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Sy Garte | Beginning to Wonder

When Sy Garte started studying science he found some things that started him wondering about the idea that science can answer every question. His wondering opened the doorway that eventually led to Jesus Christ


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When Sy Garte started studying science he found some things that started him wondering about the idea that science can answer every question. His wondering opened the doorway that eventually led to Jesus Christ

Description

Sy Garte didn’t have the kind of upbringing that would typically lead one to preaching sermons. His parents were members of the communist party, materialists, and atheists. But as he started studying science he found some things that started him wondering about this idea that science can answer every question. His wondering opened the doorway, and he walked through, eventually encountering Jesus Christ and finding that his study and practice of science could go hand in hand with being a follower of Christ.

  • Originally aired on October 07, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Garte:

I fully believe that the word of God is true. And I fully believe in the two book theology that God communicates with us and created, you know, the world of nature, which is one book and the world of the Bible, the word, which is the other book of His revelation. And if both of those things are true, that’s tricky, because they don’t always—they don’t both say the same thing. So what that means is, we’re not done with either one. We haven’t really completely finished understanding the Bible and every word of it nor have we completely finished understanding the world of nature and the laws of science and the laws of nature.

Sy Garte, Editor in Chief of God and Nature.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

Sy Garte was raised in a home that had a very high view of science. And so it’s no surprise that he became a highly regarded, well published biochemist. What is more surprising is his conversion from materialism and atheism to Christianity later in life. We’ll hear that story and about the questions that crept in while studying basic physics—questions that started him wondering and doubting the ideological commitment he had grown up with, that science could answer any and every question. His wondering didn’t lead immediately to God, but it opened the door. In the episode we talk about that transition from materialism to theism and his eventual conversion to Christianity, which was not merely a rejection of atheism but something more important, more meaningful and more positive: an experience of the person of Jesus Christ. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well, welcome to the podcast, Sy. It’s good to talk to you here.

Garte:

It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Stump:

So you’ve been a friend of BioLogos for a good long time. You and I first met in 2013, I believe. I had just started working for BioLogos and was still learning about the organization. And I was going to Baltimore for the evangelical theological society conference. And I asked if there was anyone in the area that it would be good for me to talk to while there. And my boss said,”see if Sy Garte is available.” So you were still working at the NIH at the time. So we met up Bethesda, do you remember that?

Garte:

I certainly do. I remember that. You were gracious enough to stay sitting with me in a restaurant while I coughed continuously. I was getting over a respiratory thing. Yeah, it was horrendous. 

Stump:

I expect in these days of COVID I wouldn’t have stayed around. 

Garte:

No, no, no, I’ve apologized to you several times. But I’ll do it again. [laughter]

Stump:

Well, very good. You no longer work for the NIH. And I want to catch up on your career and what you’re doing now. But first, let’s go back and give this some context. So when did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

Garte:

Well, you know, my father was a chemist, and I grew up in a scientific environment, intellectual environment. So I don’t think there was ever any question that I would be a scientist. I think the question was, what kind of scientist and, you know, like a lot of kids, I was interested in dinosaurs and then stars. But eventually, biology just grabbed me. I mean, the idea of the world of life was just something I thought was wonderful. Well, I didn’t actually like biology much in college because it was very oriented towards pre-med students so— 

Stump:

Where were you going to school then?   

Garte:

I was at City College in New York. 

Stump:

So you said it was oriented toward pre-med, and that wasn’t quite your cup of tea?

Garte:

No, it was—that’s right—it was a lot of memorization of the names of organs and things. And so I switched to chemistry, which I really loved. And I liked chemistry, because you know, you could solve problems, and you could get answers. And it was logical. And I guess my father had some influence on that as well. So I graduated with a degree in chemistry. But you know, when I heard about biochemistry, I thought, well, that’s perfect. You know, it’s the chemistry of life. What could be better than that? So I went to graduate school, also at the CUNY system, City University of New York— 

Stump:

Right out of your undergraduate degree?

Garte:

No, there was a brief period where I worked as a lab tech, and it was a sort of a stormy time, it was 1969. A lot of stuff was going on. But eventually I got to grad school and in biochemistry, and that’s where my PhD is.

Stump:

So most scientific work is not what makes the headlines in newspapers about some life changing new discovery, but rather, the vast majority comes in very small steps. People like yourself laboring over much smaller little bits of the created order. What’s the scientific work from your career that you’re most proud of? Or the thing that you said, “yeah, I’m glad I did that. I figured this problem out.”

Garte:

Well, it’s interesting because my career did span a number of different fields. One of the nice things about biochemistry for any students out there who are wondering what to go into, is you can really do so much. There’s such a diversity of things you can do with it. And I started out in the field of Environmental Health Sciences. This was at New York University. And I was looking at the biochemistry of things like histones and how carcinogens interacted with DNA. I did that for a good part of my career. But at some point, I started branching off into things like population genetics and did make some discoveries. I discovered a genetic variant that’s only found in people of African descent, which we originally thought would have something to do with susceptibility to lung cancer caused by smoking. It turned out that was not the case. But it did launch me into a slightly different area, which was, in general, the question of population genetics, and especially the population genetics of race, which I did publish several papers about, and found, in fact, that there is no such thing. But that’s another story.

Stump:

We have a podcast episode with Joseph Graves on that very topic.

Garte:

Joseph Graves was—I know about that, because he was an essential part of my career switch. And if he’s listening, thank you. It’s been a long time since we’ve met, but I’ve never forgotten the influence you had on me.

Stump:

And what was the work you were doing at NIH, then?

Garte:

Well, so I spent about 30 years in academia. I finally ended up at the University of Pittsburgh, still doing cancer research and related research. But eventually, I decided it was time to say goodbye to academia. And I was looking for something else. And I got a position as a division director in the Center for Scientific Review, which is an administrative position. So I didn’t do any research after that. That was in—I started in 2009, the same time that Francis Collins came to direct the NIH, and I was, my boss worked directly for him. So I was, you know, I did interact with Francis a few times at the NIH, but I, my role was purely administrative and supervising a lot of people who themselves supervise the reviews of grants in various fields.

Stump:

Well, a few years ago, then you started working more seriously in this science and religion area, and published a book called The Work of His Hands: A Scientist Journey from Atheism to Faith, and it came out 2019, is that right? Just a couple of years ago. And I remember looking at it back then, but have now, in preparation to talk to you here, I’ve gone through it more carefully. And I want to say that it’s very nicely written, I really think it’s a helpful book. I really like how you weave your own story of coming to faith with explanations of current science, and, perhaps more importantly, with discussion about the limitations of science. And that’s the part I want to talk to you a little bit more about here. And I think that’s most powerful in the context of where you started out on the ideological spectrum with regard to science and what it can do. So tell us a little bit about your family of origin in that regard, and how you got on to this path, then even of questioning what could and couldn’t be answered scientifically.

Garte:

Yeah, well, as I mentioned, my father was a chemist. And philosophically he was, he and my mother were both materialists. And politically, they were very far left. They were both members of the American Communist Party in the 30s.

Stump:

That’s gonna be surprising for some people to hear. There’s a Communist Party and that your family was part of it.

Garte:

[laughs] I think in the book, I said, “my parents were communists. And by that I don’t mean that they voted Democrat.” They were actually communists.

Stump:

So they were immigrants themselves?

Garte:

No, no, this goes all the way back. I have grandparents who fought in the Russian Revolution. I have great uncles who started unions. I come from solid, solid communist stock, if you want to call it that. And yeah, and so my parents were born in Boston. They joined the party in the 30s. As I said, there, my grandfather was a friend of Sacco and Vanzetti, who some of some listeners may know, but they were two very famous revolutionaries in America in the 20s, who were executed. And, you know, on and on. You know, my left wing credentials are impeccable. How that impacted my faith journey is that I was absolutely certain as a child, youth, young adult that the idea of God was just a fantasy, completely nonsense. 

Stump:

The opiate of the people. 

Garte:

Oh, that’s right. And so it was not just that it was silly and stupid. It was that it was evil and that it religion was an evil thing. It was the opiate of the people. And of all the religions, Christianity was clearly the worst. Because of all its, you know, sins and horrible things that happen. So that’s what I was taught. I literally was given books printed in the Soviet Union and translated into English for, you know, for my very small market, but I read those. So I was well indoctrinated in that. And, of course, as often happens, as I grew, I began questioning some of that. The whole communist thing wore off, I would say pretty quickly, once I began actually learning about history and current events. But the atheistic, philosophical part of it was pretty strong. I will say that I did feel I was missing something in my life, and I had a sense that it was something related to spirituality. But at the same time, I felt that I, you know, made up for that lack with science, because I found science to be an absolutely incredibly wonderful thing, something you could believe in, it gave real answers that were true. And this goes to your question, what was my original views on science, and that’s what it was. But then I started reading, I guess it really started in college, when I was learning a little bit about basic physics, because being a chemistry major, and you know, we had to solve the Schrodinger equation to get the wave equation of various things. And that brought me into quantum mechanics. And I didn’t pay much attention to it, because I followed what most people do, and it’s been called “shut up and calculate” by Sean Carroll has used that phrase, which I think is wonderful. You know, don’t think about it. It works. There’s no question that quantum mechanics works, which is why we’re talking. 

Stump:

Instead of worrying about whether the cat in Schrodinger’s box is alive or dead. 

Garte:

Exactly, exactly, exactly. And so I didn’t really think much about the philosophical complications of what quantum mechanics was saying about reality. But later I did. And I started thinking, you know, what is this uncertainty principle? There are things we can never know. I mean, this is a knowledge, it’s not a guess. We can never know the position and the electron at the same time, that’s a fundamental principle of physical reality. Time can speed up and slow down, depending on how fast you’re going. And, you know, there’s so much in modern physics, which I’m not gonna go into now, of course, but that just, you know, you just puzzle, you just shake your head. Now, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It doesn’t mean it’s, you know, it’s somehow—it doesn’t prove God. But it does make one wonder about a strictly materialistic viewpoint. And that’s what I began doing. I began wondering about it. And I guess in the book, I have a chapter about questions. And I started asking a lot of questions. And I didn’t have the answers. 

Later, as I was learning the details of biochemistry, you know, how cells work—and we know a huge amount of extremely complex details of the chemistry of how life works. It was just incredible. I mean, I remember getting chills up and down my spine when I learned about protein synthesis. I just said to myself, this is true. Yeah, it is. But it’s amazing. So I mean, again, none of this brought me to faith. But what it did was it eventually broke down this certainty I had about materialism. The materialistic worldview, that the only thing that’s true is science, which we now call scientism. And I just add one little thing here is that what’s ironic about all this is that the first person who ever told me that science cannot answer every question that you might have, was actually my father, the materialist scientist atheist. Because he knew from science, you know, there are questions we just cannot answer. We, you know, we don’t know even why the constants have the values they have them. And certainly we can’t answer things like, you know, what makes art beautiful? What makes love special? Why is there joy? I mean, those are not even questions that are raised scientifically. So, you know, I began to see that as something interesting and something that, you know, doesn’t slam the door immediately on the issue of faith. God, Spiritualness, Supernatural, I still didn’t believe it. But I didn’t think it was just nonsense that was out of the question.

Stump:

So the way you phrase it in the book is one of the questions that motivated you in this was whether our world is a purely logical and rational place, that’s totally understandable by the application of reason. Talk a little bit about the answer to that question, then. And whether science is—is  science here, then in your mind, either at that time, or maybe even now, is science what you mean by the application of reason, or the purely logical and rational place?

Garte:

Well, what I meant by that was the kind of science I was learning, let’s say, through the beginning of college, and the kind of science that was passed as truth in the 19th century. And that was totally disrupted by the revolution started by Einstein and Max Planck, where, you know, there were things being discovered that was simply unreasonable. And you know, Einstein himself, although he helped start this revolution, he wasn’t too sure about quantum mechanics, and the whole idea of basing things on probability. So, you know, now, what happens is the definition of what is science and what is rational and what is logical changes as we learn more. And that’s a very important point, I think. It’s, you know, we now accept many things in physics and starting to in biology, but that’s another story we’ll get into I think, that would have been considered irrational, foolish, supernatural and stupid in 1980, I’m sorry, in 1880, or 1890. And now we accept that this is true. I mean, you know, we know it’s true. And so science moves, and it changes and its methods change, its philosophical basis changes. I think, you know that better than anyone. And so I changed too, a little bit. I mean, I was a little bit late, because, you know, I was not a physicist so I was learning this sort of post hoc. But I began to see that science itself was telling us, again, the uncertainty principle, this is a scientific fact, which is telling us, no, we’ll never we’ll never be able to figure that out. That’s just the simultaneous knowledge of position and momentum of these tiny particles are not knowable. And that’s important. 

Stump:

So I think these are some really interesting distinctions you’re making here. The kind of questions that science maybe just hasn’t answered yet, but it might be able to someday. Then there are the kinds of questions that science can’t answer, and are just unknowable, that nothing could answer, that position versus momentum, it’s not like there’s another discipline that could give you the answer to that, right? 

Garte:

No, that’s right.

Stump:

Then maybe there are other kinds of questions that science can’t even, in principle, answer, but other ways of knowing to use one of the phrases that there are other kinds of disciplines. And you know, you mentioned, ethics and, or art, maybe. So talk a little bit about the distinction. Can you give us an example, say, of a question in that first category? Here’s something that science can’t answer yet but we fully expect that it is the kind of question that science will eventually be able to answer.

Garte:

Well, I think that’s a very broad group of things. I think that we’ve already done that quite a bit to a large extent, especially in biology. There was a period when the question of the genetic material was so mysterious—what is the legitimate genetic molecule—that, you know, a lot of people were giving up. I mean, DNA was ruled out, because it only has four major components. And doesn’t look like you could have a molecule with, you know, the four nucleotides, and it could do anything. Whereas enzymes were, you know, proteins were considered they had to be the genetic material. Everybody knew that. But there was no evidence for it. And every experiment that was done throughout the 30s, and into the mid 40s, was negative. So it looked hopeless. And then Avery did this experiment where he found that genetic traits were passed on by DNA, which nobody could understand. And that kind of opened the door to say, well, maybe it is DNA. It was very weak evidence, you know, it wasn’t strong evidence. And a couple of nutcases like Francis Crick and a few others decided to pursue that. You know, they were all alone. If you read The Double Helix by Watson, you see the atmosphere. And there were a few others, you know, in England, in the US, but when they cracked the structure of DNA and found the base pairing rules, everything became clear. And that’s why that was such an amazing discovery, because it’s one of the few—as you said, before, Jim, most scientific discoveries are, you know, slow and spaced apart. So, you know, nobody can claim to made discovered something. Well, Watson and Crick is sort of an exception, because once they did see the structure, and it was clear, everything followed from there, and DNA was clearly the genetic material and then everybody forgot about the fact that that was supposed to be a mystery that was unsolvable. 

Stump:

So that’s an interesting example, because it’s the kind of question where perhaps originally, most people would have said, science can’t answer this. And right, even when, as Francis Collins tells the story, in the 80s, of trying to get the Human Genome Project going, the scientific consensus from a lot of people was, “we are never going to be able to do this. Don’t waste your time and energy and money on this.” But then it became the kind of question that we could answer. And that, as a philosopher, that always makes me a little nervous then as we look at other questions now that we say all science can’t ever answer this, will we be able to? And I’d like to get you talking a little bit. There are three big moments in the history of our universe that you point to in the book and lots of people have done this. Holmes Ralston wrote a book called The three Big Bang’s. So the origin of matter and energy in space and time, which is typically the Big Bang, right? But then some of that matter and energy became alive, for which we don’t have a scientific explanation. And then some of that living stuff becomes conscious for which we don’t have a scientific explanation. Where do you put those kinds of questions in that typology of questions we were just talking about there, as to science just hasn’t figured it out yet, it will never be able to figure it out, and nothing will ever be able to figure it out. Or no, there’s another discipline that has the answer to this.

Garte:

Well, okay. So let’s take a look at the origin of life, because that’s the one that I know the most about. And, although I think it also applies to the origin of consciousness and human consciousness, to some extent, I am pretty convinced, although I will say here that I’ve not completely finalized my views, but I am pretty convinced that the origin of life will have a scientific explanation. However, it’s not going to be anything that we—I think that it’s not going to be anything that we now think is possible. In other words, I think in the book, you may remember, when I talked about the limits of science, I talked about stop signs, which say, “you’ve got as far as you can on this road, the road is ending.” You can keep going but you have to use a different vehicle. You got to get out and walk or do something. And I think that’s where we are in biology. It’s where we were in physics at the turn of the 20th century. You know, it had been discovered that light travels at a constant speed. That made no sense. Nobody could figure out what to do. And they couldn’t figure it out until they went a different route. Until Einstein said, “okay, we’re gonna look at this from a totally different perspective.” He used different mathematics. He used a whole new approach. And he showed that, in fact, light is constant speed, because time changes. And who would have expected that right? Time slowing up and speeding, you know, the slowing down and speeding up. That didn’t make much sense. But that’s true. So we’re there. I think we’re there biology, and I don’t even think we’re close to it yet with consciousness. But in biology, we’re there. We mean that the best explanation for the origin of life now is chemical evolution. And this is what the leaders in the field are working on, you know, Jack Szostak and John Sutherland and a bunch of folks, and, you know, they’re getting some data, they’re getting some results. They’re getting some answers here and there, but it’s not going well. And I think what we need is we’re going to need a what’s called a paradigm shift, right? That’s the standard. And there are some possibilities for what that paradigm shift might be. They don’t come from me. They come from people in the field. And I think we’re going to have to—I think that’s the direction we’re gonna need to have to go. And at that point, when we do that, and when we get an answer, the thing that everybody said, “well, we’ll never get this through science,” it’ll be exactly like it was with DNA. It’ll be, “well, we got that through science, but the science had to change.” It had to expand what is called science. 

Stump:

Yeah, those are the things that—that’s a really interesting point to say that what we call science is going to have to change. So you give a definition in your book that’s pretty broad and flexible enough to maybe accommodate when you say science is marked by two special characteristics, reproducibility, and clarity. Will the new science that can discover the scientific explanation for how life came to be still fit within that broad definition, though?

Garte:

Absolutely. But it will—in other words, once the discoveries are made using new tools and new concepts, yeah, they’ll be clear and they’ll be reproducible. That’s the definition. If they’re not reproducible, it’s not science.

Stump:

So what does that— Is that— So, pardon the technical terminology here, but is reproducibility a sufficient condition for something being science? Or is that only a necessary condition?

Garte:

I think it’s necessary. And I doubt it’s sufficient. I think the clarity issue is important. It has it and there may be some other issues as well. I never intended that definition in the book to be sufficient because sufficient causes are, I think, are a difficult subject. 

Stump:

So maybe compare it then, instead of us thinking that you’ve stumbled on the line of demarcation between science and not science that philosophers have been arguing about for a really long time, let’s at least give some examples of how this might work. So because what I wondered is if other ways of knowing that are not reproducible, and as clear to count in science, are they then not objective? Do we say things like art or maybe ethics are more subjective?

Garte:

Well, I don’t know about that. What I like to say is that science provides evidence for truth, but it does not provide proof of truth. And truth, I think is the standard that we’re thinking about. And truth can come from everywhere. We say Jesus Christ is the truth. That’s not a scientific statement. Okay. It’s a theological statement. And is theology true? Well, you know, talking about the definition of truth, I leave to you guys, to the philosophers, because I can’t define it. But I know that there is truth which is not scientific. What science does is it leads us to the truth about the natural world about the world that we experience. And it uses the method of methodological naturalism, because that’s the way we do it. And anything that’s outside of that method that cannot be approached by that method, by definition, cannot be part of science. So we could use art or ethics as well. I mean, why is it good to be good? I mean, that’s not a scientific question. Now, some people try to make it that way. And we could get into this a little bit. Maybe later, if there’s time. But, you know, there is a lot of misuse of science among everybody. Okay, whatever your theological or philosophical views are. And I think one of the misuses of science is to invoke certain disciplines, like for example, evolution, to explain reality, when it really doesn’t work. So there are arguments made by people that, you know, all ethics and all of morality is a result of evolution. And that’s a stretch. I don’t think that’s been scientifically shown at all. I think it’s a hopeful statement to avoid the idea of truth outside of science. If you believe that all truth is approachable by science and science gives you all possible truth, then the question, why did someone sacrifice their life for his friends who are not even related to him or for people he doesn’t even know and you try to use evolution to explain that,as Richard Dawkins has tried, you’re pushing the envelope I think about what science can do, because it’s not scientifically valid. There’s no evidence that that’s scientifically true.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of god,” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Stump:

In the last few years, as I mentioned earlier, you’ve shifted to spending more of your time in the area that can at least be broadly characterized as apologetics, of providing a rational defense for faith. And you do this both in terms of the science in conversation with young earth creationist and others who are nervous about or at least unaccepting of modern science, but also with atheists who don’t accept Christian faith. And it’s this latter category that I’d like to get you talking about a bit here now, because science has long been invoked in traditional arguments for the existence of God, right things like the Kalam cosmological argument, various fine tuning arguments. Now, more recently, apologists point to aspects of evolution or at least what they perceive to be aspects of evolution, things like the Cambrian explosion or purpose in evolution or information in DNA. Talk a little bit about these kinds of arguments and whether you think these arguments show that there must be a god.

Garte:

Okay, so let me first say that I don’t think any arguments outside of theological arguments can show, can prove, that there is a God, for the reasons that I just stated, which is that the existence and the nature of God is outside of the world of nature. God created the universe from outside the universe. This is standard Christian thought. And we don’t have tools to investigate, scientifically, the way we think of science. We don’t have tools to investigate that act, and that agency. So it’s outside of science. It doesn’t mean it’s not true. Again, but it’s outside of science. 

Now what but your real question, which is a very good one, is can science contribute anything to this argument? Okay, in other words, is fine tuning—and I love the Francis Collins, I don’t know if he started this, but I always think of him when I hear the word “pointer.” He always says that there are scientific pointers to the existence of God. Now, what is a pointer? It’s not proof for sure. It’s—no one would ever say that science proves God or, actually, science doesn’t really prove anything. Proof is a question of mathematics and logic. It’s not scientific. But certainly not proof of God. So what does a pointer mean? To me, a pointer means a term which is used in science, and that is consistent with or evidence for. Now, fine tuning, for example, I think is a good example. Fine tuning does not prove the existence of God. There are three other explanations that are very general. And there could be others that we haven’t thought of yet. But it is consistent with the idea that there is a creator who designed the universe in a certain way. So that would have stars and planets. And if you have stars and planets, it’s always possible to have life. And I like to put it that way. Because it’s not that the universe is designed for life. That’s not true. But it is designed for life to possibly arise the way we know it.

Stump: 

It’s consistent with the existence of life as opposed to many other ways the universe could have been that would not have been consistent. 

Garte:

That’s right, most of which is that it lasted six seconds and made of nothing but hydrogen. So you know, it’s kind of hard to have a full life in that kind of universe. But, so the fine tuning argument, you know, what should it do for atheists? It should give them a little pause as it did for me. It should make them think, well, yeah, maybe God is not absolutely 100% crazy. I mean, maybe there are some things that are sort of, you know, consistent with it, it doesn’t prove it, but it doesn’t rule it out. And the same thing would be true for the Kalam argument or, you know, the origin of existence. And I think when we get to life, we’re in a similar position, in that, you know, the very existence of life is quite remarkable. And however it evolved, however it began, and whether it began through some, what is called purely natural means, which is, you know, we could argue with also because purely nature is what God created. So everything is purely natural in that sense. And everything is also God-created in that sense. So it’s not a good atheist argument, is what I think, to try to attack those scientific pointers.

Stump:

So let me try to make the question a little tougher then. Because I think you’re absolutely right that science does not prove the existence of God or much at all. And you’re absolutely right on the other end of the spectrum, that it does provide some evidence, the tricky part for me is that evidence can be construed in lots of different ways the same people can look at the same, you know, the same set of evidence and derive different conclusions from it. So I’m trying to place you somewhere on the spectrum between those two extremes, to say how much should these arguments push the reasonable person to accept the existence of God?

Garte:

So that’s a great question. And that is, I think, as you said, that is sort of a central question for people like me and you, who are, you know, engaged, pretty much on a daily basis with the issues of science and faith. So what is the answer? And of course, I don’t know. If I did, you know, that would be great. But I think the answer is, we have to look very long term. I fully believe that the word of God is true. And I fully believe in the two book theology that God communicates with us and created, you know, the world of nature, which is one book and the world of the Bible, the word, which is the other book of His revelation. And if both of those things are true, that’s tricky. Because they don’t all—they don’t both say the same thing. So what that means is, we’re not done with either one. We haven’t really completely finished understanding the Bible and every word of it nor have we completely finished understanding the world of nature and the laws of science and the laws of nature. And why should we? This is 2021.

Stump: 

Will we ever. 

Garte:

Will we ever? Well, I think it might be asymptotic. I have no idea. But we’re getting closer. And what I think is that, as we continue to do scientific work, related to these origins, related to the, you know, these central questions and in existence, the origin of the universe, life and consciousness, we’re going to have to do what I said before, we’re going to have to include concepts that were not originally part of science and that will have to come into science. And one of those, by the way, you mentioned is, I believe as important, is teleology, the idea of purpose, which up till now has been excluded from biology. And many people, including many non theists are saying, we’ve got to bring it back. We have to talk about purpose, because purpose is everywhere in biological reality. 

So okay, so once we do things like that, once we bring—if we can bring this in on a scientific basis, in other words, beyond simply a philosophical idea that it exists, but to actually use it in some way, and I don’t know how, but some way that we can now make sense of things like the very origin of life before evolution was possible before there was biological evolution. If we can do that, successfully, scientifically, we will have made a huge step towards understanding the natural origin of life, but also, if it works, that will be a further pointer to the outside agency that we call God. But again, will still not be proof, because that will never happen. That’s the one thing I’m sure of. We’ll never prove God.

Stump:

Let me try to ask this one more way, which maybe is the same. But I’ll come back to your question in the book of whether our world or maybe we can even ask whether reality is a purely logical and rational place that’s fully understandable by the application of reason. And I wonder what the implications of that question are for apologetics? Because isn’t it the assumption of most apologetics that if everyone would just be reasonable, then they’d all come to believe these same things? So in that sense, would we say this really is reasonable, and if you don’t believe the same way I do about God, then you’re just being unreasonable, you’re not allowing the reason and rationality of reality to…

Garte:

Okay, well, the answer to that, Jim, is I am not an apologist. That may sound funny because I just spoke at an apologetics conference. But I actually, and this is clearly stated in my book, I did not come to faith through the application of reason and the understanding of apologetic arguments. What that did for me was break down my resistance to faith. But in my  case, and I believe in many other cases, and I know there are exceptions, but in many other cases, what happens is, people come to faith through the action of God, through the intervention of the Holy Spirit in their lives in a way that is, that could be deniable. And I think this happened to me all the time. I had experiences as a teenager, that I now know were from the Holy Spirit, but at the time, I just said, “oh, that’s just my, you know, emotional whatever.” So the rejection of anything that’s spiritual is what has to be overcome. And that can be overcome by these rational and scientific pointers that say, no, you shouldn’t dismiss these experiences out of hand. But I think it—my view is that ultimately, atheists who come to faith have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit.

Stump:

So the science and these scientific arguments, these apologetic arguments, may provide a service in opening the door for people to consider this, but they’re not going to shove them through that door.

Garte:

Well, that’s exactly the imagery that I’ve used in a couple of articles. Now, I know there are exceptions, there are people, famous people who have—I think Anthony Flew is one—who decided that the scientific evidence for fine tuning I believe, and maybe also the origin of life, I don’t remember, but was enough to convince him that theism was real. He did not become a Christian, as far as I remember. You probably know this better than I do. 

Stump:

I think that’s right. 

Garte:

But you know, he was no longer able to call himself an atheist, was, I think, how he put it. And that’s great. And I think that can happen. But, you know, to me, becoming a Christian was far more important than starting to say, I don’t believe in atheism. I mean, I think there may be a god, I think there is a God, but the personal experience of Jesus Christ is what really changed my life around.

Stump:

Can you continue that personal story then? So where are you in life here now? And you’d started considering at least the possibility that science can’t answer everything? What were some of the other steps then that led you to accept Christianity for yourself?

Garte:

Yeah, so again, this is all spelled out in the book. 

Stump:

Give us just enough to tease people that they’ll go buy your book then.

Garte:

So a number of experiences. I had a couple of dreams when I was—I was an agnostic at that point, you asked what stage in my life. So this was in my 40s and 50s. I was an agnostic. I wouldn’t say that I was an atheist anymore. But I certainly didn’t believe in God or anything supernatural. I was still heavily involved in science research, of course. And a number of things happened. I’ll just give a few. I had a couple of dreams that, which are in the book, and I won’t mention them now, but just simply that they included the person of Jesus Christ. I didn’t know that at the time, I just thought there was a person there, but I didn’t know. I had an experience of going to church for the first time in my life. I was in my late 40s. I was brought to church by a friend, which often happens, and I, you know, based on my upbringing, I expected it to be at best, I thought I would be mocked and jeered at and at worst maybe stoned or hung. Because, you know, it was a Catholic Church and oh my goodness, a Catholic Church. Wow.

Stump:

It’s a long way from communism. 

Garte:

A long way. I mean, this is the place where, you know where people were put in crypts or whatever, I had no idea. And it was a Catholic Church run by I think Franciscans. And you know, people were very friendly, they shook my hand, they wished me peace, which was nice. And then when the priest—and then there was a lot of ritual, which I didn’t understand—and then the priest started speaking, and all he talked about was love. I thought he was going to talk about sinners, and you know, hell and damnation, and he just talked about love. And it was so moving. And I well, okay, so obviously, I got that wrong. I also had read the Gospels, I believe in college as part of a course. And I was totally uninterested in it. But now I started looking at it again. I read Matthew and then I read the book of Acts. And you know, it was very moving to me at this point, because I actually was able to read it and get some feel for it. And the book of Acts in particular struck me because I’m an amateur historian. I love history. And I read this, and I said, well, this is not made up. This is history. This is somebody writing about what happened. And so I started thinking a little more seriously about, you know, what did happen? You know, what actually happened with this guy, Jesus Christ, you know, who’s walking around preaching stuff, and pretended to rise from the dead or whatever? And I started looking into it a little bit. And the more I looked into it, the more sense it made. I didn’t see anything to turn me off, which is, that’s a lot. And finally, I had an experience. You know I had gone to church, I went back to church a few times. I still couldn’t get over that threshold, as you said, you know, getting pushed over the threshold, I still couldn’t say— Well, I can’t believe in this stuff, I can’t believe in, you know, in a spiritual sky-fairy or whatever. You know, it’s just too much. It would be nice if it were true, but how could it possibly be true, you know, just goes against everything. And that’s when I was somewhat in that state of mind when I was driving alone in my car on a six hour trip and I turned on the radio, and I heard a Christian preacher. And, you know, as many Christian radio preachers are, this guy was really good. I mean, he was, he really knew how to talk, you know, he could preach. And as some of your listeners might have guessed, I like talking, you know, so I said to myself, you know, gee, you know, what would I talk about if I were preaching? I would probably talk about something related to science. And, you know, the uncertainty principle or whatever was in my mind at that point. And I turned off the radio and I started thinking about that. And then words came into my mind. It was a sermon. And I even had the sense that I was addressing a crowd of people in the south. Maybe, you know, I heard about revivals. Maybe it was a revivalist tent meeting or something. And I was talking to them, and I was preaching a sermon. And it wasn’t coming from me because I was listening as much as I was talking.

Stump:

So you give an account of that sermon in your book. And I just thought it was super powerful. And I wonder if we might get you to preach that sermon to us here. Now, for people worried it’s not super long. But can you give us a flavor of what you were doing when you were driving in that car and preaching to an imaginary audience and give us the sermon?

Garte:

Yeah, and I have to say that this will be the first time I’ve ever spoken it. I tried once and I couldn’t get through it. So I will, we’ll see how it goes. Just a sec. Okay, here I have it. Okay, so this is what’s in the book. I can’t say that it’s word for word, but it’s pretty close to what I was thinking at the time. 

Brothers and sisters, I would like to greet you and thank you for coming to hear me speak. I want to tell you who I am. I was not born around here. My family were not Christians. I was born in New York City and my family were atheists from an ethnic Jewish background. My parents were not only atheists, they were communists. When I say that, I don’t mean they voted democrat or ultra liberal. I mean, they were actually members of the American Communist Party. They not only rejected God, they hated the idea of God. I never went to any religious service in my youth. And in my early years, I was a left wing radical. After going to college, I became a scientist like my father. And yet here I stand before you, a real life communist scientist intellectual from New York City. And so you’re probably thinking, what in God’s name is that guy doing here talking to a group of real Christians? I will give two answers to that question. The first answer which you have heard many times is this: Jesus loves me. The second answer is more powerful: Jesus loves even me. Yes, I’m standing here to tell you brothers and sisters, that Jesus Christ, the Lord made flesh, loves me, a commy, atheist, scientist, sinner from godless New York City. I know this for a fact. And if that is true, which it is, who among you could he not love? Are you unworthy of His love? Have you sinned? You cannot be more unworthy than me. And I would bet that your sins are no worse than mine. Does it make sense that God would love me after decades of my denial of his existence? No, it does not. I rejected him not once, but over and over. And still, His love is there. I worshipped idols. I denied my own soul. Doesn’t matter. On a few occasions, I even heard his call to me, and I ignored it and kept following my own path. And yet, I can feel his love. How can I explain this? I can’t. I never went to Sunday school. I never went to Hebrew school. I never prayed or read the Bible. I laughed at believers and cursed his churches. I don’t deserve His forgiveness or his love. I have not earned them. If God were just I would be punished, not rewarded. So what does this all mean? How can we make sense of this strange thing that I, even I, am loved by the Lord? It must mean something. And yes, brothers and sisters, it does. It means that God is not only just but merciful, and His mercy is beyond our understanding. It means that he offers his love, not as a reward, but as a gift. Whenever I go now to church to pray, my prayer is always the same, it is a prayer of thanks. I thank God for His gift of love and for his gift of my life. I see now that it is a wonderful life full of turmoil, stress, people, adventure, peace and joy, a human life, another gift from God. So I stand here before you and say, thank you Lord. Thank you, Jesus Christ, who is God made flesh, made it clear that you came not only for the holy in the righteous only, but for the lost, the sinners, the sick, and the wounded. And that you love all of us. Even me. Amen. 

Stump:

Amen. 

In the church tradition I grew up in we’d respond to a sermon like that by having an altar call. Maybe taking an offering. That’s powerful. Thanks so much.

Garte:

Thank you, Jim. I appreciate it. And I almost got through it all. 

Stump:

That last line. 

Garte: 

That last line, yeah. 

Stump:

Well, thanks. Just in closing here, tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now where people can find you on the internet and the kind of projects you’re engaged in. I think this is interesting, too.

Garte:

Yeah, I’d love to. So yeah, I have been, so I retired in 2015. So that’s six years ago now. And as you said before, Jim, I’ve been involved in online stuff with BioLogos initially and later with the American Scientific Affiliation, and that the magazine that they put out quarterly, I’m now editor in chief of, and I’ll keep doing that for at least another couple of years, probably. I have a YouTube channel, which is not very active, but I have several sort of instructional videos on it. It’s called Faithful Syence. Science is spelled s-y-e-n-c-e. And there’s some stuff about DNA and a lot of Biological things and some things about faith and science as well. I do have a blog and my website, you can find the blog also through the website is SyGarte.com. I’m heavily involved in Twitter. I tweet frequently. I have a good sized following, I guess, about 20,000 people. And I do a lot on that. I do a little bit on Facebook. And, you know, I do whatever I can, whatever comes up. I’ve done a lot of interviews and keep doing that. 

Stump: 

Any more books in the works?

Garte:

Well, I was just gonna say, I have another book that’s just about done. I’m still waiting for the publisher, we, you know, we’re not quite done yet there. And I have another book that I’m thinking of, which I’ve done outlines for, you know how it is. Everything is, you know, on the way, in process. So I have another one, so I may have two more books at some point. But I’m also writing articles. I intend to keep doing articles and essays and getting ideas out there about some of the things we talked about. And scientifically I’m working on the issue of accurate self replication and the origin of life. And I have two papers, one’s been published in Acta Biotheoretica, that’s a mainstream peer-reviewed journal. And another one coming out in a new journal, it’s in press. And these relate to the scientific issues around the remarkable process of accurate self replication in life. And they may be of interest to some people. But I will probably continue working in this area of theoretical biology or theoretical biochemistry, you know, in the future.

Stump:

Oh, very good. We’ll put some links to some of those in the show notes of this episode, so people can find it easily. And let me just end by saying thank you. Thank you, Sy, for your work, and for your witness, and for talking to us today. Let’s do it again sometime.

Garte:

Be happy to. And Thank you, Jim. I really, really enjoyed it. 

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed on the ancestral land of the Anishinaabe people.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Sy Garte

Sy Garte

Sy (Seymour) Garte, PhD in biochemistry, is the author of the award-winning book The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith (Kregel Publications, 2019). He has been a tenured professor at New York University, Rutgers University, and the University of Pittsburgh, division director at the Center for Scientific Review of the National Institutes of Health, and interim vice president for research at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. He is currently visiting professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Rutgers University. He has published over two hundred peer-reviewed scientific papers and five books, as well as articles on science and Christian faith in periodicals such as Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith, More to Life, and Christianity Today. He has appeared on numerous podcasts and YouTube channels. Currently, Dr. Garte serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the American Scientific Affiliation’s (ASA) online quarterly magazine God and Nature, and also as vice president for the Washington, DC, metro chapter of the ASA. He was a member of the board of advisors of the John Templeton Foundation. Dr. Garte became a Christian later in life and is now a Certified lay Servant of the United Methodist Church in Rockville, MD.

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