The Ghost in the Universe, God in Light of Modern Science
By Taner Edis
Prometheus Books, 2002
Review by Ronald Ebert
Published in Skeptic magazine, volume 10, number 2, 2003
IS THERE A GOD? MOST PEOPLE have grappled with this question at some time during
their lives. Polls
show that the vast majority of people answer yes (typically 90-95% of
Americans), for a variety of reasons.
These reasons include the good design of the universe, a necessary foundation
for moral guidance, and a source of
purpose and meaning in life. In his new book, The Ghost in the Universe,
physicist Taner Edis looks at these and
other reasons drawn from theology, philosophy and science.
Philosophers like to consider a metaphysical kind of God, one that becomes a dumping ground for arbitrary metaphysical intuitions about ultimate things such as first causes, necessity, and whether if something can exist it must exist. The philosopher's God is oftentimes a hands-off God, one who may have started the universe, or provides a source of order in the universe. But this is not the kind of God in which most people want to believe. Most people prefer the traditional theistic God, one who answers our prayers and gives our lives purpose. But does the philosopher God, the theistic God, or any other kind of God exist in fact? A real existing God would be the central fact of the universe - the ghost of the universe who is behind its existence and is necessary to everything that happens in it.
Edis examines answers to this question from the various viewpoints. Philosophical arguments, old and new are covered. Then God's place in biological evolution and the origin of the universe are examined in the light of our scientific knowledge of these topics. The rest of the book leaves these scientific arguments and looks for God in the historical records of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions, in miracles and the paranormal realm, in the visions of mystics, in postmodern arguments, and in morality. All are found wanting. There is no ghost in the universe.
Central to the scientific argument is the acausal nature of the universe. Edis goes into this in some depth, yet the fundamentals could have been better explained. There is a deeply ingrained intuition in us that every effect must have a cause and every creation must have a creator, but modern science has shown us that this is not true. On the most fundamental level—the quantum realm—events happen acausally. We have good evidence for this. Einstein, for one, disliked the uncertainty found in quantum theory, and with the help of two others—Podolsky and Rosen—devised an experiment that would force the causes to manifest. He called these hidden variables, and not only would they be responsible for the uncertainty, they would also be the causes of quantum events. These EPR experiments, named after their designers, could not be done with the technology available in Einstein's time, but in 1964 John Bell devised what have come to be known as Bell inequality experiments. And in the past few decades, a number of them have been conducted. The results are unequivocal. Hidden variables, the causes of quantum events, are found not to exist. Quantum events remain indeterminate and irreducibly random.
This fundamental indeterminism is the key to our understanding of our universe. We live in an accidental happenstance universe, whose origin was quite likely a quantum event and therefore uncaused. Events on the most fundamental level just happen, acasually. There are other sources of randomness in our universe, such as in molecular dynamics and chaos, and these too play an important role in events, but our macroscopic world is an emergent one from the quantum realm. Since quantum acausality is so important to the origin of the universe and many events that happen in it, it is disappointing that Edis only touches on this topic, and I feel that his treatment of it will not enlighten his readers as to why we should believe quantum acausality beyond a reasonable doubt. For an excellent and understandable discussion of this topic, read, David Lindley's Where Does the Weirdness Go? (Basic Books, 1996).
Quantum randomness is the most fundamental, but other kinds of randomness also have an important role in shaping our world. Much of the dynamical interactions we see in nature are chaotic, where tiny differences are amplified into huge results. In general relativity, randomness appears at the boundaries of spacetime. And thermodynamics is based on molecular randomness. Once we run into randomness, no further information can be obtained. The best we can do is detail a random sequence, but there is no pattern behind the randomness that would give us more information.
And randomness is quite important to who we are. It is chance that got us here. Our complexity is the result of historical accidents. There is no design, purpose or goal to evolution. But if we start from a point of simplicity, we can only go toward complexity. More complex life exists now only because there was none starting out—not because of any progressive force, cosmic goal, or underlying design. It could have been otherwise. It could have been the hand of God. Yet it is not there.
If there are rules to follow, then some progress might be made, but it is restricted by those rules. Rules create blind spots. But randomness is a source of creativity. With randomness, there are no rules to set boundaries. Randomness "breaks you out of the box." A computer program isn't regarded as creative because any result it produces has to be within the rules of the program. But introduce some randomness and you may get some novel results. Our very way of thinking works like this. Our human intelligence at its best is flexible and innovative. We confront situations beyond what we have prepared for, and if we don't always succeed, we still come up with novel solutions for the problems.
So there are two good reasons why there is no God or spirit. There is no legitimate way to infer a God from a universe that is fundamentally random, completely arbitrary, and uninformative. And our very minds are products of this accidental material world, relying on this randomness for creativity. We can not make God an analogy for our mind because it would make God a random agent, something with which theists would strongly disagree.
Many theists will say that morality must come from God, but Edis shows us that there is a much more sensible origin for our morality. Norms of morality or any other kind make no sense apart from the purposes that they serve. Our interests set those purposes, and those interests in turn are determined by our biology and our culture. Different social and cultural environments will have different moral standards. We learn through moral examples—what will serve our interests and what won't. Moral thinking draws on our ability to envision different actions and their consequences—it is an imaginative activity. The innovativeness of our brains in confronting problems is again seen here. Science dispels the religious myths that would impose moral order on an accidental world.
Edis ends his book on a hopeful note. Our gods do not belong in our explanations or even in our hopes, but they should be at home in our stories and our songs. We can appreciate the stories of gods regardless of whether they are remotely true, morally uplifting, or practically significant.
One of the great strengths of this book is its presentation of arguments by theists and philosophers. Edis steps into their shoes and gives the reader the sense of knowing their innermost thoughts. The book includes every logical, philosophical, and theological argument you've ever heard—and possibly many you haven't—for the existence of God, the validity of the spiritual realm, and the veracity of religious truth. All are satisfactorily disposed of, including the many follow up objections to secular explanations. This is a book that will prove valuable to anyone who wants to know our best scientific understanding of where we come from and who we are.
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