Working towards science-proof religion and religion-proof science
We started with a short period of worship, including the hymn Lord of the boundless curves of space by Albert Bayly (Rejoice and Sing no.44) and a reading of Psalm 8.
CV – My degree is in Science and Electronic Engineering. I worked for a couple of years with Marconi colour TV cameras, then moved into school Physics teaching. This was followed by nearly twenty years at Hatfield Polytechnic/University of Hertfordshire as a lecturer in electronics, specializing in medical applications. I then carried out electronics design consultancy for a few years before retiring, since when I've read New Scientist from cover to cover every week, to keep up with things. The science of the talk is therefore reasonably professional, the theology amateur, though considered over many years.
The talk dealt with religious belief in general, not just Christian. Also, it is very much Work in Progress as far as I am concerned – your input to would be very helpful. So this account may change from time to time and diverge more from the original talk.
By contrast, some years ago on holiday we visited the local Church of Scotland and were thrown many decades into the past. The usual minister was away and we were told by the very elderly gentleman who stood in for him that if science and the Bible disagreed, science was wrong, and if they concurred, the science wasn’t worth doing as it was in the Bible anyway.
So which do we believe, the bird or the book – the observable universe or the Bible?Perhaps to deny the validity of observation, and therefore of science, is to regard the universe as misleading, either the work of the devil or of God trying deliberately to confuse us, to test our ‘faith’. This idea is not new - the Manichaeists from the 3rd century AD held that the material world is innately evil, while some Gnostics even believed it was created by the Devil. And yet the message of the creation story in the Bible is very clear: ‘God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good’; if you believe the book, therefore, it seems the bird is also to be believed.
Religion and Science – what are they?I selected Psalm 8 for the reading, from among many I could have chosen, as it illustrates several different ideas very concisely:
Religions, as they develop, combine these elements and become an exuberance of beliefs, rules and taboos. These are not always consistent, but are always capable of uniting and motivating people to the most extraordinary behaviour, from the diabolic right through to the angelic. Belief in statements within holy books have become tests of faith, marks of virtue and requirements for heavenly salvation or even earthly survival. Religions have been potent forces for conformity and the wellsprings of enormous change. They have inspired and motivated people in ways possessed by few other forces. Only nationalism and football seem to be able to do as much, but perhaps they should be considered as religions too?
Meanwhile, beginning with the Greeks, taken up by the Arabs around the turn of the First Millennium and then pursued further by the Christian West and the rest of the world over the last five hundred years, a different way of looking and thinking has emerged. This has turned away from revelation and the uncritical acceptance of previous writings, to depend only on testable deductions made directly from observation.
Yet scientific discoveries can enhance the sense of wonder with which the Psalmist liked to consider the works of the Lord; the audience for TV science programmes is large and enthusiastic – the capacity for awe is still there. The Large Hadron Collider became something of an icon in 2008, until a poor electrical connection shut it down for several months. And the recategorization of Pluto a few years ago caused an almost religious furore.
In Europe at least, most people would say that this method of gleaning the truth of the observable Universe is better than reliance on religious books and revelation. In some parts of the world, notably in the USA and the Middle East, this is not so, and people doubt more and more the ability of science to give accepted answers to fundamental questions even about the natural world. The reasons for this are complex: partly political, partly on the perceived failures of technology in nuclear accidents, genetic engineering, pollution and climate change but mainly, it seems, on a desire for certainty in an increasingly uncertain world.
Now here is a conundrum. Certainty ought to be provided by a method that relies on testable theories to build up a communal edifice of knowledge. Instead it seems to depend on uncritical belief in the inconsistent contents of books written many centuries ago by various and often isolated authors.
Early Conflicts in Western ScienceIn the middle of the last Millennium, old authors such as Ptolemy were read and their statements contradicted from measurements – the planets go round the sun in what were eventually found to be elliptical paths, not round the Earth in perfect circular ones:
The Church immediately rejected this, and only partly because it pushed the earth out of pole position. Though details of the Earth-centred universe came from Greek thought, not Hebrew or Christian, it was a long-held idea. Contradicting it could lead people to question other long-held ideas. This was highly dangerous, especially with people like Luther around (not that he believed in a Sun-centred Universe either – he had quite another agenda).
But the science continued. Simple experiments suggested a delightfully simple Universe – if you squash a gas twice as hard, it takes up half the space; if you cross smooth and wrinkled peas, new plants are produced according to easily formulated rules. Newton suggested that the Moon going round the Earth obeys the same laws as an apple falling to the ground and, from this, his followers predicted the paths of new planets and comets. This cycle of observation – prediction - test began to build up a mechanistic universe which obeys strict laws: Laplace in 1776 suggested that if we knew where every particle was at any instant and how it moved, we could in theory predict the state of the whole universe at all times before and after. God need only start things off; He need have no further involvement. Again elements in the Church objected, even though (or perhaps especially because?) some of the people caught up in it were priests – Copernicus and Mendel were just two.
Opposition to the discoveries and methods of science began to form a pattern which still holds:
The 18th and 19th centuriesBy the 18th century compromises had appeared, the principal being the ‘watchmaker’ concept – the better we understand the universe, the better we understand the being who made it. We could even prove the existence of God by analogy with a man-made artifact – if we detect a design, there must have been a designer. A temporary truce between science and religion followed. Religion and science could be pursued separately – Michael Faraday in the early 19th century said he had one set of beliefs for Sunday and another for the rest of the week. Of course there were unknowns, such as where and when the Universe started, how life began, where disease comes from. God was invoked to explain these gaps in knowledge – the ‘God of the gaps’. Unfortunately, God came off worse here as gradually, one by one, the gaps were filled, by science. It became possible to see a future when all the gaps were filled, and the reason for God would vanish. And this is of more than historical interest – the ‘God of the gaps’ has returned, with a vengeance.
Geology and EvolutionThe first modern challenge to Biblical Christianity came not from astronomy, but from the earth and from biology. During the later 18th century, two schools of thought about geology began to emerge, the ‘catastrophists’ and the ‘gradualists’. The former thought that land, sea and mountains all formed suddenly, whereas the gradualists purveyed the idea that erosion and slow land uplift was the norm. Unfortunately, the latter required the age of the earth to be measured in millions rather than thousands of years, in direct conflict with the six days of creation in 4004 BC as calculated by Archbishop Ussher in 1650. Immediately, parts of the church sided with the catastrophists and began the dubious process of choosing between theories as they fitted their interpretation of the Bible. (Ironically, present-day geology encompasses both elements, slow processes punctuated by occasional catastrophic events - collisions by asteroids or massive volcanic eruptions.)
Darwin is credited with the next controversy, though hints had appeared earlier. In its modern form, Evolution simply states that:
However, the idea of evolution and continuing change in the forms of both past and living creatures contradicted totally the creation of everything at once, in ‘perfect form and fully grown’ (Haydn’s Creation, originally from Paradise Lost?). This was in spite of the evidence all round of Great Danes and Chihuahuas and of the huge variety of domestic pigeons. The suggestion that it applied to humans was the last straw.
Modern Physics – Relativity, Quantum Theory, CosmologyWe return to physics and astronomy in the early years of the 20th century. Einstein created a huge, and quite unnecessary, storm when he showed that nowhere in the universe could be considered central, that motion and even time could only be described as relative. Physical relativism was said to produce moral relativism – no absolute centre of the universe meant no absolute moral basis. In fact, moral relativism came much earlier (read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park) and its later proponents simply used Einstein’s idea as a metaphor – he really can’t be blamed!
Relativity shook up physics, but quantum theory challenged it to its foundations. At the lowest level of creation within the atom, it became clear that nothing was predictable. The most that could be said about a particle was that there was a maximum probability that it was in a particular place at a particular time. Moreover, if you shone a light on it to look at it, it changed its position and motion in an unpredictable way. So the observer and the particle became part of the same system. This changed the whole picture of science and Laplace’s mechanistic view went out of the window. The certainties of pre-quantum science dissolved into cloudy imprecision. Even Einstein could not accept it – ‘God does not play dice’ he is reported to have said.
Finally, as astronomers peered ever further into space, answers to other questions became clearer. To a casual glance, even through a moderate telescope, everything looks fixed and immutable, but look more closely at stars and huge groups of stars called galaxies and you see they are moving - the colour of their light changes. Galaxies a long way from our own recede, and the further away the faster they go.
Was this point, 14 thousand million years ago, the moment of creation by God? What was it like before that? Does the question mean anything? This last idea is not new: “if there was no time before heaven and earth were created, how can anyone ask what you (i.e. God) were doing then? If there was no time, there was no ‘then’.” (Confessions of St Augustine c.400 AD).
At this point, I’ll throw in an aside – in the 17th Century, many scientists, including Newton, were happy to believe in a God who could perform miracles which disrupted the fabric of time and space, the fabric they were exploring. By contrast, a loose grouping of theologians and philosophers called Christian Deists felt that to believe in miracles was an insult to God, as it implied that if He needed to break His own laws He must have botched the job of creation.
Evolution – the Lull before the StormBut the main battleground at present is not the physical sciences, but once again the earth sciences and biology. By the end of the 19th century many Christians, and most influential ones, were prepared to accept that the creation story in Genesis was just that - a story which expressed a religious truth that God was the Creator but was not to be believed in detail – it was just the scaffolding of history. Science provided the bricks and mortar, the gradual processing of the Earth, by vulcanism, mountain-building and erosion, and of living things by evolution. The evolution of humans was still controversial, but for brute creation it was accepted happily.
Note: I'm sure I've heard or read somewhere that Emma Darwin, Charles' wife, was asked towards the end of her life whether she still doubted her husband's theory of evolution - it was known that earlier she was very unhappy about it. Her reply was something to the effect that she no longer had a problem - God created Evolution. I've looked on the Internet for a quotation but can't find one - can anyone help?
But the fundamentalists refused to lie down.
Christian FundamentalismChristian fundamentalism as a force is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. For many centuries, the question of whether the Bible was true or not was simply not discussed. Bible stories existed alongside myths and legends of dragons, sea-monsters, giants and evil spirits, as well as observable nature. All were believed in an indiscriminate way, as in the West the concept of scientific proof was only a glimmer in the eye of a few people like Roger Bacon. The only Truth was the authority of the Church, proclaimed by priests to people who for the most part could not read, and anyway would not have understood the Greek or Latin in which the Bible and most other books were printed. Luther and his followers changed all that. People could now read the Bible in their own tongue.
But the problem now faced by church leaders in the new Protestant denominations was how to exert authority once they had rebelled against the Pope. The answer was to regard the Bible as literally true. Everything in the Bible must be considered as history or prediction, from the six days of Creation to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Church provided the correct interpretation of a belief to be accepted by all. Over the centuries since then literalism, or Biblical fundamentalism, has been a clear wing within the churches, parallel to and generally in conflict with contextual study, which interprets the Bible for now but takes account of the world-view when it was written.
The Battle with Evolution and Birth of Creationism and Intelligent DesignThere were a few skirmishes in the late 19th century, but the battle between fundamentalism and science was joined in earnest in the 1920s. In Tennessee, one John Scopes announced that he had disobeyed a new state law by teaching ‘that man descended from a lower order of animals’. Though convicted at state level he appealed, on the basis that the state law was against the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits the promotion in schools of a particular religious belief. In the event the case fizzled out on a technicality, but it contained the opening shots in a battle that has continued ever since.
When it was clear that Fundamentalism could not win on religious grounds, because of the First Amendment, a new approach was sought. In 1961, with the publication of The Genesis Flood by Henry Morris, the movement called Creationism or Creation Science began. This started from the precept that the 6-day creation story in Genesis is true, at least in essence, and the first creatures were made by God, fully-formed. By making itself simple and self-consistent, Creationism established itself as a challenge to established science, which it regarded as godless. Unfortunately it was helped by some scientists, who agreed that science was godless to promote their own atheistic agenda.
In response to some court cases that went against it, Creationism has now been refined into Intelligent Design, which suggests that evolution is one possibility and that the ‘watchmaker’ idea is a viable scientific alternative.
This has muddied the waters. Virtually all Christians, as an act of faith, believe that there is some purposeful intelligence at the most fundamental level of the universe, which they call God and could in some sense be called a designer. The hymn we sang celebrates God as designer of the laws of the universe. Intelligent Design, however, considers that biological entities have been individually designed and placed in the natural world. At various times the eye, the wing and the rotating flagellum of some bacteria have been cited as examples of ID, on the basis that ‘half an eye’, ‘half a wing’ or ‘half a flagellum’ would have been no use and therefore could not have evolved, and anyway no halfway stage had been found in the fossil record. However, each proposed example of ID has been refuted, by new discoveries within the fossil record in the case of the eye and the wing, and the discovery that the flagellum is a modified pore structure already in use for other purposes (This is an example of exaptation, evolution making an opportunistic sideways leap like the evolution of mammalian ear bones from bits of the reptilian jaw).
However, by using scientific language rather than religious, ID has in the US infiltrated science lessons rather than religion or philosophy, where it would deserve a place, and there are attempts to do the same here. It must be seen, however, not as science but as a modern version of ‘the God of the gaps’.
The conflict has produced some nice ironies, however. The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote that on two occasions, once to a group of Catholic priests and once to a devout Christian student, he, a Jewish agnostic palaeontologist, had to offer quiet reassurance that no, evolution is not inconsistent with the Christian faith.
So where are we? In what senses are science and religion the same, similar or different?
Certainties and Faith in ScienceScientists operate in a closed loop: acquire data, formulate theories which make predictions and test those predictions by acquiring new or more accurate data. The new data may be consistent with the theory, which gives more confidence in the theory, or they may conflict. In this case:
This can make science look messy and uncertain and is exactly why it cannot provide the certainties that many people crave.
So what is certain in science? The answer is surprisingly simple: The biggest certainty in science is that it is worth doing - because the universe has pattern, structure and order that the human mind is able to comprehend by the cycle of look – predict – look again. As Einstein put it: ‘the most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible.’
Certainties and Faith in ReligionWhat about religion? Where are the certainties there? Are they really contained in the utterances of books or people judged by some as infallible? I suggest that the most fundamental act of faith in religion is exactly the same as in science – that it is worth doing; in this case, because it gives meaning to life in a way appreciated not by thinking scientifically, but by opening the mind to influences and experiences whose arrival we did not see or whose connections we did not appreciate, and by being with people who feel the same. Call it prayer, mysticism or simply meditation, in its isolated or its communal form it precedes God, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha or holy books, both in society and, I suggest, in individuals. It is an innate property of humanity.
In this scheme of things, the basic question ‘Do you believe in God?’ becomes meaningless, as everyone has a god, something which guides them and which they consider in some sense worthy of worship. This may be the God described in the Old Testament, Jesus, science, money, nationalism, celebrities or fashion. The question now becomes ‘What is the quality of your god?’ – does your god lead you to fulfilment?
And for many, an even more important act of faith: while a worthwhile god should lead you to personal fulfilment, this must be in ways which fulfil also the needs of others and the whole world, that religion is worth doing for this reason, to create what Bishop John Spong calls ‘wasteful love’.
I suggest that we find our God in our heads, an accumulation of thoughts and experiences, which work in secret, in our subconscious if you like, in readiness for the moments when we have to make decisions without enough data. Our own personal God must be nurtured, therefore, fed and built up so it has strength for when we need it. When we read the Bible, or some other book which directs our thoughts in this upward sense, or meditate, or feed our minds with the complex emotional patterns of music, we strengthen this part of us, which will control us when the scientific approach will not work, because there are not enough data or the data conflict - in short, when we have moral choices to make:
Imagine you are staying in a hotel. The establishment has discovered that 2% of its visitors steal the towels. The price it charges, therefore, has to cover the cost of these towels. When you leave, do you steal the towels? Can you even calculate whether you would be one of the 2% or the 98%? Even if you regard yourself as an amoral person, in the absence of data you will be forced to make a moral choice, one way or the other. You will use your internal God, sometimes called conscience, to do this.
But this is our internal God. Is there an external one, common to everyone? I suggest that there is, in two senses:
When we share our experiences with others, in worship or meetings, our individual ‘Gods’ will become more similar, more like one God. But this communal God will vary with the community. The God of the Quaker will differ from the God of the Fundamentalist Christian or the Muslim or the Sikh. All will be approximations to the ideal God, that would lead to the fulfilment of all, if all possessed it.
Creation, God and InfinityBut is there a God ‘out there’ too, this ideal God, in some sense drawn in to all our experience? Is this the same question as ‘Is there a Creator?’ Traditionally, to say ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth’ has been an act of faith. So much so that both scientists and many religious people have viewed with deep suspicion any attempt to prove the existence of God, whether by the watchmaker concept or Intelligent Design or the recent appalling experiments with prayer. A God whose existence can be proved does not require faith for belief. The Babel Fish in Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sums this up in a characteristically quirky way:
(Note: The Babel Fish is an animal that you put in your ear. It feeds on brainwaves and, quite by chance, translates any incoming speech into your own language.)
‘The argument goes like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
‘ “But,” says Man, “the Babel Fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”
‘ “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.’
But consider this. We test each theorem in science by trying it out on more and more data. Eventually, data overlaps between two theorems and we can write a unified theorem that fits both sets of data. By this means, in the early 19th century scientists combined the electricity of the lightning flash and the magnetism of the compass needle into electromagnetism. When the atom was smashed, two kinds of force were discovered which hold it together, and they have been combined with electromagnetism. The search is now on to unify these forces with gravity, a GUT (Grand Unified Theory) or TOE (Theory Of Everything) which will encompass the whole Universe. It may explain in a general way all that has happened since the Big Bang and will happen in the future.
But will this mean that a Creator is unnecessary, that the final ‘gap’ has been closed? This would only be so if the Universe defined by the TOE contained within itself its own reason for existence. Gödel threw mathematicians into uproar in 1931 when he showed that mathematics is open-ended, that you must feed ideas in that, though true, cannot be proved to be true from within the mathematics itself. Similar ideas are now thought to apply to the whole Universe:
If we attempt to explain the whole Universe, we must include the very rules used in the search, as they are part of the Universe, but these rules cannot be found out from the answers – they have to be put in independently first!Now this is a gap which is simply not pluggable, but it is not Intelligent Design in its modern sense. The Universe does not contain the reason for its own continued existence, which suggests that something else outside it must. Theists identify this as God the Creator as (s)he exists in their religion. I feel that we should use the word Sustainer, as Creator could imply a once for all event only, which occurred at an instant in time and space, even though neither has meaning outside the event itself. A Sustainer, by contrast, can exist outside of time and of space. But it’s a bit late to change all the hymns.
But hasn’t God just vanished, as in the Babel Fish story, now we have in some sense proved His existence? I suggest the answer is no, because to obtain this proof we have applied faith all the way through – faith that the Universe is predictable, that our methods give meaningful answers and that the pursuit of knowledge and of religious experience is worthwhile. Such a stream of faith ought to satisfy anyone who requires faith for belief in God!
Whether we can communicate with this entity from our own internal God, whether they are the same indeed, is unknowable to science - perhaps the ultimate act of faith is that we can; the search is the basis of worship. A Christian might see Jesus as the link between the Creator, or Sustainer, and the God within our heads (perhaps identified with the Holy Spirit). Whether Jesus is understood as God, or as a man who came as close to God as it is possible to do, or as some combination of these ideas, is again an act of faith, or perhaps of interpretation.
People and the UniverseFinally, what of ourselves? I’ll let Paul Davies, a highly regarded physicist and modern Deist, have the last word, from his book The Mind of God:
‘What does it mean? What is Man that we might be party to such privilege? I cannot believe that our existence in this universe is a mere quirk of fate, an accident of history, an incidental blip in the great cosmic drama. Our involvement is too intimate. The physical species Homo may count for nothing, but the existence of mind in some organism on some planet in the universe is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here.’
To conclude the talk, I showed the Magic Eye Inc picture from New Scientist 17 Jan 2009; fortuitously, the issue appeared only a few days before the talk and seemed an ideal way to finish it, as well as fun:
So the eye can interpret the same object in two totally different ways. Perhaps an analogy of how the brain can interpret the Universe?
Bibliography(I can’t claim to have read all of these yet!)