Monday, December 18, 2006

Book Review: "God's Universe"

In God's Universe, Harvard Professor of Astronomy and the History of Science Emeritus Owen Gingerich spells out his views on the creation of the universe, arguing that "the universe has been created with intention and purpose, and that this belief does not interfere with the scientific enterprise." He believes that the universe can be seen as a more "coherent and congenial place if I assume that it embodies purpose and intention." In this modern-day natural theology (see William Paley's works for its earlier analogues), Gingerich says he has found a "subtle place for design in the world of science" (a force which brought about the big bang, for example, or caused the formation of DNA).

Gingerich is careful to distance himself from many sides in this debate. He laments the "primitive scriptural literalism that leads erroneously to a conclusion that the earth is only a few thousand years old", while at the same time chiding those who say they favor "Intelligent Design" for pitting their views as an alternative to Darwinism. "As a philosophical idea," he writes, "ID is interesting, but it does not replace the scientific explanations that evolution offers" (p. 74). However, he has just as much gentle remonstration for the hardline evolutionists, including Richard Dawkins, who "use their stature as scientific spokesmen as a bully pulpit for atheism. ... I suppose he single-handedly makes more converts to Intelligent Design than any of the leading [ID] theorists." He also has differences with E.O. Wilson over the question of purpose and randomness.

What is special about this book is its reasonableness. Gingerich does not argue that those who disagree with his view of the creation are wrong, simply that they see things differently. His fundamental point is well worth quoting here: "Science will not collapse if some practitioners are convinced that there has occasionally been creative input into the long chain of being." As Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Darwin, Gingerich is a scientist who happens to believe in an active God - and that didn't stop any of them from being good scientists. (Likewise, I don't think the opposite belief hampers scientific investigation either; like Gingerich, it's extremism and closed-mindedness I have difficulty with).

Whether or not you agree with Gingerich's thesis, these short essays are both provocative and interesting. We need more calm, steady voices like his in the debate over the role of religion in science (and vice versa).