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The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge


Garvine Lecture: The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge, 1940.


It is with an intense feeling of my inadequacy that I undertake to present the fìrst Garvin Lecture on the idea of God as affected by modern knowledge. It is clear that I have been selected for this responsibility not because of any unusual familiarity that I might be supposed to have with the traditional religious, theological or philosophical approaches to the subject. Others are far better qualifìed for such a discussion. I am a man of science, to whom the interpretation of the world comes primarily from the study of nature's laws. I must suppose, therefore, that it is as a man of science that I should discuss this question.

Yet first of all we must ask: Why should we concern ourselves with the idea of God? In foreign lands we find nations willing to fight to be freed from thoughts of God. In our own country multitudes consider the idea of no consequence, and become bored by any discussion of the subject. There are, however, those who feel that life is hardly worth living unless they have confidence in continued fellowship with God. Is he important to us? Any adequate answer to this question must come not from science alone, but from philosophy and religion as well.

Auguste Comte presented long ago what is still considered by many to be the typical position of science. He considered three approaches to knowledge: the primitive or religious approach, based chiefly on superstition, tradition and dogma; the intermediate or philosophical approach, which uses logical analysis as its tool; and the positivistic or scientific approach, a statement of how things are as found by direct observation. He was confident of the ultimate triumph of the latter view of the world. According to him, it is only in unusual phenomena, commonly regarded as miracles, that the idea of God is needed. Ordinary events, following well-known laws, can be interpreted without any such hypothesis. " When science has clone its complete work," he predicted, " it will conduct God to the boundary of the universe and bow him out with thanks for his provisional services."

Contrast this with the view held by lsaac Newton, thus paraphrased by Alfred Noyes:

'Tis not the lack of links within the chain
From cause to cause, but that the chain exists;
That's the unfathomable mystery,
The one unquestioned miracle that we know,

Implying every attribute of God. [ii]

Never was it as clear as it is today that this world has not made itself. How have we ourselves come to be? ls it as a result of our own efforts, or those of our ancestors? In these days of knowledge of the gradual evolution of life, it would be ludicrous to suppose that our coming into being was the result of any dimly formed plan conceived by our invertebrate ancestors. Rather it is clear that forces operating in nature over which we have no control were responsible for the gradual development of life until man appeared on the scene. What are these powers? Scientists try to describe their action by formulating "natural laws." Somehow they are inherent in things, a fundamental part of the universe. For our present purpose we may follow the theologians' nomenclature and call these higher powers" God." Science, in its efforts to learn the laws of nature, is in theological language seeking to understand the way in which God acts. Science is concemed with what happens, with the actions that occur and with learning the laws governing these actions. But action implies an actor, and theology is concerned with the actor. Whether the actor is termed the universe, nature or God is largely a matter of choice of words.

In this sense of the actor in all world events, there can be no question of God's existence. The real problem comes when we begin to consider his attributes. Is the actor intelligent? Does he have a plan? Is he interested in the welfare of men and women? Can he be described as morally good? Such questions can be answered only by inference from his observed actions, and in interpreting these actions there is room for difference of opinion. It is clear, however, that if we mean by God's actions the events that occur in the world of nature, including the acts of men as being a part of nature, the study of natural science is the primary source of the raw material for building our idea of God.

But the question comes back: Why should we concern ourselves about what God is like? If our study of nature shows how he acts, is that not enough? I am convinced that the most fundamental answer to this question is that which considers the value of life. What are we here for? Is it the purely biological matter of keeping life going? Such a view of life's objective is argument in a circle which gets us nowhere. Is it for our own enjoyment and pleasure? How empty such a life would seem. Or for the pleasure of our fellows? A better objective, but only more of the same emptiness. Why then should we live?

Do we not feel that life is most worth while when we know that we are doing something of lasting value for someone we love? As we view our evolution from life's primitive beginnings, we can see, though dimly, the outline of a great plan. lts end we do not see, but we know that we are part of it, and we feel that we can share in promoting it. If this is true, are we not of value to the Planner? I doubt whether there is any objective for life that is ultimately more satisfying than trying to live the life that a man comes to feel his God wants him to live, thus doing his proper part in carrying through the great plan. This is why Jesus placed "Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart" as the first commandment. For, if that love is present, living alife according to his plan will be one's greatest joy.

The writer of the Westminster Catechism expressed the idea simply: " Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever."

Such a view of life worth living implies, however, that we can look to our God for understanding and sympathy. We must feel that he knows our weakness as well as our strength. Otherwise there would be no reason for our love and loyalty and a supreme effort to do our part. Some fortunate persons have an immediate awareness of God's presence and comradeship, a religious experience that gives a satisfying basis for love and loyalty. Yet even for these it becomes vital to know whether their intuition is to be classed among superstitions that were better discarded.

It is evident that such attitudes toward God and life are valid only if our knowledge of nature indicates the reasonableness of the view that the Great Actor in world events works according to an intelligent plan, and that he is really concerned with what happens to us. lt is this background that accounts far the continued concern with natural theology, the interpretation of God's attributes from the data of science.

I recognize that, in thus presenting the religious basis of my own interest in studying this problem, I expose myself to the charge of wishful thinking in case my conclusions should favor the postulate I have presented for the evaluation of life. I can only reply that if thirty-five years of scientific study have taught me anything it is: first, the danger of letting my preconceptions influence my observations; second, the realization that nothing is as interesting or as valuable as the truth, even though it be contrary to my anticipations; and, third, the habit of practicing the scholarly techniques that avoid the dangers of reaching conclusions predetermined by prejudice. It is a fact that a trained investigator learns by experience that he can rely with surprising confidence upon the conclusions he thus draws when he approaches a problem with an attitude of disinterest.

lt is perhaps to be expected that this attitude of scholarly disinterest in the outcome should be confused with indifference with regard to fundamentals of religion. How frequently, because a teacher does not discuss religion in the classroom, merely perhaps because he considers it irrelevant to the subject, it is inferred that he considers religion of negligible value!

The classic example of such false inference is the case of the famous French mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace. The story is probably authentic that Napoleon, when presented with a copy of Laplace's book on Celestial Mechanics, asked: " How is it that you have written this great work on the origin of the world without once mentioning its Creator?" "I don't need that hypothesis," replied Laplace. When this brief story became known, Laplace was identified as an atheist. Yet I can hardly imagine a present-day scholarly presentation of the mechanics of the universe in which introduction of the idea of God would have any place. That the implication of atheism in relation to Laplace was false became evident when, after his death, two of his letters to his son were published in which he urged his son to cultivate companionship with God, since this was the most stable basis for Iife.

Is God Intelligent?

First among the attributes of God that we must then consider is that of his intelligence. We are to approach this question on the basis of what we see happening in the world. Time permits us to present only a few typical lines of evidence. If we see in nature evidence of a plan, this will impiy intellignce, for a plan or purpose is otherwise meaningless. The alternative to an intelligent plan for the world is that things have happened to be as they are through chance. If we assume infinite time, all possible arrangements of atoms must sometime occur. If then it would appear that the observed arrangement indicates design, we might merely conclude that we happen to live at the time when the world has that form. At another time things would not have shown such an indication.

Here we are concerned with statistics, and the statistical probability of a world's happening to have a form similar to ours is so fantastically small that even in the billions of years that the astronomers might allow for the age of our galaxy it must be considered as highly improbable hypothesis. Alfred Noyes tells how Johannes Kepler discussed this problem:

Can music rise
By chance from chaos, as they said that star
In Serpentarius rose? I told them, then,
That when I was a boy, with time to spare,
I played at anagrams. Out of my Latin name
Johannes Keplerus came that sinister phrase
Serpens in akuleo. Struck by this,
I tried again, but trusted it to chance.
I took some playing-cards, and wrote on each
One letter of my name. Then I began
To shuffle them; and, at every shuffle, I read
The letters, in their order, as they came,
To see what meaning chance might give to them.
Wotton, the gods and goddesses must have laughed
To see the weeks I lost in studying chance;
For had I scattered those cards into the black
Epicurean eternity, l'll swear
They'd stili be playing at leap-frog in the dark,
And show no glimmer of sense. And yet - to hear
Those wittols talk, you'd think you'd but to mix
A bushel of good Greek letters in a sack
And shake them roundly for an age or so,
To pour the Odyssey out.
At last, I told
Those disputants what my wife had said. One night
When I was tired and all my mind a-dust
With pondering on their atoms, I was called
To supper, and she placed before me there
A most delicious salad. "It would appear,"
I thought aloud, " that if these pewter dishes,
Green hearts of lettuce, tarragon, slips of thyme,
Slices of hard boiled egg, and grains of salt,
With drops of water, vinegar and oil,
Had in a bottomless gulf been flying about
From all eternity, one sure certain day
The sweet invisible hand of Happy Chance
would serve them as a salad."
"Likely enough,"

My wife replied. "But not so good as mine, Not so well dressed." [iii]

Consider the physicist's problem of accounting for the way atoms are formed of a few simple particles, electrons, protons and so on. By various combinations these particles build atoms with remarkable properties. They can group themselves into hundreds of thousands of different molecules, and these in turn into the infinite variety of substances with which we are acquainted, including living organisms with their surprising characteristics. Yet the physicist finds it difficult to select any group of properties for the electrons and protons that will result in anything other than a very dead and dull world. lf the simple yet prolific set of pushes and pulls to which the electrons are subject result from pure chance, then chance is more ingenious than the most clever of our scientists.

lt is well known, for example, that the carbon atom can form many kinds of molecules. In fact a hundred thousand different carbon compounds would be a conservative estimate. Because of this great chemical versatility, any possible life without carbon would need to be vastly simpler than that which we know.

The characteristic feature of the carbon atom is the fact that it contains six electrons. Thus, as Sir Arthur Eddington has remarked, if nature had forgotten the number six, there could be no life as we know it. Also if atom number six had been as rare as atoms with numbers three, five, nine or ten (lithium, boron, fluorine or neon), life would likewise have been very limited. Or if the properties of the component electrons had been but slightly different, this great versatility, and thus also the chance to produce life, would have been absent. Does carbon just happen to have its distinctive character?

Let us next consider biological evolution. One well-known aspect of this process is that, at each stage of evolution, organisms arise having new characteristics. Thus each of the senses— smell, sight and so on — is a property that could never have been inferred from the properties of more primitive forms such as plants. Life itself, purposive action, and reason, all represent new inventions of nature, whose possibility had previously been hidden. To this phenomenon is given the descriptive name, "emergent evolution."

Equally remarkable is an observation of the paleontologists, who have been primarily responsible far tracing in the rocks the records of life's development. They have shown that changes occur far ages in a single direction, as if a definite experiment were being tried. Instead of variations at random, as Darwin had supposed, this means progress along the same line, generation after generation. A famous example of such "orthogenesis," as it is called, is the evolution of the horse on our Western plains. In natural history museums you can find a row of skeletons arranged in chronological order. It starts with a five-toed horse of the Eocene era, about the size of a dog. As the ages come and go the horses become larger and their toes become fewer until we arrive at the great, single-toed animal that we know today. This is one of the phenomena that lead Professar F. S. C. Northrop of Yale to postulate his "macroscopic atom," by which he means the universe as an organized intelligent unit, directing its own process toward its chosen objectives.

We should note that the theory of evolution is in no sense an explanation of why these things happen. The scientific doctrine of evolution is concemed wholly with describing how the changes occur —that is, with formulating the laws of biological action. One is reminded of Huxley's comment: "How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp."

Is it reasonable to suppose that the Powers that made us endowed us with the mystery of consciousness and purposive action, gave us sight and hearing, taught us to enjoy music and the beauties of nature, made it possible far us to understand something of our setting in the world, opened to us the mystery of companionship and love —can it be that these Powers are themselves unconscious of what goes on?

Was the eye contrived by blindly moving atoms,
Or the still listening ear fulfilled with music
By forces without knowledge of sweet sounds?
Are nerves and brain so sensitively fashioned
That they convey these pictures of the world
Into the very substances of our life,
While that from which we came, the Power that made us,

ls drowned in blank unconsciousness of it all? [iv]

Similar examples could be multiplied indefinitely. Such considerations are those that have led Sir James Jeans in his interpretation of astronomy to conclude that God is the Master Mathematician. The chance that a world such as ours should occur without intelligent design becomes more and more remote as we learn of its wonders.

God's Relation to Man

A recent writer has described the conclusion of scientific men from such evidence by the phrase, "God without Religion." He sees the piling up of inescapable evidence of intelligence of the highest order operating in nature, but finds this intelligence so far removed from man that to consider any possible companionship between man and the World Mind would be preposterous. Jeans, in his book, The Mysterious Universe, arguing from the exceeding physical insignificance of man in the mighty universe, comes to a somewhat similar conclusion.

Considered from a purely physical point of view this argument may be justified. Man is after all only one of a myriad of organisms that have infected the crust of a minor planet of one of the smaller stars in one of a billion galaxies. Even on the crust of his planet his handiwork has had vastly less effect than the vegetation that has completely altered the composition of the atmosphere, put carbon into the ground and covered with a green coat most of the dry land. What matter if man should be destroyed? It would merely be the closing act of a minor side show in the great celestial circus.

But why should we suppose that physical size or power should be the basis for the value estimates of an intelligent God? When a ship sinks at sea, where is our great concern? Is it not with its precious cargo of men rather than with the great hulk of steel and powerful engines? Ask a mother which is more important, the brightest star in the heavens or her newborn babe. Even to an astronomer, if the child should be a Newton, his value would be greater than that of a whole galaxy of stars.

For value depends upon the interests of the judge. Might we not reasonably assume that an intelligent Creator would find his intelligent creatures of especial interest? The great effort through which nature has gone to bring life to its present condition would certainly seem to point in that direction. We may then properly inquire: Where in this universe is intelligent life to be found? We know life on earth. As we observe it, organic life requires molecules of a complex type which occur only under limited conditions of temperature and an abundance of the necessary chemical elements. Basing our judgment on our experience that intelligence seems confined to highly developed organisms, we will not expect to find intelligent life on the stars, where the excessively high temperatures rule out any except the simplest molecules. As we look to the planets in our own solar system, we find the moon bare of life, and the major planets — Jupiter, Saturn and so on— too cold to support life. Venus and Mercury seem too hot, and the carbon-dioxide atmosphere of Venus seems to show the absence of vegetation there. On Mars, on the other hand, the red oxide of iron which gives the planet its ruddy color can hardly have been formed without abundant oxygen in the atmosphere, which must have been put there by growing vegetation. Thus, of the places we can study, the earth and Mars are the only two that have appropriate conditions for the development of life, and both seem to be the abode of life.

With the immense number of stars in the heavens, it might naturally be supposed that there are myriad other planetary systems like that of our sun on which life may likewise have developed. Perhaps so. But if present theories of the origin of our solar system are correct —explaining planets by the dose approach of two stars —the extreme rarity of such an encounter would make planets correspondingly rare. Such considerations have led Sir Anhur Eddington, after most careful and competent study of this problem, to conclude:

I do not think that the whole purpose of creation has been staked on the one planet where we live; and in the long run we cannot deem ourselves the only race that has been or will be gifted with the mystery of consciousness. But I feel inclined to claim that at the present time our race is supreme; and not one of the profusion of stars in their myriad clusters looks down on scenes comparable to those which are passing beneath the rays of the sun. [v]

Not all astronomers agree with this conclusion. Some consider planetary systems to be much more common. I have myself been sufficiently convinced by the arguments that Eddington presents to base my own thinking on the assumption that life throughout the universe is very rare.

One might consider this as direct evidence that the Creator of the universe is not concerned with life. We might equally well conclude that, because only one maple seed in a million grows to the maturity of a great forest tree, the growth of trees is no concern of the maker of the seeds. The evidence of the earth and Mars gives good reason to believe that the world is so constituted that, wherever a planet exists under the proper conditions, life will appear. Considering the most remarkable properties, both physical and intellectual, that life exhibits, can it be that our Creator has just chanced upon this accident of his creation?

Out in Sequoia National Park is a group of giant redwood trees, one of which is supposed to be the oldest living thing, towering high above all other trees of the forest. Each tree is a monument that could be replaced only by the ages. Fortunately our government is giving them careful protection. If by some disaster one is destroyed, nature has others that may develop to their full majesty. But the number of trees is limited, and, to those who love trees, it is of vital interest to see that each healthy one is given a full opportunity for growth.

Is not the life of man on earth similar to that of one of these great trees? No doubt there are or will be other places where similar or perhaps higher types of Iife than ours may be developed. But there is reason to believe that we occupy a relatively high position in the universe with respect to intelligent life. Does it seem then too bold to assume that the Creator — whose intelligence has seemed to us much the most reasonable explanation of our world —should take an especial interest in the welfare of the perhaps uniquely intelligent beings that he has created?

Let us ask ourselves then whether the evidence indicates that God is friendly toward man. Forget for the moment any evidence of an intelligence working in the world, and consider it as a vast machine. Our study of science emphasizes the fact that the laws by which this machine operates are immutable; nevertheless, when we begin to understand them we can turn them to our service. As was perhaps first seen clearly by Pythagoras, if we learn these laws and live in accord with nature's rules, we and our fellows have a fuller and a happier life.

From the observed uniformity and universal applicability of nature's laws, it would be quite unreasonable to suppose that the world plays favorites by showing partiality toward man. Rather we find that the laws of nature are such that under conditions existing on earth a group of living organisms, of which man stands foremost in intellectual development, evolve as a matter of course. As a part of this evolution, his physical adaptability and reasoning powers have undoubtedly arisen through the strict working of natural laws. According to this law it is clear that hardships have had to be surmounted. In the agelong struggle with other animals, cunning and craft have developed. To gain needed shelter and food, inventiveness has been at a premium. In order to live in satisfactory relations with other men, a conscience has evolved.

At each stage of this development there has been tragic, apparently ruthless, suffering. This has been nature's method of forcing slowly developing humanity to search for and follow the better way. lt would be hard to imagine a process for achieving adaptation to environment that would be more certainly effective than the one we see now working in nature.

Wth regard to our distinctively human characteristics we are, however, clearly in the early stages of evolution. A short thousand generations ago man was a Ione hunter, like the tiger. Gradually he is becoming a social animal, more nearly similar to the ant, with special functions and skills. With the growth of his scientific and technical knowledge, his community grows to a larger and larger scale, until it approaches a planetary organization. Along with this social evolution arise new responsibilities, new types of mutual adjustment, the need for new codes of morals. It is evident that, with regard to such attributes as the understanding of the world, the use of the powers of nature, the perfection of social organization, and the consideration of one's fellows, our remote descendants may be expected to reach much higher levels than ours.

In any case, the result of the evolutionary process has been that, when we learn nature's laws and school ourselves to obey them, we can turn them to our advantage. That is, these laws are friendly to well-adapted organisms. But, because only the satisfactorily adapted organisms survive in the struggle for life, it is those that are well adjusted to their surroundings that always form the predominant group. It is for this reason that, without any kind of partiality, the laws of nature bring into being only those creatures to which nature's laws are on the whole friendly.

ls nature then friendly to us? Assuredly, if we will learn her laws and discipline ourselves to live accordingly. If we do not, she simply eliminates our kind from her world.

Is the God thus revealed by nature severe? Certainly no more so than the God of the Bible. "All things work together for good for him who serves the Lord, is the exact parallel of nature's laws that are friendly to the well-adapted organism. On the other hand, nature's uncompromising attitude toward the man who will not so adapt himself is accurately caught in Paul's proverb, "The wages of sin is death." Jesus himself pictures the Father as adamant in removing from among his children those who will not accept his principles of love as the guide for love:

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. . . . If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love. [vi]

Is this less severe than the evolutionists' nature which eliminates the individuals and species unfit for survival?


Men Become God's Children

We find then that through a period of a billion years life has gradually developed on this planet. Throughout vast ages all responsibility for that growth lay with the God of nature. At least on our planet no conscious living being was in a position to do more than what he was made to do. The world was, so to speak, a great mechanical toy —complex, it is true, but functioning only according to the dictates of its controlling laws. During this period primitive men at last appeared on the scene. They were like their animal cousins, caring only for themselves. The findings of students of prehistoric man show all too clearly that he considered his fellows as other animals, as beasts of burden or as food. At last man tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and began to distinguish good from evil. Before that time, in spire of his cleverness, man's actions in helping or destroying his fellows were done in the same spirit of innocence in which wolf helps wolf in the attack on an enemy, or turns to eat his wounded mate. Now a new kind of being emerged. He found that his acts had lasting effects for good or for ill upon his own life and that of his fellows, and he cared about the result. Here was the dawn of conscicnce.

Now there was a being that consciously tried to make his world better. He was able to adapt his environment to fit his needs. As his knowledge of tools and weapons increased, he became master of the plant and animal life on earth, and tamed them to serve him. Gradually he has come to control, to a large extent, even his own life and future. A share of the responsibility for the development of the earth as a place to live was now shifted to man's shoulders.

According to my late colleague, Dr. James Breasted, who spent a lifetime studying the social growth of man, this dawn of conscience came to man surprisingly recently, only some five or six thousand years ago. We might well ask whether man has yet learned that he is his brother's keeper. But now, with our growing understanding and power of science, the transfer of authority is gradually being extended. Considering the obvious errors that we are making we may be thankful that we do not yet have complete control of our development. Yet now we can feel that we are sharing with our Creator the great task that he has undertaken. As junior partners, taking our part of the responsibility, or as his children, taken at last into the household, we can truly say, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work."

Science can have no quarrel with a religion that postulates a God to whom men are as his children. It is possible to see the whole great drama of evolution as leading toward the goal of the making of persons, with free, intelligent wills, capable of learning nature's laws, of seeing dimly God's purpose in nature, and of working with him to make that purpose effective.

Science has thus helped us to appreciate the inspiring setting in which we find ourselves. We recognize the greatness of the program of nature which is unfolding before us, and we feel that we are an essential part of a great enterprise in which a mighty lntelligence is working out his hidden plan. In our hands we hold the conditions of life on this planet. lf indeed the creation of intelligent persons is a major objective of the Creator of the Universe, and if, as we have reason to surmise, mankind is his highest development in this direction, the opportunity and responsibility of working as God's partners in his great task should inspire us to the highest achievement of which we are capable. What nobler ambition can a man have than to co-operate with his Maker in bringing about a better world in which to live?

Ye prate of patterns and the web of doom.
Is God then strangled in the warp and woof?
Is not the Weaver in the Weaver's place?
Go seat you at the loom!
Create the goodness that is heaven's proof,
And work with God, if ye would see his face! [viii]


[i] Delivered at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as the Garvin Lecture for 1940, under the title, "The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge."

[ii] Alfred Noyes, Watchers of the Sky (New York, 1911), pp. 226-227.

[iii] Ibidem, pp. 128-130.

[iv] Ibidem, pp. 227-228.

[v] Arthur Eddington, Nature of the Physical World (Cambridge, England, 1928), p. 178.

[vi]John 15: 6, 10.

[vii] E.W. Barnes , Scientific Theory and Religion (Cambridge, England, 1933), pp. 520-522.

[viii] E. H. Lewis, "Mater Humanissima" in University of Chicago Poems (Chicago, 1913).

Lecture delivered at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as the 1940 Garvin Lecture, published in Arthur Compton and Others, Man's Destiny In Eternity. The Garvin Lectures, (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1949), pp. 3-20.