Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why Science Does Not Disprove God by Amir Aczel (Book Review #10 of 2017)


Why Science Does Not Disprove God by Amir Aczel

This book is basically about the unacknowledged cognitive biases of various "New Atheists," and what basic physical processes are unknown to science or perhaps cannot be known. My review can't really do the book justice, so I recommend reading it yourself.

Commenting on a book like this tends to draw a lot of troll comments, so let me start with other books I've reviewed that were either cited by the author or helpful in understanding this book:
Black Holes and Baby Universes (Stephen Hawking)
The Universe in a Nutshell (Hawking)
The Grand Design (Hawking)
The Hidden Reality (Brian Greene)
The Fabric of the Cosmos (Greene)
The Elegant Universe (Greene)
The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)
Letter to a Christian Nation (Sam Harris)
Arrival (Andreas Wagner)
The Misbehavior of Markets (Benoit Mandelbrot, polymath and apparently friends with Aczel. Chaos theory.)

Not cited but helpful:
The Trouble with Physics (Lee Smolin, arguments against the cult of string theory from a quantum loop gravity physicist.)
The Accidental Universe (Alan Lightman, physicist armchair philosopher who is critical of Hawkins but has his own logical fallacies.)
Randomness in Evolution (John Tyler Bonner, slime mold biologist who argues natural selection is far less important than randomness.)
First Life (David Deamer, mix of astrophysics and biology)
Can a Darwinian be a Christian? (Michael Ruse, philosopher asking questions of consciousness and such.)
I Don't Believe in Atheists (Chris Hedges, also debated Hitchens and Harris; familiar with Aczel's arguments.)
The Quest for Meaning (Great Courses lectures by Dr. Robert H. Kane based on his book The Significance of Free Will. A history of philosophy that also asks what "values" are and has a response to postmodernists who argue nothing has objective value.)
The Reason for God (Tim Keller)
Reasonable Faith (William Lane Craig)

Aczel has a Masters in Mathematics with a PhD in Statistics and an interest in physics, having written books on the discovery of the Higgs Boson among other things. He can explain every issue below much more lucidly than I can, but the book is addressed to the same lay audience that the New Atheists write to. Aczel debated Dawkins and found his misuse of mathematics and lack of training in logic disturbing. He's also dialogued with Andreas Wagner and engaged in a TV interview review of one of Brian Greene's books, which went sour when Greene got evasive with his answers on string theory and a multiverse or would not concede Aczel's point. Aczel has similar problems with Harris' and Lawrence Krauss' books, finding outright errors. Krauss boasts that quantum mechanics gives the reason for the universe's existence but Aczel shows that quantum mechanics "says no such thing." He notes Richard Feynman never claimed such a thing (and claimed those who claim to understand quantum mechanics do not understand quantum mechanics).

On the origins of the universe and string theory, Greene, Hawking, and others fall back on "well, the math says so, so I trust the math." (Aczel's work was written before Greene's later work, The Hidden Reality, positing that we are probably just zeros and ones living in a video game like The Sims, or maybe a video game inside another video game, infinite regression.)  These cosmologists put a lot of faith in ideas that are impossible to test and therefore, by definition, not actually science. (Hawking, for example, in The Universe in a Nutshell admits it would take a Hadron collider larger than the entire universe to test aspects of string theory.)

What bothers Aczel is that Krauss and Dawkins can believe we are all just randomly assembled molecules yet make claims about truth and morality. If we are just randomly assembled particles that will again be scattered, how can a Dawkins or Krauss say it's wrong if I scattered his molecules before the synapses in his brain might personally desire them to be scattered. Philosophy matters (see Dr. Kane's lecture series above).

The author, born in Israel, pivots to specific issues dealing with religious artifacts, giving a brief history of religion. He seems to be of no particular religious bent himself, but rather argues that religion has been a central part of man's history and a motivating factor for examining and explaining surroundings. He takes issue with Hitchens' claim that there is "no proof" that any of the stories of the Bible happened, walking through a list of plenty of archaeological finds from Old and New Testaments ranging from Jericho to Pontius Pilate, showing that these historical places and people were discovered by archaeologists after after skeptics had long claimed they were fiction.

Aczel gives examples of how Krauss and Dawkins quote scientists like Gould and Einstein's thoughts about the possibility of a God out of context in an attempt to reinterpret them as more militantly atheist than the context could possibly allow. They apparently feel some obligation to be apologists for previous scientists who were not militant atheists. He gives little time to the idea of a multiverse, noting that physics who do real science believe in a Big Bang, a beginning. The multiverse cannot be tested and by the definition of science Krauss and Dawkins state their belief in must be relegated to the metaphysical. He is on good grounds with other physicists in this regard.

The author also makes important points about uncertainty, which Dawkins seems to believe can't exist. Science is a constant process of hypothesizing and testing. There are a lot of facts taught about the universe in the 1950s that are no longer believed true today, and some of what we "know" will also be proven. Hence, we all need to be epistemologically humble.

Aczel is also friends with Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, and discusses chaos theory; small changes can have very far-reaching consequences that are difficult to predict. To quote Sardar and Abrams, chaos is: "the occurence of aperiodic, apparently random events in a deterministic system. In chaos there is order and in order there lies chaos. The two are more interconnected than we ever thought before." Chaos entails uncertainty. A process like evolution or the expansion of the universe might appear deterministic, but it involves events that cannot be predicted and feed back on the deterministic process.

Further, Aczel goes into the anthropic principal-- the universe exists the way it does because we are here and able to observe it. He looks at the various cosmological constants for our universe for which no one can explain why they are fine-tuned as they are. The multiverse believer will simply say this universe is one of an infinite number and we just happen to exist such as in order to see it. But, again, the multiverse is of the realm of metaphysics and not actual science. One ignores the fine-tuning argument with some difficulty.

As a mathematician, the author is disturbed by the flippant use of infinity by various parties arguing against God. Once you inject infinity into an equation, you can prove whatever you want. Similarly, non-mathematicians like Dawkins use the word "nothing," as in "the universe came from nothing" in a way that deceivingly does not mean the null set-- the state of absolute nothingness. Rather, they mean a state where a certain level of radiation exists or some other conditions. This is also problematic, it allows them to dodge the question of how something could possibly come from nothing-- they don't mean the same "nothing" that a philosopher would. Anselm solved the problem for the theist-- God is the ultimate necessary being. Aczel also critiques Dawkins use of stats, giving concrete examples from Dawkins books in which he makes elementary errors.

Aczel turns to Darwin, the theory of natural selection, and the Darwinism purported by many New Atheists. Evolution can explain processes that we see but, unlike theories in physics, can make no predictions and thus is an incomplete theory. Scientists still lack a mechanism to explain why and how evolution occurs. For example, how and when did cells realize that light and sound waves contained valuable information, such that they developed mechanisms to receive and process that information? (If Darwinist John Tyler Bonner is correct and it has much more to do with randomness than most Darwinists give it credit for, then imagine the odds that you can see, hear, and taste today.) I read an article last week that scientists have discovered plants-- non-sentient beings-- are able to sense vibrations of water and this is why they grow their roots to and through pipes.

How did those cells get lucky enough to sense this, store that trait in their DNA and pass it to ancestors? Aczel is no believer in the young earth of Ken Ham, but seems to argue that these lucky processes evolved us to today in a much shorter time than would seem possible. (Remember, the metaphysical idea that we're in just one of an infinite multiverses has no proof and no ability to be tested. Besides, it leads back to the problem of the New Atheists defining morality.)

One of the final problems Aczel examines is the idea of consciousness. What is it, where does it come from? What are the implications for artificial intelligence? I read an article last month about how leading scientists still don't understand consciousness and how the brain is still able to do some processes better than the most advanced AI. A computer program consists of algorithms and choices based on probability. Consciousness, however, involves senses, emotions, chemical reactions, etc. Every book I've seen on the human mind has an author marveling at how much scientists still don't know. Aczel basically adds reasons people should be skeptical of the promise of artificial intelligence.

A good scientist recognizes that "some truths are unattainable." Aczel's book makes foolish all those who preach that they alone are not fools.

The book is better than my review. 4 stars.
Note, in reviewing this book I discovered the NY Times obituary for Aczel from 2015.

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