Science in Society Archive

Does God Have a Monopoly on Spirituality?

Michael Meacher. Destination of the Species. O Books, Winchester and Washington, 2010. ISBN 978-1-84694-263-1. £9.99 (US $19.95) 243pp.

Prof. Peter Saunders

Many people in the West find themselves in a quandary. Modern science and the way of thinking that goes with it seem to be in conflict with the religion they were brought up in. Does that mean they must abandon their religion when it still seems to offer much that science apparently cannot? Or must they divide their minds into compartments, one for material matters and a separate one for the spiritual? Is the idea of “two non-overlapping magisterial” [1] realistic anyway?

It is significant that for almost everyone who worries about such issues, “religion” means Christianity or something very much like it, and not any one of the major Eastern religions like Buddhism or Taoism, still less one of the many local religions of indigenous people. And the only alternative that they can envisage is contemporary science. Hardly anyone seems to consider either the possibility of something that’s not what we customarily think of as science and yet does not involve the supernatural, or that science itself could be far broader than it is generally perceived today. They also assume that any question we can ask – such as “What is the universe for?” – must have an answer and, what is more, an answer we can expect to find or be told. This makes the whole discussion less relevant to many of us, but it can still be interesting to follow as long as we bear in mind how much is being taken for granted.

One who has thought deeply about these questions is the Labour MP and environmentalist Michael Meacher. In The Destination of Species, he describes his quest to find what it is that he really believes; starting with whether there is a God at all. Ultimately, of course, this is a matter of faith, but is it only that? Or is there scientific evidence that makes belief still plausible in the twenty first century?

Was the universe designed?

Meacher devotes a large part of his book to what many Christians consider to be the strongest argument for a God, the ‘argument from design’. There are many things about the universe that appear to have been designed for a purpose, and that, they claim, tells us there must be an intelligent being that designed them. If we see a watch, we can be pretty sure that somewhere we will find a watchmaker [2].

For a long time, the strongest evidence appeared to be the existence of living organisms. Surely they cannot possibly have come into being through the action of natural forces. In the end, of course, Charles Darwin showed how they could have (not, by the way, had) evolved by natural selection. The argument from design survives, however, and the current version concerns the ‘fine tuning problem’.

This arises in the following way. Modern physicists have been remarkably successful at explaining many of the features of the universe. From a small number of fundamental equations they have constructed convincing accounts of how the universe has evolved, how the elements were created, how the stars were formed, and so on.

These equations naturally contain a number of constants:  Einstein’s gravitational constant, Planck’s constant, the charge on the election, and so on.  The values of these constants are calculated from the results of experiments. At first glance, there appears to be nothing unusual about them. The constants had to have some values; these are just the ones they happen to have. But eventually some physicists began to wonder what would have happened if they had been different. Obviously the universe would have been a bit different – if the gravitational constant were greater than it is, apples would fall faster – but would it matter any more than that?

Surprisingly, it turns out that it would. If you use the same equations with different constants, you end up with a universe in which there could be no life.

For example, if the nuclear weak force had been much stronger than it is, all the hydrogen would have been immediately turned into helium and there would be no water. There would also be no long-lived stable stars, and so no planets with temperatures suitable for life to evolve. If it had been significantly weaker, that too would have meant all the hydrogen would be destroyed.

If the nuclear strong force had not had very nearly its actual value, there would be no carbon, the element on which all life is built. If the electromagnetic force were only slightly stronger, no elements heavier than iron could be formed in the stars; if it were weaker then again there would be no stable main sequence stars.  And so on.

Could all this have happened purely by chance? The probability that out of all the values it might conceivably have, each of the constants should be within the tiny range that makes life possible must be infinitesimally small. Surely we can only conclude that the universe was designed so that there could be life in it, and so there must have been a Designer.

Ingenious though it is, I don’t find this argument as compelling as Meacher, and many others do. In the first place, history warns us that arguments from design are always in danger of being overtaken as science progresses. Many physicists are already working on theories that they hope will explain what we now see as fine tuning. If they succeed, then they will refute the current version of the argument.

The fine tuning argument assumes that what we call the laws of physics really are the laws that govern our universe and, what is more, would hold in any possible universe. They are, in Meacher’s words, universal, absolute, timeless and omnipotent. We can imagine changes in the values of the constants, though not, it seems, in the laws themselves.

But these so-called laws are really only our best shot, so far, at describing our universe and unifying our observations with as small a set of assumptions as we can manage. They do this remarkably well, but that does not mean that they are real laws that the universe obeys. Scientists in the past may have believed that Newton had discovered God’s laws, but since this view was overthrown by relativity and quantum mechanics, we no longer make such grandiose claims for our theories. The fine tuning that so concerns some people is not so much a property of the universe as a property of the mathematical models that we use to describe it.

True, the theories lead to remarkably accurate predictions, but that does not mean that they are close to the truth in a fundamental sense. In almost all cases, Newtonian gravitation and Einstein’s General Relativity give results that are so close that it is very difficult to design experiments to distinguish between the two. Yet they are based on quite different views of how the universe works.

We may still ask where our universe and its structure came from, and what purpose, if any, they are meant to serve, but these questions are no more awkward for the materialist than if we ask a religious person where God came from. In fact they are less awkward, because the materialist does not, or at least should not, claim that human beings, insignificant as we are in the vast expanse of space and time that is the universe, are capable of ever reaching the complete understanding that many religions promise, if only in another life. We can all agree that now we see through a glass darkly, but only religious people (and a few fundamentalist scientists) believe that some day it will be face to face.

Was the universe designed for us?

Whether or not we agree with Meacher so far, we can still follow him on his quest. Suppose there is a God and he did create the universe so that there could be life. Was it also part of his plan that humans would eventually appear? Are we the culmination of creation?

I suspect that when Meacher started out, he was hoping he could convince himself that we are. That would have brought him closer to the God of the Bible; and the scientific account of creation much closer to Genesis. But when he reviews what is known about the evolution of the planet and the organisms that inhabit it, he concludes that the evidence does not support this. There are too many points at which things could just have easily gone a different way and humans would never have appeared. God may have meant there to be life in his universe, but it seems it didn’t have to be us.

How then did we get here? Meacher is clearly repelled by the neo-Darwinian view that the universe is driven by “pitiless, directionless chance” and he looks to complexity and emergence to temper this. Here he could have made his case much stronger if he had drawn on the work of D’Arcy Thompson [3] and the many others who have shown how far the living world can be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry, however these came to be, rather than by natural selection. I could even recommend some work by the editors of SiS [4].

Meacher also believes that the ‘emergent’ properties that are observed in complex systems require new laws. But they do not; they emerge (hence the name) out of the operation of familiar ones. We are more likely to understand what they do by studying them at their own level than by reductionism, but that’s a different point. That is why chemistry is studied as a subject with its own “laws” even though every chemist believes that chemical properties arise ultimately out of physical interactions. When God set up the laws of physics (if that’s where you believe they came from) he also arranged for all the emergent properties to exist, even if it took us a rather long time to realise this.

A place for spirituality?

Where, then, has Meacher’s quest taken him? He concludes that while belief in God depends ultimately on revelation and personal non-scientific experience, there is enough scientific evidence in favour that it is not inconsistent with modern thought. For him and others like him, this opens the possibility of what he describes as a proud and existential reality, not capable of being proven but only to be understood “in the fullness of experience.” Spirituality, he argues, gives us a counter to the scientific reductionism and rampant consumerism that have become so influential in the West, especially since the middle of the last century.

Meacher is surely right that we need more in our lives than what contemporary mainstream science has to offer. Where many will disagree is with his belief that the rest has to involve the supernatural. This is less of an issue than it might be because he acknowledges the personal nature of revelation.  As Thomas Paine wrote [5], what might be a revelation to one person is only hearsay to those to whom he tells it and they are not obliged to believe it. Most of us can find much of value in religions we don’t happen to believe in; what we object to is being expected to give privileged status to each and every idea they contain.

I certainly find myself much more in sympathy with a religious person like Meacher than with secular scientists like Richard Dawkins [6] and others who have absolute faith in the theory they advocate. For example, Daniel Dennett writes [7], “Darwin’s dangerous idea [the theory of natural selection] is reductionism incarnate, promising to unite and explain just about everything in one magnificent vision.” This reads to me like the sort of claim we encounter in many religious writings, the sort that Meacher explicitly rejects.  

As you’d expect from someone so committed to environmental issues, Meacher ends his book with an appeal for us to stop despoiling the Earth on which we and other organisms depend. At least part of his argument for this comes from his religious views, and so he considers these ideas as part of spirituality. Others may come to similar conclusions from quite different religious perspectives or through purely secular considerations. Myself, I find that not only do I agree with his conclusions, I also agree with most of the reasoning by which he arrives at them.

Is even the starting point all that different? As an atheist, I don’t find it very surprising that a religious person who has done his best to free himself from dogma should see many things much as I do. I suppose Meacher might counter that his God can speak to atheists whether they are aware of it or not.

Article first published 24/02/11

References and Notes

  1. Gould SJ.  Nonoverlapping Magisteria. Natural History 1997, 106, 16-22.
  2. Paley W. Natural Theology, or Evidences of the existences and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, 5th edition, F&J Rivington, London, 1802.
  3. Thompson, D’A W. On Growth and Form Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1917.
  4. See for example: Ho MW & Saunders PT (eds) Beyond Neo-Darwinism. Academic Press, London, 1984; Saunders PT The organism as a dynamical system. In Thinking about Biology, SFI Studies in the Sciences of Complexity, Lecture Notes Vol. III (F.Varela & W. Stein, eds). Addison Wesley, Reading, 1993, pp 41-63. And for different laws that apply to organisms see Ho MW. The Rainbow and the Worm, the Physics of Organisms, World Scientific, Singapore and London, 1993, 2nd edition, 1998; 3rd edition, 2008/
  5. Paine T. (1794-1796) The Age of Reason.
  6. Dawkins R. The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1976, and many books, articles and talks since then.
  7. Dennett D. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. The Penguin Press, London, 1995, p82.

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Celia Wilson Comment left 25th February 2011 12:12:01
It is best to keep an open mind and to think for oneself. Religions can be used to control people. I could never bring myself to believe in a religion, even as an 8 year old. I think we (in the Western world) need to have a much greater understanding about the natural world and how it applies to our daily life, because we are too divorced from nature today in our industrialised societies. I find the philosophical differences of the various religions interesting, and often they espouse good commonsense, so as ideologies I don't dismiss them out of hand; I just do not want to be told, dogmatically, what to think. How we conduct ourselves in respect to the other plants, insects, marine and terrestrial animals of this planet is most important now, much more so than which religion you 'belong' to or whether there is a god or not. We see reality or imagine the supernatural through our brains interpreting and making sense of stimuli. I don't see how any homo sapiens can claim to 'know there is a god'. Surely this statement is an interpretation or explanation of the mysteries around us. This interpretation will change with growing understanding of the world and universe, I should have thought. Our beliefs and conscience are built on social conditioning and customs over the millennia since modern man developed. As an artist, I use the Buddhist and Taoist concept of "all mind, no mind" when creating some of my artwork; so in some way my work runs on a parallel line to 'spirituality' in that I try to completely enter another 'realm'. However, while this happens when creating art, drawing or painting, it can also happen when driving down a motorway - one can lose a sense of time. This encourages me to think that we perceive our world through the way our brain/mind is constructed. Views such as creationism, neo-Darwinism just don't seem worth bothering about, they are too parochial. What I would like to know is, if there is this universe, are there more?! As far as this planet is concerned, we are just embarking on the great journey into biology which puts chemistry and physics in the shade - wouldn't you say!

David Russell Comment left 26th February 2011 01:01:23
This article is full of poorly constructed and ambiguous sentences. Phrases such as "not inconsistent" (meaning, I assume that it is consistent) are littered throughout. This is simply meant to confuse the reader. The second paragraph has the sentence "They also assume that any question we can ask - such as "What is the universe for?" - must have an answer... First, who are "They"? Secondly, assuming he means Christians, then he's wrong. It's scientists who insist on knowing the answer to that question; not Christians! We assume that God created and is in control and usually leave it at that. I am a Christian and an environmentalist. God gave us this earth to use, nurture and look after. He did not give it to us to be abused, poisoned and laid waste.

Rory Short Comment left 26th February 2011 10:10:26
As a Quaker, a Yogi and a Buddhist, all by conviction, that means not by conversion to some set of spiritual beliefs put forward by someone else but through my own experience of there being a non-tangible reality with which I can connect and that is much more than myself, I have difficulty in understanding what is meant by atheism. If atheism holds that this non-tangible reality, of which I spoke, is just a delusory figment of mine and others imaginations that is fine, but the living relationship that I experience between myself and the non-tangible reality will not suddenly, because of that belief on the part of atheists, cease working for me and the many others who also experience it whatever label they might give to it.

Todd Millions Comment left 27th February 2011 13:01:02
A fraught subject Prof Saunders-and well done. christians themselves are not in a stone casting position,however way you face such facts as we are allowed.My personal experince derived figures are;5% sociopaths-manipulating a majority of the simple AND about30% of those smart enough too know better,but who think social action has too have a common faith.I was early on too churchs as lying mafia-oddly confirmation was supplied by a church of england cleric shaken by his experinces in India.To understand how wrong how quickly this cult became when it got conversion by sword power-AFTER docilean had set up the fuedal system,I find it useful too read the works of Hypatia and her fatherTheon.Her broken body was barely interred when -Gus the expident pimp of hippo began turning their(and others) work into a caricture(city of god).Now- reduction to absurdium,and indeed the torture derived experimental method(right out of the dominician interogation manual),and idiocy inducing overspecialzation,are as much a part of science as the are any monomaniac cult.

Berthajae Vandegrift Comment left 30th April 2011 17:05:17
No one suggests human creative intelligence is “supernatural”, so if purposeful creativity exists as a force of nature, why should it be regarded as supernatural. Whether a deity would participate in the process is not a question I, an agnostic, would even expect to answer. I do regard “natural selection“ as a most bizarre attempt at an explanation, but it seems to be the best the materialists have to offer. Humans have lived through the most dramatic change of environment in the past few centuries and are growing taller. . . (Does anyone believe tall people have been out producing short people? - living longer. . . (Does anyone believe we ninety-year-olds have added greatly to the population? - losing space for their wisdom teeth. . . (Does anyone believe people with plenty of room for their wisdom teeth have been dying off prematurely? - becoming autistic. . .(said to be increasing dramatically) autistic people lack intuitive knowledge and people skills. Some are able to substitute learning for such skills, but does anyone think this has happened by “natural selection? - able to read silently. . . I’ve read that monasteries were once noisy places because monks were unable to understand what they read unless they repeated it aloud. Does anyone think “natural selection” eliminated those noisy readers? Help me out here. I’m sure there are other equally absurd examples. A Few Impertinent Questions about Autism, Freudianism and Materialism

Charles McEwan Comment left 21st May 2011 05:05:09
I find the review of Michael’s book fairly depressing because it is so vague. A lot of questions are posed and possible options suggested but the writer does not commit himself to anything while trying to find holes in the arguments of others. This is really not good enough. He states that those who expect that we can find an answer to the purpose of the universe make the whole discussion less relevant to many people but he doesn’t say why. He appears to prefer a universe without a purpose. Now perhaps there is a purpose and perhaps there isn’t but to simply make the statement that it is not relevant is very unsatisfactory. He just doesn’t nail his colours to any mast which makes it very easy for him to criticize but protects his own position because there is nothing to get hold of. Actually there is something to get hold of because his suggestions about changing the gravitational constant is something that scientists have looked at and it appears that if we were to increase the gravitational constant by the minutest amount, gravity would be increased so much that nothing would be able to move and if it was decreased by the minutest amount the only element in the universe would be hydrogen. If that is so then it is at least reasonable to suggest that the existence of the universe depends on very, very, very fine tuning particularly when it appears that we find the same fine tuning in at least 20 other scientific constants. The writer suggests that to make a connection between this fine tuning and the existence of a ‘designer’ of the universe is ingenious. This is not a proper use of language. After all, the reason we consider a car engine or a bicycle to designed is because the laws of the universe do not allow such machines to assemble themselves. That much is common sense. His claim that there are “too many points at which things could just have easily gone a different way and humans would never have appeared” is an assumption that cannot be reasonably be justified with our present level of knowledge and to suggest that some time in the future it will all be come clear is the same argument we have been constantly hearing for generations. He says that it is “True, the theories lead to remarkably accurate predictions, but that does not mean that they are close to the truth in a fundamental sense”. How can something that is remarkably accurate not be close to the truth? Our experience tells us that future discoveries may add to our knowledge so we can expect that they may not be 100% accurate but we should be able to apply our reason to things that are remarkably accurate and come to a close approximation, much as a polygon with very many sides gives us a close understanding of what a circle is. Sorry, I’ve listened to these skeptics for generation and all they do is sow doubt, increase confusion and limit our hope.