Chance, Chaos, God?

Arnold Benz


As a young physics student, I heard for the first time of theologian Karl Barth's postulate that science and faith had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with each other. I cannot remember now just how I came upon this thesis; but I do remember, as though it were yesterday, the feeling it engendered in me. I suddenly felt liberated from the pressure apparent proofs for the existence of God kept exerting on me. The usual arguments sponsored by "natural theology," which sought to draw conclusions about the character and existence of God from our knowledge of nature, I now began to find strained and insincere. For a theologian was now declaring God to be "wholly other," one who could never be known by derivation the way one derived the law of energy conservation from measurements and observations. This judgment corresponded exactly to my own sense of things as I confronted a daily flood of equations and experiments. But what then is this God? Is God still conceivable at all in a modern or postmodern age largely shaped by science? These questions, which have preoccupied me ever since, eventually gave rise to this book.

To be sure, the divorce between theology and science is well accepted, at least from the theological side. Those great disputes associated with the names of Galileo and Darwin have died away in the lecture halls, and Galileo has been rehabilitated. Rules of polite distance now prevail.

Nonetheless, the word "God" shows up increasingly in popular works about modern physics. The concept appears there mostly in connection with unanswered questions about cosmology, life, human consciousness, or the character of reality - issues which currently represent the great enigmas of nature and define major goals of scientific research. Even though these questions are, in fact, obvious points of contact, they are apparently not the right places to initiate dialogue with theologians. The problem is that on the physics side the usually assumed concept of God is borrowed from natural theology, from which contemporary theologians have long since distanced themselves. Here I do not assume God to be a mysterious key to further decipher scientific findings, as piously claimed by some scientists and vigorously rejected by others. I start from the premise that God is a concept originating from different perceptions and experiences. Contrary to the extreme views of the young Barth, this other reality cannot be detached completely from science. Thus, from the side of theology, there should be growing interest in scientific matters, an interest stimulated at least partly by the realization that ethical and conceptual values must be communicated today in language colored by science. Then too, the notion of seeking some universal if partly unknowable totality of reality is deeply rooted in religious tradition.

It is not the goal of this little book to present a unified theory of faith and science. These two spheres of human experience, if one takes them seriously, resist seamless integration and complete harmonization. The borders between them remain defined even when one crosses from one to the other, and the laws of each domain warrant respect. So isn't it foolish of me to adventure into foreign territory? Shouldn't scientists keep their possibly amateurish insights concerning culture and religion to themselves? I have had many such questions and doubts along the way. But I have finally moved beyond them for the sake of expanding my vision and fulfilling what I perceive to be a scientist's broader vocation in society. For within the past four hundred years, science has effected radical changes in human understanding and society; and it continues to do so. Scientists cannot remove themselves from responsibility in the midst of such change. I think they are obliged, on occasion, to expose their own personal, subjective responses to what they are discovering, provisional though these responses may be.

I find it telling that, following one of the many lectures on astronomy I give for a general audience, a young man remarked to me as we were leaving the room, "If the universe is as big as you have declared it to be, God must be even much bigger." Neither the subtle problems of how stars develop nor the unsolved riddles of how galaxies are formed had stirred his interest, but rather, a question of belief that my presentation had not addressed at all. When scientists present their knowledge on a rational level, lay people often feel themselves addressed on an existential level and enabled thereby to experience their "I" as part of the cosmos. Some go so far as to develop something of a personal relation to heavenly bodies. They not only want to hear explanations about the origins of natural phenomena but also to develop an emotional connection with the cosmos or, quite simply, the capacity to wonder at it all.

I proceed in this book from the assumption that faith and science are two different approaches to experiencing reality. With Karl Barth, I am still of the opinion that one cannot place professions of faith and scientific theories in direct connection to one another. It is not possible to proceed conclusively from one to the other; one side can neither prove nor disprove the other. Faith and science define two different planes that do not intersect. Both impinge on human experience, and neither can purport to offer the complete truth. But it is possible for an observer informed about both planes of inquiry to reflect on how they might relate. To achieve this, the observer must take an outside vantage point and view them within the metaspace of human perception and understanding. It is important to ponder the methodological foundations of both approaches. Actual mediation, however, is best pursued on a pragmatic level. For this reason, the practical and most relevant example, the future of the universe and ourselves as anticipated in faith and science, is a central theme of this book.

In this book, I try to take both realms - of faith and of science - fully in earnest. By faith I mean the individual and personal method of bringing God, the world, and individual human existence into relation with one another. I will make use of the religious system of Christianity, whose well developed theological concepts and traditions offer considerable insight into the existential issues I address. In the past, other religious systems have been considered in relation to physics and spirituality. By taking faith "in earnest," I mean that I do not rely solely on religious categories accidentally acquired in my youth, but draw on the latest forms of theological inquiry. My approach differs, then, from that of a good many physicists, who reduce religion to a low-grade metaphysics designed to answer questions for which science presumably knows no answer, or who end up showing that this metaphysical God is superfluous. They still rely implicitly on an image of God left over from the age of Enlightenment, an image that is scarcely the only one available or the best informed by modern theology.

Science as such will also be taken seriously. Even though Karl Popper reminds us that all scientific knowledge and all theories are open to be proven false and may be encumbered by error, they nevertheless stand the test of pragmatic application when it comes to flying to the Moon and returning again safely. Science does not renounce its own effectiveness; its occasionally dangerous applications in nuclear and gene technology may be recalled. Another unserious way of treating science would be to select only those scientific findings that are apparently compatible with preconceived opinions. The impulse to screen out undesirable evidence is by no means limited to religious fundamentalism.

In the pages that follow, I expound the thesis that it is senseless to seek God in the first moment of the Big Bang. Most of what matters for us and for the rest of the world originates afterwards and is not predetermined by conditions at the very beginning. Hence the futuristic emphasis of my title differs intentionally from the more familiar supposition that everything can be explained by recovering knowledge of some once-and-for all, pure moment of creation. I doubt also that God can be located directly in any of the boundary conditions, observations, and equations of science or within one of the remaining gaps in our knowledge. Even if God could be found there, I doubt whether a "God of the gaps" is worth pursuing, much less worshipping. Knowledge of God requires instead a quite different mode of perception from that used in scientific research.

As I was writing, I thought particularly of those readers who are fascinated by the overwhelming body of new scientific discoveries emerging in our day but who do not need to learn about the latest findings in great detail. I have tried not to presuppose specialized knowledge. When scientific terms are not explained more closely, the reader may presume that their technical import is not crucial in the current context or that more will be said about them in connection with a later topic. My envisaged reader is also interested in our inherited Western culture, particularly in its religious dimension. In view of the far-reaching changes affecting global culture, I see religious knowledge as requiring not just the preservation of venerable truths but also the discovery of new understanding. And at times I have written to myself and learned much from the process. If some of this inspires others to reflect and discuss, the book will reach its goal.

Finally, though, the sort of understanding with which I am concerned here is not simply a theoretical knowledge without obligation. True religion touches one's innermost being, or else it remains a metaphysics of no consequence. I am cognizant that, with this very personal book, I am leaving the realm of "hard science" for the sake of inviting you, dear reader, to join me on this journey into a little explored, liminal territory that yet contains much of human interest. Mediating between these two planes of perception, given by science and religion, could be described as the greatest intellectual adventure of our time. This venture involves orienting ourselves in the modern world and discerning as best we can the meaning of the whole. It also involves the effort to cultivate intellectually the immense "new world" staked out by science so as to render it habitable for humans. The journey confronts us with decidedly disparate perceptions along the way, reminding us repeatedly of the great gulf between faith and science. Yet in the foreground stands the decisive and uniting question: What might we expect, and what might we hope for, from the future?