A complex God: why science and religion can co-exist

Is there room for “intelligible” design in the science versus religion debate?

Science and religion are often cast as opponents in a battle for human hearts and minds.

But far from the silo of strict creationism and the fundamentalist view that evolution simply didn’t happen lies the truth: science and religion are complementary.

God cast us in his own image. We have free will and intelligence. Without science we could only ever operate at the whim of God.

Discussion of the idea that our universe is fundamentally intelligible is even more profound. Through science and the use of mathematical rules, we can and do understand how nature works.

The fact our universe is intelligible has profound implications for humankind and perhaps for the existence of God.

Does science work?

It’s very clear that science “works”. We can explain and predict how nature will behave over an extraordinary range of scales.

There are various limits to scientific understanding but, within these limits, science makes a complete and compelling picture.

We know that the universe was created 13.7 billion years ago. The “Big Bang” model of universal creation makes a number of very specific and numerical predictions which are observed and measured with high accuracy.

The Standard Model of Particle Physics employs something known as “Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking” to explain the strength of the laws of nature.

Within the Standard Model the strength of these laws are not predicted. At present our current best theory is that they arose “by chance”.

But these strengths have to be exquisitely fine-tuned in order for life to exist. How so?

The strength of the gravitational attraction must be tuned to ensure that the expansion of the universe is not too fast and not too slow.

It must be strong enough to enable stars and planets to form but not too strong, otherwise stars would burn through their nuclear fuel too quickly.

The imbalance between matter and anti-matter in the early Universe must be fine tuned to 12 orders of magnitude to create enough mass to form stars and galaxies.

The strength of the strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions must be finely-tuned to create stable protons and neutrons.

They must also be fine-tuned to enable complex nuclei to be synthesized in supernovae.

Finally the mass of the electron and the strength of the electromagnetic interaction must be tuned to provide the chemical reaction rates that enables life to evolve over the timescale of the Universe.

The fine tuning of gravitational attraction and electromagnetic interactions which allow the laws of nature to enable life to form are too clever to be simply a coincidence.

Is intelligent life special?

It has taken 4.5 billion years for humans to evolve on earth. This is more than 25% of the age of the universe itself.

We are the only intelligent life that has existed on the planet and we have only been here for 0.005% of the time the planet has been here.

This is a mere blink in the age of the galaxy. If some other intelligent life had emerged elsewhere in the galaxy before us, why haven’t we seen it here?

To me this is a strong argument that we are the first intelligent life in the galaxy.

Photo: Jake Wasdin

Designed for life

One interpretation of the collection of unlikely coincidences that lead to our existence is that a designer made the universe this way in order for it to create us; in other words, this designer created a dynamic evolving whole whose output is our creation.

Many take exception to this idea and argue instead that our universe is but one of an uncountable multitude that has happened to create us.

Other ideas are that there are as-yet unobserved principles of nature that will explain why the strengths of the forces are as they are.

To me, neither argument is in principle against an intelligent design.

The designer is simply clever enough to have devised either an evolving multitude of universes or to have devised a way to make our present universe create us.

Intelligible Design

We do know a lot about the design of the universe, so clearly the design is in good measure intelligible.

But why is it that we can understand nature so well?

One answer is that evolution favours organisms that can exploit their environment. Most organisms have a set of “wired” instructions passed from earlier generations.

Over the evolutionary history of Earth, organisms that can learn how to manipulate their surroundings have prospered.

Humans are not unique in this trait but we’re definitely the best at learning. So in other words nature has built us to understand the rules of nature.

Mathematics and science

All of this rests on the predictability which results from nature obeying rules. As we’ve learned about these rules we’ve discovered that they can be expressed in purely mathematical form.

Mathematics has a validity that is independent of its ability to describe nature and the universe.

One could imagine mathematics with its complex relationships being true outside of our universe and having the ability to exist outside it.

The outcome of humankind’s investigations into nature is science. And the fundamental tenet of science is that there is an objective reality which can be understood by anybody who is willing to learn.

A universe without laws?

The only way I can imagine a universe without rules is for every action to be the result of an off-screen director who controls all.

Such a thing is almost beyond comprehension as everything would need to be the result of premeditation.

Events would appear to occur by pure random chance. Furthermore the level of detail required for godly oversight is absolutely beyond human comprehension.

Each of the hundreds of billions of cells in our bodies operates within a complex set of biochemical reactions, all of which have to work individually and as well as collectively for just one human body to function.

So for a start our offscreen director would have to ensure that all these processes happen correctly for every one of the trillions of living organisms on earth.

Free will

We are all the stuff of the universe, absolutely embedded within, and subject to, the rules which govern nature. Because we’re self-aware, one can argue that the universe is self-aware.

Without an intelligible design it would be impossible for humans to have free will as all actions would be as a consequence of the will of the director. Free will is a fundamental element of Christian doctrine.

The Christian statement “God made man in His own image” implies both free will and intelligence for humans. Intelligible design is thus a necessary condition for the existence of a Christian God.

Given we are intelligent, we can imagine sharing this aspect with a God who made us in “His own image”.

Free will is only possible in a universe with rules and hence predictability.

Intelligence has application beyond our physical universe – which is indicative, but not proof of, God to me.

On the other hand, the existence of a God providing free will to humans requires the existence of science.

Otherwise we could only ever operate at the whim of God.

Science and religion go hand in hand.

We all know the subjective reality of experience. I personally feel the power of the redemption which is at the core of Christianity.

Each of us has access to that through our own free will to exercise choice.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Reverend Jim Martin.

Are science and religion compatible? Leave your views below.