Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why would God violate His own laws of physics?

I was listening to a lecture by Francis Collins recently. The specifics of his beliefs on God's direct creative intervention in history, whether it be in respect to the anthropic principle or the origin/evolution of life, were not that clear. (Perhaps this is a good thing; why be too dogmatic about an unimportant issue. Indeed, the answers to these questions may be something we never know until we ask Him ourselves.)

A few of the things he said, however, reminded me of something Ken Miller once said when I had the great opportunity to have a lunchtime discussion with him. He asked, "Why would God need to violate His own laws of physics to make things happen?" Meaning, if God is the author of the laws of physics, and the creator of the universe, certainly He had the ability to fine-tune the initial conditions of the universe (presumably at the moment of creation) in order to get everything to turn out as He wanted. Ken used this as an argument that evolution and theism are not in conflict; indeed, evolution makes even more sense than special creation in his opinion.

I have several comments about that. I'll talk about the first one here.

I can certainly imagine a hypothetical scenario in which God would need to violate the laws of physics and intervene in a very special way to make things happen. Imagine God wishes to fire a cannon and have the cannonball fly through a ring suspended in the air. (No, the ring being suspended is not the violation of the laws of physics; it could be hanging by a string or sitting on a post.) Simple. All He has to do is aim the cannon correctly, pack the right amount of gunpowder, and He can achieve His objective. (This is, of course, assuming the ring is not so high or so far away as to violate the physical constraints of the cannon. Assume, for this example, that it is an "infinitely powerful" cannon that can be aimed in any direction.)

Now imagine He also wishes to have the cannonball fly through another ring. No problem; it just constrains the parameters further. (In the case of only one ring, there are multiple ways to achieve this goal.)

Now, finally, there is a third ring He wants the cannonball to go through. Now we have a problem. What if the third ring doesn't lie along the parabolic path defined by the first two rings? (Actually, you can also think of a case in which He cannot even shoot the cannon through two rings. However, the illustration with three rings is easier to envision, and also helps lead the reader to the result, which is always the better teaching strategy.) For example, if the second ring is lower than the first ring, but the third ring is higher than the second, we are stuck. With God, however, nothing is impossible. He can simply "perform a miracle," i.e., break the laws of physics, to achieve His objectives.

OK, the illustration was silly and simplistic, but it shows that it is plausible, if not necessary, for God to have intervened in history to ensure the unfolding of events up until this point. This includes the formation of the galaxy, solar system, earth, moon, continents, etc., as well as the origin and history of life on this planet. It isn't entirely clear to me that any of this could have happened solely according to the laws of physics operating on the initial conditions of the universe at the singular cosmic creation event. Note that I have not proved that God intervened specially, I have only answered Ken Miller's question of "why." In other words, his asking that question and leaving it at that, as if that philosophically proves the case for the "fully-gifted creation" viewpoint, is not sufficient.