In my religion and science class yesterday, we compared the different feelings that scientists seem to have about the appropriateness of bringing God-talk into the discussion in cosmology and in biology. Has anyone else noticed that it is relatively uncontroversial for Einstein, Hawking, Davies, Peacocke, Polkinghorne and many others to mention God in discussions of cosmology. Certainly they would disagree in their attempts to articulate what they mean by such language, but it is not felt to be inappropriate in the same way that it is in biology.
I think this has something to do with where the limits of each field is. Biology clearly runs into chemistry and physics on the one side – there is no doubt that biological organisms are composed of molecules, however one may think that came about. On the other side, the border seems to be adjacent to fields such as anthropology and psychology, which study the complex behaviors of complex organisms with complex brains. It thus seems to be expected that biology itself will be able to provide explanations more-or-less as a “closed system”, with no gaps.
Cosmology, on the one hand, runs into physics on one side, but on the other side there is a boundary with questions science cannot answer in principle. Even if future developments in cosmology remove the question “What happened before the Big Bang?” from the table, there will still be the question of why anything exists at all, rather than nothing. Cosmology, in other words, runs into philosophy and religion at its far end. Since we are dealing in this instance not with gaps in our knowledge so much as limits of our methods, it seems much less inappropriate to bring in other approaches to knowledge.
We still should ask, however, what the appropriate way is to use such language. To suggest that God is an explanation remains problematic. Positing a God who is allegedly self-explanatory is not going to be an intellectually satisfying explanation. But many of those who use the language of God in these contexts are not intending to provide a logical explanation, but to point to a mystery and find some way of talking about it in our limited, inadequate human language.
This seems to be a key difference between the relationship between religion and biology on the one hand, and religion and cosmology on the other. Scientists have been successful in filling in gaps in biology thus far, and it thus seems problematic to do research in biology under the assumption that the inexplicable will remain that way. But to speak of God in relation to cosmology is not the same sort of “God of the gaps” or “design” argument. Here we are dealing not with a gap in the current state of our knowledge, but a limit to the discipline of science itself. To speak of such things and to explore beyond them, language that is humble, symbolic and poetic will be essential tools.