F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
January 2005



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The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross

By George Murphy, Trinity Press International, 213 pages, $45., ISBN I-56338-407-5. 

George L. Murphy is an Episcopal pastor, has a physics PhD, is a Templeton science and religion Fellow, and teaches theology and science at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.   His goal in this book is to contribute to the dialogue between scientists and theologians by answering questions as to whether God is needed in cosmology or in evolution; and by discussing decision-making on ethical questions arising from new technologies.   He outlines several approaches to theology.  He discusses Barth’s emphasis on the single revelation of the crucified Christ; but he favors the “dependent view” that tries to combine revelation as given in the Bible with results from science. 

Murphy argues that the “naïve realism” of classical physics is modified by  Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.  He discusses various attitudes toward God’s action in the world.  Murphy favors combining the neo-Thomist and a “kenotic”  approach.  The former sees God as the primary cause, acting through natural law. The kenotic approach sees God as parent, and we people as His children.  Just like a parent, God voluntarily limits His control.  Also God is vulnerable, as illustrated by Christ’s suffering on the cross.  The eternal problem of why God allows evil and suffering in the world is (partially) answered by Murphy’s belief that God experienced suffering on the cross.  Paul (Phillipians 2:3-5) stated kenosis in these words: “Do nothing from selfish  ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”     

In Chapters 9 and 10 Murphy begins applying the kenotic approach to discussion of many ethical problems arising from new technologies: possible further use of nuclear weapons, disposal of nuclear waste, organ transplants, genetic engineering, therapeutic cloning, abortion and end-of life issues.  I found these chapters disappointing.  Murphy adds little to what most readers already know on these thorny issues.  On nuclear weapons, Murphy quotes Yoder on criteria for a “just war”, and the 1983 statement by the Roman Catholic bishops of the U.S. that there can be virtually no morally acceptable use of nuclear weapons.  But does the 1983 declaration apply retroactively to the 1945 decision by Pres. Truman?  Should use of nuclear weapons be prosecuted as a war crime?  Murphy doesn’t tell us.  How about organ transplants from patients who are “brain dead"?  Murphy states (p. 158), “It is possible to use the criterion of brain death and to require consistent application of well-defined clinical tests for it.”  It’s possible, but does Murphy think it’s desirable to use this criterion?   On abortion he says (p. 154), “That does not mean that opposition to abortion must be absolute…But that is something quite different from making freedom of choice an absolute.”  Does Murphy support the Supreme Court decision, Roe vs. Wade?  On end-of-life issues Murphy states (pp. 158-9), “In the present context this suggests that life is not to be terminated or allowed to end simply to end suffering.  But maintaining bodily functions by every conceivable means when the possibility of recovery is gone is not an expression of biblical hope.” 

Murphy chooses a "moderate position”  that attempts to bring out the full implications of "chiasmic cosmology,” which Murphy defines as "a view of the universe which sees the Creator present first of all as the crucified One.   In his penultimate chapter, Murphy discusses various anthropic principles, and their relation to theology. 

Murphy uses a specialized theological terminology: chiasmic, kenotic and soteriological ("related to salvation"), for example. Since physicists also use strange terminology, we shouldn’t complain on this score.

I do disagree with Murphy’s concentration on the cross as the essence of Christianity. He quotes Luther, “the cross alone is our theology” and “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.”  Murphy states (p. 26), “The cross plays an important role in every serious reflection on the Christian faith.”  This reviewer is a Quaker; we Quaker’s pay great attention to Jesus, but rather little to the cross.  We disagree with Luther, by favoring works over faith. 

We scientists can tell when we are wrong, and be pretty sure when we’re right; but these decisions are difficult in theology.  Murphy states (p. 21), “Although Blaise Pascal did not contribute as much to mathematics or physics as Newton, he was a considerably better theologian.”    I know how to verify the first part of that sentence; but I am at a loss as to how to verify the second part.

Joe Levinger
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
e-mail: levinj@rpi.edu   


Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design

By Barbara Forrest & Paul R. Gross, Oxford University Press, 2004, viii + 401 pp., hardcover, $40.00, ISBN 0-19-515742-7

Creationism evolves.  The selection process driving this evolution is a series of court decisions over the years, unmasking ever more sophisticated attempts to disguise a religious doctrine as science so as to gain entrée to public-school science classrooms.

The latest and slickest species to appear in this process is intelligent design creationism (IDC).  IDC was first set forth in modern dress about 1992 by criminal law professor Phillip Johnson and elaborated mainly by a group of a half-dozen or so, some of whom actually have advanced degrees in areas related to evolutionary biology.  However, the essential arguments are no different from those published in William Paley's 1802 book Natural Theology and long since abandoned by the scientific community.  IDC has been the subject of detailed and devastating refutations in numerous books and articles.[i]  Forrest and Gross do summarize the numerous fallacies, distortions, ploys, and falsehoods published by the ID creationists, but that is not the main thrust of their book.  Rather, they do a signal service to the scientific community and the public at large by setting forth in great detail the broader aims and activities of IDC, which Johnson dubbed the “Wedge strategy.”  The aim of the Wedge is nothing less than to revolutionize all of the sciences by introducing the supernatural – the directly acting, directly observable hand of God – as a legitimate and frequently encountered component of scientific discovery.  But this is not the end of their ambitions; more on that later.

What is the Wedge? Phase I is “Research, Writing, and Publication.  … Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade” [emphasis added].[ii]  

Reasonable enough.  However, as Forrest and Gross show in exquisite detail, the voluminous output of the ID creationists contains not a single contribution to science.  That has not dissuaded them from extensive “attempts to indoctrinate instead of persuade” in Phases II and III:

Phase II:  Publicity and opinion-making. … The primary purpose of Phase II is to prepare the popular reception of our ideas.  For this reason we seek to cultivate and convince influential individuals in print and broadcast media, as well as think-tank leaders, scientists and academics, congressional staff, talk show hosts, college and seminary presidents and faculty and potential academic allies. … We also seek to build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians.  [It is common practice among evangelicals and fundamentalists to use the term Christian in a narrow sense, excluding the broad spectrum of Christians who do not subscribe to their belief system.] 

“Phase III: …We will move toward direct confrontation with the advocates of materialist science through challenge conferences in significant academic settings.  We will also pursue possible legal assistance in response to resistance to the integration of design theory into public school science curricula.…  With an added emphasis to the social sciences and humanities, we will begin to address the specific social consequences of materialism [i.e., most of the social evils they perceive as besetting the modern world] and the Darwinist theory [ID creationists routinely call modern biology “Darwinism”--as though one were to call modern physics “Newtonism”] that supports it in the sciences.

In twenty years (starting from the mid-1990s) the ID creationists hope to achieve three broad goals:  to see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science;  to see design theory application in specific fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology within the natural sciences, and also psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities; and to see its influence in the fine arts; and to see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.

To these ends, the IDC movement has set up a cluster of organizations the chief of which is the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, and specifically its subsidiary the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CSRC), now renamed the Center for Science and Culture (CSC).  Funding currently totaling between $1 million and $2 million a year is provided largely by organizations with strong ties to the Christian Reconstruction movement, whose ultimate purpose is to supplant the U.S. Constitution with the legal code of the Old Testament.

Forrest and Gross recount in great detail, with 65 pages of meticulous endnotes in small print, the strategies and tactics of the movement.  ID creationists produce a flood of publications, including books (nearly all published by evangelical religious or politically very conservative presses[iii]), articles in conservative political and religious magazines, and web pages. 

In equally fine detail, Forrest and Gross describe and document IDC’s well-organized, persistent campaign to insinuate IDC into public-school curricula.  Over the past few years, efforts have been made at the state level in Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and probably other states as well.  In this effort, the ID creationists have taken the lead from the older and better known young-earth creationists (YECs) typified by the Institute for Creation Research.  There are serious differences between these two camps.  The YECs are critical that many ID creationists prefer to say as little as possible about the age of the universe.  And unlike the up-front YECs, the ID creationists claim a completely non-religious position when addressing secular audiences, arguing that the Intelligent Designer may as well be a space alien as the biblical God – a position they definitely do not take when addressing evangelical groups.  Nevertheless, the IDCs and YECs try to present a united front against the common enemy, science as it is actually practiced.

A parallel aim of the IDC movement has been to establish academic credibility, and Forrest and Gross describe how they have pursued a variety of approaches to this end.  In perhaps the most dramatic of these, the president of Baylor University was persuaded, in 1999, to set up the inappropriately named Michael Polanyi Center under the directorship of ID champion William Dembski.  This “first intelligent design think-tank at a research university” (so called by Dembski, p. 207) elicited the fury of the Baylor faculty, which had not been consulted on an essentially academic matter.  The upshot of the furor that followed was the termination of Dembski’s directorship, the removal of the name, and the absorption of the center into the existing Institute for Faith and Learning, where it was subject to faculty supervision.  Dembski’s five-year (1999-2004) contract as an associate research professor was honored, but as of May 2004 the Baylor web site shows no trace of him or the center. 

These and other efforts have met so far with mixed success at best, but Forrest and Gross give good reason for concern that IDC will do much more damage to science and education in the future.  They will not (and cannot) make any impact on scientific knowledge or the working scientists who actually contribute to it.  But ID creationists have many allies among Americans in general and in the corridors of power and sources of funding in particular.  And though the IDC threat is aimed primarily at biology, there is plenty of reason for physicists to worry as well.  The IDC condemnation of “materialism” leads to the dead-end solution “that’s how God did it” for problems in physics (and especially in astronomy and cosmology) as much as in biology.  As Forrest and Gross conclude:

Our hope is that readers will see that [Phillip] Johnson’s optimistic assessment of the Wedge’s progress … is justified, albeit not by the scientific, philosophical or legal, or even generally religious, merits of his case.  In the story of the Wedge to date [2003], we see a demonstration of the power of public relations to shape public opinion and policy on the largest scale – in ways that have nothing to do with the true state of scientific knowledge.  And our final hope is that readers will consider seriously the question of what they ought to be doing about it.

Lawrence S. Lerner
Professor Emeritus
College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics
California State University, Long Beach


[i] For example:  Pennock, Robert T., Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism, MIT Press, 1999; Miller, Kenneth, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search For Common Ground Between God and Evolution, Cliff Street Books, New York, 1999.

[ii]  <http://www.antievolution.org/features/wedge.html>.  The quotations of Phases II and III and the Wedge goals, below, are from the same source.

[iii] A significant exception (and to my knowledge the only one) is William Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities, Cambridge University Press, 1998. 


Energy at the Crossroads:  Global Perspectives and Uncertainties

by Vaclav Smil

MIT Press, 2003; 427 pages, $ 34.95 (hard cover), ISBN: 0-262-19492-9

In his preface, Vaclav Smil calls this survey "Reflections on a Life of Energy Studies."  Even for those of us who hadn't come across this expert author before, a quick glance at the Contents reveals a nearly encyclopedic treatise on all questions of human energy usage.  This is a book of solid facts, not assumptions and intentions. The vast list of references gives the critical reader opportunity to check the veracity of the numbers and also the context in which they are cited.

So this is a good book.  But is it worthwhile reading for a physicist, in particular for one who has dealt with some of these issues before?  In answering that, let me be slightly facetious.  As their attitude towards environmental and energy issues go, physicists tend to fall into three distinct categories:

First, dedicated scientists such as Archimedes or perhaps Steven Hawking, who are simply awed by the beauty of Nature.  In comparison to Her grand design, human issues such as our individual survival seem trivial and boring. 

Second, technological optimists such as Edward Teller, aware of and often competent with the most important environmental problems.  For them, problems are there to be solved; we have mastered the ones we encountered in the past 5000 years and there is no reason why we shouldn't be able to master the present and future ones. 

Third, political activists such as Amory Lovins, concerned scientists who analyze and boldly extrapolate present trends, and come to a simple conclusion:  Unless human beings change their social behavior radically (in some way or another), humanity is inevitably doomed.  They are either strongly engaged in activist programs to avoid such disastrous developments, or are at least sympathetic with people who do. 

These three groups have little in common except that each group tends to be disdainful of the other two.

With this introduction, I can sum up my review of Smil's book rather simply: Energy at the Crossroads will annoy every one of those three groups, but be fascinating and enlightening to physicists (regardless of which of group they belong to) who have the stamina to carefully study these 400 pages.  The reason for this seeming paradox is that there is hardly a single argument in this book to which Smil does not immediately give valid counterarguments.  Thus, Smil convinces us that any unwavering stand one may take on energy questions is at least foolish, if not outright dangerous.

The subtitle Global Perspectives and Uncertainties already gives a hint that this will not be light "bedtime" reading.  It is pedantic in stretches, giving meticulous reviews of what can seem to the superficial reader to be irrelevant details, such as the history of mining technology.

The book begins by describing long-term trends in global energy production, conversion, and consumption, starting essentially at the beginning of the 20th century.  It describes in great detail the linkage of these variables to other ecomomic and social data such as economy, quality of life, environment and, last but not least, war.  In this approach, today's fundamental problem becomes clear immediately:  During the past 100 years we have seen a dramatic dependence on fossil fuels, particularly in the developed countries, but increasingly in the third world as well.  Can this go on indefinitely?

In moving from careful analysis of the past to a discussion of possible energy futures, Smil first inserts a sardonic but thought-provoking interlude:  a chapter titled "Against Forecasting."  This is arguably the most important part of the book.  Smil makes clear that our ability to reliably project, even qualitatively, any aspect of human energy use for even 10 years ahead is, for all practical purposes, nil.  As a simple example, the predictions of global total primary energy demand in year 2000 by the participants of the 1983 International Energy Workshop (including such institutions as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Bank, and the Oak Ridge Institute for Energy Analysis, along with several well-known academic specialists) differed by a factor of 3, overshooting or undershooting by as much as 60%! This is an unacceptably uncertain basis for serious policy decisions.

In Fig. 3.8, which gives these results, it can be noted that one individual predicted the actual value for 2000 correctly to within 3%:  V. Smil.  But instead of admiring the competence of the author, read what he himself says about this:  Whereas the total number happened to be on the dot, Smil was as off the track as everybody else in the breakdown of this number in types of energy (coal, crude oil, natural gas, etc.).  Thus, the correctness of the sum is actually somewhat fortuitous.  There are many more such examples of seriously failing forecasts in this chapter, such as the optimism with which physics Nobel laureates such as Glenn Seaborg or Hans Bethe in the 1950s (and even as late as 1977) foresaw a world shaped by ubiquitous and inexpensive nuclear energy.  But equally off the mark were many predictions regarding possible reductions in consumption.  To this reviewer, who has been involved in some energy forecasting himself, this chapter is, indeed, delightfully entertaining bedside reading!

In the two ensuing chapters, Smil discusses fossil and nonfossil energies at length and in depth.  In light of the recent U.S. ballyhoo about a revival of fission energy, fusion energy, and a future hydrogen economy, the sections on these options are, to say the least, sobering.  

Having willingly followed Smil up to this point, the reader is, however, bound to have become somewhat impatient:  Where is he leading us to?  What are his own convictions?  Aren't there necessary choices to be made?  The answers to all three questions are in the last chapter on ``Possible Futures,'' especially its last three sections:  "What Really Matters,"  "What Does, and Does Not, Help," and "Realities and a Wish List."  But once again, they are not easily deciphered.  However, in contrast to the impression a superficial reader may have gained so far, Smil is far from entertaining an uninvolved, objectively detached stance.  In order to enable readers to judge for themselves what Smil's `own convictions' are, it is worthwhile quoting two passages from the last two sections:

[Through higher efficiencies] the global economy has been able to lower the energy intensity of its output by 0.7%/year during the past 30 years….  Conversely, today's global mean [annual consumption] of 58 GJ/capita [would have] required about 75 GJ during the early 1970s--and that rate was the French mean of the early 1960s and the Japanese mean of the late 1960s.

And so the answer is obvious: for more than 90% of people that will be alive in today's low-income countries in the year 2025 it would be an immense improvement to experience the quality of life that was reached in France and Japan during the 1960s….

Lowering the rich world's mean seems to be an utterly unrealistic proposition.  But I will ask any European reader born before 1950 or shortly afterwards, and hence having good recollection of the 1960s, this simple question:  What was so unbearable about life in that decade?  What is so precious that we have gained through our much increased energy use that we seem to be unwilling even to contemplate a return to those levels of fuel and electricity consumption?  How fascinating it would be to collect a truly representative sample of honest answers!

To begin with [the wish list], I would be overjoyed to see the worship of moderate growth coupled with an unwavering commitment to invest in smart, that is appropriately targeted, protection of biospheric goods and services.  Two formidable obstacles are in the way:  a disproportionate amount of our attention continues to go into increasing the supply rather than moderating the demand, and modern economists, zealous worshippers of growth, have no experience with running a steady-state economy, and an overwhelming majority of them would probably even refuse to think about its possible modalities.  Yet there is little doubt that many of these moderating steps can be taken without materially affecting the high quality of life and at a very acceptable cost (or even with profit).  I do not think I exaggerate when I see this to be primarily an issue of attitude rather than of a distinct and painful choice.

In summary, I will dare to rephrase Smil's conclusions more bluntly, in my own words:  The future of energy production and consumption in the 21st century is fraught with many, extremely serious hazards, and there are no simple, straightforward solutions to any of these problems.  But one conclusion is unavoidable: the only attitude we cannot afford is to neglect the problem.

Cornelius C. Noack 
 Institute of Theoretical Physics
University of Bremen
E-mail:  noack at itp.uni-bremen.de



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