Faith and Reason, Together Again?

John E. Rylander (
Fri, 12 Jun 1998 07:46:55 -0500

This is from today's WSJ. I nearly never post an entire article, but this
is not available simply via URL, and so on the assumption that this is an
academic discussion group, and that this use of material from the Journal is
on a very small scale, ....

The article mentions a few things that bear on recent discussions here.


The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition -- June 12, 1998

Faith and Reason, Together Again

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Walking up Telegraph Avenue here is like strolling along
a beach after the tide has gone out: You're bound to find some flotsam. The
tide -- the counterculture of the 1960s -- went out a quarter-century ago.
But at 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning, I see street vendors setting up
stands to sell tie-dye shirts. The sound of bongo drums drifts through the
air. So does the smell of marijuana.

Turning onto a side street, I come across an Episcopal chapel. The stucco
exterior is grimy. Holy Eucharist won't be celebrated for a while, but I
loiter to see if anyone arrives early to pray. No one does. At this hour
Americans in places like Dallas and Des Moines are packing their local
churches, but in Berkeley one can't help feeling that the tide of religious
belief has gone out, too. I head off to a conference on campus, "Science and
the Spiritual Quest."

The conference lasted four days and enlisted more than 30 speakers. With
participants so disparate (Christians, Jews, Muslims; scientists, clergy,
journalists) and topics so diffuse (one panel was titled "Creative
Interaction in the Making"), I wondered if "Science and the Spiritual Quest"
had taken as its text tohu bohu, the Hebrew phrase from Genesis that
translates as "formless and void." Yet a theme did emerge. I was wrong: The
tide of religious belief may not be rising among the academic elite, but it
has not entirely gone out.

The most noteworthy participants were those who had a foot in both camps,
possessing both religious and scientific credentials. Arthur Peacocke and
John Polkinghorne are both Anglican clergymen and scientists, Mr. Peacocke a
chemist, Mr. Polkinghorne a particle physicist. Carl Feit is a cancer
researcher and a Talmudic scholar. Charles Townes holds a Nobel Prize for
developing the laser and is unabashed about his religious beliefs. All
proved at pains to put science in its place.

Not that they failed to give science its due. "Science is different because
it works," Mr. Feit said. Mr. Polkinghorne noted that early in his career
particles such as neutrinos were thought to be the smallest constituents of
matter. Then doubts arose. Theories were propounded. experiments performed.
Finally the existence of even smaller particles, such as quarks and gluons,
was established. Science raised a question and settled it, with relative
dispatch. "Quarks and gluons are here to stay," Mr. Polkinghorne stated.
"Compare that with the circular character of religious controversies."

Yet it is one thing to grant science its success, another to argue that this
implies religion's failure. "Somehow it has got into popular culture that
science is all fact and religion is all opinion, which isn't true of
either," Mr. Polkinghorne said. The "somehow," the way many speakers
believed the relation between science and religion went awry, is notable.
They blamed Newton.

Although a religious man himself, Newton described a world that was
predictable and mechanical, as if God had wound up creation like a clock
then walked away. Mr. Polkinghorne argued that "the seeds of modern atheism
lie with Newton's successors. Their mechanistic world view lead to a belief
in deism, and deism lead to a belief in nothing."

Popular culture may not have noticed, but as science has progressed beyond
the Newtonian view it has become more compatible with religious belief, not
less. Surprisingly, among the first to reunite science and religion was
Darwin, or so it was argued by the conference participants. Darwin, they
said, destroyed the sterile notion of God as an absent clock-winder,
restoring the intimate, ever-present deity of Psalms. As Arthur Peacocke put
it, Darwin permitted "a recovered emphasis on ancient insights," showing
that "God is creating all the time."

In our own century Einstein's achievement, general relativity, led to a
series of discoveries about the universe, including the discovery that it .
. . began. The Big Bang, now believed to have taken place 15 billion years
ago, accords neatly enough with Genesis. For its part, Planck's
breakthrough, quantum mechanics, changed science's view of the future. In
the words of Charles Townes, the "determinism of the last century was
completely overturned by . . . quantum mechanics. . . . We now believe that
the future is not fundamentally determined nor completely predictable."
Science now has room, in other words, for that fundamental tenet of
religious belief, free will.

Indeed, science itself has tripped across one or two hints that there is
Something Out There. One hint: the way in which structures both big
(galaxies) and small (those quarks and gluons) can be described by elegant
mathematical formulas. If the universe hangs together only as a matter of
happenstance, why should it be transfused with what Mr. Polkinghorne called
"transparent rational beauty"? Another hint: our brains. All humans really
needed for survival, Mr. Polkinghorne maintained, was the ability to process
simple problems in arithmetic (can I outrun that tiger?). Yet we have ended
up with so much "surplus intellectual capacity" that it "beggars belief that
it is simply a fortunate by-product."

The biggest hint: the Anthropic Principle. What this means is that complex,
carbon-based life forms -- namely, us -- can exist only in a universe in
which the physical constants have been tuned just so. Take the ratio of
gravity to electromagnetism. If gravity were a tiny bit stronger, we'd be
pulled apart; if electromagnetism were a tiny bit stronger, we'd fall in on
ourselves like failed soufflˇs. "We do not know why the physical constants
are what they are," Mr. Townes noted, "but many have a feeling that somehow
intelligence must have been involved in the laws of the universe." The "onus
is on nonbelievers," Mr. Peacocke added. "We're entitled to ask them, 'Well,
then, how do you explain it?' "

Yet even if science were to pursue all these hints, it wouldn't find God
Himself. As Mr. Polkinghorne put it, "All science can do is provide a vague
notion of God as some sort of Divine Mathematician or Supreme Designer, and
there is a great deal more to God than that." This insistence on the limits
of science proved memorable. Science may work, the argument went, but it
works across a narrow range. "God cannot be interrogated the way we
interrogate the physical world," Mr. Polkinghorne said. "Transparent moments
of encounter with the sacred can neither be induced nor repeated through
human contrivance, but only received."

In one exchange Andrei Linde, a physicist at Stanford, argued that there may
be many universes, making it no more surprising that ours supports
carbon-based forms than that one person will always win a lottery. "That's
pure metaphysical speculation, Andrei," Mr. Polkinghorne retorted. "It's not
based on any physical science." The erudite debate that followed sailed over
my head, so I watched the body language. When Mr. Polkinghorne spoke, Mr.
Linde looked pained. When Mr. Linde spoke, Mr. Polkinghorne picked up his
pen to doodle. A cleric with the composure to doodle in the presence of a
cosmologist. It was a remarkable datum in itself.

Mr. Robinson is fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.