The Human Condition:

A New God for the Scientific Age – May 26, 2013

Someone posited recently in a blog, article, or Facebook posting—I forget which—that we need a new god for the scientific age. Presumably this god will replace the Biblical Yahweh or Allah, the sky father, god of shepherds, creator of the world in six days, who sent a variety of prophets to chastise the Hebrew kings and later populations of reluctant believers, including one prophet who was revealed as this god’s son born of woman, and another who was hailed as the last prophet with the final word.

All right, so a story that’s been going around and collecting intellectual barnacles for about three thousand years needs an updating. But what would a totally new god, a god not steeped in parchment, candle wax, and incense, a god not tainted by human mythologizing and anthropomorphizing, actually look like? What would such a god be and do?

To my way of thinking, to truly reflect the scientific age, this god would have to answer for the parts of the story we cannot see from observation and account for by logical analysis. This would have to be the god who stands outside, or exists behind, or comes before the periodic table, the big bang, space-time, dark matter, dark energy, the expansion of the universe, and quantum mechanics.

This would have to be a god who accounts for two aspects of the world which the ancients understood, at best, poorly: change and randomness. The ancient world was a static world made in its exquisite detail only a short time ago. Mountains had always stood in the same place—with occasional landslides; rivers had always flowed in their beds—with periodic flooding; and horses had always run in the field—same kind of horse, same grass, same field. God made the world right the first time. And it was a world where sudden and unpredictable changes were the work of unseen forces, the whim or anger of a god or gods whose intentions humans needed to study and understand. Unpredictability existed only in the minds of men, for God always knew what He was doing.

Deeper study and more information have shown humans that the world is not static. Mountains rise with the movement of tectonic plates and wear away with the weather. Streams change their courses or disappear as the land wrinkles and smoothes. Horses evolved from the “dawn horse,” Eohippus, which had toes instead of hooves and was the size of a dog. If the Biblical God made the world in detail, then He’s been fiddling with it over and over for four billion years, like an artist with a nagging case of self-doubt.

Patient observation and a better approach to mathematics have shown that some events truly are random, governed by probability among a range of potential outcomes. Indeed, order and regularity may only apply to large groups and concurrent events, where the vagaries of chance even out into an average and appreciable pattern. Pretending that the Biblical God stands outside probability and guides it to a predictable—to Him—result is not an answer. A probability whose outcome is known at any level ceases to be probability and becomes causality. If the Biblical God is predicting the decay of every heavy atom or the making and breaking of every covalent bond in the universe, then He’s a busy fellow indeed!

Yet the universe, which we now understand extends beyond this planet to encompass billions of stars in billions of galaxies, still has room for a guiding hand. Curiously enough, it’s to be found in these two areas of creation and probability.

Establishing Fundamental Principles, Making Fundamental Choices

Humans imagine—but cannot quite prove—that the universe is a delicate balance between energy and matter. We push our mathematics and our logical analysis to the breaking point trying to establish the dividing line, the point or the vibrating loop of string, where energy solidifies into objects we can touch and manipulate. To make it all work, according to the rules that our minds lay down, the solution requires more spatial dimensions than we can account for in everyday experience—which is to say something seems to be happening outside the world we know from direct observation.

So, for a first principle, what is the conversion point from energy to matter, and how did this god choose it? And once you have that itty-bitty point that might also be a loop of string, how do you build it up? Why does it take three quarks to make a proton (two Up and one Down) or a neutron (two Down and one Up)? Why do atoms place these heavy particles in a cluster at the center of an atom and surround them with the orbiting, detachable fairy wings of barely there, problematically observable, almost nonexistent lighter particles called electrons? Why choose this configuration rather than, say, globular shells of dense particles enclosing a central nothingness? And why not have molecular bonding by mating positive to negative particles scattered across the face of this globule, like magnets studded on meridians around a globe?

Once matter was solidified, this god would be the mind that set the proportions of mass to distance and so defined gravity and perhaps set the boundaries of spacetime. This is the god who established the relations among the atoms of the periodic table so that some joined in covalent and ionic bonding more readily than others, allowing for complex molecules reacting to stable rule sets, enabling the complexity we call life. This would be the Prime Mover, answering questions before they can even be asked.

The universe might have had very different principles, a different configuration, an energy balance or density that entirely eliminated the possibility of life. The universe might have remained a thin, undifferentiated bath of hydrogen atoms all resonating at a uniform heat: proton-and-electron, buzz-buzz … proton-and-electron, buzz-buzz … proton-and-electron, buzz-buzz, and that’s the extent of creation. But where’s the fun in that?

Harnessing the Power of Probability

As noted above, a god who knew the outcome of every probable event would create a static, predetermined, foretold universe. We humans, with our limited vision and short-range imaginations, might not see the ultimate outcome, but it’s out there, waiting to be experienced, plod, plod, plod, until the final bang or whimper.

On the other hand, a universe of total chance, total indeterminacy, where anything might or might not happen, would be the work of a trickster god, a Loki, the cruel, the deceiver, the untrustworthy, the enemy of humans.1 And yet randomness and indeterminacy seem to govern at the quantum level, driving the joining and breaking of bonds, the distribution of energies, the position of a particle here rather than there, moving in this direction rather than that.

It is at the intermediate levels—between the quantum fluctuation of particles and the organized whirl of galaxies under the guiding hand of gravity—where order and predictability emerge in the universe. This is also, perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, the human scale of action.

The god I’m envisioning would be the god who harnessed possibility and turned it to advantage to make a universe as varied, yet consistent, as the one we see all around us. Who set the scale of that existence, so that the operating level of that chemical complexity we call life would fall exactly at a midpoint, halfway between the ultra-small plane of atoms and particles and the ultra-big plane of stars and galaxies. Who set the endurance and corruptibility of these fragile, chemical bodies in a timeframe long enough to grow and learn and wonder, but not so long as to understand completely, grow bored, and burn out with the stars. This would be the universal intelligence, who mirrors the understanding of humankind without prefiguring or limiting the evolution of that mammalian and eventually monkey-borne intelligence. This would also be a god who could be surprised and delighted by the effects of randomness on the system he set in motion.

An example of randomness and order can be found in the operation of the DNA molecule. It contains and reproduces the chemical formulas for all the proteins needed to make a human or a horse. They are written in a four-letter code, which is interpreted through a three-letter “reading frame” to call for each of a protein’s amino acid components in sequence. The possible code combinations allow for sixty-four different ways to specify just twenty different amino acids; so the genetic code can suffer a certain amount of mutation before the specification actually changes. And yet the specification can change. And then, depending on how a different amino acid affects the protein at that point, and depending on how the operation of that protein fits into the cell’s current environment, the change might be beneficial, enabling a better fit with the environment, or detrimental, disabling the protein, lowering the efficiency of the cell, and hampering or even killing the creature composed of those cells.

The process of evolution—random mutations in DNA that positively or negatively affect individual cells and organisms—can be cruel. For every mutation that helps a creature or a species adapt to a changing environment, there are many more that produce either no effect or some detectable, perhaps even mortal, damage.2 So the god who incorporates randomness into his patterns must justify operating pitilessly on an individual level. The one justification I can think of is that, unless individuals were prepared to suffer these small hurts and occasionally offer the supreme sacrifice, the whole species—and perhaps all life on the planet—would eventually decay and die under the pressure of a steadily changing environment. A species is not a unique or wonderful thing to be preserved for its own sake; it is merely the best fit for a particular role in a particular environment.

But rather than death, fear, and terror, humans usually find inspiration and beauty in change and seemingly random events: in the face of a granite mountain sheered off by a glacier, in the facets of a carbon crystal compressed in the explosion of a kimberlitic shaft, in the shore of a lake defined by an old meteor crater or a fold in the land. Of course, fear and terror do accompany the larger events that seem random and chaotic: the explosion of a volcano, the fall of a meteor, the course of a hurricane. But as these apparently random events fall into that in-between place, where chaos succumbs to order, humans are constantly learning the principles needed to predict and react to them.

Perhaps it is the function of a modern god, a god that science can love, to permit random-seeming events as the culmination of quantum chaos operating on established mechanisms in physics and biology. The world made by such a god can surprise and delight us, fascinate us with its innate complexity, and occasionally terrify us with its power. That’s almost a god I can believe in.

1. Indeed, total chaos would be as boring and inimical to life itself as the total predictability of a uniform universe composed of nothing but hydrogen.

2. For more on the mechanics of evolution, see Evolution and Intelligent Design from February 24, 2013.