Can science and God ever get along?

By Tim Hames (THE TIMES, 26/05/08):

This Bank Holiday weekend is often referred to as “Whitsun”. In truth, it has not been, except by coincidence, for more than four decades. Whitsun, or the Pentecost, refers to the moment, seven weeks after Easter Sunday, when the Holy Spirit supposedly descended on the Apostles and other followers of Jesus – as set out in Acts, 2. It should, therefore, like Easter, be a variable, rather than a fixed, date in the calendar. In 2008 it would have been celebrated by a day off a fortnight ago. Bank Holidays were set like this until 1967 when the arrangement was replaced by a new Spring Bank Holiday at the end of May. This has not stopped it being referred to as Whitsun, much as some people in London still refer to where they live as Middlesex. It is a strange way to treat the Almighty.

God has, I suspect, bigger things on his mind, however – such as whether we believe in Him at all. A brilliant series of 13 short essays published by the John Templeton Foundation (at http://www.templeton.org/belief/) offers different responses to the question: “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” The appeal of this slender volume is threefold.

The first part of its charm is the unexpected nature of many of the answers. Although about half of the contributors are in the “Yesish” camp, only one (Professor Victor Stenger) is willing to state unambiguously that: “Science has not only made belief in God obsolete. It has made it incoherent.”

Some of those whose opinions might have been considered predictable turn out not to be. Professor Robert Sapolsky is an outright “No”, because: “Despite the fact that I am an atheist, I recognise that belief offers something that science does not.”

Yet Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, answers both “No, and Yes”, because although he contends that the knowledge acquired by science makes belief in God “more reasonable than ever”, a reductive “scientific mentality” has, he says, “helped push the concept of God into the hazy twilight of agnosticism”. This is a brave concession from him.

The second element of the book’s appeal is the data that comes with some of the responses. Thanks to Christopher Hitchens (his answer was “No, but it should”), I have learnt that our species is no more than 200,000 years old and was on the edge of extinction 60,000 years ago, when the population seems to have fallen below 2,000. This triggered a massive exodus from Africa. He also notes that “the Andromeda galaxy is on a direct collision course with our own, the ominous but beautiful premonition of which can already be seen with a naked eye in the night sky”.

There are other surprises. Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy (his answer, “Not necessarily”) says: “Smarter humans go for smarter Gods. Anthropomorphic representations – such as Gods with octopus arms – are a bit out of fashion today but they were enormously popular just a few centuries ago”. Michael Shermer (his answer, “It depends”), meanwhile reveals that a survey of American scientists in 1916 showed that 40 per cent of them believed in God. A similar study in 1997 came up with the same figure.

The third point of interest of this book is perhaps the most fascinating – namely the responses of eminent scientists who replied “No” to the question because they are committed Christians.

William Phillips is a Nobel laureate at the University of Maryland and a well-regarded physicist. His accumulated work has led him to see “a universe that, had it been constructed differently, would never have given birth to stars and planets, let alone bacteria and people. And there is no good scientific reason for why the universe should not have been different”.

Jerome Groopman, Professor of Medicine at Harvard, latches on to the limits of science and its lack of moral precepts. There are, he says, “no Ten Commandments in thermodynamics, no path to righteousness and charity and love in Euclidean geometry or atomic physics”.

Keith Miller, a professor at Brown University and an expert in – and passionate advocate of – evolution (and something of a scourge of the US “Intelligent Design” lobby), has articulated all the same that: “The categorical mistake of the atheist is to assume that God is natural and therefore within the realm of science to investigate and test. But God is not and cannot be part of nature. He is the answer to existence, not part of existence itself.”

These scientists receive reinforcement from a senior biblical scholar. Keith Ward, ordained in the Church of England and also a canon at Christ Church, Oxford University, examines more deeply what is meant when it is asserted that science has developed a complete and whole explanation for the universe that would render God redundant. To have even an abstract model necessitates, he rightly asserts, concepts such as many space-times, or of this space-time as “a 10 or 11 dimensional reality that dissolves into topological foam below the Planck length”.

He could have taken aim at string theory, too, which assumes that something essentially unobservable exists because it is the only means by which a massive inconsistency in scientific thinking can be resolved. So 11 dimensions rather than three? Invisible “string”? How different is that from a faith in a divine entity?

Others will read this dialogue and come to a wholly opposite conclusion. That is the joy of this exchange and enterprise.

One rather hopes that, if there is a God, our capacity to engage in serious debate as to whether He is there and what He is would itself be the ultimate tribute to Him (or Her).