FOSSILS AND FAITH: Understanding Torah and Science (272 pages)

Table of Contents

Preface

FAITH

Chapter 1. Faith and the Era of Science

Chapter 2. The Age of the Universe

Chapter 3. The Anthropic Principle

Chapter 4. The Creation of Man

Chapter 5. Proofs for the Existence of G-d

Chapter 6. Evolution: Is There a Problem Here?

Chapter 7. G-d, Science, and Free Will

Chapter 8. Miracles: Natural and Supernatural

Chapter 9. Prayer and Divine Providence

ON SCIENCE AND THE BIBLE

Chapter 10. Chaos, Rain, and the Bible

Chapter 11. The Extreme Longevity of the Early Generations in Genesis

Chapter 12. May You Live to 120!

Chapter 13. The Spread of Languages and the Tower of Babel

FOSSILS

Chapter 14. Misreading the Fossils

Chapter 15. The Scientific Quest for the Origins of Man

Chapter 16. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Chapter 17. Non-Darwinian Theories of Evolution

Chapter 18. Darwinian Fundamentalism

Chapter 19. Life on Mars?

Index of Biblical Commentators and Scientists

Subject Index

 

Preface

Science and Religion

The subject of science and the Bible has undergone a surge of popularity in recent years. Institutions of higher education in the United States now offer over a thousand courses for credit on science and religion, whereas a student of the 1960s would have been hard put to find even one.1 The cover of a recent issue of Newsweek was emblazoned with the words “Science Finds G-d,”2 and other leading newsmagazines have picked up the theme. This newfound interest in science and religion is not limited to the popular press. An article entitled “Scientists and Religion in America” appeared in the September 1999 issue of the prestigious Scientific American. This was not the only recent instance of the subject of religion being reported by Scientific American. Just the previous year, this widely-read journal published a full-page report, entitled “Renowned Scientists Contemplate the Evidence for G-d,” about a Science and Religion Conference held at the University of California at Berkeley, once famous as a institutional center of radical atheistic thought.3

What has happened to generate this sudden interest in the interactions between science and religion? Why are we suddenly hearing that some of the world’s most respected scientists are also deeply religious people?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the latest scientific findings which have revealed the universe to be a far richer and more subtle place than previously imagined. Quite naturally, the relationship between science and religion is being re-examined in the light of the new scientific findings.

Although I am a scientist by profession, a theoretical physicist who has published more than a hundred scientific articles in the standard professional journals during the past three decades, I have also spent a significant amount of time exploring the subject of science and the Bible, and have written a book on this topic, In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science. My book was well received, having been translated into nine languages and reprinted dozens of times.

I have often lectured on science and the Bible to audiences comprising a remarkably wide range of diverse groups, both religious and secular. In the course of these lectures, I have met many thoughtful and intelligent people, from all walks of life and with every point of view, who are deeply interested in the topic of science and religion, and are thirsty for additional knowledge. This is what motivated me to write In the Beginning. However he subject is so vast and so important that I have come to realize that there is need for another book.

There is, of course, no lack of books nowadays on the subject of science and religion. However, the traditional Jew seeks a book on science and religion in the spirit of traditional Judaism, written by an author who is a committed practicing Jew. Another important point is that an active research scientist is best able to write about science with authority, accuracy and clarity. Such qualities are often lacking in the books on science and religion by non-scientists – rabbis, journalists, lawyers.

A comment should be made about the very few books that are available on science and religion in the Jewish tradition. They are quite fundamentalist, almost creationist, both in tone and in content. The result is generally bad science, as well as bad theology.

A creationist approach is not the Jewish point of view to understanding Genesis, as was firmly established by Maimonides back in the twelfth century.4 The writings of Maimonides have served as a beacon for me and are often quoted in this book.

There is an additional pressing reason for a book on science and religion addressed to a popular audience. The best-seller lists these days include books by militant atheists, three of whom have written the following: (1) “The kindly G-d who loves us, is, like Santa Claus, a myth of childhood that no sane adult could believe in.” (2) “Religion is a dreadful disease of society and I think that science liberates people from the world’s religions.” (3) “Human vanity cherishes the absurd notion that our species is special.” Such pronouncements, made in the name of science, must not go unchallenged. 

Scientific Knowledge and Religious Belief

The proliferation of knowledge in the last few decades has revolutionized many branches of science. Completely new disciplines that did not even exist half a century ago now occupy a central place in the modern scientific enterprise. These new or revolutionized disciplines include big bang cosmology, evolutionary biology (punctuated equilibrium, impact theory), quantum theory (the nature of physical reality), molecular biology (the origin of life), chaos, space exploration, complexity theory, fractals, artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial life, cloning, human genome, supersymmetry, mass extinctions, stem cells, black holes, extra-solar planets, neural networks, genetic engineering, compacted dimensions... The list goes on and on. The simple clockwork universe of Newton, Galileo, and Laplace has been replaced by a universe so complex and so wonderful that it almost defies comprehension.

It is clearly time to ask whether this scientific knowledge has any implications for a person who believes in G-d? The goal of this book is to demonstrate the profound implications of modern science for religious belief. We will see that in the twenty-first century, maintaining belief in G-d and accepting the truth of the Bible do not require the abandonment of rational thinking. Quite the contrary. Modern science has become an important tool for understanding many biblical passages and for deepening faith in G-d.

We shall here deal with the very essence of religion – faith, prayer, belief, miracles, free will, life on other planets, the interaction between G-d and the world – showing how advances in science touch on each of these subjects in important ways.  

The Physical Universe and the Almighty

Throughout the generations, people have wondered about the relationship between the physical universe and the Almighty. What can one learn about G-d by observing His world? To scientists of earlier centuries, the physical world seemed completely self-contained. They tried to explain all physical phenomena without the need for a deity, comparing the world to a clock whose springs, gears, and cogs work in perfect harmony. Although exponents of this view sometimes spoke of the Divine Watchmaker who had created the universe, G-d seemed to have retired from the scene once His task of creation was completed, letting the laws of nature carry on. Human beings were described as simply aggregations of atoms, subject to the same laws of nature as stones and planets. It is not surprising that Laplace had cynically questioned the need for the hypothesis of G-d.

The problem became even more acute in 1859, when Charles Darwin proposed that the vast panorama of animals and plants that we observe today had developed from the simplest bacteria according to the principles of evolution. This seemed to imply that human beings not only shared similar origins with the crocodile and the cockroach, but that we were equally devoid of any spirituality. In short, religion was on the defensive.

All of this changed beyond recognition during the twentieth century. Today, cosmologists regularly use the word “creation” to describe the origin of the universe.5 Secular scientists in all fields point to numerous examples of apparent design in the laws of nature, design with human beings in mind.6 Quantum theory and chaos theory have established the impossibility of predicting the future. Archaeologists write of the abrupt appearance of civilization, “with no premonitory signs,”7 and speak of a sudden “revolution” in human cultural behavior.8

The far-reaching theological implications of these scientific findings can hardly be overemphasized. Many seemingly intractable theological dilemmas of previous generations have melted away with our increasing awareness of the laws that govern the universe. Its complexity and subtlety, revealed within the last few decades, provides the framework for understanding the modes of interaction between G-d and His world.

NOTES
1. E. J. Larson and L. Witham, September 1999, Scientific American, p. 79.
2. Cover story, 20 July 1998, Newsweek Magazine.
3. “Science and Religion”, August 1998, Scientific American, pp. 10-11.
4. Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part II, Chap. 25.
5. See, for example, J. Silk, 1989, The Big Bang (Freeman: New York), p. 113.
6. G. Gale, December 1981, Scientific American, pp. 114-122.
7. N. Eldredge, 1986, Time Frames (Simon and Schuster: New York), p. 87.
8. G. H. Pelto and P. J. Pelto, 1979, The Cultural Dimensions of the Human Adventure (Macmillian: New York), p. 93.

 

Chapter 1: Faith and the Era of Science

Plausibility Arguments

The word “faith” is defined as “belief in religious doctrines for which there is no proof.” Although religious belief is based on faith, rather than on proof, our faith has recently been buttressed by important plausibility arguments. Today, there is widespread harmony between the Genesis account of creation and the findings of science. In other words, one finds consistency between recent scientific discoveries and the worldview of a person of faith. This is what is meant by plausibility arguments for religious belief and faith.

Before describing some of these plausibility arguments for faith, it should be emphasized that not only religion, but also science, relies heavily on plausibility arguments. The naive picture of the white-coated scientist in his laboratory watching the pointer move across a scale to the predicted reading and thereby establishing a scientific theory beyond doubt, bears little relation to reality. Indeed, the empirical nature of science precludes the absolute proof of any theory. Science advances by postulating concepts and making assumptions, and then investigating to see whether these assumptions and concepts are successful in explaining phenomena observed in nature or in the laboratory. As successful explanations multiply, it becomes more and more plausible that the assumed concepts and ideas are basically correct, although experience has shown that some alterations and adjustments in the original concepts will be almost inevitable.

An instructive example is the quarks, the tiny particles that constitute the basic building blocks of the universe. The quark is not an exotic particle, unrelated to the everyday world. Quite the contrary. Quarks form 99.9% of all the materials with which we are familiar, including stars, planets, rocks, water, air, the book you are reading, and the tissues of your body. (The remaining 0.1% are electrons.)

Despite the fact that quarks have never been seen, scientists are convinced of their existence. Professor David Bailin of the University of Sussex explains: “Even though no particle detector has ever “seen” a quark, everyone agrees that they actually do exist.”1 Moreover, quarks will never be seen, because according to the standard theory of elementary particles, they are forever “locked up” in the protons and neutrons (each of which consists of a triplet of quarks). Professor David Callaway of CERN ( European Research Center for Nuclear Physics) explains, “The fundamental particles of matter – the quarks – are permanently confined inside protons and neutrons.”2

If no one has ever seen a quark, why are scientists absolutely convinced not only that quarks exist, but that they rank among the most important building blocks of the entire universe? The answer is that if one assumes that quarks exist, then a great many observed features of the universe can be explained. “Theorists developed the quark model as a neat, compact description of the myriad of new particles detected in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the familiar proton and neutron. The properties and interactions of all these particles fell into patterns that could be completely explained if all these particles are made up of three species of quarks.”3

The findings described above, as well as many others, have led scientists to believe that the existence of quarks is extremely plausible, even though they have never been detected. This is an example of a plausibility argument in science.

One should be aware that the use of plausibility arguments constitutes an important similarity between the methods of science and those of religion,4 for both disciplines rely on them. In both religion and science, as plausibility arguments accumulate, faith in fundamental tenets becomes increasingly reasonable. Let us examine some of the important plausibility arguments for religious belief.

Creation and Science

Where did the universe come from? A person of faith would probably answer that the universe was created out of nothing, as stated in the first verse of Genesis. Such an answer was long considered a scientific impossibility, because it contradicted the law of the conservation of matter and energy. According to this law of science, which was established in the middle of the 19th century, matter and energy can be changed from one form to another, but something cannot come out of nothing. Therefore, scientists viewed the universe as eternal, thus neatly avoiding questions regarding its origin. The Genesis assertion that the universe was created, presumably from nothing, became an area of conflict between science and the Bible. That is how matters stood for many years.

But this situation has now changed. The 20th century witnessed an unprecedented explosion of scientific knowledge, which is nowhere more dramatic than in cosmology, the discipline that deals with the origin and development of the universe. Astronomers had been studying the heavenly bodies for thousands of years, but their studies dealt almost exclusively with charting the paths of the stars, planets, and comets, and determining their composition, spectrum, and other properties. The origin of the heavenly bodies remained a complete mystery. As one Nobel laureate put it, “in the 1950s, the study of the early universe was widely regarded as a subject to which a respectable scientist would not devote his time...there simply did not exist an adequate observational and theoretical foundation on which to build a history of the universe.”5

Important advances in cosmology during the past few decades have, for the first time, permitted scientists to construct a coherent history of the origin of the universe.6 Today, an overwhelming body of scientific evidence supports the “big bang” theory of cosmology.7 There are four major pieces of experimental evidence: (1) the discovery in 1965 of the remnant of the initial ball of light, (2) the hydrogen-to-helium ratio in the universe, (3) the Hubble expansion of the galaxies, and (4) the perfect black-body spectrum of the microwave background radiation measured by the COBE space satellite in 1989 and the MAP satellite in 2001. Only the big bang theory can account for all these observations, and therefore this theory is now accepted by all mainstream cosmologists.

The most surprising assertion of the big bang theory is that the universe was literally created. It is instructive to quote the world’s leading authorities.

Nobel laureate Paul Dirac from the University of Cambridge writes:
“It seems certain that there was a definite time of creation.”8

Professor Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology writes:
“The instant of creation remains unexplained.”9

Professor Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge writes:
“The creation lies outside the scope of the known laws of physics.”10

Professor Joseph Silk of the University of California begins his book on modern cosmology with the words:
“The big bang is the modern version of creation.”11

Today, it is hardly possible to carry on a meaningful discussion of cosmology without the creation of the universe assuming a central role. Professor Brian Greene, of Columbia University, wrote in 1999: “The modern theory of cosmic origins asserts that the universe erupted from an enormously energetic event, which spewed forth all space and all matter...The currently accepted scientific theory of creation is often referred to as the standard model of cosmology.”12

When cosmologists use the term “creation,” to what are they referring? Precisely what object was created? Scientists have discovered that the universe began with the sudden appearance of an enormous ball of light, commonly called the “primeval light-ball.” This “explosion of light” was dubbed the “big bang” by the British astrophysicist Professor Fred Hoyle. The remnant of the initial ball of light was detected in 1965 by two American physicists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who were awarded the Nobel Prize for their important discovery.

People sometimes ask what existed before the big bang, the event that marked the creation of the universe. Professor John Wheeler of Princeton University explains that the very concept of time did not exist before the creation. “There was no ‘before’ prior to the Big Bang. The laws of nature came into existence together with the Big Bang, as surely as did space and time.”13 Wheeler emphasizes that scientists view space and time as the “stage” upon which the events of the physical world take place. If there is no physical world if the universe does not exist – then neither time nor space can exist. “Time” and “space” are not independent entities; these concepts have meaning only after the creation of the physical universe.

This property of time and space can be illustrated by analogy to the concept of color. “Red” or “black” are not free-standing characteristics, independent of any physical object. Only if there exist macroscopic objects, such as grass, rocks or houses, can one speak of these objects as being red or black. If nothing but atoms and molecules existed, then there would be no meaning to “red” or “black,” or to the entire concept of color. There is no such thing as a red molecule. In the same way, there were no such concepts as time and space before the universe came into being.

Creation and Genesis

In addition to confirming the creation of the universe, the discovery of the initial primeval light by Penzias and Wilson also answers another long-standing puzzle regarding the Genesis account of creation. On the First Day of Creation, Genesis asserts: And there was light (1:3). But at that time, there existed neither stars, nor sun, nor moon, nor people, nor any other known source of light. Therefore, how can one understand the “light” mentioned in Genesis?

Scientists have discovered that there was light at the beginning of time: the primeval light-ball whose appearance heralded the origin of the universe. The creation of light did not occur within the existing universe. Rather, the creation of light was the creation of the universe. Genesis does not record two separate creations on the First Day – the creation of the universe and the creation of the light – but only one.

We now turn to the question of the time scale. How much time was required for the cosmological events that took place at the creation of the universe? How many millions of years had to elapse before the universe was complete and assumed its present form? The remarkable answer is that all the cosmological events involved in the creation of the universe occurred within a very few minutes. This fact has been emphasized by the dramatic title that Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg chose for his famous book on modern cosmology: The First Three Minutes.

Nowadays, cosmological events - events that alter the structure of the universe - require many millions of years to occur. How could such events have taken place within just a few moments? The answer is that during the period of creation, the temperature of the universe was extremely high. Just as food cooks much more rapidly in a pressure cooker than over a low flame, in the same way, events occurred with amazing rapidity in the blazing universe at the origins of time. Professor Greene explains: “The newborne universe evolved with phenomenal haste. Tiny fractions of a second formed cosmic epochs during which long-lasting features of the universe were first imprinted...During the first three minutes after the big bang, as the simmering universe cooled, the predominant nuclei emerged.”14

Thus, the formation of the first atomic nuclei - the basic building blocks of every material - was completed within three minutes after the instant of creation.

Faith

It should be emphasized that the comprehensive agreement between science and Genesis described above does not prove that the Book of Genesis is of divine origin, and it certainly does not prove that G-d exists. These matters remain articles of faith. However, in the twenty-first century, the person of faith is not forced to choose between accepting the latest scientific discoveries or accepting the Genesis account of creation. All cosmologists now discuss the creation of the universe, while Genesis discusses the Creator of the universe. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to assume that science and Genesis are both referring to the same subject. It is a pleasure for a person of faith to be living in this day and age!

The current confluence between science and faith was not always the case. Only a few decades ago, the outstanding Torah scholar Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik expressed the then-existing dichotomy between science and faith in a classic essay entitled “The Lonely Man of Faith.”15 Using the word “lonely” to describe the man of faith living in a scientific world, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote: “Being people of faith in our contemporary world is a lonely experience. We are loyal to visionary expectations which find little support in present-day reality...Religious faith is condescendingly regarded as a subjective palliative, given little credence as a repository of truth.”16

Now, barely half a century later, in one scientific discipline after another, the words of the scientist can hardly be distinguished from the words of “the man of faith.” Professor Stephen J. Gould of Harvard University tells us that “human intelligence is the result of a staggeringly improbable series of events, utterly unpredictable and quite unrepeatable.”17 The term “luck” is now commonly used by evolutionary biologists like Professor David Raup, past president of the American Paleontological Union, to “explain” the existence of human beings.18 Archaeologists express their amazement at the “radical and sudden changes, with no premonitory signs”19 that mark the appearance of civilization, and they speak of a sudden “quantum leap in mental abilities”20 that appears in the archaeological record of human cultural behavior. Scientists in a wide variety of disciplines discuss the “anthropic principle,” which states that the universe looks as if it were specifically designed to permit the existence and promote the welfare of human beings.21 And finally, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy expresses this idea in the following poetic words: “In truth, we are the children of the Universe.”22

These scientific discoveries are exactly what one would expect if the Genesis account of the origin of the universe were, in fact, correct. Thus, the existence of such harmony between science and Genesis is an important plausibility argument for our religious belief. Science is no longer the antagonist of the believing person. Indeed, modern science has become a significant element in the strengthening of ancient faith.

NOTES

1. D. Bailin, 1987, Contemporary Physics, vol. 28, p. 179.

2. D. J. E. Callaway, 1985, Contemporary Physics, vol. 26, p. 95.

3. K. Rith and A. Schafer, July 1999, Scientific American, p. 42.

4. Of course, there are also important differences between scientific claims and those of religion. For example, a characteristic feature of a scientific theory is that it is subject to disproof (what Karl Popper calls “falsification”). By contrast, statements about religion are usually not subject to disproof.

5. S. Weinberg, 1977, The First Three Minutes (Andre Deutsch: London), pp. 13-14.

6. The important discoveries, instrumentation, and techniques in modern cosmology include X-ray astronomy, the Hubble space telescope, radio galaxies and radio emissions, pulsars and quasars, the COBE satellite, and gravitational lensing.

7. For a layman’s account of the big bang theory, see N. Aviezer, 1990, In the Beginning (Ktav Publishing House: New York), Chapter I.

8. P. A. M. Dirac, 1972, Commentarii, vol. 2, no. 11, p. 15.

9. A. H. Guth, May 1984, Scientific American, p. 102.

10. S. W. Hawking, 1973, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (Cambridge University Press), p. 364

11. J. Silk, 1989, The Big Bang (W. H. Freeman: New York), p. xi.

12. B. Greene, 1999, The Elegant Universe ( Jonathan Cape: London), pp. 345-346.

13. J. A. Wheeler, 1998, Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam (W. W. Norton: New York), p. 350.

14. Greene, pp. 347, 350.

15. J. B. Soloveitchik, Spring 1965, Tradition, pp. 5-67.

16. See the adaptation of the 1965 Soloveitchik essay (p. 8) by A. R. Besdin, 1989, Man of Faith in the Modern World (Ktav: New York), pp. 36-37.

17. S. J. Gould, 1989, Wonderful Life (W. W. Norton: New York), p. 14.

18. D. M. Raup, 1991, Extinctions: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? ( Oxford Press).

19. N. Eldredge, 1985, Time Frames (Simon and Schuster: New York), p. 87.

20. N. Eldredge and I. Tattersall, 1982, The Myths of Human Evolution (Columbia University Press: New York), p. 154.

21. J. D. Barrow and F. J. Tipler, The Cosmological Anthropic Principle, 1986 (Oxford University Press); G. Gale, December 1981, “The Anthropic Principle”, in Scientific American, pp. 114-122.

22. S. Mitton, editor-in-chief, 1987, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy (London: Jonathan Cape), p. 125.

For further information or to order a book, contact me at aviezen@mail.biu.ac.il

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