A Greater Reality: Faith, the final frontier

Imagine this: Against long odds, you, a midcareer anthropologist working with four other university teams, have gained grant support from the U.S. National Science Foundation and permission from the government of Brazil to be the sole research team allowed to investigate a newly discovered tribe of Amazon Indians deep in the remotest jungle. This tribe has had no contact with any Western peoples and little contact with equally remote neighboring tribes, with whom they have had unpleasant and even warlike encounters. The tribe has its own language and has built up a considerable population that controls significant areas of the jungle, and has probably done so for centuries.

The conditions of your unique access are draconian, however. There must be no contact whatsoever between your research team and any member of the tribe. For this reason, all surveillance will be done at long range, using high-tech equipment like powerful automatic cameras, carefully camouflaged, and long-range microphones.

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Moving cautiously and guided by surreptitious flyovers of ultralight drone aircraft with infrared sensing capabilities, your research team is able to arrive unseen at the edge of the tribe’s territory and locate a village across a river that, as far as you can determine from the surveillance, is never crossed by the tribe members. On a low bluff across the river, you set up your equipment and begin recording the sights and sounds of the village.

One day, several months later, you download the week’s data on your iPad. But on the way back from checking your equipment, you slip and fall on the rough, barely visible track you follow to access the monitoring site. Your iPad slips unnoticed out of your backpack and into the brush.

In the village, a key ingredient of the poison sap used to stun fish is running low. One villager is chosen to cross the river and access the rare trees that produce this sap. Tracking through the jungle, the villager comes across this weird object in the brush, unlike anything he has ever seen before. Racked with fear and uncertainty, he picks it up in a large leaf so as not to touch it and runs back to his canoe and crosses the river to his village.

Meanwhile, there is panic among the members of the research team. They race back to find the iPad only to see a villager pick it up and head back across the river. The loss of the iPad is such a gross violation of the terms of the grant and access that the entire project is terminated.

After some discussion the village decides it wants nothing to do with this object, and it is carried across some miles to where the tribe’s chief shaman resides. The shaman contemplates this object, using a keen intelligence that is in no way inferior to that of the now-disgraced research scientist who lost the iPad. While the tribe knows about metals from the native copper deposits in the nearby hills, the metal of the iPad is different, smoother, shiny, unlike anything the shaman has ever seen. He also knows of transparent crystals, clear topazes found in deposits on the riverbanks, but the screen he sees is far beyond anything like that. Thus he concludes that there is some “Greater Reality” out there capable of making this object, whose existence is undeniable but whose nature can be learned only by contemplation of the iPad and intelligent speculation.

The Foundations of the Universe

So it is with physics today, where the existence of the Big Bang that started our universe roughly 14.73 billion years ago cannot be denied. At the Big Bang, there came simultaneously into existence the four foundations of our universe: time, space, all the energy of the universe and the laws of physics and its fundamental free parameters. These laws are sweeping philosophical statements, like “the laws of physics are the same throughout the universe” or “the laws of physics are constant in time.” These lead to the great conservation statements: “Energy-mass is conserved in all interactions.” But the laws of our four-dimensional universe do not allow for the Big Bang.

Albert Einstein said that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is at all comprehensible.” He said this well before the stunning discoveries of the last half of the 20th century that have pushed physics and its ancillary disciplines to the very frontiers of space and time. What we found has laid a whole new foundation for belief that has shaken the natural skepticism of many of the most profound thinkers in physics. The Big Bang violates almost every law that physics has uncovered. Thus, it is certain that there has to be a “Greater Reality” able to spawn our universe that is not limited by the laws of our tangible universe.

Returning to our shaman, in the course of handling the iPad, he turns it on by accident and sees on the screen scenes of the villagers that very morning, with their speech and actions recorded over several hours. As he slides his hand on the screen, more images from previous days appear, showing that the Greater Reality was observing their village life over weeks, even months.

What is he to make of this? Obviously the object has internal capabilities that are simply beyond anything the tribe can conceive. Equally he suspects that the technology of the device is so advanced that the Greater Reality could probably have destroyed the village if it so wished. But the careful surveillance certainly shows that the Greater Reality was interested in the tribe and took great care not to interfere with the tribe; otherwise the surveillance would have been discovered months ago. That such care was taken at least hints that the Greater Reality cares for the tribe and protects them from this alien knowledge that alone could destroy the careful fabric of the tribe’s existence.

So it is with our universe. We have discovered that the laws of physics also include parameters, roughly 30 in number, that tie the laws to the physical universe. The statement “The laws of physics are constant in systems moving at constant relative velocity” is the principle of relativity, whose key constant is the speed of light in a vacuum, c, roughly 187,000 miles per second. This parameter appears again in Einstein’s mass-energy relationship: energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, c2—which is absolutely key to the energy of stars and how long they can burn. These 30 or so constants cannot be predicted but must be measured. All evidence shows that these laws and their fundamental parameters, once established, span all of space and time and have not changed since that instance. Physics shows a one-way universe that proceeds according to the arrow of time to a demise in the grey death of entropy, the big rip of dark energy or other means as yet unknown.

Thus, like the shaman, we are faced with the certain existence of a Greater Reality that can never be approached through the scientific method, since no measurements are even conceivable outside of our universe. We can only learn of the nature of the Greater Reality through intelligent speculation: scientific, philosophical or theological speculation guided by our native intelligence and the nature of the observable universe, unless the Greater Reality chooses to intercede.

A Garden of Spirit

The discoveries of the past 30 years show that the laws of our universe are exquisitely crafted so as to allow, even demand, the development of carbon-based life on Earth-like planets around other stars that, every week, grow in number. That such laws occur by accident is statistically impossible, meaning that in trillions of random universes with slight differences in the 30 fundamental parameters of physics, not one would have the right combination for life to occur. As one of 30 examples, if the speed of light—“c”—were very slightly greater, the sun and other main sequence stars would burn out so fast that evolution would not have enough time to evolve sentient beings. A slightly smaller “c” would not allow most stars to burn at all, thus vastly reducing the number of planets that could exist in the zone of liquid water, which is essential to carbon-based life.

Clearly our Greater Reality is not random but is coded so that life and intelligence can evolve, given enough time and favorable conditions. One of the benefits of this approach is that one can never view the stars at night as simply a cold, sterile collection of hot plasma spheres. What one is looking at is an enormous garden, a garden of life, a garden of intelligence, a garden of spirit. The evolved creatures on other planets may not look like us physically, but they and we have a level of intelligence that can discover the laws and secrets of the universe. They and we can value non-physical spiritual realities like truth, love, honor and beauty. So we can modify Einstein’s statement to read: The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that we exist to discover that it is at all comprehensible.

The simplest explanation for the recent discoveries of physics is an all-powerful and intelligent Creator, the dreaded “strong anthropic principle.” One can achieve the same results via the “weak anthropic principle,” in that one of the inconceivably large number of parallel universes possible, but unprovable, via M theory might by statistical chance have the right parameters for life. This explanation shows such an ugly inefficiency that I find it unattractive, while it only kicks the conceptual can farther down the road and requires the spawning of trillions upon trillions of universes, not just one, to get intelligent life.

I believe that the Creator, having gone to such enormous and careful efforts to craft a universe designed for intelligent life, would, like any gardener, carefully cultivate and encourage the fruits of the land, with spiritual intervention, indirect and direct. The Creator, to continue the gardener analogy, also expects a harvest. I propose that the harvest is the fruits of the spirit, love, honor, beauty and so forth from freely choosing intelligent beings that are able to discern that the Creator exists and cares for us and, as a corollary, are able to actively care for all of creation and especially our fellow sentient beings. So we, if we choose wisely, can be the harvest and can bring back to the Creator the one thing that the Creator cannot do, the one aspect of creation that is not defined by the immutable laws of science—the spiritual fruits of freely choosing beings, and their lifetime of love of the Creator and fellow intelligent beings, and love and protection of all of creation. I believe that the new physics in the past 30 years has laid a firm foundation of fact that supports, and does not challenge, Christian belief.

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J Cosgrove
3 years ago
The discoveries of the past 30 years show that the laws of our universe are exquisitely crafted so as to allow, even demand, the development of carbon-based life on Earth-like planets around other stars that, every week, grow in number. That such laws occur by accident is statistically impossible, meaning that in trillions of random universes with slight differences in the 30 fundamental parameters of physics, not one would have the right combination for life to occur.
This is an aspect of Intelligent Design. It is one form of ID which most adherents of ID believe is evidence of a creator. But professor Cahill goes on to talk about evolution like somehow that is a completely natural phenomenon set up in these laws of nature. He even uses the words "even demand" which seem innocent enough but contain the possibility for heresy in Catholic theology. As one who has looked into ID for the last 15 years, there is a problem with the theory of evolution or the concept expressed in the words "even demand". Life definitely appeared early in the planet's existence and this is referred to as the Origin of Life (OOL) issue and there is no known process that exists that could have created the organized complexity we find in a cell. The complexity of a cell is mind boggling yet many just pass it off at it must have happened somehow like it was a done deal. Also much of evolution is equally mind boggling and the current sophisticated thought says it is a process of mutation and natural selection and known genetic processes. Somehow the right genetic processes magically appeared in cellular life. But even with the presence of these genetic processes, mutations and some form of selection, the origin of new capabilities as evidenced in the myriad of life forms that have appeared in the last 600 million years is beyond what is mathematically possible. For both OOL and natural evolution, the mathematical probability that these are a result of natural forces, approach the extreme unlikelihood that Professor Cahill indicates in his discussion of the physical laws of the universe. In other words the probability of this happening is so infinitesimal small to defy any reason that it could have happened by the laws of nature that God created. Now this may change as we learn more about the universe and its laws but in the last 50 years it seems every discovery of this matter makes is less likely to be natural than to be more so. This leads to an interesting theological discussion. Do some who espouse ID, say God couldn't create a universe where life could arise naturally? No they say that He apparently chose not to do it this way. We obviously have a world according to Christian theology whereby God intervenes all the time. So why should some say that he didn't intervene in terms of life. They even go as far as saying that He must not have intervened to create life and the process of evolution. This particular discussion has not appeared on this site very often but it is a contentious discussion for some in modern theology. It is hidden in what Professor Cahill has said.
David Jasper
2 years 11 months ago
There is strong evidence of evolution (and global warming of the seas). The discussions really center on causes. Darwin's survival postulate is by his own admission applicable for small changes within species. In another century there will undoubtedly be several more causes enumerated for evolution's apparent direction. Through out history causes for all systems change, whether economic, ecologic, subatomic, etc., have been accumulated with few causes being set aside or superseded but rather added to the mix.
J Cosgrove
2 years 11 months ago
There is strong evidence of evolution
Only a few deny that life forms have changed. The question is how. As of now there is no answer to this question and all biological process point to the impossibility of anything major happening even over hundreds of million of years. So the question is what caused the major changes since the accumulation of small changes as a factor seems to be an impossibility. As more genomes get sequenced, there may be an answer but nothing on the horizon. Here is an example of wild speculation by evolutionary biologists: http://www.thethirdwayofevolution.com From their website
The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon supernatural intervention by a divine Creator. The other way is Neo-Darwinism, which has elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems. Both views are inconsistent with significant bodies of empirical evidence and have evolved into hard-line ideologies. There is a need for a more open “third way” of discussing evolutionary change based on empirical observations.
This statement actually distorts the current situation because there is a fourth way.
J Cosgrove
3 years ago
I just want to add a second comment on the interaction of science and faith. The atheist often derides religion as something based on superstition and that atheism is the superior philosophy based on science. Nothing is further from the truth. As Professor Cahill has indicated, science points strongly to a creator, one of immense power. Science does not necessarily point to the Christian God, for that we need revelation. But it does undermine anyone who wants to support their atheistic beliefs with science.
Thomas Cahill
2 years 12 months ago
Comments on “A Greater Reality” My darling wife put it best “You mean there will have to be billions of sacrificed Jesus’ to save people in billions of worlds?” God willing, I fervently hope not. Science is driving us almost daily to accept the premise that there are myriads (in the sense the Greek’s used the word) of planets that will develop sentient beings and spiritual values. While the new discipline that I describe as exo-theology is wildly speculative, I believe (and truly hope) that the sacrifice of Jesus was required because humans are derived from a race of predators, stiff necked, stubborn, and all to prone to lethal conflicts. Such a brutal sacrifice might well not be needed in sentient beings that had derived, for example, from beings with a herd origination, or sentient animals like the baleen whales. I think however that we can be sure that a) alien creatures will develop spiritual values that will drive them to a burning curiosity to know if life extends beyond the all-too-obvious changes upon death, b) that whatever means of intervention God chooses to bring his creatures to a higher level of theological understanding will not be so strong as to ruin their ability to doubt and thus their need for faith, and c) the net result will be “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Tom Cahill
J Cosgrove
2 years 11 months ago
Supposedly we are fallen creatures, not raised from below. You seem to accept too freely the conventional wisdom of modern evolutionary biology. But in reality they are like the emperor who has no clothes. Evolution is a fascinating topic but it is not what it appears to be.

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