Faith-Based Physics

theory-of-relativity-486718_1280When I enrolled at Rice University, I thought I would dual-major in math and physics en route to a Ph.D. in physics, a university professorship, and a career relishing the life of the mind in the esoteric realms of the subatomic. No, I had known that I would do that since sometime in middle school.

Within a semester, I had doubts that my career path lay in academic physics. By the end of my freshman year, I knew pure physics was not for me; I was considering biophysics, physical chemistry, and other, physics-adjacent disciplines. By the end of my third semester, no majors involving the name “physics” were even on my radar. I ended up, after some soul-searching and a year of exploration and reflection, settling on majors in math and religious studies, the latter with a concentration in Judaism.

Why? It wasn’t that I had lost my interest in physics as a subject; I still haven’t. It wasn’t my grades. It wasn’t even that I was unhappy with the work I was doing.

What really drove me off was this: I found that the kind of physics I wanted to do—the cutting-edge, theoretical stuff—was disturbingly full of hand-waving. That is, the really tough problems were either ignored entirely or roundly dismissed as inconsequential, even if they had potentially huge significance for the entire field. These were problems in which no one was doing any serious investigation—indeed, serious investigation might not even be possible under the current state of the art—but “we” supposedly “knew” something was true. Nine times out of ten, statements of this sort were literally accompanied by hand-waving by the professor or teacher’s assistant making the statement. In at least one incident, I witnessed a Nobel laureate brush off a series of hard-hitting questions in precisely this manner.

This is not to say that no one ever attempted to explain such things. Usually, the explanation was a deus ex machina based on the “standard model” or an appeal to authority. The thinking seemed to be this: If you don’t know the answer, just refer vaguely to the standard model, Einstein, Heisenberg, or Feynman, and the troublesome freshman/sophomore/high-schooler will get the idea that he or she is out of his or her depth and leave you alone. Even if the question was perfectly reasonable. There’s no grant money for investigating pesky “side effects” that show up in 200-level labs but that we can’t explain. “No grant money” means “forget about it.”

With all of the latest buzz about the so-called “multiverse” and, relatedly, parallel universes, at least a few of my beefs with academic physics have gone mainstream. In particular, Rod Dreher has posted an excellent piece about the faith of the physics academy. Some key quotes:

Physicists have a nerve. I know one (I’ll call him Mark) who berates every religious person he meets, yet honestly thinks there exist parallel universes, exactly like our own, in which we all have two noses. He refuses to give any credit to Old Testament creation myths and of course sneers at the idea of transubstantiation. But, without any sense of shame, he insists in the same breath that humans are made from the fallout of exploded stars; that it is theoretically possible for a person to decompose on one side of a black hole and recompose on the other, and that there are diamonds in the sky the size of the moon.

. . . .

I have never quite understood why the “many-universes” theory is considered science, not religion. How could you ever falsify the thesis?

. . . . We assume that the Scientist must know what he’s talking about no matter what he says, because he has studied his field, and is committed to a rigorous methodology and epistemology that rules out what cannot be known empirically. If a Scientist says it, it must be true, because it has either been proven experimentally, or can be.

. . . .

. . . . [C]ertainty in the sense of probability is not the same thing as necessary being: If I toss a coin, it is certain that I will get heads or tails, but that outcome depends on my tossing the coin, which I may not necessarily do. Likewise, any particular universe may follow from the existence of a multiverse, but the existence of the multiverse remains to be explained. In particular, the universe-generating process assumed by some multiverse theories is itself contingent because it depends on the action of laws assumed by the theory. The latter might be called meta-laws, since they form the basis for the origin of the individual universes, each with its own individual set of laws. So what determines the meta-laws? Either we must introduce meta-meta-laws, and so on in infinite regression, or we must hold that the meta-laws themselves are necessary — and so we have in effect just changed our understanding of what the fundamental universe is to one that contains many universes. In that case, we are still left without ultimate explanations as to why that universe exists or has the characteristics it does.

When it comes to such metaphysical questions, science and scientific speculation may offer much in fleshing out details, but they have so far failed to offer any explanations that are fundamentally novel to philosophy — much less have they supplanted it entirely.

Read the whole thing.

 

 

Logos

I am a huge fan of Logos Bible Software.  For those who aren’t familiar with them, Logos makes the leading software for reading and analyzing the Bible, along with hundreds of other materials, including ancient texts, commentaries, and more.

I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy of the Scholar’s Library — dozens of resources, worth thousands of dollars in print versions — more than a decade ago.  Sadly, somewhere in the past few years, my installation broke, and I could never get it to work properly on the last couple of computers I have owned, nor would it recognize the many resources that came with the Scholar’s Library.  Logos has gone through many versions since then, and the latest versions didn’t even recognize my license key.

Thanks to a very helpful Logos staffer named Hunter Clagett, I now have access to all of these materials again, and could not be happier about it.  Thanks, Hunter, and thanks, Logos!

If you are experiencing similar difficulties, this link may be helpful.

From The Shack to the Courthouse

Since I’ve mentioned the popular novel The Shack in a number of posts, it seems worthwhile to mention the latest real-life twist in the novel’s story. According to the LA Times, The Shack‘s author, William Paul Young, has sued pastors Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings; the start-up the three created to publish the book initially, Windblown Media; and the book’s current publisher, Hachette. Young alleges that he is owed $8 million in royalties through December 2008, as well as other relief. Windblown has counterclaimed for $5 million. Meanwhile, Jacobsen and Cummings have filed an amended copyright filing with the Library of Congress.

I will refrain from commenting on the legal issues (or the legal posture of these cases, which is more than a little muddled in the article), but am posting this merely for general interest.

h/t: Tim Challies

More Thoughts on The Shack

Joe Holland has posted an altogether excellent review of The Shack (hat tip: Tim Challies). Meanwhile, my blog has attracted a couple comments on the topic. Granted, there are not too many comments, but they contain themes worth a little discussion.

Continue reading “More Thoughts on The Shack”

Hello World.

A few of the search terms people have used to find this site in the last 24 hours which have suddenly spiked in popularity:

  • ed cottrell
  • cottrell
  • baker botts
  • edblog
  • “ed cottrell” blog

I assume some of those folks are my new co-workers. Hello! Don’t worry, all; it’s pretty harmless on here.

Some of the more specific searches from the last couple of days, from the relevant to the weird (all spelling errors original):

  • enloe high school prank
  • the shack book review [Ed. note: there are about 50 related searches…]
  • the pros of conservatism
  • zo’é (o anche poturu
  • i hate coldfusion
  • newcar tax consequences
  • business ethics in perlis
  • should online poker be legalized?
  • funny quotes by category “about home”
  • is houston under evacuation order? [Ed. note: there were a lot of searches similar to this one, too…]
  • country with most mnuclear threat
  • eleanor roosevelt look fear in the face
  • july texas 2008 bar exam blog
  • texas mandatory evacuation law
  • the higher power of the shack

I can explain most of those. Not sure why I suddenly became a popular site for hurricane evacuation information or “most mnuclear threat,” though…

Some Grudges Die Hard

I love a good lawsuit connected with history and religion as much as the next person, but I have to say that when the Knights Templar sue the Pope perhaps we’re digging a bit far into religious history for a current complaint. In any case, this one is too far up my alley not to mention it.

Summary:

Apparently, the Knights hope the suit will help improve their reputation, sullied by age-old accusations of worshipping Satan, denying Jesus, and practicing sodomy. It seems more likely that they’ll have a new accusation added to the list: filing frivolous and unsuccessful lawsuits.

More on The Shack

Tim Challies has posted a follow-up on his review of The Shack. As expected, it prompted a vigorous discussion in the comments. (See also this post for another discussion, which Challies cites.)

The one thing I have never figured out about the way people talk about this book is the insistence that The Shack is allegorical. It patently is not, but that does not seem to prevent lots of insistence from supporters that it is.

Earlier coverage:

The Popularity of Christian Books

Intro
I have been thinking a lot lately, as my last few posts may have indicated, about just what American Christians are reading. This has been fueled not only by my own reading of The Shack, but also by my discovery of two great websites. One is a blog by an author named Tim Challies, the other a companion site called Discerning Reader. Neither site is perfect, of course, but both are very interesting.

Anyway, this got the nerdy side – it’s a big side – of my personality fired up, and I started wondering what American Christians are reading, and what they think of it. So, I conducted a little study of Amazon reviews of popular Christian books to see how various books were rated. (Warning: extreme geekery follows…) Continue reading “The Popularity of Christian Books”

Marketing The Shack

I posted a short review of The Shack here, earlier. I would love to hear from my readers about another, related topic: the book’s marketing. In my opinion, the way in which The Shack has been marketed raises some disturbing questions, of a kind I don’t normally associate with “mainstream” “Christian” books.

First, there is the Missy Project, which is explained in a two-page blurb at the end of the physical copies of the book, as well as on the book’s official site. (Missy, for those who have not read the book, is the name of a little girl who is abducted and murdered in the book.) This blurb encourages people to blog about it, write reviews (especially positive ones, of course), display it, seek positive reviews from others, buy multiple copies to give away, and so on. My favorite:

Talk about the book on email lists you’re on, forums you frequent and other places you engage other people on the Internet. Don’t make it an advertisement, but share how this book impacted your life and offer people the link to The Shack website.

To me, this sounds like straight-up viral marketing. The proceeds of the book, so far as I can tell, are not being donated to any charitable cause, but are going to the publisher and the author. So, either the author and others are really very convinced that the book is life-changing and are committed to bringing their message to a wide audience (which, conveniently, sells more books), or this is a shameless plug.

Then, there is the author’s site, the home page of which opens with this:

If you are so inclined and would like to write a review for Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble, especially a 5 star review, we would greatly appreciate it.

If that’s not a shameless plug for a book, I don’t know what is. In fact, the entire site feels like one big marketing device. Look at it for yourself.

Loyal readers: what are your thoughts?

Book Review: The Shack

I recently read The Shack, which is a novel that came out last spring. In The Shack, a man whose daughter was murdered returns to the scene of the crime, where he meets with three people who claim to be the three persons of the Trinity (Papa, an African-American woman, as the Father; Jesus as Himself; Sarayu, a petite Asian woman who seems to fade in and out of existence as the Holy Spirit). I want to offer a very brief review here.

Plenty of reviewers have summarized the plot on various websites. I want to comment only briefly on the theological questions raised in the book (for a much more complete review, read this excellent one by Tim Challies). The Shack puts words directly into the mouth of God, about topics like sin and salvation. It does so in a way that indicates God may or may not care about faith, may or may not care about sin, and may or may not think the Bible is useful for anything. It also suggests that institutions (including marriage and traditional Christian churches), governments, and economic systems are all inherently things God dislikes; in the book, Jesus even blames all the world’s ills on institutions, economics, and politics.

The Shack is definitely a moving, interesting read. Unfortunately, many readers will see it as “only a novel” (some are claiming it is allegorical, which it is not) and conclude that questioning the theology is unnecessary. Worse, I worry that some will conclude that, because the book is a novel, it doesn’t even contain theology. When God speaks in a novel, however, especially about the fundamental doctrines of a belief system, the novel is theological.

This review is very brief, but I hope it will encourage others to look at The Shack critically, examining it for more than the impact it can have on people’s lives. Ultimately, I think it is a dangerous book, because it presents theological conversations with God, but most readers overlook the fact that the book has theological implications, while simultaneously embracing what it has taught them about God (for examples of this, see most Amazon reviews). The book deserves to be questioned.

For those who need answers to questions about suffering and the evil things people do, I would recommend either the biblical book of Job or The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis.