Has Science Made Belief in God Obsolete? An Excerpt from The Big Questions in Science and Religion
Keith Ward will be the 2008-09 Metanexus Senior Fellow.
There is a picture of human intellectual progress made popular by Auguste Comte (it originated with Robert Turgot and Henri de Saint-Simon) that sees humanity as moving from the earliest stage of religion through a stage of metaphysics to the final maturity of science. Each stage supplants and renders obsolete the stage before it. The age of religion is the infancy of the human race, when humans formed animistic ideas of spirits in trees and storms, which could be influenced by magical techniques. In The Golden Bough, Sir James Fraser subdivides this first stage into one of magic, when the earliest humans tried to influence natural forces by magical rituals, followed by religion, when it was realized that magic did not work, and instead humans submitted in fear and imprecation to the mysterious gods who caused thunderstorms and earthquakes.
But prayer did not work either, so the more sophisticated humans began to do metaphysics, to think rationally about the nature of the universe. They were, however, armchair thinkers, like Plato, who never actually did experiments but just thought what things ought to be like (the planets, for instance, must move in circular orbits because circles are the most perfect Forms).
Only later, in sixteenth-century Europe, did experimental science get going, and at last humans came to know the real causal factors that made things happen, finally exorcising the ghosts of magic and religion from reality. Science shows us that supernatural spirits are both unnecessary and misleading fantasies. So, at last, we can face a vast impersonal universe with heroic stoicism, refusing to be deluded by fantasies of ghosts above the sky, seeing things as they are—blind, compassionless, unconscious, and indifferent to all things human.
That is part of a popular modern myth of human progress. Science will deliver us from superstition and infantile fear of the gods. By the cold clear light of reason, we will be able to devise a more humane, less authoritarian morality and plan the human future calmly and wisely, without bowing before unseen forces that demand human sacrifice—of the intellect, if not of actual flesh.
That myth was devised in the eighteenth century, when the cultured elite celebrated its emancipation from the brute passions of the working classes and more primitive races of the world—that is, from virtually everyone who did not own a country estate, run by those same inferior brutish lower orders.
The myth was destroyed in the twentieth century, the century in which scientific technology, applied to constructing weapons of war, led to more violent deaths than in the whole of previous human history. Science, the great liberator, had made it possible to kill more human beings in more terrible ways than had ever been imagined. The pitiless indifference of nature had taken root in the hearts of humans, and, from the most cultured civilizations in the world, the brightest and fittest members of a whole generation slaughtered one another in the greatest ritual of human sacrifice ever known on earth.
The evils of religious intolerance and warfare pale into insignificance by comparison with the record of emancipated twentieth-century Europe. That may lead us to think again about the alleged primitiveness of early humanity, as opposed to the rational thought of modern humans. Yet, from an evolutionary point of view, the intellectual capacities of prehominids, millions of years ago, must have been less developed than those of modern humans. There is no doubt that human knowledge has grown with the development of writing and mathematics, and it has grown more rapidly in the last few decades than ever before. We know that before the sixteenth century many human beliefs about the natural world were incorrect. And we can see in the recorded history of religion a development from belief in many gods and spirits of mixed moral character to belief in one God of supreme goodness.
That there has been a development in intellectual understanding is not in doubt. It is hard to exaggerate the revolution in moral and scientific thinking that has occurred in recent years. A universal charter of human rights has been drawn up, slavery has been officially abolished by most nations, equality of the sexes has come to be thought generally desirable, and care for animals has come onto the moral agenda. In science, the cosmos is seen as an intelligible realm of universal laws, evolution is established, and genetics and quantum physics have given us a dramatically new understanding of and control over human and physical nature.
All that is true. It would be odd if, in religion, there had not been a concomitant development in understanding. And there has been. The rise of biblical criticism, an increased awareness of the global diversity of faiths, the acceptance of new scientific understandings of the cosmos, the acceptance of freedom of religion and belief, and a clearer vision of the importance of universal human welfare as a religious goal have been hallmarks of a new understanding of religious faith as essentially concerned with universal human welfare and worship of a God who encourages personal creativity and compassion for all sentient beings.
The twenty-first-century world is one in which there have been enormous developments of understanding in science, morality, and religion. But these have been accompanied by relapses into the crudest barbarism. Human rights are routinely violated, slavery still exists in new and hidden forms, women are oppressed in much of the world, and animals are treated with extreme cruelty. New scientific understanding is widely used to create ever more terrifying means of destruction, including nuclear and biological weapons. The spread of global technology, despite its many benefits, threatens to render the world uninhabitable. New biological experimentation could release destructive organisms that could wipe out human life. In religion, fundamentalist views that insist on the literal truth of one scripture and encourage the use of violence to wipe out all competitors constitute a major threat to peace. The turn to antiscientific forms of religious belief and to forms of faith untouched by rational reflection and based on unquestioned authority is a major intellectual setback for the alleged progress of humanity.
The picture does not seem to be one of linear progress from religion through metaphysics to science. It is more like a picture of an undoubted growth in knowledge and understanding, in religion, morality, and science alike, alongside a misuse of that knowledge in the name of the naked will to power and world domination.
Science has enormously increased our understanding of nature, but it is not our liberator from hatred and greed. It can be used either for good or evil. It can increase human health and welfare, or it can destroy the world. So it is, one would think, with religion. It can be, and has been, used for evil, to oppress and destroy. Or it can be, and has been, used for good, to found orphanages, schools, hospitals, and hospices, to sponsor great works of art, and to motivate humans to excellence in science and philosophy.
Was there then, as the Comtean myth asserted, an “age of magic or religion” that was founded on false views of causality and false beliefs in supernatural spirit and that was rendered obsolete by science?
A study of human history suggests that religious beliefs, like scientific beliefs, were much more naive and mistaken in very early human history than they are now. And they probably shared the moral ambiguity of all human activities, being used both to bolster the authority of religious charlatans and to motivate heroically virtuous action in tribal societies. It is, however, prejudice to assert that religion properly belonged to that era, whereas science did not. A more reasonable view is that both religion (reverence for the spiritual world) and science (understanding of the natural world) were in a undeveloped state in prehistory and in need of much further development.
The Origins of Religion and Spiritual Sensibility
What form did religious beliefs take in prehistory? The disappointing, but important, answer is that we do not know. The anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard ridiculed a number of well-known attempts to get into the minds of early human beings and say how they invented religion in his classic book Theories of Primitive Religion (1965). The general technique he criticizes seems to have been to say, “If I had been an early human being living in a cave, I would probably have been a very fearful and superstitious individual; and so that is what they probably were.”
The claims of some writers influenced by evolutionary biology are not much stronger. Scott Atran (2004, 6) writes that “religion is . . . a recurring cultural by-product of the complex evolutionary landscape. . . . [C]ore religious beliefs minimally violate ordinary human notions about how the world is . . . enabling people to imagine minimally impossible supernatural worlds that solve existential problems, including death and deception.” His thesis is that religion is not adaptive as such, but the creation of imaginary worlds is a means of solving problems in the real world, at least psychologically.
How is Atran supposed to know this? He clearly has not observed early religion, since no one has. From the graves and statuettes and other artifacts we have, it is very hard to draw many positive conclusions. Atran seems to be imposing on the past what he feels to be true of the present, but in a more childish way.
I doubt if this can be considered serious science. Ironically, it is itself an imaginary story (he just made it up) that violates ordinary human notions about the existence of a Spiritual Reality (most people think there is such a reality), enabling the author to solve the problem of how religion could arise when there is no Spiritual Reality.
To say there is a Spiritual Reality is to say that, underlying the world of things perceived by the senses, there is a reality that is not bound by space and time and that has the nature of consciousness and value. That reality will be conceived in terms of the concepts available in specific societies—in that sense, it will be socially constructed—used in a metaphorical or symbolic way to evoke a sense of what cannot be straightforwardly described.
We know that many early societies worshipped many gods and that the gods were associated with natural phenomena, with significant historical events, and with human values and desirable or feared possibilities. But we do not know that the god of thunder, for example, was invented to explain why it thundered and so that he could be propitiated in order to control the weather. This is to see early religion as primitive (and useless) technology. An alternative account is that thunder might be perceived as a metaphor for the destructive power of God, rather than God being a quasiscientific inference from the occurrence of thunder.
Perhaps some evolutionary biologists simply lack a sense of poetry and metaphor and, therefore, cannot understand what it would be for thunder to be taken as a “sign” of God—not evidence for God but a sensory image of a reality that cannot be physically sensed but whose nature is expressed in some way in everything that is. Some symbols can be taken as especially appropriate and revelatory signs of that reality. For instance, the abode of the gods will be “above”—physical height is a natural sensory image for spiritual superiority. Thunder from the sky can be a sensory image for the fearful power of the source of all being.
On such an account, the “religious sense” would lie in a disposition to take finite things or events as signs, communications, or disclosures of an unseen deeper reality. It may be mistaken, but the mistake is not that of thinking the cause of thunder is an invisible man pushing the clouds together.
In early religions that we know about, there are often many gods, both good and bad. That reflects the sense that there are many aspects of Spiritual Reality, perhaps many consciousnesses and values and dis-values, both good and bad, and some of them may speak to particular individuals more than others. So we can choose our own God, our own symbol of Spirit. Or, more probably, our tribe may choose it for us, and we learn one set of symbols of Spirit as especially significant for our society. This may be for historical reasons, associated with major events in the past or for reasons of cultural custom, leading us to prefer some symbols of ultimate reality (say, kingship) to others (bananas, perhaps). Not many tribes think the Supreme Spirit is a banana—though some do. More tribes think there is a king of the gods. One of those tribes was an ancestor of the Abrahamic faiths.
Evolutionary psychologists are surely correct in thinking that religion must have originated in prerational rituals and beliefs that had some important function in their societies. They are correct in seeing that many early beliefs are clearly false, if taken literally, and are sometimes morally scary, involving human sacrifice and mutilation. But they often seem to imply that the only function of beliefs is survival value or at least some by-product of such a function.
Daniel Dennett says, “Mother Nature is a philistine accountant who cares only about the immediate payoff in terms of differential replication” (2006, 80). That may be so. But when human consciousness comes on the scene, other payoffs may become important. Whatever Mother Nature thinks, people (many people, anyway) care about beauty, truth, and goodness, about ideals that attract them because of their inherent value. They find intimations of beauty in their environment, and, in their dances, songs, and rituals, they create beautiful forms that mediate transcendent beauty. That transcendent beauty may be symbolized in many finite forms, and the “world of spirits” is an imaginative narrative that evokes such a sensibility.
Some writers have talked of “memes,” which are supposed to be units of thought or belief that are successful replicators in human culture. It is difficult to think of any analogy that a thought has to the chemical structure of a gene—a piece of a DNA molecule—and equally difficult to think of a principle of natural selection that could select favored memes. For that reason, I regard “memetics” as a pseudoscience. It implies that beliefs get selected because they are easily replicated or psychologically memorable, rather than because they are thought to be true.
When a “memetic” account is given of why early humans believed that 2 + 2 = 4, the account is not that the sum is correct but that those who believed it survived better than those who thought that 2 + 2 = 22. But the reason they survived better is that 2 plus 2 really does equal 4. That is a piece of knowledge that is useful because it is true.
The same goes for religion. Some social anthropologists, beginning with Emile Durkheim, claim that religion has the function of promoting social solidarity. That may be one of its functions, though it is not likely to be the only one. But it will only have that function if people believe that some religious claims are true. Religion is truth-claiming, though the truth is particularly vague, polysemic, and hard to describe. It is because such a reality is believed to exist that belief in it promotes moral solidarity and enthusiasm among its devotees.
The reasons early humans gave for their beliefs may be, from our point of view, naive and often mistaken—just as alchemy was a naive and mistaken aim of early chemistry, in the sixteenth century. But it may have expressed a desire for truth and may well have been rooted in a discernment of truth, just as alchemy was, however partial and undeveloped.
Daniel Dennett locates the beginnings of religion in what the early anthropologist E. B. Tylor termed “animism”—“a hyperactive habit of finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us” (2006, 123). This may be rather near the truth, though the way it is put is unduly dismissive. The formulation encourages us to think that religion is a childish attitude that sees little invisible men and women hiding in trees, sprinkling us with rain, and living in waterfalls. The implication is that there is little difference in kind between belief in fairies and belief in a Conscious Agency underlying the world of appearances that our senses present to us.
Perhaps belief in fairies is a degenerate and literalized form of belief in naturally beautiful objects as signs of Spiritual Presence. If so, we might look to the myths and rituals of early religion as poetic and dramatic means of expressing and evoking what Donald Hughes describes as “the mysterious interrelatedness of all that is” (quoted in Gottlieb 1996, 138). “Indians,” he says, “regarded things in nature as spiritual beings, not because they were seeking some explanation for natural phenomena, but because human beings experience a spiritual resonance in nature” (quoted in Gottlieb 1996, 139). Evolutionary psychology must leave open the possibility that such a sense of spiritual resonance, the sense that humans participate in a spiritual universe and are not conscious, largely deluded freaks in an impersonal universe, is a natural human attitude that has survived primarily because it is believed to disclose truth.
The Development of Theism in Hebrew Thought
Religion has survived from the earliest recorded human history, but it has changed, just as a scientific attempt to understand the world has done. Local tribal cults widened and developed into four main streams of religious understanding. Bearing in mind that there are many overlaps between and variations within these streams of thought, they may be termed: theism, idealism, dualism, and monism. The first, the theistic, tradition was developed by the Hebrew prophets, in which the many gods, spirits, and ancestors who were symbols of transcendence were unified into the idea of one creator God of moral purpose. Within the Bible, this development can be seen particularly clearly, and it reaches a culminating point in the eighth to the sixth centuries bCe, with the idea of one ineffable God who interacts with humans as a morally commanding and supremely good personal reality.
In the Hebrew Bible, there are no “proofs of” or arguments for God. Indeed, in the book of Job, the three friends of Job who try to give philosophical explanations of the ways of God are characterized as “false friends.” The general impression is that human reason is fickle and not wholly trustworthy. Reason is not bad—the wisdom of God is ultimately wholly reasonable—but human reason can be used for many different purposes, good and bad. It cannot in and of itself reveal truth, for its job is to draw reliable inferences and to make connections in thought from truths established in other ways.
The popular understanding of proofs of God implies that God is not immediately known but is a sort of inference from events in the world. That is foreign to the biblical outlook. Biblical belief in God is not a matter of just opting blindly for some idea without any evidence. It is a matter of encountering the power and glory of God, primarily in the demands of morality and in the events of life, seen as encounters with a personal reality that transcends all human concepts but is apprehended as just and merciful.
Rudolf Otto, in his 1917 work The Idea of the Holy, and Martin Buber, in I and Thou, first published in 1923, catch this sense perfectly. Otto called it the sense of the numinous, a sense of mystery, awesome power, and passionate attraction. The numinous can be sensed in nature, in moral claims, in aesthetic beauty, and in personal relationships. If reason is involved, its function is to construct an always partly inadequate conceptual description of this suprarational reality, to align it with our highest moral insights and our most adequate general description of the experienced world. That is an important function.
The basis of biblical faith is not inferential reason. It is personal encounter. God is the one who liberates us from evil (from slavery in Egypt) and who fills the heart with joy. To have faith is to entrust your life to God. But neither faith nor abstract argument establishes that God exists. Reason tries, often rather feebly, to make belief in God rational— self-consistent, coherent with other knowledge, and fruitful for understanding. Faith tries, equally feebly, to make the religious way of life a positive, personally and morally fulfilling relationship to God. But belief in the actuality of God, like belief in the actuality of anything real and vital, is rooted in encounter with a personal, moral, liberating, and transforming power and presence.
This is, as Tylor and Dennett suggest, seeing all things as mediating a personal reality or realities, but it is not helpfully called “animism.” It is consciousness of the power and presence of absolute Goodness, mediated and yet partly concealed by our experience of living in a human world that is a complex interplay of beauty and intelligibility, of hatred and ignorance.
It is still possible, of course, to believe that there is no such objective personal reality, however sophisticated we try to be about it. So, appeal to “encounter” will hardly convince those who regard it as a sort of psychological illusion. Nevertheless, impartiality and honesty require us to concede that we cannot be certain religious believers are deluded, so we should try to approach their beliefs with an initial sensitivity. We may think this sort of “subjective” evidence is insufficient, but it seems unlikely that it is simply some form of irrational delusion.
Theism, Idealism, and Arguments for God
Belief in a Supreme Spiritual Reality is often developed in a philosophically profound way. This is clear in a second development of the basic idea of Spiritual Reality, idealism, which is characteristic of some major Indian traditions. The Supreme Lord is not a separate personal being but the inner nature of all reality, whose nature is consciousness, intelligence, and bliss, conscious union with which is the goal of the religious life.
As in the Hebrew tradition, this view begins with an analysis of the human condition and with the realization that there is something deeply unsatisfying about the way most humans live. For Hebrews, this was seen as “slavery to sin,” a sort of rebellion against goodness for the sake of egoistic pride and self-will. In the Indian traditions, it is seen as “ignorance” (avidya), a failure to see that you are part of one all-encompassing Spiritual Reality and a bondage to the desires of the individual isolated ego.
For Indian idealism, liberation from egoism and the ignorance it brings is accomplished by a personal realization of the unity of all things in the universal Self. In this tradition, too, reason is not a reliable way to God because reason shares in the fundamental ignorance that is the bondage of the ego. Again, reason is very important, and argumentation and inference play a major part in Indian religious thinking. But, as David Hume said, “reason is the slave of the passions,” and the fundamental orientation of reason is set by basic human desires and attitudes, operating at a sub- (or supra-) rational level. Where love of individual ego predominates, reason will only serve to make egoism more effective. But where love of the Supreme Self predominates, reason will help us to discern where true human liberation lies.
The idealist view differs from the theistic view, but they can be seen to be complementary perspectives on the relation between finite selves and the Supreme Self. In detail, they cannot both be true. But they can be seen as conceptual models drawn from different ways of interpreting experience, both fail to be wholly adequate and each stresses distinctive insights. As the basic models are elaborated by philosophers (like Sankara and Ramanuja in the Indian tradition or Maimonides, Aquinas,
and Al Gazzali in the Abrahamic tradition), they generate inferences that can be checked against scientific knowledge, for example. In that way, reason helps to verify or disprove specific religious interpretations, though it rarely generates wholly conclusive or incontestable conclusions. Arguments for God can be seen as ways of showing the coherence of religious interpretations with scientific ones. That is exactly what Aquinas was doing when he wrote of the “five ways of demonstrating the existence of God.” He was taking the best scientific thought of his day, based on Aristotle, and showing how the idea of God as the perfect, necessary, First Cause was a coherent and plausible corollary of Aristotelian theories of causality.
The price of this attempt was that, as Aristotelian notions of causality were dropped, Aquinas’ specific arguments lost plausibility, and Kant was able to show how Newtonian physics no longer made the Aristotelian arguments seem plausible. Kant, in turn, took some of the leading basic beliefs of his own eighteenth-century Prussian culture—beliefs in human freedom, individual moral responsibility, and self-improvement—and made them into a model for conceiving God in a new way, as the reality that made free moral self-improvement obligatory and possible in a basically mechanistic universe.
It was not at all, as some mistakenly think, that Kant set out to destroy all metaphysical thinking and all belief in or rational “arguments for” God. On the contrary, he set out to place metaphysics on a firm basis for the first time. A crucial step in his philosophy was to distinguish “theoretical” from “practical” reason and to root moral and religious beliefs in the realm of practical reason. If you can follow him in making that distinction, then Kant’s arguments for God consist in showing how God is not necessary for theoretical reason (i.e., for Newtonian physics) but is necessary for practical reason (for rational commitment to the absolute demands of universal morality).
This is not an argument from universally accepted morality to God, who suddenly pops out of the argument unexpectedly, like a rabbit out of a hat. It is an attempt to construct a conceptual model for Spirit (which Kant assumed to be the “noumenal” basis for the world of appearances) that would reinforce the new emphasis on human autonomy and moral freedom that was the focus of the revolutionary spirit of the eighteenth century. This model downgraded the “servile” obedience of worship but found the basis of moral autonomy in the self-legislation of practical reason, the practical will of the universe toward free self-improvement for all.
When so-called proofs of God are seen as attempts to construct a systematic conceptual scheme within which Spirit can have a coherent place, then we can better understand both their cultural and historical conditions and their real character as imaginative constructions of a worldview from a spiritual perspective.
It can also be seen that the worldview of atheistic materialism has precisely the same intellectual character, except that it is an imaginative construction that excludes Spirit from serious consideration. Sometimes—in the work of Richard Dawkins, for example—a neo-Darwinian model of adaptation through chance mutation and blind selection is taken as the key model for understanding the whole of reality. That model must then be rationally assessed in exactly the same way as theistic or idealist models will be assessed.
It can be said to be verified if it seems to be economical, fruitful, and comprehensive—if it requires few basic concepts and entities, if it motivates scientific inquiry, and if it can give a good explanation for all features of the humanly experienced world. It will be falsified if it fails to explain aesthetic, moral, or religious beliefs well, if it threatens human dignity and freedom, and if it omits many features of the experienced world.
But such verification and falsification are never conclusive. It is always a matter of finding a cumulative set of reasons that together point to a favored model and trying to show that apparent counterinstances are due to misunderstandings or oversimplifications. Both theism and materialism can be rationally held and argued for, but reason is never decisive in either case. The question of the sorts of experience you have, the importance you give to them, and the sorts of concepts you find most adequate to interpret them looks as though it will remain highly contested for the foreseeable future.
That is why there are no knock-down proofs of God and why there could never be. There are no knock-down proofs of materialism or atheism either. To say that there is evidence for materialism and not for God is to beg the question and use rhetoric instead of rational argument. For the sciences, which quite intentionally deal only with the material and which, therefore, insist on the need for material evidence, have no view on whether there is a nonmaterial reality for which one would need nonmaterial evidence. It is perfectly rational to hold that there is, but reason is not the final arbiter of the issue. As Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons, of which reason is unaware.” God is not known by reason, though reason has an important part to play in constructing human ideas about God. God is known by the heart, by a passionate commitment to the ultimate authenticity of a specific sort of human awareness of truth. Materialism is also known by the heart, in just the same way. But, for the theist, it is God who is believed to grasp the heart and unite it to the Divine in such a way that to deny divine reality becomes a betrayal of the deepest personal commitment there could be.
Nontheistic Developments in Religion
Not all religions believe in God. A third main development of the idea of Spirit is nontheistic, but it is far from being materialist. Renouncing traditions like Buddhism developed a more impersonal notion of Spirit in terms of nirvana. This was also a reality of consciousness, intelligence, and bliss but was not conceived as a supreme personal Lord or as the Creator of the universe. It is, nevertheless, an underlying reality into which humans can enter, by overcoming the attachments of selfish desire and the illusion of the Ultimate Reality of the sensory world. In some ways, Buddhism represents the polar opposite of modern materialist views, which see Spiritual Reality as illusion and the material world as the only form of reality. Buddhism presents a different perspective—the material world is an illusion of fettered consciousness, and the only enduring reality is the calm and peace of unlimited and Pure Consciousness.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism form a very good antidote to a rationalist, deductive or inductive, understanding of proofs of God, and they help to reveal the real roots of such proofs. The first truth is that “all is unsatisfactory or has the nature of suffering.” Reflection on human experience can bring a person to the point of seeing that everyday human life is filled with sorrow. If this is not seen, then Buddhism cannot even have initial appeal. So, the argument is not to an evaluatively neutral fact that anyone could see if he or she tried hard enough, whatever that person’s own personal feelings and attitudes. It is precisely an attempt to get people to take up a specific attitude or feeling to the whole of their experience. It is essentially evaluative, and so it is more like art, prompting a perspective on life, than like science, establishing a fact that is true no matter you feel about it.
The second truth is that the cause of suffering is attachment, the sort of desire that makes a person possessive, envious, or anxious about possessions. This is, again, an evaluative diagnosis, and agreement with it requires not dispassionate inquiry but a hard-won insight into your own motives, desires, and state of mind.
The third truth is that there is a way to end suffering. And the fourth truth sets out the Eightfold Path as this way, a way of intellectual insight, moral training, and meditation. A person who adheres to Buddhism will find these truths verified in personal experience, as suffering decreases and liberation is found.
Arguments for the truth of Buddhism are attempts to evoke a specific perspective on human life, which will become corroborated by practice and commitment to a path of discipline and belief. This could be called faith, but it is not personal trust in a divine Lord. It is rather commitment to a practice in the belief that it will lead to liberation, even though, at the beginning, there is no theoretical certainty that it will do so.
The Buddhist way helps to clarify the nature of religious argument and of religious faith. Religious argument does not provide universal proofs, and religious faith does not call for blind acceptance. Argument seeks to evoke a set of attitudes toward experience, and faith is commitment to a practice that may resolve the problems highlighted by those attitudes—in other words, a practice that leads to liberation from greed, hatred, and ignorance.
Buddhist belief does not lead to a personal God or a Supreme Self. Its description of Spirit is a more impersonal idea of a state of supreme wisdom and bliss. So it may be seen not as a mere contradiction of theistic beliefs but as an alternative model for Spirit, based on a different set of cumulative reasons that pick out important human attitudes and practices.
A closely related model is found in the fourth major development of the idea of Spirit. Founded mostly in East Asia, it attempts to integrate the spiritual dimension—nirvana, or the Tao, or the Way of Heaven (Tian)—more closely with finite existence and human conduct. For this view, Spiritual Reality is identical with material reality. But when the one reality is seen truly, it can be seen that the spiritual is the primary effective causal and moral force and is not just a by-product or epiphenomenon of material causation.
Confucian ideas of the Way tend to stress the importance of society and civility, whereas Taoist ideas are more concerned with harmony with the flow of nature. Again, this difference can be seen as a result of attention to different aspects of experience—society and nature—which leads to the construction of differing trajectories of interpretation. The common element is a belief that there is an authentic or truly human way of life written into the natural order, that most human lives exhibit lack of harmony with that order, and that conformity to the Way leads to a more personally fulfilling and morally committed life.
These spiritual paths differ, but they are all reflective and systematic developments from earlier human beliefs about Transcendent Reality. They are all rooted in the teachings of major religious adepts, who are credited with an ability to discern the spiritual more deeply and whose views have become normative for various religious traditions. The differences between them more or less cover the spectrum of possible divergent interpretations, and each uses a different, but related, key model as the basis of its general interpretations.
Within those traditions, religious philosophers have developed sophisticated and complex conceptual schemes to systematize the original normative disclosures in ways that are rationally and morally acceptable. Such developments constitute a second phase in the development of religion, a stage of normative disclosures, systematically articulated by utilizing the best philosophical or scientific tools that were available at the time.
Most of these developments occurred before modern science had begun, but it is misleading to call them “prescientific,” if that word implies they were less intellectually acceptable than scientific views. On the contrary, if anything, they were more advanced intellectually than the scientific views of their own day. It was not for nothing that theology was called “queen of the sciences” in medieval Europe, for theology was indeed the most systematically developed body of beliefs that was available, and the embryonic physics and chemistry that then existed (mostly dependent not on religion but on the thoughts of ancient Greeks like Aristotle) were almost wholly mistaken and unsystematized.
Things were to change yet again, and, after the sixteenth century, what might be called the third phase of religious development, introducing recognizably modern interpretations of religion and of science, came into existence. In this third phase, the study of history became a more critical discipline, requiring close attention to available evidence and suspicion of heroic narratives with a moral message that had characterized much earlier history. The study of science introduced new technologies, like the telescope and microscope, that made experiment and observation much more reliable. There was also a revolution in mathematical thinking that made it possible to describe nature in precise quantitative terms. Human society itself became an object of scientific (in the sense of closely observed and dispassionate) study, and old systems of political absolutism were criticized in the name of human autonomy and democracy.
In this dramatic intellectual change, science was just one, though an important one, of the elements of new critical learning that could be called “evidentialism.” That is the requirement that all factual assertions should be backed up by carefully recorded evidence, and all political and moral assertions call for justification in terms of what can be seen to contribute to universal human welfare.
If there was an intellectual war, it was a war between traditional religious and scientific authority and the new evidentialism, not a war between religion and science as such. Certainly, some people saw the situation as a war because the rise of biblical criticism seemed to suggest that religious belief was not based on firm historical evidence. The methods of science appeared, at least for a time, to support the belief that the universe was a closed causal mechanism that allowed no room for and required no reference to God. And religious morality was often seen as authoritarian and supportive of reactionary political institutions like absolute monarchy.
There was always another side to religion, however. Perhaps religious belief was primarily based on personal spiritual experience, rather than on poorly evidenced historical facts like the virgin birth. Perhaps science revealed the beauty and elegance of nature but left the realms of consciousness, value, and purpose untouched. Perhaps religious morality had a radical side that required consideration of all human beings as equal and even required special consideration for those disadvantaged by poverty and social oppression. Religious morality always had the potential to challenge the belief that all law is the positive law of particular nation states or political systems and that what humans decide is the only ultimate arbiter of what is right.
Indeed, it is not implausible to see the Enlightenment as a product in Europe of Christian thinking. The Christian claim that God had been revealed in a historical person led to a great interest in history. The claim that Jesus embodied the eternal Logos, or Wisdom of God, and that all things were destined to be “united in Christ” led to an interest in the structure of a rational universe patterned on divine wisdom and accessible to humans, who were made in the image of God. And the claim that God created all persons to live in fellowship and to fulfill their God-given talents led to doctrines of human rights and a search for a more cohesive idea of the common good.
These insights were slow in coming and were, to some extent, impeded by the alliance of Christianity with the Roman, Spanish, and British Empires, to name but three. But they were there in the scriptural sources from the first, and, when the time was right, they began to come to light.
The search for authentic history, for understanding of the laws of an intelligible cosmos, and for a moral and political law based on reason and not on the will to power is not an antireligious movement. Religious motives can and often did underpin these quests. The third stage of religion embodies critical study and analysis of history, of the cosmos, and of human morality. These things can plausibly be seen as expressing a deeper insight into the true nature of religious faith, just as the invention of calculus, the telescope, and the laws of nature made science in its modern sense possible for the first time.
In this way of seeing the history of the Enlightenment, far from supplanting religion, science helps religion to discover its own distinctive contribution to human knowledge. There may, as Comte suggested, be three major stages in human development, but religion is involved at every stage and is not confined to the first stage and destined to be left behind. In the third stage, which is not yet completed, religion is able to disentangle itself from reliance on uncertain historical claims, from competition with the factual observations of science, and from authoritarian forms of morality.
Yet, while there is no competition with science, it is not true that science has no impact on religion. On the contrary, we must, however cautiously, use the best science of our day, as Aquinas did in his, to refine the concepts of Spiritual Reality that history has bequeathed to us. There will be no “proofs” and no experimental and publicly available evidence. But there will be conceptual schemes that are more consilient with science and that show what sort of concept of Spirit is compatible with, and perhaps even enriches, the insights of science into the nature of the physical world.
God and the Multiverse
Possibly the first lesson that modern science teaches is that a spiritual dimension of reality, if there is one, is likely to be unitary and intelligible. Science sees the universe as one interconnected set of phenomena, bound together by mathematically intelligible laws. There is a unity about it that does not suggest a plurality of spiritual powers. If there is a Spiritual Reality, it will be a mathematically inclined, unitary intelligence—we might say, metaphorically, a God of wisdom.
Moreover, the cosmos orginated with a big bang. It had one common origin, and it developed in accordance with a set of complex laws (the laws of quantum cosmology) that, in some way, seem to precede the physical universe itself. That further suggests that Spirit is a creator, not just a designer, of independent matter. Matter itself originates from quantum fluctuations in a vacuum. It has an origin, and this origin is itself eternal (beyond time and space) and intelligible.
From all the possible universes there could be, one universe is selected for existence. This selection out of a vast realm of possibility suggests selection on a rational principle—again, in metaphorical terms, free choice by an Extracosmic Intelligence. That is creation, the bringing into being of a universe by an act of free choice. The scientific picture helps to make clear the metaphorical language of “action by a personal being” that theism uses and to free that language of undue literalism or anthropomorphism. But it is entirely in line with the classical theological definitions of God as given, for example, by Thomas Aquinas.
This should not be taken as an inferential proof of God. It is rather a demonstration of what view of Spirit the scientific view of the universe suggests. There is a good argument to the existence of one wise Creator from modern cosmology, but that is only the case if we accept the existence of Spiritual Reality in the first place and are wondering how to describe it and its probable relation to the cosmos. Such an acceptance is rooted in personal experience. So, the classical proofs of God might be better construed not as arguments to an otherwise unknown Spiritual Reality from material nature but as interpretations of an experienced Spiritual Reality in the light of the best available scientific knowledge. Naturally, if we reject all such experience or think that the idea of an unembodied Intelligence is incoherent or vacuous, these proofs will not be convincing.
Yet modern cosmology can be quite supportive of the idea that there is an underlying cosmic intelligence. Not many physicists would take seriously the opinion that the universe just exists by chance. As Martin Rees says (2001), that suggestion is giving up on the very basis of science, the basic principle that all things have a reason for existing. If that principle is accepted, the only real intellectually respectable alternatives, Rees says, are either creation by intelligence or the existence of a multiverse.
For those who posit a multiverse, this space/time in which we exist is only one of many. Other space/time universes, a great number of them, may bubble out from this one in black holes. Or they may continually split off from this one as alternative quantum states. Or—the most extreme possibility—every possible universe may actually exist, a view taken by Max Tegmark (2007).
On the one hand, this theory of a multiverse is a very controversial area of cosmology, and some scientists say that positing completely unobservable universes is not really science at all. On the other hand, string theory and some other cosmological theories posit fundamental equations for understanding the universe that certainly open up the possibility that there are other universes and even make it likely that there are. For instance, if this universe originates by a quantum fluctuation in a vacuum, there is reason to think that other universes, with different physical laws and constants, would originate in a similar way. This universe would only be one of many, and there would be many variations in the laws of nature and in the values taken by such constants as the cosmological constant, the gravitational constant, Planck’s constant, and so on.
The reason that a multiverse might be taken as an alternative to an intelligent Creator is that, if this is the only universe there is, it is hugely improbable that it should have just the right set of laws to give rise to organized complexity and to intelligent life. But if there is a multiverse, then a huge number, perhaps an infinite number, of universes will exist, with just about every possible combination of laws. In that case, this universe would not be so improbable at all. It is bound to exist sooner or later, and there is nothing very special about it, even if it is the only possible universe that could contain carbon-based intelligent humanoid life in it.
So, instead of one intelligent Creator, who selects this universe out of the huge range of possible universes, we would have an immense number of different universes, and we would do away with the necessity of introducing a Selector, who would still stand in need of explanation anyway. We could just appeal to the basic laws of quantum physics and show that many diverse universes necessarily arise from them. That, it may be felt, is a simpler and more compelling hypothesis.
Some Problems with the Multiverse
But the more you look at the idea of the multiverse, the less it seems to present an acceptable alternative to God. Believers in God have no difficulty in accepting that there is a large number of possible universes. They will exist in the mind of God, but they will not be actual physical universes. They will include, for example, universes in which there is intolerable suffering for all sentient beings for no reason at all. There will be universes in which I, or someone exactly like me, exists but does the exact opposite of everything I do in this universe. If I decide not to steal a large sum of money in this universe, I will decide to steal it in some other universe.
In Tegmark’s (2007) view, there will be universes in which pink elephants endlessly dance gavottes and other universes in which unicorns and mermaids really do exist. There will be universes in which there is a creator God but other universes in which there is not and some universes in which there are many gods. Everything will be true somewhere. To most people, this idea seems a more extravagant proposal than any known religious creed. Indeed, every system of religious belief will be true in some universe. That does not have much to offer in the way of economy, simplicity, or plausibility.
What makes the range of possible universes what they are? Is there an exhaustive realm of all possibilities? What principle could ensure that all of these possibilities actually exist? If the set of possibilities is infinite, could all of them actually exist—can one have an actual infinite number of universes (that is, a number that is always larger than any number you can think of)? The problems multiply on reflection. It is not that the proposal is silly, but to say that it is simpler than proposing an intelligent Creator is not convincing.
But the extreme proposal that all possible universes exist is the only one that makes the existence of this universe virtually certain. If you go for the less extravagant “bubble universe” view or the “splitting universe” view, you only get a limited number of universes. What number of universes is needed to make the existence of this universe less improbable? If the set of possible universes is infinite, we might have to say that the existence of any universe at all is hugely improbable. But the existence of a large number of universes would not be less improbable; if anything, it would be more improbable. For, if the existence of one universe is highly improbable, then the existence of 1 + n universes is even more improbable, by a factor of n. So, a limited multiverse would not really help to make this universe more likely. It would only compound the problem of why the precise number of universes, having the nature they do, exists.
It could be said that universes are generated by chance from quantum laws. But now the problem is that of where and in what sense the laws of quantum physics exist. And how does a set of laws produce actual physical universes? As Stephen Hawking has said, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” (1998, 190). How can you get physical things out of sets of mathematical equations? That would indeed be the modern equivalent of the Philosophers’ Stone, which was supposed to turn lead into gold. But it would be much more powerful, for it would turn nothing into everything.
We are back to the final question: if there is something that is ultimately self-existent, that logically precedes the existence of everything else, what is it? The multiverse theory, in at least some forms, seems to place that ultimate in a Platonic realm of mathematical truths. But in what sense does such a Platonic realm exist?
At just this point, theism offers what seems to be a wholly rational hypothesis.
First, mathematical equations are conceived by minds, so this ultimate existent is suspiciously mind-like—more like God than like matter. If possible universes are considered as mathematical structures, they will be necessary, and it is reasonable to postulate that there must be an actual necessary mind in which they subsist.
Second, there is no reason that God may not create many universes, so the multiverse theory does not compete as an alternative to God. It just extends the creative power of God further than we had thought.
Third, most people would think that there needs to be a selection principle, by which some universe or universes are selected to be actual out of the realm of possible universes. The quasi-Platonic mathematical realm, which is a realm of pure necessity, cannot itself account for the existence of contingent universes. You need an additional, non-mathematical principle that can account for the existence of contingent universes. As I suggested in chapter one, a good explanatory selection principle is that a universe is chosen for the sake of realizing some otherwise unobtainable value or worthwhile set of states and processes. But that implies that the Ultimate Reality has something analogous to purpose or intention—again, that it is mind-like.
Fourth, it seems plausible to suppose that values only exist as values if there is something like a consciousness that places a value on them, that recognizes and appreciates their value. The selection principle will operate only if there is a consciousness that can appreciate the possibility of value.
Fifth, only a Being with active causal power can bring physical universes into being. That causal power must be different from, and not part of, any universe that it brings into being. It must be sufficient to produce all the amazing complexity of physical universes. This suggests a reality of enormous power, existing beyond any particular physical or material universe. Further than that it is hard to go, but a Being that conceives, intends, and brings matter into existence is remarkably like the classical idea of God as the cause of all finite existence through knowledge and intention.
Of course, this does not prove God. But if your choices are between the existence of a huge number of universes, all of which exist for no particular reason, and a Supreme Intelligence, existing by necessity, that selects contingent universes from the realm of all possibilities for the sake of their value, anyone may be forgiven for thinking that God is the simpler and more rational hypothesis.
The problem of the multiverse is a complex and exciting one, and it places the hypothesis of God firmly on the intellectual agenda. The God hypothesis seems to be at least as good as the available alternatives, though this consideration alone will not intellectually compel anyone to believe there is a God. The whole issue is discussed from many different viewpoints, theistic and naturalistic, by Bernard Carr (2007), and his book, Universe or Multiverse?, provides a masterly discussion of stateof-the-art thinking at the time of its publication.
So far I have considered only what the reason could be for the existence of any universe at all. Refusing to look for a reason is giving up on the basic principle of all science—always seek a reason for everything. But that means you are looking for a self-explanatory Being that explains why everything, including itself, exists. Some philosophers reject the possibility of such a Being and say that we ultimately just have to accept that we cannot explain absolutely everything.
Some pure mathematicians, however, have suggested that the idea of a self-explanatory Being is coherent and that the set of all possible mathematical truths may be said to constitute such a being. Here we would have an uncausable, eternal, changeless reality, to the existence of which there is simply no alternative. Mathematicians do not usually think of this as God, but that may be because they are thinking of God as a rather arbitrary person who is not very reasonable at all. However, if you think of God—as Anselm and Aquinas, Leibniz and Hegel did—as a rational Mind with the creative power to actualize possible mathematical structures for the sake of consciously appreciable values, the postulate of God, as an ultimate reason for the existence of one or more universes, becomes both rational and plausible. If we turn to consider the nature of our universe in particular, the amazing fact is that this universe does possess a deep structure that seems supremely beautiful and intelligible—just what the hypothesis of God would imply.
In recent years, many cosmologists have pointed out further features of this universe that seem to make it particularly improbable that it should exist by chance. In 1974, Brandon Carter proposed the anthropic principle, stating that “our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers” (291). Given that carbon-based intelligent life exists in this universe, the fundamental physical and cosmological quantities of the universe must be compatible with this fact. That may seem trivially true, but it assumes that we have come into existence in accordance with a set of general laws, and it suggests an incredibly precise set of values those laws need to follow in order to have produced us.
The anthropic principle in this “weak” form produces some surprising results. For instance, it explains why there is so much empty space by showing that an expanding universe with an upper bound on the rate of expansion would have to be just as large as it is, in order to have had the time for stars to form, explode, and seed planets with carbon. The laws of fundamental physics give a time span of about thirteen billion years for that process, and so the universe would have to be about thirteen billion light years in size. There has to be as much intergalactic space as there is in order for us to have come into existence in accordance with the general laws of physics.
The anthropic principle throws up many other curious correspondences that turn out to be necessary conditions of human existence, given that our existence is generated by the operation of basic laws and constants of physics. A very large set of quantities that need to be exactly what they are to produce intelligent life has been identified. They are usually referred to as “fine-tuned” values, since they need to be very precisely coordinated, just as old-fashioned radios used to have to be finely tuned by hand to get just the right wavelength for the desired program. The slightest deviation in the gravitational constant, for example, would result in the universe’s being unable to produce the relatively stable atomic structures that are necessary for life to evolve.
Robin Collins presents what he calls “six solid cases of fine-tuning” in his paper “The Evidence for Fine-Tuning” (2003). First, the cosmological constant is a term in Einstein’s equation that, if positive, leads the universe to expand and, if negative, leads it to contract. The existence of life requires this constant soon after the big bang to settle on a quantity very near zero and to be so precisely adjusted within a large range of possible values that it has to be fine-tuned to at least one part in 1053.
Second, the strong force that binds neutrons and protons together in the nucleus of atoms also has to be precisely what it is in order to overcome the repulsion between the protons in the nucleus.
Third, the production of elements necessary for life requires an abundance of carbon and oxygen, but that requires a fairly precise adjustment of the strong nuclear force.
Fourth, the mass of protons and neutrons needs to be so adjusted that, if the mass of the neutron were increased by one part in seven hundred, then the formation of helium in stars could not occur.
Fifth, if the weak force were weaker than it is, stars would be composed almost entirely of helium, which is quick burning and would not allow time for life to develop on planets.
Sixth, gravitational forces need to be very close to what they are to enable atomic and planetary systems to form stable complexes. If the force of gravity were even slightly stronger, all stars would be blue giants; if even slightly weaker, all would be red dwarfs; in neither case could life have developed.
These are just six examples selected by Collins from a much larger set that can be found detailed, for example, in Michael Denton’s Nature’s
Destiny (1998). Modern physics has a quite new understanding of how precisely the various forces of nature need to be adjusted in order for a life-bearing universe to exist.
Stephen Hawking (1996) points out that the existence of life also seems to depend precisely upon the rate at which the universe is expanding. He suggests that a reduction in the rate of expansion by one part in 1,012 at the time when the temperature of the universe was 1010 K would have resulted in the universe’s starting to recollapse when its radius was only 1/3,000 of the present value and the temperature was still 10,000 K.
Hawking concludes that life is possible only because the universe is expanding at just the rate required to avoid recollapse. In fact the balance between the force of expansion and of gravitational contraction would have prohibited a deviation in their ratio from unity by one part in 1060.
But what is the significance of these insights? Some physicists, notably Steven Weinberg (1999) and Alan Guth (1997), are unimpressed. Others—Paul Davies (1982), John Barrow and Frank Tipler (1986), and Martin Rees (2001)—seem to be impressed. The unimpressed say that, of course, these forces need to be finely correlated to produce life, but since every possible universe is a priori equally improbable, this one is no more improbable than any other. It is hardly surprising that we find its conditions are just right for life because, after all, we are alive. While it is interesting to discover the complex set of correlations that are needed to produce life, this has no implication that anyone has planned things that way. If the forces had been even slightly different, we would not have been here, and no one would have been any the wiser. Fine-tuning is irrelevant to the existence of a designing God.
Those who are impressed, however, say, as Martin Rees does, “We should surely probe deeper, and ask why a unique recipe for the physical world should permit consequences as interesting as those we see around us” (2001, 163). Interesting consequences—that is the factor that makes all the difference. It is not just that this universe is very improbable. It is not even that human beings as a species are very important. It is that the existence of the kinds of intelligence, beauty, creativity, compassion, and friendship of which we are aware represent great values that could not have existed in the way they do in any other possible universe.
What fine-tuning arguments show is that states of great value have resulted from, and could only have resulted from, a set of laws that are precisely adjusted in a large number of unexpected and exceedingly improbable ways. When he introduced the weak anthropic principle, Brandon Carter also suggested a “strong” anthropic principle, which can be stated as follows: “the universe must have those properties which allow life to develop within it at some stage in its history.” It is given this formulation in Barrow and Tipler (1986, 21). For many scientists, that is a step too far, and it suggests something very like a teleological explanation for the universe.
Unfortunately, Carter’s formulation of the strong anthropic principle is ambiguous. It could mean merely that, given the existence of life, the universe must have the specific properties it has. But it could also be taken to mean that the fundamental laws of nature are as they are because the universe is and must be fitted for the generation of intelligent life.
The strong principle, unlike the weak principle, is controversial, and there is no compelling scientific reason to accept it. But it shows how natural and plausible it is, in the light of modern science, to see the universe as fine-tuned to generate intelligent life. The fact that the evolution of life generates brains from single-celled organisms and the amazingly intricate ordering of DNA into a complex and reproducible coding for the building of organisms strengthens the case for seeing purpose and direction in the basic structures of nature. It looks as though the whole process has been designed to produce the values that intelligent life make possible. And it looks as though those values could only be what they are because the process as a whole is what it is.
Science and Arguments for God
Some, like Richard Dawkins, argue that the Darwinian hypotheses of random mutation and natural selection have destroyed the design argument for a cosmic intelligence, God. For the appearance of design (“it looks as though”) can be fully explained on strict Darwinian principles alone.
Even if that is true, however—and it seems unlikely that an explanation rooted in biology could be any sort of complete explanation for everything, biological and nonbiological—an explanation in terms of design by a creator God would still raise the probability of the existence of this universe considerably. The choice can be put fairly bluntly: either this universe is the result of a huge number of amazing coincidences that have progressively, but quite unexpectedly, led to states of great value. That is, the universe is incredibly improbable (though we may just have to put up with that and comfort ourselves with the thought that it is no more improbable than many other universes). Or the “coincidences” have all been superbly engineered so that the values that life makes possible would inevitably come into existence sooner or later. In the latter case, this universe would not be improbable at all (though it would still be just as amazing).
In general, it is a good scientific principle to accept a hypothesis that raises the probability of some phenomenon. Based on that principle, the hypothesis of God is vastly preferable to the postulate of pure chance, even if it is conceded that the universe could (exceedingly improbably) have come about by chance. If someone objects that this is a weak argument because God is just as improbable as the universe, he or she has missed the point. The point is that the probability of this universe is raised considerably by the existence of a rational God. For what we are talking about is the probability of many precisely correlated values, relative to a specific range of possible values that could have obtained, taking as given the general forces and constants of nature (weak and strong, electromagnetic and gravitational, and so on). Against that background of the given general laws of nature, an intelligent God raises the probability of this universe considerably.
It is quite a different question to ask whether the existence of God is probable or whether the existence of the set of physical laws we have is probable. In that case, there is no given finite set of possibilities against which we can measure the probability of the occurrence of some actuality. We have no way of even beginning to assess probabilities when there exists an unknown, possibly infinite, and wholly unspecifiable set of possibilities. Once we get into questions of truly ultimate existence, probability no longer has any purchase.
As I argued in chapter one, the question of what ultimately exists is not a matter of probability at all. It requires a decision about a general conceptual framework for interpreting the experienced world. In reflecting on such a general framework, a spiritual worldview may give fundamental importance to existential problems of suffering, guilt, anxiety, and egoism, leading to a diagnosis of the human condition that offers a way to relieve such problems and to the apprehension of signs of transcendent value that suggest the supremacy of a Higher Consciousness of wisdom, freedom, empathy, and universal compassion. A non-spiritual framework, on the other hand, may discount such considerations as unduly subjective and see the world as fundamentally impersonal, unconscious, deterministic, blind, and indifferent to human suffering and happiness.
“Proofs” of God neither establish the first set of attitudes nor undermine the second. “Evidence” for God is not a set of naturally inexplicable physical events that would, at best, demonstrate the existence of a superhuman magician. Proofs of God are uses of what John Wisdom (1963) called the “connecting technique,” drawing analogies, picking out patterns, connecting disparate kinds of data, and suggesting a key interpretative model for human experience as a whole. What might be called evidence for God is, in fact, the evocation of a general perspective on the world as the appearance of Transcendent Spirit.
The same sort of connecting technique and perspectival arguments are also used to construct nontheistic and nonspiritual frameworks of meaning. There are certainly a number of possible frameworks, and there is no neutral way of deciding among them. Materialism is one of those frameworks, and it rarely has a spiritual dimension. But there are other frameworks that are religious but nontheistic.
Two of the great world spiritual traditions—Buddhism and East Asian —would not be concerned with proofs of God at all. Largely bypassing the idea of a Creator, they have an interest in positing a more impersonal yet immaterial basis of observed reality. Some scientists, like Fritjof Capra (1975), find such views more consilient with quantum physics, with its ideas of entanglement and veiled reality. In them, there is a sense that the observed material world is an appearance to human minds of a deeper reality, and quantum physics may be felt to support such a view.
The spiritual interest, however, is not in a purely speculative account of the nature of ultimate reality. It is concerned with finding ways in which the mind can access a deeper reality and be transformed by it. So, nontheistic religious views express an interest and a corresponding set of speculative considerations that wholly nonreligious views lack or even oppose. The existence or nonexistence of such a “religious” interest in self-transformation by conscious relationship to a Supreme Spiritual Reality is a vitally important factor that underlies apparently speculative arguments for the existence of God.
When this is taken into account, arguments for God can be seen as attempts to show that the postulate of a Supreme Spiritual Reality is a coherent and plausible one and that it can be adequately interpreted in terms of one personal Creator.
Modern science can be used to show that the posulate of a Creator is not necessary for a scientific understanding of the cosmos. The suggestion may be made that introducing a Creator is not helpful to science since it threatens to put a stop to further investigation by just saying, “God did it.” Science is autonomous, and it does not need appeal to any God.
On the other hand, modern science shows the cosmos to be aweinspiringly beautiful, complex, and mathematically elegant. Whether by accident or design, it is precisely fine-tuned for the emergence of intelligence and moral consciousness. It can appear to be intelligently designed for intelligent life, and it seems that the basis of the material universe is much stranger, much richer, and possibly more mind-like than the everyday world of material objects in four-dimensional space/time that we see around us.
In sum, it seems implausible to say that science has rendered religion obsolete. It has certainly helped to refine, and often reconstruct, religious interpretations of reality. But the belief that Ultimate Reality is fundamentally unconscious, deterministic, and indifferent is not a conclusion of modern science. It is a perspective as old as recorded human thought, and there are at least as many insights in modern science that count against it as there are in favor of it.
I have outlined some of these. But, in the end, as at the beginning, the religious believer can say that we know consciousness exists and that agents know, envisage, choose, enjoy, and have ideals, values, and purposes. Any adequate account of reality must include those as primary and irreducible facts. So, Ultimate Reality cannot be simply unconscious and indifferent. Somehow, the factors of consciousness and value must be included in any comprehensive account of Ultimate Reality. And this coheres well with the most basic religious belief that consciousness and value are at the heart of reality.
Science can show that some attempts to formulate religious views (like scriptural literalism) are blind alleys. It can help to provide more plausible and coherent accounts of religious beliefs. But science is not materialist by nature, and on the question of whether there is that of which science cannot directly speak, it is silent.
Comte may have been right in speaking of three great ages of human intellectual progress. But they were not ages of religion, metaphysics, and science, one after the other in sequential order. They were ages, in both religion and science, of local preliterate traditions, of classical and text-based reasoning, and of informed critical inquiry. It is just possible that we are at the beginning of a fourth stage, of a truly global consilience among many different cultures, and among religion, the humanities, and science.
Atheists may well think that the fourth stage is too long in coming or even that it is unlikely to come. The worst may happen. Religions may become more exclusive and intolerant. Science may become more subservient to state demands for bigger and more powerful weaponry and means of subjugation. Religion and science together may destroy the world. But it does not have to be like that. If religion is fully humanized and open to the critical methods and established truths of the sciences, and if science is used in the service of human welfare and the flourishing of all sentient beings, there can be a long and positive future for human life and for whatever forms of life may develop from it. That is only likely to occur if scientists and religious believers engage in a serious, sensitive, and inquiring conversation. For that to happen, both fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheism will have to be set aside, in favor of something more self-critical and humane. If that does happen, religion will not disappear, but it may, and it should, change.
|Read the rest of Keith Ward’s The Big Questions in Science and Religion by purchasing the book at www.TempletonPress.org.