Monday, September 13, 2010

God, the Universe, and French Scientists

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah
The French weekly magazine Le Point (roughly analogous to Newsweek) devoted some 20 pages of its August 5 issue to the topic “Does God Exist? What scientists say; their latest discoveries”.
In my very first post on Irtiqa, last January, I had noted that it is a rarity and something of a cultural gamble for a French magazine to put God on its cover. Le Monde des Religions in January devoted half its issue to Science and Religion, and one had to go back at least 5 years to find any other magazine devoting a number of pages to a similar topic: “God and Science”.
It is even more interesting that Le Point’s dossier came a month before the publicity-seeking declarations of Hawking claiming that cosmology had all but ruled out God. Indeed, it is paradoxical that the French, who are known for their staunch secularism, bordering on the overtly anti-religious, would have a mainstream magazine where the dossier begins as follows: “Shake Up: The idea of God is no longer taboo among scientists. Their latest discoveries push them to reflect.” The magazine’s general thesis, presented in the opening article, is that some recent scientific developments (mainly the cosmic fine-tuning and some research in biology – see below) not only allow many scientists to openly ask the God question but also to find no conflict between faith and science, as long as things are not taken to extremes and no intermingling confusion is allowed.
There were 3 parts in this dossier: (1) interviews of 8 scientists on their views of faith; (2) a two-part exploration of the Vatican’s view of and interaction with Science; (3) a two-page interview with the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville, a soft atheist with subtle views on issues of Science/Reason and Religion/Faith. In this post, I will focus on the first part of the dossier, the interviews with the 8 scientists, which make up more than half the material of the topic. I will probably come back to the other two parts, which were equally as interesting, some other time.
Below I will summarize very briefly the views of the 8 scientists, who range from a Muslim convert to a staunch atheist.
  • Trinh Xuan Thuan, 62, is an astrophysicist who teaches at the University of Virginia (USA) and spends a couple of months each year in France doing research and writing books (several of his have been best-sellers there); he is a Buddhist. His views (in a nutshell): “I feel connected to the cosmos… Astrophysics led me to Metaphysics when I considered the origin of the universe. I believe in the strong version of the Anthropic Principle. I do not believe in a god who would have created our universe ex nihilo, but rather in a creative principle that manifests itself in the physical laws of nature – the pantheistic vision of Spinoza and Einstein.”
  • Michel Morange, 59, is a biologist and historian of science; he is catholic. His views: “Science cannot settle the question of the existence of God. Science and belief are two parallel discourses that cannot converge… God is not needed for an understanding of the living world…”
  • Etienne Klein, 52, is a materials physicist; he is agnostic. His views: “Belief in God cannot be disproven… The question of the origin of the universe is often presented as a zone of conflict between science and religion, where the realms of believing and of knowing would clash… I believe in a ‘third way’: the origin of the universe is an absolute mystery, and no one can provide a [full] answer for it. Because explaining the origin of the universe is to explain the jump from nothingness to being, which neither science nor religions can perform; each starts from an ‘already there’: God, the Word, the quantum vacuum, etc.”
  • Jean-Pierre Luminet, 58, is an astrophysicist; he is an atheist. His views: “In science, when a researcher is awed, it is not because he has found God [in his work]…Why do we find in the Universe some intangible laws? Was the history of the Universe written from the start in matter, and while getting more and more complex, matter was bound to produce life? We would all like to believe that. But that does not imply the existence of an initial project…”
  • Anne Dambricourt-Malassé, 51, is a researcher at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris; she is ‘a believer’. Her views: “Natural selection does not, alone, explain the simultaneous emergence of so many changes [in organisms], nor that of conscious beings capable of analyzing the consequences of their actions… When we see in humans the appearance of spirituality, art, funeral rites, etc., we are forced to seek an understanding of all that…”
  • Pascal Picq, 56, is a human paleo-anthropologist; he is an atheist. His views: “There is neither a universal law nor a goal in evolution... ‘What I believe’ has no place in science…”
  • Bruno Guiderdoni, 52, is an astrophysicist, presently director of the Lyons observatory; he converted to Islam 23 years ago. His views: “It is the need to find meaning that led me to exploring religious questions… Religion does not block science; only certain readings of religion can constitute a roadblock in front of science… Of course there can be materialistic interpretations of science, but it is also possible to have a ‘theistic’ reading of it… In the Muslim world today, science is caught in an ideological battle between the fundamentalists who want to monopolize the interpretation of the Qur’an and those who claim to find miraculous scientific knowledge in the Qur’an… Between these two extremes, Muslim scientists try to push for a real scientific research tradition, as it once flourished in the Muslim culture.”


Ali said...

Hi Nidhal,

Interesting to see the views of so many scientists. I am glad France has no Dawkins. Not in this list at least.

I agree with a lot of things said by many of them on the list. In fact, what Anne Dambricourt-Malassé said is exactly what I am trying to convince Salman about on another post. :)

On another note, I think Spinoza and Einstein were Deists and not Pantheists. Must tell TXT.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Hi Ali,
Thanks for your comments.
Actually, Anne Dambricourt-Malassé, though a researcher at the reputed National Museum of Natural History in Paris, is a rather controversial figure; her theses are not accepted by the majority of paleontologists -- which doesn't mean they're wrong...

No French Dawkins? Actually, there is (or are) one (or two). Pascal Picq, quoted in the piece, is a (small) Dawkins type, but there is another figure, Guillaume Lecointre (also at the National Museum of Natural History), who adopts an extreme materialistic and attacking position.