News and Commentary
Origins & Design 19:2
Issue 37

Science and the Spiritual Quest Conference: A Report

Jed Macosko
Department of Chemistry
403 Hildebrand Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720

At 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, June 7, I hustled down to Berkeley’s Wheeler auditorium. The Science and Spiritual Quest (SSQ) conference was about to start. I grabbed a back seat and began typing Mark Richardson’s opening address as fast as I could. “Two years ago we looked for 15 top, monotheistic scientists in each field of research . . .” he recounted. “We didn’t give voice to religious fundamentalists or scientific dogmatists because both groups are ‘going for the kill’ and aren’t open to fruitful dialogue.”

Dr. Charles Harper, a John Templeton representative, summarized the goal of the conference as follows: “Faith and science should be friends. There can be creative work done by both. Such rapprochement can be the end result.” Bob Russell, co-organizer of SSQ, picked up on that theme, saying that an adequate answer to life’s questions “requires language about . . . the Creator” and that the assumptions of science “invite a critical discussion between theologians, philosophers and scientists.” If these opening speakers had taken questions, mine would have been: “Where are the scientists who question the naturalistic assumptions and conclusions of Darwinism? Why aren’t they a part of this discussion?”

The first scientist to report was a postmodern-speaking Jew named Norbert Samuelson, followed by Arthur Peacocke’s presentation of Western Monotheism. Peacocke stressed that we must view humans as “rising beasts” rather than “fallen angels,” claiming that Darwin actually reinstated the concept of creation (through evolution). He emphasized that the war between science and religion started with the “purely legendary” accounts of the way that Huxley defeated Archbishop Wilberforce in the late 19th century’s evolution-versus-creation debate. Peacocke claimed that this war can only be ended when the church stops using the circular claims of Biblical authority and rethinks Christianity based on science (his preferred method for establishing truth).

The question session began while people were still milling about, so my question was the only one submitted. It read: “According to the unified model of Science and Religion which you, Peacocke, presented, it seems that traditional Christians, Jews or Muslims must compromise their beliefs more than traditional scientists. Is it possible that this is the unavoidable result of attempting to merge two very different worldviews?”

When he read my question out loud, Mark Richardson changed it to, “Can you make any comments on how a traditionalist view would compare with what was presented today?” Peacocke was critical of the traditionalist view and Samuelson agreed, making the statement: “Just because the best rabbinical authority says something doesn’t mean it’s true.” (The next day over the Internet I heard an excellent rejoinder to this statement, highlighting the issue of authority: “Just because the best scientist says evolution is true doesn’t mean it is!”)

On Monday afternoon Cyril Domb, an orthodox Jew from Bar-Ilan University in Israel, who received his degree in 1941, spoke about how religion and science may conflict. In which case, he said, religion OR science must change. How refreshing! He went on to quote secular scientists who admitted the limits of science and the existence of a Designer and ended by saying that Darwinism is in a state of flux and will have to give way to a new theory in the way that Newtonian physics gave way to quantum mechanics. He was particularly impressed by Michael Behe and his fellow Jew, Dr. Lee Spetner, author of Not by Chance. During the Q&A, Bob Russell asked whether, quantum mechanical uncertainties aside, evolution would be completely deterministic. Cyril replied that through chaos theory, one ‘random’ Newtonian event can have large effects and that the Creator knows all the little causes. Bob interrupted, “But we don’t want God mucking around in all the details, do we?” Cyril politely pointed out that we must be humble, quoting Freeman Dyson, “We’ve reached the end of what we can do.”

When I heard that there were 40 newspapers and magazines represented, I went to the press room to see if someone would run a story on Cyril Domb. An editor from Science and Spirit suggested that I write the story and send it to her. Figuring it was a great excuse to meet Cyril, I agreed. We got together for lunch the next day. Cyril gave example after example of the implausibility of Darwinism in light of modern findings. I took special interest in a story about his friend, Dr. Lee Spetner. Spetner tried to publish infrared photographs debunking the only two fossils of feathered Archaeopteryx and was stonewalled by every scientific journal. Cyril made it clear that Spetner’s findings, and other evidence against Darwinism, should be given a place in mainstream science.

Professor Mehdi Golshani from Iran, who received his Ph.D. in physics at Berkeley in 1969, spoke in the same session as Cyril Domb and made a similar plea for a Designer. He allowed for a Creator who would use evolution but seemed to lean towards sudden creation when he said “the existence of God is equally compatible with an evolutionary mechanism for the creation of species and with immutable species. One has to explain the emergence of species, whether they are brought into being gradually or through sudden creation.”

On Tuesday, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, chair of the physics department at The Open University (U. K.’s largest), boldly claimed that her science drives her theology. I wrote out this question for her: “You have changed your theology in response to science. Should influential scientists such as Weinberg, Sagan, Gould and Dawkins change their views in response to religion, as Cyril Domb proposed yesterday? In other words, is this a matter of mutual adjustment or one of religious people doing all the adjusting?” The question was worded well enough to get past Mark Richardson, but Jocelyn slammed it in one sentence: “It’s wrong to tell people what to do; people should follow what they want to do!” No one else dared touch the question.

I got my hopes up a bit Tuesday afternoon, with talks from Allan Sandage and Martinez Hewlett. Sandage, a 72-year-old cosmologist, argued against the inflationary universe, or “multiverse,” model that was presented by Stanford’s Andrei Linde and seemed to dominate the conference. Professor Sandage was sitting next to me before his talk and seemed ready to “pull-no-punches” on Linde’s model. He was nonetheless quite genteel when he got to the podium, but he still made a strong case for a single universe with a definite beginning. Professor Martinez, a molecular virologist (and novelist) at the University of Arizona, lashed out (with equal courtesy) against reductionism. He politely exposed the illogical leaps that reductionists use in rejecting God as a tenable hypothesis. First they hypothesize that random mutations are the source of variation, then employ metaphysics to rule out an intelligent creator. This, Martinez said, is the trap of ontological naturalism.

In the last Q&A session, Charles Townes, a Nobel prize-winning Berkeley physicist, answered my question regarding whether biologists will hit a brick wall in their reductionistic understanding of life, the way physicists did in their deterministic understanding of the universe (when quantum mechanics took center stage). He said that their reductionistic thinking would eventually reach its limit and cited the human mind and the origin of life as possible examples. He even disagreed with Anne Foerst, of the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab, when she said that humans aren’t different from yeast and monkeys. Still, his comments would have carried more weight if he had been more bold in his talk. Instead he displayed postmodern fuzziness, saying “I have no real doubts about God, even though intellectually I know that we can’t know.”

A fitting summary of the conference was given by Professor Phil Clayton, chair of the philosophy department at California State-Sonoma. He made the point that the conference was devoid of religious bickering and implied that this was due to the openness of scientists to other (religious) theories. He proposed a sequel to SSQ that would embrace other, non-monotheistic, religions.

I’m sure scientists at this next conference will find even more common ground. It seems to me that the lack of bickering was due to the overwhelming allegiance to a naturalistic worldview. “The Spiritual Quest” is something we’re suppose to embark on after we’ve been thoroughly trained not to allow God into anything real or objective. Sadly, perhaps thanks to the fat checks each speaker received from Templeton, this conference could be summed up in the words of New York Times correspondent, George Johnson. “A kind of Sunday school politeness pervaded the meeting . . . But there was little sense of intellectual excitement, that people were coming to grips with the disturbing issue of whether there really is a God.”

Jed Macosko is a graduate student in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.

Copyright © 1999 Jed Macosko. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 6.1.99