Three Great Scientists on God’s Existence
In an earlier article (1) I outlined the views on God’s existence of three giants of scientific thought: Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. I propose here to continue in a similar vein by assessing the outlook on God, religious faith, and science of three contemporary scientists who have contributed fundamental insights to their disciplines, and significantly enhanced our understanding of the natural world. Theoretical physicist Steven Wienberg, paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, and primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall were chosen also because they instantiate – in their own original ways – three major perspectives that have been recurring throughout the history of the unending, tortuous debate between science and religion on matters of ultimate import.
- What Did Newton, Darwin, and Einstein Think About God's Existence?
The question of God's existence led three supreme scientists to differing answers, all pervaded by an awareness of the limitations of the human mind as it faces ultimate reality
On Steven Weinberg's Atheism
Steven Weinberg (b. 1933) is regarded by many of his peers as the greatest theoretical physicist of his generation. He has made fundamental contributions to physical cosmology and particle physics. In 1979 he was awarded along with two colleagues the Nobel price ‘For their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including, inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current." (2). He is also celebrated for his elegant expounding of scientific ideas and their philosophical implications in terms accessible to the non specialist, and for his activities as a leading spokesman for science.
‘With or without religion good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion’(3). This oft cited pronouncement epitomizes Weinberg’s negative view of the ethical, social, and political impact of organized religion on human affairs: ‘On balance - he writes - the moral influence of religion has been awful’(ibid.) He is no less dismissive in his assessment of religion’s contribution to humanity’s intellectual and cultural development. Religion must be outgrown: just ‘as a child learns about the tooth fairy and is incited by that to leave the tooth under the pillow ... you are glad that the child believes in the tooth fairy. But eventually you want the child to grow up. I think it’s about time that the human species grew up in this respect.’(4).
To Weinberg, beliefs of a deistic as opposed to theistic nature: that is, beliefs in some sort of cosmic impersonal intelligence uninvolved in human affairs - such as those proposed by Einstein (1) - are ultimately meaningless, since they are essentially indistinguishable from the idea of a cosmos governed by rationally apprehensible natural laws. ‘If you want to say that God is energy’ - he writes - then you can find God in a lump of coal.’ (ibid.).
Accordingly, he argues that a meaningful assessment of the rational and empirical viability of the idea of a divine presence in reality must be centered upon the fundamental tenets of traditional monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. At the core of these religions is a set of beliefs about supernatural beings and supernatural events, such as the empty tomb, or the burning bush, or an angel dictating a holy book to a prophet. Within this framework, God is represented as ‘some sort of personality, some sort of intelligence, who created the universe and has special concern with life, in particular with human life’(3).
However, the understanding of the universe afforded by science has unraveled nothing like the hand of a benign creator. The fundamental laws of nature are ‘utterly impersonal’. Even so, it could still be argued that the universe might be designed to bring life and even intelligence into being. Indeed, certain physical constants may seem to be fine-tuned to values that allow specifically for the emergence of life, thereby indirectly pointing - in the mind of some - to the hand of an intelligent, bio-friendly designer.
Weinberg is unimpressed by this argument. Some of this so called fine tuning, he demonstrated, is on closer scrutiny no fine tuning at all. Still, he admits that the specific value of the all-important cosmological constant - much smaller than expected from basic physical principles - seems finely tuned in favor of life. For Weinberg, an explanation may be found in some version of a ‘multiverse’, as stemming for instance from the ‘chaotic inflation’ theories of Andre Linde and others. In these views, the expanding cloud of galaxies resulting from the ‘Big Bang’ which gave rise to the known part of the universe is but one of a much larger universe in which Big Bang events occur all the time, and in which the values of the fundamental constants overall are overwhelmingly incompatible with the generation of life (3).
Thus, whether we are dealing with a universe with many regions in which the constants of nature assume many different values, or perhaps – as he argues elsewhere (6) - a number of parallel universes each with its own laws and constants: under any such scenario, the fact that our universe seems fine tuned for life loses much of its significance. For it is to be expected that in a possibly infinite number of universes some of them would lead to life and intelligence. Voila’!
Regardless, for Weinberg the traditional idea of a deity involves far more than the notion of a creator who designed a universe hospitable to life. If God is omnipotent, omniscient, loving, and concerned about its creation, as traditional religions maintain, we should find evidence of this benevolence in the physical world. But the evidence is sorely lacking. Weinberg resorts to well trodden arguments for the incompatibility between the idea of a benevolent and loving God and the prevalence of evil and suffering in the world. He grudgingly admits that if God gave us free will this had to include the freedom to commit evil. But this explanation does not cut it when it comes to natural evil: ‘how does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of free will for tumors?’ (3).
If there is no God, then, what kind of universe do we inhabit? What is its ‘point’? ‘I believe that there is no point in the universe that can be discovered by the methods of science - he writes - . When we find the ultimate laws of nature they will have a chilling, cold, impersonal quality about them’ (ibid.). Which is not to say that we cannot create niches of meaning in this indifferent universe, ‘a little island of love and warmth and science and art for ourselves.’(ibid.). In other terms, as I understand it, for Weinberg there is no such thing as the meaning of life (or of the universe) : but we can still manage to find a modicum of meaning in life.
Weinberg’s strong faith in science leads him to believe that we will steadily progress toward ever more accurate and comprehensive explanatory accounts of the physical world. Still, even if we were to arrive at the mythical ‘Theory of Everything’, many questions would remain: why these laws rather than others? Where do the laws governing the universe come from? ‘And then we – looking at – standing at that brink of that abyss we have to say we do not know’. No scientific explanation will ever dispel the ultimate mystery of existence: ‘The question of why is there something rather than nothing lies outside the ambit even of the final theory’(6).
Of course, many would claim that the ultimate answer to this mystery may yet rest upon God’s will. Weinberg denies that such a move would help in any logical way to unravel the ultimate mystery.
Weinberg’s views, however well articulated and sustained by a profound knowledge of physical science, do not in the end add much to this debate. For instance, the inability to see the hand of a loving Creator in a world infused with pain and evil has accompanied the development of religious thought almost since its inception; indeed for many this is the decisive objection to a belief in a deity as traditionally understood.
Weinberg’s penchant for accounting for evidence of fine tuning of some physical constants by appealing to the notion of a multiverse may be in part motivated by a desire to leave no room for any explanation in terms of an ‘intelligent designer’ who might have brought this one and only universe into existence via a 'singular' Big Bang. Note however that even the hypothesis of a single universe by no means compels the adoption of a creationistic account of its origin. Moreover, the uni-vs. multiverse debate is one that - although not quite yet at present - may well become decidable as a result of theoretical and empirical progress in physics. It is therefore in principle a scientific issue, although it does, in the mind of some, possess clear metaphysical implications.
As noted, Weinberg’s critique of religion is based upon a traditional reading of its main tenets. In this regard, Weinberg’s approach is not unlike that of another famous scientist and atheist, Richard Dawkins (e.g., 7), who bases his critique of religion on a literal reading - in this respect like his fundamentalist opponents – of religious texts. Dawkins argues that more sophisticated readings of these texts, with their reliance upon a symbolic analysis, are all too often ambiguous, evasive, and unrepresentative of the views of ordinary believers. Yet, as it was well understood in the past, and as in our days Northrop Frye extensively demonstrated (8) - the Bible’s language, for instance, is quintessentially imaginative, and based mostly upon allegory, metaphor and myth; accordingly a symbolic reading of many parts of holy scriptures is necessary if one is to avoid absurdities. Jesus asked the apostles to become fisher of men: was he expecting them to take along the fishing gear they used in their work? Or, as C.S. Lewis noted somewhere, should we assume that, since Jesus asks of his followers to be like doves, they should be expected to lay eggs?
The choice of basing a critique of the idea of God upon an ordinary believer’s understanding rather than on the highest achievements of a pluri-secular tradition of theological thought is not persuasive. Its justification is that the latter are grasped only by priests, scholars, and contemplatives. Should then one base one’s assessment of contemporary science, not on the professional writings of its best practitioners, but on the half baked, vague, hazy scientific notions of modern citizens? Would Weinberg or Dawkins or any scientist stand for that?
As David Hart noted (9), the God of whom today’s atheists speak – and we can certainly include Weinberg and Dawkins among them – is what theologians refer to as a ‘demiurge’. This entity is a ‘maker’ - not a ‘creator’ as the latter is understood in Christian theology - : ‘he is an imposer of order, but not the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo. And he is a god who made the universe ‘back then’ at some specific point in time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal gift of being to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things on existence in every moment’ (Ibid.). In terms of Hart’s analysis, the whole lot of new atheists ‘have actually never written a word about God’.
What is in question here is not whether Hart’s portrayal of the idea of God emerging from his analysis of major religious traditions is any more compelling to a non-believer than Weinberg’s portrayal of a Deity. What the reading of Hart’s text makes overwhelmingly clear, however, is that the theological views therein expounded should be front and center of any critique of religious thought alongside the others.
It probably would be too much to expect that scientists, however clever and competent in their respective domains, possess the depth of knowledge and skills that would enable them to confront the full spectrum of theological and philosophical views on the subject (they would claim their time is better spent on their science, I would imagine). Yet, their avoidance of this task diminishes the theoretical import of their views. More is needed for a decisive blow to religious belief, whether we regard this as desirable or not.
On Stephen Jay Gould's Agnosticism
Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science, authored hundreds of academic and magazines articles and 22 books, which made him one of the most famous scientists of his time.
Gould achieved scientific prominence along with his Harvard colleague Niles Eldredge by proposing the notion of ‘punctuated equilibrium’, which led to a revision of the Neo-Darwinian view of evolution. Although concurring with Darwin that biological evolution is driven by natural selection, their analysis of the fossil record led them to conclude that the immense diversification of life did not result - as originally envisaged - from a slow and gradual process, but was characterized instead by extended periods of stability and stasis interspersed with much shorter periods of drastic and rapid change: when existing species suddenly disappeared and just as suddenly new species emerged. Also, according to Gould, evolution does not lead to necessary outcomes: for instance, even assuming the same initial conditions, humans might well not have evolved from primates.
When asked about the desirability of a rapprochement between science and religion, Weinberg replied that although it could be advantageous for pragmatic reasons, in all other respects he ‘deplored’ it: for much of the raison d’etre of science is to show that ‘we can make our way in the universe’, that we ‘are not the playthings of supernatural intervention’, that ‘we have to find our own sense of morality’ (4). Gould’s attitude could hardly be more different, at least in some respects: for he called for ‘a respectful, even loving concordat between the magisteria of science and religion’ (10).
Gould was fascinated by organized religion’s ability to elicit on a grand scale both unspeakably cruel and nobly self effacing behaviors. Unlike Weinberg, he wished no end to its role in human affairs. Most of the difficulties that beset the relationship between science and religion arise in part from an inability to recognize that their concerns are fundamentally different. Gould sought to capture this difference with his principle of ‘NOMA, or non overlapping magisteria’ (ibid.). Stated most simply: ‘the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. The two magisteria do not overlap.To cite the old cliches, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; sciences studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven’ (ibid.).
Gould’s view of science was more guarded than that of many scientists. Although far from embracing radical postmodern views of the scientific enterprise, yet he believed that science is not a purely objective undertaking. It is best understood as a social phenomenon, a human enterprise which proceeds by ‘hunch, vision and intuition’. Scientific theories are not ‘inexorable induction from facts’; they are ‘imaginative visions imposed upon facts’ (11). And he believed - along with Kuhn (12), I might add - that in most cases the succession of scientific paradigms does not constitute ‘a closer approach to absolute truth’, but rather reflects changes in the cultural context in which science operates. Which is not to say that ‘objective reality’ does not exist, nor that science, albeit in often ‘obtuse and erratic manner’ cannot learn from it. It’s just that science is provisional, perennially amendable, conjectural knowledge.
With regards to ultimate questions, Gould called himself an agnostic ‘in the wise sense of T. H. Huxley, who coined the word in identifying such open-minded skepticism as the only rational position because, truly, one cannot know’ (10).
Yet, I surmise that Gould’s agnosticism is not all that different from Weinberg’s atheism. For the latter, as noted, an ultimate explanation of why the things are the way they are - or why they are at all - will forever transcends the scope of scientific explanation. Still, Weinberg does not believe that this ultimate mystery rationally legitimizes a religious outlook for a truly ‘grown up’ humanity. Gould seems more accepting of the possibility of a religious view of the ultimate mystery: for in the end we cannot know. Or so it would appear. For he seems to know quite a bit, for an agnostic. He sounds much like Weinberg when he declares with complete assurance that ‘nature does not exist for us, didn’t know we were coming (we are after all interlopers of the latest geological moment), and does not give a damn about us (speaking metaphorically)’ (13). Now, if we are bound to accept these as facts, to what kind of God would they point to? Perhaps one that - unlike Einstein’s – does ‘play dice with the world, or in any case an impersonal, uncaring intelligence uninvolved in human affairs? Which is precisely the opposite of the core belief of Western religions. In what sense, then, does the NOMA principle prevent the conflict it is supposed to heal? Again, Gould finds it impossible to accept the Christian notion of an immortal soul - presumably because incompatible with a scientific outlook - but honors ‘the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, our care and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us’ (13).
It seems to me that this ‘concordat’ between science and religion comes at a tremendous cost for the latter. When it comes to understanding reality, believers are asked to rely completely upon the - however imperfect - scientific view of the world, de facto wedded to an uncompromising naturalism which rejects in principle any appeal to agencies not defined in physical terms. Within this scenario, a thoroughly domesticated Christianity, uprooted from its defining theological premises, fully reconciled with materialistic science, and exclusively concerned with ethical and social issues - possibly appropriately ‘modernized’ and rendered compatible with the progressive views of the readers of the New York Times - might well be the thing for some. But the fact that it is precisely the more liberal and secularized versions of Christianity that are facing the greatest loss of followers suggests that religion is inextricably wedded to claims of an unseen spiritual reality that transcends the limiting vistas of the scientific outlook. What need is there of a religious outlook if all we get from it is a set of ethical values that can be affirmed on purely humanistic grounds?
Perhaps the amicable, gentle, steady bleeding of spiritual meaning to which the religious outlook seems condemned to under the NOMA prescription is more lethal to the religious outlook than Weinberg’s outright, bracing, uncompromising atheism.
On Jane Goodall's Mysticism
Gould went so far as to celebrate her work as ‘one of the world’s greatest scientific achievements’. Jane Goodall (b. 1934) is a British primatologist and anthropologist, the preeminent expert on chimpanzees whose behaviour she studied for more than half a century, since his first visit to Gombe Stream Reserve in Tanzania in 1960. Goodall’s observations of a community of chimpanzees whose acceptance she managed to win, drastically altered our understanding of these close relatives of ours, and with it our notions of what differentiates us from the other animals, especially those closest to us. She discovered that chimpanzees are capable of forms of reasoning once thought to be uniquely humans; that each exhibits distinct personalities, feelings, and mental traits; that they are capable of compassionate acts, and can produce ritualistic behavior. She learned that these primates are omnivorous; that they hunt animals as large as small antelopes; that can use tools, and stones as weapons. To her dismay, she realized that they are capable of sustained violence and brutality, as when she observed one group conducting relentless warfare against a smaller band, that eventuated in the latter’s extermination. Such a discovery, in light of the many similarities between humans and chimpanzees, led her to conclude that we are innately predisposed to violence and aggression. Our difference from other animals, in her view, rests primarily upon our species’s acquisition of sophisticated cognitive skills, that depended to a significant extent upon the development of a highly complex language.
Goodall also established the Jane Goodall Institute and the Roots and Shoots program, and has dedicated a great deal of her energies to the protection of the natural environment, and to animal welfare.
Goodall’s views on God and spirituality do not descend from an intellectual and scholarly approach to these matters. They stem instead from her profound immersion in the natural world. Her experience in the forest and her work with chimpanzees made her ‘personally utterly convinced that there was a great spiritual power that we call God, Allah, or Brahma, although I knew, equally certainly, that my finite mind could never comprehend its form or nature’(14). Goodall is cognizant of the virtues of the scientific approach, which has provided us with fundamental insights into the properties of the natural world and of our own nature. Yet, she objects to ignoring the vistas afforded by ‘other windows through which we can look at the world surrounding us’ (ibid.). This is the way of the mystics, of the holy men, of the founders of the great religions, who looked into the world not just with their logical minds but also with their hearts and souls. Indeed, ‘my own preference - she writes - is the window of the mystic’ (ibid.). This preference is largely based on personal experiences she underwent in her long years in the African wilderness: ‘flashes of spiritual ecstasy’, a sense of identification with the world in which she came to feel that ‘the self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit of power itself’ (ibid.). A visit to the Notre Dame cathedral, when that sacred space was animated by the sounds of a Bach sonata similarly prompted a ‘moment of eternity’, ‘the ecstasy of the mystics’. All this beauty, all this meaning, she decided, could never come from ‘the chance gyrations of bits of primeval dust: and so I must believe in a guiding power in the universe - in other words, I must believe in God’ (ibid.).
Goodall is not afraid of death, for she ‘never wavered in believing that a part of us, the spirit or soul, continues on’ (ibid.). Many uncanny experiences in her own life and that of her friends’ also convinced her that paranormal phenomena should not be dismissed even though science has trouble accounting for them: for in the end ‘science does not have appropriate tools for the dissection of the spirit’(ibid.).
Reports such as these, based upon subjective and essentially incommunicable experiences, are not amenable to rational assessment in the way the previously considered views are. They are not to be ignored either, though, as they come from a person of integrity, insight and experience. Moreover, they gain additional weight from their being entirely consistent with the vast literature on mystical experiences, which is gaining increasing attention from scholars of religion, psychologists, and brain scientists. Make of them what you will, dear reader, if you traveled this far.
Anyone reasonably familiar with the literature on this immense subject will have realized that these scientists’ views and experiences, though worthy of consideration, do not substantially alter our understanding of it.
Their specific interest lies in their bearing witness to the fact that even within the community of elite scientists this debate remains as open as ever (admittedly, the atheists within this group predominate numerically; this is not the case within the scientific community at large).
Quite possibly, it always will be.
Another great scientist, the linguist Noam Chomsky, proposed that we distinguish between scientific problems and mysteries. The former, however daunting, may eventually yield to scientific inquiry; the latter – such as the very fact of the world’s existence - may never be solved because their depth simply exceeds the cognitive grasp of our species. And he is not alone in holding this view (15). Which is in a sense the one core idea our scientific trio shared.
1. Quester, J. P. (2017). What did Newton, Darwin, and Einstein Think about God? https://owlcation.com/humanities/Newton_Darwin_and_Einstein_on_God
3. New York Review of Books 46 (16), 1999.
4. Weinberg, S. (2005) Faith and Reason, PBS transcript, www.pbs.org/faithandreason/transcript/wein-body.html
5. Weinberg, S. (1992). Dreams of a Final Theory. New York: Pantheon Books.
6. Holt J. (2013). Why Does the World Exist? New York: Liveright Publishing.
7. Dawkins, R. (2006) The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press.
8. Adamson, J. (1993). Northrop Frye. A Visionary Life. Toronto: ECW Press.
9. Hart, D. B. (2013). The Experience of God. New Haven: Yale University Press.
10. Gould, S. J. (1999). Rocks of Ages. Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group.
11. Gould, S. J. (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W. W. Norton.
12. Kuhn, T. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press.
13. Gould S. J. (1998) Leonardov’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. New York: Harmony Books.
14. Goodall, J. (1999). Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey. New York: Warner Books.
15. Quester (2017). Is Human Understanding Fundamentally Limited? https://owlcation.com/humanities/is-human-understanding-fundamentally-limited
© 2018 John Paul Quester