Does God exist?

The case for reconciling the scientific with the divine -- and against the anti-religion of Richard Dawkins

Published October 2, 2011 11:45AM (EDT)

           (Illustration by Ian Heubert)
(Illustration by Ian Heubert)

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. Our raison d'être, broadly speaking, has been an exploration of how science and art affect one another. As we drink merlot and munch on goat cheese and crackers, with the late afternoon sun draining from the room, we discuss topics ranging from the history of scientific discovery to the nature of the creative process to the way that an actor connects to an audience to the latest theater in New York and Boston. Our salon works because we never have an agenda. At the beginning of each session, one of us will begin talking about some random idea, another person will chime in or change the subject, and miraculously, after 20 minutes, we find that we have zeroed in on a question that everyone is passionate about.

What continues to astonish me is the frequency with which religion slips into the room, unbidden but persistent. One member of our group, playwright and director Alan Brody, offers this explanation: "Theater has always been about religion. I am talking about the beliefs that we live by. And science is the religion of the twenty-first century."

But if science is the religion of the 21st century, why do we still seriously discuss heaven and hell, life after death, and the manifestations of God? 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. Hasn't modern science now pushed God into such a tiny corner that He or She or It no longer has any room to operate -- or perhaps has been rendered irrelevant altogether? Not according to surveys showing that more than three-quarters of Americans believe in miracles, eternal souls and God. Despite the recent spate of books and pronouncements by prominent atheists, religion remains, along with science, one of the dominant forces that shape our civilization. And our little group of scientists and artists finds itself fascinated with these contrasting beliefs, fascinated with different ways of understanding the world. And fascinated by how science and religion can coexist in our minds.

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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.

But the situation is more complex than that. Most religious nonscientists accept the value of science even though they do not appreciate or embrace the Central Doctrine. And some individual scientists believe in some events that cannot be analyzed by the methods of science or that even contradict science. It turns out that a significant number of scientists living today are devoutly religious in the orthodox sense. A recent study by Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, who interviewed nearly 1,700 scientists at elite American universities, found that 25 percent of her subjects believe in the existence of God. Francis Collins, leader of the celebrated Human Genome Project and now director of the National Institutes of Health, recently told Newsweek, "I've not had a problem reconciling science and faith since I became a believer at age 27 ... if you limit yourself to the kinds of questions that science can ask, you're leaving out some other things that I think are also pretty important, like why are we here and what's the meaning of life and is there a God? Those are not scientific questions." Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, told me: "The universe exists because of God's actions. What we call the 'laws of nature' are upheld by God, and they are our description of the normal way in which God orders the world. I do think miracles take place today and have taken place over history. I take the view that science is not all the reliable knowledge that exists. The evidence of the resurrection of Christ, for example, cannot be approached in a scientific way." Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus of astronomy and of the history of science at Harvard University, says: "I believe that our physical universe is somehow wrapped within a broader and deeper spiritual universe, in which miracles can occur. We would not be able to plan ahead or make decisions without a world that is largely law-like. The scientific picture of the world is an important one. But it does not apply to all events. Even in science we take a lot for granted. It's a matter of what you want to trust. Faith is about hope rather than proof."

Devoutly religious scientists, such as Collins, Hutchinson and Gingerich, reconcile their belief in science with their belief in an interventionist God by adopting a worldview in which the autonomous laws of physics, biology and chemistry govern the behavior of the physical universe most of the time and therefore warrant our serious study. However, on occasion, God intervenes and acts outside of these laws. The exceptional divine actions cannot be analyzed by the methods of science.

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I will put my cards on the table. I am an atheist myself. I completely endorse the Central Doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with Collins and Hutchinson and Gingerich that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

Finally, I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of "right" and "wrong." We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but, in the end, we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

As another example, I cannot prove that the Central Doctrine of science is true.

Years ago, when I was a graduate student in physics, I was introduced to the concept of the "well-posed problem": a question that can be stated with enough clarity and precision that it is guaranteed an answer. Scientists are always working on well-posed problems. It may take researchers decades or lifetimes to find the answer to a particular question, and science is constantly revising itself in accordance with new experimental data and new ideas, but I would argue that at any moment in time, every scientist is working on, or attempting to work on, a well-posed problem, a question with a definite answer. We scientists are taught from an early stage of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers.

But artists and humanists often don't care what the answer is because definite answers don't exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. That is why we can never fully understand why the highly sensitive Raskolnikov brutally murdered the old pawnbroker in "Crime and Punishment," whether Plato's ideal form of government could ever be realized in human society, whether we would be happier if we lived to be 1,000 years old. For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer. As the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a century ago, "We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue." Then, there are questions that have definite answers but which we cannot answer. The question of the existence of God may be such a question.

As human beings, don't we need questions without answers as well as questions with answers, questions that we might someday answer and questions that we can never answer?

I imagine the conversation in the MIT seminar room, with the murmurings of students in the hall and the silent photographs of Einstein and Watson and Crick staring from the wood-paneled walls:

I agree with much of you've said, says Jerry, but we need to distinguish between physical reality and what's in our heads.

Something like the resurrection of Christ is a physical event. It either happened or it didn't.

But how do you know what is physical reality? says Debra.

You sound like Bishop Berkeley, says Rebecca.

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Throughout history, philosophers, theologians and scientists have proposed arguments for or against various religious beliefs. In recent years, especially with the advances in cosmology, biology and evolutionary theory, a number of prominent scientists, in particular, have used science to counter arguments put forth to support the existence of God. (Steven Weinberg, Sam Harris and Lawrence Krauss, to name a few.) The most vocal of these thinkers and critics is the British evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins.

In his widely read book "The God Delusion," Dawkins employs modern biology, astronomy, evolutionary theory and statistics to attack two common arguments for the existence of God: that only an intelligent and powerful Being could have designed the universe as we find it (the argument of "intelligent design"), and only the action and will of God could explain our sense of morality and, in particular, our desire to help others in need. In brief, Dawkins shows that the various wondrous phenomena of the universe, including our own comfortable situation on Earth, could have arisen completely from the laws of nature and random processes, without the necessity of a supernatural and intelligent designer. He further shows how our sense of morality and altruism could follow logically from the process of natural selection, applied to individual genes, without the need to invoke God.

In the case of our comfortable environment on Earth, for example, we and all life forms on Earth are fortunate to have liquid water, which many biologists believe is necessary for life as we know it. Liquid water, in turn, requires that our planet be at a favorable distance from the Sun, not so close that the resulting high temperature would exceed the boiling point of water and not so far away that the temperature would lie below the freezing point of water. Proponents of intelligent design have argued that such propitious conditions are evidence of a designer who wanted life on Earth. Dawkins and other scientists have offered an alternative explanation. There are almost certainly billions upon billions of solar systems in our galaxy, with planets at many different distances from their central star. In most of those solar systems, none of the orbiting planets are at the right distance for liquid water, but in some, the distance is right. We live on such a planet. If we didn't we wouldn't be here to ponder the situation. Although Dawkins is too smart to claim that he has disproved the existence of God, he does title an entire chapter of his book, "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God."

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.

Richard Dawkins and others can expend as many calories as they wish arguing that God does not exist, but my guess is that they will convince few people who already have faith. Either such a person believes in a nonintervening God, in which case scientific arguments are irrelevant, or the person, like Dr. Collins and professors Hutchinson and Gingerich, believes that God lives beyond the restrictions of matter and energy and scientific analysis. Dawkins' accomplishment, and I salute him for that, is to provoke more discussion of the topic and to help empower the expression of atheism.

What troubles me about Dawkins' pronouncements is his wholesale dismissal of religion and religious sensibility. In a speech at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, in 1992, Dawkins said: "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence." And a month after Sept. 11, 2001, Dawkins told the British newspaper the Guardian: "Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that."

In my opinion, Dawkins has a narrow view of faith. I would be the first to challenge any belief that contradicts the findings of science. But, as I have said earlier, there are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith, and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it, have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind. Consider the verses of the Gitanjali, the Messiah, the mosque of the Alhambra, the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Should we take to task Tagore and Handel and Sultan Yusuf and Michelangelo for not thinking? Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Scattered throughout Dawkins' writings are comments that religion has been a destructive force in human civilization. Certainly, human beings, in the name of religion, have sometimes caused great suffering and death to other human beings. But so has science, in the many weapons of destruction created by physicists, biologists and chemists, especially in the 20th century. Both science and religion can be employed for good and for ill. It is how they are used by human beings, by us, that matters. Human beings have sometimes been driven by religious passion to build schools and hospitals, to create poetry and music and sweeping temples, just as human beings have employed science to cure disease, to improve agriculture, to increase material comfort and the speed of communication.

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For many years, a family of ospreys lived in a large nest near my summer home in Maine. Each season, I carefully observed their rituals and habits. In mid-April, the parents would arrive, having spent the winter in South America, and lay eggs. In early June, the eggs hatched. The babies slowly grew, as the father brought fish back to the nest, and in early to mid-August were large enough to make their first flight. My wife and I recorded all of these comings and goings with cameras and a notebook. We wrote down the number of chicks each year, usually one or two but sometimes three. We noted when the chicks first began flapping their wings, usually a couple of weeks before flying from the nest. We memorized the different chirps the parents made for danger, for hunger, for the arrival of food. After several years of cataloging such data, we felt that we knew these ospreys. We could predict the sounds the birds would make in different situations, their flight patterns, their behavior when a storm was brewing. Reading our "osprey journals" on a winter's night, we felt a sense of pride and satisfaction. We had carefully studied and documented a small part of the universe.

Then, one August afternoon, the two baby ospreys of that season took flight for the first time as I stood on the circular deck of my house watching the nest. All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them. To them, it must have looked like I was in my nest just as they were in theirs. On this particular afternoon, their maiden flight, they did a loop of my house and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed. My immediate impulse was to run for cover, since they could have ripped me apart with their powerful talons. But something held me to my ground. When they were within 20 feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I cannot explain what happened in that half-second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.

By Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman, both a novelist and a physicist, teaches at MIT. His new book, "Mr g," a novel about the creation, will be published in January.

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