Review of "Beyond the Cosmos" (2nd Edition) by Hugh Ross (1999)
Michael J. Hurben
Beyond the Cosmos is the most recent in a series of religious books by Hugh Ross (The Fingerprint of God, The Creator and the Cosmos) which attempt to demonstrate that science is not only compatible with Christianity, but that it provides positive evidence for the God of the Bible. Although formally trained in physics and astronomy, the author has not fashioned anything along the lines of the classic science popularizations of Hawking, Sagan, or Gould. Rather, this book provides little more than the proverbial preach to the choir.
The specific scientific developments which concern Ross in this book have to do with superstring theory, a branch of theoretical physics which has flourished over the past several decades. String theory may provide the framework for the "unification" of the fundamental forces as well as an elegant explanation of the various elementary particles in terms of different manifestations of a single type of microscopic string-like object. The most orthodox interpretation of superstring theory posits not only vibrating strands as the smaller constituents of matter, but also the existence of six or seven additional space dimensions. The reason why these extra dimensions are not directly perceptible is because they are effectively "rolled up" or "compactified" to a scale which is twenty orders of magnitude smaller than the nuclear realm. It is the notion of these extra dimensions which Ross aims to exploit.
The book is roughly organized into two parts. After a brief introduction, chapters 2, 3 and 4 attempt to provide a short overview of superstring theory, modern cosmology, and other relevant material from 20th century physics. Chapters 5 through 18 address the alleged impact of these scientific results on a number of theological issues. Some idea of this purported impact can be gleaned from the back cover, which promises that the problem of evil and the contradiction of human free will vs. God's omnipotence become "comprehensible when examined in the context of extra dimensions." We are told that this book will reveal "scientific evidence that confirms the Bible's declaration about God's role in creation" among other things. If this is indeed true, this work would constitute a major addition to centuries-long debates on theological and philosophical problems. However, this is not to be the case.
Beyond the Cosmos has a number of weaknesses, two of which will be addressed in this review. First, the book does not successfully present the relevant scientific material in a manner which a lay person audience can really understand or use. This is due to various distortions, omissions, nebulous explanations, and a focus on proselytizing rather than on a clear, logical train of thought. Second, the assertion that extra-dimensionality effectively solves theological dilemmas such as the problem of free will vs. determinism and the problem of evil (among others) is never demonstrated.
Failings as a Non-Technical Science Book
The first indication of the type of reading experience offered by this book does not even require one to open it. There on the front, in small print, is the subtitle "What Recent Discoveries in Astrophysics Reveal About the Glory and Love of God." Indeed, one will quickly gather that this book is not written so much for the average science enthusiast as it is for Christians who want additional assurances that their faith has some scientific basis. Ross' procedure is not to bring in scientific evidence from a point of neutrality and then systematically build a case for theism. The existence of the Biblical God is taken as a given from the start.
Although most theist readers will probably not object to it, there is a certain evangelical, crusading zeal, even in the early "science" chapters, which can become overwhelming and tiresome early on. One cannot read very long without encountering passages which could have been cut and pasted directly from a Jehovah's Witnesses pamphlet: from "We are about to explore the wonder and glory of God..." to "Hunger and thirst also will be things of the past. No longer will our bodies need food, rest, exercise..." Not only are these reminders distracting, they are unnecessary. This book would be far more persuasive if the arguments were simply laid out in clear, logical fashion without the excessive Sunday-school preachiness. (A quick survey of the literature cited reveals that of the 420 references, approximately 61% are from the Bible. This figure does not include the 469 Bible references listed in various tables throughout the book. Another 15% of the references are to other religious literature. This means that only about 25% of the works cited are actual scientific papers or articles.)
Putting aside the religious rhetoric which clutters nearly every page, one can still evaluate the first few chapters in terms of an introductory science treatment for laypersons, and find that they fail horribly. One key reason for this failure is the absence of consistent explanation and elaboration. For example, in the opening of chapter 2, we are warned "Readers with little scientific and math training may find that chapters 2 and 3 require more concentration. Other chapters are readily accessible to all readers." While chapters 2 and 3 do not actually require any great mental gymnastics, we find that in these chapters (and in some of the others that follow), a number of non-trivial and fairly obscure concepts are referred to in an offhand manner with no explanation whatsoever, such as wavefunction, neutron star, pulsar, quasar, electroweak, solitons, Type II Strings, dimensional matrix, stasis, divergence, phyla, genome, and speciation. If Ross expects some of his readers to find their "concentration" taxed by the early chapters, doesn't he realize that said readers are not going to understand any of these terms? There is not even a glossary.
There are also a number of errors, some probably innocent, others probably not. For example, Ross wrongly attributes the stability of electron orbits to the inverse square law force of gravity, rather than an electrostatic origin. Additionally, although the preface indicates that this second edition has more definitions and explanations of quantum mechanics than the previous edition, there was really no discussion on the topic at all, other than a cursory explanation of the uncertainty principle. While these are merely oversights which should have been caught by an attentive and knowledgeable editor or reviewer, and are not integral to the essential arguments put forth, they exemplify the sloppiness which permeates the entire book.
This sloppiness extends to the author's reasoning as well. For example, in chapter 6, Ross aims to demonstrate how the use of extra dimensions can be used to resolve contradictions by using a simple geometric analogy. You are asked to consider several two-dimensional objects, namely a circle and a triangle. Clearly, these objects are not the same, and it would constitute a clear contradiction to state that "a triangle can be a circle." However, suppose that an extra dimension is now added. In 3-D, the triangle can now be spun around an axis, in such a way that a cone is created. According to Ross, the contradiction now disappears: the triangle has now been used to create an object which consists of a stack of concentric circles with diminishing radii. Ross then states "...a triangle can be equal to a circle in a three dimensional context." To this reader, however, the result of this exercise was to create a cone, nothing more. It still does not make a circle "equal" to a triangle, number of dimensions notwithstanding. Cones, triangles, and circles are each distinct, well defined entities which share some characteristics and differ in others. Ross' argument literally amounts to saying that if two objects can be simultaneously realized in a third object, then the first two objects are in some sense "equal." One can obviously take this sort of thing and solve any number of "contradictions" in an entirely arbitrary manner. Geometrically, we have a point is "equal" to a line, is "equal" to a circle, is "equal" to a sphere, etc. Similar fuzzy thinking and hand-waving is employed throughout most of the remainder of the book.
A far more insidious (and probably intentional) error is his allusion, on numerous occasions, to the notion of scientific "proof," or theories which have been "proven." A Ph.D. scientist should know better - math and logic deal in proofs, science deals in evidence. Hence, by Ross' implication, the theory of general relativity has been "proven," but one can never "prove" that evolution occurred (there is the obligatory dismissal of evolution towards the end of the book).
We also find that Ross' presentation of string theory is distorted and one-sided. He insists that the theory involves nine space and two time dimensions, (because it supports his conception of God) whereas string theorists point to ten of space and one of time. Ross also fails to mention that string theory may not require any extra dimensions at all. Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg states "One thinks about the theory as formulated in four dimensions but with some extra variables, which can, in some cases, be interpreted as coordinates of extra dimensions, but needn't be." Physicist John Ellis also has made a similar point: "... some physicists are toying with the idea of not formulating string theory in twenty-six or ten dimensions but actually formulating the thing directly in four dimensions and making no reference to the possible existence of extra compactified dimensions."
But perhaps most disturbing are the absolutely unsupported claims pronounced as if they were legitimate scientific tenets embraced by all physicists. For example, in Chapter 3, after outlining experimental evidence which supports general relativity and its "space-time" theorem, Ross states "The space-time theorem is no longer in question. Nor is its corollary that the cause (Causer) of the universe operates in a dimension of time or its equivalent (that is, maintains some attribute, capacity, super-dimensionality, or supra-dimensionality that permits the equivalent of cause and effect operations) completely independently of ours." Later he adds "The space-time theorem of general relativity establishes not only the Creator's extra time dimension(s) or their equivalent, but also His capacity to operate in all the space dimensions the universe has ever possessed (or their equivalent)." No references are given for these statements and no arguments are offered. However, these pronouncements are made alongside his review of bona-fide scientific results, giving them a sense of legitimacy (at least to those readers requiring extra "concentration" for this chapter) which they simply do not possess.
Impact on Theological Arguments
According to Ross, the extra-dimensionality of the universe can help us to better understand a number of paradoxical issues which have puzzled believer and non-believer alike over the centuries. The role which these dimensions play, however, is rather trivial for most of his arguments. Throughout the later chapters, Ross essentially invokes the same fuzzy "contradiction resolution" scheme used in the circle/triangle example cited above, and with as little success. For brevity, only two of these puzzles and their explanations as formulated by the Ross will be addressed here. The first is the so-called "battle of wills" involving man's free will vs. God's omnipotence. The second is the well-known problem of evil.
The central question of the "battle of wills" asks: How can we reconcile the idea that everyone is free and responsible for their own actions with the doctrine that God knows everything, including the future? Oddly, the answer which is offered in "Beyond the Cosmos" has little to do with extra-dimensionality, but rather involves how God chooses to interact with us.
In a nutshell, here is the author's explanation: Our status for salvation can be monitored, and in a sense quantified, by our "Christlikeness" as a function of time. If we are to be saved, we must become more and more like Christ, until we cross a "salvation threshold" which signifies a true state of goodness. Similarly, if we are to be damned, we must become so un-Christlike as to cross a "blasphemy threshold."
Like the monetary value of a company's stock, our Christlikeness varies from day to day, sometimes steadily gaining, sometimes steadily dropping, other times not changing much at all. The daily change in Christlikeness is determined as a function of the combined effects of three factors: our choices, God's influence, and Satan's influence. Our choices together with these supernatural influences are all summed up in a way so that their impact is cumulative: every action we perform and choice we make either tends toward Christlike or takes us in the opposite direction. Moreover, these factors are in some sense convoluted, so that our choice in a sense will depend on how much influence both God and Satan have at that given time. The particular influence of God (and Satan) is of course dictated by God's master plan, in which all of our fates have been pre-determined.
To make an example which illustrates Ross' scheme, suppose Jones is predestined by God for Hell. At some point early on, he may be living a good life, nowhere near the dreaded "blasphemy threshold" which he will be required to cross in order to be "justly" sentenced to damnation. If Jones continues his virtuous ways, making too many good decisions, and performing too many good acts, God will merely lessen His influence on Jones and increase Satan's. The effect of this shift in influence is that Jones will be more inclined to do evil. This means that over time, now, Jones will be more and more tempted to do wrong - he will find himself in situations which naturally lead him to sin. This has the effect of essentially negating Jones' good deeds, and heads him in the downward direction, as was God's plan all along.
So yes, Jones is free, but so is God to create (or remove) any number of obstacles such that his actions are confounded, or in a sense, weighted, by God's actions. So what we effectively have is the illusion of free will. You truly do make your own choices, but God can essentially veto your actions by adjusting his influence. One might conclude from all this that God is really responsible for the fact that Jones is going to Hell, since it was all pre-determined anyway. Apparently not: Ross later states that "Hell is a place people choose."
While this certainly seems a cruel game of cat-and-mouse with those who are destined for Hell, the future also seems a bit disturbing for those whom God has "fated" for salvation. Ross writes of the afterlife for the saved: "We will be in one accord with God and with one another, and yet each of us will retain some distinct identity and the freedom to choose. Through the training we are now experiencing, we will become adequately convinced of the benefits of choosing what is good and true and will be empowered to make those good and true choices." (Emphasis added). What, exactly, is this training Ross refers to? None other than the seemingly gratuitous suffering which is called into question by the problem of evil (see below). I could not help but be reminded of Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange" after reading these passages. Our earthly lives would seem to be merely a "conditioning" treatment requisite to being released into the afterlife, where we will then be incapable of not "choosing what is good." Just as it was for Jones the sinner on earth, the "freedom to choose" for the saved soul in heaven is illusory.
The second paradoxical issue which Ross claims to have solved with the aid of extra-dimensionality is the famous problem of evil, familiar to anyone who has even superficially studied theology or philosophy. Ross' "new" answer to the argument from evil, however, really does not require any extra dimensions, but boils down to two main responses.
First, the author claims that the overabundance of evil caused by man is not actually an argument against God, but an argument for God. If humans really did evolve through natural processes, the argument runs, they would not have the inclination to destroy, torture, or otherwise be cruel to one another. After all, such tendencies would not be favored by "survival of the fittest." Rather, it suggests the existence an all-good God "opposed by some supernatural entity."
What Ross neglects to consider here is that natural selection does not imply that every individual in a successful species is going to possess the most optimal traits. In fact, one expects, from a simple statistical viewpoint, that some fraction of a population will have tendencies which do not favor the continued existence of either themselves or other individuals in their immediate contact. But this hardly spells doom for the entire species. Clearly, human evil is typically generated by a few (the extremes, or outliers of the distribution) at the expense of the many. Although all of us have a capacity for cruelty and evil, it is a rare individual which will exercise it to any great extent. It only takes one individual to provide gratuitous evil for a multiplicity of others. Ross' simplistic argument shows a neglect of basic statistics as well as biology. Again, a Ph.D. scientist should know better.
Ross' second response addresses why God allows all this evil to continue. He gives the usual answer: We must suffer in order to be "trained" so that we will be "ready for the splendors of the new creation." He adds: "We, too, need more evil and suffering, along with God's miraculous reassurances, to move us along through the process of sanctification..." This is the same "soul-building" type of argument offered many times before, and has nothing to do with string theory.
If we find these types of explanations lacking, or if we want more detailed reasoning, Ross can finally play his trump card of extra-dimensionality: "Any solution to the paradox of eternal torment and God' love that can be completely understood in our four space-time dimensions must be incorrect." So, rather than providing clarification, the extra dimensions serve to help keep these paradoxes mysterious by removing them even further from everyday experience.
One impact which the existence of extra dimensions may have on theological debates concerns the possible "realm" in which the supernatural, if it exists, resides. One might argue that the theist would now seem to have slightly better footing when he or she says "God is all around us but cannot be detected" by invoking the compactified dimensions. Ross does briefly address this point, but quickly moves on in his attempt to cover other, far less interesting ramifications of his new extra-dimensional ideas (such as a lengthy and strange discussion concerning which animals have souls and the distinctions between angles and cherubim). Perhaps some theist philosopher or scientist with a focused train of thought will eventually incorporate the extra-dimensionality of string theory into a plausibility argument for God. But it probably won't be Hugh Ross.
To summarize, Beyond the Cosmos does not provide any compelling reasons to think that recent scientific results have strengthened any of the traditional arguments for the existence of the Christian deity. The book is poorly written from the point of view of a non-technical science text. Moreover, the arguments are sloppy and unsophisticated. Unfortunately, it will give many true-believers a false sense that modern science is continually "uncovering God," which is certainly not the case.
"Review of "Beyond the Cosmos" (2nd edition) by Hugh Ross" is copyright © 1999 by Michael J. Hurben.
The electronic version is copyright © 1999 Internet Infidels with the written permission of Michael J. Hurben.