National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 12, 2003

Q & A -- 'Promise' of the universe


John F. Haught

John F. Haught is Thomas Healey Professor of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington and director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion. His books include: God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Westview Press) and Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation (Paulist).

Is the Anthropic Principle the hottest topic now in the dialogue between science and religion?

Yes, apart from the ongoing struggle between creationism and evolution. When I first started teaching 30 years ago none of this was part of the conversation. Darwin had apparently destroyed the design argument for God’s existence, and that was that. Now the possibility that our universe was engineered in some more fundamental sense has reemerged, at least in the thinking of some people.

Personally I want to be very cautious when looking at such observations, not making too much of them from the point of view of natural theology. A theologian in the biblical tradition is obliged to look for instances of “promise” in nature, in the world, in reality. Christian life is centered on reasons to hope, to trust. If you are already disposed to be hopeful, as Christian theologians should be, then you should not be surprised that the universe was seeded in its opening moments with enormous potential for blossoming over the course of time into an astounding array of incalculable outcomes -- one of these being consciousness -- which is what the Anthropic Principle focuses on.

Pioneering scientist Freeman Dyson talks about what he calls the “principle of maximum diversity.” This principle operates both at the physical and at the mental level. It says that the laws of nature and the initial conditions are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible. You can conjure up all sorts of universes that are possible but stillborn as far as life, consciousness or anything interesting is concerned. What is remarkable is that the universe is fine-tuned for such interesting outcomes as life and consciousness, when, from the point of view of hard physics, it’s not necessary that it has to be that way.

The other alternative explanation of anthropic coincidences is to suppose a multiplicity of universes in which there are few interesting outcomes, but at least one in which there is life. There are plausible ways of interpreting physics that do allow in principle for this scenario. This is an alternative metaphysics, however, not serious science. We don’t have the slightest bit of evidence that there are other universes. Yet as our measurements get finer and finer we might find the ghost or hint of other universes embedded in the physics of our own.

We should be very careful to allow scientists to push naturalistic explanations as far as they can. I don’t want to say that we have arrived at a proof of God’s existence here, though some do. The Anthropic Principle can easily be co-opted to shore up the intelligent design arguments. There are pitfalls here, though. One of them is that science might discover one day that the anthropic coincidences are part of some basic structure of the universe we haven’t yet discovered.

We shouldn’t theologically make too much of God as an engineer or designer anyway. Design is too stiff a concept to represent the kind of creativity that goes on in the world. There’s too much ambiguity, messiness and mystery in the world. I want to be very cautious about bringing back design arguments at the level of life, as the Intelligent Design people do.

Having said that, though, from a theological point of view, if we live in a universe that exists within the embrace of divine promise, we should not be surprised God did create a universe that is so oriented toward possibility. I don’t want to see this as engineering. It’s too lifeless. But the notion of “promise,” which is a deeply biblical one, is helpful. “In the beginning was the Word,” according to the Gospel of John. The Word is always one of promise. The Word came to Abraham as a promise. The Logos in which the world is created is a notion replete with overtones of possibility, a potential for infinite wonders.

I don’t like the term anthropic because it’s provincial, especially if and when we discover consciousness present in other parts of the universe. I like to call it Life and Mind Bearing Principle, extending it even to what I call the Aesthetic Cosmological Principle. The universe is oriented not just toward bringing about life and consciousness but also many different forms of beauty. Clearly from its very beginning the universe was discontent with remaining in monotony but decided to unfold an enormous array of complex forms of aesthetic intensity, the most intense of which we know are life and consciousness. We can’t preclude that there aren’t other forms of which we have no understanding elsewhere in the universe. With 100 billion galaxies each containing 100 billion stars there is a lot of room for novelty and surprise.

You and others, people like Bishop John Shelby Spong, Michael Morwood, Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu and Brian Swimme, have been telling us religion needs to pay attention to what science is telling us.

We’ll be increasingly sidelined and on the margins if we don’t. It’s a shame that seminaries as far as I know have almost nothing in their course of instruction to future clergy about this. We are cut loose from the roots of what religion is. Primordially it was always concerned with cosmology, with awe and wonder at the universe.

Several hundred years ago theology just handed over the natural world to scientists. We will deal with such issues as quest for meaning, spiritual life, social justice, theology said, and science can have the rest. The relationship of religion to the natural world has been ignored. Evolution and the physics of the early universe are so important to religion and spirituality; it’s just now that attention is being paid.

The ecological crisis is forcing us to pay attention. Part of the reason we don’t care enough about nature is that we harbor spiritualities and deep religious assumptions that tell us we don’t really belong here in this world, that we are specially created. The anthropic arguments suggest, even apart from their theological implications, how intricately interwoven we are, that mind is not an alien intruder in the universe. It is something that is being given birth to from the very first second of cosmic reality.

When I first started teaching at Georgetown the philosophical assumption was that since matter seems fundamentally indifferent or hostile to life and mind, it’s a mystery how life and mind could ever come about. They seem like strangers in an alien land. That whole problematic has been dissolved by this physics. Whether by chance or by God, the dice of nature are loaded from the very beginning toward bringing about life and mind at some point in cosmic history. We don’t have any basis anymore for saying the universe is essentially mindless. That was the presupposition of so much of 20th-century thought -- for example, existentialism.

Philosophers like Sartre, Camus and others assumed the universe was a realm of impersonal, mechanistic, materialistic and deterministic processes. We humans realize that we are free; therefore, there must be two realms: nature and freedom. This was taken up in existential Christian theology by Rudolf Bultmann and others. Freedom doesn’t really belong in nature, so we humans create our own meaning.

We thought we didn’t belong here. That’s not a solid foundation for ecological thinking. But now we know that we fully belong here, that the fate of the universe and the fate of the Earth are truly our fate. We are inseparable from and part and parcel of nature.

Rich Heffern is a longtime contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: