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May 21, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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Can God and Science be Friends?

I hardly know a thing about science. After completing what used to be called School Certificate science, in what used to be called fifth form, I moved into arts subjects as fast as I could go. I tried to keep my hand in with calculus, but that was the limit. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do science – I got a pretty good mark in School C – or even that I didn’t find it interesting. Rather, a bunch of mates and I had a strangely superior attitude towards it. Between us, we had somehow decided that science removed the mystery from life, dissolving life’s rich tapestry in an acid of formulae and equations.

I now look back on that strange period of life with regret, because it’s clear to me that my scientific ignorance closes me off from a great deal of enjoyment. The more I see scientists enthusing about their subjects, the more laughable my adolescent attitude becomes. By listening to other people, I now know that it is possible to see beauty in the arrangement of a cell and mystery in the structures of mathematics.

What’s more, my own attitude to science was also ridiculously selective. While fleeing from physics, I was quite happy to reap the practical benefits of scientific knowledge: to play computer games, be flown by aeroplanes, and drink pasteurised milk.

The Church of Nature vs. The Church of Science

In retrospect, I think that attitude typifies one of the two extremes present in Western approaches to science. At one pole is a kind of naïve romanticism. Looking through their misty spectacles, these romantics hanker after the pre-industrial age, conveniently overlooking the harsh reality of life without penicillin and tractors. There are no doubt many motivations behind this kind of attitude, but many of the modern romantics have probably read far too many fantasy novels and spent insufficient time in nursing homes. Foremost in their minds is a desire to get as far away as possible from those at the other pole, forgetting that nuclear fallout can reach Takaka as well as Tawa.

At the other extreme are the advocates of Scientism, those who believe that science is the only way we can answer our questions about the world. This attitude is less visible now than it was 50 years ago, but if you head down to the Film Archive to watch a few of their old black-and-white newsreels, you’ll get something of the idea. Regulated by nice men in white coats and their worker bee doozers in bulldozers, the New Zealand of the newsreels comes across as a sort of gigantic scientific and industrial laboratory. Add fertiliser and watch it grow!

While this sort of blank slate scientism is less apparent now than it was, subtler versions of it remain in those glossy Telecom advertisements that promise us eternal youth, instant happiness and a safe future, all through the magical power of technology.

While there is less overt Scientism around now than there was 50 years ago, there are signs that it may be making something of a comeback.

In the increasingly wacky world we share after September 11, a world of Destiny marches and Exclusive Brethren pamphlets, it’s probably no wonder that Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion made it onto the New Zealand best-selling books lists. The thought that the future might look like V for Vendetta — where fascist politicians exploit the religious instincts of the populace to maintain their power — is enough to drive anyone to some species of atheism. Given the general perception that Marxism has failed, there aren’t many alternatives left for those who want to hitch themselves to the atheistic wagon. Hence, perhaps, the returning popularity of Scientism, evident in the sales of Dawkins’ books. As the most famous representative of Scientism alive today, Dawkins catalogues a range of crimes committed in the name of religion. In his thinking, religious dogma can only be an outmoded relic of a pre-scientific age and so it must be abandoned. In fact, it is not only irrational, it is also dangerous. Instead, scientific rationality is humanity’s only safe guide for life.

Actually, God Has No Arms

The best (and funniest) review I know of The God Delusion is by the literary critic, Terry Eagleton, in The London Review of Books. It’s available online, at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/eag01_.html, and I recommend you read it. As you’d expect from a literary critic, Eagleton zeroes in on Dawkins’ lack of imagination. In Eagleton’s judgement, Dawkins seems only capable of imagining God as a sort of super-sized, extra clever human being; someone surprisingly like Dawkins himself, except with a lot more arms and enough time on his hands to create an entire universe. Yet, as Eagleton notes, this is a complete confusion of categories. It is simply not what believers mean when they talk about God. God is not one super-chap among other chaps, nor one Oxford professor among other Oxford professors. Rather, God is:

the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He [sic] is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

That is to say, were it not for God, there would be no Oxford, no Victoria, no professors, and no Eagletons. Yet this does not mean that God is simply another entity available for our inspection. In the relation between God and the Universe, it may be helpful to conceive of God as somehow under the Universe, or of the Universe as absolutely contingent upon God. Language falls apart here, but such expressions help us to avoid the notion that God is an object somewhere in the universe.

Being able to conceive of God in this way enables us to think beyond the tyranny of material causes and effects, so freeing our intuition that there is more to our experience than the purely material. In turn, this frees us from the tyranny of Scientism. Within the world of hard Scientism, all our actions, morals and leisure pursuits must be explicable, finally, in terms of what can be measured and quantified. People like Dawkins believe that aesthetics and morality and emotions can all be explained in material terms. Yet the collective history of humanity protests against that conclusion. A great many things in our experience exceed the boundaries of natural selection. Our sense of wonder, our passion for music, our capacity for altruism to those beyond our gene pool, our joy in a good glass of pinot noir or a well-executed cover drive: these things serve no particular evolutionary advantage. Yet these are often the most significant things in our lives. George Steiner, after cataloguing various artists and writers and composers who see their work as a struggle with God, writes this:

Wittily, Bertrand Russell asserted that God had simply given to man far too many indices of His existence for religious faith to be plausible. Yet this observation is, metaphysically, tone-deaf. It leaves out the entire sphere of the poetic, be it metaphysical or aesthetic, it leaves out music and the arts, without which human life might indeed not be viable. … [W]here God’s presence is no longer a tenable supposition [then] certain dimensions of thought and creativity are no longer attainable.

Science: Helps Us Do Stuff

Science may not have all the answers. Yet there remains a vast difference between recognising the limits of science on one hand and, on the other, refusing to acknowledge the immense benefits it brings to our lives. Instead, responsible human living involves attempting to balance the extremes of Scientism and Romanticism. Life in the postmodern world is incredibly complex, but rather than avoiding that complexity, we should (as someone said to me recently) acknowledge it as our friend. We should joyfully engage with the wisdom, the moral and mystical insight, and the beauty offered to us in poetry, religion and art. In their spheres, such activities are unrivalled in what they have to teach us. But we should not let them close our eyes to the explanatory power or potential of science, leading us into a blinkered fundamentalism that is simply out of touch with reality. There’s a phrase in the New Zealand Anglican Prayerbook that puts this well:

[We should] welcome those scientific advantages that add to our knowledge of creation, and all technological developments that improve the quality of human life, and thank God for them.

Thus, simultaneously, we should gratefully receive the benefits and knowledge that science gives us, allowing it to expand the horizons of our understanding. But we should not allow scientific explanations to become our sole rule for life, so that “the survival of the fittest” becomes our moral code. That way madness lies: the madness of Social Darwinism and eugenics, the madness that wishes to smooth the pillow of the dying Maori race and is quite happy to wipe out the Torres Strait Islanders. We need the moral wisdom of saints and sages to remind us that technology has limits – that just because we can does not mean we should. We need the crazy prophets of Christendom and Krishna to remind us that the most secular century of all time was also the most destructive century of all time; that the love of power can only be overcome with the power of love; that our neighbours include children in Third World countries who sew soccer balls together for 50 cents a day; that our addiction to fossil fuels is submerging other neighbours of ours in the melt-off from polar ice caps. We need them to hold out the possibility of ideals that reverse our worship of technology, promising us the possibility of a future where our frigates are beaten into combine harvesters. We need them to keep reminding us to share the advances of technology and medical science with people whose skin colour is different to ours, people who can’t afford 50 cents, let alone 50 dollars, for a visit to the doctor. Only then, as a civilisation, will we have reached human maturity by balancing the twin poles of Romanticism and Scientism.

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  1. Dave says:

    Tim,

    Your need to find a non-material basis for all your favourite experiences betrays that your attitude hasn’t changed much since adolescence, that you still can’t see the beauty in science.

    Hence you feel there must be another answer, one that reflects the beauty that you see in life – and therefore must be outside the grasp of science. An answer that by definition can never be fully revealed, a Mystery… God.

    There are many ways to put this into words and make it sound like you are saying something, when you are in fact saying absolutely nothing. You touch on a few, for example “it may be helpful to conceive of God as somehow under the Universe”.

    Eagleton talks of God existing as if it is the same thing as Faith existing, and as you quote: “God is the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves”. In all cases essentially the same trick: Define God as something else that we all agree exists, therefore God exists. God is the existence of the universe. God is Love. God is Life. God is the ability to write poetry. God is truth. Yeah, right.

    Dawkins is setting a specific target – a supernatural universe-creating intelligence. You or Eagleton can redefine the word God as whichever truism of the day you favour. That’s fine, it’s just a completely different argument. It isn’t a lack of imagination on Dawkins’ part not to address it, it just isn’t what his book is about. It’s a different word, spelt with the same three letters.

    The definition that Dawkins does use is at least part of the idea of God that western religions hold to, and a necessary precondition for anyone really wanting to be called God under those religions.

    Being able to define God in a specific way enables us to think beyond the tyranny of sophist debating techniques. Being called truth, life and poetry are just icing on the cake – anyone can be called those things. But you aren’t really a Christian if you don’t also believe that Jesus was a supernatural universe-creating intelligence, right?

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