Astrophysics and Apologetics
The following article originally appeared in 1999. John Halford conducted the interview.
David Wilkinson is one of a rare breed—an ordained minister and an astrophysicist. He is chaplain at Liverpool University, but has accepted the appointment of Fellow of Christian Apologetics at St. John’s College, Durham. We talked with Dr. Wilkinson about the challenge of reconciling science and faith.
JH: What are "apologetics"? What is it that you do?
DW: Don’t confuse apologetics with apologies. It means explaining and defending the Christian position by logical argument. I think apologetics today is twofold: one is a traditional understanding of apologetics, which is answering questions like "Why is there suffering in the world if there’s a good God?" or "How can we reconcile science with Christianity?" But I think apologetics is far more than that. Apologetics is making the truth of the Christian faith relevant to the concerns and interests of people today.
JH: The Bible tells us "the heavens declare God’s glory." That was written 3,000 years ago. Today we know so much more, and we should have a much greater appreciation of the greatness and majesty of God. Yet so much of science seems to be against the concept of Creation and a Creator.
DW: Many people have this image of science being against the concept of Creation, but I don’t think that’s valid. One of the fascinating things over the last 20 to 30 years is that scientists have become more and more interested in questions about God. Maybe not questions about the Christian faith, but they are interested in the big questions. For instance, in my field of astrophysics, many of my colleagues would be fascinated by questions of purpose and why are we here? Science itself doesn’t give answers to that. What science does show us are things like the extravagance of God.
JH: What do you mean by that?
DW: Well, we know that our sun is one star in a galaxy of a hundred billion stars, and our galaxy is one of one hundred billion galaxies in the universe. Then when you read in the first chapter of Genesis, almost by the way of a side comment, "He made the stars also," you begin to see something of the greatness of God.
I think science has helped my faith, because it has given me an appreciation for things like the importance of evidence within the Christian faith. But my faith has also helped my science. Albert Einstein said that "science is thinking God’s thoughts after him." Science has expanded my vision at just how good and elegant and beautiful and majestic the creation is.
JH: Why is it then that some scientists tend to regard questions of faith and revelation as irrelevant?
DW: I think a lot of that comes from what we might call the conflict hypothesis. That is that science and faith are somehow opposed and mutually exclusive. You can trace that back historically to the turn of the last century where people like G.H. Huxley tried to free science from the control of the church. Up to that point the great scientists were Christian believers.
But I think the reality now is that most professional scientists would be far more open to religious questions than perhaps they would 30 to 40 years ago. There is a genuineness of interest and searching for spiritual answers as well as scientific ones.
JH: Do you mean there is a level of curiosity or even an acceptance that goes beyond agnosticism?
DW: Yes, I think that’s right. For instance if you look at the work of someone like Paul Davies, an eminent cosmologist and popularizer of science, you see someone who is not afraid to explore questions that go beyond science. Questions about the purpose of the universe, questions about why the universe seems so finely balanced to make possible life. Questions about the intelligibility of the universe. Why is it that scientists can even do science?
JH: Isn’t there a danger, though, of laymen reading too much into this, and say, "Look—you see—they admit God exists"?
DW: I think you’ve got to be careful. The media particularly will hype up any discovery, and scientists today will even hype up discoveries in order to get funding. We need to be cautious about some of the claims that are made. These new discoveries in cosmology shouldn’t worry us. They are exciting. We begin to see certain things that resonate with the Christian faith.
JH: Like what?
DW: One of the things of interest at the moment in cosmology is not the beginning of the universe but the end. Is the universe going to expand forever or will it reach a point when it reaches its limit and collapses?
There are competing claims about this at the moment. But one of the interesting things for me as a Christian is what does that say about creation? If the universe expands forever it dies what is called heat death. Everything cools down.
If the universe starts to collapse after expanding, everything is destroyed in a big crunch. Now at that point what I find interesting is that the Bible talks not just about the continuation of this earth, it talks about a new heaven and a new earth, because God’s purposes are beyond this present universe.
Then there is what we’ve discovered about the fine balance within the universe that makes life possible. It’s called the anthropic balance.
In order to make structure possible within the universe the gravitational force that pulls everything together, and the expansion force of the big bang, which causes the universe to expand, needed to have been balanced at a certain point in the universe’s history. Very finely balanced too, with a precision of 1060—that’s 10 followed by 59 zeros. We really can’t cope with numbers like that, but it’s as if you’re blindfolded and must hit a target one centimeter square on the other side of the universe.
Now, discoveries like this are not proofs for God, but they raise questions that the Christian faith has natural answers to.
JH: The idea that you can prove God by design is flawed though, isn’t it?
DW: There’s a whole number of problems with trying to prove God through design. In terms of modern science you cannot prove God either through the argument of design, because there are always alternative theories. For example, lets go back to anthropic balances.
The Christian may look at the way the universe is so finely tuned and say, "That proves there is a God." An atheist can quite validly come along, "Perhaps there’s an infinite number of universes, all with different conditions in them and ours just happens to be balanced and we’re here because of that. In fact there are billions and billions of other universes that don’t have life. Therefore it is just chance."
Well, scientifically you can say that, but you’ve got to be careful. When we introduce the phrase "in other universes," we go beyond science. That’s actually a metaphysical explanation, even a theological explanation. The person who believes in many, many universes can’t prove that they exist because there’s no information that’s passed between these various universes. But the Christian can say, "My metaphysical explanation in terms of God actually does have some basis because of the Christian claim that God has come into our universe in the person of Jesus." So there is the possibility of knowing what’s beyond this physical universe.
That’s not the classic argument from design. It recognizes that the insights into design and balances need to be put beside the Christian claim that God can only be known because he reveals himself in a way that we can understand.
The Creation can help us to understand his nature, but it doesn’t give the complete picture. Take for example the question—and it is a valid one—is God a loving God? For every beautiful sunset I could show you a child dying of leukemia.
The question then is how do you establish whether God is loving or not. For me its simply that I see revealed in the man Jesus Christ, the God of compassion, the God of mercy, the God of justice. Within that framework I can then look at the universe and look at the beautiful sunset to see that this God’s love and compassion is expressed within artistic beauty, creativity. And at the same time I can see a God who cares for the child suffering with leukemia.
For every "good" bit of the universe there’s also a "bad" bit. Creation confronts us with the problem of suffering, and few Christians would be arrogant enough to say that they had a full answer to that.
JH: It could be argued that a loving God wouldn’t have created the possibly of leukemia in the first place.
DW: I think then that we’re evaluating God and we’re also probably straying into areas where the personal and the theological become in tension. You and I could have an interesting intellectual discussion about a child dying of leukemia. But you do not go to the bedside of a child and have an intellectual discussion with the parents. What you hope to do is to bring the love of God into that situation through the giving of support and the concern.
JH: If you say that the only way we can really know God is through Jesus Christ, a scientist could say, "Well how do I research Jesus Christ?"
DW: Very important. I remember a conversation I had at a breakfast table with a student who’d just arrived at the university where I was a postgraduate. He was a first year physicist, and he sat down and said, "I gather you’re a Christian?" I said, "Yes I am." He asked, "How can you be a scientist and a Christian?"
It was early in the morning and I was a little brusque with him and said, "Tell me, have you ever looked at the evidence for the historicity of Jesus?" To which he said, "No, but I saw a program on Channel 4 that said he didn’t exist." I said, "Have you ever looked at the evidence of his teaching or his death on the cross?" He said, "Well we did all of that a long time ago and I don’t really remember it."
I said, "Have you ever looked seriously at the historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus and the appearance to the disciples of the empty tomb that grew up with the Christian church?" He said, "No, but even if I did, it wouldn’t change my mind because I know dead people can’t rise." At which point I wanted to say to him, "You’re going to have to learn a lot before you become a scientist, because to a scientist, evidence is key."
As a scientist, I approach the man Jesus Christ, not with any a priori belief that the Bible is infallible or that this man is exactly what he says he is. I come as someone first and foremost who wants to assess the evidence. I look at the evidence of the history within the New Testament. I look at the evidence contained within the growth of the Christian church. I look at the evidence of men and women, boys and girls, who claim to experience Jesus Christ and see if this evidence stands up.
Now that’s a very scientific way of doing it. Now of course I need at the same time to say, although that evidence is there, there is a point that then goes beyond science. Because the Christian claim is that Jesus Christ is personal, and when we come to persons rather than scientific theories, we’re on different ground.
As a scientist, you might ask me, "How do I know that my wife loves me?" Well, I’ve got scientific evidence for that: does she buy me a Valentine’s card? Does she scream and run out of the room every time I walk in? That would tell me something, but ultimately I only know her love for me if I am prepared to commit myself into a relationship. That’s the only way that I know it for sure. And the Christian faith is somewhat like that.
JH: You’re saying that science is not the only measure of reality.
DW: Absolutely, and again that’s the fallacy of the argument of saying, "Once I’ve got a scientific description of something, that’s all I need." That is plainly not the case.
If we ask the question, why is the kettle boiling? Well, you might say because the heat energy is being transferred to the water molecules, which are increasing in their velocity, eventually bubbles are formed and that’s why the kettle is boiling. At the same time there is an answer that goes, because you and I want a cup of tea together. One’s about the science, one’s about the purpose. If I’m going to understand why that kettle’s boiling, I need to know both.
Those who follow the conflict hypothesis are only giving one aspect to what is a multi-faceted reality.
JH: Lets go back to the cosmology. As an astrophysicist, what big questions that remain fascinate you most?
DW: There are a number. I’ve talked about the end of the universe, and that’s linked to the so-called dark matter question. Stars and planets are only a small percentage, maybe not more than 10 percent of the mass of the total universe. There’s a lot of mass in the universe that we know is there because we can see its effect on the gravity. But we don’t know what it’s made of. That’s a reminder about just how little we know, but its also one of those great fascinating questions of science.
There are many speculations. Some say we have just got our mass wrong. But the main candidates are either what we might call brown dwarfs, which are effectively large planets that never made it to become stars. Like Jupiter. Jupiter is a large planet that never became a star. But I think its unlikely myself. I think the best candidate is some form of exotic particle that as yet we’ve not discovered. There are searches at the moment for such particles.
Theoretically we can say they exist, but we need to find one. That is difficult because although they exert mass on a large scale, it seems that they don’t interact through electrical charge or some other way that we can measure.
Another question that intrigues me is the question of extra-terrestrial intelligence.
JH: Is that a genuinely scientific pursuit?
DW: Yes it is. The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence has been an honest scientific pursuit for many years now. Unfortunately, it has got a bad name because of some enthusiastic but totally unscientific claims.
All we can say for certain at the moment is that the only intelligent life in the galaxy is us. We can’t go beyond that until we have had some kind of contact.
JH: What would it do to your faith if you were a part of a team that did discover little green men living on one of the moons of Jupiter?
DW: It wouldn’t be catastrophic to my faith. It would be yet more demonstration of the extravagance and greatness of God. I would welcome it. That wouldn’t mean there wouldn’t be difficult questions to work out.
I come back to one of my comments that there’s an extravagance to what God does. Why so many stars? Why so many galaxies? Surely if God was just interested in us, one star, one planet, would be enough? But the billions of stars are a reflection of the nature of God.
And the more we discover of that which can be seen, everything seems to be useful. Everything has a place.
JH: So you have no conflict in your roles of a Christian minister and a theoretical scientist?
DW: No, there’s no conflict.
That’s not to say there aren’t unanswered questions. But in the end someone said to me very early when I became a Christian, if you proclaim Jesus as Lord, then he’s got to be Lord of your mind as well as Lord of heart.
You cannot live some kind of Jeckyl and Hyde existence between church on Sunday and the real world during work. The same Jesus who’s Lord of the worship is also Lord of the workplace. Part of my attempt at Christian discipleship has been to show integrity. I don’t think churches are good at helping scientists. Often the language, the illustrations and the concepts we use in worship are more based in the arts world. Scientists often find themselves quite alienated by the church.
I’ve been fortunate to be a part of churches where science has been valued. It was always made clear to me that to be a scientist was as much of a Christian calling as it was to be a full-time worker for the church, and I try and encourage students to see science as a calling. God has created a universe where science is possible. Jesus is the one that, as Paul said in Colossians, holds the whole universe together. We’re only able to do science because of Jesus, and it should be for his glory.