Future Astronomers and the danger of an incomplete data set

I was listening to a recent TED Radio hour and one of the topics was the ever increasing expansion of the universe.

Not that long ago, the conventional wisdom in physics was that we lived in a static universe, where stars and galaxies were at a fixed distance apart and that distance did not change. Eventually, astronomers and physicists discovered that the universe was expanding, that all the stars and galaxies were rushing away from us. The new conventional wisdom was that the universe was expanding but that rate of expansion was decreasing due to the gravity. However, once again, astronomers discovered that this was not the case. They discovered that not only is the universe expanding, but that it’s expanding at an ever increasing rate.

That means, that eventually (according to this TED talk), in the distant future, the distance between our solar system and every other star would be so great and the galaxy would be expanding so fast that even the speed of light would not be able to overcome the distance and rate of expansion of the universe, the result being that future astronomers would look up at the night sky and see… nothing. Their futuristic equipment would not be able to detect anything beyond their lump of matter and so, based on observation, they would conclude that there is nothing else in the universe. They would conclude what we just discovered is not true, that the universe is static and unmoving.

Brian Greene explains:

“They will conclude that the universe is static and unchanging populated by a single central oasis of matter that they inhabit, a picture of the cosmos that we definitively know is wrong. Now maybe those future astronomers will have records handed down to them from an earlier era like ours, attesting to an expanding cosmos teeming with galaxies, but would those future astronomers believe such ancient knowledge or would they believe in the static, empty, black universe that their own state of the art observations reveal? I suspect the latter.”

This is fascinating in and of itself, but it’s also fascinating to me because of its connection to another book I’m reading, Where the Conflict Really Lies by Alvin Plantinga.

In his book, Plantinga makes the case that there is really no conflict between Science and Theistic Religion (and that there is deep concord between the two and that there is real conflict between Science and naturalism).[1] There is however, a conflict between Naturalism and Religious belief because the two draw from a different evidence base.

Naturalism (sometimes called Scientific Naturalism) limits its evidence base to only what is testable and observable. Anything that could not be tested (say, a miracle, the existence of God, etc.) could not be considered part of “knowledge” in a naturalist system. Religious belief allows for a broader evidence base. It includes scientific (observable, testable) knowledge but it also is open to (rather, promotes the belief in) the existence of miracles, of a personal Creator, sustaining God who exists outside the system.

Religious belief, at least of the “historical religions” like Christianity, also relies on the accuracy of eye witness testimony, of records from an earlier generation, of ancient knowledge.

Back to our future astronomers. What worldview would allow them to know the truth? If they relied solely on Naturalism, their own system would not allow them to believe that the universe contained any other chunks of matter! The ancient knowledge based through the generations could not be part of their evidence base. It would lead them to ultimately wrong conclusions. For the future astronomers to gain a correct understanding of the universe they would have to trust the testimony of the previous generation, and only in this way could they could come to an accurate estimation of the reality of their universe.

To me, this illustrates the limitations of pre-defining an evidence base that excludes anything other than observable, testable data. It is simply the fact of life that other kinds of knowledge matter, like the testimony of others, even when such testimony is no longer testable. On the whole, I think Theistic religion gains the upper hand here, accepting scientific knowledge as true knowledge without limiting it to the only kind of knowledge.

[1] For two other posts on this see Normalists and Abnormalists and Being more precise: In Praise of Science not Naturalism.


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