by Owen Gingerich
Belknap Press, 160 pages, $16.95
When Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, it was understood as a serious challenge to natural theology. For several generations, such leading Christian thinkers as Robert Boyle and William Paley had seen the intricate, interrelated parts of living creatures as irrefutable evidence of the wisdom, power, and goodness of the divine craftsman who had made them so carefully and thoughtfully. Darwin turned Paley on his head, arguing that design in the organic creation was only apparent: The unguided, impersonal, and invisible hand of natural selection had produced all the awesome diversity and specialization that enrich the economy of nature.
Only two years later, Harvard chemist Josiah Parsons Cooke replied to Darwin in lectures he gave in Brooklyn and Boston. Before the Civil War had ended, the lectures were printed with the interesting title Religion and Chemistry; or, Proofs of God's Plan in the Atmosphere and Its Elements. Acknowledging that Darwin's book “was thought by many to have an injurious bearing on the argument from design,” Cooke's idea was to bypass biology entirely, thereby eluding the grasp of Darwin's invisible hand. “There is abundant evidence of design in the properties of the chemical elements alone,” he argued, especially as they combine to make the unique substance we call water. Natural theology had found a more solid foundation, “which no theories of organic development can shake.”
It was an insightful approach but for some reason not as influential as it might have been. Right before the First World War, another Harvard chemist, Lawrence Henderson, reworked large parts of Cooke's argument (without crediting him for it) in a more secular form, in another book with an illustrative title, The Fitness of the Environment: An Inquiry Into the Biological Significance of the Properties of Matter. Henderson concluded that “the biologist may now rightly regard the universe in its very essence as biocentric.” Cooke and Henderson made the same overall point: Life in the universe is possible only because matter itself has precisely the properties needed to make it possible, an idea that has since come to be known as the anthropic principle.
A third Harvard scientist, astronomer Owen Gingerich, eloquently reprises this theme in his latest book, God's Universe. Based on the William Belden Noble Lectures that Gingerich delivered in Harvard's Memorial Church, this little volume reflects on big questions about God and the universe. The delicate balance he strikes between modern scientific knowledge and traditional Christian faith exemplifies his longtime vocation as a distinguished Mennonite scientist and historian of science.
Danger lies in going too far to either side, he realizes. On the one hand, “it is particularly fascinating to realize that today we are still facing some of the same issues concerning the interface of science and religion that Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo grappled with—notably, the role of scriptural literalism.” On the other hand, there is the challenge embodied in Cosmos, the television series from the 1970s featuring the late Carl Sagan, “which offered a conspicuously materialist approach to the universe.” Gingerich's idea of responding to Sagan in a series of his own was unfortunately never funded, but God's Universe contains much of what he would have told a television audience.
Taking up the first big question—“Is mediocrity a good idea?”—Gingerich responds not so much to Sagan (although Sagan used it enthusiastically) as to the late Harlow Shapley, who served as Gingerich's mentor at Harvard. Shapley used to invoke what he called the “Copernican principle,” a philosophical axiom about mediocrity that Copernicus himself would not have recognized. Just as Copernicus removed Earth from its unique place in the center of the universe, Shapley liked to argue, others have shown that there is nothing special about the sun or even the Milky Way galaxy in which we live; there is indeed nothing special about us at all.
As Dennis Danielson has shown in his Book of the Cosmos, however, this grand narrative about how modern science demoted humanity is nothing more than an empty, historically unsupportable cliché. Nor has it had much value to science, as Gingerich demonstrates—it has actually been used just once, he concludes, to advance scientific knowledge. “More an ideology than a scientific law,” he aptly remarks, “the Copernican principle provides the bedrock on which SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, rests.” Gingerich's more sober analysis underscores the complexity of intelligent life and the rarity of the physical conditions that support it, leading to the ironic conclusion that “the enthusiasts of extra-terrestrial intelligence have opened a fascinating back door onto a goal-directed cosmos.” By assuming the inevitability of intelligent aliens, Gingerich explains, “they accept the existence of design principles that make life resembling our own a natural feature of the cosmos.”
As a Christian who believes in the great importance of human beings to God, Gingerich admits that his “gut reaction is to disparage” the idea of life on other worlds. Nevertheless, an appropriate theological caution creeps in, as he advises us not to set “unwarranted human limitations on God's creativity.” At the same time, the wondrous capabilities of the human brain, which far exceed in complexity all other created things, suggest to him that a little anthropocentrism is not such a bad thing: “Part of our glory,” he muses, “is that we can imagine that we are not the most remarkable creatures in the entire universe.” But perhaps we are, and we should not arbitrarily put a stop to all anthropocentric thinking.
“Dare a scientist believe in design?” is his next big question, and he answers it with verve and nerve. Like Johannes Kepler, the great astronomer for whom he has much admiration, Gingerich holds that “a staunch belief in supernatural design” does not contradict good scientific practice, even when science limits itself to tracing only natural causes, in a religiously neutral fashion, as Gingerich believes it must. Since the latter part of the nineteenth century—even earlier in the case of astronomy—science has operated on the assumption that scientific explanations involve only “natural” causes; that is, science is said to accept “methodological naturalism,” excluding from consideration any “intelligent,” let alone “supernatural,” causes. In recent years, some Christian scientists and philosophers have vociferously challenged this assumption, arguing for the necessity of appealing to intelligent agency to account for certain highly complex components of the universe, especially but not exclusively the cells of plants and animals.
Gingerich offers a thoughtful alternative to the “intelligent design” approach, which he develops with the help of Aristotle's classic terminology. “God's role as Sustainer” of all created things “can be described in Aristotelian terms as a final cause, the ultimate teleological reason something happens.” At the same time, the “vast panoramic scientific picture” assembled since the Scientific Revolution has been “singularly successful at explaining how the universe works, what Aristotle would call an efficient cause.” The efficient causes, detailing precisely how nature works, are needed to “get a spacecraft to Mars or explain how the laser in the grocery store checkout line works.” Modern science seeks to construct a coherent understanding of how nature works, “without recourse to the miraculous or to ultimate reasons.”
The ultimate question is whether ultimate reasons can still be suggested by science, at the boundaries of its limited, strictly naturalistic methods—and Gingerich affirms that they can be, citing several features of the physical universe that make it appear to have been “expressly designed for humankind.” Readers who like to associate design with repeated acts of special creation, including many supporters of the Intelligent Design movement, will likely agree with this conclusion while rejecting Gingerich's overall attitude toward natural theology. For them, design is at bottom a scientific question, accessible by the ordinary methods of science, as long as scientists do not arbitrarily rule out all inferences to guiding intelligence. Gingerich sees this differently. Like the distinguished Anglican physicist John Polkinghorne, he holds that design is “a metaphysical question, whose answer will come only out of metaphysical reasoning,” not from science itself. Although it would be “splendid” to have “irrefutable proof” of God's existence, we would then be left with “neither freedom nor choice” to accept or reject God.
Gingerich distances himself from the Intelligent Design movement in a further, less subtle way. “I believe in intelligent design, lower case i and lower case d,” he writes. “But I have a problem with Intelligent Design, capital I and capital D. It is being sold increasingly as a political movement, as if somehow it is an alternative to Darwinian evolution.”
I understand precisely what he means. My home is not thirty minutes away from Dover Area High School and even closer to the Federal District Court in Harrisburg where the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial took place in the fall of 2005. Following events in both locations with much interest, I encountered many people who believe that I.D. is a viable scientific alternative to evolution, when thus far (at least) it has been only an interesting philosophical critique of the explanatory efficacy of Darwinian evolution. I.D. has not yet provided a theory of comparable explanatory power for a comparable range of phenomena—and that is what it will take to be regarded as a real scientific alternative to evolution. At the popular level, however, it is often seen in heroic terms, as a David going bravely forth to battle the Goliath of scientific atheism clad in the armor of natural selection.
Gingerich has plenty of courage, but he treads much more cautiously. Although evolution is incomplete and many questions remain unanswered, he admits, “those are not grounds for dismissing it.” Outlining a middle way, he goes on to question whether the mathematically random mutations on which evolution depends are also random in a larger, metaphysical sense. His suggestion here reminds me of yet another Harvard scientist: the botanist Asa Gray, the first American Darwinian and also an important early proponent of what is often called “theistic evolution.” Gray acknowledged the presence and power of natural selection, but he also believed that “variation has been led along certain beneficial lines” by the Creator to produce the grand scheme of living things.
The development of quantum physics in the twentieth century has led some to propose that God might govern the universe partly at the atomic or molecular level. Such activity would be real but scientifically invisible, since it would be masked by the inherent uncertainties of quantum phenomena; faith would perceive what science lacks the ability to confirm or to deny. The late William Pollard, a physicist at Oak Ridge who was also an Episcopal priest, is often associated with this view. Contemporary champions include at least two more ordained physicists, John Polkinghorne and Robert John Russell, and Gingerich makes a similar claim. If God does not act at this level “to design the universe in a purposeful way,” he says, then “random chance was extremely lucky, because the outcome is there to see.”
Questions about God's interaction with the creation cannot be answered by science, and in the final chapter Gingerich focuses our attention on this and other “Questions without Answers.” Ultimately, as he states, the God creative enough “to make the entire observable universe in a dense dot of pure energy is incomprehensible, beyond human imagining,” but still “we can see the consequences of this unimaginably powerful creative act: a universe congenial to the ultimate formation of life, life giving rise to intelligence that can ask questions science cannot answer. It is God's universe.”
It does indeed take faith to draw this conclusion in the absence of scientific proof—in Gingerich's case, a deeply Christian faith, heavily informed by a profoundly incarnational understanding of the creation. Jesus—not the universe—is for Gingerich the “supreme example” of divine revelation, and in his mortal suffering “the nature of God's self-limited, dappled world became excruciatingly clear. God acts within the world,” he concludes, “but not always in the ways most obvious to our blinkered vision.”
<span style="font-variant: small-caps">Edward B. Davis</span> is a professor of the history of science at Messiah College.