God, Man and Physics

For more information about David Berlinski – his new books, video clips from interviews, and upcoming events – please visit his website at

The God Hypothesis
Discovering Design in our “Just Right” Goldilocks Universe
by Michael A. Corey
Rowman & Littlefield, 256 pp., $27

GOD’S EXISTENCE is not required by the premises of quantum mechanics or general relativity, the great theories of twentieth-century physics –but then again, it is not contravened by their conclusions either. What else can we do but watch and wait?

The agnostic straddle. It is hardly a posture calculated to set the blood racing. In the early 1970s Jacques Monod and Steven Weinberg thus declared themselves in favor of atheism, each man eager to communicate his discovery that the universe is without plan or purpose. Any number of philosophers have embraced their platform, often clambering onto it by brute force. Were God to exist, Thomas Nagel remarked, he would not only be surprised, but disappointed.

A great many ordinary men and women have found both atheism and agnosticism dispiriting–evidence, perhaps, of their remarkable capacity for intellectual ingratitude. The fact remains that the intellectual’s pendulum has swung along rather a tight little arc for much of the twentieth century: atheism, the agnostic straddle, atheism, the agnostic straddle.

The revival of natural theology in the past twenty-five years has enabled that pendulum to achieve an unexpected amplitude, its tip moving beyond atheism and the agnostic straddle to something like religious awe, if not religious faith.

It has been largely the consolidation of theoretical cosmology that has powered the upward swing. Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the universe seemed to be expanding in every direction electrified the community of cosmologists in the late 1920s, and cosmologists were again electrified when it became clear that these facts followed from Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Thereafter, their excitement diminished, if only because the idea that the universe was expanding suggested inexorably that it was expanding from an origin of some sort, a big bang, as the astronomer Fred Hoyle sniffed contemptuously.

In 1963 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson inadvertently noticed the background microwave radiation predicted by Big Bang cosmology; when Robert Dicke confirmed the significance of their observation, competing steady-state theories of creation descended at once into desuetude. And thereafter a speculative story became a credible secular myth.

But if credible, the myth was also incomplete. The universe, cosmologists affirmed, erupted into existence fifteen billion years ago. Details were available, some going back to the first three minutes of creation. Well and good. But the metaphoric assimilation of the Big Bang to the general run of eruptions conveyed an entirely misleading sense of similarity. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius took place in space and time; the Big Bang marks the spot at which time and space taper to a singularity and then vanish altogether.

It follows that the universe came into existence from nothing whatsoever, and for no good reason that anyone could discern, least of all cosmologists. Even the most ardent village atheist became uneasily aware that Big Bang cosmology and the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis shared a family resemblance too obvious profitably to be denied.

Thereafter, natural theology, long thought dead of inanition, began appearing at any number of colloquia in mathematical physics, often welcomed by the same physicists who had recently been heard reading its funeral obsequies aloud. In “The God Hypothesis: Discovering Design in our “Just Right” Goldilocks Universe,” Michael A. Corey is concerned to convey their news without worrying overmuch about the details. His message is simple. There is a God, a figure at once omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, and necessary. Science has established his existence.

How very embarrassing that this should have been overlooked.

AT THE very heart of revived natural theology are what the physicist Brandon Carter called “anthropic coincidences.” Certain structural features of the universe, Carter argued, seemed finally tuned to permit the emergence of life. This is a declaration, to be sure, that suggests far more than it asserts. Structural features? Finely tuned? Permit? When the metaphors are squeezed dry, what more is at issue beyond the observation that life is a contingent affair? This is not a thesis in dispute.

Still, it often happens that commonplace observations, when sharpened, prompt questions that they had long concealed. The laws of physics draw a connection between the nature of certain material objects and their behavior. Falling from a great height, an astrophysicist no less than an airplane accelerates toward the center of the earth. Newton’s law of gravitational attraction provides an account of this tendency in terms of mass and distance (or heft and separation). In order to gain traction on the real world, the law requires a fixed constant, a number that remains unchanged as mass and distance vary. Such is Newton’s universal gravitational constant.

There are many comparable constants throughout mathematical physics, and they appear to have no very obvious mathematical properties. They are what they are. But if arbitrary, they are also crucial. Were they to vary from the values that they have, this happy universe–such is the claim–would be too small or too large or too gaseous or otherwise too flaccid to sustain life. And these are circumstances that, if true, plainly require an explanation.

Carter was a capable physicist; instead of being chuckled over and dismissed by a handful of specialists, the paper that he wrote in 1974 was widely read, Fred Hoyle, Freeman Dyson, Martin Rees, Stephen Hawking, Paul Davies, Steven Weinberg, Robert Jastrow, and John Gribbin all contributing to the general chatter. Very few physicists took the inferential trail to its conclusion in faith; what is notable is that any of them took the trail at all.

THE ASTRONOMER Fred Hoyle is a case in point, his atheism in the end corrected by his pleased astonishment at his own existence. Living systems are based on carbon, he observed, and carbon is formed within stars by a process of nucleosynthesis. (The theory of nucleosynthesis is, indeed, partly his creation.) Two helium atoms fuse to form a beryllium intermediate, which then fuses again with another helium atom to form carbon. The process is unstable because beryllium intermediates are short-lived.

In 1953 Edwin Salpeter discovered that the resonance between helium and intermediate beryllium atoms, like the relation between an opera singer and the glass she shatters, is precisely tuned to facilitate beryllium production. Hoyle then discovered a second nuclear resonance, this one acting between beryllium and helium, and finely tuned as well.

Without carbon, no life. And without specific nuclear resonance levels, no carbon. And yet there he was, Hoyle affirmed, carbon based to the core. Nature, he said in a remark widely quoted, seems to be “a put-up job.”

INFERENCES now have a tendency to go off like a string of firecrackers, some of them wet. Hoyle had himself discovered the scenario that made carbon synthesis possible. He thus assigned to what he called a “Supercalculating Intellect” powers that resembled his own. Mindful, perhaps, of the ancient wisdom that God alone knows who God is, he did not go further. Corey is, on the other hand, quite certain that Hoyle’s Supercalculating Intellect is, in fact, a transcendental deity–the Deity, to afford Him a promotion in punctuation.

And Corey is certain, moreover, that he quite knows His motives. The Deity, in setting nuclear resonance levels, undertook his affairs “in order to create carbon based life forms.”

Did He indeed? It is by no means obvious. For all we know, the Deity’s concern may have lain with the pleasurable intricacies of nucleosynthesis, the emergence of life proving, like so many other things, an inadvertent consequence of his tinkering. For that matter, what sense does it make to invoke the Deity’s long term goals, when it is His existence that is at issue? If nothing else, natural theology would seem to be a trickier business than physicists may have imagined.

AS IT HAPPENS, the gravamen of Corey’s argument lies less with what the Deity may have had in mind and more with the obstacles He presumably needed to overcome. “The cumulative effect of this fine tuning,” Corey argues, “is that, against all the odds, carbon was able to be manufactured in sufficient quantities inside stellar interiors to make our lives possible.” That is the heart of the matter: against all the odds. And the obvious question that follows: Just how do we know this?

Corey does not address the question specifically, but he offers an answer nonetheless. It is, in fact, the answer Hoyle provides as well. They both suppose that something like an imaginary lottery (or roulette wheel) governs the distribution of values to the nuclear resonance levels of beryllium or helium. The wheel is spun. And thereafter the right resonance levels appear. The odds now reflect the pattern familiar in any probabilistic process–one specified outcome weighed against all the rest. If nuclear resonance levels are, in fact, unique, their emergence on the scene would have the satisfying aspect of a miracle.

It is a miracle, of course, whose luster is apt to dim considerably if other nuclear resonance levels might have done the job and thus won the lottery. And this is precisely what we do not know. The nuclear resonance levels specified by Hoyle are sufficient for the production of carbon. The evidence is all around us. It is entirely less clear that they are necessary as well. Corey and Hoyle make the argument that they are necessary because, if changed slightly, nucleosynthesis would stop. “Overall, it is safe to say”–Corey is speaking, Hoyle nodding–“that given the utter precision displayed by these nuclear resonances with respect to the synthesis of carbon, not even one of them could have been slightly different without destroying their precious carbon yield.” This is true, but inconclusive. Mountain peaks are isolated but not unique. Corey and Hoyle may well be right in their conclusions. It is their argument that does not inspire confidence.

THE TROUBLE is not merely a matter of the logical niceties. Revived natural theology has staked its claims on probability. There is nothing amiss in this. Like the rest of us, physicists calculate the odds when they cannot calculate anything better. The model to which they appeal may be an imaginary lottery, roulette wheel, or even a flipped coin, but imaginary is the governing word. Whatever the model, it corresponds to no plausible physical mechanism. The situation is very different in molecular biology, which is one reason criticism of neo-Darwinism very often has biting power. When biologists speculate on the origins of life, they have in mind a scenario in which various chemicals slosh around randomly in some clearly defined physical medium. What does the sloshing with respect to nuclear resonance?

Or with respect to anything else? Current dogma suggests that many of the constants of mathematical physics were fixed from the first, and so constitute a part of the initial conditions of the Big Bang. Corey does not demur; it is a conclusion that he endorses. What then is left of the anthropic claim that the fundamental constants have the value that they do despite “all odds”? In the beginning there was no time, no place, no lottery at all.

MATHEMATICAL physics currently trades in four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak forces governing the nucleus and radioactive decay. In general relativity and quantum mechanics, it contains two great but incompatible theories. This is clearly an embarrassment of riches. If possible, unification of these forces and theories is desirable. And not only unification, but unification in the form of a complete and consistent theoretical structure.

Such a theory, thoughtful physicists imagine, might serve to show that the anthropic coincidences are an illusion in that they are not coincidences at all. The point is familiar. Egyptian engineers working under the pharaohs knew that the angles of a triangle sum to more or less one hundred and eighty degrees. The number appears as a free parameter in their theories, something given by experience and experiment. The Greeks, on the other hand, could prove what the Egyptians could only calculate. No one would today think to ask why the interior angles of a Euclidean triangle sum to precisely one hundred and eighty degrees. The question is closed because the answer is necessary.

THE GRAND HOPE of modern mathematical physicists is that something similar will happen in modern mathematical physics. The Standard Model of particle physics contains a great many numerical slots that must be filled in by hand. This is never counted as a satisfaction, but a more powerful physical theory might show how those numerical slots are naturally filled, their particular values determined ultimately by the theory’s fundamental principles. If this proves so, the anthropic coincidences will lose their power to vex and confound.

Nonetheless, the creation of a complete and consistent physical theory will not put an end to revived natural theology. Questions once asked about the fundamental constants of mathematical physics are bound to reappear as questions about the nature of its laws. The constants of mathematical physics may make possible the existence of life, but the laws of mathematical physics make possible the existence of matter. They have, those laws, an overwhelmingly specific character. Other laws, under which not much exists, are at least imaginable. What explanation can mathematical physics itself provide for the fact that the laws of nature are arranged as they are and that they have the form that they do? It is hardly an unreasonable question.

Steven Weinberg has suggested that a final theory must be logically isolated in the sense that any perturbation of its essential features would destroy the theory’s coherence. Logical isolation is by no means a clear concept, and it is one of the ironies of modern mathematical physics that the logical properties of the great physical theories are no less mysterious than the physical properties of the universe they are meant to explain. Let us leave the details to those who cherish them.

The tactic is clear enough. The laws of a final theory determine its parameters; its logical structure determines its laws. No further transcendental inference is required, if only because that final theory explains itself.

This is very elegant. It is also entirely unpersuasive. A theory that is logically isolated is not necessarily a theory that is logically unique. Other theories may be possible, some governing imaginary worlds in which light alone exists, others worlds in which there is nothing whatsoever. The world in which we find ourselves is one in which galaxies wink and matter fills the cup of creation. What brings about the happy circumstance that the laws making this possible are precisely the laws making it real? The old familiar circle.

ALL THIS leaves us where we so often find ourselves. We are confronted with certain open questions. We do not know the answers, but what is worse, we have no clear idea–no idea whatsoever–of how they might be answered. But perhaps that is where we should be left: in the dark, tortured by confusing hints, intimations of immortality, and a sense that, dear God, we really do not yet understand.

David Berlinski is a senior fellow of Discovery Institute and the author of “A Tour of the Calculus” and “The Advent of the Algorithm.” His most recent book is Newton’s Gift (Free Press).

David Berlinski

Writer, Thinker, Raconteur, and Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute
David Berlinski received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University and was later a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics and molecular biology at Columbia University. He is currently a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Dr. Berlinski has authored works on systems analysis, differential topology, theoretical biology, analytic philosophy, and the philosophy of mathematics, as well as three novels. He has also taught philosophy, mathematics and English at such universities as Stanford, Rutgers, the City University of New York and the Universite de Paris. In addition, he has held research fellowships at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques (IHES) in France.