Because God is the Only Hypothesis Necessary

In my work writing the history of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, I have interviewed dozens upon dozens of leading physicians, surgeons, and biomedical researchers. Recently, I have begun asking many of them a question: Is there any room for God in your world of biomedical science? Friday I received an answer that took me aback.

Jack Szostak, PhD, is a 2009 Nobel Prize-winner for Physiology or Medicine. He has had a “bench,” lab space, at the MGH for over 25 years. He has moved on from the work for which he and two non-MGH colleagues won the coveted Nobel. Today, he and his lab are trying to create life as it might have been created 13 billion years ago. I can’t give you the technical specifics, but clearly Dr. Szostak, an engaging, mild-mannered native of Montreal, is working on the fundamental hypothesis that life resulted from random collisions of chemicals and mutations of the building-block molecules that resulted. I asked him if he thought there was a place for God in this world.

“No,” he said with a shy smile. “I’ve never been a religious person. Who was it who said that God is an unnecessary hypothesis?” He couldn’t recall, but I looked it up later. It was French scientist Pierre Laplace who said it.

My purpose in asking this question of doctors and scientists is not to launch an argument that would throw my writing project off track. It’s more of a personal inquiry, a spiritual curiosity question. I have no beef with Dr. Szostak, but I see the world differently.

God is really the only hypothesis that is necessary, and becoming a Catholic has given me day-to-day experience in trying to live that hypothesis in its fullness. In thinking about why God is necessary, I have been buoyed by the writing of Fr. Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation. Whatever the ultimate reality is, Don Giussani says, it must correspond not only with our minds (truth must be reasonable) but also with our hearts (truth must correspond to the deepest needs and stirrings of our nature). Science looks at the world with the mind alone. CL and all Catholicism look at the world with the mind and heart joined.

If you leave the heart out of the equation—and of course if you put aside fundamental questions about what made those first chemicals and the laws by which they interact and so on back to a Prime Mover—it’s quite easy to make God unnecessary for one’s mind alone.

But God didn’t make us mere brains on a stick, now did He?

  • Allison

    @Webster: At some point, I encourage you to read "What's so great about Christianity" by Dinesh D'Souza. He spends a lot of time talking about the interplay of religion and science. And about the Catholic Church!

  • Joe

    Fr. Barron at WordOnFire has posted a video in which he refutes the "God is an unnecessary hypothesis" idea. He does so as part of his critique of Christopher Hitchens' book "God is Not Great." It would be well worth Googling. As always, Fr. Barron gives a remarkably clear, convincing argument.

  • Jan

    I would be interested in hearing some of the other answers you received.My husband was a pulmonary research physician as well as a critical care physician and classroom instructor. I can't say for certain what his thoughts on the subject of 'any room for God' were then, but after he went into private practice, he saw God's presence everywhere. The astounding thing is that even before he was a Christian, much less a Catholic, he would, from time to time comment on feeling the hand of God on his shoulder or his patient's. He never hesitated to give God the credit for positive outcomes.

  • Peter

    The farther you get away from taking care of patients and more into "pure science", the easier it becomes to deny God. I'd be curious what responses you got from actual clinicians, you know, those of us who try to keep the living living….

  • Anonymous

    "Today, he and his lab are trying to create life as it might have been created 13 billion years ago. I can’t give you the technical specifics, but clearly Dr. Szostak, an engaging, mild-mannered native of Montreal, is working on the fundamental hypothesis that life resulted from random collisions of chemicals and mutations of the building-block molecules that resulted."How can they possibly use the fundamental hypothesis of random collisions of chemicals. Did they create their own chemicals? If not they are cheating and using the chemicals from God.It's like the joke about the scientist telling God he could make man from dust too.And God said, get your own dirt.Because in the beginning . . .Miriam

  • Blog Name

    There is no interplay between science in religion. Religion scorns those, like Thomas, who look for proof. To be purposefully blind to proof and to discourage looking for such is anathema to scientific thinking and reason. Or as Prof. Szostak put it: I believe that science and religion actually are irreconcilable. In my view a scientific world view is one based on continuous questioning and therefore a search for more and better evidence and theories; faith in the unknowable plays no role. I think that belief systems based on faith are inherently dangerous, as they leave the believer susceptible to manipulation when skepticism and inquiry are discouraged.

  • Allison

    @Blog Name: I do not agree with you at all. I would encourage you and others to read with an open heart Dinesh D'Souza's book "What's so Great about Christianity," which posits that only a belief in God could foster the development of science. Here is another of his writings…The following is a excerpt from "A Christian Foundation" pulled from USA Today where D'Souza boldly characterizes the Anti-Theists as fanatics that simply would not exist if Christianity did not create the foundation for their thought."We seem to be witnessing an aggressive attempt by leading atheists to portray religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as the bane of civilization. Finding the idea of God incompatible with science and reason, these atheists also fault Christianity with fostering a breed of fanaticism comparable to Islamic radicalism. The proposed solution: a completely secular society, liberated from Christian symbols and beliefs.This critique, which comes from best-selling atheist books, academic tracts and a sophisticated network of atheist organizations and media, can be disputed on its own terms. What it misses, however, is the larger story of how Christianity has shaped the core institutions and values of the USA and the West. Christianity is responsible even for secular institutions such as democracy and science. It has fostered in our civilization values such as respect for human dignity, human rights and human equality that even secular people cherish.Consider science. Although there have been many civilizations in history, modern science developed in only one: Western civilization. And why? Because science is based on an assumption that is, at root, faith-based and theological. That is the assumption that the universe is rational and follows laws that are discoverable through human reason."

  • Jan

    I think that belief systems based on faith are inherently dangerous, as they leave the believer susceptible to manipulation when skepticism and inquiry are discouraged.This is true when you are dealing with religions that do not allow for medical intervention, such as Jehovah's Witness and Scientology. But, whether or not one is a believer, one cannot discount medical miracles that have nothing to do with medicine, and those that seemingly have everything to do with medicine.What it comes down to is this: we have the choice to believe in God or not, to follow a particular faith or not, and to commingle science and faith as we see fit.I don't personally know any physicians who are not believers in God, although I guess there probably are some out there somewhere.

  • Bender

    Blog Name — and yet you have unassailable faith in yourself.My view is one based on continuous questioning of those who continuously question, thus, I must be the one who is more supremely scientific.Thus, we see what a flimsy house of cards it is.Of course, if you yourself are totally open to all the evidence and proof that is presented, then you are already aware of all that the Catholic Church teaches about the Faith being grounded in Reason (as one would expect from the religion of the Logos).Sorry to have to be so snarky about this, but I'm afraid that you are not as open to truth as you believe yourself to be (same with Szostak, whoever he is (like the Nobel Prize means anything anymore, ha!)).What Pope Benedict has said repeatedly is abundantly obvious — When one limits himself to think only of material and experimental objects, he closes himself to the questions of life and himself, impoverishing himself. "Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it. . . . It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love." (Spe Salvi 25-26)"It is urgent, therefore, to rediscover in a new way human rationality open to the light of the divine 'Logos' . . . When Christian faith is authentic it does not mortify freedom or human reason; then, why should faith and reason be afraid of one another, if on meeting one another and dialoguing they can express themselves in the best way? Faith implies reason and perfects it, and reason, illuminated by faith, finds the strength to rise to knowledge of God and of spiritual realities. Human reason loses nothing when it is open to the contents of faith; what is more, the latter calls for its free and conscious adherence." (Angelus, 1/28/07)Blog Name — open yourself to all the possibilities of truth.

  • Bender

    As for belief systems based on faith being inherently dangerous –Surely you are aware that science itself is, and must necessarily be, as a practical matter, based on faith in those who have gone before. A scientist or mathematician naturally trusts those have made prior advances and theories, not to mention has faith in those who wrote the textbooks that he uses to learn about science and math.Science and math MUST depend on faith, they must depend on what others have told them, if science and math are ever to advance. One cannot reinvent the wheel everytime, he cannot go and repeat each and every experiment, he cannot go through each and every theorem and equation, rather, he simply trusts that the "established" science and math are true.Are we then to believe that these scientists and mathematicians, who are only doing what is natural and practical, are inherently dangerous?