Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Indifference of Creation

What notice does a mountain take of plants and animals when the earth folds and it rises toward the sky? Does the cloud notice its reflection in the lake below? Does the fruit tree think to nourish us in its reproductive cycle? When grasses spring up, have they any care for providing us a soft and refreshing surface on which to walk?

I continue pondering creation, noting its glory and—from our perspective—indifference.
Since I believe in the consciousness of all matter, in varying forms appropriate to the level of complexity and organization involved, I would be inconsistent to deny that a rock has awareness. Geologic time is on a very different scale from human time, so a rock may—speaking by analogy and metaphor—take notice of changes on the grand scale of millions of years, while I notice changes in earth’s seasons, days, and the human construct of seconds. To me, much happens in a day; to a boulder, precious little.

And yet, the exquisite tuning

Last year I read a book by the Royal Astronomer, Sir Martin Rees: Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 1999). Rees discusses the sensitivity of the universe to six numbers. Were they slightly different, there would be no stars and no life. They are:

  • N = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. “This number measures the strength of the electrical forces that hold atoms together, divided by the force of gravity between them. If N had a few less zeros, only a short-lived miniature universe could exist: no creatures could grow larger than insect, and there would be no time for biological evolution.”
  • ε = 0.007. This number “defines how firmly electronic nuclei bind together and how all the atoms on Earth were made. Its value controls the power from the Sun and, more sensitively, how stars transmute hydrogen into all the atoms of the periodic table. Carbon and oxygen are common, whereas gold and uranium are rare, because of what happens in the stars. If ε were o.006 or 0.008, we could not exist.”
  • “The cosmic number Ω (omega) measures the amount of material in our universe—galaxies, diffuse gas, and ‘dark matter’. Ω tells us the relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the universe. If this ratio were too high relative to a particular ‘critical’ value, the universe would have collapsed long ago; had it been too low, no galaxies or stars would have formed. The initial expansion speed seems to have been finely tuned.”
  • λ “An unsuspected new force—a cosmic ‘antigravity’—controls the expansion of the universe, even though it has no discernible effect on scales less than a billion light-years. It is destined to become ever more dominant over gravity and other forces as our universe becomes ever darker and emptier. fortunately for us (and very surprisingly for theorists), λ is very small. Otherwise its effect would have stopped galaxies from forming….”
  • “The fabric of our universe depends on one number, Q, which represents the ratio of two fundamental energies and is about 1/100,000 in value. If Q were even smaller, the universe would be inert and structureless; if Q were much larger, it would be a violent place, in which no stars or solar systems could survive, dominated by vast black holes.”
  • D = the number of spatial dimensions in our world (three). “Life couldn’t exist if D were two or four. Time is a fourth dimension, but distinctively different from the others….”

  • —From pages 2 and 3

The physical laws of creation may be supremely indifferent to human existence but they are finely tuned to allow not only for the glorious universe we participate in but also for the emergence of conscious, and even self-conscious, life. Some would argue that this demonstrates (“prove” is too strong a term) conscious design, a charming euphemism for “God or the equivalent thereof.” It may equally suggest that from a limitless number of big bangs, one, at least, turned out this way and we behold the results.

When Rees considers the meaning of the fine tuning of the universe, he is convinced by neither simple acceptance as the way things are (we cannot help but wonder why) nor by concluding that there must be a beneficent Creator. He is more attracted to the idea that there are multiple universes and this is how ours turned out. Others may have developed differently.
At this point, of course, we have entered the realm of faith, decisions about what cannot at this point be proved or disproved. In this essay, however, my focus is not on the question of faith in this sense. Rather it is considering the way things are.

The existence of this specific universe, the one we know and are part of, involves these numbers acting on cosmic scales in ways that boggle the mind (my mind, certainly). These numbers are part of the structure of reality.

If there is a Creator—as I believe there is, though it be unprovable—then the Creator, who establishes the laws of physics and the ratios which structure creation, is not likely to play with these laws and ratios, making exceptions to them or changing the numbers in specific instances for one purpose or another. Not likely unless one believes in a capricious deity, which I do not.
Without some structure all would be chaos. Without some randomness there would be no change, no growth and development, no evolution, no life. With change—specifically genetic mutation—life can evolve, and cancer can also happen. Not all changes are happy ones, not all experiments are successful. There are dead ends and disasters as well as breakthroughs. A world where cancer cannot happen is also a world where life cannot happen. A world without tsunamis is a world where the earth cannot deal with its internal pressures (or a world without water).

When the indifferent forces of creation cause loss to us, we suffer. To us it is disaster, loss, sorrow. We cannot deny this, nor would I. To me, one of the great failures of our society is the inability to express sorrow and grief and the social opprobrium given to those who do express them.

Suffering, disaster, loss, sorrow—all of these, but let us not be hasty to call the natural event evil. It simply is, in a realm where our moral judgments do not apply. They are the nature of creation, a creation that allows all the wonder of diversity and the flourishing of so many kinds of life, of beauty, and even the wonder of consciousness. Natural events are not punishments, nor is escaping them a sign of divine favor. It just is.

Next: considering Auschwitz.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Tsunamis and morality

Thiswas written on the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, January 25.

The Apostle Paul is clearly one of the Bible’s cantankerous characters, not always likable. His writings abound with jewels of grace-filled breakthroughs and with what, from today’s perspective, might be likened to an occasional turd in the punchbowl. What are we to do with him?

Dave Wallace, my professor of Biblical theology some decades ago, offered a helpful explanation regarding Paul. He suggested that Paul’s basic nature did not change on the Damascus Road. What changed was his perspective. He now saw what theologians sometimes call the Jesus event as having a very different meaning than the one he gave it before his conversion. The basic facts were not different. Jesus lived, taught, and died. Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus. But now Paul saw the life of Jesus as a saving event, not the acts of a misguided false messiah, and his own persecuting actions as an act against the Body of Christ, not the due punishment of heretics. Paul was still the irascible Saul of Tarsus, not a whit less thorny and brilliant than he had been before, but a new perspective led him to turn his gifts and flaws in a new direction.

Perspective plays such a pivotal role in our lives. How many times do we look back on our past and see what we did not see before? What changes we experience when we understand in a new way!

My own perspective on many things has changed over the years, and since I know I do not possess the fullness of truth and understanding, I trust it will keep on changing as experience and information lead me to broader and deeper understanding.

In this, and probably the next, issue I wish to look at the universe and, specifically, the earth. What sort of world do we live in? How do I understand it at this point in my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual journey?

This is a timely and urgent issue. Following the tsunami that has devastated so much of coastal Asia, people are raising the usual question: Why did this happen?

Onto this basic question we tend to overlay other questions: Why did God let this happen? If God is good, how can this happen? Is this some kind of punishment?

These questions are not raised only within the Christian tradition. Muslims and Hindus have weighed in on these issues with varying opinions, often declaring a righteous divine judgment on this or that human misbehaving.

It is interesting step back for some historical perspective. For this I am indebted to an online article by Jesse Sunenblick titled “Amoral Earth: Tsunamis in the best of all possible worlds,” found at the following url:
Sunenblick’s article begins thus:

On Christmas night I opened gifts beside a friend who received Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa, the story of the 1883 earthquake that killed 40,000 people in what is now Indonesia. The next day a tsunami that would prove to be even more devastating struck the same region of the world. It's instinctive, as The New York Times wrote in an editorial a day later, as the death toll began its steady climb, for humans to search for the meaning of an event like this, but what kind of reasonable answer can be found? The Times, for its part, began its coverage with this editorial, a straightforward account of the disaster which in its fifth and final paragraph took a sudden turn:"…except for our obligations to help the victims in any way we can, the underlying story of this tragedy is the overpowering, amoral mechanics of the earth's surface, the movement of plates that grind and shift and slide against each other with profound indifference to anything but the pressures that drive them."

The same article looks further back to the earthquake that shook Voltaire out of his Enlightenment optimism, we hear of the Lisbon earthquake.

Also in The Guardian, theologian Martin Kettle rather bluntly contextualized the challenge that the tsunami poses to religion. "There is, after all, only one big question to ask about an event of such destructive power as the one that has taken place this week: why did it happen?" To answer this, Kettle applies a historical antecedent that might serve us well to consider: the 1755 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Lisbon, Portugal, that killed 90,000 people, led to the expulsion of the Jesuits (some of whom combed the city in the days following the disaster, hanging those whom they thought had incurred God’s wrath) and the secularization of the entire country, shook Voltaire’s optimism to the point that he took up his pen and wrote Candide, and, depending to who you talk to, either cemented the fate of reason over religious faith, or provided the ultimate test for religious faith. That event "shook the modern world…" notes the Lutheran minister and professor Martin Marty, in a recent article in The Washington Post, changing people’s perception of a benevolent god.Voltaire, for his part, trudged about in a depressive fugue, no longer certain that everything, as the earliest principles of optimism or theodicy declared, was for the best. The Age of Reason was drawing to a close. At one point towards the end of Candide, our beleaguered traveler says, "Optimism is a mania for maintaining that things are going well when things are going badly." That idea translates well today on the battlefield of Iraq, perhaps with overtones of Machiavellianism. With respect to natural disasters like the recent tsunami, however, we are not even falsely optimistic; we are unfeeling. As the "overpowering mechanics" of the earth are amoral, without right or wrong, we employ the word "natural" to dispense with guilt as well. All is not for the best, but neither is it for the worse. There is simply no blame to be placed, and this protects us.

I was introduced to the story of the Lisbon earthquake (the word tsunami had not arrived in the West yet) as a French major at Pomona College, reading Voltaire’s Candide. Many now know the story as a musical by Leonard Bernstein, with elements of outrageous farce and wonderful music easing us through the terrors described in the tale.

So, returning to the earthquake and tsunami of last month: How did this happen?

The factual answer may not respond to our natural anguish, but I wish we could adhere to it. The tectonic plates of the earth did what they do: they shifted. The very structure of the earth’s surface with our varied continents is a result of such shifts, and the shifting will continue for the shell of the earth floats on molten rock. It is the nature of the planet we inhabit. When that happens, it can create what we used to call a tidal wave, though they are not really tidal at all. They are vast inrushing waves resulting from the shift of the earth. Coastal areas experience their overpowering force. That is how it happened and why that sort of thing happens.

To expect that such events would not happen or that humans who live near shorelines would never experience the effects of such events is to wish the world were other than it is.
To expect that God sometimes sets aside the laws of physics and sometimes does not is to wish that God did not play by the rules, a questionable desire. It also assumes that the same freedom we pride ourselves on—how fiercely we defend free will in humans—is to be denied the rest of creation. If God allows us to acts as the creatures we are, would God not also allow the rest of creation to act as the creatures they are, the planet itself included? We think it undesirable that God should override human free will, though we often wish for exception in our favor. Should we consider it desirable that God override the nature of Nature? Would that not make for a very arbitrary world? Our tradition teaches us that God sends both rain and sunshine to the just and the unjust, without partiality. Yet we rail against this arrangement whenever floods or droughts come. Our railing and questioning will not change the way things are.

This does not deny the element of suffering and anguish involved. The loss of life, of homes, of loved ones, and the consequential effects of disease and hunger and exposure—all these are immense and overwhelming. We mourn in every stage, including denial, anger, and bargaining. Hence our collective questioning of our understandings of God. The important moral question, however, is how shall we respond?