October 8, 2011


Does God exist?: The case for reconciling the scientific with the divine -- and against the anti-religion of Richard Dawkins )Alan Lightman, 10/02/11, Salon)

Ten years ago, I began attending monthly meetings of a small group of scientists, actors and playwrights in a carpeted seminar room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [...]

Physicist Alan Guth, another member of our salon, pioneered the Inflation version of the Big Bang theory and has helped extend the scientific understanding of the infant universe back to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after t = 0. Another member, biologist Nancy Hopkins, manipulates the DNA of organisms to study how genes control the development and growth of living creatures. [...]

As a both a scientist and a humanist myself, I have struggled to understand different claims to knowledge, and I have eventually come to a formulation of the kind of religious belief that would, in my view, be compatible with science. The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the Central Doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis advisor never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the Central Doctrine is the invisible oxygen that scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, is discoverable by human beings, just as 19th-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.

An example of a scientific law is the conservation of energy: The total amount of energy in a closed system remains constant. The energy in an isolated container may change form, as when the chemical energy latent in a fresh match changes into the heat and light energy of a burning flame -- but, according to the law of the conservation of energy, the total amount of energy does not change. At any moment in time, we regard our knowledge of the laws of science as provisional. And from era to era in the history of science, we have found that some of our "working" laws must be revised, such as the replacement of Newton's law of gravity (1687) by Einstein's deeper and more accurate law of gravity (1915). But such revisions are part of the process of science and do not undermine the Central Doctrine -- that a complete and final set of laws does exist, and that those laws are inviolable. (The title of a book by Noble Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg is "Dreams of a Final Theory.")

Next, a working definition of God. (As a scientist, I must define my terms.) For the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, God is a being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical laws (i.e., performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion and omniscience.

Tucking these axioms under our belt, we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. A God that intervenes after the cosmic pendulum has been set into motion, violating the physical laws, would clearly upend the Central Doctrine of science. Of course, the physical laws could have been created by God before the beginning of time. But once created, according to the Central Doctrine, the laws are immutable and cannot be violated from one moment to the next.

We can categorize religious beliefs according to the degree to which God acts in the world. At one extreme is atheism: God does not exist, period. Next comes deism, a prominent belief in the 17th and 18th centuries and partly motivated to incorporate new scientific developments with theological thinking. Deism holds that God created the universe but has not acted thereafter. (Voltaire considered himself a deist.) Next comes immanentism: God created the universe and the physical laws and continues to act but only through repeated application of those fixed laws. While immanentism differs philosophically from deism, it is functionally equivalent because God does not perform miracles in the world, and the Central Doctrine of science is upheld. One can argue that Einstein believed in an immanentist God. Finally comes what some theologians call interventionism: From time to time, God can and does act to violate the laws.

Most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, subscribe to an interventionist view of God. Following the discussion above, all of these religions, at least in their orthodox expressions, are incompatible with science. This is as far as one gets with a purely logical analysis. Except for a God who sits down after the universe begins, all other Gods conflict with the assumptions of science. [...]

As a scientist, I find Dawkins' efforts to rebut these two arguments for the existence of God -- intelligent design and morality -- as completely convincing. However, as I think he would acknowledge, falsifying the arguments put forward to support a proposition does not falsify the proposition. Science can never know what created our universe. Even if tomorrow we observed another universe spawned from our universe, as could hypothetically happen in certain theories of cosmology, we could not know what created our universe. And as long as God does not intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science has no way of knowing whether God exists or not. The belief or disbelief in such a Being is therefore a matter of faith.
...is how little difference there is in purely physical terms between Nancy Hopkins and God vis-a-vis the creatures.  The only real difference is Mr. Lightman's faith that he is more like she than like they.

Posted by at October 8, 2011 8:23 AM

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