Sunday, February 3, 2013

Reason, Evidence, and Searching for Truth

Using reason and evidence in a search for truth doesn't threaten my faith. I'm Catholic, a faith I share with folks like Galileo, Copernicus, and Mendel. (July 20, 2011; October 26, 2009)

Another Week, Nine New Worlds

Caltech, the California Institute of Technology, published information about another nine previously unknown planets on January 28, 2013. One of these worlds is BD-06 1339 b. It's 20.1 parsecs, or 65.5 light years, away: in the general direction of Orion's belt, if I'm reading the coordinates correctly.

This newly-found planet is about eight and a half times as massive as Earth, and whips around its star in a little less than four days. The star, BD-06 1339, is a little cooler and a bit dimmer than Earth's star: but not all that different.

BD-06 1339 b is really close to its parent star: roughly 1/10 the distance that Mercury is from the Sun. It's not likely to be home to the sort of life we're used to.

Kepler-47c

Kepler-47, a planetary system about 4,900 light years away in the constellation Cygnus, might be to home to critters more or less like us. One of the planets is probably a gas giant, a bit larger that Neptune: in a circular orbit, at a distance that should allow liquid water on a rocky world like ours. If Kepler-47c has a rocky moon: that moon could have an atmosphere, water, and life.


(from NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle, used w/o permission)
"...This diagram compares our own solar system to Kepler-47, a double-star system containing two planets, one orbiting in the so-called 'habitable zone.' This is the sweet spot in a planetary system where liquid water might exist on the surface of a planet...."
(NASA/JPL-Caltech (August 28, 2012))

My faith doesn't depend on knowing that I live in a universe that's almost unthinkably vast and many powers of ten more ancient than the six millennia imagined by Bishop Ussher. On the other hand, it most certainly does not depend on maintaining ignorance of this marvelous creation.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

I doubt that this universe is like the delightfully wacky world described in Douglas Adams' third "Hitchhiker's Guide the the Galaxy" books. It's probably a great deal stranger.

That doesn't bother me at all. Neither does the idea that God isn't a white-haired European man with a muscular build.

Michelangelo Buonarroti's Creation of Adam fresco, detail
(Michelangelo Buonarroti, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission)
Detail of Michelangelo Buonarroti's Creation of Adam fresco, in the Sistine Chapel.

We've learned a great deal about this creation in the centuries since Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. My guess is that we've got a great deal more to discover.

I think it's a good idea to use the brains God gave us, trying to discover more facets of the universe, and figure out how they work. Learning about the world suits my faith just fine, since "...the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God..."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)

What I Expect

I'd be astonished if the universe turned out to be like the setting of Douglas Adam's Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy stories. Adams' assorted robots, aliens, and lunatics are, well, quite human. That's fine, since the stories focus on a great many human foibles. But I think the universe will prove to be a great deal less familiar.

If there's life elsewhere in the universe, and if we share this creation with other people with material form, who aren't human: I think it's likely that they'll be quite unlike us:
"...There's nothing wrong with telling a story about a galaxy teeming with non-human people - who all just happen to be almost exactly as smart as humans; with almost exactly the same interests, needs, and goals; and using almost exactly the same technology.

The universe could be like that, but probably isn't. If humanity was one of a few billion almost-exactly-like-human civilizations; all of which were within a few thousand years of each other in terms of technology - humanity would probably be selling souvenirs to space alien tourists.

It seems hard to remember how old the universe is. A million years ago, humans were learning how to use fire without killing themselves. But a million years is only a tiny fraction of the time that stars and planets have been spinning around this galaxy's core....
"
(Apathetic Lemming of the North (February 1, 2013))
Again, the idea that humanity isn't the only possible sort of people doesn't upset me.

The Universe, God, and Imagination

Although the Almighty seems to like repeating some forms at a dizzying variety of scales, like logarithmic spirals, the more we learn about the universe, the more variations on themes we find.

A geneticist wrote one of my favorite descriptions of what we can expect to find in this magnificent creation:
"I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."
(J. B. S. Haldane, via Wikiquote)
I might not have imagined a planet like BD-06 1339 b, but I didn't design this universe. As I've said before, God's God, I'm not.

Faith and Reason

I decided to become a Catholic in large part because this faith makes sense. We're supposed to pay attention to faith and reason:
"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth...."
("Fides et Ratio," Encyclical Letter, John Paul II (September 14, 1998))

"Man's faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. The proofs of God's existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason."
(Catechism, 35) [emphasis mine]

"Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life...."
(Catechism, 1804)
The Church says that science and technology are fine, and that ethics are important. (Catechism, 2293) I think one way to distinguish between science and faith is what they help us understand:
  • Science
    • What things are
    • How they work
  • Faith
    • Why things are
    • How we should deal with them
And that's another topic. Lots more topics.

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1 comment:

JohnL said...

Hi Brian, Enjoyed reading tour latest post. We have some similar interests and ideas.
Just one thought on life elsewhere. My hypothesis is that if a planet in any 'solar' system falls within the 'life zone' and has reasonably similar characteristics as our own Earth, then it is possible that the creation of life would have similar forms and evolutionary processes as here. The only question I would have as to whether Man would also be present? My gut instinct would suggest probably not, as I suspect that God allowed 'Man' for His own reasons to be created here. In any case after seeing his behaviour here why would God bother!!!? Cheers.

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