A distinguishing mark of our species is that we seem to think existence requires some sort of explanation. Scientists and theologians are alike in this regard, although they differ fundamentally in approach. Scientists generally focus on the “how,” whereas theologians are more concerned with the “why.” Conflicts arise when the parties fail to respect these boundaries or, more often than not, fail even to recognize that boundaries exist.
Until Galileo began fiddling around with his telescope, of course, there were no boundaries because there was really no established world view apart from a theological one. Galileo’s crime -- at least in the eyes of the church -- was to rearrange the heavenly bodies so the sun rather than the earth occupied center stage. But Galileo himself saw no inherent contradiction between faith and science, believing that a heliocentric universe could be reconciled with a non-literal reading of Scripture.
For a while at least, leading scientific figures were predisposed to give the Almighty pride of place in the cosmos. Newton’s clockwork universe still required a clockmaker, as far as he was concerned. He had figured out the laws of motion governing the gross movements of the heavenly bodies, but the complex gravitational effects of one planet acting upon another were beyond him. Newton believed that a bit of fine-tuning was required from time to time to keep things holding steady. He could also find no explanation for why the planets all happened to orbit the sun on a flat plane in the same direction, unless God set them in motion. He wrote, “The most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”
Within a century or so, the French mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace had applied more advanced calculations to the movement of the heavenly bodies and could account for the complex gravitational interactions of the planets without resorting to divine intervention. By this time also it was understood that planets were formed from rotating discs of matter around stars, which explained why they orbited in the same direction on a flat plane. When his patron Napoleon Bonaparte noted that his work on celestial mechanics made no mention of a Creator, Laplace replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”
The real significance of Laplace’s statement was not just that he had described the workings of the cosmos without reference to God; he had also, in effect, characterized God in scientific language as a “hypothesis.” The terms of the debate had shifted fundamentally. Thereafter, the Creator was relegated to the margins of his own creation, invoked mainly to explain phenomena that science could not. The problem with the “God of the gaps,” as this deity came to be called, was that he has been forced into more or less constant retreat as scientific knowledge advances. One can envision a time when no supernatural intervention is required to explain the workings of the cosmos, leaving God with no role whatsoever.
Or so it might seem. In practice, the proliferation of scientific knowledge has not appreciably narrowed the gaps; if anything, the essential mystery of creation has only deepened as we find out more about it. The universe in Galileo’s day consisted of a solar system with six known planets and as many stars as could be seen through a low-powered telescope. Eventually, more powerful telescopes disclosed that many of those “stars” were actually galaxies, each of which had billions of its own stars. Now it turns out that as much as 90% of the universe’s mass consists of “dark matter” that doesn’t appear in any telescope and is only detectable through its gravitational effects on the universe we can see. And that’s to say nothing about the trillions of other universes that quantum physicists theorize may be floating around out there in an unimaginably vast multiverse.
Stranger still are the goings-on in the subatomic realm, where the laws of classical physics do not apply. Physicists sometimes throw around the term “quantum weirdness” to describe a realm in which particles appear to spin in two directions at once and signal each other at speeds faster than 10,000 times the velocity of light. The French physicist Bernard d’Espagnat, winner of the 2009 Templeton Prize, argues that elementary particles are not self-existent but are an “emanation” that is determined in part by the structure of our senses. Behind this emanation is a “veiled reality” that exists outside of time and space and is essentially unknowable. How is this veiled reality existing outside of time and space different from the ineffable God that mystics of every tradition say lies veiled from human sight? Could it be that scientists and theologians are merely using different language to talk about the same thing?
Isaac Newton, Principia