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Is God in the Lab?

Here are two famous scientists expressing their opinions about science and religion. Richard Feynman gave a series of Danz Lectures at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1963. John Polkinghorne gave a series of Terry Lectures at Yale University in 1996. Two characters as different as it is possible to be, Polkinghorne the conscientious academic scholar, Feynman the impulsive rebel. Polkinghorne prepared the text of his lectures carefully for publication, giving us a polished and logically coherent argument. Feynman was invited to prepare a text for the University of Washington Press to publish in 1963, but never did. The University of Washington recorded the lectures and preserved the tapes.

What we have here is a verbatim transcript of the lectures as Feynman gave them, speaking extemporaneously from fragmentary notes. Feynman’s voice and personality come through clearly. He talks about real people and their problems, not about philosophical abstractions. He is interested in religion as a way for people to make sense of their lives, but he is not interested in theology. Polkinghorne has the opposite bias. He is a scientist who is also an ordained minister of the Church of England. To be ordained, he went through formal training in theology. For him, theology is as real and as serious as science. His book has more to say about theology than about religion.

To display the contrasting styles of the two books, I pick out an outstanding passage from each. From Polkinghorne I pick out his second chapter, with the title, “Finding Truth: Science and Religion Compared.” This is a remarkable tour de force. Polkinghorne compares two historic intellectual struggles, one from science and one from religion. From science he takes the discovery and development of quantum mechanics, a struggle that has lasted from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century. From religion he takes the theological understanding of the nature of Jesus, a struggle that lasted from the time when Saint Paul was writing his letters shortly after Jesus’ death to the modern era of diverse views and diminished certainties. He divides each of the two struggles into five periods, and shows how events in each of the five periods in the development of quantum mechanics correspond in detail to events in the matching period in the development of theology. In the first period, the breakdown of classical mechanics, the enigma of atomic spectra, and the discovery of the light-quantum by Planck and Einstein correspond to the death of Jesus, the enigma of his resurrection as experienced by his disciples in Jerusalem, and the new understanding of these events by Saint Paul.

In the second period, confusion reigns both in physics and in theology: classical and quantum pictures in conflict in physics, orthodoxies and heresies in conflict in theology. In the third period, there was the great triumph of quantum mechanics as it emerged in 1925 and solved most of the outstanding problems of physics and the great triumph of Christology in the year 451, when the assembled theologians at the Council of Chalcedon promulgated the doctrine concerning the nature of Jesus that orthodox Christians were thereafter required to believe. In the fourth period, a continued wrestling with unsolved problems, the paradoxes of interpretation of quantum theory in physics and the paradoxes of the incarnation of Jesus in theology. In the fifth period, recognition in both physics and theology that the new insights have deep implications and that we are very far from any final truth.

Polkinghorne argues from the detailed concordance of the two struggles that science and theology are two aspects of a single intellectual adventure. He sees theology as dealing with God in essentially the same way as science is dealing with nature. This is a grand vision. The historical evidence that he brings to support it is impressive. But I have to say that, much as I admire Polkinghorne’s vision, I cannot share it. To share it, you must disregard a crucial difference between science and theology. When all is said and done, science is about things and theology is about words. Things behave in the same way everywhere, but words do not. Quantum mechanics works equally in all countries and in all cultures. Quantum mechanics gives plants the power to turn the energy of sunlight into leaves and fruit, and it gives animals the power to turn the energy of sunlight into neural images in retinas and brains, whether they are living in Tokyo or in Timbuktu. Theology works in one culture alone. If you have not grown up in Polkinghorne’s culture, where words such as “incarnation” and “trinity” have a profound meaning, you cannot share his vision.

A striking passage of Feynman’s book runs from page 34 to page 48. Like the Polkinghorne passage, it comes in the second chapter and deals explicitly with the relation between science and religion. But there the similarity of the two passages ends. Feynman has no interest in scholastic arguments. He is concerned only with human problems. He has a deep respect for religion, because he sees it as helping people to behave well toward one another and to be brave in facing tragedy. He respects religion as an important part of human nature. He does not himself believe in God, but he has no wish to destroy other people’s belief. He does not write about professional scientists or professional religious thinkers. He writes about students who come to college from homes where religious belief is strong, and then find that exposure to modern science is calling their beliefs into question. He has seen at first hand the anguish that some of these students experience. He does not claim to have a cure for their anguish. He sees a genuine conflict between the old-fashioned family religion that commands the students to believe without question, and the ethic of science that commands them to question everything.

The conflict is acute for students who have grown up in fundamentalist Christian households. For them, the only ways out of their dilemma may be to reject science altogether or to abandon their religious heritage. Fortunately, they are a small minority of Christians. Most Christian believers are able to reconcile their general belief in God and in the teachings of Jesus with a considerable skepticism about details. For the majority, religion is a way to live rather than a set of dogmatic beliefs. Just as science can live without certainty, religion can live without dogma, and the two can live together without conflict. This is the solution that Feynman recommends to his students.

But Feynman cannot remain solemn for long. Scattered through his book is a wonderful collection of personal stories, told in the authentic Feynman style, bringing his meditations to life. One can see that for him the stories are more important than the philosophy. Most of the stories are funny; a few of them are sad. He knows how to make even the deepest personal tragedy into a good story. The most memorable of the stories is told as an example of a fake miracle. This happened at the worst moment of his life, when his first wife died of tuberculosis, after a long illness, at 9:22 in the evening. The clock in her room stopped at 9:22 and never ran again. If this had happened to a religious person, it might well have been described as a miracle. But Feynman, with his skeptical spirit, was watching at that moment and saw what really happened. The nurse who was also in the room had to fill out the death certificate to record the time and manner of his wife’s death. Since the light in the room was dim, the nurse picked up the clock to read the time. She read it and then put it down. The clock was old and worn-out and had a habit of stopping if it was disturbed. So that was how the miracle happened, and perhaps it is also the way other miracles happen. For Feynman, religion has more to do with psychology than with theology. Religion is for Feynman an important part of human nature, to be examined like other human phenomena with the skeptical eye of science.

It is a curious accident of history that the Christian religion became heavily involved with theology. No other religion finds it necessary to formulate elaborately precise statements about the abstract qualities and relationships of gods and humans. There is nothing analogous to theology in Judaism or in Islam. I do not know much about Hinduism and Buddhism, but my Asian friends tell me that these religions have no theology. They have beliefs and stories and ceremonies and rules of behavior, but their literature is poetic rather than analytical. The idea that God may be approached and understood through intellectual analysis is uniquely Christian.

The prominence of theology in the Christian world has had two important consequences for the history of science. On the one hand, Western science grew out of Christian theology. It is probably not an accident that modern science grew explosively in Christian Europe and left the rest of the world behind. A thousand years of theological disputes nurtured the habit of analytical thinking that could also be applied to the analysis of natural phenomena. On the other hand, the close historical relations between theology and science have caused conflicts between science and Christianity that do not exist between science and other religions. It is more difficult for a modern scientist to be a serious Christian, like John Polkinghorne, than to be a serious Muslim, like the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Abdus Salam. Salam happily proclaimed his Muslim faith but did not feel any need to write books about it. For Salam, the idea of a conflict between his faith and his science was ludicrous. Muslim faith has nothing to do with science. But Polkinghorne writes books to prove to himself and to us that his theology and his science can live together harmoniously. For him the possibility of conflict is real, because his theology and his science sprang from the same root.

The common root of modern science and Christian theology was Greek philosophy. The historical accident that caused the Christian religion to become heavily theological was the fact that Jesus was born in the eastern part of the Roman Empire at a time when the prevailing culture was profoundly Greek.

I had the good luck a few years ago to visit the archaeological site of Zippori in Israel, with one of the Israeli archaeologists who are excavating the city as my guide. Zippori is the Hebrew name for the city. The Romans called it Sepphoris, which is its Greek name. This visit made me acutely aware of the paradox at the heart of the Christian religion. I could see here displayed the Greek culture that Jesus decisively rejected, the same Greek culture that infiltrated the Christian religion very soon after his death and has dominated Christianity ever since. Zippori is very close to where Jesus lived as a boy and as a young man. I climbed to the top of the highest building in Zippori and looked across to the next hill five miles away. On the next hill is Nazareth. Today, Nazareth is a city and Zippori is a ruin. In the time of Jesus, Zippori was a city and Nazareth was a village. From Nazareth to Zippori is an easy walk.

Two features of Zippori strike the eye immediately. First, the mikvahs, or ritual baths, dug deep in the ground under every house, still survive. They prove that the inhabitants were pious Jews. Second, the mosaic decorations, some of the finest in the world, are Greek in style and subject matter. One particularly well-preserved mosaic shows the Greek hero Heracles winning a drinking contest. Some of the mosaics contain inscriptions, all in Greek. They prove that the inhabitants were thoroughly Hellenized. The inhabitants lived well, in a world where Greek was the language of wealth and education, Hebrew the language of religion, Aramaic the language of peasants. Jesus, as we know, spoke Aramaic. The Gospels describing his life, and the letters of Paul defining the new religion, were written in Greek.

After examining the evidence of the lifestyle of Zippori, one is not surprised to learn that in the great Jewish revolt against Rome in 70 CE, in which Jerusalem was destroyed, Zippori sided with Rome and escaped destruction. In the second Jewish revolt when Hadrian was emperor, Zippori sided with Rome and again escaped. A little later, the chief rabbi of Zippori was a personal friend of the Roman Emperor Caracalla. No doubt they talked in Greek when they discussed the affairs of the Empire and of its Jewish citizens. Zippori was finally destroyed, not by war but by an earthquake, after the Empire became officially Christian. Archaeologists love earthquakes, because they leave the patterns of daily life intact under the rubble. After the earthquake, nobody came back to live at Zippori. Nobody disturbed the ruins.

Local legend in the Christian Arab community says that Jesus’s mother was born and grew up in Zippori. The legend is consistent with the few facts we know about Mary. She may well have been a city girl who moved out to the village of Nazareth after she was betrothed to Joseph. Whether the legend is true or not, it is likely that Joseph walked or rode to the city from time to time, buying provisions in the market and perhaps also selling his carpenter’s wares. And as soon as Jesus was old enough to walk five miles, he must have walked over to the city too. It is impossible to imagine a brilliant child growing up within five miles of a major city and not taking every chance to explore it. Zippori was at that time one of the two largest cities in the province of Galilee, the other being Tiberias.

The Bible story tells us that when Jesus was twelve years old and his family was visiting Jerusalem, he seized the opportunity to spend three days talking with the learned doctors in the Temple, and all that heard him were astonished at his understanding. Whether that story is true or not, he must have had many opportunities to sharpen his understanding by talking with the learned doctors in Zippori. I imagine that Zippori was the place where he got to know the scribes and Pharisees that he afterward so vehemently denounced. It is likely that as an adolescent he was deeply immersed in the Greek culture of the city. It is certain that as an adult he reacted violently against it. Although Zippori must have been an important part of his life, it is not once mentioned in the Bible.

I also visited Kefar Nahum, the site on the shore of the lake of Galilee that is called Capernaum in the Bible. From the biblical account one has the impression that Capernaum was a fishing village and that the disciples Peter and Andrew were simple fishermen when Jesus found them there. The real Capernaum was a Greek city, not as large as Zippori but sharing the same style and culture. There is a well-preserved synagogue that looks like a Greek temple. The city was spacious in the Greek style. It had large public buildings, and open spaces where one can imagine young men hanging out and discussing the latest ideas in philosophy and religion. After visiting Capernaum, I no longer think of Peter and Andrew as simple fishermen. I think of them as young men about town, who made a living by fishing but were also immersed in the Greek culture of the city. When Jesus came down from the hills and called them to leave their homes and share with him the rugged life of an itin-erant preacher, they knew what they were leaving and why. Probably they already shared Jesus’ hatred for the hypocrisies of city life, and that was why they came when he called them.

I am painting a romantic picture of Jesus and his disciples, based on fragmentary archaeological evidence. Whether this picture is true or not, two facts are certain. First, Jesus was no simple peasant, but grew up in intimate contact with an urban and overwhelmingly Greek culture. And second, he intended to lead a spiritual regeneration of his people, based on a total repudiation of Greek culture. In all his preaching, he quotes from the Law and the Prophets, the old Hebrew scriptures. After seeing what the Greek culture had to offer, he went back to his Hebrew roots.

When Jesus died, he left behind a mass movement that rapidly grew into a new religion. The new religion moved fast from Jerusalem to other cities that were easily accessible to travelers, cities where Greek culture was even more predominant. The followers of Jesus first called themselves Christians in the Greek city of Antioch. And the man who took charge of the new religion, Saint Paul of Tarsus, was a thoroughly Hellenized Jew. Saint Paul preached to the learned men of Athens in their own language. In his writings he laid the foundations for what became orthodox Christian doctrine. Christianity became a religion for people ignorant of Hebrew and educated in the Greek tradition. Within a century, the Greek culture had swept over Christianity, and Greek philosophy had metamorphosed into Christian theology.

This history has left Western civilization with a strangely divided legacy. On the one hand, the religion of Jesus as we find it in his teachings recorded in the Gospels, a religion for ordinary people trying to find their way in a harsh world. On the other hand, the theology that turned the Christian religion into a demanding intellectual discipline, a breeding ground for scholars and ultimately for scientists. Feynman is writing about the first, Polkinghorne about the second. There is not much connection between them. It is one of the great ironies of history that Jesus gave rise to them both.

Polkinghorne ends his book with a quiet statement of the faith that the scientist and the theologian hold in common, the faith that the understanding of God or nature that we reach through human reason is reliable. Feynman ends his with a ringing declaration of support for the Encyclical “Pacem in Terris” issued by Pope John XXIII in 1963, in which the Pope called for peace among all nations based on truth, justice, charity, and liberty, and for the right organization of society to attain this end. Polkinghorne would certainly agree with Feynman’s declaration. Feynman might not so readily agree with Polkinghorne’s. Feynman believed that all human understanding is open to question. Even people who base their understanding on human reason sometimes make mistakes.

Letters

Words and Things July 16, 1998

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