Scientific Pantheism and the God of the Physicists

| By and (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

Ted notes: The late Carl Sagan grew up in a Reform Jewish household, but he did not believe in God though he distanced himself from the term “atheist.” Ironically, in some ways he epitomized his German surname: he was a Saga, a legend, who created a legendary history of science and religion that includes significant religious content of its own. (Public domain image courtesy of NASA.)


Introduction by Ted Davis

Given that this series by historian of science Stephen Snobelen is about the New Atheists, the title of this week’s column might come as a surprise. Isn’t pantheism a religious idea, involving the deification of the universe itself? If so, then pantheism doesn’t seem to qualify as atheism. In fact, pantheism has proved a very difficult idea to define precisely, a consequence of the fact that notions of “God,” “nature,” and the “supernatural” are also hard to define. As Dr. Snobelen shows, some modern physicists who are often seen as atheists are better understood as pantheists.

Scientific Pantheism and the God of the Physicists (by Stephen Snobelen)

For the theist the large categories of being are God followed by Creation. God is eternal, while Creation began in time and is ontologically separate from God. Creation includes life in all its wonderful and myriad forms. Humans are a special category of life, bearing the imago Dei (Genesis 1:26-27) and uniquely able to worship God and contemplate the meaning of existence. God is transcendent, existing now, existing before the universe and existing forever. God is the “Alpha and Omega ... which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8 KJV). At the same time, the God of the Bible is personal and immanent in Creation and human affairs. For the scientific naturalist there is no personal God, so the most significant category of being is the cosmos—or, for some, the multiverse. As humans are part of the cosmos and its history, the cosmos for theists is not “Wholly Other” with respect to humans, to borrow the famous language of the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his book, The Idea of the Holy (1917).

But what about the scientific naturalist, for whom the Cosmos is the supreme entity or being? Sometimes language used by scientific naturalists suggests that the cosmos has a certain numinous quality, at least at the metaphorical level, but perhaps occasionally at a much deeper level. This is the case, for example, when Carl Sagan begins his 1980 book and documentary television series Cosmos with the powerful words, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” (p. 4). Sagan continues:

Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. ... I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.

The language is majestic, almost poetic. It is also recognisably religious. The opening line is a quotation from Revelation 1:8 with “the Almighty” replaced with “Cosmos.” If we replace “Cosmos” with “God” in the rest of quotation, the text almost makes sense: contemplating God, the mystery of God, God beyond our understanding, the salvific need to know God. In the documentary, the opening sequence has Sagan, sage-like, uttering the words: “The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” In Episode 9 (called “Stars: We Are Their Children”), he declares: “Our ancestors worshipped the sun and they were far from foolish. It makes good sense to revere the sun and the stars, because we are their children.” It is not only the words that lend a religious sensibility to Cosmos. We see Sagan seated in a cathedral-like spaceship, with an altar before him and a screen on the wall displaying the stars that looks very much like a modern stained-glass window. This is Sagan as high priest of science.

Sagan’s conception of the cosmos sounds much like a scientific form of pantheism. Many see the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza as the founder of modern pantheism, although the word “pantheism” wasn’t coined until the next century. In the Latin edition of his Ethics, Spinoza made his famous statement associating God with Nature (Deus, sive Natura): “That eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists” (quoting the Preface to Part IV and elsewhere in Part IV). Some think Spinoza was actually a panentheist, a person who believes the universe exists within God, rather than just a pantheist. He seems to have believed that Nature is God, but that God is even more than Nature. In any case, he did not believe in a personal God. Nevertheless, his language is similar to that of Sagan, and Spinoza believed that there is only one substance. (Those who want further details should read the APPENDIX below.)

The Pantheism of Lawrence Krauss

Now Carl Sagan passed away a decade before the heyday of the New Atheism, and he rejected the label “atheist.” So his ideas are presented here only as an exemplar of scientific pantheism. It is notable that the New Atheist astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss also comes off sounding pantheistic when he describes the cosmos. For example, the third chapter in his book, A Universe From Nothing (2012), opens with an epigram from the Book of Common Prayer: “As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall ever be. — Gloria Patri” (p. 39, but see the note below). The Latin expression at the end says “Glory to the Father.” For Krauss, it is glory to the cosmos. He also applies a kind of cosmic Christology to the stars (p. 19):

Over the course of the history of our galaxy, about 200 million stars have exploded. These myriad stars sacrificed themselves, if you wish, so that one day you could be born. I suppose that qualifies them as much as anything else for the role of saviors.

In a video promoting the book, he says it more succinctly: “Forget Jesus, the stars died so you’d be born.” We have just seen a similar point made by Sagan. But there is something more going on in Krauss’s book. The full title of the book is highly misleading. Although it’s called A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, there is no point in the book when he is truly talking about nothing. Just as in classical theism’s doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, where the “nothing” excludes God, who is prior to and transcendent over Creation, so in Krauss’ cosmology there is always something rather than “nothing.” As theologian Ted Peters has explained, “nothing” means “no-thing,” not “some-thing,” and the equations of quantum field theory from which Krauss thinks the universe was produced are a very specific kind of thing.

Krauss’ universe begins in a quantum fluctuation. This is hardly something from nothing, for it occurs in empty space that also possesses a gravitational field; in other words, it starts with space plus the laws of physics (pp. 141-52). Where does “empty” space come from? Quantum gravity could bring space and time into existence, although Krauss admits (p. 170) that this possibility falls short of proof that the universe came from nothing. But, how can we explain this? Krauss’s chain of causation ends with the multiverse, which he interestingly admits, “has some of the same features of an external creator” (p. 175). For Krauss, a multiverse would guarantee that “some universe would arise with the laws that we have discovered” (p. 176), but a multiverse is very far from nothing. Quite the opposite. It is also by definition unobservable—rather like God. As with the theist, for Krauss there is a specific something that precedes the universe: a larger context, a hyper-cosmos. For both Sagan and Krauss, the cosmos or the hyper-cosmos is the supreme being—not a personal being, but the supreme existent thing. This is scientific pantheism.


Ted notes: When certain New Atheists give the cosmos an attribute of divinity, such as eternity, they are unconsciously channelling Aristotle, Ptolemy, and other ancient Greeks. For them, the heavenly realm was eternal, uncreated, and perfect insofar as it was immutable and embodied “perfect” mathematical forms such as circles and spheres. Unlike Aristotle, however, the New Atheists don’t hesitate to speak of their universe (the multiverse) as infinite—another traditional divine attribute. This seventeenth-century picture of the ancient Greek universe comes from the Harmonia macrocosmica (1661) by Andreas Cellarius. (image source)


Non-Theistic Scientists and Religious Language

Non-religious scientists sometimes use God language in a metaphorical sense. Probably the most well-known example is the concluding line of Steven Hawking’s best-selling book A Brief History of Time (1988): “If we find why it is that we and the universe exist, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God” (p. 175). Einstein also famously used God language, such as when (speaking of quantum mechanics) he said that God does not throw dice. He also used religious language on many other occasions, especially when he spoke about the great mystery of the deep rationality of the universe: “Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order” (Ideas and Opinions, p. 262).

Richard Dawkins has expressed irritation at this use of God language by non-theistic scientists like Einstein and Hawking, in part because it has been appropriated by less-discerning theists as evidence that those great scientists believe(d) in God. Dawkins is right to see their language as non-supernatural (The God Delusion, pp. 33–34), but why would a non-theistic scientist evoke such religious language? Because it is both powerful and deeply ingrained in the western psyche—and because the scientific naturalist can evoke and invoke no higher state of being. As Dawkins also said, “Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered down theism” (p. 40). In a sense, he is right: at one level, there is a kind of continuum from atheism through pantheism and deism to classical theism and the God of the Bible.

Yet there might also be an imperialistic ambition in these characterisations. For instance, Dawkins considers Einstein to have been an atheist (p. 34), yet Einstein did not express himself in this way, although he clearly did not believe in a personal God. In 1929, Einstein received a telegram from Orthodox Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, who asked, “Do you believe in God?” His reply (in German) was, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings” (“Professor Einstein and Religion,” The Spectator, 4 May 1929, p. 15).

It is therefore rather curious that Dawkins himself expresses an affinity for a God very much like Einstein’s. In an interview for the documentary, Tsunami: Where Was God? (2005), Dawkins said:

The kind of God that I would respect people for believing in, would be the kind of God of the deists, who set up the universe in the first place, who set up the laws of physics, perhaps in such a way that it would be likely to bring the conditions for evolution into existence, something of that sort, but that kind of grand God of the physicists, is not the kind of God who’s going to be the slightest bit interested in listening to the odd prayer.

Of this, Mark Dowd, the interviewer, reflected: “When someone like Dawkins leaves the room open for some kind of take on God, you know that all hope isn’t lost...”

As remarkable as this may sound, this isn’t the only time Dawkins has mused about the deist God. As he wrote in The God Delusion (p. 59),

the deist God of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment is an altogether grandeur being: worthy of his cosmic creation, loftily unconcerned with human affairs, sublimely aloof from our private thoughts and hopes, caring nothing for our messy sins or mumbled contritions. The deist God is a physicist to end all physics, the alpha and omega of mathematicians, the apotheosis of designers; a hyper-engineer who set up the laws and constants of the universe, fine-tuned them with exquisite precision and foreknowledge, detonated what we would now call the hot big bang, retired and was never heard from again.

Dawkins has said that he is not an atheist, but an agnostic who leans strongly toward atheism. Conceptually, at least, he apparently also leans towards the God of the physicists.

It is perhaps natural that someone who thinks of God as a scientific hypothesis would have more affinity for the God of the physicists. Such an understanding of God is not, strictly speaking, incompatible with the God of the Bible—provided one is focusing only on (say) the origin of the laws of nature. Thus, many theists engage in rational arguments about fine-tuning and design in the universe based on these laws. On the other hand, belief in a God who merely sets up the laws of physics is not compatible with the personal God of the Judeo-Christian tradition who is both transcendent and immanent.

This is the big difference between deism and biblical theism: with the latter, God is both Creator and Sustainer of the world. It may be that what we are seeing in Dawkins’ contemplations is the God of scientism. It is certainly not the loving God of the Bible, who has a continuing care for even the tiniest creatures of his creation (Luke 12:6) and like a father wipes away the tears of his children.

Looking Ahead

Dr. Snobelen’s series concludes next time with comments on the false gods of the New Atheists. His final reflections and cautions for Christians and others are very thoughtful—be sure not to miss them! 

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Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "Scientific Pantheism and the God of the Physicists"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 29 Jun. 2017. Web. 21 November 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2017, June 29). Scientific Pantheism and the God of the Physicists
Retrieved November 21, 2017, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/scientific-pantheism-and-the-god-of-the-physicists

References & Credits

APPENDIX on Spinoza and Pantheism

In his article on pantheism, for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, William Mander sets out three different pantheistic notions of the cosmos as divine:

1) physicalism (scientific or naturalistic pantheism, also that of the ancient Stoics)

2) idealism (that “all that exists is a single spiritual entity, of which the physical world must be understood as a partial manifestation”)

3) the dual-aspect theory (there is one thing that “expresses itself ... in two different ways, either as thinking substance or as extended substance”)

Mander puts Spinoza into the latter category. Sagan may well have fallen into the first category, but his idea that we humans are the consciousness of the universe suggests a measure of the third category as well.

References, Notes, and Suggestions for Further Reading

An earlier version of this essay was published as Stephen D. Snobelen, “Science, Religion and the New Atheism,” in The New Atheism, ed. Susan Harris (Charlottetown: St. Peter Publications, 2013), pp. 109-44.  BioLogos and the author are grateful to St. Peter Publications (the only source for purchasing this book) for permission to publish this updated, expanded version online.

The book version of Cosmos sometimes follows the script of the TV programs very closely or even verbatim, while at other times they are entirely different. Where a page reference is given for a quotation, then it comes from the book. The famous opening line is identical in both versions.

The epigram in Krauss’ book (quoted above) is actually slightly different from the Book of Common Prayer, which reads, “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”

Dr. Snoblen recommends two print articles about the religious tone of Cosmos: Thomas M. Ross, “The Implicit Theology of Carl Sagan,” Pacific Theological Review 18 (1985): 24-32; and Thomas M. Lessl, “Science and the Sacred Cosmos: The Ideological Rhetoric of Carl Sagan,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 71 (1985): 175–87.

About the Authors

Dr. Snobelen's research and teaching interests include history of science (early modern and nineteenth century), science and religion, science in popular culture, the popularization of science, radical theology in the early modern period, and millenarianism. His primary research efforts are currently devoted to interpreting Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts and understanding the relationships between Newton’s science and his religion.

Dr. Snobelen has consulted for and appeared in television documentaries on Isaac Newton, including Newton: The Dark Heretic. His most popular course is on science fiction film, which he uses to introduce historical, philosophical, and ethical themes about science and technology to undergraduates in the humanities, sciences, and engineering. He and his wife Julia have four children who help keep them grounded in the more important things of life.

 

More posts by Stephen Snobelen

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

More posts by Ted Davis

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