Back From Chaos

Enlightenment thinkers knew a lot about everything, today's specialists know a lot about a little, and postmodernists doubt that we can know anything at all. One of the century's most important scientists argues, against fashion, that we can know what we need to know, and that we will discover underlying all forms of knowledge a fundamental unity.

WE now pass to the final archetype of the epic tableau, the keepers of the innermost room. The more radical Enlightenment writers, alert to the implications of scientific materialism, moved to reassess God himself. They imagined a Creator obedient to his own natural laws -- the belief known as deism. They disputed the theism of Judeo-Christianity, whose divinity is both omnipotent and personally interested in human beings, and they rejected the nonmaterial worlds of heaven and hell. At the same time, few dared go the whole route and embrace atheism, which seemed to imply cosmic meaninglessness and risked outraging the pious. So by and large they took a middle position. God the Creator exists, they conceded, but He is allowed only the entities and processes manifest in his own handiwork.

Deistic belief, by persisting in attenuated form to this day, has given scientists a license to search for God. More precisely, it has prompted a small number to make a partial sketch of Him (Her? It? Them?), derived from their professional meditations.

Few scientists and philosophers, however, let alone religious thinkers, take scientific theology very seriously. A more coherent and interesting approach, possibly within the reach of theoretical physics, is to try to answer the following question: Is a universe of discrete material particles possible only with one specific set of natural laws and parameter values? In other words, does the human imagination, which can conceive of other laws and values, thereby exceed possible existence? Any act of Creation may be only a subset of the universes we can imagine. On this point Einstein is said to have remarked to his assistant Ernst Straus, in a moment of neo-deistic reflection, "What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world." That line of reasoning can be extended rather mystically to formulate the "anthropic principle," which asserts that the laws of nature, in our universe at least, had to be set a certain precise way so as to allow the creation of beings able to ask about the laws of nature. Did Someone decide to do it that way?

The dispute between Enlightenment deism and theology can be summarized as follows. The traditional theism of Christianity is rooted in both reason and revelation, the two conceivable sources of knowledge. According to this view, reason and revelation cannot be in conflict, because in areas of opposition, revelation is given the higher role -- as the Inquisition reminded Galileo in Rome when he was offered a choice between orthodoxy and pain. In contrast, deism grants reason the edge, and insists that theists justify revelation with the use of reason.

Traditional theologians of the eighteenth century, faced with the Enlightenment challenge, refused to yield an inch of ground. Christian faith, they argued, cannot submit itself to the debasing test of rationality. Deep truths exist that are beyond the grasp of the unaided human mind, and God will reveal them to our understanding when and by whatever means He chooses.

Given the centrality of religion in everyday life, the stand of the theists against reason seemed ... well, reasonable. Eighteenth-century believers saw no difficulty in conducting their lives by both ratiocination and revelation. The theologians won the argument simply because they saw no compelling reason to adopt a new metaphysics. For the first time, the Enlightenment visibly stumbled.

The fatal flaw in deism is thus not rational at all but emotional. Pure reason is unappealing because it is bloodless. Ceremonies stripped of sacred mystery lose their emotional force, because celebrants need to defer to a higher power in order to consummate their instinct for tribal loyalty. In times of danger and tragedy especially, unreasoning ceremony is everything. Rationalism provides no substitute for surrender to an infallible and benevolent being, or for the leap of faith called transcendence. Most people, one imagines, would very much like science to prove the existence of God but not to take the measure of his capacity.

Deism and science also failed to systematize ethics. The Enlightenment promise of an objective basis for moral reasoning could not be kept. If an immutable secular field of ethical premises exists, the human intellect during the Enlightenment seemed too weak and shifting to locate it. So theologians and philosophers stuck to their original positions, either by deferring to religious authority or by articulating subjectively perceived natural rights. No logical alternative seemed open to them. The millennium-old rules sacralized by religion seemed to work, more or less. One can defer reflection on the celestial spheres indefinitely, but daily matters of life and death require moral decisiveness.

ANOTHER, more purely rationalist objection to the Enlightenment program remains. Grant for argument's sake that the most extravagant claims of the Enlightenment's supporters proved true and scientists could look into the future to see what course of action was best for humanity. Wouldn't that trap us in a cage of logic and revealed fate? The thrust of the Enlightenment, like the Greek humanism that prefigured it, was Promethean: the knowledge it generated was to liberate mankind by lifting it above the savage world. But the opposite might occur: if scientific inquiry diminishes the conception of divinity while prescribing immutable natural laws, then humanity can lose what freedom it already possesses. Perhaps only one social order is "perfect" and scientists will find it -- or, worse, falsely claim to have found it. Religious authority, the Hadrian's Wall of civilization, will be breached, and the barbarians of totalitarian ideology will pour in. Such is the dark side of Enlightenment secular thought, unveiled in the French Revolution and expressed more recently by theories of "scientific" socialism and racialist fascism.

Still another concern is that a science-driven society risks upsetting the natural order of the world set in place by God, or by billions of years of evolution. Science given too much authority risks conversion into a self-destroying impiety. The godless creations of science and technology are in fact powerful and arresting images of modern culture. Frankenstein's monster and Hollywood's Terminator (an all-metal, microchip-guided Frankenstein's monster) wreak destruction on their creators, including the naive geniuses in lab coats who arrogantly forecast a new age ruled by science. Storms rage, hostile mutants spread, life dies. Nations menace one another with world-destroying technology. Even Winston Churchill, whose country was saved by radar, worried after the atom-bombing of Japan that the Stone Age might return "on the gleaming wings of Science."

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