What Science Can't Offer

Readers of this book expecting a reply to Richard Dawkins will be disappointed. Richard Grigg agrees with Dawkins that traditional Christian belief is in lethal conflict with science and that theologians have not been able to turn the war in religion’s favor. He declares, on the third page, that the theistic God is indeed “a delusion.” But he differs from Dawkins in not wholly giving up religion. Instead he cuts God up to fit the suit of a scientific pantheism.

But first Grigg must dispose of what he calls the “separatist strategy,” which allots religion and science to “wholly different realms of meaning” so that the two cannot conflict. His main argument against separatism concerns divine action in the world. He says traditional theism holds that God not only creates the world but acts upon it to produce specific results that would not otherwise occur. God might, for example, lift one’s spirits in response to prayer. But, Grigg contends, this must involve a change in the physical universe—in this case, a change in brain chemistry. Any such change entails an “expenditure of energy,” but if that expenditure is ultimately due to God, then since God is external to the physical system, that energy ultimately comes from outside the system. And that means a violation of the law of the conservation of energy. So separatism is mistaken and we are forced to choose between theism and science.

This argument only has force against a particularly anthropomorphic and scientistic understanding of theism, evident here in the assumption, treated as obvious, that God’s acting in the world, like my acting in the world or your acting in it, is a causal relationship in which physical energy is expended to manipulate empirical phenomena. Grigg speaks explicitly of how we must discover a “causal joint,” where God can “interface with the world and influence it without upsetting the natural causal framework,” as if God were a sort of giant plumber attempting to fit pipes into holes in the universe. Similarly, Grigg talks about creation hanging on discoveries in physics, like those having to do with the Big Bang, as if creation were a datable event, like the Battle of Waterloo.

Trying to save God by basing him on science belongs to the same category of conceptual confusion as trying to find him by traveling to farther galaxies in a spaceship. We see straightaway that the latter is a mistake, yet often remain mesmerized by the former. We conceal the contradiction by thinking God’s causal activity can be detached from his having hands to build the world with, ears to hear prayers with, or eyes to see the secrets of our hearts with. But it makes no difference if we deny the embodiment yet affirm that God acts, makes, hears, and sees in a sense that requires a “causal joint,” or some other kind of scientific means or support. The same mistake is made when people think we advance our understanding of creation by shifting from literal creationism to theistic evolutionism: really, these theories belong to the same anthropomorphic category. Wherever God is expected to pay accounts to science, anthropomorphism is in play.

The fear that if God is not answerable to science then he is not real is another manifestation of scientism—or, more widely, of an objectifying sensibility, like that which informs an impersonal system of metaphysics. But in expecting God to have the same sort of reality that chairs and electrons have, we misunderstand him. Once God’s accountability to science is granted, it can only be accidents of God’s nature, not conceptual truths, that he does not have a body with hands, feet, ears, eyes, a brain, and that we will not find him by getting into a spaceship. But surely these are conceptual truths: God does not just happen to be disembodied. Think of how one of the first things children learn about God is that he is not to be seen or touched like physical objects. And they will not go on to find God by studying science. If they find him it will be by attention to prayer, Scripture, and worship, and especially through the recognition of their pride and self-insufficiency.

But Grigg is determined to find God in science. His radical theology is a scientifically informed pantheism in which we poetically and creatively sense the interconnectedness of all the physical universe and our embeddedness in it, making it the object of our “ultimate concern.” The word “God” can be retained to symbolize this unity, just as the American flag symbolizes America. (This is a somewhat uncharacteristic concession on Grigg’s part. His book is pervaded by a casual depreciation of everything historic and traditional, and aquiver with excitement over whatever is new and scientific.) This worldview will inspire an overcoming of the ego in “participation” and “self-transcendence.”

Of course poetic appreciations of the natural world, and even the natural world understood by science, can be profound. Grigg’s example, a poem by Wallace Stevens, is a good one. Another would be the essays on chemistry collected in Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. But what is profound, even what is wonderful or awesome, need not be morally inspiring or even decent, as the case of human sacrifice shows. Levi’s essays nourish decency because he brings to the appreciation of chemistry a sense of the preciousness of human life that has been formed independently of science. Science itself—at least science as we know it, guided by a norm of objectification—is quintessentially amoral. If we have a poetic appreciation of its discoveries that enriches our lives in morally admirable ways (and I take that to be a necessary condition of any religion’s being admirable), that will be because our poetry has sneaked the morality in. There is no guarantee that a merely aesthetic or even mystical appreciation of the natural world revealed by science will be decent.

But Grigg writes as if the bare scientific facts ensured poetic appreciation of a morally good sort: that we, along with the rest of the universe, originated in the Big Bang; that like everything else in the universe we are made of quarks; that all life on Earth was created by natural selection—these are among the facts that are supposed to inspire us to “participation” and “self-transcendence.” Just what these are remains rather vague. Without more elaboration they can be most earnestly believed and practiced by people of unspeakable wickedness-and have been. Grigg’s conclusion that science yields a benign interpretation is reached via a mischievous soft-shoe shuffle between scientific and moral readings of key terms in his argument. Thus, armed with the scientific facts cited above, he writes:

[I]t should be evident that a notion of collective self-transcendence—as a nation and as a species-can provide a powerful starting point for the ethical regulation of our use of technology. I am not the center of the universe, nor is the whole species Homo sapiens. Hence only those technologies are ethically justified that avoid irreparable harm to my fellow human beings and the larger physical universe.

When Dickens wrote in Dombey and Son that in the eyes of Mr. Dombey “stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which [Dombey and Son] were the center,” he wasn’t attributing to Mr. Dombey a scientific thought. He used a cosmological image to convey Dombey’s self-centeredness. By contrast, Grigg intends the claim that humans are not the “center” of the universe to mean the scientific facts listed above. From those is supposed to follow (“Hence only those technologies...”) that we should behave decently. Only it doesn’t follow. The material composition of stars and humans, the Big Bang, natural selection: none of these things has the remotest bearing on how we should behave. Nor does Grigg offer any argument that might show us how they could. Instead, he trades on the alternative, moral meaning of “center.” That is the meaning we have in mind when we tell someone he is not the center of the universe in order to rebuke his selfishness (“Don’t think it’s all about you!”)—the meaning Dickens had in mind when he described Mr. Dombey. On this reading of the word “center” Grigg’s inference works, but only because the moral content of the conclusion is already present in the premise. So, either the premise of the argument is strictly scientific, in which case it lends no support to the conclusion; or there is a perfectly respectable moral view being expressed, but science plays no role in supporting it.

I am not saying that semimystical or metaphysical statements like “all is one” or “everything is interconnected” are either reducible to plain moral injunctions or meaningless. I am saying that if they are to support moral conclusions then their sense must already be conditioned by those conclusions, but that doesn’t mean that their sense is merely a function of the conclusions. What the statements can’t be (if they are to have moral import) is assertions of value-free facts. A purely biological understanding of fatherhood will not help me make sense of the statement “You can’t treat your father like that.” It is Grigg’s relentless scientism that gets him in trouble.

There are similar equivocations over terms like “origin,” “identity,” and “connectedness.” Consider his use of the word “dependence”:

The recognition of our radical dependence, via the dependence of literally everything that is, on the Big Bang, can certainly effect a powerful experience of self-transcendence, of stepping outside the confines of one’s present ego.

It is true, as Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch both say in different ways, that concentration upon something outside oneself can effect a genuine overcoming of the ego and contribute to human goodness, and even receptivity to the divine. But the object of attention is irrelevant here—it is the act of attending that matters; whereas, for Grigg, the specific scientific content is the nub. And again, he gives us no reason to think that such scientific knowledge can produce the moral effect he suggests. Indeed, the irony is that science, by encouraging a sense of our mastery over nature, often breeds pride and even cruelty. By contrast, there is a sense of dependency that breeds humility and kindness: our sense of being dependent, for our happiness and very survival, on powers well beyond our control. But no knowledge of science is necessary for this.

Occasionally, Grigg seems aware that all is not well with his argument. He wonders at one stage how we can be sure pantheistic self-transcendence isn’t really “a mood of self-aggrandizement.” He applies a moral test: Self-transcendence is genuine if it issues in decent and admirable behavior. But this is just to admit that the moral content of pantheism comes from outside science.

So what is the science adding? It is supposed to be the engine in this story, but really it is an idle wheel. If we persist in seeking God through science (a mistake hardly confined to Grigg and “radical theology”—think of “intelligent design”), we will at best end up with a scientific God, if, indeed, we have not already made science itself our God.

Andrew Gleeson is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

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