Spinoza’s Legacy: The Interface of God and Science ‎

What is God? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 44

			‎‘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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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? ‎
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‎‘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?’ ‎
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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? ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Reflections ‎
‎ ‎
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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