God is not a pinhead

God is not a pinhead

Paul Dirac, as rendered through Dr. Günter Bachelier’s Evolutionary Art process. Credit: g.bachelier, cc via Flickr

Scientific American in May 1963 published theoretical physicist Paul Dirac’s article “The Evolution of the Physicist’s Picture of Nature.” It was my last year as a physics undergraduate and the article described important steps in development of relativity and quantum theory and also suggested future developments.

Dirac emphasized the importance of “beautiful mathematics” in describing the world and said, “One could perhaps describe the situation by saying that God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe.”

“God is a mathematician” wasn’t original with Dirac. Plato is reported to have said, “God is always doing geometry.” Heisenberg, another founder of quantum theory, described in his scientific autobiography Physics and Beyond how as a student he was both puzzled and intrigued by Plato’s description of the creation of the world from geometric elements.

I didn’t make mathematics my religion, but took seriously the idea that God had created a world according to mathematical pattern. That fits well with the prologue of John’s gospel which says that “all things came into being” through the divine Logos, the Word or Reason of God. These ideas influenced the direction of my later interests in physics and I gave a faculty lecture titled “God is a Mathematician” at a college where I taught.

Before I encountered Dirac I had read Einstein’s essay “On the Method of Theoretical Physics”. Here he emphasized that science must begin and end with experience of the world but that “the creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold it true that pure thought can grasp reality, as the ancients dreamed.”

But what mathematics? When Plato spoke of God doing geometry he meant the system that was eventually canonized as Euclid’s Elements. It was the familiar geometry in which the Pythagorean theorem is true, the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees, and so on. How else could the world be? If you were smart enough, “pure thought” could figure out how the world is.

But the discovery of consistent non-Euclidean geometries in the early 19th century showed that Euclid’s geometry isn’t the only possible one. There is more than one mathematical pattern God could use in creating a world. That is why observation of the way the world must be is the final test of any theory.

But here’s another bit of my history. In graduate school there was a weekly physics colloquium at which visiting scientists presented recent work which could be from a wide range of topics, theoretical and experimental. If the announced subject didn’t interest those of us who were focused on our own work, we might skip it.  Then our advisor, on his way to the colloquium, might see that my office mate and I weren’t planning to go, and would exhort us not to be “pinheads.”

That was a warning against narrow specialization in physics, but the principle is broader. Interest in all of physics, or even science in general, can be too narrow.  It’s appropriate to speak about “beautiful mathematics”, but not to say that only mathematics can be beautiful! In fact, we would be hard pressed to quantify the beauty of different mathematical theorems.

We know types of beauty and rationality that can be expressed in music, poetry, the visual arts, and other endeavors as well as in mathematics. There is more to a symphony than the arithmetic relations involved in harmony. Poetry is more than mathematically correct scansion and a perfect cube isn’t great art.

Mathematicians can be interested in other things than mathematics. They don’t have to be pinheads.

That’s true of humans, and also of God. Israel’s wisdom tradition, found in some books of the Old Testament with echoes in the New, is an important part of scripture but contains virtually nothing about mathematics. This, together with the variety and complexity of the natural world, suggests that God is not a pinhead.  We can say that God is “a mathematician of a very high order”, but God does other things too.

If that’s the case, perhaps the laws of nature (the real patterns of the world, not just our approximations to them) can’t be expressed entirely in terms of mathematics. To put it more provocatively, perhaps it isn’t really Physik über alles.

That will be called heresy by many physicists, so in support I call to witness another member of that tribe, John Polkinghorne. He suggests “the possibility of downward emergence, in which the laws of physics are but an asymptotic approximation to a more subtle (and more supple) whole.”  1

Polkinghorne points out, as others have done, that the wetness of water is something that only emerges when many H2O molecules are present because “wet” means nothing in terms of the basic laws describing molecules.

More importantly, while biological systems can be analyzed into molecules and atoms which behave in accord with quantum mechanics, the behaviors of living things as living things can’t be completely explained by the laws of physics. (This may remind some of Bohr’s idea that descriptions of a system as alive and as a machine are complementary.)

Such a suggestion will arouse suspicions of “vitalism”, but I think that misses the point. The example of “wetness” shows that we’re not talking only about living things. There is no special material of life, an idea that was disposed of in the 19th century when it was shown that “organic” chemicals could be synthesized from “inorganic” ones. And there are no forces or energies peculiar to biological systems. The basic interactions of physics suffice. Nevertheless,

the behaviors of living things will not be described adequately by solving (if we could) the Schrödinger equation for an immense number of atoms.

If we take these ideas seriously, they have implications for some significant issues in science-theology dialogue. If the laws of nature cannot be expressed exhaustively in terms of mathematics, then it seems likely that they are not completely deterministic. That would mean that God, without violating those laws, would have some flexibility in directing the course of natural processes, over and beyond whatever freedom of action chaos theory or quantum mechanics might confer. And some light might be shed on one of the major unsolved problems of science today, the origin of life (chemical evolution), and God’s involvement with that.

I’ll dive into that problem in my next article.

George Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins for work on general relativity in 1972.  He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary. Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. His first article on theology and science was published in 1977 and he has since published six books and numerous articles and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area. His most recent book, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.

The church’s evolving role to play in the age of biological manipulation

The church’s evolving role to play in the age of biological manipulation

DNA double helix seen through an electron micrsocope. Credit: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann, cc via

When it came to a wooly clone of Dolly the sheep, the Church of England had a list of reservations about the genetic technology at the ready prior to the scientists’ announcement. But today, the CRISPR technology has flown under the church’s radar and is host to a myriad of ethical and moral issues that scientists themselves are grappling with seemingly on their own.

CRISPR, unlike cloning however, could have a widespread impact on the human population depending on how scientists decide today to move forward and what areas of human disease they will decide to focus on. Most recently, scientists have used the technique to slow the growth of kidney and cervical cancer cells, according to recently published research.

Let’s back up though and figure out what CRISPR-Cas9 is exactly and what it is used to accomplish in the laboratory.

According to Gayle Woloschak, a professor at Northwestern University School of Medicine and associate director at the Zygon Center for Religion and Science, CRISPR’s implication is still being assessed. Specifically, it is a nucleic acid complex that can be used to snip DNA at a precisely determined location, she told attendees to a lecture series titled, “Being the Church in an age of Biological Manipulation.”

The church’s evolving role to play in the age of biological manipulation

Gayle Woloschak speaks at ELCA event

CRISPR holds the potential to advance the genome because there are billions of possible ways to impact the genome through DNA cutting. The possible treatments that could be related to CRISPR are growing by the day, according to news reports. Diseases such as sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis and HIV could very well be cured by CRISPR.

Last year, researchers at Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh unveiled a study using the gene editing tool as a way to eliminate HIV from infected cells. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley announced recently that they’ve discovered 10 new CRISPR enzymes that could be used to diagnose diseases like Zika or dengue fever quickly and cheaply. The new enzymes that Berkeley researchers discovered are variants of the CRISPR protein Cas13a. The specialty of these new enzymes is detecting specific sequences of RNA, including those from a virus.

Scientists like Woloschak are concerned though as we seem to be inching closer to the first genetically modified human being. Unlike most scientists, Woloschak also has a divinity degree and is active in the religion and science dialogue in addition to her work in the lab.

To be clear, scientists, she says, have imposed some constraints on current research. The concern is that a person’s genetic make-up could be forever changed via CRISPR in a way that can be passed on to the next generation —  thereby impacting future generations. Today, in most of the European Union CRISPR is treated in the same way as genetically modified organisms, which are forbidden. In the US, however, CRISPR is regulated by institutional review boards (IRBs) that are tasked with approving scientific research and looking at the ethical component of the proposed research. IRBs are more concerned about the harmful impact that CRISPR may have on the individual but not the impact on the overall population, according to Woloschak.

The world’s first GM human seems nearly inevitable in the coming years. In fact, a DIY CRISPR kit is being sold online by Josiah Zayner, who created The ODIN using crowdfunding, Woloschak said in her lecture. The ODIN sells a CRISPR kit that contains everything one needs to perform a sample experiment. The kits are assembled in Zayner’s Palo Alto garage and mailed to customers.

Many in the scientific community have called for a world-wide moratorium on CRISPR. While some top scientists call this moratorium essential, according to Woloschak a recent international summit held in Washington, D.C. had some interesting discussions. It was concluded that basic and pre-clinical research into CRISPR was necessary. The clinical use on somatic cells was deemed promising, while the use in the germline holds great potential but is risky because of potential effects and implications for future generations. CRISPR’s use in the germline could lead to permanent genetic enhancements in the human population.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine recently published, “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics and Governance,” in taking a position on how CRISPR technology ought to be researched and applied.

The report reads: “The technology has excited interest across the globe because of the insights it may offer into fundamental biological processes and the advances it may bring to human health. But with these advances come many questions, about the technical aspects of achieving desired results while avoiding unwanted effects, and about a range of uses that may include not only healing the sick, but also preventing disease in ourselves and future generations, or even altering traits unrelated to health needs. Now is the time to consider these questions.”

In the past month, researchers have found that the CRISPR process yielded a significant number of unexpected gene mutations in mice that were treated for blindness using CRISPR.

In Woloschak’s opinion, scientists have traditionally ‘policed’ themselves via IRBs and ethics panels, but going forward, the immensity of CRISPR’s impact suggests the need for a response from the church.

Previously, in 2011, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a social statement on genetics. The social statement, “Genetics, Faith and Responsibility,” was one of the first social policy statements adopted by a North American church that developed a comprehensive ethical framework for addressing advancements in medical and agricultural research. While it addresses the increasing reliance on genetic modifications, the statement was released well before the proliferation of CRISPR-Cas9’s potential for medical purposes.

Rev. Dr. Barbara Rossing, professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, gave a companion lecture to Woloschak’s presentation that focused on the concept of healing in a Christian context. In her lecture, she also relied heavily on the NAS report, which concluded that germline genome editing “should be permitted only within a robust and effective regulatory framework.” This framework includes the availability of pre-clinical and/or clinical data on the risks and potential health benefits of the procedure. The NAS report also stressed continued monitoring of “both health and societal benefits and risks, with broad on-going participation and input by the public.”

Bringing the theological perspective into view, Rossing stressed that in the case of CRISPR that it is not “actually God coming in and miraculously healing creation, but the created co-creator healing the creation.”

“Obviously, we all want people living an abundant life,” she said, adding that one can look at CRISPR as a slippery slope or as a matter of humans providing healing as humans have been doing or 300,000 years. “Healing is part of who we are as God’s people,” she added.

Rossing also alluded to the social justice element of the potential use of CRISPR, where not all patients may have access to the new healing and potentially life-saving technology due to its cost.

A 2016 Pew research study found that while many Americans say they would want to use a technology like CRISPR for their own children, there is also considerable wariness when it comes to gene editing, especially among parents of minor children. Highly religious Americans, Pew found, are much more likely than those who are less religious to say they would not want to use gene-editing technology in their families.

And, when asked about the possibility of using human embryos in the development of gene-editing techniques, the majority of adults — including two-thirds of those with a high religious commitment—say that this would make gene editing less acceptable to them.

There is also the story of a young geneticist calling up churches in the Boston area looking to make contact with faith communities to engage them in a dialogue about her work in the lab as a geneticist. A number of years ago, Ting Wu asked pastors from Baltimore area black churches to consider helping her in educating the community on the latest genetic advancements, including CRISPR, according to a National Public Radio story from last year. Her aim was to empower communities that are skeptical of science because they have been underserved or even mistreated in the past.

Wu reportedly met with religious leaders and even arranged for some clergy to speak with executives at genomics companies.

Wu’s story shows how much of a grass roots education it has been in the area of CRISPR and its implications. Still, the weighty questions remain. If some disabilities can be ‘cured’, should they be? What if tinkering with the genome creates enhancements for some and not for others? Could the risks to the human population outweigh the benefits for individuals or vice versa?

While researchers continue their work in the lab, the church has the weighty task of considering whether this research is leading to ethical behavior in the healthcare community and whether the future of humanity should be determined by genetic modification.

Science and theological education: Learning theology at the aquarium

Science and theological education: Learning theology at the aquarium

Georgia Aquarium. Credit: Girish…, cc via Flickr

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in November 2015 in the SciTech newsletter, which is published by the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith (http://www.pastcf.org/).  

To conclude the required introductory course in Old Testament, I took my class to the Georgia Aquarium. No, this was not an end-of-class celebration, although some considered it so. My students were actually on assignment as they gazed in awe at the graceful belugas and the bizarre sea nettles. The event was part of a number of teaching events that took place on campus throughout the year, both in and outside the classroom, made possible through a generous grant from the AAAS1.

The program is designed to integrate forefront science into a seminary’s core theological curriculum, thereby increasing scientific literacy among students of ministry (especially those who had forgotten their high school biology) and developing an informed appreciation of science as part of theological inquiry. Columbia Theological Seminary, I must add, was the only Presbyterian institution selected to participate in the pilot program, which included ten seminaries.

For our first year, we focused on three courses: Old Testament Interpretation, Introduction to Christian Theology, and Introduction to Pastoral Care. Since I was one of the teachers in the Old Testament course, here are my reflections.

Dr. William P. Brown

The Old Testament course began, as most introductory courses do, with a discussion of the first several chapters of Genesis, wherein it was discovered for the first time by many students that the Bible begins not with one but two very different creation accounts. Moreover, we later discovered other creation accounts dispersed throughout the Old Testament such as Psalm 104, Job 38-41, and Proverbs 8:22-31, to name but a few. Together they acknowledge the natural world’s glorious complexity2.

In our study of the Old Testament creation traditions, we also added, science to the mix. For example, while studying Genesis 1 in its theological and historical context, we also heard from scientists sharing their rich discoveries of the universe, from the cosmological to the biological.

Why do so? Not to pick a fight or to argue over differences between the so-called biblical perspective and the scientific — far from it. We did so in order to fulfill the biblical mandate to seek wisdom (Proverbs 2:1-5), including the wisdom of God evidenced in creation (Proverbs 3:19-20). Throughout our course we brought into constructive dialogue the unfolding drama of the Bible and the epic story of Creation as told by science, sometimes described as God’s “two books,” a conceptual framework that has deep roots in Christian tradition, beginning at least with John Chrysostom (ca 347-407) and Augustine (354-430), and extending to Galileo (1564-1642).3

Augustine, for example, refers to creation as God’s “great big book, the book of created nature.”4 He goes on to say, “Look carefully at it from top to bottom, observe it, read it…. Observe heaven and earth in a religious spirit.”

That “religious spirit,” however, does not mean rejecting the findings of science in favor of the three-tiered model of the universe presupposed in Genesis. To the contrary, Augustine finds it utterly shameful for Christians to make empirical claims about the nature of creation by spouting Scripture.5

So it is a matter of duty that God’s “two books” be read together, for God is the author of both. It is no coincidence that a certain psalm begins with “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” and concludes with reflections of the efficacy of God’s Torah: “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:1, 7-8). This single psalm binds together God’s creation and God’s Torah, God’s world and Word, into an inseparable whole.

Science and Searching

To disregard what science reveals about the intricate order and unfathomable age of the natural world as we know it is tantamount to tearing out the first pages of the Bible. The unfolding drama of God’s redemptive work in the world need not have begun with creation; it could have begun just as easily with the exodus account or with the family history of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12 and following). But it didn’t.

It is canonical fact that the Bible begins with the cosmos. Moreover, it ends with the cosmos. It is merely a coincidence that creation serves as the Bible’s bookends? Is it accidental that in between these bookends psalmists, sages, and prophets often inquire of the natural world in their testimonies to God’s providence? “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers … “ (Psalm 8:3; cf. 19:1). “I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things … “ (Ecclesiastes 7:25). “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” (Proverbs 25:2; cf. Jeremiah 31:37). The first sentence of the first chapter of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species begins with the words, “When we look to … “6

Looking and searching, observing and studying – psalmists, sages, and scientists are the cohorts of wonder and the practitioners of “inquisitive awe.”7 Together they validate the human desire to explore the world, “to search things out,” to observe and study the world that God in wisdom has create (Proverbs 3:19-20). “the self-revelation of creation,” as the great biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad once described biblical wisdom,8) 144-76.] is an integral part of divine revelation. To construe biblical faith as anti-scientific is truly anti-biblical. If theology is “faith seeking understanding” (a la Anselm), and science is a form of understanding seeking further understanding, then theology has nothing to fear and everything to gain by engaging science.

Faith “vs.” Science?

Culturally, however, we confront a very different situation. In their fight against “soulless science,” creationists champion a view of creation so narrow that it is decidedly unbiblical. At the other extreme, certain scientists construe faith in God as the enemy of scientific progress and human well-being.9

As one might expect, misunderstandings and distortions abound as each side reduces the other to laughable caricatures. Illiteracy, both scientific and biblical, reigns. The problem lies in the vain attempt to treat the biblical accounts of creation as scientific. This is like forcing a round peg into a square hole. The scientific method and its resulting discoveries are products of the Enlightenment, thousands of years after the Bible was written. Moreover, it was never the intent of the biblical authors to provide a scientific report on the nature of the world and how it developed, but instead to claim the world as God’s world. Nevertheless, there is plenty of room for constructive dialogue between science and theology, even biblical theology, but first some deep misconceptions and prejudices have to be vanquished.

Is science really hell-bent on eroding humanity’s nobility and eliminating all sense of mystery? Not the science I know. Is faith a lazy excuse to wallow in human pretension? Not the faith I know. What if faith in God entailed, among other things, acknowledging the remarkable intelligibility of creation as well as its mystery? What if science informed and enabled persons of faith to become more trustworthy “stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Corinthians 4:12)? What if faith fostered a “radical openness to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be?”10

The faith I know does not keep believers on a leash, preventing them from extending their knowledge of the world. The science I know is not about eliminating mystery but about enhancing it. The experience of mystery “stands at the cradle of true art and true science,” as Albert Einstein intoned. “Whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead.”11

Faith with Science

Christian faith demands familiarity with and appreciation of science. The evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobhzansky, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, famously observed, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”12 Christians can say something parallel about faith: “Nothing in the Christian faith makes sense except in the light of the Incarnation.” Here, in fact, is common ground: Faith in God incarnate “will not allow us to ignore the physical world, whose “nuances” are its delicate balances and indomitable dynamics, its life-sustaining regularities and surprising anomalies, its remarkable intelligibility and bewildering complexity, its order and its chaos. Such is the World made flesh, and faith in the Word made flesh acknowledges that the very forces that produced me produced microbes, bees, and manatees.

As much as we cannot ignore the incarnate God, we cannot dismiss the discoveries of science. Theologically, there is no other option. Faith in such a God calls people of faith to understand and honor creation, the world that God has not only deemed “very good” (Genesis 1:31) but saw fit to inhabit (John 1:14). In Christ, the God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) has all to do with the world in which we live and move and have our being.

Through the lens of science, we find ourselves more connected to creation than we could ever imagine, countering once and for all the sinful tendency to see ourselves utterly apart from, rather than as a part of, creation. We are connected to a creation that is incomprehensively large and marvelously complex, strangely diverse, and constantly in flux. We are part of a creation that at its most fundamental (i.e., quantum) level is fuzzy and indeterminate, assuming different states at the same time. At creation’s macro-cosmic level, things we once thought were stable and steady turn out to be dramatically dynamic, both catastrophically (e.g., supernovas and black holes) and generatively (the birth of new stars and planets), with every bit of it interconnected, including time and space itself. As the universe is fearfully and wonderfully made, so also the human self (Psalm 139:14). The saga of science can only enhance the greatest story ever told. All truth is God’s truth.

Dr. William P. Brown is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He earned his Ph.D. at Emory University, his M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary, and his BA from Whitman College. He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Some specific interests include creation theology, faith and science dialogue, the psalter, and wisdom literature.

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