The View From High

This article is part of a series called The Scientist Theist. See also:
1. The View From High; 2. The Science of Religions; 3. A Reasoned Happiness

Yuri Gagarin, Russian cosmonaut and the first man in outer space, is credited with the quote above. It’s probably a misattribution, but the idea stands. *

A neurosurgeon, upon opening the cranial cavity, sees no God in the throbbing, pulsing mass of tissue that fills it. A physicist finds no God in the atom.

In the face of the bare, undeniable reality of the natural sciences, there’s little room for superstition. It seems that the advancement of the sciences and of knowledge itself comes at the direct expense of God. But must this be the case? Should it be?

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson certainly seems to think so.

Does it mean, if you don’t understand something, and the community of physicists don’t understand it, that means God did it? … If that’s how you want to invoke your evidence for God, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on—so just be ready for that to happen, if that’s how you want to come at the problem. [1]

Zeus threw thunderbolts until atmospheric electricity was discovered. God created man and species until Darwin came along. Soon, everything will be known. And nothing will be left up to God. Right?

Some things may never be known

A Purkinje cell displaying massive dendritic arborization. Drawing by the great neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

All phenomena arising from the laws of nature can theoretically be understood. So long as we can understand physics, we can understand chemistry. And chemistry to biology, and biology to neuroscience. Right? Well, this may be true in theory, but seems extremely unlikely in practice. Each neuron, on average, receives output from 10,000 other neurons. And the number of neurons in the brain approaches 100 billion. So, elusive concepts such as self-consciousness won’t be fully understood any time soon. If God is disappearing, he’s doing so slowly.

And this just corresponds to phenomena arising directly from the laws of physics. What about irreducible, non-deterministic phenomena? What if there’s some quantum element to consciousness, something truly random? In this case, nature isn’t not yet understood, but rather not understandable. And if this were true, God would be here to stay for good.

God can’t be ruled out even in the known

Assume that we have in fact come to the point where everything is known. All physical and psychological phenomena can be reproduced computationally, even those we once thought to be nondeterministic. Is it time to take out our Nietzsche, because God is dead?

Well, how can we be so sure, even then? Perhaps God is behind the gears of the deterministic machine we think we know, making sure everything runs properly! It’s possible we might not know everything, even if all signs pointed to the fact that we did.

Now, though, it’s time for some full disclosure. The points I made in the sections headed Some things may never be known and God can’t be ruled out even in the known are probably refutable. Let’s say some things truly aren’t knowable. Why, then, should we attribute them to the God who, at least in the past, has only receded? Why not just call these things not-currently-known as opposed to God’s work? On that note, it’s likely that someday everything will be known (or at least could be known). And in that case, any God behind the machine is quite a useless one indeed. Beyond this, the claim that God orchestrates the known laws of physics is undisprovable, a no-no in the scientific world. Perhaps Neil DeGrasse Tyson was right after all.

Feeling overrides thinking

It’s likely that the discoveries of the natural sciences might challenge the faith of many. But they might also strengthen the faith of some. One might say: “I realize that emotion is produced by the firing of neurons. This, however, only strengthens my appreciation for nature’s order and for the God that created it.” In this case, God is used less as an explainer of nature, and more as a vessel for the wonder that comes at having explained it. For the speaker of the above sentence, faith in God stands only to grow from science, not to suffer from it. His faith in God stems not from ignorance of science, but from wonder at it.

The speaker of this sentence probably acknowledges that wonder is hardly a criterion for scientific truth, and probably wouldn’t try to publish his proof of God (that being, of course, his own wonder) in a scientific journal. Still, he believes nonetheless. In fact, he probably realizes that his belief in God is opposed by, paradoxically, the very findings that strengthen it. But he doesn’t care.

Here, we see two distinct reasons for believing in God. One might think God exists, because there’s no other way we might explain a phenomenon as mysterious as lightning. Or, one might feel that God exists, because lightning, and the fact that we understand it, is wondrous. The faith of the thinking believer might certainly be threatened by science, but the faith of the feeling believer will likely not be.

The points I made in the sections headed Some things may never be known and God can’t be ruled out even in the known defend a thinking belief in God. So, naturally, they don’t stand up well to logical criticism. But the claim in feeling overrides thinking is immune to criticism, and might even benefit from it. In this sense, science and faith might certainly be compatible. In fact, perhaps theists and atheists feel the same sense of wonder at the natural world, but the theists just choose to call that wonder God.

So, next time you look up at the stars, don’t be so quick to accuse yourself of naivety and superstition. Allow yourself the thought, “I see God up there.”

Has your faith been strengthened or weakened by science? Or has it gone unchanged? Sound off in the comments.

* In text records of the communication between Gagarin and Earth-based technicians, there’s no record of the words “I see no God up here.” Instead, the quote seems to have originated with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. During the USSR’s anti-religion campaign, Khrushchev said in a speech, “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.”


  1. God of the Gaps & Frontier of Knowledge – Neil deGrasse Tyson

2 comments on “The View From High

  1. Ben says:

    Good article, couple comments.

    “Feeling overrides thinking” is insightful, but I think the title is misleading. Our view here — that God is worthy not in the extent to which He can explain, but in the extent to which He’s wondrous — is better characterized, not as feeling overriding thinking, but as a different style of thinking. The thinking is just directed at a different object! (Feeling is of course a part of it too.) Wonder at nature’s order is certainly something which is not just felt but also thought.

    You’re correct, though, perhaps, in that this thinking is the product of feelings which are deeper and are altogether impervious to thinking. Though our thoughts are the leaves, our feelings are the roots, and these roots won’t be moved by thoughts alone any time soon.

    A final point regarding your claim that “The theists just choose to call that wonder God.” Though the religious feeling is intimately connected with — and probably impossible without — wonder, I believe, and neuroscience confirms, that the religious feeling is actually something distinct from — above and beyond — wonder alone. See Azari’s Neural correlates of religious experience.

  2. I’m glad I decided to take a look at this blog. This is an excellent article. However, I would like to point out that it is in principle impossible for the truth value of the proposition “I believe every true proposition” to be known, and in practice impossible for a broader variety of non-emperical knowledge to ever be known.

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