Monday, November 28, 2005



Science and God. Most people think the two have nothing to do with each other. Others even believe science has shown there is no God. So it comes as a shock for us to learn that pioneers and giants of modern science from Einstein to Planck to Heisenberg thought otherwise.
In the view of many of these scientists, the Mind of God was the source and ground of the cosmos. In their view, the intelligence of the universe – its laws – points to an Intelligence that has no limitation, “a superior mind” as Einstein put it. This was for them the summit of scientific discovery. In other words, of all the greatest discoveries of modern science, the greatest is God!

Modern science has shown that the Universe with its laws and fields shows a magnificent progression in degrees and kinds of intelligence. From the forces and particles of the subatomic realm that operate within a framework of precise symmetries to the inexhaustibly resourceful DNA that builds the living world, we live in a “smart” Universe. “Universe” is in fact simply our name for a network of intelligent systems operating through processes, structures and laws. At the heart of intelligence is the ability to create, process and synthesize information. The billions of galaxies that behave in accordance with the laws of cosmology and particle physics are driven by the information contained in the fields that constitute them. Living systems are independent agents that can maintain and replicate themselves and act in the world and “learn” from it.

One self-evident mark of intelligence is the very existence of the laws of nature. This mystery baffles the most skeptical scientist as much as it does anyone else. From atoms and cells to galaxies and ecosystems, we see intricately ordered activities and operations manifesting carefully defined laws; the laws that affect a quark affect a galaxy.

Every scientific discovery is a discovery of underlying intelligence and deepening mystery.

Take energy. We know that there is an electromagnetic force that holds our bodies together, a gravitational force that holds us to the earth, and a nuclear force that keeps atoms together.
We know that at every instant of our lives we’re surrounded by photons speeding by us at over 186,000 miles per second. We know that different forms of energy are converted into each other given a conversion mechanism. We know thanks to Einstein that mass is condensed energy.
But for all this, we have no idea how energy fields originated. Britain’s best-known astronomer Martin Rees acknowledges that it is basically mysterious how empty space could have energy associated with it. We do not know what is the primal nature and source of energy or the origin of the primal field.

Consider next the phenomenon of protein folding. All proteins in living beings are made from different sequences of just twenty organic molecules called amino acids. Proteins have the extraordinary ability to assemble themselves without external intervention. This self-assembly is a process called protein-folding. Every cell in the body (other than sex and blood cells) makes two thousand proteins every second from hundreds of amino acids. This process is so complex, says Scientific American, that a supercomputer, programmed with the rules for protein folding, would take 10127years to generate the final folded form of a protein with just 100 amino acids. But what takes a supercomputer trillions of years, takes seconds for real proteins.

Or take something as simple as our senses! In seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching, a mechanical stimulus is transformed into a nerve signal that is sent to the brain and then converted into a conscious state. Despite decades of scientific study spent in understanding the network of proteins, ions, signals and cellular structures involved, the bridge between these two worlds, the external stimulus and the corresponding sense-perception, remains as much a mystery today as ever. On the one hand, we have an efficient chain of precise physical processes that monitor, transmit and respond to an immense variety of sensory inputs. On the other, we have a mysterious and radical conversion: the merely physical becomes something of which we are conscious, something in which we “participate”.

Now the all-pervasive intelligence of the Universe raises an obvious question: how did it come to be? This origin question divides into three: the origins of the universe, life and mind.

That there is intelligence around us here and now nobody denies. The genetic code, the periodic table, relativity and quantum physics, photosynthesis and myriad other laws and phenomena are works of genius without which the world of our experience could not exist. In other words, intelligence is a hard fact of scientific discovery.

Disagreement and polemic begin when we try to pinpoint the source and history of the intelligence of the universe. There are three popular views. According to the first view, what we conceive to be “intelligent” is simply the end-result of random processes operating on a purely material matrix over huge periods of time. At the end of the day, it all comes down to physics: material interactions and the tools that study these interactions. The second view is that an intelligent Creator brought the universe into being six thousand years ago (or several billion years ago) and the various life-forms in the world are direct results of the Creator’s interventions. Here faith is the starting-point and the physical data are shown as evidence for the truth-claims of faith. The third view is that the world as we know it is purely the result of random processes but that there is a Creator of the universe who nonetheless does not intervene in its physical history. Here the natural sciences are taken on their own terms and faith is kept entirely out of the physical realm.

Evolutionary theorists see God’s role, if any, as belonging to faith and religion. Creationists claim that divine acts of creation are a legitimate part of science. These polarizing views have spilled over into polemics over education, law and politics. Here we present a new paradigm that moves beyond polemics by changing the frameworks and categories of discussion. In short, instead of the natural sciences and religious faith, those who explore origin questions must consider a third dimension, that of ontology. When we deal with physical realities, we turn to empirical science. When we deal with ontological facts, we apply ontological methods. And when we step outside the physical and the ontological, we face the choice of faith.

The origin questions are neither scientific nor religious but ontological. Ontology concerns those essential and ultimate principles that underlie science but cannot be proved by science. Science can give us the history and structure of all that is physical. But it cannot tell us why and how the physical exists. Science operates with measurable and quantitative data. But the origins of something from absolute nothingness, of the laws of nature, of life with its inherent intelligence and of the transphysical human mind are questions that lie beyond the quantitative.

The application to the present situation is transparent. Just as there is a distinction between hardware and the instruction-sets that run hardware, namely software, so there is a distinction between matter and the various laws that organize matter. To understand the nature, source and effects of these laws is to engage in ontology. To explore the ultimate origin of the universe and life, we have to migrate from cosmology and biology to ontology. Neither test-tubes nor equations can tell us why there are laws of nature or why something exists instead of nothingness or what it means to be an intelligent agent (that is, a life-form). For this we must turn to ontological analysis. Our ontological studies tell us that the laws of nature are embodied intelligence and such intelligence can only originate from an ultimate and infinite Intelligence. Likewise, the hierarchy of intelligence in the universe can only be explained by the constant action of this infinite Intelligence.

How does this relate to the evolution-creation debate? It changes the playing field. We accept all the empirical data furnished by the physicists and cosmologists, the chemists and biologists. We then consider the data at an ontological level. The history of life on planet Earth shows a progression from primitive yet always intelligent life-forms to homo sapiens. Certainly we accept the role at a certain level of natural selection and random mutations in this progression. But at the end of the day, the existence of intelligent agents ranging from the primitive bacteria to plants to animals, the mysterious reality of their powers of replication, the marvels of consciousness and conceptual thought are new realities that cannot emerge from a purely material matrix. These can only come to be from an infinite independently existing Intelligence. Likewise the laws of nature with their mathematical precision can have no other source but an Intelligence that has no limitation, “a superior mind” as Einstein put it. And this is an ontological discovery.

Our starting-point, obviously, is the origin of the universe. As most people know, Big Bang cosmologies have made previous theories of an eternally existing universe less plausible. Our starting-point, obviously, is the origin of the universe. As most people know, Big Bang cosmologies have made previous theories of an eternally existing universe less plausible.
Forty years ago a claim that science and religion are moving closer to each other would hardly have been made let alone entertained. But the consolidation of the Big Bang theory set in motion an entirely new way of viewing the world, one in which there was a beginning of time and perhaps a beginning of the cosmos itself. “When the intellectual history of the 20th century is written,” says a Bell Labs paper, “a few achievements will tower over all. Einstein’s theory of general relativity will be one; the laws of quantum mechanics will be another. The so-called Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe will be the third. The discovery in 1963 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of the Cosmic Microwave background of the Big Bang set the seal of approval on the theory, and brought cosmology to the forefront as a scientific discipline. It was proof that the universe was born at a definite moment, some 15 billion years ago.” The implications of this discovery and related ideas like the Anthropic Principle were monumental. In a famous passage in his best-selling God and the Astronomers, the astrophysicist Robert Jastrow, himself an agnostic, noted that when the scientist who lived with faith in the power of reason scales the mountain of ignorance and clambers over the final rock "he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries." Nevertheless, any review of modern cosmological theories should be accompanied by reflection on the ontological origin question.

The origin of life is clearly the most controversial of the origin questions. Most scientists assume that life is purely physico-chemical in nature and so its origin is a result of prebiotic evolution. But this assumption ignores the ontological dimension. Consequently no attempt to replicate the origin of life in the lab has worked. And every breakthrough in the life sciences simply demonstrates the inherent ingenuity of life.

On an ontological level, life involves three things: (1) intelligent message processing; (2) autonomous agents that independently replenish and replicate themselves, a dramatically new phenomenon in the history of the universe; and (3) diversity that extends from cyanobacteria to dinosaurs.

At a fundamental biological level, life revolves around cells, proteins and the nucleic acids DNA and RNA. Each cell contains 1012 bits of information, and any one cell has the information coded within it to build a copy of the organism’s whole body. DNA is a data repository of genetic information that transmits hereditary characteristics to future generations. The interaction of DNA, RNA and proteins can only be described as the processing of intelligent messages using chemical codes. Chemical laws may explain the bases, sugars and phosphates of DNA, but not its information content or the intelligence driving it.

Secondly, each and every living being acts or is capable of action and so it can rightly be called an agent. Beyond the sum of its physics and chemistry is the “center” of all its action, the moving force, the seat of power that makes it an agent. And since these agents are capable of surviving independently, they are therefore autonomous agents. Moreover, every such agent is intelligent because all its activities depend on the intelligence of DNA.

Finally, there are many kinds of intelligent agents and it is evident that they form a hierarchy, from unicellular organisms to plants with their molecular signaling systems to animals with their own hierarchy to the human person.

When we think of the origin of life, we are really talking of the origin of living beings since there’s no abstract thing called life. A living being, be it a fern or a hippopotamus, is an autonomous agent that processes information, generates energy and reproduces using the incredibly intelligent symbol-processing system we call DNA. Such a being is not simply a configuration of matter or a life principle. It is a new kind of reality, the reality of being an agent and functioning as an intelligent system. And such a reality can only come to be if it comes from a source that is not just intelligent but also an agent.

Allied to the question of the origin of life is the origin of reproduction. Neo-Darwinists like to say that there is no purpose in nature. But neo-Darwinists themselves have to assume capabilities of self-reproduction at the earliest stages of life. Yet reproduction is an irreducibly purpose-driven act, one which can’t simply spring from matter. How is it that the first living beings had the powers of replication? How is it that life came with this fundamentally purposive capability pre-installed? John Maddox, the former editor of Nature, admits that we don’t know how sexual reproduction itself evolved despite decades of speculation. The vast variety of replicational capabilities found in material structures point again to the intelligence in nature.

Human origins are our next topic. Most discussion in this area centers on excavations in Africa and DNA similarities between chimpanzees, humans and assorted other creatures. As the ontologist sees it, this is yet another wrong turn. The relevant data are closer to home.

The greatest superstition of the last 200 years is the widespread idea that the conscious thinking experienced by all human beings at every waking moment was produced entirely from and by mindless matter and is in fact reducible purely and simply to matter. We have lost our minds in more senses than one!

We are conscious and aware of being conscious and, in addition, we are just as clearly conscious that our consciousness is dramatically different from anything material or physical. We know that thoughts and feelings do not have physical properties such as size or shape. We know that our mental activities are accompanied by physical processes and also that we cannot see a thought if we open up the brain. Consciousness, as we experience it, is irreducibly trans-physical although it interacts constantly with the physical. Most important of all, it is thoughts that drive the corresponding neural transactions and not the other way around. There is no chicken or egg question here. The thought comes first and, as a result, causes certain brain events.

Another hard fact of experience is conceptual thought. The most obvious everyday instance of conceptual thought is language. Syntactical language is unique to human beings – found even in ancient civilizations and instinctively mastered by children at a very young age. Language is built around the ability to understand. There is no organ, no part of the brain that performs “understanding.” Words are symbols or codes signifying something – and the coding and decoding activities required for using language presuppose an entity that can endow and perceive meaning in symbols. Can a material object perceive meaning? By its very nature, the act of comprehending the meaning of something is non-physical. And it’s something we do all the time. Richard Dawkins points out that (a) nobody knows how language began since there’s no syntax in non-human animals and it’s hard to imagine evolutionary forerunners of it and (b) the origin of semantics, of words and their meanings, is equally obscure.

Then there is the self. What is it that perceives and conceives, feels and thinks, judges and chooses? It is the self, the center of our consciousness, which gives us the identity of being the same person throughout our lives although the physical components of our bodies change constantly. The self is not present in any region of the brain. Nevertheless we cannot seriously deny the existence of the self that is “I”.

Once we become aware of our awareness, mindful of our minds, conscious of our consciousness, we realize that these intrinsically immaterial phenomena could not have arisen from lifeless, purposeless mass-energy given not just a few billion years but an infinite period of time. It’s simply incoherent to suppose that matter, blind, mindless matter, could ever produce consciousness or thinking. Minds can only come from an infinite Mind. Consciousness can only arise from an eternal Consciousness.

The intelligent universe revealed by modern science makes atheism an implausible option on an intellectual level. But atheism is not strictly an intellectual matter. The psychologist Paul Vitz has put many of the most famous atheists on the couch and come to the conclusion that atheism is a neurosis. Vitz contends that the major barriers to belief in God are not rational but neurotic psychological barriers of which the unbeliever may be unaware.

The world revealed by modern science is a world that (a) obeys fundamental mathematical principles, (b) resembles computational systems with their elaborate information processing and mapping of symbols, and (c) confirms our assumption that it is intelligible and rational.

The laws of nature, particularly in relativity and quantum theory, can be understood and structured in the most complex and logical thought-form known to the human mind, that of mathematics. Scientists have been stunned by the one-to-one correspondence between the “programs” of nature and the programs independently discovered and developed by the mind.

How does mind manifest itself? In the case of human beings, our minds enable us to use words. When we see a book we know it is the expression of a mind, and not just ink on paper. Likewise, all the processes in the universe bear the earmarks of mind: the mathematical codes employed everywhere in nature; the immeasurably intricate, precisely structured, comprehensively coherent patterns of interaction between energy fields and galaxies, proteins and nucleic acids; the existence of autonomous agents and purposive behavior; and the reality of conceptual thought. All of these phenomena are manifestations of mind. Scientists now take intelligence as a given, although some try to explain it away with models of self-organizing matter; this, of course, simply postpones the question one step further because we still need an explanation for the system as a whole.

Since symbolic thought and data processing are peculiar to minds as distinct from particles or force fields, it seems reasonable to assume that the laws of nature are manifestations of a sophisticated mind. The mathematician Roger Penrose dismisses the idea that the success of mathematics can be attributed to its survival value, and attributes the accord between mathematics and physics to the underlying rationality of the world. No wonder then that the Nobel-winning quantum physicist Paul Dirac said, “God is a mathematician of a very high order.”

The paradigm of infinite Intelligence expressing itself through a hierarchy of manifestations immediately makes sense of the most diverse phenomena in our experience: rationality, intention, intelligence, beauty, and love.

Roy Abraham Varghese