Spinoza’s Legacy: The Interface of God and Science
What is God?
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‘God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand’ – Richard Feynman, American theoretical physicist.
Modern science as we know it is generally considered to have begun with Copernicus. There were other scientific discoveries made before him, but they were too obscure to be credited with initiating the movement which can convincingly be termed the most effective and most revolutionary endeavor in the history of mankind. Copernicus completed his theory about the heliocentric (sun-centered) universe about a decade before he died (1543). There is no question that Copernicus believed in God. There is no question that Galileo, one of his earliest supporters, also believed in God. There is no question that Isaac Newton believed in God. Most of the great 18th and 19th century scientists, including Darwin, believed in God. It was only in the 20th century that atheism set in as the belief of choice among many scientists. There are still many prominent scientists who are theists, but they are in the minority and they tend to keep their religious views to themselves, and totally separate from their scientific views.
What happened? When Copernicus came up with his ideas about the universe, God was still seen as the distant Creator who ran things from an outpost in the heavens. Whether the universe was heliocentric or earth-centered made no difference to one’s belief in this image of God. The Biblical God was never really threatened by any pre-20th century scientific ideas, even the theory of evolution by natural selection.
The reason for this was that there was still too much that was unknown for anybody to claim that the theories could work without God directing them to make sure they went according to plan. It wasn’t until the 20th century, with its more exact theories that predicted a great deal more and had more detailed underlying foundations, that God’s existence was widely doubted. Evolution may have been a fine theory that explained an enormous amount about biological change, but the mechanism behind it was one big black box until the discoveries of modern molecular biology.
The pre-20th century scientists who believed in God did not necessarily believe in the God of the Bible. They may have believed in Spinoza’s God. The difference between them is whether or not God takes a personal interest in what happens in the world. Even more exact, the difference is whether or not God has a personality to care about what happens in the world. According to Spinoza, God is existence, nothing more and nothing less. According to the Bible, God is the Guide who communicates with the human mind. God has feelings and displays them regularly. Many of those scientists likely could no longer accept such a God. Hence, they adopted the God of Spinoza.
This image of God filled a particular need - to fill in the gaps that science couldn’t bridge. No matter how complete an explanation science provided there would always be something that needed further clarification. There was the perpetual feeling that behind every theory lay something deeper that had not yet been discovered. God was the spiritual goop that filled in those gaps. Hence, this image of God received the unflattering title of ‘God of the gaps’, indicating that God is just a temporary stop-gap who will no longer be needed at some point in the future.
There are, however, some problems, that seem to have gaps that are too big to ever be bridged. Among these problems are three classics and a fourth that is rarely acknowledged. The big three are: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the nature of the human mind. Scientists have made great strides in each of the three, but they face the frustrating feeling that no matter how far they have come, the finish line keeps getting pushed further away.
Concerning the nature of the human mind, the typical scientific expert would say that it is only a matter of time before the brain is shown to be nothing more than a highly complicated and extremely well-designed biological version of a computer. This is so patently obvious to the scientific community that it is no longer really up for debate. Memory, emotions, and thinking are just functions of neurons and neurotransmitters that work in a way that isn’t yet fully understood but will be sooner or later.
The problem with this very neat and compact picture is that it goes against everything we feel on an experiential level. The human mind does not sense itself as a preprogrammed machine that may have some random elements running amuck inside it. It senses that it is more than just a physical brain with neurons and neurotransmitters and a few other components. It senses that the emotions that it feels are real and deep and not just chemical reactions. It creates original thoughts and makes free choices that are so undeniably real as to be beyond question. Is this entire experiential reality an illusion? It does seem quite hard to believe and virtually impossible to accept. Which is the truth – the experiential reality or the scientific logic?
The second item on that list of gaps, the origin of life, is even more stubborn a thorn in the sides of the scientists. There are no vague ‘experiential’ feelings to contend with so it has long seemed inevitable that the issue would go away. If life was just a fortuitous combination of the more fundamental components of the physical world, it was just a matter of time before the magic formula popped up that would explain how that combination came about. For decades this has been the prevailing mentality among origins of life researchers. The discovery of the structure of DNA in the early 1950’s was assumed to be the first of a series of relatively short steps towards understanding what life really is and how it came to be. It was only a matter of putting things together.
It hasn’t worked out that way. While the theory of evolution did work well with the structure of DNA and has been shown to result in changes in very small organisms, it shed virtually no light on the origins of life itself. It turns out that there is a vast difference between changing one life form into another, and life evolving from non-living material. The origin of life is such a thorny problem as to seem almost unsolvable. The assumption that the gaps will eventually be filled is nothing more than a belief that is downright religious in its faith. Scientists cringe at the need for an 'Intelligent Designer' to fill in this gap, considering it to be simply throwing in the towel on figuring out what really happened. But the bottom line is that at present they have no adequate substitute.
The third gap, the origin of the universe, is generally assumed to be the easiest nut to crack. Scientists have made such incredible progress in understanding the earliest moments of the emergence of the universe from the Big Bang, that it is assumed that it would only take a few more decades to cover those few missing microseconds. This Holy Grail of physics is certainly a challenging and fascinating field of interest, but there is no basis for believing in its existence other than blind faith. There is nothing in the known laws of physics that dictates that these laws simply had to be. They appear to have come pre-programmed, as if they were thought up in advance and made to work. This idea, commonly known as the ‘anthropic principle’, assumes that the universe came with its own guarantee that it would develop along the specific lines that it did. Why this is so nobody knows. The old standby answer - that it was God who designed it and lit the firecracker, is not acceptable. But, like the case in the origin of life, there is no alternative at this point.
The fourth gap is the problem of existence. This problem is almost never discussed in whatever circles discuss these philosophical problems. Even if some scientific miracle happened and that Big Bang equation answered how the universe emerged from whatever it emerged from; even if those physical building blocks could somehow be naturally reconstituted to form what we call life; even if that life could somehow develop what we call a mind with free will and emotional intelligence, there is still the problem of what it means to be. This question is not unique to human beings, or even living things, or even physical things. It is a question for everything, even the equation that explains the Big Bang. How did that equation come to be? For that matter, what does it mean for 1+1=2 to be?
‘Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?’
That quote comes from the end of Stephen Hawking’s groundbreaking book, ‘A Brief History of Time’. It is a powerful statement, especially coming from as brilliant a thinker who, by all appearances, is a firm atheist. But he does express very succinctly the core of the issue – what makes existence? Is it God, or is it not God?
Perceiving the Image
There is a scientific image of God. It is the image that fills in those gaps even as they are being filled in by theories that seem to make it unnecessary. Even as it is being eased out of the picture it remains in the background, hovering about, waiting to be recognized and acknowledged. It may not be the classic religious image of God, with a personality and a genuine concern for the fate of humanity. It may not be the Divine Lawgiver or the Father or the Guide of destiny. It may not be good or evil or worthy of reverence or blame. But it is there.
This image is not quite the same as Spinoza’s God, though there is a chance that Spinoza really meant this despite his equating God with nature. This image is supernatural, while Spinoza appeared to have insisted on God being totally natural. The supernatural quality of this image is perceived in its necessity of being beyond natural laws and limitations. It is what breathes fire into the equations and makes them come alive. It is what designed those molecules and grants them the staying power that is so fundamentally linked to life. It is the mysterious source of spirituality that lurks behind the human mind and makes it experientially aware of its own being. It is also existence itself – not as a consequence of nature but as a precursor to nature.
Some may not call this image God at all. They may call it an indefinable force that has not yet been explained. Others may say that it is a part of the overall picture but insist that without the personal element it is only a veneer without the core. But what is the divine Source of existence if not God? If scientific minded people have a problem with this image let them continue to try to find something better. If some religious minded people cannot accept such an impersonal God that they cannot pray to or complain to, that is their choice. But there are others who fit in between these two opposing views who see God as precisely this: a supernatural Source of being that is above all human description and imagery. If no religion can claim a monopoly on this image, that is all the better. This may not be the God of the Bible, but maybe it is time we perceive God in light of scientific reality.
Is God to be understood and experienced as the Source of Being? Is such a God just a temporary gap in knowledge? If this is what God has become, do we really want God?
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