Owen Gingerich

Book CoverListened to Owen Gingerich tonight. He claims to have figured out a way to "make space for design" within the constraints of scientific thought as understood in a robust and rigorous way. It was interesting, but ultimately, for me, a little frustrating. Gingerich believes in God. He describes himself as "psychologically incapable" of imagining a universe without God. He's also a serious scientist. It seems to me that he's restated Steven Jay Gould's "nonoverlapping magisteria" idea in a slightly different way. He thinks that scientists develop efficient-causal explanations that require only materialist presuppositions. But since the universe is so remarkably friendly to life, and particularly, it's friendly to us — intelligent, moral, reflective life-forms — he imagines that this can't be by accident, and so therefore someone, some "super-intelligent" being, must have wanted it this way. (Stated this way, it kind of reminds me of the example of the golfer hitting the ball: the ball lands on a tuft of grass. There are thousands of tufts of grass out there. The chances that the ball lands on that particular tuft of grass are tiny. So, the golfer must have aimed at that tuft.) It's almost as if Gingerich starts with a completely materialistic, atheistic universe, and then declares that behind the scenes of the whole thing is the mysterious, intentionally-acting spirit, God, who gives the whole system purpose and meaning. Fine, but so what? How is this picture then different from a universe without God? The answer is that it's different to the individual believer. It feels different. Some people might think that this answer trivializes the problem, but I'm not so sure. Lots of theology is completely uninterested in some notion of purely "objective" reality, focusing instead on dynamics that connect the individual soul, creation, and God. Think of St. Augustine's De Trinitate, for example. The point is that a universe under God's control is comforting and compelling. Is that a bad reason to believe it? I don't know. But the way Gingerich describes it, it doesn't seem to have any explanatory power; rather, its appeal is sort of aesthetic. Rather than predicting or explaining events, it interprets them — it makes them make sense — in an way that is subjectively, intuitively, intellectually satisfying.

Part of my problem with this actually has to do with the religion side. Where's Jesus in all this? Or, to ask a similar question in a very different way, isn't this just a way of cheapening religion, relegating it to the status of a kind of all's-well-with-the-world sensibility? There's nothing difficult or challenging about this version of God. He makes no promises or demands. There's no Passion, no sacrifice, no grace or mercy. Certainly there's no salvation, no moksha, no nirvana, and no rituals. All that stuff just recedes further into the realm of custom and convention.

I need to think about this more. Something about it bugged me, even though I found his presentation very nicely done, very polished, and very intelligent. It just seemed like something crucial was being left out. And I need to actually read his book now and mine it for sources and quotations. I think his ideas reveal something important about contemporary language and attitudes about religion and its role but I'm not really sure what.

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