Had I asked “Is God necessary?” a few centuries ago, I would have probably been stoned to death or burned alive. In some corners of the globe that would still be true today. Yet it is undeniable that more people in our time have moved away from religion than at any other moment in history, even if the number of believers is still in the billions. Over the past hundred years or so, this ongoing change has brought forward, apart from the old divide between people of different faiths, a new one: that between the faithful and the faithless.
What caused this shift is no secret: science has not only changed the way we live — including how long we live — but also how we relate to one another and to the world. The change has not always been for the better. With technology we develop new cures, but also new weapons; more efficient ways to plant, but also a growing dependency on fossil fuels, which is slowly, but surely choking the planet. We may be evolved apes, capable of creating the most wonderful tools and works of art, yet we remain tangled in moral disputes that date back to the caves, just as we remain slaves to tribal allegiances when it comes to the “others” and the acceptance of their value systems.
Can science lift us above this morass? Can it redefine its own goals to become not just a way of describing Nature, but also a path toward universal values? Assuming this is possible, would it be a good thing to embrace a science-inspired way of thinking about the world and society? Or this would be an impoverishment?
Prophets come and go, but they share a common trait: they want to do good, and believe they know how to do it. Their faith comes from emotionally-loaded experiences often related to a revelation, some sort of message that God has sent them. The essential point in prophetic revelation is that what constitutes good is God-given and hence beyond dispute. So religions tend to seal morality within an untouchable dome, to be looked at with reverence, but never changed, for God-given truths are beyond human jurisdiction.
What would happen, then, if we were to adopt science as the new path toward good? By its very nature, science discredits the God-given notion of truth. Scientific truth, in fact, becomes something akin to nirvana: an ideal one pursues but not necessarily achieves. A cursory look at the history of science convinces us that what was true in one age became false in another. Just compare what 16th-century Europeans thought about the arrangement of the cosmos (Earth-centered and finite) to what Newton thought of it (no center and infinite), and to how we now see it (no center, infinite, and expanding). As our views of the cosmos — and of our place within it — change, so does the notion of what is true. The more we know, the more we realize the immensity of our ignorance. To believe that we are now zeroing in on something like the Truth is nothing more than a delusion, something with no support in current science. We remain happily confused about much of what goes on in Nature.
In A God that Could be Real, Nancy Ellen Abrams sets off to elevate science from its centuries-old mission to a new role as some kind of global prophet. She argues passionately that it would be useless to insist on old-fashioned models of God. With that, it’s hard to disagree. A new God is needed, she adds, one consistent with science and with what scientists have discovered about the universe. This is a more contentious point.
Abrams describes the new science well. She brings in the latest ideas from cosmology, in particular the successes of the modern cosmic view based on an expanding universe filled with essentially three kinds of ingredients: ordinary matter (the stuff we are made of); dark matter (an unknown form of matter that cloaks galaxies and clusters of galaxies); and dark energy (a mysterious entity that fills the cosmos as a whole — uncomfortably like the Aristotelian ether or Descartes’s Plenum — and causes space to stretch at an accelerating rate). Abrams is married to astrophysicist Joel Primack, one of the pioneer developers of the computer programs that simulate models of the expanding universe. (The idea behind such simulations is that, once the correct ingredients are added, they will reproduce in quantitative detail a number of astronomical observations such as how galaxies are distributed in space.)
According to Abrams, this new science-based God could not have existed before the Big Bang, which marks the beginning of time. (Nothing could, in fact, given that existence happens within time.) Her new God is non-transcendent and evolving, and is related to our own existence. This God is made in our image. Or, to put it differently, it’s the sum-total of our collective aspirations, the emergent clamor of our evolving humanity. In Abrams’ words, “God is endlessly emerging from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations across time.” No longer a God of being, but one of becoming.
Emergence science focuses on complex phenomena that challenge the usual reductionist bottom-up approach of describing a system’s behavior by breaking it into parts. Nobel-laureate Philip Anderson once quipped: “More is different.” As the number of mutually-interacting components in a physical system grows, unpredictable behaviors emerge and they necessitate new laws. You can't understand temperature by studying a single or a few gas molecules; you can't understand metabolism by studying a single or a few proteins; you can’t understand economics by studying a few dollar bills.
Pushing aside traditional gods as being inconsistent with science, Abrams wants her God to be an emergent property of our collective existence. “If we ourselves are real… then our aspirations must be real, because they are our defining characteristics; they are our purpose.” I find this argument unconvincing for the same reason I find equating science with truth unconvincing. What does it mean to say that human aspirations are real? We don’t know what reality is. What we call “reality” is what we can measure, conflated with our ability to detect ordering patterns in material entities. Reality is elusive – it is continuously redefined as our ontological moorings shift.
Better to think of reality as an ever-evolving mosaic of ideas: from four elements and the ether, to particles and forces, to fields and the spacetime continuum. We may be learning more about the world, but no serious scientist can state with confidence that what we know is the “Truth,” or that we can know the nature of reality in any final sense. Barely 17 years ago we had no notion that the universe is dominated by dark energy; today all cosmological modeling hinges on it.
Extrapolating from scientific concepts of truth and reality to claims that human aspirations are as real as we are is vague at the very least. But to build a God on this extrapolation is not just vague, it’s a baseless fantasy, not much different from more traditional images of God, intangible and ineffable. And when we take into account our numerous and conflicting aspirations, and our tribal divides, the proposal strikes one as chaotic. Such a God would be a mess: individualistic and private, clearly not a global symbol of uplifting compassion. Abrams bravely tries to sketch a few commandments as possible game-starters for a planetary morality: protect the Earth, use truth as the foundation of a coherent picture of reality, do more with less, have worthy aspirations so the God you want will reflect them.
I agree with Abrams that something grand and new — some sort of global agenda — is needed if we are to survive our destructive tendencies. Unfortunately, as secular humanists have known for a long time, it’s quite hard to pin down what this agenda might be. I second Abrams’ call for greater awareness of our cosmic relevance (something I call elsewhere Humancentrism). We are rare molecular machines able to contemplate our existence on a very special planet. Abrams places her emphasis on intelligent life, yet we should extend our new morality to all kinds of life. This could well be a re-defined meaning of the “sacred,” which unites us as a species.
Scientific progress aside, we face serious global threats, from religious fanaticism to widespread poverty and persistent illnesses to major disruptions caused by global warming. We must strive to minimize human suffering. The question, though, is why do we need God to help us? Why can't we behave like grown-ups and pursue these goals on our own?
Abrams reiterates in her book that she needs a God. She discloses that she is an addict, a compulsive eater who has long suffered because of her bad choices: “But the problem for me is that I’m an addict, and my life doesn’t run well on its own. I actually need a higher power.” She is thus building a God that will serve her well, one that will be there to inspire and guide her:
The moment I turn to God rather than to just what’s in front of my eyes, I expand my perspective to try to see anew from the collective consciousness. I commit to thinking cosmically. This change of perspective almost always improves the behavior choices apparent to me.
To Abrams, God is a symbol for what we each believe is good for us, a repository of positive personal expectations. With each person joining in, the emerging God becomes a hovering extension of humanity, at once global and private.
Abrams thus builds a God that can help her fight her own demons, one that is consistent with modern science. This is well-aligned with pragmatism, where a true faith empowers the faithful, regardless of its grasp on reality or truth. What works for her, though, will surely not work for everyone, as such goal is impossible. Not all of us need a higher power to guide us. People find spiritual connections in the most diverse ways, including in the pursuit of science.
A God that Could be Real is an earnest personal statement of someone who has found a system that keeps her life in check. Each of us should identify those aspirations that move us toward the common good of our species and get to do good work, regardless of what belief system we choose. Yet there is no need to invoke a deity to shepherd us toward our individual and collective well-being. Belief is a choice.
Marcelo Gleiser is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning.