Berkeley, Calif.—Walking up Telegraph Avenue
here is like strolling along a beach after the tide has gone out: You’re bound to find some flotsam. The tide—the counterculture of the 1960s—went out a quarter century ago. But at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning, I see street vendors setting up stands to sell tie-dyed shirts. The sound of bongo drums drifts through the air. So does the smell of marijuana.
Turning onto a side street, I come across an Episcopal chapel. The stucco exterior is grimy. Holy Eucharist won’t be celebrated for a while, but I loiter to see if anyone arrives early to pray. No one does. At this hour Americans in places like Dallas and Des Moines are packing their local churches, but in Berkeley one can’t help feeling that the tide of religious belief has gone out, too. I head off to a conference on campus, “Science and the Spiritual Quest.”
The conference lasted four days and enlisted more than thirty speakers. With participants so disparate (Christians, Jews, Muslims; scientists, clergy, journalists) and topics so diffuse (one panel was titled “Creative Interaction in the Making”), I wondered if “Science and the Spiritual Quest” had taken as its text tohu bohu, the Hebrew phrase from Genesis that translates as “formless and void.” Yet I was wrong. A theme did emerge: The tide of religious belief may not be rising among the academic elite, but it has not entirely gone out.
The most noteworthy participants were those who had a foot in both camps, possessing both religious and scientific credentials. Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne are both Anglican clergymen and scientists, Peacocke a chemist, Polkinghorne a particle physicist. Carl Feit is a cancer researcher and a Talmudic scholar. Charles Townes holds a Nobel Prize for developing the laser and is unabashed about his religious beliefs. All proved at pains to put science in its place.
Evolution can explain how we arose from the slime. It cannot explain how Beethoven composed his string quartets.
Not that they failed to give science its due. “Science is different because it works,” Feit said. Polkinghorne noted that early in his career particles such as neutrinos were thought to be the smallest constituents of matter. Then doubts arose. Theories were propounded. Experiments performed. Finally the existence of even smaller particles, such as quarks and gluons, was established. Science raised a question and settled it, with relative dispatch. “Quarks and gluons are here to stay,” Polkinghorne stated. “Compare that with the circular character of religious controversies.”
Yet it is one thing to grant science its success, another to argue that this implies religion’s failure. “Somehow it has got into popular culture that science is all fact and religion is all opinion, which isn’t true of either,” Polkinghorne said. The “somehow,” the way many speakers believed the relation between science and religion went awry, is notable. They blamed Newton.
God cannot be interrogated the way we interrogate the physical world.
Although a religious man himself, Newton described a world that was predictable and mechanical, as if God had wound up creation like a clock, then walked away. Polkinghorne argued that “the seeds of modern atheism lie with Newton’s successors. Their mechanistic worldview led to a belief in deism, and deism led to a belief in nothing.”
Popular culture may not have noticed, but as science has progressed beyond the Newtonian view it has become more compatible with religious belief, not less. Surprisingly, among the first to reunite science and religion was Darwin, or so it was argued by the conference participants. Darwin, they said, destroyed the sterile notion of God as an absent clock-winder, restoring the intimate, ever-present deity of Psalms. As Arthur Peacocke put it, Darwin permitted “a recovered emphasis on ancient insights,” showing that “God is creating all the time.”
In our own century Einstein’s achievement, general relativity, led to a series of discoveries about the universe, including the discovery that it . . . began. The Big Bang, now believed to have taken place 15 billion years ago, accords neatly enough with Genesis. For its part, Planck’s breakthrough, quantum mechanics, changed science’s view of the future. In the words of Charles Townes, the “determinism of the last century was completely overturned by . . . quantum mechanics. . . . We now believe that the future is not fundamentally determined nor completely predictable.” Science now has room, in other words, for that fundamental tenet of religious belief, free will.
Indeed, science itself has tripped across one or two hints that there is Something Out There. One hint: the way in which structures both big (galaxies) and small (those quarks and gluons) can be described by elegant mathematical formulas. If the universe hangs together only as a matter of happenstance, why should it be transfused with what Polkinghorne called “transparent rational beauty”? Another hint: our brains. All humans really needed for survival, Polkinghorne maintained, was the ability to process simple problems in arithmetic (can I outrun that tiger?). Yet we have ended up with so much “surplus intellectual capacity” that it “beggars belief that it is simply a fortunate by-product.” Evolution can explain how we arose from the slime. It cannot explain how Beethoven composed his string quartets.
The biggest hint: the Anthropic Principle. What this means is that complex, carbon-based life forms—namely, us—can exist only in a universe in which the physical constants have been tuned just so. Take the ratio of gravity to electromagnetism. If gravity were a tiny bit stronger, we’d be pulled apart; if electromagnetism were a tiny bit stronger, we’d fall in on ourselves like failed soufflés. “We do not know why the physical constants are what they are,” Townes noted, “but many have a feeling that somehow intelligence must have been involved in the laws of the universe.” The “onus is on nonbelievers,” Peacocke added. “We’re entitled to ask them, ‘Well, then, how do you explain it?’”
Yet even if science were to pursue all these hints, it wouldn’t find God himself. As Polkinghorne put it, “All science can do is provide a vague notion of God as some sort of divine mathematician or supreme designer, and there is a great deal more to God than that.” This insistence on the limits of science proved memorable. Science may work, the argument went, but it works across a narrow range. “God cannot be interrogated the way we interrogate the physical world,” Polkinghorne said. “Transparent moments of encounter with the sacred can neither be induced nor be repeated through human contrivance but only received.”
In one exchange Andrei Linde, a physicist at Stanford, argued that there may be many universes, making it no more surprising that ours supports carbon-based forms than that one person will always win a lottery. “That’s pure metaphysical speculation, Andrei,” Polkinghorne retorted. “It’s not based on any physical science.” The erudite debate that followed sailed over my head, so I watched the body language. When Polkinghorne spoke, Linde looked pained. When Linde spoke, Polkinghorne picked up his pen to doodle. A cleric with the composure to doodle in the presence of a cosmologist. It was a remarkable datum in itself.