from the Wall Street Journal December 24, 1997
by Jim Holt
Scientists are hard to work with on a committee, and academic friend once told me, because they often change their minds when they see new evidence. I was reminded of this a few months ago when I saw a survey in the journal Nature. It revealed that 40% of American physicists, biologists, and mathematicians believe in God — and not just some metaphysical abstraction, but a deity who takes an active interest in our affairs and hears our prayers: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This percentage, it turns out, is exactly the same as it was in 1916, when an identical poll was taken. Strikingly, as the nation's intelligentsia has turned toward atheism, many in the scientific community have stuck to theism. They apparently haven't changed their minds about whether God exists.
But should they have? In the 19th century, religious orthodoxy endured blow after blow at the hands of science. Geologists fatally undermined the literal truth of Genesis, making a mockery of Bishop Ussher's calculation (arrived at by totting up the "begats" in the Bible) that the creation took place in 4004 B.C. Chemists demystified life by synthesizing its organic molecules in the lab. Darwin and Wallace's theory of evolution seemed to banish divine providence from the sphere of nature once and for all, replacing it with the groping of blind chance. "There is no God and the ape is our Adam," cried a vexed Cardinal Manning.
The quasi-scientific 19th-century school of thought known as materialism, which held that matter is the fundamental and final reality, excluded the possibility of an immortal soul. Man was a machine; the brain produced consciousness as the liver secreted bile. And if matter was eternal, as the laws of conservation suggested, it made no sense to suppose that a creator could have brought the material universe into existence ex nihilo at some point in the past.
Newton had thought that the deity's role was to make occasional adjustments to the solar system lest it run down, and idea that Voltaire and the other philosophes of the Enlightenment found congenial. But Newton's 19th-century successors demonstrated that a clockwork universe was actually self-sustaining; no divine help was required to keep it operating smoothly. When Napoleon asked Laplace where God fit into his equations of celestial mechanics, the great physicist coolly replied, "Sir, I had no need of that hypothesis."
It was this new spirit of scientific rationality that allowed Nietsche to declare that God was dead. By the turn of the century, skepticism about the claims of faith had become the norm among thinking types, including scientists. As far as the typical intellectual was concerned, religion was at best a socially necessary fiction. At worst, it was dangerous humbug — the opiate of the masses.
But if the scientific findings of the 19th century eroded belief in God, those of the 20th century have had just the opposite evidential force, although few intellectuals outside science have come to terms with this. Traditional arguments for the existence of God, which seemed outmoded a century ago, have had new life breathed into them.
Take the "cosmological argument." Why does the universe exist at all? Philosophers of an Aristotelian kidney reasoned that it must have an external cause — a creator, namely God. By the 19th century, the cosmological argument had ceased to be taken seriously. If the universe has always been around, the revised thinking went, then maybe its existence was just a brute fact requiring no further explanation.
In this century, however, it has been discovered — much to the surprise of scientists like Einstein — that the universe hasn't always been around. Rather, it suddenly exploded into being some 15 billion years ago in a flash of light and energy. The abrupt emergence of a world out of nothingness with the big bang bears an uncanny resemblance to the Genesis command: "Let there be light . . . ." Atheists now had some explaining to do.
Then there is the "argument from design" — the claim that nature is so wondrously fashioned that it must have been the handiwork of a Divine Artificer. The wing of the eagle, the shape of the orchid, the swiftness of the antelope: all these weren't produced by a beneficent deity, submitted 19th-century Darwinists, but by random mutation and natural selection. Since then critics of a religious bent have sought to show that the theory of evolution is false or incomplete. The biochemist Michael J. Behe has argued that gradualist Darwinian processes could never have given rise to the intricate molecular machines of life. Meanwhile, inside the Darwinist camp itself, "radicals" like Richard Dawkins and "pluralists" like Stephen J. Gould go at it hammer and tongs over the basic logic of the theory. Will Darwinism ever be proved wrong? The current debate is one of the most confusing I have ever tried to follow: at times it seems that no one can agree on anything, and that everyone thinks everyone else is a fool, if not a knave.
Yet even if Darwin's theory is fundamentally sound — as I am convinced it is — that doesn't mean the design argument for God's existence is defunct. For in recent decades, physicists have noticed an astonishing thing about the fundamental laws of nature: The twenty or so parameters they contain — numbers governing the strength of gravity, the ratio of the proton's size to the neutron's, and so on — appear to have been fine-tuned so that, against astronomically unfavorable odds, conscious organisms could emerge. Make gravity the slightest bit weaker, and no galaxies suitable for life would have formed; make it a bit stronger and the cosmos would have collapsed moments after the big bang.
The universe, as the cosmologist Fred Hoyle once remarked, looks like a "put-up job." Who but a Divine Designer could have twiddled with these twenty different "control knobs" until they were pointing at precisely the right values for the full array of life ultimately to appear? (Design by wholesale is more grand than design by retail," one 19th-century American clergyman presciently commented.) Another conundrum for atheists.
Finally, consider the "argument from consciousness." How could sentience, self-awareness, and free will arise in a purely material universe? They couldn't, argued the 17th-century English philosopher John Locke: Consciousness must have existed from eternity, and the eternal mind must be God. In the 19th and much of the 20th century, this proposition came in for ridicule. When an organism's neural pathways grow sufficiently complex, materialists insist, their firings are somehow accompanied by consciousness. But despite decades of effort by philosophers and neurophysiologists, no one has been able to come up with a remotely plausible explanation of how this happens — how the hunk of gray meat in our skull gives rise to private technicolor experience. One distinguished commentator on the mind-body problem, Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained, has been driven to declare that there is really no such thing as consciousness — we are all zombies, though we're unaware of it.
Even as the "soul" has made a comeback, computer science has helped us imagine how it might be an immaterial and, indeed, immortal thing, separable from the body the way software is separable from the hardware that runs it. And quantum theory, which overthrew Newtonian physics in the first half of this century, has revealed that matter itself has a ghostly, almost magical character. The universe turns out to be more like a thought than like a machine. Which raises a question for atheists: Whose thought?
"The more I study science the more I believe in God," Albert Einstein once remarked. Einstein's Supreme Being, it should be noted, was a remote and disinterested one, more or less identifiable with the final laws of physics — a far cry from the God of Kierkegaard, the God incarnated under the reign of Augustus as a Galilean craftsman and crucified during the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate in an act of redemption.
Contemporary science, no matter how unsettling it may be to the vulgar atheism of many of today's intellectuals, could never by itself hint at such a deity. Still less could it resolve the perplexity of Evelyn Waugh, who said, "I believe it all. But what I cannot understand is why God made the world in the first place."