Science in Christian Perspective

 

 

Uses of the Word "God"in Scientists' Writings

Robert B. Fischer

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Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275

From: PSCF 46 (SEptember 1994): 188-192.

The word "God" often appears in the writings of scientists, especially those who are more philosophically inclined and/or who write for more popularized readerships. It is not unusual to find this word used over and over again in books and articles in the areas of cosmology, fundamental particles and forces, the origin of the universe, and the significance of scientific methodology and knowledge. This has been the case for many years, even for centuries, and it continues today.

For example, the word "God" appears in A Brief History of Time, a highly regarded book by Stephen Hawking, a noted theoretical physicist and cosmologist, five times in the first chapter and eight times in the last four pages of the final chapter.1 The final paragraph is as follows.

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason for then we would know the mind of God.2

Carl Sagan, a noted astronomer and writer, concluded his introduction to Hawking's book with this paragraph,

This is also a book about God ... or perhaps about the absence of God. The word God fills these pages. Hawking embarks on a quest to answer Einstein's famous question about whether God had any choice in creating the universe. Hawking is attempting, as he explicitly states, to understand the mind of God.3

This use of the expression "the mind of God" was adopted as a book title by Paul Davies, a mathematical physicist and cosmologist. Davies' book, The Mind of God,4 is a "more considered attempt" to grapple with issues discussed in his earlier book, God and the New Physics. The name "God"appears in the titles of several other highly regarded books on modern developments in science, including Does God Play Dice,5by scientist Ian Stewart, The God Who Would Be Known: Revelations of the Divine in Contemporary Science,6 by financier and investment advisor John M. Templeton and biochemist Robert L. Herrmann, and The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What Is the Question?,7 by physicist Leon Lederman with Dick Teresi.

The word "God" appears numerous times in a highly regarded book by science writer James Gleick on the new science of chaos, with appearances from the first page of the second chapter to the next to last page of the last chapter.8 Indeed, the term is included in the index with seven page references.

These examples and others which could be mentioned lead inevitably to the conclusion that the word "God" is often encountered in the writings of many scientists and science writers. This observation may be placed in the larger context of the prevalence of religion and of religious thinking among scientists. Astronomer Fred Hoyle is quoted as stating (or, as some would say, overstating) this factor thus: "I have always thought it curious that, while most scientists claim to eschew religion, it actually dominates their thoughts more than it does the clergy."9

What does the word "God" mean? Does it always have the same meaning? Who or what is the God which these frequent usages refer to?

A closer examination reveals a variety of meanings, essentially all of which are commonly found among other scholars and contemporary lay persons as well as among scientists and science writers. Let us list several of these meanings, recognizing as we do so that there is overlap from one to another and that this list may not be exhaustive.

First, the name  "God" is equated to a vague, general principle of superior intelligence, or of goodness, or of whatever it may be that is supreme or ultimate. For example, in a discussion of uncertainty in quantum mechanics, Stewart wrote,

An infinitely intelligent being with perfect senses God, Vast Intellect, or Deep Thought might actually be able to predict exactly when a given atom of radium will decay, a given electron shift in its orbit. But, with our limited intellect and imperfect senses, we may never be able to find the trick.10

Second, the word "God"is used with reference to a transcendent initiator of the universe, which has proceeded ever since in its mechanistic, deterministic ways without any further involvement of the God who initiated it. This is in essence the classical philosophy and theology known as deism. Note, for example, a reference to "the god of this machine universe, free to choose the laws of nature as he pleased."11 How about a statement attributed to someone else in a discussion of the practical impossibility of writing wave function equations to describe the totality of the real world: "Maybe God could do it, but no analytic thought exists for undertaking such a problem."12 Perhaps: "The biological world may not fulfill God's design, but it fulfills a design shaped by natural selection," in a discussion of Darwinian teleology.13 Hawking wrote, "At the Big Bang and other singularities, all the laws (of physical science) would have broken down, so God would still have had complete freedom to choose what happened and how the universe began."14

Third, the concept of God to which a number of these uses of the name refer is that of a "God-of-the-gaps." This simply means that the name"God"is invoked to fill in whatever gaps may exist in human scientific knowledge at a particular point in time. Then, as scientific knowledge develops, the gaps may appear to become smaller and smaller, and the need for this God diminishes. This concept of God has been prevalent for many centuries among persons with and without any particular scholarly expertise. Dean Wooldridge, a noted scientist and industrialist, wrote a few decades ago,

A paradoxical consequence of man's predilection for logical thought was his invention of the important concept of the supernatural .... to provide an "explanation" for matters he despaired of understanding. The development of science can be described as the process of transferring one after another aspect of human experience from the supernatural category into the realm of natural law .... It is good that our ancestors invented the concept of the supernatural .... The physical scientist has at least managed to consign it to a corner of his mind where it does not greatly interfere with his day-by-day activities.15

A more recent use of the God-of-the-gaps concept is encountered in the title of a recent book, The God Particle, by Lederman and Teresi.16 In his response to questions as to why this title was chosen, Lederman stated, "I didn't really mean God," then explained that his use of the word symbolized "everything we don't understand yet."17 In a further commentary on this book title, coauthor Teresi wrote, "It was meant as a joke."18

Hawking, in describing the earlier views of Laplace, stated that scientific determinism was ...

 ...incomplete in two ways. It did not say how the laws should be chosen and it did not specify the initial configuration of the universe. These were left to God. God would choose how the universe began and what laws it obeyed, but he would not intervene in the universe once it had started. In effect, God was confined to the areas that nineteenth-century science did not understand.19

The God-of-the-gaps meaning of the term "God"is illustrated also in Gleick's discussion of the complex, non-linear equations that would be required if we were to describe the weat20

Fourth, and closely interrelated with some of the others, is a concept of dualism, in which the physical realm of nature and the realm of the spiritual (however this term may be defined) are considered to coexist. This and other forms of dualism have been prominent in philosophical and theological circles for many centuries. For example, Plato developed the concept of an ultimate dualism of ideas and matter. Aristotle followed him with an alternative view that ideas are not necessarily ultimate or transcendent, but he was unable to escape a dualism of form and matter. Kant drew an ontological distinction between what a thing appears to humans to be and what it is in itself. Theologies over the ages have tended to recognize the dualism of a principle of ultimate evil and a principle of coeternal good.

Yet another form of dualism is that between an individual's professed beliefs and his or her practice. A personal example of this pragmatic and very common dualism is described by Davies.

Many practicing scientists are also religious. Following the publication of God and the New Physics, I was astonished to discover how many of my close colleagues practice a conventional religion. In some cases they manage to keep these two aspects of their lives separate, as if science rules six days a week, and religion on Sunday. A few scientists, however, make strenuous and sincere efforts to bring their science and their religion into harmony. Usually this entails taking a very liberal view of religious doctrine on the one hand, and on the other hand imbuing the world of physical phenomena with a significance that many of their fellow-scientists find unappealing.21

Presumably those scientists who are in agreement with, and take seriously, the Statement of Faith of the American Scientific Affiliation are included among Davies' "few scientists," but may not fall into either of his "usually" groups.

Fifth, the term "God" is used to represent a deeper level of explanation than scientific explanation with respect to basic questions concerning the universe. This concept is well-identified by Davies, "There must, it seems to me, be a deeper level of explanation. Whether one wishes to call that deeper level God is a matter of taste and definition."22

Sixth, the term God is used to represent the God of the biblical Christian world view. This is the God identified in the Statement of Faith of the ASA, and is used, for example, by Templeton and Herrmann: "Judeo-Christian theology ... viewed God as Creator and Supreme Ruler of nature, one who had not only brought the cosmos into being, but governed it by laws that reflected his faithfulness and consistency."23

I will make comparative comments on these diverse meanings of the term "God" shortly, but let me make a brief detour before I do so. Several of the major writings which we have quoted thus far make reference to Albert Einstein and to his use of the name of God in his writings. But what did Einstein himself mean by this?

In his own autobiographical notes, Einstein wrote,

 In the beginning, if there was such a thing, God created Newton's laws of motion together with the necessary masses and forces. This is all; everything beyond this follows from the development of appropriate mathematical methods by means of deduction.24

On one occasion, he was asked in a cablegram from a rabbi in New York, "Do you believe in God?" Einstein cabled back, "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all being, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men."25

In a philosophical study of Einstein's conception of religion in general, Hinshaw identified three levels in Einstein's thinking,

First ... the most primitive conception of religion with its anthropocentric God. Second ... on the higher levels of social life, the religion of morality predominates. Third, there is what Einstein thinks of as "cosmic religious feeling." It is this last conception of religion in which Einstein believes; or, rather, it is this sort of religion which he lives.26

A statement by Einstein that he does not believe in a God who plays dice has been widely quoted by many others, often in a context far different than the one in which it was made. Actually, it appeared in correspondence in 1944 between Einstein and Max Born, a German physicist, in a discussion of physical phenomena which Born described as random events requiring statistical interpretation. Einstein believed that the physical realm is understandable somehow, while Born maintained that the universe was too complex for human understanding without resorting to random, statistical considerations. According to Bohr's published account of this correspondence, Einstein wrote, "In our scientific expectation we have grown antipodes. You believe in God playing dice and I in perfect laws in the world of things existing as real objects which I try to grasp in a wildly speculative way." Born then commented,

If God has made the world a perfect mechanism, he has at least conceded so much to our imperfect intellect that, in order to predict little parts of it, we need not solve innumerable differential equations but can use dice with fair success.... I think this situation has not changed much by the introduction of quantum statistics; it is still we mortals who are playing dice for our little purposes of prognosis God's actions are as mysterious in classical Brownian movement as in radio-activity and quantum radiation, or in life at large.27

This difference of opinion between Einstein and Born has frequently been paraphrased in the form of a question, "Does God play dice?" It is, in essence, the age-old question of whether or not the realm of nature is deterministic or chaotic, whether orderly or disorderly. Stewart used this question in the title of his book, and then concluded his own advocacy of deterministic chaos by stating that the question is not whether God plays dice, but how he does so: "Either God is playing dice, or he's playing a deeper game that we have yet to fathom,"28 and "If God played dice, he'd win."29 In a similar fashion, Joseph Ford, a leader in the new science of chaos, stated "God plays dice with the universe, but they're loaded dice. And the main objective of physics now is to find out by what rules were they loaded and how can we use them for our own ends."30

Now let us return to the listing of six meanings of the term "God" in the writings of scientists. It is obvious that each of the first five differs markedly from the God of the biblical Christian world view.

(1)...the name "God" is equated to a vague, general principle of superior intelligence, or of goodness, or of whatever it may be that is supreme or ultimate.

The God of the Bible is not a vague, general principle or impression of anything. He is infinite and humans are finite, so we can not fully comprehend him. Nevertheless he is personal and knowable through his general and special revelations of himself to humankind.

(2)...the word "God" is used with reference to a transcendent initiator of the universe, which has proceeded ever since in its mechanistic, deterministic ways without any further involvement of the God who initiated it.

God indeed is the transcendent initiator of the universe. However, the biblical concept of God does not stop with his transcendence, for he is also immanent within that which he initiated, the sustainer of that which he created. Scientific laws as delineated by human beings are not descriptive statements of how the universe runs without God, but rather are descriptive statements of ways in which he normally sustains it.

(3)...the concept of God to which a number of these uses of the name refer is that of a "God-of-the-gaps."

The biblical concept of God is not at all that of a God-of-the-gaps useful only to fill in whatever blanks may exist in human scientific knowledge at a particular point in time. Rather, the God of the Bible is sovereign, and nothing is exempt from his sovereignty. He permeates all reality, whether or not that reality is explainable by the present state of scientific knowledge.

(4)...a concept of dualism, in which the physical realm of nature and the realm of the spiritual (however this term may be defined) are considered to coexist.

The God of the Bible is not merely one part of a dualism. He is not limited to a realm of the spiritual coexisting with a realm of the physical. These two realms are intimately interconnected because both are within the sovereignty, the transcendence and the immanence of the God of the biblical Christian world view.

(5)...the term "God" is used to represent a deeper level of explanation than scientific explanation with respect to basic questions concerning the universe.

God does provide a deeper level of explanation than scientific explanation of the physical universe, but the word "God" is not merely a name for that deeper level. The God of the biblical Christian world view transcends scientific explanation, is in no way dependent on it, and is not a mere extrapolation from scientific knowledge.

What conclusions may we draw from the readily observable fact that the word "God" is commonly used in writings of contemporary scientists and science writers? The most obvious one, perhaps, is that the meaning of this word varies considerably from one usage to another. Thus, we should be careful in gaining understanding of each such usage to insure that we understand just what the author means by it.

A few additional points are worthy of mention. (a) Concepts of some sort of supreme being(s) have been prevalent in all times and cultures throughout all human history, and they are by no means any less prevalent in our own era, including among persons who are scientists. (b) Much can be learned regarding the essence, the meaning and the significance of the God of the biblical Christian world view by means of careful study of both his general and special revelations to humankind. (c) Some of the major writings of contemporary scientists represent valiant efforts to see just how far we can go in learning about God and the "mind of God" from study of the general revelation alone, and much can be learned from these studies. (d) Nevertheless, to ignore or to deny either the general or the special revelation is to become subject to serious incompleteness and error. (e) The existence of God can not be ultimately "proved" by purely scientific investigations of the physical universe, but such observations and studies can and do provide powerful evidence in support of the biblical Christian faith.

1994

Notes

1Hawking, Stephen W. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, Bantam Books, New York, 1988.

 2Hawking, p. 175.

3Hawking, p. x.

 4Davies, Paul. The Mind of God, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992.

5Stewart, Ian. Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos, Basil Blackwell, Ltd., Oxford, 1989.

6Templeton, John M., and Robert L. Herrmann. The God Who Would Be Known: Revelations of the Divine in Contemporary Science, Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1989.

7Lederman, Leon, with Dick Teresi. The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What Is the Question? Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1993.

8Gleick, James. Chaos: Making A New Science, Penguin Books, New York, 1987.

9Davies, p. 223.

10Stewart, p. 229.

11Gleick, p. 12.

12Gleick, p. 185.

13Gleick, p. 201.

14Hawking, p. 173.

15Wooldridge, Dean. The Machinery of Life, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1966. p. 2.

16Lederman, Leon, with Dick Teresi.

17Stine, Richard (editor). "Science Scope," Science, vol. 259, January 29, 1993, p. 587.

18Teresi, Dick. "Letters," in Science, vol. 260, April 30, 1993, p. 607.

19Hawking, p. 172.

20Gleick, p. 168.

21Davies, p. 15.

22Davies, p. 16.

23Templeton and Herrmann, p. 7.

24Schilpp, Paul Arthur (editor). Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, Tudor Publishing Company, New York, 1951. p. 19.

25Schilpp, p. 103.

26Schilpp, p. 660.

27Schilpp, p. 176.

28Stewart, p. 293.

29Stewart, p. 303.

30Gleick, p. 314.