by Dr. Emanual Paparella
“Over the past two decades a largely sterile dispute has raged between two diametrically opposing camps: atheists and religious fundamentalists. It is surely time to move on and elevate the discussion to a higher intellectual level. This ambitious and thought-provoking book by Nancy Abrams on the interface of science and religion is a timely and welcome contribution to a more productive discussion of the topic.” — Paul Davies, from the Foreword
I’d like to revisit here our last thematic explorations on spirituality by analyzing and discussing a book just out (March 2015) by philosopher Nancy Ellen Abrams titled A God that Could be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of our Planet. Nancy Abrams is the wife of cosmologist Joel Primack, one of the promulgators of the theory that our universe is not composed primarily of atoms, as most of us were taught, but instead, of invisible and mysterious "cold dark matter" and "dark energy." Together, these two form the "double dark" theory, that are "the foundation of the modern picture of the universe." So, her idea of God had to fit, first and foremost, with that theory and the current take on the laws of physics and thermodynamics. Nancy Ellen Abrams is in fact coauthor with Joel R. Primack, of The View from the Center of the Universe and The New Universe and the Human Future.
As the quote from the foreword by Paul Davies makes clear, the book is a brave attempt to explore the interface of science and religion, or spirituality, if you will in order to initiate a more productive, lively and inspired discussion on the topic. In fact the book contains strikingly original insights never brought to the page before, despite the long-running culture wars between organized religion and modern science over God and cosmic knowledge. If for nothing else, the book is admirable because it dares to pose many of the important and challenging questions that arise at the intersection of contemporary cosmology, spirituality, and atheism; a search which beckons us all, believers and non-believers alike. The book is nothing less than a serious contemplation on the existence and/or nature of God, something that Aristotle was also interested in some 24 centuries ago. It makes for a very worthwhile read. Perhaps one of its best ideas is the description of "god" as an "emergent" phenomenon, one that is literally greater than the sum of its parts. For example, a living organism is composed of unthinking atoms that individually just obey the laws of physics, but when aggregated into a human body, a totally new and wonderful thing emerges. The premise of the book is that God is also an emergent phenomenon.
Those of us who have remained “religious” remember that as children we were taught the concept of revealed religion via "faith" but as we matured and became more intellectually autonomous, some of us became agnostics or atheists. We simply were not certain on how things came about in the Universe, and how it could have just "happened," and could there be a God? If I find a watch in the street it would be irrational of me to say that the watch made itself and it has no maker; on the other hand God can never be proven scientifically. Which is which? The book, as mentioned above, is a brave attempt to supply some answers, or at least cast some doubts in the minds of assorted agnostics and atheists and even believers.
Let’s have the author speak for her theory. Throughout the book she reminds us that "God" is a word. If we define it, even subconsciously, as something that cannot exist in our universe, we banish the idea of God from our reality and throw away all possibility of incorporating a potent spiritual metaphor into a truly coherent big picture. But if we take seriously the reliable — and, thus, invaluable — scientific and historical knowledge we now possess, we can redefine God in a radically new and empowering way that expands our thinking and could help motivate and unite us in the dangerous era humanity is entering. In other words, if Aristotle and Aquinas could arrive at the idea of God minus the advantages of modern science, we ought to be able to do likewise.
So Abrams reminds us of “one of the most exciting scientific revolutions of our time,” the revolution in cosmology. In the 1970s, the great cosmological mystery was this: If the Big Bang was symmetrical in all directions, why isn't the expanding universe today just a bigger soup of particles? Instead, beautiful spiral and elliptical galaxies are scattered throughout, but not randomly; they lie along invisible filaments, like glitter tossed on lines of glue. Where several big filaments intersect, great clusters of galaxies have formed. Why? What happened to the soup? Where did all this structure come from?
She then gives credit for her inspiration to her cosmologist husband, Joel R. Primack, is “one of the creators of the theory of cold dark matter, which answers these questions by telling us that everything astronomers can see — including all the stars, planets and glowing gas clouds in our galaxy, and all the distant galaxies — is less than half of 1 percent of the contents of the universe. The universe turns out to be almost entirely made of two dynamic, invisible presences unknown and undreamed of until the 20th century: dark matter (invisible matter not made of atoms or the parts of atoms) and dark energy (the energy causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate). They have been in competition with each other for billions of years, with dark matter's gravity pulling ordinary (atomic) matter together and dark energy flinging space apart. Their cosmic interaction with ordinary matter has spun the visible galaxies into being and, thus, created the only possible homes for the evolution of planets and life…Over the decades, as data confirming this story began to trickle — then pour — in from telescopes and satellites, I kept wondering: What does it mean for us humans that we're not living in the universe we thought we were in? Today, astronomers worldwide accept the double dark theory as the modern story of the universe, but they have not answered this question. Someone must. Does God have to be part of our understanding of the universe? No. But if scientists tell the public that they have to choose between God and science, most people will choose God, which leads to denial, hostility to science and the profoundly dangerous mental incoherence in modern society that fosters depression and conflict. Meanwhile, many of those who choose science find themselves without any way of thinking that can give them access to their own spiritual potential. What we need is a coherent big picture that is completely consistent with — and even inspired by — science, yet provides an empowering way of rethinking God that provides the human and social benefits without the fantasy. How can we get this?”
And here are her conclusions: science can never tell us with certainty what's true, since there's always the possibility that some future discovery will rule it out. But science can often tell us with certainty what's not true. It can rule out the impossible. Galileo, for example, showed with his telescope that the medieval picture of earth as the center of heavenly crystal spheres could not be true, even though he could not prove that the earth moves around the sun. Whenever scientists produce the evidence that convincingly rules out the impossible, there's no point in arguing. It's over. Grace lies in accepting and recalculating. That's how science moves forward.
And this is her most extraordinary statement worth pondering: “What if we thought this way about God? What if we took the evidence of a new cosmic reality seriously and became willing to rule out the impossible? What would be left? We can have a real God if we let go of what makes it unreal. I am only interested in God if it's real. If it isn't real, there's nothing to talk about. But I don't mean real like a table, or a feeling, or a test score, or a star. Those are real in normal earthbound experience. I mean real in the full scientific picture of our double dark universe, our planet, our biology and our moment in history.”
Then she mentions the characteristics of a God that can't be real: 1) God existed before the universe. 2) God created the universe. 3) God knows everything. 4) God intends everything that happens. 5) God can choose to violate the laws of nature. The point here is that “this list pretty much agrees with most atheists' reasons for dismissing the existence of God. But this is no place to stop. We've merely stated what God can't be. We haven't considered yet what God could be.”
So, basically, what Abrams is stating is that we ought to redefine the definition of God. If we do, this will change the course of cultural anthropology and redefine its future. As far as she is concerned there is something in this universe that is worthy of being called God. Her answer is yes “God could be real.”
I predict that the critique of the above theory about God will soon be coming and it will take this form: what Abrams may have done is not so novel: she has taken a transcendent God (which the Buddhists think can never be defined within immanent time and space, and therefore it is better not to talk about Her/Him) and made Him/Her immanent within a material universe; and so we are back to pantheism or immanentism of panantheism. The fact is that God will never be defined and discovered by the mere means of science: physics or biology or even abstract mathematics.
Nevertheless, the book makes for a fascinating read. If it serves no other purpose, it will have put some doubts in the mind of the non-believers among us, that the theories excluding the existence of God may not be so well-thought out as we have assumed all along. The believers, on the other hand, will have to reflect on Aquinas’ assertion that reason does not have to contradict faith and that the two in fact can be in harmony with each other. When faith contradicts reason and common sense, one has to suspect a cult may be afloat. As per Aquinas faith and reason are complementary to each and can in fact support each other.