Physicist Alan Lightman is one of the rare breed of working scientists who is an engaging and prolific popular writer. I loved his book Einstein’s Dreams. But now he proves to be somewhat of an accommodationist (and “somewhat” is being charitable). And Lightman’s arguments for accommodation, laid out in his longish essay at Salon, “Does God exist?” (subtitled “The case for reconciling the scientific with the divine—and against the anti-religion of Richard Dawkins”), are not only unconvincing and unoriginal, but embarrassing.
The piece is distressing from the very first paragraph:
Ten years ago, I began attending monthly meetings of a small group of scientists, actors and playwrights in a carpeted seminar room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Our raison d’être, broadly speaking, has been an exploration of how science and art affect one another. As we drink merlot and munch on goat cheese and crackers, with the late afternoon sun draining from the room, we discuss topics ranging from the history of scientific discovery to the nature of the creative process to the way that an actor connects to an audience to the latest theater in New York and Boston.
Oy, gewalt! If they’re gonna have goat cheese, they should at least be serving a good white wine like a sauvignon blanc! Or even something sweet, like a Sauternes.
At any rate, Lightman’s “salon,” which includes physicist Alan Guth and biologist Nancy Hopkins, often discusses science and religion. After much deliberation, Lightman declares:
As a both a scientist and a humanist myself, I have struggled to understand different claims to knowledge, and I have eventually come to a formulation of the kind of religious belief that would, in my view, be compatible with science.
His reconciliation involves first defining the main principle of science, what he calls “the central doctrine of science.”
All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe.
And then God:
For the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, God is a being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical laws (i.e., performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion and omniscience.
And the big reconciliation? Just garden variety deism (or “immanentism,” which Lightman defines as the idea that “God created the universe and the physical laws and continues to act but only through repeated application of those fixed laws”):
Tucking these axioms under our belt, we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. A God that intervenes after the cosmic pendulum has been set into motion, violating the physical laws, would clearly upend the Central Doctrine of science. Of course, the physical laws could have been created by God before the beginning of time. But once created, according to the Central Doctrine, the laws are immutable and cannot be violated from one moment to the next.
Lightman, who claims he’s an atheist, then cites religious scientists like Francis Collins and Owen Gingerich as examples of those who have achieved a fairly reasonable form of reconciliation, although they do accept the existence of miracles.
Lightman then adduces a form of reconciliation that might well have come from John Haught. It’s the “other ways of knowing” argument combined with the fact that his central doctrine of science (“All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe”) can’t be rationally supported;
However, I certainly agree with Collins and Hutchinson and Gingerich that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.
Finally, I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but, in the end, we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.
As another example, I cannot prove that the Central Doctrine of science is true.
This somehow makes room for God:
But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. . . .Then, there are questions that have definite answers but which we cannot answer. The question of the existence of God may be such a question.
Just like the question of the existence of Zeus, Wotan, or garden fairies.
Lightman then defends the possibility of deism against the arguments of New Atheists like Dawkins:
As a scientist, I find Dawkins’ efforts to rebut these two arguments for the existence of God — intelligent design and morality — as completely convincing. However, as I think he would acknowledge, falsifying the arguments put forward to support a proposition does not falsify the proposition. Science can never know what created our universe. Even if tomorrow we observed another universe spawned from our universe, as could hypothetically happen in certain theories of cosmology, we could not know what created our universe. And as long as God does not intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science has no way of knowing whether God exists or not. The belief or disbelief in such a Being is therefore a matter of faith.
(Note that he says this holds as long as God doesn’t intervene in the contemporary universe. Apparently God might have in the past, as with the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, and that’s okay, even though those events blatantly violate physical principles.)
So what’s Lightman’s real beef with Dawkins? That Richard is dismissive of faith:
What troubles me about Dawkins’ pronouncements is his wholesale dismissal of religion and religious sensibility. . . In my opinion, Dawkins has a narrow view of faith. I would be the first to challenge any belief that contradicts the findings of science. But, as I have said earlier, there are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith, and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it, have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind. Consider the verses of the Gitanjali, the Messiah, the mosque of the Alhambra, the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Should we take to task Tagore and Handel and Sultan Yusuf and Michelangelo for not thinking?
I believe Dawkins has extolled the beauty of cathedrals and other religiously inspired art. But that doesn’t in any way justify the claims of religions. And then, like John Haught, he simply redefines “faith” in a way that gives all of us—religious folks and atheists alike—that quality (at least, those of us who are moved by art or literature):
Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.
Umm. . . note to Lightman: when I’m moved by Beethoven, and carried away by his music, that does not somehow vindicate religion.
He then makes The Argument for Faith from the Good Stuff that Religion has Done and the Bad Stuff that Science has Done:
Scattered throughout Dawkins’ writings are comments that religion has been a destructive force in human civilization. Certainly, human beings, in the name of religion, have sometimes caused great suffering and death to other human beings. But so has science, in the many weapons of destruction created by physicists, biologists and chemists, especially in the 20th century. Both science and religion can be employed for good and for ill. It is how they are used by human beings, by us, that matters. Human beings have sometimes been driven by religious passion to build schools and hospitals, to create poetry and music and sweeping temples, just as human beings have employed science to cure disease, to improve agriculture, to increase material comfort and the speed of communication.
Lightman then recounts a story of watching two baby ospreys fled on his property in Maine:
When they were within 20 feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I cannot explain what happened in that half-second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.
Almost every biologist who watches animals in the field has had an experience like this—an experience of either feeling kinship with nature or awe of nature. But in what sense does that vindicate either religion or faith? We are creatures of emotion, but that hardly proves that God exists, or constitutes some kind of reconciliation between God and science.
The subheading of Lightman’s title is “the case for reconciling the scientific with the divine—and against the anti-religion of Richard Dawkins.” Let us summarize Lightman’s case for such a reconciliation:
- There could be a deistic God, or even one who, in the past (but no longer) performed miracles that violate the laws of physics.
- There are some religious scientists like Francis Collins (Lightman even cites, God help me, the studies of sociologist Elaine Ecklund, who, as we know, has misrepresented her data to prove her Templeton-funded claim that scientists are more religious than we think. Dr. Lightman should actually read and think about what Ecklund wrote).
- There are questions science cannot answer, like these: “We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. We all know that these are not questions that have an objective scientific answer, or perhaps any answer at all.
- We cannot prove that physical laws are true and obeyed everywhere in the universe. But surely Lightman is aware that we see no exceptions to this. Maybe he can’t prove that somewhere, in some corner of the universe, these laws are violated. But experience gives us no evidence that they are. He might as well say he can’t prove that invisible fairies guide his actions. Science works—and it has always worked without assuming the existence of the supernatural. We don’t have to justify the existence of physical laws on first principles.
- Religion is still with us, and has created nice works of architecture and art, like Notre Dame and the paintings of Giotto. So how does that reconcile science and God?
- Science has done bad stuff, like making atomic bombs. The bad stuff, of course, comes not from science itself, but from extra-scientific motivations applied to the products of science.
- Lightman was once moved to tears by watching the first flight of two young ospreys.
What a puerile and unoriginal defense of faith—especially by a renowned physicist and thinker! Each of these arguments has been made by theologians like John Haught, and none are convincing. Perhaps Lightman has not gotten out enough, for what is contained in his essay is simply a warmed-over hash of arguments for faith that have long been dismantled.