A Review of Russell Stannard’s “The God Experiment”

A Review of Russell Stannard’s “The God Experiment”

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Metanexus:Views 2001.10.03 3664 words

When we here at Metanexus talk about the nexus of science and religion, whatexactly are we talking about? The connection, the joining, or the fasteningof science and religion are all possible interpretations of the term “nexus”in this regard, with each interpretation positing a different level ofengagement. But what do we actually mean?

Obviously, the true meeting place of science and religion as human phenomenalies within each and every human being. That would imply that there are over6 billion ways to understand “the science-religion nexus”, including theview that science and religion, like church and state, should be kept apart,not simply for the sake of science, but also for the sake of religion.

Today’s columnist, Jeff Dahms, MD, is an Australian independent scholarliving in New York. He is also a physician/surgeon and research scientistassociated with Sydney University’s teaching hospitals and who worksintermittently in primary care in the developing countries of Asia and theAmericas. For the last two years he has worked on the design of what willbecome the first international health information utility, an internetservice that will provide doctors and patients in the developed world, aswell as field workers in the developing world, with the up to the minute,complete, and accurate decision making information about all major healthissues. His scientific interests are in mind/brain evolution and thephilosophy of science, particularly in the fundamental areas of physics andbiology, and in relational areas such as the science religion discussion.

And what makes today’s sally forth into the science religion discussion sointeresting, is that Dr. Dahms’ posits that it is, in fact, in the bestinterests of both science and religion that they remain unencumbered withone another. It is a viewpoint that he brings to bear in his review ofRussell Stannard’s book ‘The God Experiment – Can Science Prove theExistence of God?'(ISBN: 1587680076; Publisher: Hidden Spring; 2000). AndMetanexus welcomes your viewpoint on the subject, so please go to thewebsite, and append your comments with a click of thecomment button!


–Stacey E. Ake


Subject: Russell Stannard’s ‘The God Experiment – Can Science Prove theExistence of God?’
From: Jeff DahmsEmail: <jwdahms@wisdoc.net>

The Mccollough Sons of Thunder gospel brass band were in full flight inHarlem’s 125th St United House of Prayer for the People. Along with everyoneelse I applauded wildly and swayed and stomped my feet in unison – andthought of Russell Stannard. His latest book, ‘The God Experiment’ hasglowing reviews on the dust cover. They locate it as a landmark in theincreasingly crowded, even fashionable, intellectual arena of the sciencereligion dialogue. In the jubilant, resonating church I felt perfectly athome. I find the religious impulse supremely worthy and humanly defining andprecious in my own life though my own metaphysic is that of an enthusiasticnon-theist, a scientist and committed naturalist. Yet, while reading RussellStannard’s book, I felt completely akilter, though I should say at theoutset that some of my difficulty with the book is generic and not specificto Stannard. Given that, the following comments are meant gently, as comingfrom a supporter of the worth of the religious impulse but also as comingfrom someone who feels that much of the field is mistakenly construed andserving neither the good purposes of science or religion.

The most fundamental issue in this regard is whether science and religionare the kinds of cognitive activities that can be said to interact in anyway at all. In common with many who write in the field, Stannard takes thisinteraction as given. My own view, which I’ll simply state here, is somewhatakin to Steven Gould’s – science and religion are ‘non overlappingmagisteria’ occupying different branches in our cognitive evolution. Theyare part of a number of distinct and discrete human cognitive domains whichneither interact with one another nor translate one to another. The sciencereligion discussion might profitably be part of a much larger question aboutthe nature of these domains.

Russell Stannard with his command of science and knowledge of theology canvery ably speak from both platforms. He lays out most of the questions asthey are currently being construed by many writers in the field. One getsthe sense of an honest man willing to pursue the issues without avoiding anyof the discomfort to be found in difficult areas.

Idiosyncratic science and religion

Writers in this field often have idiosyncratic views of both science andtheir particular religion, melding them in a kind of personal testament.Stannard’s book is explicitly like this.

His is a view of science that allows for supernatural causality – miracles.He would like to limit this to special occasions like the resurrection asfound in the Anglican Christian tradition, but he also allows for miraculoushealing – supernatural intervention in the causal order. This necessarilylocates his scientific view within that small subset of scientists who wouldallow for supernatural explanation in science. Whilst Stannard would limitsupernatural explanation to the above specific areas, once it is introducedthere is no necessary restriction in extending it to other areas. One canthen, for example, hypothesize local creation miracles as the intelligentdesign advocates have done – albeit obliquely. But miraculous explanation iseither in or out of science; there is no middle ground.

From his religious viewpoint, Stannard would like to rule out many biblicalaccounts of the miraculous that are dear to the hearts of most members ofhis tradition. The result, whilst it might be a ‘fit’ for Stannard, islikely to be unsatisfying both to scientists at large and to mainstreammembers of his tradition. For the reader, the problem is what to make of thepotential science compatibility of, say, the broader views held byStannard’s Christian denomination. This is not so much an error on his part,as a problem generic to the whole undertaking, wherein the common approachis ‘This is my special view of science; this is my particular take on myreligious tradition; here is how they intersect.’

Russell Stannard is a deeply committed Christian, and of course the book iswritten from the perspective of the committed. Stannard is perfectlyforthright about this and, at times, the book feels like a mix ofphilosophical analysis and Sunday sermonizing. We are given a tour of thescience religion intersections or overlap areas as well as many examples ofthe way in which issues of interaction or conflict are handled there – atour of the arguments and the resolutions that Russell Stannard himselffinds attractive. Thus, he frequently ends a chapter with a summary like,’Some will not find this approach or these arguments convincing but I do.’Stannard is right. A reader without Stannard’s predisposing views is likelyto find many of the arguments unconvincing and the language specific only toa particular religious community. Obviously, strong psychological biasesdeeply predispose cognitive evaluation of data and argument in any arena,from alien abductions to Florida electoral processes. Unfortunately, theonly revelation in the end is often simply that the writer is deeplycommitted to those biases. Again this is a perennial issue in thescience/religion arena, so what is my particular objection?

Well, the truth of a statement then comes to depend upon who is the intendedreader. Language like ‘God wanted to get across to us something of hissplendor and majesty’ to an outsider is incomprehensibly anthropomorphic.Very likely a member of the same faith will read along contentedly and feelstrongly reassured. The problem, if the book is also addressed to thesympathetic ‘outsider,’ is that the book’s arguments feel more likeillustrations in a sermon to the faithful than arguments meant to carry somesway in the broader culture.

The prayer experiment

Stannard’s overarching view is that science and religion have very much incommon. Science is a little more experimentally ambiguous, tentative andbroadly inferential than we are commonly led to think, and theology islikewise more empirically approachable. Science and religion, he believes,have quite similar methodologies; they make continual progress over time;they share insights which are mutually beneficial, they even cross fertilizeeach other’s ideas.

For this reason, he devotes his opening chapter to a major experimentalrealization of this view. This itself illustrates the deep dilemmas justbeneath the surface of this kind of melding of science and religion that areeasier to gloss over in the more abstract discussions.

The chapter describes a current multi-center trial of the efficacy of prayerin enhancing the surgical outcome for 600 coronary artery surgery patients,results due in 2002. There is a substantial body of reporting now in theliterature of studies like this, though not on this scale. The implicitmessage of this and related studies is, ‘We are just out there doing thescience like any other regular scientists and letting the chips fall wherethey may.’

This is a large and expensive study, and obviously of serious intent, atleast in terms of the effort and monies invested. It is centered at the NewEngland Deaconess Hospital at Boston. Stannard is a trustee of thefoundation funding the study, and it is illustrative of his central thesis –
the exploration of the extent to which theology can be regarded as ascience.

But something very different to normal science is going on here, and I donot just mean the investigation of a supernatural effect. At first glance,it looks like a large scale experiment in an area where the preliminary worksuggests something interesting might be happening. Something interesting, ofcourse, would be a gross understatement, since what is being suggested isthe reproducible measurement of supernatural phenomena. It is not just aroutine study, like the many thousands of others which map psychosomaticfunctions such as ‘How having a positive outlook, a strong set of personalbeliefs or going to church, etc., can improve medical outcomes.’ He isexplicit – the study aims to specify a supernatural outcome. Fundamentalissues underlie this experiment and reflect on the whole field of thecurrent science/religion debate. They are worthy of detailed analysis andwill be considered elsewhere in Metanexus.

Theology progresses just like science.

The following example is characteristic of the way many issues areconsidered in the book. Stannard argues that there is genuine progress intheology just as in science – that changes in the understanding of Godrepresent real progress, just like in science, and are not simply occasionsof ‘people recreating God in their own image.’ In other words, this is theargument at hand: that there is a ladder of progress in the understanding ofGod in Judaeo/Christian history, where God uses the culture of the day toincrementally reveal some aspect of himself.

Stannard’s basis for this view is that were it otherwise only forgivingpeople would think of god as forgiving and the rich would think of him aspowerful and so on. Since he doesn’t think this is the case, God must bedirecting the process, and we are discovering God directly, independent ofour personal biases. He claims that God uses historical circumstance toreveal his characteristics. E.g. Stannard quotes from the perspective of therich Isaiah in the king’s court in the old testament of the bible.

The thesis Stannard advances implies that the most recent theology is themost evolved. Even people in the same religious denomination have widelyvarying God notions and certainly between religions there are vastdifferences. Consider the current moves in some quarters of Christianity tofeminize a traditional male God. Is this the latest evolutionary developmentwith God using the rise of feminism to reveal her female side? What of otherChristian traditions and other religions that will have no part of it? Arethey simply wrong? What of historical Christian perspectives, the crusades,the inquisition, slavery? People of the time thought they were carrying outthe will of God; thought they had the most up to date revealed understandingof their deity.

How is one meant to decide something like this when every religious group orindividual on the planet can argue thus? It would seem extraordinary toselect out one historical strand, for example, Christianity, as the onereligion that maps the reality of God, and then to define changes withinthis particular religion as progress. For what then can be said to behappening within theological perspectives other than one’s chosen own?Moreover, the “progress” within, between, and amongst religions andtheological perspectives is such as to appear totally contradictory. To anyone but the totally committed believer there is a transparently obviousexplanation; namely, that God or gods are continuously being constructedcompletely by the individual or culture. One may have personal preferencesbut no external measure can decide between them.

Proposing that theology progresses just like science is an enormousepistemological claim. Moreover, such commentary like Stannard’s doesn’thave the feel of an argument. It leaves the reader wondering whether thistext is simply intended only for the committed who really need hear noargument. Standing in a pulpit announces one is delivering a sermon. Writinga book such as this suggests that something different is going on, somethingmore like open inquiry. Russell Stannard never suggests anything neutralabout his own point of view, but he would imply that one should consider hisarguments on their merits.

Theology and science are actually close kin

Stannard’s broadest thesis is that science and theology are actually closekin. He feels that they both share the same general difficulties indeveloping hypotheses from a broad sweep of data, that the development oftheir models/ideas have close parallels, and even that they cross fertilizeeach other’s ideas. It is particularly in this territory that the readergets the impression that the book is written for the easy sweeping vision ofthe committed.

Consider the examples Stannard uses.

The theological view at the time of Saint Augustine was that God istimeless. Augustine therefore concluded there was no time before thecreation. Stannard suggests this prefigures relativity, big bang cosmology,and so on. He also suggests that since Niels Bohr is known to have readKierkegaard, this may have influenced Bohr’s interpretation of early quantummechanics. The fact that theology has a vision in which God is botheverywhere and also local leads to or parallels the wave/particle electronmodel. It’s an enormous reach to think of science and theology being in thesame harness based on tenuous examples like these. Furthermore, Stannardreminds us that many scientists historically have also been religiousbelievers. But why would this count as evidence for the kinship of scienceand religion? Almost by definition scientists reflect the dominantinfluences of the culture of their time. E.g. They often reflect the ethicalor political views of their time.

Stannard suggests that the need to weigh up the evidence from many sourcesis a comparable activity in both science and religion. Theory in fields likecosmology certainly depends on many experimental and theoreticalunderpinnings. Its strength comes from the way many widely differentelements dovetail exquisitely. But this is not simply viewing a looseassembly of ideas, like viewing a collage from a distance and asking what itsuggests. Many supporting elements must tightly lock together to make atheory, and a single significant element that doesn’t fall into place is aserious problem for that theory. It is often the only clue that we have togo back and start all over again.

Consider the state cosmology would be in if, say, the background radiationhad failed to turn up in the extremely narrow temperature range predicted,and with just the right degree of micro fluctuation, to allow for thedevelopment of galaxies. It is failures of subtle contributing elements likethis which often tell scientists they have to go back to their drawingboards and start over with a totally new theory. E.g. A universe of fourforces may soon have a fifth as a consequence of recent very subtle cosmicexpansion measurements. Theology does not seem to even remotely parallelsuch an activity. It is far too elastic -some would argue infinitelyelastic- to have anything like the requisite sensitivity to operate like thescientific theories Stannard mentions.

The mapping of theology on cosmology is emblematic of the problem. Back inthe fifties when big bang theory was competing with steady state/continuouscreation, no one in the religious community was placing their bets. No onecommitted themselves to positions in advance, such as ‘Our theology, ourreligious vision, depends on the outcome of these competing scientifictheories. If big bang theory goes down, so does the whole underpinning ofour theology.’ And yet, with big bang theory currently in the ascendant, wehave a spate of books showing how that particular theory is consistent withand supports particular theologies. If steady state was now the rage,however, we’d no doubt have the same spate of books showing how it wasconsistent with the same theology. This is elasticity on a scale thatscience couldn’t countenance. In science, there is no prize if you’re notactually in the game.

Science religion interaction and some difficulties

Stannard’s religion would seem to lie somewhere in the mainstream. It ismuch less adventurous than that of some theologians who flirt withphilosophic naturalism or a post modernist theology in which’truth/knowledge is all of a kind, equally arbitrary, socially constructedand so on.’ Thus, he takes the interaction issues square on withoutflinching. He is, in the end, a philosophic dualist in the Cartesiantradition and realizes the difficulties of this philosophicallyunfashionable position. Nonetheless, he argues that God probably interactswith the world in a way parallel to whatever way minds interact with brains.

This is odd for one whose position is that theology is much like science.Arguing by very loose analogy to a posited relationship for which one inturn has no explanation looks nothing like science. This is meaninglessexcept as a way of simply asserting that “I don’t understand this but Ibelieve it.” He furthermore accepts a traditional ‘God of the gaps’ argumentin which it is suggested that the constants of physics were set up by God.(Some of them have an extremely narrow possible range which allows for thedevelopment of complexity in the universe and eventually maybe somethinglike us). Stannard feels that theoretical progress in accounting for thevalue of these constants has been slow and may fail – though some currentstring/gravitation theorists might strongly disagree. The perennial risk inrelying on ‘gaps’ arguments, even long standing ones, is that they may befilled, and the history of all of these positions is ignominious serialretreat.

Other issues

Stannard seems somewhat discomforted by the proliferation of miracles in theChristian traditions and is keen to pare them down to the resurrection ofChrist and miracles of healing. He rejects the wilder explanations of these- the universe finely tuned from the very outset to naturally produce suchmiracles or the subtle intervention in quantum indeterminacy – in favor of’God just intervenes.’ The laws of physics are not broken, they are nestedin a higher law, ‘the law of love,’ much like Newtonian Physics is nested inthe current Standard model in physics. Stannard understands that somereaders will have difficulty with such mixed language, and he is right. Itis a theological statement even though formatted with a few scientificnotions and is incomprehensible to a scientist.

‘Original sin’, for example, is roughly equivalent to the downside of ourgenetic predisposition which can be transcended by the independent power ofthe mind. The problem is that if you grant genetic determinism this muchpower over the mind in the first place, then the assumed over-riding by themind is suspect. The behaviours we approve of can just as reasonably beconsidered genetically determined. The outcome is then a toss of the geneticcoin, so whence virtue?

Stannard also sees the four dimensional space time block of relativitytheory as supporting the theological notion of God outside time. Aconcomitant problem is that if God creates/relates to the universe ‘enblock’, presumably it is that much harder to disengage God fromresponsibility for suffering and evil. And the suffering of humanity andanimals, he finds a difficult call.

His explanations for said suffering go something like this:

* some suffering is useful* animals may not suffer as much as they seem to* human suffering is actually God suffering* in the end there is heavenly reward to make up for it and no sufferinggoes on forever. (I suspect given the choice, those suffering in extremiswould trade eternal ‘pie in the sky at a later date’ for immediate release)

and his explanations even seem to leave Stannard with considerable angst.

Stannard also has some unusual scientific views that might invite commentlike:

* genes for a stronger sex drive predispose some men to rape* the working class and presumably less intelligent are out-breeding theupper class who are typically more intelligent, and this is driving theaverage intelligence of the species to the dogs* the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is a consequence of observerinteraction altering a property in the process of measurement and is not anintrinsic feature of these paired properties.

But these must perhaps be better addressed at some other time.

Concluding Remark

Stannard’s account is honest and very able, coming from someone enormouslyexperienced in both theology and science. It is this honesty which points upthe problems in this whole approach and the above criticisms are, thus,perhaps more generic than specific to Stannard’s book.

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