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God and science. Jean Guitton in dialogue with scientists

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Published in Nuestro Tiempo, nº 468, June 1993, pp. 80-87.
Publication date: June 1993

In a recent book that has already been published on Spanish * (1), Jean Guitton of the French Academy argues that the achievements of current science lead towards God. Professor Mariano Artigas analyses Guitton's suggestions, which are based on ideas widely discussed by scientists and philosophers today.

From the most remote antiquity to the present day, thinkers have studied the possibility of building bridges between the visible and the invisible world. There have always been two main camps: some deny that such bridges exist and hold positions ranging from materialism to agnosticism, and others affirm that bridges do exist and are passable. In modern times, these discussions are often linked to the progress of science.

The renowned French thinker Jean Guitton belongs to the second group, those who affirm the existence of bridges, and claims to base his reasoning on current scientific knowledge. In his recent book God and Science, he engages in an extensive dialogue with two astrophysicists, the brothers Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, who share Guitton's ideas and lend them a scientific basis.

The problem of the bridge

More than a few people today claim that there are bridges between science and religion. However, not all bridges are solid or even always lead to the same place. For example, Paul Davies wrote in 1983 that science today provides a surer way to God than that offered by traditional religion, but Davies' bridge led, at the time, to a kind of pantheism in which the universe and divinity were identified in an incoherent and explosive mixture. Davies now admits that the bridge can lead to a personal God. There is an abundance of publications in which scientists, philosophers and theologians address these questions with mixed success.

Guitton's bridge is designed to lead to a personal creator God. It is built on firm pillars: on the conviction that scientific progress manifests the existence of a very order B, and the order of the universe refers to an intelligent Creator. What is problematic is the rigour of the arguments, the passage from physics to metaphysics, that is, the bridge itself.

The back cover of the book says that science is now raising questions that, until recently, belonged to theology or metaphysics, and adds that this is evidence. This is what Stephen Hawking has been repeating in recent years. Hawking's and Guitton's answers are very different, even opposite, but in both cases one has the feeling that science is being taken too far, being made to say things that it is not really in a position to say.

Indeed, like any mortal, the scientist raises metaphysical problems, which are sometimes suggested to him by his work, especially if he studies the origin of the universe, of life or of man. But it is not clear that these problems belong to science itself. The reason is that each scientific discipline adopts particular points of view and metaphysical questions, on the other hand, address the most radical questions of existence; they therefore require a special treatment that goes beyond the possibilities of the scientific method. When the two perspectives are not sufficiently distinguished, the bridge is half-finished; consequently, the passer-by who does not stop will fall into the void. In Guitton's book, the three authors put forward interesting reflections, but on more than one occasion they give the impression that they may fall into the void: sometimes because they make science say things that it is not in a position to say, and in other cases because they venture explanations whose coherence is doubtful.

The origin of the universe

In the first chapter, the problem of creation is raised, following cosmological explanations centred on the Big Bang that occurred some 15 billion years ago. Almost all of the dialogue consists of a disclosure of today's generally accepted scientific theories. Suddenly, Guitton says that this panorama makes him experience a vertigo of unreality, as if, as we approach the beginning of the universe, time dilates to infinity, and he adds the following reflection: "should we not see in this phenomenon a scientific interpretation of divine eternity? A God who has had no beginning and who will have no end is not necessarily outside of time, as he has often been described: he is time itself, both quantifiable and infinite, a time where a single second contains the whole of eternity. I believe precisely that a transcendent being has access to a dimension that is both absolute and relative to time: it even seems to me that this is an indispensable condition for creation".

The problem to which Guitton alludes is important, since it concerns the relationship between our world, which is immersed in time, and the action of God, who is above time. How is it possible for God to be time itself, both measurable (quantifiable) and eternal, and is it possible to affirm that God is the creator of the world, as Guitton undoubtedly affirms, while adding that God is not outside of time?

It is also important to note that scientific cosmology, on its own ground, has nothing to do with the vertigo that leads Guitton to think of a dilation of time that, when approaching the Big Bang, would dilate to infinity. It is even possible that the Big Bang has nothing to do with the creation of the universe. Throughout the chapter, both Guitton and his interlocutors overlook this possibility, which is nonetheless crucial.

Science and creation

At the moment, we know little about the origin of the Big Bang. It may be that it coincided with creation, but science cannot say for sure. Indeed, it will never be able to say for sure. In physics, it will always be possible to hypothesise about possible earlier states of the universe; of course, if they have not really existed, it will not be possible to prove their existence: but it will always be possible to think that they may have existed, and that we simply do not have well-tested theories about them.

At summary, physics cannot prove that a particular event was the absolute origin of the universe, i.e. creation. We can conclude, by philosophical reasoning from another subject, that there must have been creation, but we cannot prove that it took place at a time that we can date.

In the course of his reflections, Guitton quotes John Archibald Wheeler and David Bohm. These are two important physicists who have engaged in philosophical speculations as debatable as those that Guitton himself ventures when he adds that, at the beginning of the Big Bang, there may have been "a form of primordial energy, of unlimited potency. I believe that before Creation there reigns an infinite duration. A Total Time, inexhaustible, which has not yet been opened or split into past, present and future. To that time which has not yet been separated into a symmetrical order whose present would be but the reflected double, to that absolute time which does not pass, corresponds the same energy, total, inexhaustible. The ocean of limitless energy, that is the Creator. If we cannot understand what is going on behind the Wall, it is because all the laws of physics lose ground before the absolute mystery of God and Creation".

The value of metaphors

These reflections are suggestive, but they have value only as metaphors that cannot be interpreted literally. To speak of God as infinite duration, total time or primordial energy is rather confusing, because in God there is no duration, time or energy, and the divine eternity does not unfold in time.

Metaphorical language is legitimate. Our language is full of metaphors, which are used to explain in a figurative way something difficult to express, resorting to comparisons with what is more familiar to us. But Guitton uses them in a rather strong sense, establishing a certain continuity between what happens in nature and what we can say about God, as if the duration, time and energy that science talks about were an extension, on a limited scale, of what happens in God himself.

It is beyond doubt that Guitton admits divine transcendence. He states this expressly at the end of the book, by way of conclusion. What is not clear is the value of his metaphors, which, moreover, are based on facts that are given as definitively acquired by science when, in reality, they fall outside his skill. Guitton assumes that the model of the Big Bang leads to the absolute creation of the universe, and on this precarious basis he claims that, through this journey to the farthest reaches of physics, he has the indefinable certainty of having touched the metaphysical edge of reality.

At the end of the first chapter, Guitton states that "the greatest message of theoretical physics in the last ten years is that it has discovered that at the origin of the universe lies perfection, an ocean of infinite energy". In reality, physics says no such thing. Guitton's reflection may be suggestive, but it does not belong to the realm of science and, from a philosophical perspective, it raises two serious difficulties: on the one hand, it identifies the Big Bang with the absolute origin of the universe, which is uncertain, and on the other hand, it identifies God with an infinity of energy, which is confusing if one speaks of energy in the context of physics.

Life, order and chance

If physical theories on the origin of the universe lead us to think of a primordial ordering principle, something similar happens, according to Guitton, when we study the origin of life. The fantastic adventure that would have given rise to primitive life from its chemical components cannot be explained by pure chance, because it assumes that there were highly improbable combinations of the components. If it is assumed that nature had all the time necessary to try all subject chemical combinations until, by chance, the right one was found, it must be admitted, for example, that in these trials a greater number of chemical compounds would have been formed than the number of atoms in the whole universe.

The arguments against pure chance are indeed serious, unless one admits the existence of tendencies that would combine with a certain randomness. Throughout the second and third chapters, the Bodanovs and Guitton explore the scientific data that indicate the inadequacy of pure chance as an explanation of the natural order. In the course of the dialogue, the Bogdanov brothers discuss Ilya Prigogine's theories on the formation of ordered Structures from less ordered ones, and their implications for explaining the possible chemical origin of life.

In this line, the interlocutors devote special attention to the anthropic principle. The universe as we know it depends crucially on the values of a set of basic quantities, the universal constants, such as Planck's constant and the intensities of the basic forces of nature. If these values, which are now known with great precision, were slightly different, the universe as we know it could not exist. Everything suggests that the universe has been planned so that, ultimately, we humans can exist.

These are ideas that are currently much debated, which are linked to classical reasoning about the existence of a purpose in nature and which are undoubtedly of great interest. Those who argue that the organisation of the universe is the result result of chance processes encounter enormous difficulties. Guitton and the Bogdanovs are right when they assert the necessity of admitting a higher ordering principle of the universe. However, scientific data alone are not sufficient to reach such a conclusion, unless they are integrated into a properly philosophical reasoning.

Quantum ghosts

One of the most problematic aspects of the book are the philosophical interpretations of quantum physics, which, from chapter four onwards, are put forward. In summary, it is repeatedly stated that quantum physics proposes a spiritualised image of subject, providing the instructions for a philosophy in which the classical differences between subject and spirit are annulled: there is spirit everywhere, even in the most material.

What is true? First of all, it is true that mechanistic materialism, which claimed to explain all reality by the combination of particles Materials, is hardly reconcilable with today's physics, because the alleged particles, which would be like ultimate pieces of subject, do not seem to exist. The subatomic particles of today's physics are something much more complex. If you ask a physicist today what these particles are, he will answer that they are the quanta of the basic force fields, which has little to do with the image of billiard balls.

Guitton and the Bogdanovs emphatically assert that fields are something immaterial, and from this they draw far-reaching conclusions about the approximation and interpenetration of the subject and the spirit. However, this reasoning is based on a confusion. The force fields of which physics speaks are abstract, theoretical, mathematical constructs. They certainly refer to something real, but they are not a mere snapshot of reality. And the reality to which they refer is a physical, material reality, not a spiritual one.

Many misunderstandings have accumulated in this field, for which some prominent physicists are also responsible. The debates about the true meaning of quantum physics have given rise to a vast and growing literature. The dialogues of Guitton and the Bogdanovs do not clarify the question, but rather rely on interpretations of dubious value, which they take as well-established.

The authors seem to claim, for example, that the famous double slit experiment on the behaviour of subatomic particles would establish the existence of spirit, which does not stand up to serious analysis. If the claim is that nothing purely material exists, because all subject is structured and, moreover, sustained by the divine action that gives being to everything created, it is not necessary to resort to arguments that are inconsistent with a presumed physical basis.

Science, philosophy and religion: new perspectives

It is true that the new developments in science in recent decades provide a very interesting basis for the discussion of important philosophical problems. One of the merits of Guitton's book is that it not only emphasises this aspect, but also includes many informative explanations of developments in science that are clarifying for the non-specialist. The language is direct and simple, the arguments are clear, and the reader can get an idea of many of the current scientific-philosophical debates.

Moreover, the basic ideas defended in the book often correspond to important problems and intuitions. It is a pity that they are mixed with interpretations of dubious value, probably due to the desire to build a bridge directly linking science with the affirmation of spirit and God. Bridges do exist, but they are not always as direct or as simple as the book seems to suggest. They require more hard work, because the sciences, by themselves, are incompetent to pronounce on metaphysical problems, neither in one sense or the other: they provide knowledge that must be subjected to epistemological evaluation and integrated into a properly philosophical reflection. The authors know this and sometimes affirm it, but sometimes they seem to forget it.

Guitton should not be reproached too much if one takes into account that there is nowadays a vast literature, generally of a materialist or agnostic bent, which is guilty of similar faults. But it would be desirable to distinguish more clearly between what science says, what are debatable interpretations, and the properly philosophical reasoning that leads to God.

  * Jean Guitton, Grichka Bogdanov and Igor Bogdanov. Dios y la ciencia: hacia el metarrealismo; [Spanish version by Martín Sacristán]. Madrid: discussion, 1998. 4th ed.