Can Science Make a Fine-Tuned Case for God? – A Response to Eric Metaxas

In his Christmas Day Wall Street Journal article, author Eric Metaxas promises that he will explain how science makes a “relatively recent case for God’s existence.”  He then spends a significant part of the op-ed telling us that scientists have been looking for life sustaining planets since the 1960s but have yet to find any. Metaxas reminds readers that Congress defunded the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in 1993. He then tells us that researchers continue to look but that “As of 2014, researchers have discovered precisely bubkis—0 followed by nothing.”
In addition to the absence of habitable planets, Metaxas says humans shouldn’t be here.

As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.

As I read the article, I had the nagging feeling that something wasn’t right.
On examination of NASA’s program to discover habitable planets, I found information which tells a very different story than told by Metaxas in the WSJ. For instance, in February 2014, NASA announced discovery of a “motherlode” of exoplanets, four of which orbited their stars in a habitable zone.  Then in April, NASA announced the discovery of a potentially habitable planet about the size of Earth. Watch:

And then just a week ago, NASA announced that the Kepler mission has discovered 1,000 planets with a total of eight being in the habitable zone.  In contrast to the pessimism implied by Metaxas, planet hunters seemed pleased with the results of their work:

“With each new discovery of these small, possibly rocky worlds, our confidence strengthens in the determination of the true frequency of planets like Earth,” said co-author Doug Caldwell, SETI Institute Kepler scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. “The day is on the horizon when we’ll know how common temperate, rocky planets like Earth are.”

While eight is not a gazillion; as of now, it isn’t bubkis either.

However, it is not particularly scientific or helpful in any sense to pick a side and declare the debate over. While NASA’s planet hunters are optimistic, some experts are skeptical about life on other planets. Furthermore, the newly discovered planets might not be habitable, or they might not even exist. Recently, a team from University of Texas in Austin provided data which cast doubt on the existence of planets orbiting in the habitable zone of dwarf star Gliese 581. However, the scientific attitude is to pursue the evidence wherever it leads. The technology to find evidence of such planets is in very early stages and with advancements may lead to better understanding.

Lead researcher Paul Robertson in the Gliese study takes the position that the techniques which allowed his team to rule out a planet orbiting Gliese will allow them to find other real planets in the future. In the McDonald Observatory press release on the study, Robertson said:

While it is unfortunate to find that two such promising planets do not exist, we feel that the results of this study will ultimately lead to more Earth-like planets.

In light of their findings, I asked another member of the UT-Austin team, Michael Endl research scientist at the McDonald Observatory at UT-Austin, his view of Metaxas’ article. I wondered if he was pessimistic about finding habitable planets since he had helped disprove one such planet existed. In reply, Endl said:

One common mistake that Metaxas does is to take the null result from SETI and draw the incorrect conclusion that this means life is rare. Complex, intelligent, technological life might be sparse but simple life might be quite common. For most of its time, Earth was a planet inhabited by microbes. There could be less complex life on habitable planets around every single star in the night sky and we wouldn’t know it.

Regarding the future of planet hunting, Endl is ebullient:

NASA’s Kepler mission has already shown that small planets are common around other stars, and soon we will know how common Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of Sun-like stars in the Kepler field are. New missions like TESS, K2 and PLATO will find more of these planets closer to us, around nearby stars. And with the next generation of large aperture ground-based telescopes, as well as new space telescopes, like the James-Webb Space Telescope, we might be able to probe some of them for bio-signatures in their atmospheres.

I also asked Endl for a list of the 200 criteria for planetary life mentioned by Metaxas. Endl replied:

This is also bogus. There is no list of criteria that scientists use. You can make this list arbitrarily long or short, depending on your viewpoint. Sagan was talking in the broadest terms, distance to star and mass/radius of the planet. Since we do not know what criteria are really needed for life to form, such a list is very artificial.

The more I gather evidence, the more I am feeling like the WSJ op-ed is both outdated and premature. It is outdated because Metaxas primarily relied on a 2006 statement from a retired political scientist (Peter Schenkel) as an authority to discredit the search for habitable planets when, in fact, there is currently great optimism about the Kepler research program and technological advances among scientists. However, the article is premature in that the search for habitable planets has a long way to go with numerous advances in technology to come. We know more than Metaxas told us, but we don’t know enough to say much for certain. Thus, it is hard to sustain confidence about the article’s premise.

It is tempting to scold Metaxas for taking us all on a ride by failing to incorporate a more complete and accurate picture of his topic. However, I want to conclude more positively.

I don’t take strong issue with one of the points Metaxas brings us. There are times when scientific research work dovetails nicely with what we believe about God. I point out this common ground frequently in my classes. For instance, I think the social psychological study of self-serving bias provides a nice point of contact with my theological views of human depravity.  Likewise, I think the work on ostracism and attachment match up nicely with theological conceptions of humans existing in the image of God. However, I don’t think we can push this too hard in areas where our knowledge is tentative.  As Kurtis McCathern pointed out yesterday, looking for God by studying the Cosmos could lead us to several different images, some of which might be hazardous to evangelical preconceptions.

In another context, I summarized my approach to faith and science:

I start with the premise that science is no threat to faith. If scientific work seems to conflict with tenets of my religion, I accept the tension until I understand things better. Extending that belief to history, I do not need the founders to be evangelicals in order to enjoy and defend American freedom for people of my faith, another faith, and no faith.

Loving God with all my mind doesn’t mean splitting it in two. If a study of science or history tells me something uncomfortable, I do not retool the science or history to make me comfortable. I walk by faith, live with the tension, and accept what is in front of my face.

Finally, I actually agree with one of Metaxas’ WSJ points: this universe and our place in it is a miracle. My personal belief is that it is a miracle brought about somehow by God. However, I don’t need science to tell me that. I know it when I listen to Led Zeppelin with a friend over tacos, hear my granddaughter say Papa, hold my grandson, watch my children grow and change, and experience the love and kindness of my wife. And after surviving open heart surgery a little over two years ago, I am more convinced than ever that every minute of life is a miracle.

Kurtis McCathern on Virtual Worlds, Watchmakers, and Other Speculations: Reactions to Eric Metaxas

One thing is sure, Eric Metaxas has people talking. His Christmas Day Wall Street Journal article titled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God” has been liked over 370,000 times on Facebook  and has been retweeted over 5700 times. Obviously, the topic is of great interest to many people. 
After I read the WSJ article, I reached out to a few people with questions about some of the claims. I will report on most of the answers tomorrow. However, today I want to post a reaction to Metaxas’ article from good friend and computer engineer Kurtis McCathern. Kurtis has a BA from Rice University in computer science and math and works at Blizzard Entertainment on the World of Warcraft franchise. This piece is not exactly a rebuttal but he jumps off of the WSJ article with reflections on our assumptions about God’s creativity. Yesterday, I linked to an article by Peter Enns which ended with the following observation:

Bottom line, as I see it: God’s “existence” (pardon the metaphorical language) and consequently knowing this God are not proven or disproven by the amazing advances in recent generations concerning our knowledge of the physical universe–even if those advances challenge how we think of God and speak of God.

God is not at stake. Our metaphors are.

Metaxas selectively addressed what science has to say about the origins of the universe, failing to address opposing arguments and data. Along with Enns and McCathern, I think it is too soon to know what science makes the case for.
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Virtual Worlds, Watchmakers, and Other Speculations
by Kurtis McCathern
I literally create worlds for a living. Not by myself, of course: a large team of designers, artists, and programmers work together to create the lands, flora, fauna, and characters that make up World of Warcraft. In fact, my part as a programmer is barely recognizable as creation as all. My code runs below the trees and rocks a player would see in the world, as dozens of computers fly messages back and forth to simulate the world of Azeroth. In ancient Greece, my fellow programmers and I would play the roles of Erebus and Nyx, bringing forth the Aether which would bind creation together.
It is from this perspective that I wonder why we as Christians are so fascinated with watchmaker arguments.
The canonical watchmaker analogy was made by William Paley in “Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity”, and goes more or less like this: you are walking along, you come across a watch. A watch is intricate in design, with several tiny pieces that must be made with exacting tolerances all to work together. When you come across this watch, you don’t think the watch has been there forever, or that it just spontaneously occurred. You assume the origin of the watch is a watchmaker.
Other teleological arguments predate this by thousands of years, and are not unique to Christianity, but they do seem to come up a lot in evolution vs. creation debates. They are popular because they are easy to understand and engage that most dangerous of human skills: intuition. Every time another complex, interrelated, seemingly irreducible system is described by science, the bookies of the debate stand ready to argue that the odds are irresistible. Science, do you really want to believe that you are here by a chance of one in a billion billion billons (or worse)? How big a gambler are you?
Pieces like Eric Metaxas’s recent effort in the Wall Street Journal seem to crop up whenever there’s a shiny new hard-to-explain-the-odds bit of science. They claim: science has now discovered the universe is not like a watch, it’s more complex, like a race car engine. Or a rocketship! Or the entire internet! If you came across the entire internet by chance you would assume an intelligent designer, right? (Don’t answer that.)
The odds are certainly very long, but on closer inspection you see the argument isn’t really about odds at all.
A strong argument against the watchmaker analogy already exists: it’s called the anthropic principle. It states that you can’t really worry about the odds that led to you existing, because you already do exist. You can only observe the outcome that led to you. Put it this way: if you are walking along a garden path, and you come across five dice with the number 4 facing up, you might assume that somebody set the dice like that, because it’s an extremely unlikely result. But another possibility is that the person who owns the path rolls those dice every day, and only opens it up for people to come in if all the dice come up 4’s. Thus every one who has ever seen the dice has seen them as 4’s. No other observation exists because no one was there to observe.
In other words, we as intelligent creatures can speculate on our origins only because we happen to be here. In other universes, there’s no “us” to do the speculating, or even to have the origins about which to speculate. But that doesn’t mean the universe was carefully scripted for us to arrive on stage.
The watchmaker argument hasn’t really changed; it’s just a matter of scale. Unfortunately, greater odds don’t necessarily mean there was a designer anymore than smaller odds would mean there couldn’t be.
But there’s a greater problem with watchmaker analogies for Christians: we know how to build watches, but we don’t know how to build worlds. In Greek antiquity, a speculation on origins only had to explain the ground, the air, the water, and the stars you could see. Aether seems pretty good in that light. Now we know more about experiential reality, so we have to add black holes and dark matter and Einstein’s favorite fudge factor: the cosmological constant. As a result, popular scientific opinion currently seems centered around string theory and the bubbly multiverse.
To clarify, look at another popular video game: Minecraft. Unlike World of Warcraft, where every rock or tree is placed carefully by a designer or artist, in Minecraft the entire world you inhabit is generated randomly from a single number, and millions or more unique possible worlds can result. Just constrain your equation a bit here and a bit there and suddenly you’re chopping wood in a blocky forest.
It’s a strange idea, even to science. In fact, scientists are arguing now if it’s even possible to determine the validity of string theory experimentally, since the multiverse idea means anything you don’t understand or doesn’t fit can pushed out into places you can never observe. Some, like Paul Steinhardt, are worried about losing the integrity of science as a result of trying. Given the discussion within the scientific community, it’s understandable that a non-scientist could be overwhelmed.
Yet I fear the watchmaker analogy feels compelling exactly because this strange random new world feels foreign. We know how to build watches, and we’re comfortable culturally with God the careful craftsman. Like those theologians of Galileo’s day who were unwilling to believe they weren’t the center of the universe, we don’t like the idea that God’s creative process might be less Da Vinci and more Jackson Pollock — messier and harder to understand than the knitting described in Psalm 139. Augustine reminded us that turning water into wine instantaneously at a wedding is really no more miraculous than doing it in barrels and casks over years, and likewise creation is no less miraculous if it requires a bubbly multiverse instead of scripted design. A bubbly multiverse would mean less focus on our individuality and more on God’s overall design: God as curator of creation, instead of craftsman.
Remember: a God who can create the universe by placing every tree and rock World of Warcraft style could also have written the code for the universe Minecraft style and created a billion billion billion other ones at the same time.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” Isaiah 55:8

Eric Metaxas Advances Argument that Science Provides Evidence for God on Fox and Friends Weekend

Eric Metaxas’ is getting lots of exposure as the result of his Christmas Day Wall Street Journal article on the existence of God and new book about miracles. Over the weekend, he appeared on Fox News to argue that science gives evidence for God’s existence. Watch:

Metaxas’ WSJ article has become quite popular with evangelicals. However, critical reactions have emerged including this enlightening piece from Tobin Grant. See also this response from theologian and fellow Patheos blogger Peter Enns. I plan to post at least two articles in reaction to the piece and the video above over the next couple of days. Watch for the first one this afternoon.

Eric Metaxas Says Driscoll Needs Grace, Never Heard of ResultSource, Buying Best Seller Spot is Wrong but Complicated (UPDATED)

UPDATE: Christianity Today informed me they stand by the quotes in the article.
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Last night Eric Metaxas briefly addressed his statements in yesterdays Christianity Today’s article on the ethics of buying a spot on the New York Times best-seller list.
To recap, you can read what Metaxas told CT here and below.
metaxasondriscoll
Late last night, Metaxas addressed concerns about his statements in the CT by appearing to backpeddled from them.


I responded to the tweet by posting his comments to CT and asking if he could clarify.


From there, we had a brief exchange and he addressed the issue again briefly in other tweets to his “great audience.”


So that’s it as far as I can tell from his twitter feed. I got a form email to my requests for clarification.
I am not clear on his position. The CT article was about using ResultSource to manipulate the best seller list. CT’s writer Ken Walker said Metaxas thought Mars Hill didn’t do anything wrong; that opinion is more charitable than simply showing Driscoll grace. What CT printed (Mars Hill did nothing wrong) and what Metaxas said last night (buying on the NYT list is wrong) doesn’t match. Metaxas didn’t address the discrepancy in his tweets but did say that the NYT list issue is complicated. I would like to know how faking book sales with church money is complicated.
I hope Metaxas will see the contradiction which remains between his CT comments and his tweets and clear it up.
 

Eric Metaxas to Christianity Today: Getting on Best-Seller Lists is Good Stewardship (UPDATED)

UPDATE (1/8/15) – Eric Metaxas commented last night on Twitter about the CT article. I have a post at this link where his Twitter comments are presented. He said buying a spot on the NYT’s list is wrong but then said it was complicated. I think he could go further but this may be it.
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(Original article begins here)
According to Christianity Today, author and evangelical leader Eric Metaxas said Mars Hill Church did nothing wrong by using ResultSource to get Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage on the New York Times best-seller list.
Metaxas told CT:

“Anyone thinking there is something pure about that list does not understand the system and how it works,” he said. “I would even argue that trying to get on that list is a combination of a realistic sense of the market and good stewardship. When you understand … the Times list is a bit of a game … you realize being on that list has less to do with the actual merit of a book than with other, far less important factors.”

Prior to that quote, Metaxas is cited as referring to the Mars Hill Church scheme and indicated that Metaxas found nothing wrong with what Mars Hill did. Since that particular segment of the article was not in quotes, I don’t know if Metaxas’ comments were meant to apply specifically to Mars Hill Church or if Metaxas knows that the church committed church funds to purchase copies of Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage at retail prices via fictitious buying accounts in selected zip codes to bypass the NYTs monitoring system. I contacted Metaxas via email and twitter earlier this morning and will add any response I get.
Most of the industry contacts cited in the CT article take a dim view of manipulating the system. The New York Times told me back in November that they try to prevent such gaming of the system. Justin Taylor at Crossway had strong words about the practice:

From our point of view at Crossway, the bestseller lists are designed to provide an accurate reflection of the market’s response to an author and his or her book. If an author, agent, or publisher intentionally tries to subvert or distort the intended purpose of the bestseller lists, we believe this would constitute an ethical violation, in terms of standard ethical norms, but even more so in terms of Christian ethics. This would be dishonoring to the Lord (to whom we are ultimately accountable), and it would also conflict with our calling to love our neighbors as ourselves (by not creating a distorted or deceptive picture of reality). Christian authors, agents, and publishers are called to a high standard of integrity as we seek to glorify God, not only in the content of what we publish, sell, and market, but also in the way in which we go about this calling.” — Justin Taylor, senior vice president and publisher for books, Crossway 

Current Mars Hill Church president Dave Bruskas told his congregation that the ResultSource scheme was wrong as did Mark Driscoll in hindsight.
Readers can review the ResultSource contract with Mars Hill Church here.
I will be surprised and disappointed if Metaxas maintains the position he took in the article.

An Apologetics Conference That Should Apologize

To my way of thinking, this (click link) is an incoherent lineup for an apologetics conference. I don’t know all of the speakers but  Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet seem out of place with David Barton, Todd Starnes, Tim Wildmon, and Ray Moore. Put on by Alex McFarland, the Truth for a New Generation conference to be held September 5-6 should issue a disclaimer that attendance will be hazardous to your intellectual health.
The Colson Center has a place in the program. One can find content from Stonestreet and the Center which correctly oppose Barton’s revisionist history. However, at this conference, Barton is labeled an “historical expert.” Words truly have no meaning in this alternative reality.

People who attend these meetings may get some good and accurate information in some of the sessions. However, on balance, those who attend will be less able to defend Christianity. This is one of the great tragedies of revisionist history. People come away thinking they have information to defend their faith but they are actually set up to fail. Those outside of this parallel universe know better and use the false information as a reason to dismiss the redemptive message of Christianity.