Virtual Idea Lab
Friday
Aug042017

Reflections on Awe & Wonder...

I have always felt that God’s extravagant love for us is reflected in the universe he created. This is a world wherein we can flourish, thrive, wonder, and express our own Imago Dei creativity; not one wherein we can barely survive, with every breath possibly our last.

It seems to me that wonder, awe, inspiration and praise are inextricably linked. The night sky has always inspired awe and wonder in me, even as a young child, when my father would take my brothers and me outside on clear, starry nights to look at the moon, stars, and planets through his telescope. Growing up in a Christian home, and coming to faith at an early age, I always believed in my heart that God was the source of all that wonder.

When I was teaching astronomy to university students, I would frequently take my classes outside on clear, starry nights to look at the thousands of stars visible to the naked eye from earth. Gazing at the heavens, people - both young and old - inevitably start asking the same questions that have been asked through the ages:

o Where did all this come from?
o How big is it?
o What’s it all made of?
o How long has it been here?
o Was there anything before all this?
o Where are we going?
o How will it all end?
And, at least as importantly, the more personal question of,
o Why am I here?

These questions are not just questions for scientists, but for all of us who inhabit the earth.
For instance:
• Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, saying,
“The sight of stars always sets me dreaming.”
• Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn says, “We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened.”
• And King David wrote in the book of Psalms, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge”
(Psalm 19:1).

Starry nights do that to people – they make us think, and feel, and wonder about the big questions in life.

Scientists and other keen observers are perpetually amazed by the intricacy and complexity of everything we study, yet it all fits together seamlessly in a perfectly balanced, synergistic system. For example, one of our big questions has to do with the vastness of the universe. On the clearest night, we can only see about 2000 stars with the naked eye. But recent surveys now estimate that there may be 10 trillion or more galaxies in the observable universe, and an average galaxy may have about 100 billion stars, so the total number of stars would come to about 10^24, or a septillion stars in the observable universe.

The vastness of the universe is impossible for most of us to even begin to comprehend. The observable universe is thought to extend about 45 billion light years in every direction, or 90 billion light years across. And the whole thing (observable plus unobservable) might be 250 or more times bigger than that! And if this place is so big, that leads to yet another big question: are there other intelligent beings out there somewhere? But I digress.

Peter Nicholls, a literary scholar and critic, defines “awe” as a cognitive “paradigm shift” wherein we reassign a “previous narrative” to a larger framework or context. Kathryn Johnson, a psychology faculty member at Arizona State writes, “Any amazing or information-rich encounter that challenges one’s ability to comprehend can elicit awe… awe is an emotion that arises when we try to comprehend or accommodate new information that challenges, disorients, or overwhelms our existing knowledge structures.” Psychologists Dacher Keltner (at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley) and Jonathan Haidt (at NYU) explain awe this way: “Awe involves being in the presence of something powerful, along with associated feelings of submission…a difficulty in comprehension, along with associated feelings of confusion, surprise, and wonder.”

From an evolutionary biology perspective, science writer and self-proclaimed bio-neer Adam Sinicki postulates, “You might… see how feelings of awe and wonder – which inspire a fair amount of fear and respect – could be useful for helping us to avoid potential dangers. We feel in 'awe' of lions and other animals that are powerful and alien to us, and this might be one of the feelings that helps us to avoid getting too close. We feel in awe of huge heights, and perhaps this is one of the things that prevents us from jumping.”

Bear in mind that our understanding of anything can be layered, with various explanations filling in pieces of the big picture. For example, the question, “Why am I here?” could be answered in various ways:
The scientific explanation might reference the union of ovum and sperm and physiological development of the fetus in a mother’s womb, while a relational explanation might reference a couple's desire for a child, and a spiritual explanation might refer to God’s purpose or calling for a specific individual. The “how” explanation of the process does not negate the “why” explanation of the higher purpose.

Furthermore, I would like to suggest that looking at the world with awe, wonder and curiosity led to the early Greeks’ practice of natural philosophy, which was simply the search for understanding through their study of the physical world. They believed that nature could be understood, and that the diverse behaviors observed in nature were held together in rational patterns. Over time, practice showed that inductive reasoning worked better than philosophical deduction in combination with empirical observations, and this then led to the establishment of what we know as modern natural science.

When scientists wonder about something, they make observations, formulate tentative explanations, make predictions, do experiments, and create models or theories to answer questions, all for the goal of obtaining a compelling explanation describing observed phenomena, which makes accurate predictions, and leads to a better understanding of the universe.

Proverbs 25:2 reads, “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the honor of kings to search it out.” It is in our human nature to want to try to figure things out - to understand everything we possibly can. Again, bearing in mind that our understanding of complex concepts is layered, with various explanations filling in different pieces of the big picture, is it possible that awe and wonder, in addition to their evolutionary roles, are purposed by God to engage us in this interplay, to lure us into searching out not only the wonders of His creation, but also to beckon us to search out God Himself as the source of all creation, including our very selves? Perhaps this idea is what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote in Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…”

Awe and wonder are a great starting place for inspiring us all to seek, learn and discover all we can about God and the universe we inhabit. As Albert Einstein wrote, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”

Science is simply the tool we use for discovering God’s creativity and wisdom in the wonders of nature.

Wednesday
Jul162014

Book Review of "Alone Together" by Sherry Turkle

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle is written in an engaging yet scholarly style easily accessible to a broad audience.

Turkle’s focus is the constant yet shallow technological connectivity of today’s youth culture (particularly high school and college students), and its significant impact on interpersonal relationships as well as the whole of our society.

In the book’s introduction Turkle makes the profound statement, “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities.[1]” This strikes at the very heart of the matter: we humans crave intimacy but fear the risk and vulnerability that come along with it.

The author touches a nerve with both the young and the not-so-young in this work that is both incisive and insightful. Turkle herself admits to loving technology (in a 2012 TED talk she refers to getting an encouraging text from her daughter as being “like getting a hug”), but insists that too much can be problematic. Texts are convenient, and can be useful and even uplifting, but they do not work very well for truly getting to know someone.

In the internet’s early days, Turkle recounts that users would occasionally unplug, step back, and learn from the virtual world how they could be better human beings in the real world. With the more recent proliferation of mobile devices, she says that we are now allowing these technologies to take us to places we never wanted to go. 

Real life human relationships are rich, as well as messy. In our high-tech age of constant connection through the web, we assume the make-believe persona of avatars interacting in a virtual world. On-line we can edit and re-touch the thoughts and images of the versions of ourselves that we present to others. We hide behind our profiles, showing each other only the attributes we want others to see, rather than the real, whole person that each of us is. This absence of vulnerability results in a world lacking in true intimacy: a world in which one neither knows nor is known by anyone else.

We are fearful of being alone, but also fearful of the risks associated with intimacy. Turkle implicates the sense of control offered by technology in masquerading as the antidote to our fears and vulnerabilities. Even as we complain about the distractions of multi-tasking and never having anyone’s full attention, our mobile devices offer us a façade of control. They allow us to control exactly where we put our attention; to make sure we always have an audience (via our texts, posts, shares, etc.); and to always be connected, however superficially. Additionally, technology offers us distraction from a sometimes painful present reality, allowing us to postpone or even completely avoid contemplation or self-reflection. Turkle revises Rene Descartes’ famous line, “I think, therefore I am,” into the more contemporarily descriptive, “I share, therefore I am.”

The author points out that this controlled virtual connectedness gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of real world friendship. A step beyond on-line communities and social media, robot pets and companions appear to fill the need for someone who listens and shows compassion, but it is merely the clever pretense of programmed artificial intelligence.

Ironically, our technological ability to satisfy the need to be heard has turned us into very poor listeners and friends to anyone or anything other than what we selfishly find attractive and interesting. Turkle observes that it is in listening to the boring and imperfect parts of real human conversations that we really get to know each other.

Turkle worries that this pervasive craving for constant connection exacerbates our inability to be alone, asserting that if we are not able to be alone we are only going to end up more lonely.

Prescriptively, the author asserts that we need to create the time and space for greater awareness, reflection and conversation about how technology is changing us individually and as a society. Furthermore, we must insist that technology lead us back to the real world and our real lives.

As Christians, we have an even higher calling to make sure that our use of technology demonstrates love for our fellow humans, rather than exploiting our fellow humans through our love of technology.

This book is a very well written, thought provoking and enjoyable read. 

- Leslie Wickman, Ph.D., Center for Research in Science, Azusa Pacific University.


[1] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), p. 1.

Monday
Mar312014

CNN op-ed on Discovery of Gravity Waves

Opinion by Leslie A. Wickmanspecial to CNN

(CNN) The remarkable discovery, announced this week, of ripples in the space-time fabric of the universe rocked the world of science  and the world of religion.

Touted as evidence for inflation (a faster-than-the-speed-of-light expansion of our universe), the new discovery of traces of gravity waves affirms scientific concepts in the fields of cosmology, general relativity, and particle physics.

The new discovery also has significant implications for the Judeo-Christian worldview, offering strong support for biblical beliefs.

Here's how.

The prevalent theory of cosmic origins prior to the Big Bang theory was the “Steady State,” which argued that the universe has always existed, without a beginning that necessitated a cause.

However, this new evidence strongly suggests that there was a beginning to our universe.

If the universe did indeed have a beginning, by the simple logic of cause and effect, there had to be an agent – separate and apart from the effect – that caused it.

That sounds a lot like Genesis 1:1 to me: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth.”

So this latest discovery is good news for us believers, as it adds scientific support to the idea that the universe was caused – or created – by something or someone outside it and not dependent on it.

Atheist-turned-agnostic astronomer Fred Hoyle, who coined the term “Big Bang,” famously stated, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics."

As Hoyle saw it, the Big Bang was not a chaotic explosion, but rather a very highly ordered event – one that could not have occurred by random chance.

We also need to remember that God reveals himself both through scripture and creation. The challenge is in seeing how they fit together. A better understanding of each can inform our understanding of the other.

It’s not just about cracking open the Bible and reading whatever we find there from a 21st-century American perspective. We have to study the context, the culture, the genre, the authorship and the original audience to understand the intent.

The creation message in Genesis tells us that God created a special place for humans to live and thrive and be in communion with him; that God wants a relationship with us, and makes provisions for us to have fellowship with him, even after we turn away from him.

So, we know that Genesis was never intended to be a detailed scientific handbook, describing how God created the universe. It imparts a theological, not a scientific, message.

(Imagine how confusing messages about gravity waves and dark matter might be to ancient Hebrew readers.)

As a modern believer and a scientist, when I look up at the sky on a clear starry night, I am reminded that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). I am in awe of the complexity of the physical world, and how all of its pieces fit together so perfectly and synergistically.

In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, the writer tells us that God “established (his) covenant with day and night, and with the fixed laws of heaven and earth.”

These physical laws established by God to govern interactions between matter and energy result in a finely tuned universe that provides the ideal conditions for life on our planet.

As we observe the complexity of the cosmos, from subatomic particles to dark matter and dark energy, we quickly conclude that there must be a more satisfying explanation than random chance. Properly practiced, science can be an act of worship in looking at God’s revelation of himself in nature.

If God is truly the creator, then he will reveal himself through what he’s created, and science is a tool we can use to uncover those wonders.

(Posted on CNN Belief Blog at http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/03/20/does-the-big-bang-breakthrough-offer-proof-of-god/)

Saturday
Jan142012

High Sierra Stargazing

I took my Astronomy students stargazing the other night in the clear, dark skies of the High Sierra... We spotted the Pleiades, Pegasus, Taurus (Aldebaran), Orion (Betelgeuse & Rigel), Canis Major (Sirius), Canis Minor (Procyon), Cassiopeia, the Big and Little Dippers, the Milky Way, Jupiter, and much more. The following morning we had chapel in the fresh air in the midst of spectacular mountain scenery... Does it get any better this side of eternity?!?

Saturday
Apr302011

The Grand Design

Stephen Hawking, co-author of The Grand Design with Leonard Mlodinow, is a contender for the dual monikers “smartest man in the world”, and “greatest scientist since Einstein.” His new book asserts that our universe – as well as others – could have come into existence spontaneously from nothing, without any help from God. Many other scientists who have come before him have also tried to remove God from the origins equation.

The authors start out this book by saying that while the big existential questions used to be left to philosophers, philosophy is now dead, because it hasn’t kept up with modern science, which is a very bold and controversial statement to say the least. Some might say that the authors haven’t kept up with philosophy!

The authors insist that any ideas that are incompatible with modern physics must be wrong, yet they ignore the historical track record of science’s iterative process, rife with errors and misconceptions, followed by corrections and paradigm shifts.

The Scientific Method never proves anything: we’re just looking for the best explanation given the evidence that we have so far, all the while realizing that new evidence could show up tomorrow that would turn what we think we know on its head.

He also neatly brushes aside the uncertainty introduced by the very quantum physics he needs for M-theory. Hawking paints a picture of a purely materialistic cosmos, where cause and effect determinism rules, and there is no room for free will. So, the big deal of this new book is that Hawking proclaims that “the laws of physics allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing”. Well, we already see that God works through the processes and physical laws that he’s established, and that only adds to our wonder and awe of Him. But, the thinking person’s first response should be, “Why are there laws of physics, and where did they come from? And why these particularly special laws that supposedly allow universes to appear from nothing?”

The only “explanation” Hawking gives is that these are the specific laws that must exist in order to get our universe, which is merely a tautology, or truism, not an actual explanation of the reason that these laws came to be. So, Hawking does nothing to address the cosmological questions of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “Why is there order rather than chaos?” for these laws of physics. He simply states that there must be a law like gravity in order to have a universe with mass in it… He does not address the question of why there are any laws at all!

Neither does he address any of the other classical arguments for belief in God, such as:

  • the ontological argument of where man’s God-consciousness comes from;
  • nor the anthropological question, of where man’s moral conscience and religious experiences originate;
  • nor the teleological argument from design and purpose;
  • etc…

Also, let’s not forget the Principle of Logic that says you can’t prove a negative: thus, it’s impossible to prove the non-existence of God.

All Hawking is really doing is simply promoting a materialistic worldview that attempts to make it easier for a physicist to discount God… There’s nothing substantially new here: it’s just re-packaged “Naturalism.” And to be fair, he does admit at the end of the book that his theory is yet to be confirmed by observation.

As Carlin Romano from The Chronicle Review concludes:

“Many (scientific cosmologists) would rather be bound, gagged, and abandoned in a rundown multiverse than take nonscientific cosmology seriously, or admit that some matters, if not matter itself, fall outside their expertise.”