Monday, September 20, 2010

The world can't serve two masters: The question of science and religion

There has been much talk within the last week or two about Stephen Hawking's latest book " The Grand Design" and his assertion that it is "not necessary to invoke God to explain the origins of the universe." Predictably the religious have come out with their swords to attack. I even heard a person on a religious "call in" claim that the media were only pandering to Hawking out of pity for his disability. How low can you go? We all know that if Hawking had declared that there must be an intelligence at the beginning of all this, people of faith would consider that a "slam dunk" for God's existence,citing Hawking's immense stature in the realm of theoretical physics. As far as the disability comment is concerned, we all know that it has often been those born with limbs missing or suffering from sight or speech impediments that have been used to spread the gospel of Christ through their motivational speeches. I wonder if we can also call that cheap pandering.

The whole argument comes from the common belief that religion and science are not enemies and can happily coexist without conflict. It's all part of that whole "faith and works" idea that we often hear. Indeed even many atheists subscribe to the idea that science is not qualified to make statements on issues in the faith domain. I would have subscribed to the NOMA ( Non overlapping magesteria) up to a few years ago. However, as I delved more into the crux of these arguments I began to see that there is indeed a huge conflict between science and religion and that, perhaps more than anything else, led me to being an atheist today. Yes, once you realise science and religion are on opposite sides, you don't have to think long about where to place your bet. Only the deist God, the one who sets off the " big bang" and runs away, might be able to escape the long arm of science, but he is powerless and doesn't even merit consideration.

In thinking about this age old debate , I reflected on a friend of mine who was recounting her family's escape from a very serious car accident. She started by saying that there were a number of reasons why she survived. "First and foremost it was God," she remarked. However, once she had stated that point she went on to explain in considerable detail the the road conditions, the fact that it was raining and that there had been an oil spill minutes earlier. She mentioned the speed that the vehicle was going at and the angle of the bend in the road. She then went on to relate how only minutes earlier she had ensured that the boy's in the back were wearing their seatbelts. She spoke of the fact that the SUV she was driving was large and heavy, so that though the car flipped there was much protection available. She mentioned that the vehicle ended up off the road on a field where escape was easy and there was no threat of collision with other vehicles. She added that a policeman was driving by around the same time and was able to help. I remember hearing all this and wondering where the divine came in, in this whole scenario. She had basically a total explanation for everything in naturalistic terms. Rain falling, oil spills, heavy vehicle, seatbelts, policeman driving by. None of these things needed a God to explain them. As Stephen Hawking would say, God was "not necessary." Yet, in her mind it was God in combination with these other things that saved her life.

The fact is, that it is not as if God was used to fill in the aspects of the accident she couldn't explain. This was not " God of the Gaps" this was more of God "the additional layer."It was somewhat like putting more paper on a wrapped Christmas gift and claiming that the item was unwrapped until the second layer went on. The second piece of Christmas paper may make the gift prettier but it is not needed to complete the task.

There are of course many people of faith who would argue that though none of the events that took place on the day of the accident defied any natural laws, God was responsible for putting things in place. He set up things in the way they were, ensured the accident happened where there were people that could find you or had the foresight to make sure that you purchased the right type of vehicle to save you in the accident you would ultimately be involved in. But this raises some more difficulties, there is a natural causal chain of events that could be used to explain why things were the way they were that day. Rain for example, can be explained by condensation which is linked to humidity, temperature of the oceans and much more. This causal chain can if taken far enough go right back to the "big bang" itself. So too everything else, a person just doesn't "appear" on the scene of an accident. A long series of events can be traced to them being there. Maybe the policeman was going to work, which was a result of being offered that job, which was a consequence of applying for the job, which was influenced by having certain qualifications, which links to school he went to, advice he got and so on. Then the very existence of a person depends on parents getting together which depends on grandparents and this also reaches back to the first living organism and again ultimately to the "big bang" itself, which is an event occurring in nature. To say God set up the scenario is to reject that natural causal chain. To reject the natural causal chain is to reject the assumptions that science is based on. Even if at this moment not every piece of the chain, especially the first link, is fully understood, science assumes that such an unbroken chain exists and so far that has proven to be a valid assumption.

Still, they are many that say that God is just so good that he can get his will to be done even though so many of the actions appear to have a random basis. God after all has an intelligence far greater than ours and he can make it look like he's not here when indeed he is. Why he would want to do that is another mystery and the subject for another discussion, but even if we accept this premise, it leads to some disturbing implications. Apart from the natural laws in the universe such as gravity and electromagnetism, there are statistical laws that also suggest that there is no divine hand at work. For example, actuarial scientists can calculate to a high degree of accuracy how many accidents will occur in a given place in a year and even how many are likely be fatalities. They do this having collected data over a long period and analysing all the evidence. It's completely based in science.

The thing is that in many of the accidents that have been used to make predictions, the persons involved consider that God saved them. If this is true, actuarial science is just an illusion. God would just be rigging it all. It would mean that for every person God intervenes to save he would have to "kill" someone who would not have died in "natural" circumstances. God would have to "put back in what he took out" in order to not skew the probabilities. Not a very edifying thought to think you may have to die to pay for somebody else's miracle. But,that's what would have to be happening if God acts without affecting the stats.

Of course the far more plausible scenario is that the universe appears random because it is and God doesn't look like he's here because he's not. There's just absolutely no evidence that the scientific method itself is in crisis, or that its predictive power in any sphere is weakening. That's not to say that it never will. The day we find the natural causal chain assumption to be not valid is the day we can start looking for non natural causes, an outside intelligence, a being which could justifiably be called a God. Nature if having any influence in this kind of world would become purely a tool at God's disposal, it would have no power of its own. That's right, however you look at it, it's either God or nature. The world just cannot serve two masters.

Many have told me that in spite of all I say there is still room for joint leadership. Yes, it's nature most of the time controlling things, but God intervenes on rare occasions for a "miracle", interrupting normal service like a "break in transmission" during the 7:00 news. I have pondered on this long and hard and I just cannot see how God can interact with nature without leaving some indication that he was or is here. There would have to be some type of fingerprint no matter how faint. As a child it always amazed me that I could go to a pond where the water was still and by just dipping my finger in for a few seconds I could create ripples many many yards away. If I passed even fifteen minutes later I could still observe a slight vibration on the water surface. Yet somehow God, the all powerful, waves his mighty hand and we can't detect any bit of his handiwork even with the most powerful microscope we have. Well, the theist will say that's because the atheist doesn't understand the nature of God. They say, "God is outside time and a space, not made of matter, in fact God is immaterial."

Aha, God is immaterial !

That's what Hawking and many others of us have been saying for years. Maybe we can all agree after all.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I hear the complaints before you post them. In the previous comment I said This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula. (Spirit) was inserted for the religious.

    Confucianism (unlike Taoism), much of Buddhism and most of the Samkhya of Hinduism are non-theistic: they simply omit the concept of God. Many atheists, however, seem intent on attacking the idea of God.

    Ultimate reality is what is is, whether we think, believe or desire otherwise. If there is a God, not believing does not change that. If there is no God, then believing will not make it so. Mystics seek the universal reality which underlies our conceptualizing and imagining. I was personally introduced to mysticism by a Nobel physicist who said “God is man’s greatest creation." In my e-book on comparative mysticism is a chapter "To the non-religious." You do not have to be religious or a believer in God to be a mystic, although most of the prominent mystics were both.

  3. Thanks Ron for those insights and the link to your ebook. I have no doubt that the intense feelings of transcendence and oneness with the universe that people from many different faiths and even no faith have felt throughout the ages are real.

    The question to me is, what is the source of those feelings? Is it something supernatural or is it a function of brain chemistry? The fields of neuroscience and psychology offer explanations for these phenomena.Does that mean the supernatural explanations cannot be the right? No, it is quite possible that some of the described phenomena have their genesis outside the natural universe. However,it seems to me there is no method or instrument of measurement for differentiating between truth and mere speculation when it comes to these mystic accounts.

    Science, is at least up until now, the only reliable method humans have for determining what is likely to be real and what is likely to be not real. Until we find another epistemological method that makes reliable predictions and has explanatory power I think we have no choice but to go with the explanations that science provides. Thus, I maintain the position that there are no Gods or supernatural entities and don't consider that mysticism can give insights into an objective reality. I certainly agree with you that neither belief or non belief has any effect on what is ultimately real.

    I can't speak for other atheists, but I don't consider that I am attacking the idea of a God. I just personally do not see that there is sufficient evidence available to justify belief in the concepts of God that have been presented to me so far.I think I need to state this, if others see that as attacking the God idea, so be it.

    Of course in all these matters I am quite open to being convinced otherwise, so I welcome all your views. Thanks again for sharing.

  4. Astrophysicists say dark matter is 25% and dark energy about 75% of the critical density of this Universe. Current science is based on the 5% which is visible. CERN hopes to solve these mysteries.

    Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Nobel physicist, in 1959 invited me to the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory. He introduced me to mysticism and the universality of the Universe. Chandra once said "God is man's greatest creation." He wasn't questioning God just people who shape God to their preferred image.

  5. this posting has been very insightful to me. thanks guys for the highly intellectual exchange of ideas.

  6. You're welcome. Feel free to throw in some of your own ideas as well :).