“Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defend atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science. Science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God.
“The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature. But it is not science alone that has guided me. I have also been helped by a renewed study of the classical philosophical arguments.
“The leaders of science over the last hundred years, along with some of today’s most influential scientists [e.g., Freeman Dyson], have built a philosophically compelling vision of a rational universe that sprang from a divine Mind.” Antony Flew, There Is A God: How the World’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, p. 88, 89, 91
What’s in the Details
(Book Review: Why Science Does Not Disprove God By Amir D. Aczel (William Morrow, 294 pages, $27.99))
James Franklin, The Wall Street Journal, April 30, 2014, p. A 13
In the 1850s, Darwin’s theory of evolution removed the need for a god to have designed all living things. Then a century of brilliant scientists cracked the mysteries of physics, cured feared diseases and explained inheritance through DMA. Science was on a roll and, to atheists, must have seemed to be on the verge of finishing off religious belief. By the 1950s, life, it was said, was about to be made in a test tube, artificial intelligence in computers was just around the corner, and the mind would be fully accounted for by behaviorist psychology and brain chemistry. It must have seemed that the Sea of Faith was enduring, as Matthew Arnold feared, its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”
Then the going got tough for the atheists. While the amount of successful science done increased enormously, the spectacular breakthroughs of the previous century dried up. That was especially so in the areas that were supposed to make the world uninhabitable for religious belief or for any non-materialist view of humanity. The process of making life from non life, which was believed to have happened by chance near the beginning of the earth’s history, could not be replicated in the laboratory even in the lost favorable conditions. Artificial intelligence has remained rudimentary; even its signature success—victory over the world chess champion in 1997— was mostly a demonstration of the uniqueness of human intelligence. The computer Deep Blue played chess by searching hundreds of millions of moves a second, assisted by rules cloned from human experts. It could not think, about the game like a human. The programmers’ inability to make computers imitate understanding, that most human of mental activities, exploded our naive and simplistic views of the mind.
To make matters worse, physics unexpectedly created trouble. (Physics? Et tu, Brute?) Physics is the science of matter itself, the foundational science for all the other natural sciences. In the 1960s and 1970s, it gradually became clear that the universe was very “fine-tuned” for the existence of life. If the basic physical constants, like the strength of gravity, had been very slightly different, the universe would be unable to support life. The fine-tuning is very, very fine: for the strength of gravity, perhaps one part’in 1040. In the physicist Freeman Dyson’s words, “it almost seems as if the Universe must in some sense have known that we were coming.”
For those who prefer not to have a Divine Engineer tuning the dials, the alternatives are unpalatable, the most natural are multiverse theories, according to which all possible universes exist simultaneously and we simply find ourselves in the one that makes our existence possible. This is not out of the question, but there is no actual evidence for it. It is just an “atheism of the gaps,” calling imaginary entities from the vasty deep to plug a theoretical hole. The postulation probably involves gods, too—maybe not the omnipotent creator of the Abrahamic religions, but surely some unlikely combination of quantum fluctuations could produce Zeus and his colorful activities? Zeus is just a very big superman (physically, of course, not morally) up on Olympus and thus something that physics could manage to account for. The other possibility is to hope that there is some unknown mathematical reason why the constants are locked in as they are—again, a possibility, but one for which there is currently no other evidence.
The universe is very finely tuned for life— almost as if, Freeman Dyson said, it ‘must in some sense have known that we were coming.’
In “Why Science Does Not Disprove God,” the mathematician Amir, D. Aczel runs through these issues in a welt-informed and readable way. He writes plausibly on a range of scientific topics, most strongly on physics. He rightly calls to account, for example, physicists who claim to show that the universe can arise “from nothing” but who have a subtle technical meaning of “nothing” related to Paul Dirac’s prediction of antimatter and not at all to the zilch of the common man. He covers well such matters as “why archaeology does not disprove the Bible” (as far as it goes, it shows that the cities of the Bible existed) and the difficulties that evolution has explaining the emergence of symbolic thought and art (the birth of consciousness and its effects is a real phenomenon that happened at some time in prehistory, and science has almost nothing to say about it).
Mr. Aczel, though, has made the battle easy for himself by taking the enemy to be simplistic writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. If you have opponents prepared to maintain such crass theses as that there is no shred of evidence for the stories in the Bible, then refuting them is child’s play.
He conceives of the issue as one about science and has usefully supported his research by interviewing some of the main scientists in the debate. But the question of whether science can explain everything is one for philosophy, not for science, and scientists’ comments on it are not necessarily well-informed. (Another example of this is Stephen Hawking’s 2010 “The Grand Design,” which assures us that “philosophy is dead” and that a physical theory just around the corner will make old questions like “Why are we here?” redundant.) As one philosopher said about asking mathematicians their views on the philosophy of mathematics, fish are good at swimming but poor at hydrodynamics.
“Why Science Does Not Disprove God” also has rather an excessive quantity of padding with facts of little relevance to the main topic. “Descartes was born on March 31,1596, to a wealthy family belonging to the French aristocracy.” There are no jokes. The book will be quite satisfactory as a generally reliable introduction for readers who know nothing about the subject.