God and the Modern Scientist
How can we understand anything? asks Pater Landsberg
One of the hardest questions I am asked is "Do you believe in God?" The simple answer "I am working on it", is not always acceptable, even though it expresses a fact. The reason is that I cannot believe in a man with a big beard, sitting above the clouds, who keeps an eye on all of us, nor can I believe that this marvellous universe, with its beautiful landscapes, tenuous cloud formations, character-full human faces, etc., is merely a result of an evolution which has occurred in "our" section of an infinite time, which has neither a beginning nor an end. Some people think of this process as a winding-up process. When it has gone its course it will leave us in the lurch, and also it is inconsistent with the notion of a benevolent creator. But, as it is a logical possibility, let us honour this idea by calling it "Model 1". Furthermore, contrary to what we read sometimes, science cannot help much with the concept of God, since science glories (quite rightly) in cause-effect relations, and these are bound to lead either to an infinite regress or to an initial event, beyond which we are not able to probe, so that the origin of the universe must remain a big puzzle. If we lived on the surface of a balloon, however, we would know no spatial boundaries, and, by analogy, we can imagine three-dimensional space, and even (four-dimensional) space-time, to be curved back upon itself, so that there is no spatial or temporal boundary, and therefore no beginning or end in time. But this seems rather contrived, since our time sense is linear (in the direction from past to future). A circular time with repeated creation and destruction, as in Indian mythology, is of course conceivable. As Shelley noted,
Another Athens shall arise,
and to remoter time bequeath,
like sunset to the skies,
the splendour of its prime.
As this is conceivable, we shall call the idea "Model 2".
Returning to our initial question, let us ask: how does one understand anything? Logical understanding of things is possible only in terms of other things which one either knows, accepts, or postulates. The blue colour of the sky is explained in terms of the accepted laws of optics, and the dropping of an apple in terms of the accepted force of gravity, which can itself be referred back to space-time curvature. So it cannot be expected that the "first" event can be grasped logically in that same sense. There may well have been a beginning, yet a coming into existence of the world from vacuum (another current scientific idea) still leaves the puzzle of the initial event. As to God, some people of course claim 'proofs' for his existence, but then even some theologians accept that they are inconclusive. Again, we might order our lives on the assumption that God exists, as this would offer our best chance of eternal life in heaven, as proposed in 'Pascal's wager'. Pascal argued that it would be risky to order our lives on the assumption that God does not exist, as we may then spend an eternity in hell. For God may in fact exist and then he may not forgive us if we do not believe in him. But an omniscient God would surely not be fooled by such a transparent manoeuvre! In fact I conclude that there appears to be neither a proof nor a disproof of the existence of God.
Is there another way out, apart from our two Models 1 and 2 (involving either linear or circular time)? Must we for ever drift in a world of religious wars, competing dogmas, with choices between mosques, churches, synagogues and temples? Let us for the moment sit on the fence as regards the question of whether God exists or not, and replace this question by another question which we can answer. "Wrong" questions have been asked before: Does life start upon birth or conception? Wrong question, since it depends on the definition of life, and so both answers are possible. Is the electron a wave or a particle? Wrong question, since in a post-Newtonian world it can be regarded as either. In that sense, then, let us alter our question! There are many creation myths associated with the different world religions Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Mayan, etc.. The new question is "Which is your preferred creation myth?", and it makes a transition from what is effectively a matter of fact to a matter of opinion. The answer is now less impressive, but it can be given with certainty and with a clear conscience.
You may eventually press me to tell you what, in my opinion, is God. In my view it is first of all a construction of the human mind. As far as that is concerned, all words are actually in that category! So, what does this word mean? It stands for a presumed ultimate cause, i.e. one which does not itself have a cause. Further it is a cause which (or who!) some of us believe, or hope, to be essentially well inclined towards mankind.
Such views are widely agreed and are hardly very new or original observations. They also remind us that the belief in a personal God among scientists has seriously declined in the period from 1914 to 1998. The figures for American scientists are actually 27.7% to 7.0% of the people questioned. If one wants a proof of the existence of a God, then, since the attempts over the ages have been unsuccessful, one can safely say that the proposition that God exists cannot be proved or disproved . Such propositions exist elsewhere in philosophy, and I have called them Godelian, after the logician and mathematician Kurt Gödel. The question about God's existence thus takes its place along with other statements which can, strictly speaking, be neither proved nor disproved. As an example one can think of the statement that the universe is expanding! It is probably so, but it cannot be proved in any strict sense. Indeed many scientific statements are in this category. Allow me a sweeping statement in conclusion: science is a study of the likely, not of the certain.
Peter Landsberg's latest acclaimed work, Seeking Ultimates : An Intuitive Guide to Physics is published by the Institute of Physics and is available from Amazon UK. It is written for the non-mathematician and every chapter has been given a human hero.