Off and on for twenty years I’ve thought deeply about God and his chances of survival (for “his” you can substitute “her” or “its,” since an all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present deity doesn’t have a fixed gender). But this Sunday, God’s survival became the subject of a debate before an audience at Cal Tech.
If you’re interested, the debate will later be televised on ABC’s Nightline. My debating partner was noted author and spiritual teacher Jean Houston. On the side representing atheism was Dr. Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, and Sam Harris, who wrote the bestseller, Letter to a Christian Nation. (I’m writing this preview before the actual event, but the article will appear afterward.)
This won’t be the standard argument about whether God exists, with believers declaring their faith on one side and doubters declaring that there is no evidence for God on the other. Rather, both sides will look at the current state of science to see if we are getting closer to finding a supreme intelligence in the universe or further away.
In the past few years the camp of skeptics, atheists, and doubters has been emboldened to use science as a weapon to ridicule faith. The British evolutionist Richard Dawkins is associated with this attitude, and compared to his loud, disdainful voice, the efforts of scientists who believe in God, such as the eminent geneticist Francis Collins, have been relatively muted. As the head of the human genome project, Collins is far more credible about genetics than Dawkins, however, and he argues strenuously that evolution is consistent with a principle of intelligence in the formation of life. But no matter who wins any debate on a given night, the future of God is by no means settled.
Socially, God is waning in the developed countries, if you measure this by church attendance. The U.S. traditionally has had higher church attendance than any European country, but in both places the trend has been steady decline for at least four decades. Science has been viewed as the enemy of religion since the time of Darwin, when the Christian world was shocked to discover that Homo sapiens evolved from primate ancestors, thus turning Adam and Eve into a myth.
In the face of evolution, which serves as the bulwark of the atheist argument, the devout have been forced to fall back on faith. In a scientific age, faith is bound to lose out to facts in the minds of most rational people. Which is why millions of us are worried about God, even if the majority haven’t decisively renounced him.
My position is that advanced science has actually turned the tables, giving us new ways to defend, not God as a patriarch seated on his throne in the sky, but God as a field of intelligence that gives rise to evolution itself and all that goes with it: creativity, quantum leaps, time and space, and expanding consciousness. As we learn more about these things, we will reshape God into something new and far more powerful than the traditional Judeo-Christian conception.
In a word, the future of God depends upon human evolution. As we look deeper into our own awareness, we will meet the field of infinite awareness and intelligence that is our source, and on that path we will encounter God.
What supports such a view? First, there are a host of mysteries that current science, with its fixation on materialism, cannot remotely explain. Let me list a few.
1. The Big Bang: Almost all physicists and cosmologists conclude that the universe began in a single moment referred to as the “big bang” 14 billion years ago. At that moment the universe burst forth into creation from an infinitely dense dimensionless point of pure energy. The laws of physics operate after the first 10 – 43 seconds after the big bang. In the first 10 – 43 seconds what happened is not only unknown, but unknowable as the laws of physics breakdown and don’t exist. As the eminent astrophysicist Robert Jastrow said, “At this moment it seems that science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientists who has lived by his faith by the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
Stephen Hawking commenting on the big bang states “it would be difficult to explain why the universe begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings just like us.”
2. DNA: So far as we know, DNA is the most complex microstructure in the universe, surpassing by millions of times the next most complex organic molecule. To claim that the universe developed human DNA, with its three billion codons, at random is like saying that a hurricane can blow through a junkyard and create a Boeing 757. Francis Collins argues two things: We have no idea how the lifeless “prebiotic soup” of the early Earth developed the first DNA, and in fact such a leap, which produced a self-replicating molecule form which all life emerged, may be totally unknowable.
3. Human intelligence: Science currently insists that the brain is the source of intelligence, but no one can identify where this mysterious component entered into us. The brain is composed of water, sugar, and proteins. Are we to say that these chemicals are intelligent? If so, then why isn’t a sugar cube equally intelligent? The most advanced neuroscience has not come close to explaining such a basic thing as memory. There are no chemical traces of memory inside any cell of the brain. In addition, no one can explain how separate areas of the brain “light up” simultaneously, involving billions of neurons, without communicating to each other the way we communicate on the telephone, by passing along messages. In the brain, neurons in different locations get the same message all at once. Also, new ideas crop up spontaneously, without reference to past brain activity.
But the most obvious flaw in brain research is that while it is obvious that we have organized thoughts, the action of atoms and molecules can not in any way explain subjectivity, or the mechanics of intention, free will, choice making, insight, intuition, imagination, inspiration, or creativity. There are neural correlates to our subjective experience, of course, but correlation does not mean causal relationship. Neural networks do not compose music or poetry just as your radio set does not compose songs.
4. The Self: We all know that we have a self, but science has never located it. There is no area of the brain where “I” exists. This has led materialists to claim that the self is an illusion created by the brain’s complexity. But this leads science into a self-contradiction, because the very researchers who say that “I” doesn’t exist must themselves be an illusion. This is a subtle point, and we must also consider the Buddhist position, which says that the ego-self in fact is an illusion because reality is consciousness itself, without boundaries. Trying to contain the self inside an individual mind and body is a mistake, because all of us are part of the same infinite field of consciousness. This comes close to Erwin Schrodinger’s statement that “consciousness is a singular that has no plural.”
5. Evolution: Francis Collins points out that Darwinism cannot be attacked for having gaps. As a model of how a multitude of life forms developed from the first strand of DNA, Darwinism seems elegantly true. But Collins also asserts that the impetus for such a perfect model requires an intelligent principle, giving rise to “theistic evolution,” as Collins dubs it.
The picture of creatures with selfish genes fighting for survival, with the fit passing their genes on while the unfit perish, is a leaky boat of a theory. There are countless examples of cooperation in nature that allow two creatures to survive by sharing the same food and shelter, the way squirrels and birds share the same tree and serve to warn each other of approaching predators.
Also, traits can be passed along from one generation to the next without new genes. The latest research indicates that it’s the action of our genes, whether they are switched on or off, that shapes us as much if not more than which genes we were born with. Behavior can be passed from parent to child without having to develop a new gene for that behavior. This undercuts the materialist notion that we are essentially zombies moving at the whim of molecules.
6. The Intelligent Universe: Although the Big Bang is considered the starting point of the universe no one knows why or how it occurred. However, a deeper point needs to be made – the universe has evolved, not simply expanded. Swirling, superheated gases began to form complex molecules, and there has been no backsliding. One inexorable force called entropy leads to the cooling of the universe and the breakdown of complex forms into simpler components (the way a corpse decays after death). Entropy was supposed to be all-powerful, yet another force, called evolution, keeps defying decay by creating such complexities as DNA and the human brain.
Traditionally, highly evolved forms were considered anomalies, little islands of “negative entropy” that exist by accident. This seems unlikely, however, since the universe has been creating more complexity for 13 billion years, not less complexity. There is a strong implication that the universe may be aware of its own evolution. Mystical as that sounds, the opposite idea — that only human beings are aware, a trait we chanced upon by accident — is an arbitrary tenet developed through rigid faith in dogmatic materialism.
I’ve barely sketched in the many arguments that can be mounted against materialism. I haven’t used the word God, however. This is because no one can win a debate based on faith versus lack of faith. The only way to bring God back to life, and to give the deity a future, is to move beyond the superstition of materialism. Material objects even those organized as complex organic molecules can not process meaning, purpose, or the longing to know how we came into existence. Even an organ such as the human brain seems to function as a quantum computer that processes symbols that represent meaning generated in consciousness.
A revitalized God won’t look like the God taught in Sunday school. What will the deity look like? He/She/It will reflect our own state of evolution. Insofar as we understand our own consciousness, we will understand where it came from, which is God.
POSTED AT SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE