When Cosmologists and Biologists Speak of God

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.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00137148276881446616 stardust

    “a limit to the discipline of science itself” Excellent!Wouldn’t it be nice if it were the common understanding of scientists and educators. Their atheistic stand does a disservice to humanity; but then too, so does the fundamental creationists. If Intelligent Design stayed close to the cosmologists and chatted about how the universe of atoms became all things, all life, all mankind, then evolution, natural selection would fall into place.

  • Carlos

    Nicely said — I hadn’t seen the contrast between “religion and cosmology” and “religion and biology” in these terms, but I think you’re right — cosmology invites metaphysical speculation in a way that biology doesn’t. (Although the complexity and intricacy of living systems is no less an occasion for awe.) Though I’m an atheist (more or less), part of what irks me the most about “design theory” is the allergy to poetry and metaphor. The design theorists want explanations, or at any rate feed a demand for explanations. It’s been said that the explanations provided are scientifically inadequate, and that may well be. But I’m also fascinated by the demand for a literal, unambiguous, precise language. In short, design theorists are every bit as “scientistic” as the atheists they deplore.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04018824090441668781 ntWrong

    On the other side, the border [of biology] 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.In my opinion, these sciences also have limitations beyond which they are unlikely to succeed. Human behaviour is a mystery and I expect it will remain such.Science frequently establishes a correlation of the sort, “Children of alcoholics are relatively likely to grow up to become alcoholics themselves.” And then you check into things a little further, and discover that only about 15% of the children of alcoholics actually grow up to become alcoholics. Yes, there is a statistically valid correlation. But it is nothing like a hard-and-fast rule; not even a probability.Human behaviour is simply too complex to be reduced to such simple equations. And it may yet prove to be true that there is a “free” element of the human psyche which resists all attempts at determinism, whether biological or a matter of social conditioning or whatever.If we’re going to make a distinction between “god of the gaps” reasoning and the limitations of science — I think it applies to the sciences generally, and not with respect to cosmology only.