[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Science and God

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Science and God.

Although most people might consider the two nouns ("science," "god") to be the key words in that phrase, for me the most important one is that little conjunction in the middle.

That's because the alternative wording would be "Science or God" — which seems to be the choice many want to offer these days. Take Stephen Jay Gould, for instance: he calls science and religion "nonoverlapping magisteria," insisting that some things are properly matters of science and others are only appropriately considered as questions of faith.

Now, I'd never put All in the Family's Archie Bunker on the same intellectual plane as Gould, but old Archie did say precisely one thing I agree with, during all his other rants: "You want to know what faith is? Faith is when you believe something nobody in their right mind would believe — that's what faith is!"

So Gould's dichotomy, filtered by Bunker's definition, leaves us with what I find to be an untenable position: some questions are best answered by science, and other questions can only be addressed if you're willing to consider the irrational.

I flat-out reject that. I'm convinced that science is the only legitimate way of knowing. Not received wisdom from putative holy texts. Not mystical insight. Science.

[Calculating God Cover Art] Why? Because only science allows for the falsification of a premise. Since my twelfth novel, Calculating God, came out, I've been besieged by radical religious fundamentalists. For them, all data supports their a priori conclusion that God does exist.

For instance, one creationist wrote to tell me I should believe in God because "of the awesome complexity in the universe, proclaiming God's handiwork."

I countered that in fact the human eye is incompetent handiwork. Not only is it prone to myopia, but it has a blind spot because of the way the optic nerve passes through the retina — and we know it didn't have to be this way, since octopi and squids, whose eyes evolved independently of our own, don't have blind spots.

My correspondent's response? "God made it that way to remind fallen mankind that we don't `see it all' or `know it all'!"

Nonsense. If both perfection and imperfection are taken as proof of God's existence, then the whole idea of proof simply falls apart.

Why should the existence of God be exempted from normal standards of proof? It seems quite reasonable to ask whether we live in an intelligently designed universe. And we should be able to answer this not by looking at Biblical or Koranic accounts, and not by praying for insight, but rather by simply looking at the facts.

And, surprisingly, the facts do seem to point to some very careful tweaking of the fundamental parameters of the universe. For instance, if the force of gravity were only a little bit stronger than it actually is, the universe would have collapsed shortly after the big bang, long before life could have evolved. But if gravity were just a tad weaker, hydrogen clouds never would have coalesced to form stars.

Further, if the strong-nuclear force (which allows protons to cluster together despite their positive charges repelling each other) were only slightly weaker, no multi-proton atoms could exist; in other words, everything would be hydrogen. On the other hand, if it were only slightly stronger, all of the universe's initial supply of hydrogen would have rapidly converted into helium, meaning there would be no hydrogen at all — and without hydrogen, stars could not shine.

And what about water? It's so common, most of us aren't conscious of just how remarkable a substance it is. If you take almost any other liquid and freeze it, it becomes more dense: a gold brick will sink to the bottom of a vat of liquid gold. But if you freeze water, it expands, which is why ice floats on the surface of lakes. If water didn't have this unique property, lakes and oceans would freeze from the bottom up, obliterating delicate sea-floor ecologies. Indeed, once they'd started freezing, bodies of water would freeze solid and likely remain so forever.

Nor does water's unique nature end with its thermal properties. Of all substances, only liquid selenium has a higher surface tension. And it is water's high surface tension that draws it deeply into cracks in rocks, and, as I said, water does the incredible and actually expands as it freezes, breaking those rocks apart. If water had lower surface tension, the process by which soil is formed would not occur.

There are numerous other examples. Cosmologist Paul Davies has concluded that the odds of our universe, with its specific, ultimately life-generating properties, arising by chance are one in 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000. Those kinds of odds virtually demand the conclusion that someone did indeed tweak the parameters, carefully fine-tuning the universe's design.

Unless, that is, there's more than one universe. If there are, in fact, trillions of universes — either currently existing alongside our own, or having previously existed prior to ours being formed — and if those universes have varying combinations of physical parameters, then there's nothing at all remarkable about a universe like this one existing. In all of that variety, this particular combination of parameters was bound to crop up just by random chance.

Right now, we don't know whether there are, or have been, other universes. But I didn't want to wait to find out; that's why I wrote Calculating God. In this novel, we get the answer today because aliens, about a century more advanced than we are, show up on Earth with definitive scientific evidence that no parallel universes currently exist, and that only eight previous universes existed prior to the big bang that created ours. The intervention of an intelligent designer is, to them, an established scientific fact. The novel explores the impact that knowledge has on humanity.

Now, I don't know if aliens will show up with such proof — or, indeed, whether they will arrive with the opposite finding, namely that there are countless other universes, and therefore no need to invoke God in discussing ultimate origins. But even without aliens arriving, we'll have the answer soon: doubtless, by the middle of the twenty-first century, work in cosmology and quantum theory will determine whether or not our universe is the only one.

And then we'll know whether or not God ever existed.

Thanks, quite appropriately, to that most powerful tool of all.

Thanks to science.

More Good Reading

More about Calculating God
On Writing Calculating God
The inspiration for Calculating God

On Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion
About Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God
On The Gospel According to Science Fiction

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