ADVERTISEMENT
latest stories:
See Inside October 2006

Scientists on Religion

Theist and materialist ponder the place of humanity in the universe
HELIX NEBULA



NASA/ESA/STScI/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
God's Universe
by Owen Gingerich
Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2006

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
by Francis S. Collins
Free Press (Simon & Schuster), 2006

The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin, 2006

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God
by Carl Sagan. Edited by Ann Druyan
Penguin Press, 2006

Ten years after his death in 1996, science writer Walter Sullivan's byline occasionally still appears in the New York Times on obituaries of important physicists, as though he were beckoning them to some quantum-mechanical heaven. This is not a case of necromancy--the background material for Times obits is often written in advance and stored. If the dead really did communicate with the living, that would be a scientific event as monumental as the discovery of electromagnetic induction, radioactive decay or the expansion of the universe. Laboratories and observatories all over the world would be fiercely competing to understand a new phenomenon. One can imagine Mr. Sullivan, the ultimate foreign correspondent, eagerly reporting the story from the other side.

Light is carried by photons, gravity by gravitons. If there is such a thing as spiritual communication, there must be a means of conveyance: some kind of "spiritons"--ripples, perhaps, in one of M Theory's leftover dimensions. Some theologians might scoff at that remark, yet there has been a resurgence in recent years of "natural theology"--the attempt to justify religious teachings not through faith and scripture but through rational argument, astronomical observations and even experiments on the healing effects of prayer. The intent is to prove that, Carl Sagan be damned, we are not lost among billions and billions of stars in billions and billions of galaxies, that the universe was created and is sustained for the benefit of God's creatures, the inhabitants of the third rock from the sun.

In God's Universe, Owen Gingerich, a Harvard University astronomer and science historian, tells how in the 1980s he was part of an effort to produce a kind of anti-Cosmos, a television series called Space, Time, and God that was to counter Sagan's "conspicuously materialist approach to the universe." The program never got off the ground, but its premise survives: that there are two ways to think about science. You can be a theist, believing that behind the veil of randomness lurks an active, loving, manipulative God, or you can be a materialist, for whom everything is matter and energy interacting within space and time. Whichever metaphysical club you belong to, the science comes out the same.

In the hands of as fine a writer as Gingerich, the idea almost sounds convincing. "One can believe that some of the evolutionary pathways are so intricate and so complex as to be hopelessly improbable by the rules of random chance," he writes, "but if you do not believe in divine action, then you will simply have to say that random chance was extremely lucky, because the outcome is there to see. Either way, the scientist with theistic metaphysics will approach laboratory problems in much the same way as his atheistic colleague across the hall."

Thus, a devoutly Christian geneticist such as Francis S. Collins, author of The Language of God and leader of the Human Genome Project, can comfortably accept that "a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable" or that it may have been a mutation in the FOXP2 gene that led to the flowering of human language. The genetic code is, after all, "God's instruction book."

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Holiday Sale

Give a Gift &
Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription as low as $14.99

Subscribe Now! >

X

Email this Article

X