Thursday, November 3, 2016

Book Write-Up: Signposts to God, by Peter Bussey

Peter Bussey.  Signposts to God: How Modern Physics and Astronomy Point the Way to Belief.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Peter Bussey is a particle physicist with a Ph.D. from Cambridge.  In Signposts to God, Bussey argues that modern physics is either compatible with Christian theism or points to a creator.

This review will go through each chapter, commenting on select points.  It will not be a comprehensive review, but it will hopefully provide readers with a taste of what the book is like, and what I consider to be its strengths and weaknesses.  I should add the disclaimer that I am not a scientist.

Chapter 1 is the introduction.  Here, Bussey criticizes physicalism.  Physicalism appears to be similar to materialism, a view that excludes the spiritual by saying that matter is all that there is.  According to Bussey, humans have a sense that life includes more than the material, or physical.

Chapter 2, “The World of Physics: A Quick Tour,” talks about basic aspects of physics: force, gravitation, electricity and magnetism, light, heat, and atoms.  This chapter also has a section on the “God particle,” or the Higgs particle.  The prose is not particularly complex, but a lot of information does come at readers at once, which may challenge people (like me) who have difficulty absorbing scientific concepts.

Chapter 3, “Revolutions in Physics,” covers relativity, the big bang, light as particles, and quantum physics.  This chapter briefly mentions theological problems that C.S. Lewis and Albert Einstein had with the randomness of quantum physics, but, overall, this chapter is rather thin in theological reflection, in comparison with the other chapters of the book.  Bussey does say that quantum physics may pose a challenge to physicalism, or at least rigid forms of physicalism that portray humans as “just physical machines” (page 37).  Bussey also refers to views that there is actually an order underneath the randomness.  Bussey does not necessarily endorse such views, but, throughout the book, he does appear to be more comfortable with order than with randomness.  For Bussey, order (i.e., laws) point to God.

In Chapter 4, “Laws of Nature and of Physics,” Bussey argues that there are physical laws, and he believes that these point to a lawgiver, God.  Bussey presents various arguments against those who deny the existence of physical laws; his most convincing argument is that scientists have made predictions on the basis of laws, and the predictions have come to pass.  This chapter was lucid in its discussion of nominalism (i.e., there are only particulars) and universalism; it was informative, albeit not as lucid, in summarizing Aristotelian and medieval views on form, and the contrast between those views and modern science.

In Chapter 5, “Dangerous Infinities,” Bussey talks about the theological implications of the view that the universe is either infinite in space, or finite.  Some, such as Newton, held that the universe was infinite and that this reflected God’s infinity.  There was a fear among some theologians, however, that regarding the universe as infinite could make it too much like God, and they wanted to preserve God’s distinctness.  This chapter did not knock me out of my seat, but it was interesting to read what prominent thinkers have believed about the infinity of the universe and the theological implications thereof.

In Chapter 6, “Modern Astronomy: Where Has God Gone?”, Bussey addresses the theological implications of the vastness of the universe.  When the world was believed to be the center of the universe, God was deemed to be near, paying close attention to what occurred on earth.  Can we believe this now that we know that the earth is not the center but is rather a tiny speck in a vast universe?  Bussey responds as one would expect, saying that God’s eye is on the sparrow, so God is paying attention to us, small as we are.  In terms of science, he talks about how the vast universe is necessary for life to exist on this planet.  What was especially interesting in this chapter, though, was when Bussey argued that, even in medieval times, there was some sense that the universe was large: not as large as we today understand it to be, but still large.

Chapter 7, “The Human-Friendly Universe,” is about the origin of the universe and earth.  Bussey is essentially presenting the argument from design: that things had to turn out a certain way for life to exist, and that this points to a designer.  On page 100, Bussey made an intriguing statement: “Somehow, some extremely large numerical quantities, given by the fields individually, are apparently canceling each other out almost exactly, but there is no known reason why they should.”  I was somewhat lost in terms of the science that Bussey was discussing, but I could tell that Bussey was referring to something here that he considered to be enigmatic.  In his narration of the development of the universe, things were taking place naturally: one event followed the other, and we could see why one event followed the other (even though things could have occurred otherwise, and, fortunately for us, they did not).  Here, by contrast, something occurs that turns out well for life, but it is unclear why exactly it occurred.  Bussey may be open to seeing that as pointing to God.

Overall, reading this chapter had a rather different effect than what Bussey may have intended.  As Bussey described the natural development of the universe, that seemed to me to contrast with the picture that we get in Genesis 1, in which God simply spoke, and things came to be (fiat).  Perhaps God could have used natural processes, but I can understand how some can arrive at the conclusion that a natural explanation makes God unnecessary.

In Chapter 8, “Implications of a Universe ‘Fine-Tuned’ for Us,” Bussey responds to detractors of the argument from design.  He addresses such topics as the concept of multiverse and the alleged “Theory of Everything.”  In one case, Bussey lucidly, and I would say accurately, laid out an argument against design, but his response to it was rather weak.  The argument is: “Advanced life is indeed a complex phenomenon, but it is of no real significance.  It is merely one physical possibility among many.  The cosmic tea leaves just chanced to fall this way.”  In other words, just because advanced life is important to us, that does not mean that there had to be a God who intended for it to exist; things just turned out as they did, and we got lucky.  Bussey’s response was that consciousness is significant.  Not only is he basing his argument on a subjective judgment, but his argument does not answer this objection against design.

To his credit, Bussey in this chapter offers criticisms of the Intelligent Design movement.  Bussey notes that biologists have found natural, scientific explanations to the puzzles that have been attributed to design.  For unclear reasons, Bussey does not believe that the same situation applies to physics.

Chapter 9, “God As First Cause: An Argument That Seems to Hold,” is about the cosmological argument: the idea that someone caused the universe to exist.  Bussey argues against the idea that the universe has existed forever, and, overall, his arguments were effective.  In refuting the idea that the universe has been in a continuous, unending cycle of expanding and contracting, for example, Bussey states that, were this true, there would be a lot more background radiation in the universe, enough to preclude stars from developing.  In my opinion, this chapter was the best in the book, in terms of clarity and meeting objections head on.

What stands out to me in Chapter 10, “Explanations and Evidence,” is Bussey’s paragraph on page 159 about why belief in God is reasonable: order, human intelligence may point to a higher intelligence, etc.  I did not care that much for his statement on page 158: “But rather than saying, ‘God cannot exist because I would have done it better!’ it may be wise to acknowledge our limited understanding.”  Our understanding is limited, and, as Bussey most likely knows, that is something that various sides in the debate over the existence of God can cite: atheists can say that there is a natural explanation for the things that theists attribute to God, even if that explanation is unknown, so we should not jump to the “God did it” explanation just because our understanding is limited.  My problem with Bussey’s statement on page 158 is that I think that an appeal to “flawed design” should be considered relevant in debates about the existence of God.  Many apologists like to appeal to design and order to justify their belief in God, so what is wrong with skeptics asking about apparent flaws in the design structure, or disorder?

Chapter 11, “Mental Reality,” is about the soul and human consciousness.  Bussey contends against the idea that the human mind is merely the product of the physical brain, as he maintains that humans have a soul, and that God (not nature) is responsible for the human mind.  This chapter provided the interesting detail the Descartes may not have been as dualistic in his conception of the soul and the body as many might think.  There were also judicious aspects to Bussey’s discussion, as when Bussey stated that we cannot make flawless judgments about the thinking-ability of animals, since we are not them.  Bussey’s arguments against materialism (or epiphenomenalism) were rather elliptical, however.  Plus, there is a lingering question in my mind: What exactly does the human brain do, according to people who believe that humans have a soul?  Does the brain do anything or serve any purpose, if the soul is what gives us our thinking ability?  If humans have a soul, is their brain superfluous?

In Chapter 12, “Mystery and Ignorance,” Bussey talks about having a sense of wonder at the universe.  He criticizes the romantic notion that greater knowledge and understanding detract from wonder.  Bussey is probably implying that the sense of wonder that even non-believing scientists experience is a signpost to God.

Chapter 13, “Beyond Physicalism,” criticizes the idea that science can know or understand everything.  Bussey also spends time critiquing Carl Sagan’s view that religion encouraged superstition, until science showed the truth, and that we should stick with what is “rational” rather than pursuing religion.

This book was over my head, in areas, but it was also informative.  There were times when Bussey seemed to be jumping to conclusions, but there were also times when his discussions were judicious.

I apologize for any misunderstandings on my part in reading and reviewing this book.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

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