Thursday, October 16, 2008

The God between the gaps

A further comment on Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God.

The first six chapters of the book are a ringing defense of evolution against creationists and advocates of intelligent design. Then Miller turn to the business of making space in an evolutionary universe for the Christian God -- a personal, nonmaterial being who acts in the creation. And the first thing he does is invoke quantum indeterminacy to give God some wiggle room to jigger the course of history without violating the laws of nature. Later, discussing the Big Bang, Miller suggests that "science has confirmed, in remarkable detail, the distinctive beginning that theology has always required."

To be fair, Miller admits that Big Bang cosmology neither confirms nor refutes the action of God in creating the universe. But finding theological consolation in the Uncertainty Principle or Big Bang strikes me as a risky game. What will we understand about the world a century from now? Will we find that our best theoretical cosmology requires an eternally oscillating universe? Will we at last discover the deterministic "hidden variables" that Einstein thought might lay behind the apparent indeterminacy of the quantum world? Who knows. Surely, if we have learned anything in science, it is that all scientific theories are tentative, and almost certainly subject to amendment. Looking for support of Eternal Verities in the evolving theories of science is a shaky proposition at best.

Invoking quantum indeterminacy or the Big Bang in a theological discussion is a flip-side version of the God of the Gaps, which Miller rightly dismisses in his early chapters. And what's the point? If science has given one great gift to the world -- greater than the wonders of technology, greater than modern medicine, greater than flights to the moon and planets -- it has given us permission to say "I don't know." What is consciousness? I don't know. What started the Big Bang? I don't know. How did life begin? I don't know.

Yet.

The universe as we find it may be the primary revelation -- as some theologians from Meister Eckhart to Thomas Berry have maintained. If so, the God revealed by the 21st-century edition of the Book of Nature is certainly grander and more mysterious than the prescientific, personal, miracle-working, revelation-whispering deity of Abraham or Jesus or Mohammed.

(When God Is Gone has its first review in the current Library Journal. Scroll down.)