On God and Science
by Sadaputa Dasa
In a book review in Scientific American, Harvard evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould points out that many scientists see no contradiction between traditional religious beliefs and the world view of modern science. Noting that many evolutionists have been devout Christians, he concludes, “Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism, thus proving that the two great realms of nature’s factuality and the source of human morality do not strongly overlap.”1
The question of whether or not science and religion are compatible frequently comes up, and Gould himself points out that he is dealing with it for the “umpteenth millionth time.” It is a question to which people are prone to give muddled answers. Definitions of God and God’s modes of action in the world seem highly elastic, and the desire to combine scientific theories with religious doctrines has impelled many sophisticated people to stretch both to the limit. In the end, something has to give.
To help us locate the snapping point, let’s look at what a few scientists have said about God.
Dr. John A. O’Keefe, a NASA astronomer and a practicing Catholic, has said, “Among biologists, the feeling has been since Darwin that all of the intricate craftsmanship of life is an accident, which arose because of the operation of natural selection on the chemicals of the earth’s shell. This is quite true.…”2
O’Keefe accepts that life developed on earth entirely through physical processes of the kind envisioned by Darwin. He stresses, however, that many features of the laws of physics have just the right values to allow for life as we know it. He concludes from this that God created the universe for man to live in—more precisely, God did this at the moment of the big bang, when the universe and its physical laws sprang out of nothing.
To support this idea, O’Keefe quotes Pope Pius XII, who said in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Science in 1951:
"In fact, it would seem that present-day science, with one sweeping step back across millions of centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the primordial Fiat lux [“Let there be light”] uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chemical elements split and formed into millions of galaxies."3
Now this might seem a reasonable union of religion and science. God creates the universe in a brief moment; then everything runs according to accepted scientific principles. Of the universe’s fifteen-billion-year history, the first tiny fraction of a second is to be kept aside as sacred ground, roped off from scientific scrutiny. Will scientists agree not to trespass on this sacred territory?
Certainly not. Stephen Hawking, holder of Isaac Newton’s chair at Cambridge University, once attended a conference on cosmology organized by Jesuits in the Vatican. The conference ended with an audience with the Pope. Hawking recalls:
"He told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God. I was glad then that he did not know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference—the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation."4
Whether or not Hawking’s theory wins acceptance, this episode shows that science cannot allow any aspect of objective reality to lie outside its domain. We can get further insight into this by considering the views of Owen Gingerich of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In a lecture on modern cosmogony and Biblical creation, Gingerich also interpreted the big bang as God’s act of creation. He went on to say that we are created in the image of God and that within us lie “a divine creative spark, a touch of the infinite consciousness, and conscience.”5
What is this “divine spark”? Gingerich’s words suggest that it is spiritual and gives rise to objectively observable behavior involving conscience. But mainstream science rejects the idea of a nonphysical conscious entity that influences matter. Could “divine spark” be just another name for the brain, with its behavioral programming wired in by genetic and cultural evolution? If this is what Gingerich meant, he certainly chose misleading words to express it.
Freeman Dyson of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies arrived at ideas similar to those of Gingerich’s, but from a non-Christian perspective.
"I do not claim that the architecture of the universe proves the existence of God. I claim only that the architecture of the universe is consistent with the hypothesis that mind plays an essential role in its functioning.
"… Some of us may be willing to entertain the hypothesis that there exists a universal mind or world soul which underlies the manifestations of mind that we observe.… The existence of a world soul is a question that belongs to religion and not to science."6
Dyson fully accepts Darwin’s theory of chance variation and natural selection. But he also explicitly grants mind an active role in the universe: “Our consciousness is not just a passive epiphenomenon carried along by chemical events in our brains, but an active agent forcing the molecular complexes to make choices between one quantum state and another.”7 He also feels that the universe may, in a sense, have known we were coming and made preparations for our arrival.8
Dyson is verging on scientific heresy, and he cannot escape from this charge simply by saying he is talking about religion and not science. Quantum mechanics ties together chance and the conscious observer. Dyson uses this as a loophole through which to introduce mind into the phenomena of nature. But if random quantum events follow quantum statistics as calculated by the laws of physics, then mind has no choice but to go along with the flow as a passive epiphenomenon. And if mind can make quantum events follow different statistics, then mind violates the laws of physics. Such violations are rejected not only by physicists but also by evolutionists, who definitely do not envision mind-generated happenings playing any significant role in the origin of species.
It would seem that O’Keefe, Gingerich, and Dyson are advancing religious ideas that are scientifically unacceptable. Unacceptable because they propose an extra- scientific story for events that fall in the chosen domain of science: the domain of all real phenomena.
To see what is scientifically acceptable, let us return to the remarks of Stephen Jay Gould. In his review in Scientific American, Gould says, “Science treats factual reality, while religion struggles with human morality.”9 We can compare this to a statement by the eminent theologian Rudolf Bultmann: “The idea of God is imperative, not indicative; ethical and not factual.”10
The point Gould and Bultmann make is that God has nothing to do with facts in the real world. God is involved not with what is but what ought to be, not with the phenomena of the world but people’s ethical and moral values.
Of course, a spoken or written statement of what ought to be is part of what is. So if God is out of what is, He cannot be the source of statements about what ought to be. These must simply be human statements, and so must all statements about God. As it’s put by Don Cupitt, Cambridge philosopher of religion, “There is no longer anything out there for faith to correspond to, so the only test of faith now is the way it works out in life. The objects of faith, such as God, are seen as guiding spiritual ideals we live by, and not as beings.”11
This may sound like atheism, and so it is. But we shouldn’t stop here. Human religious activity is part of the factual world, and so it also lies within the domain of science. While religious people “struggle with morality,” inquisitive scientists struggle to explain man’s religious behavior—unique in the animal kingdom—in terms of the Darwinian theory of evolution. This was foreshadowed by a remark made by Darwin himself in his early notes: “Love of the deity effect of organization, oh you materialist!”12 Religious ideas, including love of God, must arise from the structure and conditioning of the brain, and these in turn must arise through genetic and cultural evolution. Darwin himself never tried to develop these ideas extensively, but in recent years sociobiologists such as Edward O. Wilson have.13
So is the science of Darwinism fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs? That depends on one’s conventions. If by God you mean a real spiritual being who controls natural phenomena, even to a slight degree, then Darwinism utterly rejects your idea—not because science empirically disproves it, but because the idea goes against the fundamental scientific program of explaining all phenomena through the laws of physics. Religious beliefs are compatible with Darwinism only if they hold that God is simply a human idea having something to do with moral imperatives. But if this is what you believe, then instead of having religious beliefs, you have “scientific” beliefs about religion.
Judging from the theistic ideas of O’Keefe, Gingerich, and Dyson, many far-from-stupid scientists do believe in God and Darwinism. But in their efforts to combine truly incompatible ideas, they succumb to enormously muddled thinking. And so they commit scientific heresy in spite of themselves. If one is at all interested in knowledge of God, one should recognize that such knowledge is not compatible with mainstream science, and in particular not with Darwinism.
- Gould, Stephen Jay, “Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge,” Scientific American, July 1992, p. 119.
- Jastrow, Robert, God and the Astronomer, NY: Warner Books, Inc., 1978, p. 138.
- Jastrow, Ibid., pp. 141-2.
- Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time, NY: Bantam Books, 1988, p. 116.
- Gingerich, Owen, “Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmogony and Biblical Creation,” an abridgement of the Dwight Lecture given at the University of Penna. in 1982, pp. 9-10.
- Dyson, Freeman, Disturbing the Universe, NY: Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 251-52.
- Dyson, Ibid., p. 249.
- Dyson, Ibid., p. 250.
- Gould, Ibid., p. 120.
- Cupitt, Don, Only Human, London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1985, p. 212.
- Cupitt, Ibid., p. 202.
- Paul H. Barrett, et al., eds., Charles Dar win’s Notebooks, 1836-1844, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987, p. 291.
- Wilson, Edward O., On Human Nature, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.