Thursday, May 01, 2008

Does science make belief in God obsolete?

[Continuing the science/religion theme here: Darwin in the magazine America from 1909 and 1910, and my review of "Expelled."]

The Templeton Foundation posed the question above to prominent theologians and scientists. Their replies are on the web, available also as individual pdfs. (Along with a peanut gallery of comments.) A great project!

Of course there's Steven Pinker ("Yes, if by ...") and Christopher Hitchens ("No, but it should"). But there's also Pervez Hoodbhoy ("Not necessarily"), a Muslim scientist from Islamabad, Pakistan. Mary Midgley ("Of course not!"), a philosopher and author of "Evolution as a Religion."

And Christoph Cardinal Schönborn: "No, and Yes." Here's the beginning of his essay:
No, as a matter of reason and truth. The knowledge we have gained through modern science makes belief in an Intelligence behind the cosmos more reasonable than ever.

Yes, as a matter of mood, sensibility, and sentiment. Not science itself but a reductive "scientific mentality" that often accompanies it, along with the power, control, comfort, and convenience provided by modern technology, has helped to push the concept of God into the hazy twilight of agnosticism. Superficially it may seem that the advances of science have made God obsolete by providing natural explanations for phenomena that were once thought to be the result of direct divine activity—the so-called "God of the gaps." But this advance has been the completion of a program of purification from superstition begun thousands of years ago by Athens and Jerusalem, by a handful of Greek sages and by the people of Israel, who "de-divinized" Nature to a degree unparalleled in the ancient world. Summarizing an established tradition 750 years ago, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the wise governor ordinarily governs by delegation to competent subordinates. In the case of Nature, God's ordinary providence governs by means of the regularities ("laws") built into the natures of created things.

This theistic outlook has been fully vindicated. As the ancient Greek materialists recognized long ago, if we wish to explain the observed world in terms of Matter without reference to Mind, then it must be explained by things material, ultimate, and very simple all at the same time—by indivisible, notional "atoms" and a chance "swerve" that sets them in random motion. If the things of everyday experience are mere aggregates of these "atoms," and if the cosmos is infinitely old and infinitely large, then chance can do the rest. To be the complete explanation of material reality, these "atoms," and whatever natural regularities they exhibit, must be so simple that their existence as inexplicable "brute facts" is plausible.
Lots of great reading!

[Incidentally, I first saw this Templeton project advertized in a two-page ad in the latest Economist!]

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