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Friday, April 18, 2014

Cosmos, Bios, Theos

Posted by jlwile on February 11, 2013

Dr. Henry Margenau was the Eugene Higgins Professor Emeritus of Physics and Natural Philosophy at Yale. He died in 1997, but five years before that, he and Roy Varghese, an international journalist, teamed up to edit a book entitled Cosmos, Bios, and Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life, and Homo sapiens. I came across an old review of the book some time ago, and it sounded intriguing, so I decided to put it on my reading list.

Margenau and Varghese contacted some of the most important scientists of the twentieth century and ask them about their views regarding God and the subject of origins. In the end, they got responses from 60 prominent scientists, 24 of whom had won the Nobel Prize. Most of them responded to six questions that Margenau and Varghese asked:

1. What do you think should be the relationship between religion and science?

2. What is your view on the origin of the universe: both on a scientific level and – if you see the need – on a metaphysical level?

3. What is your view on the origin of life: both on a scientific level and – if you see the need – on a metaphysical level?

4. What is your view on the origin of Homo sapiens?

5. How should science – and the scientist – approach origin questions, specifically the origin of the universe and the origin of life?

6. Many prominent scientists – including Darwin, Einstein, and Planck – have considered the concept of God very seriously. What are your thoughts on the concept of God and the existence of God.

As you might expect when 60 deep thinkers are asked such serious questions, the answers were varied and incredibly interesting. Before I discuss them, however, it is important to make two points. The first one is made in the preface of the book:

Cosmos, Bios, Theos makes no pretension to being a statistically significant survey of the religious beliefs of modern scientists. (p. xiii)

So the reader should not use the responses contained in this book to infer the general attitude among scientists toward the existence of God or the question of origins.

The second point is that not all the scientists responded to those six questions. Instead, some simply wrote a few pages of general thoughts about the topics of God and origins. Others permitted the use of interviews that had already taken place between them and Roy Varghese.

The book is split into four sections. The first section contains responses (or essays or interviews) from astronomers, mathematicians, and physicists, while the second contained responses (or essays or interviews) from biologists and chemists. As I read each scientist’s views, I tried to determine whether the scientist was an atheist (does not believe in God), an agnostic (is not sure about the existence of God), a deist (believes in a God that created but is not actively involved in the universe), or a theist (believes in a God that created and is personal and active in the universe). This wasn’t possible in all cases, because some of the scientists seemed almost evasive when it came to their specific beliefs about God.

Among those scientists whose views were made clear, however, I found something quite interesting. When it came to the astronomers, mathematicians, and physicists I could find no atheists and only a handful of agnostics. The vast majority were either deists or theists. In addition, the theists outnumbered the deists by a margin of more than three to one. That wasn’t true among the biologists and chemists, however. In this grouping of scientists, there was one atheist, and the numbers were almost evenly split among agnostics, deists, and theists.

Now once again, this book doesn’t even pretend to be a statistically significant sample of scientists, but the difference that appears between these two groups is something I have noticed in my own scientific career. In general, I find astronomers, mathematicians, and physicists to be significantly more likely to believe in God than chemists and biologists. It also fits with what physicist Dr. Robert Griffiths said quite some time ago:1

If we need an atheist for a debate, I go to the philosophy department. The physics department isn’t much use.

I am not sure why physicists (and mathematicians) seem to be more likely to believe in God than other scientists, but I find it to be interesting.

Now even though the astronomers, mathematicians, and physicists were more likely to believe in God than the biologists and chemists, the most definitive statements about the existence of God came from chemists. For example, Dr. Christian B. Anfinsen (who won the 1972 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) wrote:

I think only an idiot can be an atheist. (p. 139)

I disagree with that, of course. I was once an atheist, and I don’t think I was an idiot back then. In addition, I know (and read) several atheists, and very few of them are idiots. Dr. D. H. R. Barton, who won the 1969 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, put it a bit more mildly but still quite definitively:

Science shows that God exists. (p. 144)

I agree strongly with Dr. Barton. It was science that pulled me away from atheism, and the more I study science, the more definitively I think it points to the existence of a Creator.

While there is a lot more I could say about what these scientists wrote in response to the six questions that were posed, I want to discuss the third section of the book, because it is also incredibly interesting. It contains a debate on the existence of God between Dr. Hywel David Lewis (a celebrated Welsh philosopher) and Dr. Antony Flew (a celebrated British philosopher). What makes this debate so fascinating is that the book was published 12 years before Dr. Flew rejected atheism. As a result, you get to read Dr. Flew presenting the case for a position that he ultimately rejected!

Having the advantage of knowing what Flew eventually ended up believing, I think this debate reveals that he was already starting to grow a bit uncomfortable about his atheism more than a decade ago. At the beginning of one of his responses to Lewis, he writes:

Notoriously, confession is good for the soul. I will therefore begin by confessing that the Stratonician atheist has to be embarrassed by the contemporary cosmological consensus. For it seems that the cosmologists are providing a scientific proof of what St. Thomas contended could not be proved philosophically; namely that the universe had a beginning. (p. 241)

If you don’t recognize the term (which was coined by Flew himself), a Stratonician atheist is one who thinks that since there is no need to believe in God to understand the universe, the proper rational position is that of the atheist.

Throughout most of the history of science, it was the scientific consensus that the universe had no beginning – it had always existed and will always exist. This, of course, fit very comfortably in the atheist worldview, and it was contrary to Scripture, which teaches clearly that the universe had a beginning (Genesis 1:1, Colossians 1:16, Acts 4:24, etc.). However, the more scientists studied the universe, the more they realized that this view was incompatible with the observations at hand. As a result, in the twentieth century, the scientific consensus changed to what Scripture teaches: that the universe had a beginning. This, of course, was not enough to convince Flew to abandon his atheism. In the end, it was the design he saw in both the universe and the biological world that convinced him there must be a Designer. Nevertheless, it is interesting to read that more than a decade before he abandoned atheism, scientific considerations were already producing some discomfort in him.

The fourth part of the book contains two essays: one about the origin of the universe and the other about quantum mechanics and the mystery of life. I didn’t find either essay meaningful in any significant way. However, the rest of the book is so insanely interesting that I found it very worthwhile. It is certainly not “light reading,” but it may turn on some light bulbs in the minds of those who read it seriously.


1. Tim Stafford, “Cease-Fire in the Laboratory,” Christianity Today, April 3, 1987, p. 18
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7 Responses to “Cosmos, Bios, Theos”
  1. D. Perrine says:

    Even though I am just just in my twenties, hardly a skilled or prominent mathematician, I am a theist as well.
    While some of my tasks include just chasing symbols across a page wondering if they lead somewhere, other tasks clearly show the order or elegance of the world through their succinct equations. I cannot help but seem some hand in this. But that is my opinion. And whether the math was designed as such or by chance happened to behave as such is another matter and debate.
    In all the chaos of the world, the ability to boil actions down to equations that are understandable, plotable, and give rise to other notions with mathematical consequences that also have implications in nature continues to amaze me. I find no lack of joy in exploring their depths.

    Back to the book at hand, I wonder if a similar study was done (although as the book mentions, it was in no way a big enough sample to provide reliable statistics) today, what groups of people would increase or decrease in each field of study.

  2. jlwile says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, D. Perrine. There is a recent book that has done a rather thorough analysis of what scientists believe. It is called Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund. It is on my reading list, but I have not gotten to it yet. According to reviews, it indicates that fully half of scientists are religious. However, I don’t know if they are broken down by discipline. I do hope to read the book at some point.

  3. Bethany says:

    It’s really interesting that certain scientific disciplines are more likely to have believers than others. But why mathematicians? Why would a biologist be less likely to believe in God? I mean, they study cells, which seem to me to be incredibly complex and clearly point to a Creator. Math seems broad and abstract. Maybe it’s the difference between looking at the big picture and zeroing in on details. What do you think?

  4. jlwile says:

    That’s a great question, Bethany, and I am not sure that I have an answer. Certainly, your “big picture” idea has some merit. Here’s another thought: Why does mathematics work so well, especially at describing the physical world? People “invented” math, didn’t they? Nevertheless, it just happens to describe the natural world in a detailed way. When you think about it, that’s a bit odd. How is it that a human “invention” is so useful at describing things like the propagation of light through a medium, the ejection of protons and neutrons from an excited nucleus, and the behavior of a projectile? Mathematicians and physicists are exposed to this odd fact over and over again. I think it gives them reason to believe in a Grand Design for everything.

    In addition, mathematicians have to contend with another issue: different aspects of math were “invented” by different people for different reasons, but they all fit together incredibly well. I am not a mathematician, so don’t take what I say on this issue with much more than a grain salt. However, as far as I understand, geometric ideas were first developed for the purposes of construction and the division of land. One important geometric concept is that of the irrational number pi, which is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. There is a Babylonian clay tablet that is dated between 1900 and 1600 BC that has an approximation of pi. As mathematical thinking progressed, Hero of Alexandria contemplated the idea of the square root of a negative number (represented today by “i”) in the first century AD. As I understand it, his reason for contemplating such a concept was algebraic. Then in the 17th century, Nicholas Mercator discussed the natural logarithm. He didn’t call it that, of course. That name came along later. It corresponds to the area under the curve of a hyperbola. That’s essentially a concept of calculus. The basis of the natural logarithm is the irrational number “e.”

    So we have three different mathematical concepts from three different areas of mathematics, thought of by three different people in three radically different parts of human history. However, when you combine them, you get:

    e(i)x(pi) + 1 = 0

    This is known as Euler’s identity. This is something we see over and over again in mathematics. The parts of this supposedly human invention end up fitting together amazingly well. I would think that someone who studies math for a living would have to come up with an explanation for this, and once again, a Grand Design seems to be an incredibly reasonable choice. Indeed, one of my high school math teachers said that in his mind, Euler’s identity proved the existence of God. I vehemently disagreed with him at the time and still think he vastly overstated his case, but I can now see why he said that.

  5. Stefan says:

    Hey Dr. Jay L. Wile

    It was interesting to read your review, I also did enjoy your math history lesson :)

    I’d just wanted to ask you what you think of this scripture, compared to your statement, that you don’t consider yourself a fool back in the days of your atheism:
    Psalm 14:1 Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” (and others scriptures like it)

  6. jlwile says:

    Thanks, Stefan. Your question is an excellent one. I certainly admit that I was a fool when I was an atheist. However, I do think that is different from being an idiot. The typical definition of idiot is “a stupid person.” I don’t think that’s the same as being a fool. A fool is typically defined as someone who acts unwisely or imprudently. There is a big difference between those two words. A fool can be very smart; he is a fool because he uses his knowledge unwisely.

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