God and Science

August 30, 2010 | 22 comments
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The conflict between science and religion is generally overstated. But it is certainly true that science is the matrix that most people of our day — believers or not — use as the basis for understanding the natural world we live in. Atheists and agnostics stop there; believers add a supplemental layer of faith to their view of the universe that includes a doctrine or idea of God and that reflects a view or theory of how God acts (or doesn’t act) in the natural world. So does science strengthen our faith or threaten it? Is it easier or tougher to be a believer in the age of modern science than, say, the time of Hellenistic philosophy and paganism or the early modern era of demonology and witch-hunts?

This general question of achieving faith while living in the age of modern science is the subject of physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne’s book Belief in God in the Age of Science. The book is based on a series of visiting lectures delivered at Yale in 1996, so it is a short book aimed at a general audience rather than a detailed work of theology. But it asks the right questions and does not finesse its answers by misstating the science or by employing faithful handwaving rather than engaging in serious discussion. The book seems like a helpful starting point for a discussion of religion and science. I’ll make a few general statements or claims that more or less follow from a reading of the book, supported with helpful quotes from the author.

1. Explicit signs that God had a hand in the creation of the universe are lacking. There are thousands of cosmologists who spend their days assembling theories and data to explain how the universe created itself 15 billion years ago and how it has expanded and developed under its own power — guided by the physical laws of the universe — since that time. The cosmologists are pretty good at their job. Accepting for the moment their view of cosmological history, I think there is still a quandry for the atheist at time t=0, best captured by the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” There is speculation but no consensus on what got the ball rolling, so to speak. For the believer, the answer is staightforward, if veiled: There is something rather than nothing because God determined there should be something in order to fulfill his divine plan or purpose.

But is there any objective evidence to support the claim that God had a hand in the creation of the universe? As Polkinghorne puts it, “The world is not full of items stamped ‘made by God’” (p. 1). He lists the comprehensibility of the cosmos itself and self-aware human consciousness that has arisen within it as giving general hints of God’s participation in the process.

Those who work in fundamental physics encounter a world whose large-scale structure (as described by cosmology) and small-scale process (as described by quantum theory) are alike characterized by a wonderful order that is expressible in precise and elegant mathematical terms. … This use [by some physicists] of abstract mathematics as a technique of physical discovery points to a very deep fact about the nature of the universe that we inhabit, and to the remarkable conformity of our human minds to its patterning. (p. 2)

As Polkinghorne puts this “deep fact” more succinctly, “There is no a priori reason why beautiful equations should prove to be the clue to understanding nature; … why our minds should have such ready access to the deep structure of the universe” (p. 4). In other words, don’t argue that the design of the human eye is evidence of God rather than an evolutionary development; just write E=mc2 on the chalkboard and leave it at that.

2. How does God perform particular acts in a world governed by natural laws? Creation is not enough; we want God to act in the present, not just the past. We want a personal God, not just a cosmic God. We want a God who will arbitrarily intervene on our behalf in the otherwise orderly operation of natural laws.

God is not like the law of gravity, totally indifferent to context and uniformly unchanging in consequence. The Christian God is not just a deistic upholder of the world. If petitionary prayer, and the insights of a providence at work in human lives and in universal history, are to carry the weight of meaning that they do in Christian tradition and experience, then they must not simply be pious ways of speaking about a process from which particular divine activity is in fact absent and in which the divine presence is unexpressed, save for a general letting-be. (p. 49)

But how exactly does this divine intervention occur without leaving conspicuous divine calling cards scattered among the flow of daily events? One may, of course, simply shrug and say that God moves in a mysterious way, yet “the demand for an integrated account of both theological and scientific insight impels us to the task” of explaining divine agency and action in the world or, as Polkinghorne terms it, finding the “causal joint” that links God to the physical world (p. 59). Polkinghorne discusses and rejects several possibilities for this causal joint, including quantum indeterminacy, before casting his vote for chaotic systems (in which very small perturbations produce large consequences for the later behavior of the system) as “showing a glimmer of … how God exercises providential interaction with creation” (p. 62-63; emphasis in original).

The trick is to make room for openness in the succession of caused events in the world rather than be confined to a closed and fully determined chain of events. This bumps up against the classical theological claim that the future is fully known to a God who stands entirely outside the flow of time. But an open universe implies a different divine approach. “If the physical universe is one of true becoming, with the future not yet formed and existing, and if God knows that world in its temporality, then that seems to imply that God cannot yet know the future. … Omniscience is self-limited by God in the creation of an open world of becoming” (p. 73).

This discussion does not, of course, answer the difficult question that heads this section. As Polkinghorne concludes his own discussion, “We are a long way from a full understanding of our own powers of agency, let alone how God works in the world” (p. 74). It does perhaps show that serious thinking about God’s interaction with or intervention into the orderly causal processes of the physical world tends to lead one to rethink the classical theological formulation of God’s attributes and powers, something Mormons are already inclined to do.

3. There is more room for dialogue between science and religion now than in the past. The bookshelves at libraries and bookstores certainly make the point. He acknowledges the difficulty theologians face in learning enough science to have a meaningful engagement. Some physicists have attempted to engage with serious theology (as Polkinghorne has done), but other fields need to contribute. “We desperately need the participation of more biologists, more practitioners of the human sciences, and more theologians,” he says (p. 78).

What should that dialogue look like? “[A]ttempts to articulate Christian belief in ways that seem natural and congenial to the scientific mind” is one way of describing it (p. 84). Polkinghorne points out this does not mean subordinating theology to science. He adds a further contrast between assimilationists and what we might call separationists. “The assimilationist seeks the most immediate and accessible correlation between scientific and religious thinking,” which to me does seem inclined to simply restate or recharacterize religious ideas or events in terms friendlier to present-day science (p. 86). A separationist (whom he terms a “consonantist”), “while wishing to ensure that theological understanding is consistent with what science tells us about the structure and history of the physical world, will insist that theology is as entitled as science to retain those categories which its experience has demanded that it shall use, however counterintuitive they may be” (p. 86). I suspect most LDS participants in the religion-science dialogue fall into the separationist camp.

Conclusion. Let me return to my opening point: The primary challenge of modern theology is to establish a paradigm within which faith can persist in the age of science.

Here’s a question that perhaps makes this point for the LDS reader. You are studying an LDS doctrine or passage of scripture, say this one: “As one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words” (Moses 1:38). Would you be more pleased if Augustine, Luther, Barth, or modern science lent support to your view of what that verse means? I think we’re all happier with science in our corner. It will take a lot of dialogue to get us there.

Other fine posts on this topic:

22 Responses to God and Science

  1. Adam Greenwood on August 30, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    A fine post. I have to take issue with your rhetorical question at the end, though. Modern science would be the last source of agreement I would want on my interpretation. It means that my interpretation lacked a transcendent, enchanted, spiritual dimension.

  2. Bob on August 30, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    #1: Adam_ I agree with you. The ‘dialogue’ between Science and Religion (as Dave gives it), is over my head. It does not give me understanding , hope, or comfort.

  3. Troy Keller on August 30, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    I’m afraid I would pick science, because it feels like a confirmation of faith. However, I acknowledge Adam’s take as the loftier one. Nicely, Mormonism provides latitude both ways.

  4. wondering on August 30, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?”…For the believer, the answer is staightforward, if veiled: There is something rather than nothing because God determined there should be something in order to fulfill his divine plan or purpose.”

    But not so straightforward for the Mormon believer, because we believe that matter (or spirit matter?) is eternal, or something, and that God lives within the universe, or something (I think?). So we don’t have an answer to why there is something rather than nothing.

    (Unless I’m mistaken about what “we believe.” Like nailing Jello to the wall, you know.)

  5. Bob on August 30, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?” IMO, I don’t think Science or Religion has answer that. God is something.
    “Eternal” is just a work around.

  6. Nate W. on August 30, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    The problem with relying on chaos theory to disguise God’s presence is that it involves a system that, while complex, is testable. God cannot directly move an inanimate object within a natural system without revealing himself. The only way around this that I can think of is to employ animals as pawns for directing energy within the system.

  7. Mark D. on August 30, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    It doesn’t help that most biologists consider the proposition that there _any_ divine, external, or spiritual influence at all in evolution to be a form of apostasy, as do most scientists when faced with the question of (real) free will.

    It’s like: we can’t understand it, so it must be wrong, unscientific, and unworthy of further discussion.

  8. Dave on August 31, 2010 at 7:17 am
  9. chanson on August 31, 2010 at 9:15 am

    I agree with Bob @5.

    Postulating the existence of a God or gods doesn’t simplify the question. Why is there a God [with a divine plan or purpose] instead of nothing?

  10. Dave on August 31, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Chanson (#9), thanks for the clever inversion, but I’m not sure it works. There is no dispute there the universe is full of something, so “why is there something?” is a question all can agree on. There is dispute about God’s existence (more in our own era than in ages past), so I’m not sure “why is there a God?” has the same weight.

    Perhaps a way to summarize the whole thrust of the whole belief in the age of science question is: “There is definitely something; but is there a God?” Where the existence of the universe was once taken as conclusive evidence of God — how else but for the act of a Creator would all this something have come into being? — now the mere existence of the universe does not, for many, lead to that conclusion. Hence Polkinghorne’s discussion of aspects of the universe that might reveal objective hints of God’s existence (see item 1 in the post).

  11. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 31, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Does Polkinghorne discuss the anthropic “coincidences” that the apparently arbitrary constants of the universe, the numbers that indicate the relative strength of the forces that bind matter, are all “fine tuned” in a narrow range that allows life as we know it to exist? Physicist Freeman Dyson expressed the thought that, based on the precision of these constants, “The universe knew we were coming.” In order to avoid the hypothesis that Someone intended it that way, other physicists have proposed a “multiverse” of an infinite number of universes with different settings on the dials. But that is a strange proposal because it avoids evidence for an invisible God with the proposal for an infinite number of invisible universes, not exactly the response dictated by Occam’s Razor. Additionally, within an infinite array of varying universes, isn;t it likely that at least one would have an intelligent entity that would meet the Mormon definition of God? And how do we know that we are not in THAT universe?

    Indeed, since the few statements we have from Joseph Smith about the eternal nature of the elements (and spirits) in the universe, co-eternal with God, perhaps that kind of universe is what we DO have.

    Additionally, one version of physics suggests that the rapid inflation that we know occurred early in the life of our universe took place out of an eternal, already existing universe, and that the budding of such daughter universes, which we mistake for the “Big Bang” from a singularity, is the normal, eternal progression of reality.

    Since Polkinghorne’s lectures were given in 1996, when Dark Energy was just being discovered as a force that apparently is accelerating the expansion of the universe, and the confirmation of Dark Matter as a massive source of gravity several times thatof the observable matter we all know and love was still uncertain, and String Theory was still in its optimistic youth, perhaps an updating of those lectures today would address a universe that invites physicists to be more humble in the face of fundamental puzzles that constitute over 95% of all matter-energy in the universe we know.

    As for the philosophy of how God could intervene in the material world, that should be not problem for Mormons, who affirm that the ascended Jesus is a physical being who can place his hands on the head of an apostle, or hold a fish and eat it. And of course, we assert that God intervenes constantly through communication of information to mankind.

    The science news is full of reports about an artificially constructed genome inserted into a living cell. Surely if mankind, who has been literate only a few thousand years, can do this, it should be no trick for a vastly more intelligent being. While the tendency of many of the stories of such god-like feats by scientists is to announce that they are rpoof there is no need for God, I suggest that they prove that acts of creation, especially related to living things, are the kinds of things we would expect an intelligent God to do.

    Indeed, this point was made humorously in a recent, new episode of the animated TV show “Futurama”, in which Professor Farnsworth (a name obviously stolen from our own Philo T., inventor of TV) denounces the notion that God set evolution in motion, but then does exactly that by creating a race of self-reproducing and evolving robots, who then arrest him for teaching the absurd idea that he is their creator!

  12. Dave on August 31, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    RTS, yes Polkinghorne devotes a few pages to the anthropic principle. He doesn’t find the infinite universes explanation very convincing. He has written other science and religion books of more recent date — I’m sure he considers some of the more recent discoveries in astrophysics in those discussions.

  13. Lincoln Cannon on August 31, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    “The primary challenge of modern theology is to establish a paradigm within which faith can persist in the age of science.”

    Here’s an attempt to meet that challenge:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/9205678/The-New-God-Argument-Lincoln-Cannon-and-Joseph-West

  14. Troy Keller on August 31, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    It’s worth noting the role science plays in facilitating religious belief, or at least helping us better understand gospel principles. As a simple example, consider the discussions of the cosmos in the Pearl of Great Price and the D&C, and whether they could have made any sense to us were it not for the general understanding of the universe that the lay person has, thanks to science. Brigham Young’s “natural philosophy” is at least in this spirit (his belief that all gospel principles, including miracles, are natural phenomena–since God operates in a material universe). If you take that logic to the next step, understanding science is important in understanding the gospel. More modestly, in conference talks, science and technology is frequently referenced in order to teach by analogy. For example, Pres. Uchtdorf’s flying analogies and Elder Nelson’s descriptions of the operation of the human heart. Science also helps us strip away superstitions that, at least in the old days, would sometimes gather support in a religious context, e.g. astrology or phrenology.

  15. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on September 1, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Pre-Christian religions were founded on tradition and superstition. It focused on the man and was enforced by him.

    Post-Christian religion is founded on God as the creator of the earth and all its divergences. God knows and sees all. Are the blogs, social websites and the Internet not a debased form of knowledge? Is seeing the flood victims of Pakistan and the miners in their cave in Chile not a record of the frailty of our existence?

    Science and religion are two forms of the same coin. I do not understand nor can I explain its mysteries. This I do know. It is God’s way to teach us that politicians and law makers are purveyors of false hopes.

    If there was no God and science, we still would be worshipping the pre-Christian way and that would be a great loss to the world.

  16. Bob on September 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    I see some very narrow defining of God and Science on this post. The Christen God has not been worshipped by most mankind, or understood as a christen see their God. Even Mormons are split between one God, three Gods, or many Gods.
    Yes, there are scientist Who believe in God. But I do not see Science as ever having a christian God in it.

  17. Adam Greenwood on September 1, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    We are glad that you do not believe scientists ought to put God in the dock, or under the microscope, Bob. It bespeaks a becoming humility.

  18. Bob on September 1, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    #17:(I did change my spelling of christian, but it didn’t take on all of them).
    I believe China has good science and an idea of a God(s). I am not sure they feel the same need to put them together(?)
    I think in the “Western World”, there is a mix. In some areas_ a closer tie between the two, in others areas, not.
    Science still lacks conscious plans, while Western religion demands them.

  19. Matt Huph on September 1, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Modern science would be the last source of agreement I would want on my interpretation. It means that my interpretation lacked a transcendent, enchanted, spiritual dimension.

    A beautiful statement that is entirely vacuous. Unless you really meant to convey that you hope your interpretation is irrational and delusional.

  20. bryanp on September 1, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    I have a friend at work who is not religious and is very intelligent. I call him Mr. Peabody. Him and I discuss a lot of things and he said that it’s really silly for people to try to use science to prove there is or isn’t a God. I agree with him. Science does not try to explain the spiritual because it deals with the physical realm and religion with the spiritual.

    He, like myself get real irritated when people engage in such discussions. He’s right that science cannot prove nor disprove that there is a God, no more than I can “make” someone come to know of the truthfulness of the gospel.

  21. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on September 2, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    Using science as evidence that God exists is not very practical. Then what?

    What I learned from Joseph Smith, Parley P. Pratt and President John Taylor is that science is a roadmap to knowledge. In modern scriptures “light and knowledge” go together.

    Whether we are prepared or not; knowledge changes behavior and may not even lead to God. I am amazed how much effort is spent by Church Leaders in combating pornography and the various addictions?

    Religionists interpretes knowledge for their own purposes. What I want to know how “those deluded” are treated, before the LIGHT returns? The test is where does “delusion” begins or ends?

  22. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on September 7, 2010 at 6:15 am

    #13 Mr Cannon’s points are well taken. It seems Mormons, like Glenn Beck, want to re-invent the wheel of “restoration theology”. The challenge is not God’s. It is ours.

    Do we understand Jesus’ political stand, when as God’s Only Begotten Son in mortality; He allowed Himself to be crucified by a lesser group of priests in the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem? Wouldn’t you believe that having God as your actual Father He has more ways to dispose of His opposition? If we cannot answer this question, then we have not listened and obeyed His Gospel.

    Furthermore do we really understand the significance of God, the Father and Jesus, Christ appearing, in person to Joseph Smith, to correct the misconception about what really happened in the Offices of the High Priest Caiaphas in Jerusalem?

    Can Mormons rise above; what Christians have done over and over again?

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