Science and Religion: The New Convergence
Once, we thought science would solve the Big Questions. But the more scientists learn, the more mysterious the questions become.
"The ancient covenant is in pieces: Man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance." So pronounced the Nobel Prize-winning French biologist Jacques Monod in his 1970 treatise Chance and Necessity, which maintained that God had been utterly refuted by science. The divine is fiction, faith is hokum, existence is a matter of heartless probability - and this wasn't just speculation, Monod maintained, but proven. The essay, which had tremendous influence on the intellectual world, seemed to conclude a millennia-old debate. Theology was in retreat, unable to explain away Darwin's observations; intellectual approval was flowing to thinkers such as the Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who in 1977 pronounced, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." In 1981, the National Academy of Sciences declared, "Religion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought." Case closed.
And now reopened. In recent years, Allan Sandage, one of the world's leading astronomers, has declared that the big bang can be understood only as a "miracle." Charles Townes, a Nobel-winning physicist and coinventor of the laser, has said that discoveries of physics "seem to reflect intelligence at work in natural law." Biologist Christian de Duve, also a Nobel winner, points out that science argues neither for nor against the existence of a deity: "There is no sense in which atheism is enforced or established by science." And biologist Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, insists that "a lot of scientists really don't know what they are missing by not exploring their spiritual feelings" (read a 2000 profile of Collins).
Ever so gingerly, science has been backing away from its case-closed attitude toward the transcendent unknown. Conferences that bring together theologians and physicists are hot, recently taking place at Harvard, the Smithsonian, and other big-deal institutions. The American Association for the Advancement of Science now sponsors a "Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion." Science luminaries who in the '70s shrugged at faith as gobbledygook - including E. O. Wilson and the late Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan - have endorsed some form of reconciliation between science and religion.
Why the renewed scientific interest in spiritual thinking? One reason is the cyclical nature of intellectual fashions. In philosophy, metaphysics is making a comeback after decades ruled by positivism and analytical theory of language. These restrained, empirically based ideas have run their course; now the pendulum is swinging toward the grand vision of metaphysics - someday, surely, to swing away again. Similarly in science, the pure materialistic view that reigned through the 20th century, holding that everything has a natural explanation, couldn't keep other viewpoints at bay forever. The age-old notion that there is more to existence than meets the eye suddenly looks like fresh thinking again.
Meanwhile, decades of inconclusive inquiry have left the science-has-all-the-answers script in tatters. As recently as the '70s, intellectuals assumed that hard science was on track to resolve the two Really Big Questions: why life exists and how the universe began. What's more, both Really Big Answers were assumed to involve strictly deterministic forces. But things haven't worked out that way. Instead, the more scientists have learned, the more mysterious the Really Big Questions have become.