Are there room for gods in science?

26th February 2012

Photograph of Star-forming region S106.

Star-forming region S106. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)/Public domain.

1. Science and religion

Science has disproved many specific aspects of religious texts, if they are to be taken literally. The fact that the Earth is significantly older than the bible suggests has been generally accepted since the mid-1800s. In 1859, British naturalist Charles Darwin showed that species were not all created in a matter of days, and that all life forms, including humans, are a product of evolution by natural selection[1], but despite the initial controversy, human evolution is now taught in publicly funded schools in almost every country in the world[2a].

These days, the Catholic Church even has unofficial guidelines on what to do if extraterrestrials are discovered.

The Catholic Church's response to the discovery of extraterrestrials are summarised by theologian Gerald Heard as follows:

"If there are many planets inhibited by sentient creatures as most astronomers (including Jesuits) now suspect, then each one of such planets (solar or non-solar) must fall into one of three categories:
(a) Inhabited by sentient creatures, but without souls; so to be treated with compassion but extra-evangelically.
(b) Inhabited by sentient creatures with fallen souls, through an original but not inevitable ancestral sin; so to be evangelized with urgent missionary charity.
(c) Inhabited by sentient soul-endowed creatures that have not fallen, who therefore
(1) inhabit an unfallen, sinless paradisal world;
(2) who therefore we must contact not to propagandize, but in order that we may learn from them the conditions (about which we can only speculate) of creatures living in perpetual grace, endowed with all the virtues in perfection, and both immortal and in complete happiness for always possessed of and with the knowledge of God"[3].

Many scientists hold religious beliefs, and some would even argue that great scientific discoveries were inspired by religious convictions. Isaac Newton, for example, may have first considered universalizing his theory of gravitation because of his heretical belief in a singular God that is both infinite and eternal[4].

Although Albert Einstein rejected the tenants of most organised religions, he recognised that there's more to the universe than science can currently explain. Einstein was particularly interested in what he described as a "cosmic religious feeling" that involves "no dogma and no God conceived in man's image"[5a].

Einstein stated that:

"it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it...[this] is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research"[5b].

Einstein explored this idea further in The World As I See It, first published in 1931. Here he stated that:

"The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. [A person] who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery - even if mixed with fear - that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man"[6].

Arthur C. Clarke explored a similar idea in Credo, first published in 1991. Clarke considered two types of gods: Alpha gods who have similar motivations to humans, and judge us after death, and Omega, the creator of everything. Clarke described Omega as "a much more interesting character" that is "not so easily dismissed", and stated that "no intelligent person can contemplate the night sky without a sense of awe"[7].

Americanastronomer Carl Sagan considered the place for religion in science in the 1985 novel Contact, which concludes with the discovery that the shape of a circle is encoded within the number pi, evoking the idea that this could provide evidence of some kind of creator.

Recently, popular scientists such as Richard Dawkins have advocated atheism as the best scientific approach to religion. Dawkins even suggests that people who believe in God are delusional, and supports Bobby Henderson, who compares God to a Flying Spaghetti Monster, something we cannot disprove but should not believe in either[8].

It's understandable that some scientists are disillusioned with religion, especially since religious groups are threatening science education in the USA[2b], but Dawkins is wrong to fight one form of fundamentalism with another. By claiming that he knows there is no God, Dawkins is denying Einstein, Clarke, and Sagan's concepts of God, as well as the God depicted in fundamental forms of religion, which they were all virulently against.

This approach may alienate many scientists, and is fundamentally unscientific. It may be necessary for a scientist researching cosmology to believe that the universe is billions of years old, or for a geneticist to believe in evolution, but it is not necessary for them to give up the wonder and curiosity that Einstein described as inspiring all true science. The religious beliefs of the vast majority of scientists do not conflict with their work, which will be judged on its own merits anyway, and so it's nobody else's business what anyone's religious beliefs are.

If we were to apply a purely scientific approach to religion - which is almost certainly misguided since it massively over simplifies the situation - then agnosticism, the idea that we do not know whether or not there is a God, or what the definition of God really entails, is more fitting with the scientific method. This is because the scientific method suggests that we should remain agnostic - that is neutral - about everything until there is scientific evidence one way or another.

Science has shown that the Earth is billions of years old, and that humans are the product of evolution by natural selection, but it has not yet shown that the concept of God is false, particularly since people have so many different definitions of what this entails.

2. Alpha gods: God the super advanced scientist

Dawkins may prefer to call himself an atheist rather than an agnostic because he defines God in the same way as the fundamentalists he most apposes. He then applies this definition to all concepts of God. One way of allowing God into the realm of science is by allowing the definition of the word to include advanced life forms that possess the powers we have previously attributed to gods.

Science fiction has long pondered the question of whether humans, or other life forms, could be defined as Clarke's Alpha gods. This idea is popularly summarised by Clarke's third law, which states that:

"any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"[9].

Weird Science's He Walked Among Us describes how an astronaut accidently travels back in time and fulfils the role of Jesus, when he heals people with antibiotics, and creates food and drink from dehydration packs and water. The idea that aliens can use advanced technology to trick humans into believing they are gods has been explored in the Stargate television series', and Philip Jose Farmer's series of Riverworld novels explore the idea that advanced life forms may feel morally obliged to 'resurrect' humans in replica bodies.

The ancient philosophical question of whether we could be living inside of a simulation, has been raised again by concepts of modern physics, and this has led to serious, albeit speculative, discussions as to whether advanced life forms really may be responsible for our concept of reality.

American physicist Frank Tipler suggested that advanced life forms might be able to create simulations that would last forever, from the perspective of the inhabitants[10]. For this to occur, the universe must collapse into a singularity. Tipler referred to this as the Omega Point, and argued that the creators of the simulation may feel a moral obligation to 'resurrect' all life that has ever existed. He later identified these creators with God[11].

In 2003, Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom suggested that we might be able to simulate entire universes - including all of the consciousness minds that they contain - inside of quantum computers the size of large planets[12]. Bostrom suggested that if it's possible to do this, then advanced civilisations may build these machines, and so it's possible that we are in one now.

Both of these theories are based on highly speculative science that we probably won't be able to test for a long time, and both rely on the assumption that advanced life forms will want to create simulation machines. It's doubtful that we can predict what life forms may desire when they are potentially billions of years more advanced than us, yet these theories have not been proven false and are, potentially, falsifiable.

If it's accepted that advanced life forms can fulfil the definition of God, then the best scientific approach to these types of gods should be agnosticism.

2.1 Is the external world a simulation?

The idea that the external world is a simulation dates back to about 380 BCE, when Ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote The Republic[13]. Here Plato showed that sensory information can't be trusted in the same way that mathematics can, because the senses can be tricked. This happens when we dream or hallucinate, but everyday life also provides many examples of sensory illusions, such as when a straw looks bent when partially viewed through liquid. Plato was a mind-body dualist, which means that he believed every person had a 'soul' that is eternal, and exists in a different realm to the physical objects we experience with our senses.

In 1641, French natural philosopher Rene Descartes argued that he could only be certain of his own existence[14a]. Descartes extended Plato's ideas by arguing that the mind must consist of a substance that is not physical. Descartes stated that sensory experiences, like colours and sounds, are not made of physical matter because they do not exist within our scientific description of the world. It is not known, for example, how different colours are produced by the brain as the result of specific wavelengths of light. This is evident from the fact that even an expert on optics cannot imagine a colour they have never seen before.

Descartes argued that sensory experiences are not necessarily real. This is why they can exist when no physical objects are present. Unlike Plato, Descartes also doubted the certainty of mathematics, since he thought that an all-powerful God would be able to trick him into believing anything.

Descartes asked:

"How do I know that [God] hasn't brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, nothing that takes up space, no shape, no size, no place, while making sure that all these things appear to me to exist?"[14b].

The one thing Descartes thought a powerful God couldn't do, was trick him into doubting his own existence.

He stated:

"I shall consider myself as having no hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as having falsely believed that I had all these things. I shall stubbornly persist in this train of thought; and even if I can't learn any truth, I shall at least do what I can do, which is to be on my guard against accepting any falsehoods, so that the deceiver - however powerful and cunning [they] may be - will be unable to affect me in the slightest. This will be hard work, though, and a kind of laziness pulls me back into my old ways. Like a prisoner who dreams that [they are] free, starts to suspect that it is merely a dream, and wants to go on dreaming rather than waking up"[14c].

The main problem with Descartes' theory is that it cannot explain how the mind and body interact if they are made if such different substances.

In 1710, Irish philosopher and Bishop George Berkeley claimed that this means physical substances do not exist at all[15]. He believed that what we perceive as the external world actually exists within the mind of God. A 21st century adaptation of Berkeley's theory could replace the term 'mind of God' with quantum computer, although it's debatable as to whether this would solve the problem.

3. Omega gods: God, the answer to life, the universe, and everything

The idea that God can be described as an advanced life form that evolved in the universe can only be ascribed to Alpha type gods. It does not explain what Clarke described as the Omega, the creator of everything, and does not provide a satisfactory explanation for Einstein's description of God. The idea that our universe was formed as the result of advanced beings that are like us also provokes a particularly human-like description of God, which Einstein and Clarke both rejected.

The only way to understand the place of an Omega God in science is to find the answers to life, the universe, and everything, and adjust our definition of the Omega accordingly. As well as explaining why the universe exists, as Clarke suggested, a theory regarding this type of God should have to explain all of the questions we still have about life and the universe. It must, for example, address Descartes' philosophical questions regarding the nature of reality, and explain the inherently subjective nature of consciousness.

It's difficult to image a satisfactory answer to these questions, but it's also difficult to imagine whether or not a four-dimensional object can exist, or whether space is infinite or finite, yet we suspect that there are definite answers to these questions.

At the moment, our ability to understand the true nature of reality may be limited by the capacity of our brains. In 1989, British philosopher Colin McGinn stated that:

"just as a dog cannot be expected to solve the problems about space and time and the speed of light that it took a brain like Einstein's to solve, so maybe the human species cannot be expected to understand how the universe contains a mind and matter in combination"[16].

Perhaps, with the aid of technology, science will one day advance to the level where all of our questions are answered, but I doubt this will happen for a very, very, long time, if it is possible at all.

4. References

  1. Darwin, C., 2009 (1859), 'The Origin of Species', Project Gutenberg.

  2. (a, b) Moore, R., 2000, 'The revival of creationism in the United States', Journal of Biological Education, 35, pp.17-21.

  3. Heard, G., 2000, quoted in the Forward of 'A Case Of Conscience', Blish, J., Gollancz.

  4. Snobelen, S. D., 2001, ''God of gods, and Lord of Lords': The Theology of Isaac Newton's General Scholium to the Principia ' in 'Science in Theistic Contexts: Cognitive Dimensions', University of Chicago Press.

  5. (a, b) Einstein, A., 1930, 'Religion and Science', New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1930.

  6. Einstein, A., 1931, 'The world as I see it', Internet Archive.

  7. Clarke, A. C., 1991, 'Credo' in 'Greetings, Carbon-based Bipeds!: A Vision of the 20th Century as it Happened', 2000, HarperCollins.

  8. Dawkins, R., 2008 (2006), 'The God Delusion', Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

  9. Clarke, A. C., 2000, 'Profiles Of The Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible', Phoenix.

  10. Tipler, F. J., 1986, 'Cosmological limits on computation', International Journal of Theoretical Physics, 25, pp.617-661.

  11. Tipler, F. J., 1994, 'The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God, and the Resurrection of the Dead', Anchor Books.

  12. Bostrom, N., 2003, 'Are we living in a computer simulation?', The Philosophical Quarterly, 53, pp.243-255.

  13. Plato and Jowett, B. (trans), 2012 (c. 380 BCE), 'The Republic', Project Gutenberg.

  14. (a, b, c) Descartes, R., Cottingham, J. (trans), Bennett, J. (trans), 2006 (1641), 'Meditations on First Philosophy', Cambridge University Press.

  15. Berkeley, G., 2009 (1710), 'A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge', Project Gutenberg.

  16. McGinn, C., 2011 (1989), 'The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy', Harper Collins.

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