stephen_m_kosslyn's picture
Founding Dean, Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute
A Science of the Divine?

Here's an idea that many academics may find unsettling and dangerous: God exists. And here's another idea that many religious people may find unsettling and dangerous: God is not supernatural, but rather part of the natural order. Simply stating these ideas in the same breath invites them to scrape against each other, and sparks begin to fly. To avoid such conflict, Stephen Jay Gould famously argued that we should separate religion and science, treating them as distinct "magisteria." But science leads many of us to try to understand all that we encounter with a single, grand and glorious overarching framework. In this spirit, let me try to suggest one way in which the idea of a "supreme being" can fit into a scientific worldview.

I offer the following not to advocate the ideas, but rather simply to illustrate one (certainly not the only) way that the concept of God can be approached scientifically.

1.0. First, here's the specific conception of God I want to explore: God is a "supreme being" that transcends space and time, permeates our world but also stands outside of it, and can intervene in our daily lives (partly in response to prayer).

2.0. A way to begin to think about this conception of the divine rests on three ideas:

2.1. Emergent properties. There are many examples in science where aggregates produce an entity that has properties that cannot be predicted entirely from the elements themselves. For example, neurons in large numbers produce minds; moreover, minds in large numbers produce economic, political, and social systems.

2.2. Downward causality. Events at "higher levels" (where emergent properties become evident) can in turn feed back and affect events at lower levels. For example, chronic stress (a mental event) can cause parts of the brain to become smaller. Similarly, an economic depression or the results of an election affect the lives of the individuals who live in that society.

2.3. The Ultimate Superset. The Ultimate Superset (superordinate set) of all living things may have an equivalent status to an economy or culture. It has properties that emerge from the interactions of living things and groups of living things, and in turn can feed back to affect those things and groups.

3.0. Can we conceive of God as an emergent property of all living things that can in turn affect its constituents? Here are some ways in which this idea is consistent with the nature of God, as outlined at the outset.

3.1. This emergent entity is "transcendent" in the sense that it exists in no specific place or time. Like a culture or an economy, God is nowhere, although the constituent elements occupy specific places. As for transcending time, consider this analogy: Imagine that 1/100th of the neurons in your brain were replaced every hour, and each old neuron programmed a new one so that the old one's functionality was preserved. After 100 hours your brain would be an entirely new organ — but your mind would continue to exist as it had been before. Similarly, as each citizen dies and is replaced by a child, the culture continues to exist (and can grow and develop, with a "life of its own"). So too with God. For example, in the story of Jacob's ladder, Jacob realizes "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it." (Genesis 28: 16) I interpret this story as illustrating that God is everywhere but nowhere. The Ultimate Superset permeates our world but also stands outside of (or, more specifically, "above") it.

3.2. The Ultimate Superset can affect our individual lives. Another analogy: Say that geese flying south for the winter have rather unreliable magnetic field detectors in their brains. However, there's a rule built into their brains that leads them to try to stay near their fellows as they fly. The flock as a whole would navigate far better than any individual bird, because the noise in the individual bird brain navigation systems would cancel out. The emergent entity — the flock — in turn would affect the individual geese, helping them to navigate better than they could on their own.

3.3. When people pray to the Lord, they beseech intervention on their or others' behalf. The view that I've been outlining invites us to think of the effects of prayer as akin to becoming more sensitive to the need to stay close to the other birds in the flock: By praying, one can become more sensitive to the emergent "supreme being." Such increased sensitivity may imply that one can contribute more strongly to this emergent entity.

By analogy, it's as if one of those geese became aware of the "keep near" rule, and decided to nudge the other birds in a particular direction — which thereby allows it to influence the flock's effect on itself. To the extent that prayer puts one closer to God, one's plea for intervention will have a larger impact on the way that The Ultimate Superset exerts downward causality. But note that, according to this view, God works rather slowly. Think of dropping rocks in a pond: it takes time for the ripples to propagate and eventually be reflected back from the edge, forming interference patterns in the center of the pond.

4.0. A crucial idea in monotheistic religions is that God is the Creator. The present approach may help us begin to grapple with this idea, as follows.

4.1. First, consider each individual person. The environment plays a key role in creating who and what we are because there are far too few genes to program every aspect of our brains. For example, when you were born, your genes programmed many connections in your visual areas, but did not specify the precise circuits necessary to determine how far away objects are. As an infant, the act of reaching for an object tuned the brain circuits that estimate how far away the object was from you.

Similarly, your genes graced you with the ability to acquire language, but not with a specific language. The act of acquiring a language shapes your brain (which in turn may make it difficult to acquire another language, with different sounds and grammar, later in life). Moreover, cultural practices configure the brains of members of the culture. A case in point: the Japanese have many forms of bowing, which are difficult for a Westerner to master relatively late in life; when we try to bow, we "bow with an accent."

4.2. And the environment not only played an essential role in how we developed as children, but also plays a continuing role in how we develop over the course of our lives as adults. The act of learning literally changes who and what we are.

4.3. According to this perspective, it's not just negotiating the physical world and sociocultural experience that shape the brain: The Ultimate Superset — the emergent property of all living things — affects all of the influences that "make us who and what we are," both as we develop during childhood and continue to learn and develop as adults.

4.4. Next, consider our species. One could try to push this perspective into a historical context, and note that evolution by natural selection reflects the effects of interactions among living things. If so, then the emergent properties of such interactions could feed back to affect the course of evolution itself.

In short, it is possible to begin to view the divine through the lens of science. But such reasoning does no more than set the stage; to be a truly dangerous idea, this sort of proposal must be buttressed by the results of empirical test. At present, my point is not to convince, but rather to intrigue. As much as I admired Stephen Jay Gould (and I did, very much), perhaps he missed the mark on this one. Perhaps there is a grand project waiting to be launched, to integrate the two great sources of knowledge and belief in the world today — science and religion.