Faith in the Universe
Conversations with Cosmologists

Gordy Slack

According to current estimates, there are about a hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe, some of these containing hundreds of billions of stars. Among these stars are such mind-boggling entities as black holes, pulsars, and infinitely curving space-time. One vogue cosmological view, called eternal inflation, poses the existence of an infinite number of fertile universes. If Walt Whitman was correct and "a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels," what does a Universe of such defiant dimensions and mysteries do to cosmologists, those scientists who strive to understand "it" all?

A recent poll of American scientists shows about 40 percent of them believing in God. Despite predictions that the hot light of science would vaporize the dew of religion, that percentage has remained pretty constant since a similar poll was conducted in 1916. But if religious faith hasn't changed much among scientists over that time, their willingness to publicly investigate the spiritual ramifications of their work certainly has.

In recent years, many astronomical researchers and academics have come out of the closet to discuss and debate the evidence for and against the existence of God, the role of divine inspiration in their work, and other once-taboo subjects. Such titles as The Mind of God, God and the New Physics, and Beyond the Big Bang: Quantum Cosmologies and God, authored by preeminent physicists, hardly raise an eyebrow any more. And New Scientist, The New York Times, Science, and Mother Jones have all recently dedicated features, or entire issues, to the subject of science and religion.

This June, top scientists from the fields of biology, computer science, physics, and cosmology convened in Berkeley to discuss the fit between the science and the faiths they practice. Philip Clayton is a philosophy professor at Sonoma State University and the author of Explanation from Physics to Theology: An Essay in Rationality and Religion. He and I interviewed the 60 religious scientists who participated in the workshops preceding this conference, which was put on by the Berkeley-based Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS). The material for this article was drawn from those workshops, from papers prepared by the scientists for the conference, and from the interviews which, in the cases of the cosmologists and physicists, were expertly conducted by Clayton.

Though nearly all of the cosmologists participating in the project describe themselves as religious, what they mean by that word, and how they view the relationship between their religion and their science varies tremendously. Joel Primack, physics professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, whose theoretical work predicted both the mass of the charmed quark (one of the six elementary particles thought to form all other particles except leptons) and the existence and nature of cold dark matter, remembers giving a talk at his Bar Mitzvah about the relationship between science and religion. "There is no necessary conflict," he says, "and each can illuminate the other."

In the early 1990s, Primack and his wife and colleague, Nancy Abrams, were struck by the parallels they saw between modern theories of cosmology and the description of the structure of the universe in Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition whose texts were compiled in the Middle Ages. In Kabbalah, God is said to have withdrawn from the universe, having made space for it by breathing in. He then sent shafts of light into that space, creating ten spheres, or "sephirot," the first of which, representing God's infinite potential for creation, says Primack, closely resembles the modern concept of eternal inflation, the infinite bubbling potential many cosmologists now believe generated the Big Bang. The second sphere corresponds to the Big Bang itself, or the physical manifestation of the pure potential. The third sphere is like the womb in which God's creation expands, an analogy to the emergence of space, time, and matter after the Big Bang, says Primack.

Though the parallels fascinate him, Primack does not see in them any kind of scientific confirmation of Kabbalistic thought. In fact, he says, he doubts that Judaism is either provable or falsifiable, in a strictly scientific sense. He is pleased, however, by the "consonance" and "complementarity" of the cosmology that he does and the religion that he practices. "Rather than assuming that science and spirit are separate jurisdictions, I assume that reality is one, and that truth grows and evolves with the universe of which it speaks," writes Primack.

Primack's God is not so much a personal entity that listens to and answers prayers, as it is the underlying orderliness and discernability of the universe itself, and he is grateful that the Jewish tradition leaves plenty of room for such non-literal interpretations. "I think of the religious texts as being more like art or literature," he says. "Religious moments" come for Primack when his theory predicts reality. For instance, the experience of predicting--in work done with the late physicist Heinz Pagels and other colleagues--the existence and nature of cold dark matter, (a likely candidate for the hidden matter probably comprising at least 90 percent of the universe's mass) based solely on theoretical constructs, and then having that prediction substantiated years later by the Cosmic Microwave Background Explorer satellite (COBE), was "amazing," Primack says.

"You wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, it raises goose have in your mind apprehended something fundamental about how the world works, and years later discover that's how it really is," says Primack. It is a "sense of contact with the way that nature really is underneath it all."

There is a long tradition in the monotheistic religions of arguing that the nature of creation implies, or proves, the existence of a Creator. Before the theory of natural selection took the wind out of its sails, this argument was most convincingly applied to the biological realm. Without God, how could we explain the perfect correlation between the hummingbird's bill and the shape of the flower that it pollinates? Only a deliberate designer could have created the elaborate mechanisms of nature, claimed the argument, known as the "argument from design."

An interesting twist on this logic, known as the anthropic principle, was made by John Barrow, a physicist at Sussex University in England. In his book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, co-authored with Frank Tipler, Barrow demonstrates how even the tiniest tweak of the laws of nature at the time of the Big Bang would have created a universe wildly hostile to life as we know it. At about one second after the Big Bang the fine tuning of the expansion rate had to be done to an accuracy of about 15 decimal places. If the universe expanded one part in the fifteenth decimal place faster, it would have flown apart without galaxies forming. If it expanded one part less, then the universe would have collapsed without galaxies forming. No galaxies, no bananas.

What is responsible for the fine tuning of atomic weights and natural laws that created a world with time, space, and the other necessary ingredients for amoebae, let alone cosmologists? Did we just draw a winning cosmic lottery ticket despite chances that dwarf those of any human lottery? A chorus of the religiously inclined answer: "No, it's not chance. It's God."

Barrow, however, a Protestant Christian, does not argue that the anthropic principle does or could prove the existence of God, only that it raises provocative questions. "It's easy to say negative things about the relationship between science and nature, and it's premature to say much that is positive," he says. Furthermore, "because of the horizon structure of space-time, we may never know much about the Universe with a capital U. It would be a coincidence of incredible proportions if we were intellectually equipped to understand that. The anthropic coincidences have no unique interpretation. They are consistent with a special fine-tuning of the universe, but they are also consistent with there being many possible universes--or even widely varying conditions within a single universe--of which only those displaying these special coincidences become oases of life. Alternatively, life might be easier to evolve than we suppose. Perhaps other forms of intelligent life might be possible even if many of these coincidences did not exist. As far as we are aware, all of these scenarios are consistent with general theistic or atheist outlooks."

Unlike most of the scientists in the project, Jocelyn Bell Burnell sees a relatively weak link between her scientific work and her religious life. An astronomer at the Open University in England, and a co-discoverer of pulsars, Bell Burnell is a practicing Quaker. "Spirituality forms the center of my life and is the driver. As far as I am concerned everything begins and ends here," she says. "Astrophysics feeds into my spiritual life only in a minor way. The sense of God that comes to me in still times is so profound that nothing else holds a candle to it."

Because Quakerism emphasizes spiritual experience over doctrine, Bell Burnell says it is a spiritual path well suited to scientists. When her theology conflicts with science, Bell Burnell makes adjustments in her theology. She also readily admits that there may be limits to her ability to ever understand the relationship between the spiritual and the material realms. Quakerism "involves a commitment to search and exploration," she says. "It requires one to hold preconceptions tentatively and to be prepared to revise them in the light of experience gained or revelations received.... It strongly parallels the way in which many of us go about our science.

"My approach is to require a rigorous intellectual integrity, but to be willing to say as necessary, "I don't know" and be silent, rather than forcing an answer. I prefer to set aside theologies that do not seem to stand up to rational inquiry, risking appearing faithless rather than misleading people. I am suspicious of post hoc justifications for beliefs using science," says Bell Burnell. That suspicion applies to both the arguments for the existence of a creator based on the anthropic principle, and for "God in the gaps"-type arguments that suggest God acts in the world through quantum indeterminacy, or that He set everything up in the first moments between the Big Bang and the beginning of Planck Time (5.4 x 10-44 seconds after the Big Bang) and then withdrew. (The uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics prevents any meaningful speculation on events preceding Planck Time.) She says these arguments are consoling "if one is already disposed towards a belief in God," but are "probably unconvincing otherwise." The anthropic principle arguments, Bell Burnell says, "feel to me like a theology looking for a proof. In the face of our ignorance about other parts of the universe, let alone other universes, this seems to me credulous."

If I expected any of the scientists I interviewed to draw connections between their scientific discoveries and their religious lives it would have been Arno Penzias. He shared a Nobel Prize in 1978 for his part in the discovery of the background radiation that constituted the first material evidence for the Big Bang theory. But I was wrong. Penzias, former Research Director at Bell Labs in New Jersey, says "It's tempting, but it wouldn't be honest," to draw religious meaning from his discovery.

In fact, he bristles at the attempt by some scientists to identify God in certain aspects of the material world. "I have no problem with scientists saying there is no God," he says. "But for them to say "This is God," annoys me. It is blasphemy.... I have little patience for the misuse of one of the fundamental concepts of humankind in this absurd way."

"If God created the universe, he would have done it elegantly," says Penzias, who is Jewish. "The absence of any imprint of intervention upon creation is what we would expect from a truly all-powerful Creator. You don't need somebody diddling around like Frank Morgan in The Wizard of Oz to keep the universe going. Instead, what you have is a half a page of mathematics that describes everything. In some sense, the power of the creation lies in its underlying simplicity."

Andrei Linde, a cosmologist at Stanford University, is the co-inventor of the theory of eternal inflation. Inflation theory holds that the universe's fundamental forces separated out in the first 10-35 seconds, causing the universe to expand, or inflate, very quickly and violently. Eternal inflation suggests that this sort of event may have occurred many, many times, perhaps an infinite number of times, in a universe that is constantly self-reproducing.

Until 1989, Linde lived in the Soviet Union, where, he says, "the whole society was opposed to any type of religious education," and where dialectical materialism was the only publicly discussed ideology. He now distrusts any dogmatic and authoritarian system, including, he says, religions ruled over by one God, or one church hierarchy. "When you say something abstract about philosophy, about some great things which you want to explore, this is fine. But when you say that there is some savior who came to save you, this is absolutely a different issue. If you assume, as monotheistic religion does, that something like that is an important part of religion, then it makes the whole idea of religion too narrow...and in some respects dangerous," Linde says.

Linde is more attracted by polytheistic Indian religions. "Indian thought speculated about different ways one may think about God. God may be a powerful old man with a beard who drives the universe in a proper direction. God may be a universal law of nature. Or at some level of abstraction God is a perfection, or the Absolute which incorporates everything and which is, in some sense, you or me."

Scientists are influenced by the religious metaphors that pervade their culture, says Linde. "ne of the basic assumptions among physicists--that one set of natural laws can describe everything that exists--is a product of the monotheistic tradition, he says. A view of the cosmos encompassing innumerable universes, where new ones are springing forth all the time, and where different physical laws apply in different universes (as suggested by eternal inflation), might seem more reasonable to people practicing polytheistic religions.

Though he is reluctant to name it, Linde does see his scientific efforts as attempts to "see clearly the boundary of physics and science, investigate what is beyond that boundary. I would call it philosophy, or my own religion, in my sense of the word. I would say that it is a way towards understanding something greater than simply the world of matter."

Bruno Guiderdoni, an astrophysicist at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, studies galaxy formation. He also hosts a French television show about Islam, the religion to which he converted ten years ago after bumping up against the limits of scientific knowledge. "Modern science is very successful at answering the question of how things occur," says Guiderdoni. "But all these successes cannot cancel another question which is very important. This is the question "Why?" Why are things as they are?

"We are trying to get closer to reality with science," he says. "And we succeed in some sense. But we feel that we need a qualitative step, and this is the question of the meaning of things. We can get an answer to this only through a religious approach. This is why I see the two activities (science and religion) as completely complementary," Guiderdoni says. He quotes the Prophet Mohammed: "The root of sin is ignorance, or obscurity.... Look for knowledge from the birth to the death."

Unlike Bell Burnell or Penzias, Guiderdoni finds the anthropic principle logically compelling evidence of the existence of God. "I would defend the strong version of the anthropic principle; everything has been designed in such a way as to make the appearance of man possible," Guiderdoni says. "The vastness of the cosmos has been used as an argument against religion, but we now know that the age of the universe, and the size of the observable universe, are intimately linked to our presence on Earth,...that the large age of the universe is necessary in order to have the heavy element enrichment necessary for the formation of planets and the appearance of life. The size of the universe is a consequence of its age; we need this space around us and this time behind us in order to be here on Earth."

Guiderdoni sees evidence of the existence of God in the regularities of physics. He again cites the Koran, saying that "God's creation has no holes in it, no defects. Everything is full of regularities and order, because God himself is Order; God himself is Beauty. And the beauty that we see in the cosmos is an image of God's beauty."

Unlike Barrow, who is skeptical about the human ability to grasp the nature of the universe with a capital U, Guiderdoni says our ability to do so is to be expected. "The cosmos is not a foreign country. It is not different from us. The cosmos and ourselves have been created by the same Intelligence."

Sandra Faber, a professor of physics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, is not affiliated with any formal religion nor does she believe in a personal God. At one of the CTNS workshops, she described her lack of faith in the midst of so many believers as like being a colorblind person in the midst of the color sighted. She believes that they are telling her the truth when they say green looks different from blue; she just doesn't know what they are referring to. Ironically, she finds a version of the anthropic argument rationally compelling. "The concept of the Creator making the Garden of Eden for the human species is true in the sense that the physics that set up our universe set in motion a chain of events resulting in us.... We are the daughters of this universe. It's our true alma mater," Faber says. "In that sense, I find that lots of North American Indian cosmologies appeal to me. The Great Spirit really, that's what our universe is for us.

"If you were typing out universes like monkeys on typewriters, you wouldn't type out this universe very frequently," she says. Given the incredible series of cosmic coincidences needed to evolve this universe, she sees two reasonable interpretations of its origins: either ours is only one of many universes, the vast majority of which are likely incompatible with space and time, let alone life and self-consciousness; or else it was made by an intelligent being.

"I think people who believe in God are perfectly sensible," Faber concludes. "So why do I reject God, since I see a good reason for him in cosmology? It just seems sort of silly. It is distasteful to my orientation as a natural scientist. It's literally deus ex machina," she says. She finds the naturalistic option left open by the multiple universe, inflation theories more "scientifically fertile."

But astronomy itself is a spiritual pursuit for Faber. "Observing is almost mystical. It's the act that puts me in contact with the rest of the universe," she said recently on a public television series about astronomy.

To have proper perspective, Faber says, there are a few things one must understand about the human condition that astronomy explains: "The Earth is small, the atmosphere is thin, and around it is a hostile void, the next nearest planets in the solar system are not too attractive. The next nearest star is awfully far away, and human history is a blink on the cosmic clock." These facts provide the backdrop for Faber, against which we can imagine playing out various human dramas for ourselves and the whole species. They are the context in which the story of life, the human story, and our individual stories take place. In this sense, cosmology, and the truths that it reveals, may indeed give meaning to life even if it does not settle questions about the existence of divine intelligence and the nature of the human spirit.

On the other hand, maybe the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was right when he said, "Even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of the meaning of life remain untouched." The great minds of science, both those sympathetic and those hostile to religious concerns, simply do not agree with each other on this. Nor do they seem to be moving toward agreement. This must mean something. But what? You're on your own there.

Gordy Slack is an associate editor at California Wild. His interviews with religious scientists, and Phillip Clayton's, are being compiled into a book.

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Summer 1998

Vol. 51:3