In this series of posts about science and spirituality I’ve left God for last, even though God has become the hottest topic as we struggle toward the future. The arguments against belief in God have been stridently raised by a small band of scientific atheists – their avowed leader, Richard Dawkins, has become a household name. In our recent book, War of the Worldviews, my co-author, Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow, doesn’t pursue the atheist line. His worldview is scientific, but Leonard holds a view that is much more defensible than atheism:
“While science often casts doubt on spiritual beliefs and doctrines insofar as they make representations about the physical world, science does not – and cannot – conclude that God is an illusion.”
I believe that spirituality can take hints from modern science to actually support the existence of God. Some of these hints have emerged from quantum physics, which long ago showed that the seemingly solid, convincing world of matter and energy actually derives from a highly uncertain, invisible realm that existed before time and space. Is this the domain of God? If so, it can’t be the God of Genesis, a human-like figure sitting above the clouds who created heaven and earth in seven days. I think a new and expanded spirituality can deliver a God that is the same as pure intelligence, creativity, and consciousness. Such a God is our source without being human – a source from which all possibilities emerge and flow. Quite a number of credentialed scientists are thinking in the same direction without necessarily being religious. It would explain a lot about the cosmos if we fit into a living, conscious universe.
Dawkins uses every tactic he can find – including some underhanded ones – to make it seem that science can disprove God. Leonard is right, however, to deny this. In simplest terms, you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist. But the scientific atheists are really relying on probabilities. Having mounted a heated attack on myth, superstition, and belief in the supernatural (most of this argument is seriously outdated and belongs in the Victorian age) Dawkins tells us that all religious experience should be judged on rational grounds, asking how likely it really is that God, the soul, the afterlife, or any other aspect of spirit actually could be true.
This stupendously misses the point. It’s in the very nature of spirituality not to conform to everyday reason and logic. The point of spirituality is to transcend the ordinary world and reveal something invisible, unknown, and yet part of ourselves. If an exotic traveler came to the court of a medieval king and claimed to have seen a rhinoceros, even there reason and probability wouldn’t help. It makes no sense to test the claim of a new species of animal by saying, “How likely is it that this creature exists?” You produce the rhinoceros or you don’t. But Dawkins throws out of court the thousands of spiritual experiences that are a continuous thread in human existence. He doesn’t want to examine if they are true; he only wants to examine how many ways they could be false.
That’s offensive and intellectually dishonest, ultimately appealing only to die-hard skeptics of the same stripe. Religion has enough bad things in its long, checkered history – and science has enough triumphs – that atheism seems to have a strong hand. In our book I argue that the case can be made in reverse, however. Science has given us atomic bombs, ever-new mechanized warfare, biological and chemical weapons, and countless forms of environmental pollution. If we want the best that science has to offer, are we destined to accept the worst along with it?
Not if spirituality is taken seriously, which means valuing our inner world. Science doesn’t deal in purpose and meaning; it deals in data and measurement. Dawkins makes the fatal mistake of believing that data and measurement are superior to everyday experience. His brand of skepticism doesn’t work to bring light; more often, it revels in making people feel insecure and doubtful. In reality, life is about purpose and meaning. We don’t have to throw those things out just because they aren’t scientific. Quite the opposite. Like it or not, the scientist works on behalf of human beings who want even more purpose and meaning. If God is the word we apply to highest purpose, why not keep it? Or if another word is needed, a term that has no religious baggage, let’s find one. The spiritual worldview is our salvation if we want to save the planet. I have no doubt of that, and our best hope is that science becomes part of the project that will redeem our future, not an enemy to the highest and best in human nature.
Published by San Francisco Chronicle