The (Scientific) Case for God – book reviewSTEPHEN M. BARR
God: The Evidence: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World and"The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom"are reviewed here by Stephen M. Barr.
Patrick Glynn, a political journalist and former Reagan Administration official, has given us an elegantly written and absorbing account of his return to religious faith and the reasons for it. A major reason was the “significant body of evidence” which has emerged from “a series of dramatic developments in science, medicine, and other fields” in the last twenty years that “has radically changed the existence-of-God debate.”
The Evidence: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World
Gerald Schroeder, an Israeli physicist, has followed a similar path. He writes: “As a scientist trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I was convinced I had the evidence to exclude [God] from the grand scheme of life.” But “with each step forward” he took in his understanding of science, “something kept shining through.”
One may be tempted to object that “The Evidence,” as the title of Glynn's book calls it, goes back a lot longer than twenty years. St. Paul knew nothing of modern science and yet felt justified in asserting in his Epistle to the Romans that God's “eternal power and deity,” though invisible, are “manifest in the things that He has made.” Faith does not need to wait upon the latest research. Nevertheless, Glynn and Schroeder are right that something important has happened in the world of science.
What has happened is that the great scientific discoveries which seemed to many thoughtful people to provide reasons for skepticism and even atheism have been shown to be either misleading or mistaken. To borrow a phrase from Ben Wattenberg, the good news is that the bad news is wrong.
The bad news is old and well known. Copernicus showed that we humans are not at the center of the universe though, as Schroeder points out, the Bible never actually said we were. And Darwin supposedly showed that we are merely the products of chance mutations. Glynn quotes Bertrand Russell's dismal conclusion: the human race is just “a curious accident in a backwater.” Galileo, besides embarrassing the Roman Catholic Church, helped bring about the triumph of mechanism over teleology, which, as Glynn notes, “went hand in hand with the decline of religious faith among the intellectual elite.” It was no longer scientifically respectable to look for purpose in Nature.
What has put these discoveries in a different light is most recent developments in the very same branches of science. From physics and cosmology have come the “anthropic coincidences.” This term refers to the fact, now widely appreciated by physicists, that many features of the laws of nature seem arranged so as to make possible the emergence of life. For example, if certain parameters of the “Standard Model” of particle physics were even slightly different from what they are measured to be either stars would never have formed or biochemistry would be possible. Many of these anthropic coincidences are striking indeed, and have led at least a few scientists to reconsider their atheistic prejudices.
Glynn discusses anthropic coincidences at much greater length than does Schroeder. He observes that there are two ways out for the faithful atheist. One of them is to argue that the features of nature's laws which the deist and theist think were arranged may actually be inflexibly determined by some deep underlying principles. While this is very likely to be true, it hardly resolves the issue, since the structure of physical law did not have to be based upon those particular principles. The other way out is to posit the existence of an infinite number of universes (or domains of this universe) where the laws of physics assume a variety of forms. In this scenario one could argue that there was bound to be some universe or domain where the conditions would happen to be favorable for life. Though I think Glynn's response to this idea is not completely satisfactory, he is quite right to emphasize that these postulated universes or domains are almost certainly unobservable experimentally. They are, therefore, just as vulnerable to a positivist critique as any theological assertion ever was. The breathtakingly speculative character of these multiple-universe ideas provokes this telling observation from Glynn:
Praising science at the expense of religion in 1935, Bertrand Russell boasted: “The scientific temper of mind is cautious, tentative, and piecemeal. The way in which science arrives at its beliefs is quite different,” [Russell] wrote, “from that of medieval theology .... Science starts, not from large assumptions, but from particular facts discovered by observation or experiment.” Well, we've come a long way baby.
Developments in biology are likewise making it harder to believe that our existence is as “accidental” as Russell supposed. Glynn steers clear of evolutionary debates, but Schroeder has a great deal to say about them that is of interest. Schroeder argues that recent discoveries, relating in particular to the rapidity of certain evolutionary changes, make it appear doubtful that random mutations and natural selection are the whole story. He backs up his arguments with some interesting mathematics. He suggests, as others have done, that evolution is “channeled” in definite directions by the underlying principles of physics and chemistry. If so, evolution may be less a matter of randomness and more a matter of potentialities built into the laws of nature.
Before evolution in the ordinary sense can even begin, one needs a living thing. Schroeder recalls for us the great sensation created in 1953 by the experiments of Miller and Urey, which appeared to show that the origin of life from inorganic chemical was a simple and almost solved problem. A frustrating half-century later it is generally admitted that the origin of life is a problem of surpassing difficulty.
In cosmology, the bad news has also turned out to be wrong. Up through the nineteenth century, developments in physics suggested that the universe was infinitely old. Schroeder relates that as late as 1959, two-thirds of leading American astronomers and physicists surveyed still believed that the universe had no beginning. Only in the 1960s did science at last vindicate the reality of that “Beginning” of which the Book of Genesis spoke three thousand years ago.
One of the worst pieces of bad news for religion was the determinism of the laws of physics, for which evidence had been mounting for three centuries. If the state of the world at one time is determined by its state at a previous time, then our brains are not free. With the advent of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, however, physics was forced to abandon strict determinism.
Science has even had to backpedal on the very nature of religious belief itself. Freud diagnosed it as a neurosis. Yet, as Glynn recounts, numerous recent studies have shown that religious belief and practice correlate very strongly with overall happiness, psychological well-being, and marital satisfaction, and with markedly low rates of suicide, divorce, drug use, alcoholism, stress, depression, and a variety of related physical ailments.
Both of these books succeed brilliantly in building bridges between science and religion, but each in its own way, goes a bridge too far. Glynn devotes a long section of his book to “near-death experiences,” which he regards as direct evidence of the existence of the soul and of an afterlife. Although Glynn probably makes as good a case as can be made, it is possible, even for those of us who do not doubt the immortality of the soul, to remain unconvinced that the near-death phenomena are supernatural in origin.
The typical subject of an “autoscopic” near-death experience reports leaving his body, floating up into the air, and observing the medical procedures being performed upon him. “Observing with what?” one is bound to ask. The subjects of such experiences, if truly disembodied, have no retinas or other sensory apparatus with which to see the colors and shapes that they describe. (It is not reported whether the myopic among them are accompanied by their spectacles upon these excursions.) It would make more sense to suppose that such people are being granted a vision of what they would see could they look down upon the operation. However, it seems a funny kind of vision for God to grant, consisting of the knobs and dials on medical equipment. More plausibly supernatural are near-death experiences of the other kind, the “transcendental” ones, which involves visits to heaven. Yet nothing precludes a purely naturalistic explanation perhaps in psychoanalytic terms of them either.
Schroeder's book is less about science and faith generally than about science and the Bible, and especially its first five books, the Torah. What he says about scriptural interpretation is generally wise. He wittily suggests that we should “give unto Einstein what is Einstein's and unto the Bible what is the Bible's.” Much of his exegesis, which often depends on the analysis of particular Hebrew words, is illuminating and profound. Even his less convincing efforts are quite ingenious. However, his determination to find a scientific explanation for every period of time mentioned in the Bible, from the Six Days of creation to antediluvian lifespans, leads to some rather curious results. He attempts to show that the Six Days are really the same as the 15 billion years of modern cosmology, using a strange blend of medieval cabala and the “time-dilation effect” of relativity theory. He violates his own maxim here, giving unto Einstein what really belongs to the mystical numerology of the rabbi Nahmanides.
Not everything in these books is of equal value, but the story they tell, so personally, so learnedly, and in such fascinating detail, could hardly be more important. The modern mind was tragically rent by the scientific findings of an earlier era. These books show that science may help to join what once is put asunder.
Barr, Stephen M. “The (Scientific) Case for God.” National Review (January 26, 1998): 49-50.
Reprinted with permission of the National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232
Stepehn M. Barr is an associate professor of physics at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware.
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