Issues Magazine

Life, the Universe, Religion and Science

By Mick Pope

Modern science is often interpreted as having left no room for God and made the idea of purpose as nonsensical. A careful consideration of both science and theology demonstrates that this not the case.

It is a widely-held belief that religion has become irrelevant under the relentless advance of science. In particular, religion is a crutch for the weak, offering meaning and purpose where none may be found. In his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams illustrates this with a scene in which a nuclear missile is accidentally and improbably turned into a sperm whale.

“Ah … ! What’s happening?” it thought. “Er, excuse me, who am I? Hello? Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life? What do I mean by who am I?”

The answers to the whale’s comical questions are: you are an accident, a cosmic fluke, and your pointless life will soon end by crashing onto the planet below.

In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins claims Adams as his disciple in the meaninglessness of life, having been influenced by Dawkins’ earlier book The Selfish Gene. The whale is a cipher for us all in the meaninglessness of existence.

Science and Religion: War or Peace?

Does science allow us to speak meaningfully of the purpose of existence? This begs the question of what is the proper relationship between science and religious belief.

Dawkins would say that religion is talk about nothing, so religion has nothing to say to science. E.O. Wilson is a little more conciliatory in his book The Creation, attempting to bring fundamentalist Christianity on side for conservation. However, he too sees science as trumping religion.

There are a number of Christian positions, the 6-day creation and intelligent design being well-known. The former reads certain biblical texts literally; the later suggests the existence of God as a scientific hypothesis that can be tested.

A third line of thinking was developed by the late Stephen J. Gould in Rock of Ages, which he called non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA). Science and religion represent two different domains or magesteria that address different issues in different ways. This view assumes that theology is simply about ancient texts that make no claims about the way the world really is. Neither statement is true but is part of the Enlightenment view that separates the world of faith from the world of fact. For an example, claims about a man rising from the grave are about both. Further, NOMA quickly slides into deism – the idea of a distant and uninvolved God who cannot interfere or interact with creation.

Philosophical assumptions have always played a part in science, offering hypotheses for testing. Theism implies that the universe is the rational work of a rational mind, and therefore scientific theorising is possible. Scientists such as Albert Einstein, Fred Hoyle and Brandon Carter have all employed naturalistic philosophies to propose physical theories that can be tested. For example, Hoyle thought that the Big Bang smacked of religion with its idea as a beginning. He proposed his steady state universe as an atheistic alternative. The fact that his scientific theory was proved wrong does not mean it was wrong for him to apply his philosophy to his science, since the science was falsifiable. Science without philosophy would be unimaginative mechanistic calculation. This model may be called partially overlapping magesteria, and allows a dialogue over meaning and purpose.

Challenges to Meaning

There are four scientific challenges to the ideas of purpose and meaning. The first is the evolutionary challenge. Evolution by natural selection sifts the results of random mutations, producing the variety of life that we see. Those genes that make the organism fitter for its environment are passed on in larger numbers. Nothing in biology makes sense apart from evolution by natural selection. Natural selection is said to be directionless; it does not “lead” anywhere.

In Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould claims that the iconography of evolution is incorrect. In place of a “ladder of predictable progress” leading to humanity, life is a “copious branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction”. Humans are not special, merely the lucky survivors of our genus. If the “tape of life” were rerun, humans would not appear. We are not made in the image of God, but are merely “a naked, upright ape”. Furthermore, we are not even the only intelligent species on the planet. Crows exhibit forward planning, gorillas experience grief and cuttlefish have extremely complex ways of communicating.

A second challenge comes from cosmology. Why is there a universe at all? Paul Davies explores this question in The Goldilocks Enigma. At a basic level we can say that the universe exists because if it did not we would not be here to wonder about it.

Combine this with the idea of the multiverse, an “eternal bubble bath universe” from which baby universes spontaneously come into being due to the laws of quantum mechanics. One of the baby universes is bound to have a set of laws of physics and fundamental physical constants that allows stars to evolve with planets around them and life on some of these planets. One physicist has gone so far as to suggest that with an infinite number of such baby universes, infinite copies of this universe exist, with infinite copies of each of us running around!

It is even possible that advanced civilisations have arisen that could create computer simulations of entire universes, Matrix-style, or even create real universes. God could even have evolved in one of these universes! It is doubtful many religious believers would be happy with this idea. It seems anything is possible in an infinite multiverse.

A third challenge is the problem of evil and suffering in nature. Evolution appears to be a thoroughly wasteful process. Over 98% of all species that have ever existed have become extinct. Sometimes extinction happens slowly and on a small scale; at other times, the entire life on Earth has been threatened. At the end of the Permian Period as many as 99.5% of all organisms died. This says nothing of the day-to-day horrors of predation, parasitism, infection, floods, lightning and earthquakes, all of which appear to be part of the backdrop of existence.

The final challenge comes from physical eschatology, the description of how everything ends. We all die, which for some denies any purpose to human life. However, it goes much further than that. The Sun’s fate is to expand and grow hotter, boiling away the Earth’s oceans in about four billion years time. Perhaps humanity will be able to escape to other solar systems, maybe even other galaxies. In the end, however, all stars die, becoming black holes, neutron stars or white dwarfs. Even these decay over time until the ever-expanding universe becomes a cold, inky nothingness. This is known as the heat death. This will occur some 10100 years into the future.

These are not small issues, and responses invariably risk sounding trite. However, a thoughtful theist can respond with answers that go beyond “because the Bible says so” (though I personally value what the Bible says). Further, given the freely speculative nature of some of the above discussion on the part of scientists, there is plenty of room to move in addressing the issues.

Creation and Evolution

For many, creation and evolution present a choice. Either God did it or it happened all by itself. This is a false dilemma. Nature is given the capability to realise itself, to bear fruit in the varied and wonderful ways that we observe.

Recent evidence for this comes from Simon Conway Morris’ book Life’s Solutions: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Morris shows how he thinks that Gould was wrong in stating that the evolutionary tape of life would produce different results if run again. Features such as carnivory have evolved independently more than once, producing similar tools for the job. Both placental mammals and marsupials have produced “tigers” with sharp incisors. Likewise, the fact that intelligence has arisen more than once suggests to Morris that its appearance is inevitable.

Furthermore, it is remarkable how often biologists have had to “remind” themselves that what they see is not designed. As one historian of science, Timothy Lenoir, has commented, thinking about purpose in evolution has been steadfastly resisted by modern biology. Yet, in nearly every area of research, biologists are hard-pressed to find language that does not impute purposiveness to living forms.

Is design an illusion of the mind, or clear-sightedness as to what is before us? Under a theistic framework, one can understand creation as both an emergent and elective process. It is emergent in that life begins from non-life, intelligence from the purely responsive, and consciousness from intelligence in a non-reductive manner. New things emerge that cannot be reduced to that from which they are made. For example, life is more than the chemicals that make it, and consciousness is more than the neurons firing in the brain.

Creation is elective. Although nature doesn’t need God to interfere with it because He has made it fruitful to realise its own purposes, He can choose to interact with it. God is an agent of free action just as humans are. Human existence is made possible by divinely inspired creation, and made definite by divine action. This election occurs because God chose humanity to bear his image (Psalm 8).

The Bible contains a strong anti-idolatry polemic that states that God, not pagan deities, controls the weather. Although still a matter of contention, Neanderthals may have become extinct through a combination of competition for resources with modern humans and climate change. Neanderthals cared for the sick and may have buried their dead, and developed technologies similar to modern humans of the time. Were they capable of bearing God’s image? Were modern humans the recipient of divine election via divine action through climate?

It has also been suggested that climatic change forced one of our ape-like ancestors, Australopithecus afarensis, out of the trees and to develop a more upright gait that was efficient for running away from its many predators. Later changes in climate acted as a sort of “intelligence pump” as human ancestors were forced to deal with difficult and changing conditions. Might this have been the theological equivalent of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Room for the Creator

Arguments about eternally existing multiverses and such are simply substitutes for God. Consider one version of the eternal inflation theory, where each new universe arises out of an earlier one in a linear sequence. Each universe in the sequence is contingent on the existence of the previous one, with ultimate causality being pushed back to infinity. This ever-inflating universe is necessary for the theory to work.

What if we substitute God in place of this eternal multiverse? Everything else exists because of God; that is, everything is contingent on God. God is contingent on nothing just as the eternally inflating universe is contingent on nothing.

Even if there is a multiverse where life must arise, why is that multiverse there? Why not a multiverse where all baby universes are sterile?

Ultimately, choice between an eternal multiverse and an eternal God is a metaphysical one, though based on which one makes the best sense of the universe we see.

Beyond the End

The Bible stresses a future physical existence, a resurrection from the dead, for a redeemed humanity. The Book of Revelation mentions a new heaven and earth.

This implies a physical universe, which is a problem considering the end of the universe discussed above. All of this involves the laws of physics remaining the same. Could the universe undergo a change just as it did in its early history where the four fundamental forces of nature first emerged out of the grand unified theory? What would that look like?

The real problem is that the second law of thermodynamics says that disorder always increases, leading to the heat death. Yet, the second law is not a fundamental law of nature like gravity but a statistical description. Coffee cups can rise from the floor to a table and come together again if you wait long enough (many times the age of the universe).

Could God transform this creation so that entropy runs backwards? Does the universe show signs now that it is changeable in a way compatible with “new heavens and Earth”?

Perhaps the multiverse hypothesis comes to our aid. Could it be that another universe suitable for life exists that will be the new heavens and earth? Physics provides us with enough openness to freely speculate and not to close down the debate too early on the side of futility and purposelessness of existence.

Is Suffering of Any Use?

Human life is full of suffering. Likewise, we see much suffering in the non-human creation as well. Does it achieve anything? How can it be redeemed?

With regards to human suffering, Christians talk about the resurrection, when every tear will be wiped away from people’s eyes. What is often overlooked is that the apostle Paul writes about the entire of creation being redeemed in Romans chapter 8. It is only a shame that more Christians don’t understand this. Whether or not this implies a “pelican heaven”, as one writer has suggested, is another thing.

The details are hazy, but suffering is to be dealt with. Even agnostic Michael Ruse, in Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, acknowledges that the crucifixion, the idea of a suffering God, offers hope to a suffering creation.

The prime characteristics revealed about God in the Bible are not philosophical qualities such as transcendence, omnipotence and omni­science (although these are all in evidence). Instead, God is described not merely as loving but as being love.

Why God created the universe the ways He did must be related to His essential nature – love. This love has been described as self-emptying. God creates to include something outside Godself (the three-in-one nature known as the trinity) into the divine life. Furthermore, love allows the other to be and to develop according to their own potential.

While not answering all of the questions of suffering, God appears to allow the universe, including the sentient being within it, to be free in the sense of allowing them room to move, reach their potential, make free decisions, etc. This is achieved in a universe that can evolve from simplicity to complexity, from non-life to life, and from non-consciousness to consciousness. This process appears unavoidably to involve pain and suffering.

This “letting be” entails suffering without directly causing that suffering. Furthermore, this letting be also places “limits” on God’s other characteristics, such as omnipotence and omniscience. The divine act of creation is self-emptying in exactly that sense that God limits Godself by allowing the other to be. The biblical story holds this in tension between a God who is in control of the destiny and purpose of his creation.

Questions about ultimate purpose and meaning take us to the heart of what it means to be human. Science has not, and ultimately cannot, close down this discussion. There is still room for speculation, for philosophy and theology.