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Tuesday, 18 September 2007

God's Universe: A Review

I have mentioned Owen Gingerich’s book "God’s Universe" in several comments & emails. Recently, while enjoying the more natural part of God’s Universe in northern Ontario, I had a chance to reread his book. I think I was more impressed with it the second time I read it. To me, that’s one indication of a good book.

Gingerich is a Harvard astronomer of Amish background, a somewhat surprising combination. Rather than being dissuaded from higher education, he was actually encouraged to follow his passion for astronomy since we should not “let the atheists take over any field”. He is also a historian of science, and this allows him some astute insight and understanding into the science / faith dialogue. This insight and understanding is almost entirely absent from many popular modern scientific books that depend on the “historical fiction” of Andrew White's "A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom". The historical anecdotes and the conclusions Gingerich draws from these anecdotes in "God’s Universe" not only demonstrate that the “inherent conflict thesis” is unsupportable, but also make for a compelling & accessible book.

God’s Universe is based on a series of lectures Gingerich provided at Harvard. The first lecture entitled “Is Mediocrity a Good Idea” examines the contention of the modern day “Copernican principle” (not to be confused with Copernican heliocentricism). This states that our galaxy, our solar system, our earth, and humanity are not special at all but simply one insignificant, infinitesimally small, irrelevant accident, possibly one of many such accidents. Using his background as both a scientist and a historian, Gingerich shows that the Copernican Principle is more ideology than science.

I find it fascinating to compare the ideology the Copernican Principle with the ideology of “Rare Earth” espoused by many Christians and others. This is the contention that the earth is not only very special, but absolutely unique in our mind-bogglingly expansive universe. I can’t say I’ve examined the math closely, but I highly doubt we have enough understanding to say either that the earth is unique, or that there are billions of other worlds like ours. I’m certainly not jumping on the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) bandwagon, but to state categorically that the search is theoretically (and not just practically) doomed is to go to far. I love Gingerich’s nugget near the end of his first lecture where he states that:

“We human beings are the most extraordinary creatures we know about, and part of our glory is that we can imagine we are not the most remarkable creatures in the entire universe”.
The second lecture entitled “Dare a Scientist Believe in Design” is daring indeed. For a scientist, “supporting design” is a declaration that often invites derision from one’s colleagues and career limiting repercussions. For a Christian, and particularly for Evangelical Christians, “opposing design” invites suspicion of a sell-out or even accusations of heresy. So one could forgive Gingerich and other Evangelical scientists for dancing around the design debate or even ignoring it altogether. Gingerich does neither.

Gingerich ends his first lecture with a quote that could be seen an introduction to the second, stating that:

For me the universe is more coherent and congenial place if I assume that it embodies purpose and intention.
So, if by intelligent design, one means there is purpose to the universe then Gingerich identifies with intelligent design. However, he clearly does not identify with the current Intelligent Design movement that ridicules the theory of evolution. For Gingerich, “evolution today is unfinished theory, but these are not grounds for dismissing it”. He uses Aristole’s catagories of final (primary) and efficient (secondary) causes to show how both materialistic scientists and ID proponents confuse the “How” and “Why” questions of divine action. In a quote sure to raise the ire of both those attempting to teach the religion of “atheistic evolution”, and those trying to eliminate the teaching of biological evolution he states:

“It is just as wrong to present evolution in high school classrooms as a final cause as it is to fob off ID as a substitute for an efficacious efficient cause”.

In the third chapter entitled “Questions without Answers”, Gingerich states that “Science is good at asking questions that are answerable” but that many questions cannot be addressed by science. These metaphysical questions are the ones with which religion must deal. Science may have some input to these answers, but is the junior partner. In Gingerich’s words, “physics constrains metaphysics, but does not determine it”. He also addresses the place of “proof” in science, which has particular application for complex areas like biological evolution:

Today science marches on not so much via proofs as through the persuasive coherency of the picture it presents. What passes for truth in science is a comprehensive pattern of interconnected answers posed to nature – explanations of how things work though not necessarily why they work.
In conclusion, I’d like to quote Ted Davis’s review of “God’s Universe”:

Ultimately, as [Gingerich] 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.”


Cliff Martin said...

Thank you, Steve. Gingerich's book has been near the top of my list of "those books I must read when I get the time." You're review moves it up on that list.

My interest in his book is heightened by his anabaptist perspective. I'm intrigued by a Mennonite high school drop out who becomes a respected Harvard astronomer!

Martin LaBar said...

Yes, this is a good book. You've done it justice, I believe.