Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Paul Davies' God

"[A] deistic god, a sort of god of the physicist, a god of somebody like Paul Davies, who devised the laws of physics, god the mathematician, god who put together the cosmos in the first place and then sat back and watched everything happen…one could make a reasonably respectable case for that." - Richard Dawkins (@3:25)

What Happened Before the Big Bang?

By Paul Davies

It is often said that science cannot prove the existence of God. Yet science does have value in theological debate because it gives us new concepts that sometimes make popular notions of God untenable. One of these concerns the nature of time.

Many people envisage God as a sort of cosmic magician who existed for all eternity and then, at some moment in the past, created the universe in a gigantic supernatural act. Unfortunately, this scenario raises some awkward questions. What was God doing before he created the universe? If God is a perfect, unchanging being, what prompted him to act then rather than sooner?

The fifth-century theologian St. Augustine neatly solved the problem by proclaiming that the world was made with time and not in time. In other words, time itself is part of God's creation.

To make sense of Augustine's concept, it is necessary to place God outside of time altogether, and the notion of a timeless Deity became official church doctrine. However, it is not without its own difficulties. How can a timeless God be involved with temporal events in the universe, such as entering into human history through the Incarnation?

Today, religious people like to identify the creation with the Big Bang of scientific cosmology. So what can we say about the nature of time in the scientific picture?

Albert Einstein showed us that time and space are part of the physical world, just as much as matter and energy. Indeed, time can be manipulated in the laboratory. Dramatic time warps occur, for example, when subatomic particles are accelerated to near the speed of light. Black holes stretch time by an infinite amount. It is therefore wrong to think of time as simply "there," as a universal, eternal backdrop to existence. So a complete theory of the universe needs to explain not only how matter and energy came to exist, it must also explain the origin of time.

Happily, Einstein's theory of relativity is up to the job. It predicts a so-called "singularity" at which time abruptly starts. In the standard Big Bang scenario, time and space come into being spontaneously at such a singularity, along with matter.

People often ask, What happened before the Big Bang? The answer is, Nothing.

By this, I do not mean that there was a state of nothingness, pregnant with creative power. There was nothing before the Big Bang because there was no such epoch as "before." As Stephen Hawking has remarked, asking what happened before the Big Bang is rather like asking what lies north of the North Pole. The answer, once again, is nothing, not because there exists a mysterious Land of Nothing there but because there is no such place as north of the North Pole. Similarly, there is no such time as "before the Big Bang."

Of course, one can still ask why a universe popped into existence this way. Cosmologists believe the answer lies with the weird properties of quantum mechanics, a topic beyond the scope of this essay.

We can now see that Augustine was right, and popular religion wrong, to envisage God as a superbeing dwelling within the stream of time prior to the creation. Professional theologians acknowledge this. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) does not mean God pushing a metaphysical button and making a Big Bang, then sitting back to watch the action. It means God sustaining the existence of the universe, and its laws, at all times, from a location outside of space and time.

Can science give any credibility to such a notion? Mostly, scientists either are atheists or keep God in a separate mental compartment. However, there is a strong parallel in the scientific concept of the laws of nature. Like the theologians' God, these laws enjoy an abstract, timeless existence and are capable of bringing the universe into being from nothing. But where do they come from? And why do these laws exist rather than some different set?

Science is based on the assumption that the universe is thoroughly rational and logical at all levels. Miracles are not allowed. This implies that there should be reasons for the particular laws of nature that regulate the physical universe. Atheists claim that the laws exist reasonlessly and that the universe is ultimately absurd. As a scientist, I find this hard to accept. There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted. Is this rational ground like the timeless God of Augustine? Perhaps it is. But in any case, the law-like basis of the universe seems a more fruitful place for a dialogue between science and theology than focusing on the origin of the universe and the discredited notion of what happened before the Big Bang.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Mandan

"The Mandans said that there were four stories under the earth and four stories above; before the flood they lived in a village under the earth near a lake, and a grape-vine grew down through, letting the light into the underworld. They wanted to come up and sent the mouse, badger, a strange, mythical animal and a deer to dig out a hole. Then they climbed out by the grapevine till half were on earth and a very corpulent woman broke the vine. A flood came when they were first coming out and the first tribe (Tattooed Faces) perished almost wholly. All this happened near a lake to the east. If they are good the Mandans go back to this old village under ground when they die. They now found themselves on the surface of the earth. The people were led by a chief and they kept walking till they reached the Missouri at the mouth of the White River. They ascended it to the Moreau, here they found enemies in the Cheyenne, and they went to war and killed and scalped for the first time. The great chief who led them out of the earth1 together with his sister and brother taught them to make shields, and then he divided them into bands and led them against the Cheyenne. After a long struggle he performed a miracle by which the enemy were nearly all slain."
-The Mandans: a study of their culture, archaeology and language, Volume 3 By George Francis Will, Herbert Joseph Spinden, page 140


"The Mandans (people of the pheasants) were the first people created in the world
2, and they originally lived inside of the earth; they raised many vines, and one of them had grown up through a hole in the earth overhead, and one of their young men climbed up it until he came out on top of the ground, on the bank of the river, where the Mandan village stands. He looked around, and admired the beautiful country and prairies about him—saw many buffaloes—killed one with his bow and arrows, and found that its meat was good to eat. He returned and related what he had seen, when a number of others went up the vine with him. and witnesseth the same things. Amongst those who went up, were two very pretty young women, who were favorites with the chiefs, because they were virgins, and amongst those who were trying to get up, was a very large and fat woman, who was ordered by the chiefs not to go up, but whose curiosity led her to try it as soon as she got a secret opportunity, when there was no one present. When she got part of the way up, the vine broke under the great weight of her body and let her down. She was very much hurt by the fall, but did not die. The Mandans were very sorry about this, and she was disgraced for being the cause of a very great calamity, which she had brought upon them, and which could never be averted, for no more could ever ascend, nor could those descend who had got up;. but they build the Mandan village, where it formerly stood, a great ways below on the river; and the remainder of the people live under ground to this day.'" -
-< -->South Dakota historical collections, Volume 4 By South Dakota State Historical Society, South Dakota. Dept. of History, page 521


"The Numangkake [aka Mandan] now resolved to go up. The great chief with his medicine and his schischikue in his hand, went first. They climbed up, one after another by the aid of a branch of a vine; and when exactly half their number had ascended, and a corpulent woman was half way up the vine, it broke, and the remainder of the nation fell to the ground. This happened in the neighborhood of the sea shore. Those who had reached the surface went on till they came to the Missouri, which they reached at White Earth river. They then proceeded up the Missouri to Moreau's river. At that time they knew nothing of enemies. Once, when a Mandan woman was scraping a hide, a Cheyenne Indian came and killed her. The Mandans followed the traces of this new enemy till they came to a certain river, where they all turned back with the exception of two, the husband and the brother of the woman who was killed. These two men went on till they discovered the enemy, killed one of them and took his scalp with them. Before they got back to their village they found some white clay which they had never seen before, and took a portion of it with them. When they came to their great chief, the first man who had climbed up the vine, and whose skull and schischikue they still preserve, as a relic, in the medicine bag of the nation, they gave him the white clay, with which he marked some lines on his schischikue. The name of this chief was, at first, Mihti-Pihka (the smoke of the village), but when he ascended to the surface of the earth he called himself the Mihti-Shi (the robe with the beautiful hair). When he had received the clay and the scalp, he commanded all his people to shoot buffalos, but only bulls, and to make shields of the thickest part of the hide, which they did. When this was done, they asked the chief what were his next commandments. To which he replied, 'Paint a drooping sunflower on this shield' (as a sort of medicine or amulet), on which the sister of the chief said, 'You are fools; paint a bean on it; for what is smoother than a bean to ward off the arrows.'

"The chief now introduced the establishment of the bands or unions, and founded first that of 'the foolish dogs.' He made four caps of crows' feathers, and commissioned the Mandans to make a number of similar ones. He then gave them the war pipe and song, and exhorted them to be always valiant and cheerful, and never to retreat before the point of the arrow. He also gave them the strips of red cloth which hang down behind, and added that, if they would follow his directions, they would always be esteemed as brave and worthy men. The chief then made two of the bent sticks covered with otter skins, and gave them the kanakara-kachka. and then two others adorned with raven's feathers^ which he also presented to them. The first represent the sunflower, and the latter the maize. 'These badges,' said he, 'you are to carry before you when you go against the enemy; plant them in the ground, and fight to the last man, that is to say, never abandon them.' He next founded the band of 'the little foolish dogs,' and assembled many young men. whom he ordered to paint their faces of a black color, and gave them a song of their own, with the war whoop at the end. and said he would call them the 'black-birds.' He afterwards went to war with his people against the Cheyennes. They reached the enemy and laid all their robes in a heap together. The chief wore a cap of lynx skin, and had his medicine pipe on his arm. He did not join in the action, but sat apart on the ground during the whole time that it lasted. They fought almost the whole day, drove the enemy into their village, and were then repulsed, which happened three or four times, and one of the Numangkake was killed. When the chief was informed of this, he ordered them to go to the river and bring a young poplar with large leaves, which he planted in the ground near to the enemy, and challenged the Cheyennes to attack him; but they answered, they would wait for his attack. As he would not commence the combat, the enemy shot at him, but their arrows only grazed his arm and robe. He then held up the poplar, which suddenly shot up to a colossal size, was thrown, by a violent storm which arose, among the enemies, crushed many of them, and obliged the Cheyennes to retreat across the Missouri."

-South Dakota historical collections, Volume 4 By South Dakota State Historical Society, South Dakota. Dept. of History, page 569

1. Emphasized to demonstrate that the climbing up to the surface was not something that happened "a long, long time ago" but in the understood real history and recent past of the people as the same chief who lead them out of the ground, also lead them on the surface and lead them against their enemies.

2. Created chronologically first, but not as ancestors to all mankind. Other people came to be via separate, special creations. Quote: "The cattle were sent back to the east, where Lone Man also created white people. Lone Man created more humans, who grew and flourished. The first people he created were the Mandan." - link.

This is the Mandan nation's story of how they came from their subterranean world beneath the Earth via a vine (ala Jack and the Beanstalk) where they had lived for a very long period of time. It is their origin on the surface and the start of their history along the Missouri River. They have had this national tradition told orally for their entire known history. Further, along with their momentous origins, they get into quick conflict with the Cheyennes - who they manage to defeat by way of a miraculous poplar - another national tradition.

As Rabbi Gottlieb says, "Any national miracle that would create a national tradition is unforgettable. So, if a nation believes in such a miracle, we have sufficient reason to accept that belief as true." -link

Or do we?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

From the Mail Bin

"I've been reading your blogs and i find them quite intriguing. I agree with u regarding the many myth and fable like stories in the Bible. The part that i find more difficult is that if the Torah was not given as a Divine Revelation then how did we get such a complex and vast Talmudic system. I mean the laws in the Talmud seem so far fetched and abstract that its difficult to believe that God didnt have some part of it. I dont thing there is any other man made system of laws that is as vast and complex as the Talmud. what r your thoughts?"

Whether God had a part in it or not is not the question, since most would agree that the Talmud was composed l'shem shamayim and with God in mind. The question is whether Talmudic law requires supernatural intervention to explain itself. I don't believe it does. I don't know if you've studied the Talmud but it's essentially an effort to justify and further clarify the rules of the Mishna from the text of the Torah with proof texts, allusions and the like.

Many times these proof texts work very well and are indeed impressive and clever, but that should be expected since the Mishna itself was composed with the Torah in mind. Other times though the efforts of the Amoraim (the Talmudic scholars) seem pretty strained and they have to go through several iterations of hair-splitting or "this-case-is-an-exception-because..." in order to come to some conclusion when an apparent contradiction arises. And there are also plenty of times when the Talmudic discussion ends in "Taiku" - where they can figure out no resolution.

Add in the fact that the Talmud itself occasionally cites natural "facts" that are now known to be false to make arguments or simply as side discussion, complements the conclusion that it is a great but still an eminently human work.

If you're looking for another vast and complex system of laws, I'd refer you to the United States' tax code. For comparison, the Talmud is written formally on less than 6000 pages, while the tax code is now more than 16,000, 70,000.