Cosmology and Theology Tangle in a Rousing Match

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Ny Times, April 20, 1999

Physicists Square Off Over God

    By CAREY GOLDBERG

    WASHINGTON -- What if Jerry Springer decided to do a show pitting one particle physicist who believed in God against another who did not? And if he asked them to hash out, before a live audience, whether the universe is the product of divine design?

    The result might be something like the refreshingly rousing debate between the Nobel Prize laureate Steven Weinberg and the knighted physicist-turned-Anglican priest John Polkinghorne that invigorated hundreds of people here at a conference meant to bring science and religion closer together, and highlighted the current twists on an age-old dispute.

    "I was almost waiting for it to deteriorate into a physical fight," said Janice Herndon, a Georgetown University student who attended the conference with her science and religion class. "I think it was pretty much a draw."

    Her professor, John Haught, added, "I think it was a little classier than Jerry Springer."

    It was also a little livelier than the making nice-nice between scientists and religionists that has typified the recent rash of such conferences, courses and panels.

    Propelled by intriguing advances in cosmology and by millions of dollars from the Templeton Foundation, efforts to build a "constructive dialogue" between science and religion have proliferated of late, attacking big "Why are we here?" questions and conveying a sense that it has never seemed more like 3 A.M. in the dorm room of America.

    The sometimes awkward encounters touch on topics like the possible overlap between physicists' assertions that the universe's laws seem fine-tuned to allow human existence and theologians' ideas about a caring creator.

    Bah, humbug, said Dr. Weinberg, almost in so many words. He does not even believe, he said, that there should be a "constructive dialogue" between science and religion at all, because that "could help to give religion a kind of legitimacy it shouldn't have." And as for the Templeton money and the mounting science-and-religion trend, "I deplore it," he said, and predicted that it would peter out.

    But that did not keep Dr. Weinberg from happily taking on his old Cantabrigian friend, the Rev. Polkinghorne, in a debate ranging from quantum mechanics to morality.

    The match, held in the same National Museum of Natural History auditorium as a famous 1920 debate on the size of the universe between Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, became something of a centerpiece for the three-day "Cosmic Questions" conference held here. The conference was put on by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the foundation started by the financier Sir John Marks Templeton, which has been the main financial engine for many recent discussions. The agenda here was to explore three jumbo questions: Was there a beginning? Is the universe designed? And are we alone?

    Outside the Polkinghorne-Weinberg debate, cosmologists generally discussed their findings and questions about the early universe in purely scientific terms, while theologians referred largely to text and God, and there was a powerful sense that never the twain shall meet.

    But Dr. Polkinghorne and Dr. Weinberg actually engaged. And though Dr. Weinberg asserted that most scientists he knew did not even think enough about religion to call themselves atheists, their statements did illuminate how recent cosmological findings influence the choice between belief and unbelief, for those who do think about it.

    These days, as Dr. Polkinghorne put it, given the knowledge about the seemingly fine-tuned laws of the universe, "there are two broad categories of possible explanations: Either there are many universes, and ours is one by chance, or there is a single universe that is the way it is" because a creator wanted it that way.

    Both those ideas, he emphasized, are metaphysical in character. On that, Dr. Weinberg agreed, noting that the "anthropic" reasoning that focuses on the human-size universe "may be mystical mumbo jumbo or it may be just common sense."

    "These are open questions," Dr. Weinberg said. "Are the constants of nature remarkably well-adjusted for the existence of life?"

    "We just don't know enough yet about fundamental physics to answer that," he said, though noting that he was not particularly impressed with some of the more commonly used examples of physical laws that seemed peculiarly sized to allow human existence, like the energy levels of the carbon nucleus.

    For his part, Dr. Polkinghorne allowed that he did not think it could be proven that God existed, or that God did not exist, for that matter.

    So the two were left to argue pretty much on the basis of taste.

    Although religion has done some good, "its influence on balance has been awful," Dr. Weinberg said. "With or without religion," he said, "you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

    Dr. Polkinghorne countered. Religious revelation and transformation has led evil people to do good things, he said.

    In general, Dr. Polkinghorne argued, science cannot answer a metaphysical question like whether the universe is designed, just as physics cannot "explain" music by describing it as vibrations. Some things, he said, cannot be condensed "into a formula that can be written on a T-shirt," and there can be no simple answers for questions as deep as why science is possible at all -- why the universe is intelligible -- and why the universe seems so special.

    But in general, he said, "I do believe religious belief can explain more than unbelief can do."

    Belief in God, he said, can explain not only the existence of the universe, and its intelligibility, but also the widespread phenomenon of religious experience and the dawning of consciousness in humans, which he sees as a "signal of meaningfulness." Beauty and morality, too, "find a natural anchorage" in God as a starting point, he said.

    And as for the eternal question of why there is evil in a world created by a benevolent God, "science has been moderately helpful to theology" on that count, Dr. Polkinghorne said, by coming up with a theory of evolution that allowed theologians to argue that "God created a world that could make itself," and was no direct puppeteer.

    Dr. Weinberg criticized theological theory as being "infinitely flexible," while physics at least had logical rigidity. So that as observational data and physicists' thinking advances, it will -- perhaps soon -- become clear whether there really are a vast number of universes, he said, and that will not be a matter of personal taste, and "won't be an act of faith," but "will be a deduction from laws which unfortunately, at the present, we do not know."

    Dr. Weinberg even allowed that he was going out on a limb by positing a Godless universe, given that the facts on which he based his opinion could change.

    "Suddenly in this auditorium, a flaming sword may come down" and strike him dead, he said, "and then we'll know the answer."

    Heaven forfend, Dr. Polkinghorne responded. That would be a terrible theological problem for him, he said, because he does not believe in the kind of God who would do that.

    "It would be not only a theological problem, but a janitorial problem," Dr. Weinberg added.

    To no one's surprise, the main metaphysical problems remained unsolved at the debate's end. The lack of resolution is inevitable, commented William Potter, a physicist at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., because "the authority for theology is revelation; the authority for science is experimentation."