Menu
A+ A A-

Has Science Killed God?

  • NORMAN PODHORETZ

Norman Podhoretz traces, from the time of Galileo, the various conflicts and connections between religion and science.

butterfly3.jpg

The single most important phenomenon of the millennium just ended is the dog that didn't bark. But the second most important was the dog that did.

As to the dog that barked. It was, surely, the development of modern science. This process started not at the beginning of the millennium but halfway through it getting seriously underway with Copernicus in the middle of the 16th century and picking up steam in the early 17th. Yet in the four centuries since Copernicus proved that Earth revolves around the sun rather than the other was around, more has been learned about the natural world than was known in all the ages of human existence that came before them.

This seems, when one pauses to reflect on it, very odd. After all, there can be no doubt that some of the greatest intellects ever to appear on Earth were active 2,000 years ago and earlier. Among the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Greeks alone, there were thinkers who have never been surpassed in profundity, originality, vision and wisdom.

Some of these ancient peoples even applied themselves to mathematics and the sciences, and up through the Middle Ages their work continued to exert a mighty influence on Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers and theologians alike. Thus Scholasticism, the school of thought rejected by modern science (the "new philosophy," in the parlance of the time) was almost as deeply rooted in the Greeks, especially Aristotle, as in the Bible. Indeed, the most formidable of the Scholastics, St. Thomas Aquinas, dedicated himself to reconciling reason (equated with Aristotle) and revelation (the Scriptures). And in the course of pursuing this enterprise, Aquinas had much to say about the physical nature of the universe.

What, then, can explain why most, if not all, of what these great minds thought they knew about the nature of the material world was wrong? Conversely, how did it happen that Copernicus, and then Kepler and Galileo (the two giants who came right after him), and those who followed in their footsteps all the way to the present day, got most, if not all, of it right?

One might imagine that so huge and consequential a question would be hard to answer. But no. Galileo himself answered it. The Scholastics, he clearly recognized, were interested only in explaining why things were as they were, and their explanations (with more than a little help from Aristotle) took the form of logical deduction from the truths they already possessed through revelation. Galileo's revolutionary aim, by contrast, was to discover how things were by observing and measuring them.

Galileo never claimed that these new experimental procedures could uncover anything about the cause or the origin of the forces being measured and observed. But through such procedures, he could and did find evidence that the Scholastics, and Aristotle before them, were wildly mistaken about the physical universe. Speaking of phenomena that he had spotted through the telescope he built — phenomena that were ruled out by the prevailing Scholastic theory — Galileo declared: "We have in our new age accidents and observations, and such, that I question not in the least, but if Aristotle were now alive, they would make him change his opinion."

Well, Aristotle might, but the professor at Padua was no Aristotle. He declined even to look through the telescope Galileo had built. Why bother? So far as he was concerned, nothing he might see could shed light on the human purposes it served.

Galileo took the opposite tack. It was, he argued, beyond the power of the human mind unaided by revelation to penetrate those purposes. Therefore, it would be better for people "to pronounce that wise, ingenious, and modest sentence, 'I know it not;'" and not (like the Scholastics) "suffer to escape from their mouths and pens all manner of extravagance." Even though Galileo, while famously forced by the Church to recant his belief in the heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus, held on privately to that belief, he did not reject Christianity. He also contended that science did not contradict the Bible as properly understood. But he did, willy-nilly, sever the connection forged most fully by Aquinas between reason and revelation.


To the great English poet John Donne, who lived in the early days of this intellectual revolution, it was a disaster:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The Sun is lost, and the earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it...
Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone...

However, Donne's fellow countryman and near contemporary, Sir Francis Bacon, saw it all very differently. In Bacon's view, the new philosophy was no threat — not to religious faith, not to the wit of man and not to the social order. By separating out "the absurd mixture of matters divine and human" that the Scholastics had concocted, all the new philosophy did was to render unto faith the things that are faith's." To understand the word of God, we now had to "quit the small vessel of human reason, and put ourselves on board the ship of the Church, which alone possesses the divine needle for justly shaping the course." Furthermore, in submitting to the limits of human reason, we would lay bare the true wonders of God's creation, and we would thereby ultimately be led to worship him all the more.

This prediction may have been sincere or, more likely, a clever piece of apologetics, but in any case it turned out to be wrong about the effect of the new philosophy on religious belief. As science progressed, faith in the old sense grew correspondingly weaker, and by the 18th century — which was not dubbed the Age of Reason for nothing — it had been diluted into the depersonalized generalities of deism.

In the meantime, the human mind unaided by revelation was showing such enormous power that even a poet like Alexander Pope (who was a Roman Catholic) fell into a state of veneration as before a saint in contemplating the figure of the preeminent scientist of his day, Sir Isaac Newton:

Nature and Nature's law lay hid in night, God said, 'Let Newton be,' and all was light

The paradox was that this apparently unlimited power had been unleashed precisely by the willingness of reason to become (in Galileo's term) more "modest." In restricting itself to what it was capable of discovering, instead of presuming to answer the ultimate questions that were beyond its ken, the human mind had rapidly acquired a vaster store of knowledge about the physical universe than it had managed to gather in all the years gone by.

By the 19th century, with the advent of Charles Darwin, the new philosophy had descended from the planets to the apes. And with this shift, the so-called war between religion and science, which Bacon had denied would ever occur, heated up to a veritable frenzy. Like so many of the scientists who had come before him, Darwin protested that he was not a nonbeliever and he insisted that his discovery of the descent of man from the apes did not refute the essential truths of religion.

But to little avail. There were (and still are) desperate efforts by many Christians either to refute Darwin or to find a way of maintaining their faith in the biblical ac count of creation in the teeth of his work. Great outpourings of religious enthusiasm even occurred here and there. And yet when the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed toward the end of the 19th century that God was dead, he was expressing a very wide spread feeling, often secretly held, that few others had the nerve to articulate s boldly,

Nietzsche welcomed the death of God as a necessary precondition for the fruition of human greatness. But his older Russian contemporary, the great novelist Foodor Dostoevsky, like John Donne before him, was appalled by the consequences that the victory of science over religion were likely to bring with it. If God was dead, he said (through the mouth of one of his characters, Ivan Karamazov), then everything was permitted.

At this point in the story, we run into another fascinating paradox. While it was in becoming "modest" that the human mind seemed to have grown to superhuman proportions, it soon forgot, in the headiness of its accomplishments, the respect for its own limits that had made the gigantic accomplishments of reason possible in the first place. Now the idea spread that reason in the form of science had shown that it, not God, was omnipotent and was on its way to usurping the divine attribute of omniscience as well.

And so it came about that modesty was replaced by the puffed-up pride the Greeks called hubris. The likes of the Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century and then Auguste Comte in the 19th asserted that science need not even be restricted to the physical world; it could be adapted to the social world just as successfully. "Social science" could design plans for an ideal society, and in implementing them, it could at the same time — or so the most utopian of these social engineers expected — reshape and perfect human nature itself.

If, according to Dostoevsky, the death of God meant that everything (evil) was now permitted, the new worshippers of reason believed that everything (good) was now possible. But Dostoevsky was a better prophet than the utopian rationalists on the other side, as the grisly horrors perpetrated by the two main totalitarian systems that sprang up in the 20th century would demonstrate.

For both communism and Nazism were forms of social engineering based on supposedly scientific foundations. The communists who took over in Russia in 1917 explicitly saw themselves as "scientific socialists;' carrying out the hither-to hidden laws of History as unearthed by the mind of Karl Marx and creating as they went along the "new Soviet man." As for the Nazis, they justified their slaughter of Jews and others as part of a program of putatively scientific eugenics that would purify the human race and create the higher breed foreseen by Nietzsche in his vision of the superman.


To be sure, few worshippers of reason detected in the horrors of totalitarianism the fingerprints of their triumph in the war between science and religion, Quite the contrary. Many scientists and other devotees of what has aptly been described as "the religion of science" even supported the Soviet "experiment" (the use of this word was itself significant) and apologized for or denied the crimes it entailed, Conversely, they placed the blame for Nazism not on anything connected with reason or science but on the atavistic influence of religion and forces of irrationality and superstition that allegedly always accompanied it.

Hence totalitarianism failed to make a dent in the hubris of the religion of science. But the atom bomb did manage to trigger a recoil among the physicists who had invented it. In yet another of the paradoxes that keep cropping up here, this most vivid demonstration of the seemingly limitless power of science brought about something of a return to Galileo's modesty. Scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had supervised the project, took to agonizing over what science had wrought and were beset by doubts about its role in the total scheme of things.

In yielding to these doubts, Oppenheimer and others had been preceded by several scientist-philosophers, of whom the most eminent was probably Alfred North Whitehead. In Science and the Modern World (1925), Whitehead, from within a generally scientific worldview, raised deep questions about the idea that science provided an exhaustive account of reality. "Religion," he wrote approvingly, "is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things."

During this same period, there were also literary figures like T.S. Eliot who carried forward and modernized the tradition of resistance to the imperialistic claims of reason and science as against those of imagination and religion. Finally, to Eliot and Whitehead were added theologians like Jacques Maritain who, resurrecting and reconceiving lines of argument from St. Thomas Aquinas that had once been thought dead and buried forever, undertook to show that the truths of science did not refute or negate the truths of religion.

Then, too, within the realm of science itself, new discoveries were made, particularly in cosmology (where the whole thing had started) that further encouraged a return to Galileo's modesty. In 1992 the distinguished astronomer Robert Jastrow, while describing himself as an agnostic, wrote a book entitled God and the Astronomers concluding that "it is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation."

But the very last sentence of Mr. Jastrow's book was even more astonishing: "For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."

Evidently, as with the death of Mark Twain, reports of the death of God have been greatly exaggerated. Against all expectation, that dog did not in the end bark. I am not here referring to the fact that in the United States approximately 95% of the population professes to believe in God. No doubt this is impressive, but its impact is somewhat lessened by the highly secularized way of life that so comfortably coexists with it.

What strikes me as more impressive is the almost complete disappearance in recent years of any talk about the war between science and religion. We do talk of a "culture war," but that battle has been raging on an entirely different front. As for science and religion, these two formerly passionate enemies have for the moment reached an accommodation on the ground. It is an unwritten armistice, based (perhaps unconsciously) on the conception of the relations between the two that was advanced by Galileo and Bacon, who rendered unto each its own sphere of truth: to science the how of material things, and to religion the why of them.

As Mr. Jastrow sees it, this is where the story ends. But alas, he is correct only for the older breed of natural scientists. A new breed, which did not yet exist in the 17th century, has come along in the latter part of the 20th and seems likely to reignite the war between science and religion. This new breed, made up of geneticists, molecular biologists and biotechnologists, is in the only the early stages of its work. Like their predecessors in other scientific fields, they have gone very far very fast, but they have neither begun with nor yet acquired any sense of the limits of what they can do.

A good illustration is provided by two leading pioneers of the "new philosophy" of our own day, Francis Crick and James D. Watson, who jointly won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA. So confident were these men of their powers that in the early 1970s they entertained the idea of administering genetic tests to newborn infants who, if they failed, were to be put to death. At the time this idea was so shocking that Mr. Crick prudently refused to allow publication of the BBC interview in which he had floated it, while Mr. Watson confined his endorsement to private conversation (with me, among others).

Of course they defined "failure" as a likely predisposition to certain diseases, so that the infanticide it entailed wore a reassuring therapeutic mask. Yet what was to prevent the future inclusion of standards of height or beauty or intellectual potential as necessary qualifications for the right of a newborn to go on living?

By now, even with this terrible question still hanging in the air, we have a philosopher like Peter Singer throwing all caution to the winds and developing a rationale for an allegedly benevolent program of infanticide. Mr Singer's reward for his brazen outspokenness has been an appointment as professor of bioethics at the Princeton University Center for Human Values (!). In response, the resistance within the religious community is heating up at a rapid clip.

But wait. Thanks to the progress of genetic engineering, which assures us it can rectify defects in advance, infanticide may prove unnecessary. This sounds wonderful, but wait again. As the political theorist Francis Fukuyama has written, the biotechnical revolution is "on the brink" of being able to custom-design creatures who will resemble humans but will not be governed by human nature as we have always known it.

Unlike his namesake Francis Bacon, who greeted the first stage of modern science with hope and enthusiasm, Mr. Fukuyama looks forward with fear and trembling to this next stage. "To the extent that nature is not something given to us by God or by our evolutionary inheritance, but by human artifice, then we enter into God's own realm with all of the frightening powers for good and evil that such an entry implies."

I tremble even more violently than Mr. Fukuyama, but I cannot believe that the new scientists will succeed in replacing God any more than their predecessors managed to kill him off. The dog didn't bark in the millennium just ended, and my guess — or perhaps I should say my prayer — is that it will also fail to bark in the one just begun.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

Podhoretz, Norman. "Has Science Killed God?" Wall Street Journal (February, 2000).

Reprinted with permission of the Wall Street Journal.

The Author

Norman Podhoretz is editor-at-large of Commentary, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and author, most recently, of Ex-Friends (Free Press, 1999)

Copyright © 2000 Wall Street Journal
back to top