Alan H Batten

Books for Sale by Alan H Batten


Contemplation of human evolution
The reader who picks up this book expecting to learn the latest on the structure and content of the Universe may feel slightly misled by the title. The book does touch on a wide range of topics, which (if we put cosmology as such aside) include: Darwinian evolution, God, religion, genetics, the brain, Newtonian gravity, the Solar System, Bayesian probability, Intelligent Design and many more. A better guide to the contents is the book‘s subtitle. Alan Batten is an astronomer and an active Christian (he has served on the Synod of the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia). He argues that "… it is quite rational for one to be open to the idea that the world contains entities that transcend our senses" (p. 24), and questions Francis Crick‘s contention that "… our thoughts and hopes and wishes [are] … 'nothing but a pack of neurons.‘" (p. xii). The book‘s ten chapters (with such titles as, 'How we perceive the universe', 'Belief in God' and 'Reason and revelation') are wide ranging in the topics they touch upon, although certain themes are recurrent. The very useful Name Index provides an indication of which people have most strongly influenced the book‘s central argument. Apart from God (He is mentioned more than anyone else), Charles Darwin‘s name appears most often, followed by the astronomer Arthur Eddington. A bit less frequently we come across the physicists Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Only Dawkins is still active; the other five have been dead for over forty years (Newton for almost three centuries). While I wouldn‘t make too much of this simple name-counting, it does show how the book has been at least as much driven by contemplating human evolution as by considering cosmology. By tracing the flow of topics and arguments in one chapter, the reader can perhaps gain an im-pression of how the book makes its case. Chapter 4, "Argument from design" begins with Thomas Aquinas‘ five arguments for the existence of God. The last – God as designer – is, notes Batten, an ancient argument. Newton could explain the motions of the bodies in the Solar System, but could not account for the fact that the planets orbit the Sun in almost the same plane. In this he saw the hand of God. But Laplace, a century later, would explain the planetary configuration in the context of his nebular cosmogony, concluding that he had "… no need for God." This, notes the author, illustrates the danger of invoking God to plug gaps in our understanding. One could then counter that God is still present as He laid down the laws later discovered by Newton, Laplace, et al., but this is the aloof Aristotelian godhead, not the Christian God of love. By the twentieth century, man, the Earth, even the Sun, are no longer central in the Universe, and with Darwinian evolution (and Freud‘s ideas about the mind) we have a "… principle of mediocrity." Via a Universe with special properties (one with niches fit for life) we arrive at the anthropic principle. In a multiplicity of Universes —running parallel—we only exist in the one(s) suitable for us. This brings up the idea of the multiverse (a relatively modern concept in cosmology), the existence of which is said to be compatible with belief in God (R. Collins) or can be seen as a form of deism (P. Davies). The testability of multiverse theory has been questioned, and if untestable, then it falls outside the realm of science. After considering recent ideas about Young‘s two-slit experiment, the author puts forward the explanation for the existence of life that he favours, "… the universe was created with the deliberate intention that intelligent self-aware life should emerge." The argument then proceeds via "design" in biology, fixity of species, evolution, natural selection, genetics, to Intelligent Design, in particular the perceived impossibility of organs (like the eye) and processes (blood clotting) to have arisen by natural selection. Finally, after touching on other homeostatic systems, the mind, the effect organisms have on their environment (and vice versa), the chapter‘s conclusion is that design arguments ultimately fail to prove God‘s existence. As I noted at the beginning, the book is not really about the cosmological Universe. Modern cosmology and the evolution of the Universe do turn up occasionally (as in the brief consideration of multiverses in Chapter 4). Early in the book there is some discussion (p. 3) of the Big Bang and Steady State models, but there is no reference to the microwave background or to its tiny irregularities, although brief mention is made of today‘s enigmas of cosmology: what is the nature of dark matter, and what is dark energy. For its central argument the book refers to other astronomical topics (to the extent that they are invoked at all) than cosmology. The text is clearly written—Batten has a pleasant, easy to read prose style. I particularly admire his objectivity while navigating controversial subject matter. He has a point of view, as noted above, but has no axe to grind, and clearly points out the strong and weak arguments put forward on all sides. He has consulted a huge body of literature—if only as a guide to those writings the book is of interest. The short Subject Index is valuable, but would have been more so if it had been somewhat expanded. To sum up (though that is difficult to do in such a wide-ranging book), I quote from a passage near the end (p. 195): In essence, theism is the belief that the power that sustains this enigmatic universe is also the source of life, and that we can have a relationship with that power that is analogous to the most intense relationships that we enjoy with our fellow human beings. Some people may find that hard to believe, or even unnecessary, but after a lifetime spent in scientific research, I do not know of any result that compels us to abandon the belief.
A review written by Professor Richard Strom on 28 Jan 2014 for Our Enigmatic Universe