Can We Find God Through Nature? (RJS)

Can We Find God Through Nature? (RJS) April 3, 2012

Part Two of Karl Giberson’s new book, The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in Our Fine-Tuned World, looks at design arguments and considers the pros and cons of possible interpretations of scientific data that either suggest or eliminate evidence for God in the Universe. I have commented at times on an edge to Giberson’s writing, a tone that makes it hard to listen to his arguments and understand his points. This book, however, is Giberson at his very best. It would require a thin skin to find serious problems with tone, and his explanations are clear and insightful. All may not agree with his conclusions (I don’t agree with all of his conclusions), but he puts forth his arguments in a way that should lead to greater understanding and clarity.

One of the key ideas that Giberson stresses in this section

Science is quite extraordinary at telling us how the world is but quite unable to tell us why the world is like that. Science illuminates the remarkable features of our universe that make life possible, but it goes silent when we ask whether any particular life form is the reason why the universe is the way it is. That is a deeply religious question that has to be explored somewhere else. (p. 156)

And much later:

The Christian worldview, with its belief in a God who creates and is revealed in the exemplary life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is the starting point from which we examine the mystery of our existence – the wonder of the universe. (p. 200)

There is beauty, meaning, and relationship in this world, but there is also evil, natural disaster, and sickness. The Christian worldview directs our understanding of all of these features of the world, good and bad. But we cannot get from the bare facts to the God we worship, who entered into relationship with his people and who became flesh and dwelt among us.  John Polkinghorne puts it like this:

If science is human reflection on impersonal encounter with the physical world, theology is reflection on transpersonal encounter with the sacred reality of God. … In those acts of divine disclosure that theology calls revelation, the initiative lies with God. (Science and Religion in Quest of Truth p. 12)

There is a difference between science itself and the interpretations that are drawn from scientific knowledge. We know God only through his self revelation when he condescends to meet us where we are. So Christians have the same science as non-Christians, and this includes evolution, but the encompassing narrative that makes sense of this data is different, transformed by experience of God.

Can we find God through science?

Where should we look for evidence of God and his purposes?

Although science alone cannot answer questions of meaning and purpose, this does not mean that there are no indications of meaning and purpose to be found in nature. These are not things we must find merely on faith. There are two examples suggestive of design in the structure of the universe that Giberson discusses in Chapter 8  Following the Evidence.

Contingency and Convergence. One of the complaints about evolutionary biology is that it relies on contingency and random chance. But this emphasis on contingency is an interpretation of the data, and not the only interpretation by any means.

The late Stephen Jay Gould [a Harvard paleontologist] emphasized the random, contingent character of evolution: “Alter any early event, ever so slightly and without apparent importance at the time, evolution cascades into a radically different channel.”  It seems, therefore, if the DNA in our history had gone in a slightly different direction, a very different species may have evolved. “Replay the tape a million times from [the] beginning,” writes Gould, “and I doubt if anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.” (p. 161)

Simon Conway Morris also a leading paleontologist, a Professor at Cambridge University in England, arrives at a very different conclusion however.

Conway Morris does not propose a different mechanism for evolution. He merely argues – on the basis of the same evidence that Gould used – for a different interpretation of its outcomes. He agrees with Gould that evolution could have taken various paths, but he argues that each of those paths would lead to something like the human species. (p. 161)

Put simply this is because there are only so many ways that atoms can be combined into molecules and molecules into structures, only so many ways to image light and to transmit information. These are constrained by the laws of chemistry and physics. Thus there are only a limited number of ways that any given task can be accomplished. Evolution is a massive search engine that explores these pathways. There is convergence to the same solution from a variety of starting points and pathways.

This is a provocative insight. Conway Morris, and those who share his views, argue that there are certain favored pathways in the history of life and suggest that evolution can have preferred directions. These favored pathways exist independently of evolution. In fact, they precede the appearance of life. (p. 163)

Even convergence, though, does not lead inevitably to recognition of the creator God. Conway Morris sees evidence for God in the design of a world that will lead to creatures like us designed for relationship with our creator. So do I. But I have colleagues who agree with the concept of convergence, all the while disagreeing with the implication that in this we see the hand of God. Convergence, like the fine-tuning of the universe, they see as the impersonal and purposeless consequence of the laws of nature.

Life is not a zero-sum game. This is true in economics as Michael Kruse points out for us quite often, but the impact of this truth is far more profound … human society, human culture, and indeed biology and life itself are all nonzero-sum games. Here is another evidence for purpose and design in the universe. Giberson brings a recent book by Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, into the discussion. Wright, Giberson tells us “was raised Southern Baptist, but is no longer a Christian.” Nonetheless he sees a direction in both biological evolution and political and economic history and brings the mathematical discipline of game theory into his argument.

A zero-sum game is easy to understand:

If the only way to acquire something is to take it from someone else, or otherwise prevent him or her from getting it, then the interaction is zero-sum. (p. 168)

Life is not a zero-sum game. The nonzero sum argument is intrinsic to biology beginning with the benefit of the cooperative interaction of various parts of a single cell. Simple multicellular creature can accomplish more than a single cell life form can. Evolution is inevitable, Wright argues, because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

But the argument goes beyond individual creatures. Human society as a whole is intrinsically a non-zero sum game. The entire society benefits – eventually – from honesty, trust, cooperation, creativity, ingenuity, investigation. All society is damaged by irresponsible and destructive behavior.   The truth of the nonzero-sum rule is “part of the deep structure of the universe.”

Wright suggests that this viewpoint – which he defends on entirely secular grounds – supports the idea that the world might be viewed as the creation of a god who intended it to be filled with love.(p. 171)

Perhaps the deep moral truth of the importance of considering the value and welfare of others, the ability to look at the world through the eyes of others, or at least to try to do so, is a deep truth and an intrinsic part of the nature of the universe.

Giberson sums this up:

At the heart of Christianity – and virtually all other religions – is the belief that human beings are not solitary creatures: we are created to live in communities and flourish when we are embedded in a network of loving caring trusting relationships. That the universe seems structured to bring this about is quite suggestive. “There is a moral axis to the universe,” Wright told in a 2009 interview. “It raises legitimate questions as to whether the whole system was in fact set up by some being, something you could call a divinity.” (p. 172)

The moral structure of the universe and the power of community in the deep truth of the nonzero-sum game are elements that can help point us toward God. This is a perfect segue to a story Scot linked in Weekly Meanderings last Saturday, but is worth mentioning again today,  The Brain on Love:

The brain changes with experience throughout our lives; it’s in loving relationships of all sorts — partners, children, close friends — that brain and body really thrive.During idylls of safety, when your brain knows you’re with someone you can trust, it needn’t waste precious resources coping with stressors or menace. Instead it may spend its lifeblood learning new things or fine-tuning the process of healing. Its doors of perception swing wide open. The flip side is that, given how vulnerable one then is, love lessons — sweet or villainous — can make a deep impression. Wedded hearts change everything, even the brain.

We are made for community and we are shaped by the community we find ourselves in, the relationships we cultivate, and the company we keep. The first comment Saturday, written by a pastor, noted:

In Diane Ackerman’s wonderful article on how relationships affect the brain, I see a strong reason to be a member in a healthy congregation.

… Kind of makes one glad to be part of a community in which such moments occur!

And we are called to be in community in communion with the people of God. The Church is the body of Christ to be this community for each other and for the world. No man is an island and no Christian goes solo. This is a nonzero-sum game and it is a deep truth of God’s creation.

No proof – but hints of God in our fine-tuned world. Neither of these two phenomena – evolutionary convergence or the deep truth of the nonzero-sum game – prove that God exists. More importantly, nothing from the realm of science can prove the existence of the personal God of Christian faith who sent his Son so that the world through him might be saved. Our God cannot be found through science. But there are hints of God, he can be glimpsed through the nature of the world. Both of these phenomena are part of the evidence for purpose and design. Read through the Christian worldview both evolutionary convergence and the moral axis to the universe seen in the nonzero-sum game can help us understand God better.

What do you think?

How and why can we see evidence for God in creation of the diversity of life?

Is there a moral axis to the universe? If so, is this evidence for a purposeful creation?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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