The Science and God Phobias

Phobia: an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.  Extreme fear can make people react in ways they normally wouldn’t.  It taints judgement and bias thinking. I think we see this in both the scientific and religious communities. And it takes different forms.

In science it can be the kiss of death for a scientist to invoke God in the unfolding of the universe.  There have been a brave few who have and often they are labeled as charlatans or non-scientific hacks. I was watching a video on meaningoflife.tv with Robert Wright and Brian Greene and at one point it really highlighted this.  Now Brian Greene is a well known scientist and popularizer.   I really like how he explains science, particularly fundamental science.  He knows how to make it accessible to the average person. But I think he has a phobia about the possibility that God may be active in the universe.  As an example, he may not think much of the idea that we live in a simulation  but even though it is similar to the God of idealism, he’s ok with it since it doesn’t invoke God (check the link above).   Now I’ve watched Robert Wright’s videos and read some of his articles.  He is a special case, in my view.  He is very knowledgeable in science, particularly evolution. I think he really gets it that if we live in an autonomic world (mechanistic even with some chance thrown in), that creates a serious problem for humanity.  Things like free will and morality are basically nonsense.  However, he is also very careful.  He gingerly pushes the envelope a bit but also tries very hard not to get too “wooy” which basically means getting too much outside the scientific realm and into some sort of spiritual or mystical domain.  I think Wright would really like to broach the theological subject more but is afraid that it will delegitimize him within the scientific community.  If you want to be part of the “in crowd” among the scientific establishment you just don’t go there.  You will be marginalized.

There could be many reasons for this aversion to God talk but I’ll make a psychological speculation. What’s the psychology of a scientist?  First, the putative scientific method requires predictability,  testability, and falsifiability.  So perhaps most people who go into science will embrace that wholeheartedly.   So, what if there is an unpredictable ultimate mind (God) fundamental to the unfolding of reality.  Big problem. For those who long for a theory of everything or even a comprehensive predictability to all things this is a major road block. Many just can’t go there. This can result in a very emotional response to the issue.  This is not surprising. After all, religion has put forth a lot of nonsense in the past that doesn’t seem reasonable even to non-scientists today who have studied science and take it’s findings seriously.  So, what we have are scientists who have a disdain for anything that suggests that God is a fundamental cause in how the universe unfolds.

Now, per se, I don’t consider this necessarily bad; as long as scientists refrain from theological speculations.  Too readily invoking God into science can short circuit deeper probes into the nature of reality. This does no good for science or theology.  After all, if theology wants to understand and characterize God and God’s relationship with the world then science is an invaluable resource.  “You can know something about the artisan from the artifact”.  Science examines the artifacts of fundamental reality and theology can learn a lot from that. In fact, I think science is an essential resource for theology.

Now this is not to say that there are no scientists who are theistic and try to keep a foot planted in both science and religion.  There certainly are. So far so good. Unfortunately, I think most do a great disservice to theology.  As I see it, they fall into two camps.

One camp affirms science but claims that God, from time to time, intervenes into natural order for some purpose.  This is supernaturalism and experimentally would be outside the realm of science to explore.  In other words, normally things go along according to the laws of nature but from time to time God steps in and subverts that order for some reason. Everything is determined by necessity (law) and chance (indeterminism) except when God forces something different.   All the major traditions have narratives of these supernatural events occurring. Science can do its thing but God can also.  While supernaturalism is logically possible, is it reasonable or theologically optimal?  I don’t think so (see Divine Action )

The other theological camp is more confused and, in my view, also very damaging. In this camp, God is more like a superintendent in an apartment building. God keeps the heat on and the water flowing but does nothing else.  God sustains the order of nature but doesn’t really act beyond that. I’ve seen American Episcopal documents that essentially espouse this view.  Seems to me this is a ham-handed attempt to attain scientific legitimacy but at what cost?  Prayers of supplication become a non-starter; at most a psychological mechanism.  Teleology is also an empty term because we live in a mechanistic universe.  What this really presents is a deistic God with an added maintenance function.  Unfortunately, those who take this position don’t seem to follow it to its logical conclusions and instead think they are being scientific in their theology.

All this is unfortunate because I think what science may be telling us now is that God has created a universe where life can exist and still evolve according to God’s purpose without some subversive activity.  In Newton’s day, supernaturalism was an understandable caveat to the mechanistic view of the world. It still offered God an “in” for divine purpose.  Today with the advances in science knowledge, I don’t think supernaturalism is either needed or theologically helpful.  Why would God create a universe where God needed to “jump in” from time to time to get things right? Is this a picture of a competent creator God?  Seems a bit ad hoc to me.

So what has science discovered that might be more a reasonable view of God’s activity in this reality? This is where things get a bit fuzzy.  There are several theories about the fundamental nature of reality.  The equations of the standard model in quantum physics have been remarkably accurate in experiments (albeit only their probabilities).  I don’t think there are many scientists who reject this model, even though most think it is incomplete.  So, what does quantum physics tell us?  From the Newtonian perspective, so many “weird” things: Is the mind of the experimenter responsible for the actualization of reality as in the Copenhagen interpretation?  Are different universes created with each quantum event (Many Worlds interpretation)? How can one particle affect another across the universe instantaneously (non-locality)?  Or is everything deterministic guided by a hidden pilot wave (Bohmian interpretation). All these theories and others boggle our minds.   So far there is no resolution to the dilemma of these contradictory theories.

While all these theories are tentative there are legitimate models that represent reality in a non-mechanistic way, even some that are amenable to some ultimate mind at the fundamental level.  I talk more about this here.

Given the history of the conflict of science and religion, the aversion to injecting religious sentiment into scientific explorations is understandable. But perhaps it is time to change.  What are the alternatives?  If we live in a world that is ultimately meaningless and autonomic, with everything coming about due to necessity and chance then why bother with anything. It’s all bullshit ultimately. In this case it’s just the universe doing its inevitable thing, tricking us psychologically to think we are free and there is a purpose to our lives.  In this scenario, if one really embraces it, reality is so grim.  Given that grim alternative, why not explore legitimate possibilities where there is true meaning, purpose, free will, moral ultimates, etc.  Why not attenuate our fears and entertain alternatives that may be reasonable?