Huffpost Religion
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Clay Farris Naff Headshot

How Science Can Solve the Puzzle of God

Posted: Updated:

"God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please -- you can never have both."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Nearly 500 years after science and religion parted company over Galileo's demeaning challenge to a church invested in geocentricity, we have come to a moment when reunification may be possible -- on scientific grounds. But before we go on, you must make the choice Emerson presents.

If repose, turn back.

You will find far greater comfort in the myths of the traditional religions, or the newly minted ones of the New Age mystics, than in anything that science has to offer. But Emerson was right: What you will not find there is much that conforms to reality as science has illuminated it. This problem goes way beyond the pathetic attempts of "Creation Science" to make the Grand Canyon fit into the Noah's flood tale. There is a fundamental error in any religious narrative that portrays the world as designed by an all-powerful, all-knowing, and beneficent God. The world just ain't built that way.

Ever since Galileo turned his telescope on the sun and found it blemished with spots, the myth of a handmade Universe has been crumbling. (For one of countless instances of why the intelligent design hypothesis fails, see my HuffPost essay "Rocks in Our Heads.") Today, it is held together with baling wire of apologetics and indifference to the evidence of probable truth. Far more Americans believe in creationism than understand and accept evolution. Yet, every one of us has the stump of a tailbone within easy reach.

Those who seek repose rather than truth have an endless appetite for apologetics -- the sillier the better. Check out this one-minute video. I know it will seem like satire, but it's the real McCoy:

The banana, of course, is intelligently designed -- by farmers, who have selectively bred it from its wild cousin to be the fruit of choice on supermarket shelves everywhere. Uber-atheist Richard Dawkins is fond of showing this little snippet on his speaking tours. And who can blame him? If it weren't a national tragedy, Creationism would make great comedy.

In part, this indifference stems from the widespread perception that if God didn't create the Universe, brick by brick, according to his Grand Blueprint, then He must not exist. This formula has been gleefully grasped by the "New Atheists." While most of them are careful to maintain a little patch of agnostic "to be sure" territory, hectoring heretics like PZ Myers get their jollies by stomping all over sacred ground in the hobnailed boots of rationality. Whew! After a sentence like that, you deserve a breather. Here's PZ in a spot satirizing the above video:

Bring on the Scientific Method!

Whether you find such attempts at shock-jock atheism bracing, offensive, or just lame-o is irrelevant. The real harm, I believe, is that it reduces the entire discourse to an unscientific debate: God either is what traditional religions claim, or God is not, full stop. This is not the way of science. Science examines phenomena by generating multiple working hypotheses about questions that can, in principle, be answered by empirical data..

The real question, then, is not "Does God exist?" That question can only be answered in the negative for some formulations of what we mean by God, or left open. (Based on the evidence, we can safely say that God is not a burning bush who helps certain selected tribes conquer others.)

What we need here is a better question and at least one more working hypothesis. How's this? "Was the Universe created with the intention that life like us would evolve within it?" Once we pose that question, we find that we have two less-than-satisfactory answers. The affirmative answer comes from various intelligent design advocates. The worst of them rely on already refuted claims about irreducible biological complexity. The best ponder the exquisite combination of fundamental constants, such as the strength of gravity or the weak nuclear force, that make life possible. This is known as the fine-tuning argument, and nothing is more finely tuned than the cosmic constant, lambda, the tiny speck of dark energy in Einstein's equations that keeps the Universe from collapsing. Fine tuners make an important point: if we assume that the constants fell into place at random, the favorable arrangement of each constant is staggeringly improbable.

However, as I pointed out above, the case for the intentional, hands-on design of the Universe with us as its goal is fatally flawed. It can be propped up with various "God moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform" arguments, but a standing corpse is a stiff all the same. The only mystery, to my mind, is why anyone would believe that a world plagued with earthquakes, tornadoes, and HIV is the product of a divine being.

Even falling branches have to be reckoned in the grand scheme of things. After a limb fell from a tree in Central Park and killed a six-month-old baby girl recently, Mike Bloomberg, mayor of New York, suggested that it had been "an act of God." Hizzoner undoubtedly meant that as a legalism rather than theology, but even if you just assume that an omnipotent, omniscient being created the Universe and then left it to unfold, you'd still have to hold Him morally responsible for that baby's death. Being God means always having to say you're sorry.

On the other hand, the null hypothesis relies on an argument so extravagant, so mind-flippingly outrageous that it should only be pondered after two or three stiff Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters. Ready? The answer to the fine-tuning problem is this: our Universe is a bubble, one among an infinite (or nearly infinite) number of bubbles, each of which has a random combination of constants. In any lottery, if you print enough tickets one of them has to pay off. The implication of this is not only that we're here by pure luck, but that there are many other worlds that are either just like ours or just very slightly different. There is a world out there where Hitler triumphed, and another where Roosevelt never got polio, and another where Flight 93 crashed into the White House on 9/11 and killed President George W. Bush. That way madness lies!

The clearest formulation of this idea comes from physicist and string theorist Leonard Susskind. He speaks of a cosmic landscape of at least 10^500 pocket Universes. It's an idea that's been pummeled by critics from within his profession, not because it's wrong but because it's a stymie. If we accept it, we have to abandon all hope of a rational understanding of the world. Years ago, I proposed a rational principle to deal with ideas like this. It's called "Clay's Clipper," and it states that if a proposition tends to impair reason, and if there is no compelling evidence for it, then we are entitled to reject it. This is such a case.

So, where can we turn for an answer to the puzzle of God? I humbly suggest we look to evolution. The creative power of Darwinian evolution is, evidently, almost without limit. Let's suppose there's a Creator out there with limited power. If the Creator wanted to bring about a result like us -- life, that is, capable of contemplating, appreciating, and sustaining life -- he, she, or they surely might have done worse than to create a Universe with just enough scope and variation to let evolution do all the labor of design. What sort of Creator might do that? One in our own image, of course: An intelligent life seeking to pass the torch of life across the cosmos to a new generation.

There is more to ponder, here, of course, and I'm the first to admit that there is no evidence to tip the balance. But let me stake my claim here: the just-good-enough Universe we inhabit is more consistent with my view than any other rationally acceptable explanation proffered so far. If I'm right, we are the children of loving cosmic parents, and we are charged with becoming what they once were. How cool is that?