Posted September 9, 2002
The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 1.
Stepping over the line
A universe fine-tuned for life
The god of the equations
Still seeking the god of the gaps
When the results of the Cosmic Microwave Background Explorer (COBE) satellite first became public in 1992, mission scientist George Smoot remarked, "If you're religious, it's like looking at God." The media loved it. One tabloid front page showed the face of Jesus (as interpreted by medieval artists, of course) outlined on a blurry picture of the cosmos.
Reporting on the conference "Science and the Spiritual Quest" held at the Center for Theology and Science in Berkeley this summer, the July 20 cover of Newsweek announced: "Science Finds God." The several hundred scientists and theologians at the meeting were virtually unanimous in agreeing that science and religion are now converging, and what they are converging on is God. South African cosmologist and Quaker George Ellis expressed the consensus: "There is a huge amount of data supporting the existence of God. The question is how to evaluate it."
The Newsweek story noted that, "The achievements of modern science seem to contradict religion and undermine faith." However, "for a growing number of scientists, the same discoveries offer support for spirituality and hints at the very nature of God." We learn that, "Physicists have stumbled on signs that the cosmos is custom-made for life and consciousness." Big-bang cosmology, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory all are interpreted as "opening a door for God to act on the world."
Surveys, however, do not confirm the contention that "a growing number of scientists" are finding support for spirituality in their scientific studies. A recent poll of U.S. National Academy of Science members indicated only 7% believe in a personal creator, down from 15% in 1933 and 29% in 1914. If anything, most scientists seem to be moving away from spirituality rather than toward it.
Apparently, what we are hearing is not the voice of a growing majority of scientists, but the well-funded, growing voice of a decreasing minority. The Berkeley meeting was a kind of "Premise-Keepers" rally for academics seeking to keep alive their premise that God exists, while science continues to operate successfully with no need for that premise.
In a commentary on the Berkeley meeting, George Johnson of the New York Times noted that "religious believers seem more eager than ever to step over the line, trying to interpret scientific data to support the revealed truths of their own theology."
To most theistic believers, human life has no meaning in a universe without God. Quite sincerely and with understandable yearning for a purpose to existence, they reject that possibility. Thus only a created universe is possible, and the data can do nothing else but support this "truth."
However, good science practice demands that everything be open to question, including the premises that are used when interpreting data. While some assumptions are always present in the scientific process, all are subject to change as more powerful and economical assumptions become evident. The Premise-Keepers, pure as their motives may be, practice bad science when they confine their interpretation of scientific observations to a designer universe.
To the Premise-Keeper, the big bang provides "evidence" that creation took place in time -- just as in the biblical (that is, Babylonian) myth. Something cannot come from nothing, and so the universe needs a creator. That the creator must have come from nothing is finessed away. God is a different "logical type" than the universe -- a type that does not require creation. Theologians do not make clear why the universe itself cannot be of this logical type.
The Premise-Keepers recognize that they cannot prove the existence of God. They simply express the strong feeling that intelligent design is demonstrated by the very order of the universe. Unfortunately, science has little sympathy for feelings and desires no matter how sincere their intent. The universe is the way it is, regardless of what anyone might want it to be. If humanity is in fact a grain of sand in an infinite Sahara, as our telescopes increasingly indicate, then we cannot wish it otherwise. We should accept the fact and learn to live with it.
Nonbelievers recognize that they cannot prove the nonexistence of God. They simply argue that a universe without a creator is the most economical premise consistent with all the data. An uncaused, undesigned emergence of the universe from nothing violates no principle of physics. The total energy of the universe appears to be zero, so no miracle of energy created "from nothing" was required to produce it. Similarly, no miracle was needed for the appearance of order. Order can and does occur spontaneously in physical systems.
In recent years, the notion that the laws of physics are "fine-tuned" for the existence of life has caught the fancy of believing scientists and theologians alike. Indeed, probably no idea has received more attention in the latest discussions on religion and science.
The fine--tuning argument rests on a series of scientific facts called the "anthropic coincidences." Basically, they say that if the universe had appeared with slight variations in the values of its fundamental constants, that universe would not have produced the elements, such as carbon and oxygen, and other conditions necessary for life.
The fine-tuning argument assumes only one form of life is possible. But many different forms of life might still be possible with different laws and constants of physics. The main requirement seems to be that stars live long enough to produce the elements needed for life and allow time for the complex, nonlinear systems we call life to evolve. I have made some calculations in which I randomly vary the values of the physical constants by many orders of magnitude and look at the universes that would exist under those circumstances. I find that almost all combinations lead to universes, albeit some strange ones, with stars that live a billion years or more. Life of some kind would be likely in most of these possible universes.
A second, related line of argument is found in the recent dialogues. The equations of mathematics and physics are claimed to provide evidence for a Platonic order to the universe that transcends the universe of our observations.
Recent trends in Christian theology and its rapprochement with science have moved Christianity closer to a position where a deity is to be found in the order of nature as a creative entity transcending space, time, and matter responsible for that order. Indeed, the modern Western theological notion of God is probably closer to Plato's Form of the Good than the white-bearded Jehovah/Zeus on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the beardless Jesus/Apollo on the wall.
And here is where some scientists and theologians currently seem to find a common ground -- in the idea that ultimate reality is not to be found in the quarks, atoms, rocks, trees, planets, and stars of experience and observation. Rather, reality exists in the mathematical perfection of the symbols and equations of physics. The deity then coexists with these equations in some realm or mathematical perfection beyond human observation. This God is knowable, not by his or her physical appearance before us but by its presence as that Platonic reality. We all exist in the "mind of God."
Past logical disputes over the existence of God were largely confined to philosophers and theologians. This type of purely logical discourse, in which little reference is made to observations, is largely disdained by scientists -- believers and nonbelievers alike. Premise-Keeper scientists claim they are going beyond the traditional theological arguments, that they see direct evidence for intelligent design in their observations and equations.
As Paul Davies has put it: "The very fact that the universe is creative, and that the laws have permitted complex structures to emerge and develop to the point of consciousness -- in other words, that the universe has organized its own self-awareness -- is for me powerful evidence that there is 'something going on' behind it all. The impression of design is overwhelming." Note the use of "evidence" rather than "proof" in this quotation.
Still, a Platonic God need not have anything to do with the God of the Bible, nor any other imagined deity, abstract or personal. And the equations need not actually represent a transcendent deity. True that Platonist physicists view quantum fields and spacetime metric tensors as "more real" than quarks and electrons. Materialist physicists, by contrast, think that quarks and electrons are more real than metric tensors or fields of any kind, these simply being human inventions. But the majority from both camps do not view either of these possible realities as deities. They do not see that a "miracle" was necessary for the universe and life to exist.
This illustrates why the claimed convergence of science and religion does not hold up under scrutiny. Look at history. Science has always explained observations in terms of natural (that is, nonsupernatural) phenomena. Religion has always proposed supernatural explanations to fill those gaps where science provided no natural explanations, or simply remained silent. Only one domain of existence has ever been occupied in either case -- the domain of human observations.
The shamans in ancient forests taught that "spirits" caused rocks to roll down a hill -- until Newton said it was gravity. Priests taught that "God" created humans in his own image, until Darwin said evolution created us in the image of apes. And now we have this new breed of scientist-theologian arguing yet again that just because science cannot explain this, that, or the other thing, then we still have room for God.
We cannot explain why the constants of nature have the curious values they have, so maybe God made them so. We cannot explain the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics," so maybe God invented mathematics.
Maybe. But is this modern God of the gaps any more plausible than the God of the shamans and priests? Maybe one day science will fill in these gaps without the premise of God.
Victor Stenger is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii.
This article was first posted at the Council for Secular Humanism website.