Stochastic Grace

| By Sy Garte

Note: This essay was originally posted December 12, 2010.

I was raised in a household of atheists. My parents were card-carrying members of the American Communist Party, and therefore the atheism in my household was quite close to the militant anti-theism of the so-called “new atheists”. I learned that not only was religious faith incorrect, but actually evil. Like my father, a physical chemist, I rejected all forms of spirituality, and became a biochemist (I was able to stray that far from the paternal model).

Today I am a Christian with a deep sense of the grace of God and an ongoing feeling of wonder at the redeeming power of the Lord in all of creation and in my own life. I remain a scientist, as I have been for the past 30 years. I find tremendous satisfaction in my absolute conviction that science and faith are complementary and mutually supportive. My faith is strengthened by what I know of the natural world, and my scientific thinking has been given a great boost by my faith in the creative power of the Lord.

What sort of journey led me from my youth of fervent atheism to where I am today? The answer is simple: God called me, insistently and clearly, though it took me decades to finally listen and hear.

I remember the first clarion call quite clearly. As a young man I saw the film “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” by Passolini. In the film, the musical score alternates between a number of sharply contrasting styles. After the crucifixion, a slow, somber, Russian hymn reflects the mood of despair and loss felt by Mary and the disciples. This music continues as the women and John visit the tomb on the third day. The stone of the door is rolled back and the tomb is revealed as empty. At that instant the music immediately changes to a joyous African melody from a piece called the Missa Luba.

The effect this moment of the film had on me was intense and dramatic. I felt a shiver of emotion, and a sense of miraculous joy. The art of the filmmaker had conveyed—through music and visual splendor—the truth of the Gospels to me. As John started running to spread the word to his friends, I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could believe in the lovely myth of the resurrection. And then I thought no, this is just a trick of my mind to elicit emotions originally evolved to allow for human beings to experience empathy, and so on. (See Dennett for a full explanation of how we are “fooled” by such feelings).

So while the seed had been planted, it grew slowly, and required a great deal of care and tending to finally bear fruit. I read the Gospels. I became interested in mysticism and transcendence. I started attending a Catholic Church. All of this was interesting in an intellectual sense, but it had nothing to do with faith. I was an observer, a sympathetic and friendly one, but I was still on the outside looking in.

Meanwhile I worked at doing scientific research, and read Dawkins and Gould, Lewis Thomas and Carl Sagan. I have always been fervent in my admiration for the explanatory power of evolutionary theory, and even communicated with Dawkins concerning one of Darwin’s letters that I discovered in the British Museum, which got a mention in The Devil’s Chaplain.

I was finally given the gift of God’s grace directly from Christ in a dramatic and undeniable way. But in order to fully accept this gift, and to know that I belong to Christ, body and soul, I needed to reconcile this new faith with my scientific sense of reason. As it turned out, I found this (as many others have) to be surprisingly straightforward, especially after reading The Language of God. My journey to faith began with art and emotion, but it reached fruition with my growing understanding of how the characteristics of the natural universe point to God.

My scientific world-view encouraged me to ask questions, some of them unusual for a scientist: Why does beauty exist? Consider the magical Ode to Joy, or every note ever penned by Bach, or Kandinsky’s paintings, or the elegance of Einstein’s fundamental equations. Look at the wonderful mathematical artifact of the Mandelbrot set, a pure fractal, conceived by the genius of man’s mind, and only made visible by modern computer graphics. Yes, these are all works of man, and man is a wondrous creation. But why is the universe beautiful? What is the source of this beauty?

When we look at nature and see that the apparently-artificial, mathematically-strange concept of a non-scalar, self-similar fractal can be found in almost all biological structures (including DNA), as well as in clouds, coastlines, mountains, and galaxies, we must wonder at the source of all of this complexity, all of this beauty.

We know from physics that our world is stochastic, not strictly deterministic. In other words, it changes according to seemingly “random” influences, allowing for—even insisting on—creativity and surprise at every turn. It is beautiful, not dull; highly complex, not simple. Biological organisms appear to have been formed with the innate ability to evolve. And human beings, organisms with a soul, represent the grandest mystery of all.

Why is it so remarkable that we live in a stochastic universe? We can predict the result if we toss 1000 coins, treat a million cells with a mutagen, examine the behavior of a billion molecules, or trace the fate of trillions of subatomic particles. In that sense our science can describe the world very well. But, we know nothing about what happens when you toss a single coin, explore the mutational fate of a single cell, try to predict the path of a single photon, or look at the life of a single human being. It indeed appears magical (especially when we examine the science of quantum theory) that our universe is fundamentally stochastic at the level of the individual. I believe that this property of the natural laws we describe through science was built in by the Creator to allow for chance, beauty, evolution, humanity and even faith. What we perceive as random chance is not the enemy of faith, but the opposite. It is God’s tool.

We are able through science to find magnificent and overwhelming evidence for God’s intervention and on-going engagement in our world, from its creation to our everyday lives, in every aspect of reality, including in our ongoing discoveries of the secrets of the natural world. We now know that the universe was not always here. It had a beginning. It was created. That is Gospel, but it is also science.

But although we find many pointers to divinity, God so designed the world that His hand in its creation can never be proven beyond doubt. If that were not true, then free will and the beauty of faith would disappear. Faith is a gift to be accepted by an open heart, and an open mind. The knowledge of God’s grace cannot be forced on anyone by the discovery of any irrefutable fact that proves His existence. But the converse is also true. No scientific endeavor will ever prove the absence of God, and so we are free to believe.

The best thing about my journey from atheism to faith is that it isn’t over. I have learned a lot, but there is much more to explore, and I would like to thank BioLogos for being the vehicle for so much exploration of the natural works of the Lord in the context of His amazing grace.


About the Author

Sy Garte

Dr. Sy Garte earned his biochemistry from the City University of New York, where he also holds a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry. In addition to publishing more than 200 scientific publications in genetics, epidemiology, the environment and other areas, Dr. Garte is the author of Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet (Amacom) and Genetic Susceptibility to Environmental Carcinogenesis (Kluwer) and is co-editor of Molecular Epidemiology of Chronic Diseases (Wiley). He has been a Professor of Public Health and Environmental Health Sciences at New York University, UMDNJ, and the University of Pittsburgh. He currently works as a science administrator.