Excerpts from “On God and Science”

   In a book review in Scientific American, Harvard evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould points out that many scientists see no contradiction between traditional religious beliefs and the world view of modern science. Noting that many evolutionists have been devout Christians, he concludes, “Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism, thus proving that the two great realms of nature’s factuality and the source of human morality do not strongly overlap.”1
   The question of whether or not science and religion are compatible frequently comes up, and Gould himself points out that he is dealing with it for the “umpteenth millionth time.” It is a question to which people are prone to give muddled answers. Definitions of God and God’s modes of action in the world seem highly elastic, and the desire to combine scientific theories with religious doctrines has impelled many sophisticated people to stretch both to the limit. In the end, something has to give.
   To help us locate the snapping point, let’s look at what a few scientists have said about God.
   Dr. John A. O’Keefe, a NASA astronomer and a practicing Catholic, has said, “Among biologists, the feeling has been since Darwin that all of the intricate craftsmanship of life is an accident, which arose because of the operation of natural selection on the chemicals of the earth’s shell. This is quite true. . . .”2
   O’Keefe accepts that life developed on earth entirely through physical processes of the kind envisioned by Darwin. He stresses, however, that many features of the laws of physics have just the right values to allow for life as we know it. He concludes from this that God created the universe for man to live in—more precisely, God did this at the moment of the big bang, when the universe and its physical laws sprang out of nothing.
   To support this idea, O’Keefe quotes Pope Pius XII, who said in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Science in 1951:

   Now this might seem a reasonable union of religion and science. God creates the universe in a brief moment; then everything runs according to accepted scientific principles. Of the universe’s fifteen-billion-year history, the first tiny fraction of a second is to be kept aside as sacred ground, roped off from scientific scrutiny. Will scientists agree not to trespass on this sacred territory? Certainly not. Stephen Hawking, holder of Isaac Newton’s chair at Cambridge University, once attended a conference on cosmology organized by Jesuits in the Vatican. The conference ended with an audience with the Pope. Hawking recalls:

   Whether or not Hawking’s theory wins acceptance, this episode shows that science cannot allow any aspect of objective reality to lie outside its domain. We can get further insight into this by considering the views of Owen Gingerich of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In a lecture on modern cosmogony and Biblical creation, Gingerich also interpreted the big bang as God’s act of creation. He went on to say that we are created in the image of God and that within us lies “a divine creative spark, a touch of the infinite consciousness, and conscience.”5
   What is this “divine spark”? Gingerich’s words suggest that it is spiritual and gives rise to objectively observable behavior involving conscience. But mainstream science rejects the idea of a nonphysical conscious entity that influences matter. Could “divine spark” be just another name for the brain, with its behavioral programming wired in by genetic and cultural evolution? If this is what Gingerich meant, he certainly chose misleading words to express it.
   Freeman Dyson of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies arrived at ideas similar to those of Gingerich’s, but from a non-Christian perspective.

   Dyson fully accepts Darwin’s theory of chance variation and natural selection. But he also explicitly grants mind an active role in the universe: “Our consciousness is not just a passive epiphenomenon carried along by chemical events in our brains, but an active agent forcing the molecular complexes to make choices between one quantum state and another.”7 He also feels that the universe may, in a sense, have known we were coming and made preparations for our arrival.8
   Dyson is verging on scientific heresy, and he cannot escape from this charge simply by saying he is talking about religion and not science. Quantum mechanics ties together chance and the conscious observer. Dyson uses this as a loophole through which to introduce mind into the phenomena of nature. But if random quantum events follow quantum statistics as calculated by the laws of physics, then mind has no choice but to go along with the flow as a passive epiphenomenon. And if mind can make quantum events follow different statistics, then mind violates the laws of physics. Such violations are rejected not only by physicists but also by evolutionists, who definitely do not envision mind-generated happenings playing any significant role in the origin of species.
   It would seem that O’Keefe, Gingerich, and Dyson are advancing religious ideas that are scientifically unacceptable. Unacceptable because they propose an extra-scientific story for events that fall in the chosen domain of science: the domain of all real phenomena. . . .

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1. Gould, Stephen Jay, 1992, “Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge,” Scientific American, July 1992, p. 119.
2. Jastrow, Robert, 1978, God and the Astronomer, New York: Warner Books, Inc., p. 138.
3. Jastrow, Ibid., pp. 141–2.
4. Hawking, Stephen, 1988, A Brief History of Time, New York: Bantam Books, p. 116.
5. Gingerich, Owen, 1982, “Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmogony and Biblical Creation,” an abridgement of the Dwight Lecture given at the University of Penna. in 1982, pp. 9–10.
6. Dyson, Freeman, 1979, Disturbing the Universe, New York: Harper & Row, pp. 251–52.
7. Dyson, Ibid., p. 249.

Copyright © 2004 by Richard L. Thompson