive energy" that we see all around us (the universe is, in short, the ultimate accounting trick).  But Pratt (and creationists before him who have offered similar arguments) have not found something that generations of cosmologists and biologists had managed to miss: the Big Bang and evolution have always been consistent with the laws of thermodynamics, at least as scientists (if not necessarily creationist engineers) understand them.

Pratt raises the additional point that since some moons in the solar system  have retrograde orbits, they could not be the product of a Big Bang, since inertia is conserved.  I can only conclude that he is not overly impressed by turbulence or other demonstrations of just how complicated the interactions of simple forces can get without intelligence directly complicating them.

Pratt turns to a theological argument: as he came closer to Christianity, he came to accept that humanity's problem is that we disobey our Designer; we don't do what He made us to do.  This is not, he insists, the Designer's fault: we are perfectly designed, but we don't do what we are designed to do.  Now, theology often strikes me as like playing tennis without a net, without boundary lines around the court, and with the existence of the ball taken purely on faith: there are no guidelines to how far you can safely or reasonable pursue an analogy.  But I think Pratt would conclude, if any other designer's designs consistently, even invariably, failed to do what they were designed for, that the designer was not up to the task he had set himself -- that the failure was to some extent his fault.

In any case, Ray cites von Braun and quotes Pratt as evidence that faith in Christ and God is consistent with being an intelligent, well-educated person.  I personally had never doubted this.  But I do doubt that anyone is really perfectly consistently rational in all his judgments, that people are all foolish or all wise, all reasonable or all irrational.  Great scientists have held all manner of unreasonable prejudices, sometimes on scientific matters and sometimes on other matters (and sometimes been quite reasonable and, due to insufficient evidence, quite wrong nonetheless), which is why science doesn't rest on authority but on evidence.  Ray quotes Pratt's retort to the claim that men wrote the Bible -- men wrote the science texts, also -- but the information in the science texts does not rest on the claimed divine inspiration of the authors.

Having argued that the inference of a Designer and Creator is reasonable, Ray notes that we should further expect that if the Designer existed, He would reveal Himself, and His will to us, and make it possible for us to know Him personally.  I bring this up to note that technically, none of these conclusions follow from the First Cause and Design arguments: a deistic Creator Who made the world but did not afterwards intervene in it, and perhaps has no more personal interest in us than we would have in individual bacteria in a petri dish, is perfectly consistent with pure design arguments.  Ray consistently overstates what can be, even on the most generous assessment of them, reasonably inferred from his arguments.

1 comment:

  1. Can we add that Braun was a Nazi, in particularly an SS officer? Now of course that does not discredit his work or his thoughts on a creator, but I am sure that will come back to bite Ray later. Considering that Ray has tried to link Nazi's to evolution and atheism on his blog.