Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: The Ghost in the Universe

The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of Modern Science
Taner Edis
Amherst (NY): Prometheus Books, 2002. 326 pages.
Reviewed by
David Eller
The French mathematician and scientist Laplace famously answered the question of why he left out any mention of God from his book on celestial physics with the words, "I have no need of that hypothesis." Edis’s book is a reaffirmation and extension of that answer, showing how there is in fact no ghost in the universe at all — no major conceptual or empirical problems that science has not solved or promised to solve without reference to any god(s).

The book is a wide-ranging discussion of issues both scientific and historical, from biological evolution to sacred texts and morality. He starts by asking the provocative question, Does God exist? While he remains respectful of religion, saying "we have a lot to learn from religion", he concludes that there are excellent reasons to disbelieve in God (a position known as positive atheism, as opposed to negative atheism, which merely claims that there are no good reasons to believe). Theistic scientists will find his secularism discomfiting, and avowed atheists will find his openness to religion frustrating, but his argument is worth setting aside one’s personal convictions.

The book contains nine chapters, of which two or three will most interest the strictly scientific reader. These chapters cover theological and philosophical notions of God, evolution, physics and cosmology, history and sacred texts, the historicity of Jesus, miracles, mysticism and the mind/brain problem, faith and reason, and morality. All of them are written for the informed generalist or layman, although a little scientific background helps. For the professional scientist, there is still enough insight and detail to make the discussion, especially outside of his or her own specialty, useful and engaging.

The chapters that bear most directly on science are the second and third, with relevant explorations in the seventh (mysticism) and eighth (reason). In the second chapter (evolution), there is a worthwhile examination of "intelligent design", with which all scientists need to be familiar. The third chapter (cosmology) naturally ranges over the Big Bang, quantum physics, and the so-called "anthropic principle" — another back-door theistic notion that scientists need to know about. The seventh (mysticism) reviews the "scientific" argument about mystical experiences and brain states, although without reference to Newburg and d’Aquili’s popular work on the subject. The eighth (reason and faith), which I might have placed earlier in the book, starts with a chilling quote from Martin Luther to the effect that reason is the greatest enemy of faith because it does not aid spiritual things. People who are looking to learn more about the nature of reason and the "postmodern" challenge to science (as little more than an opinion or a "worldview") would be well-served to spend some time there, but the Luther quote says everything that we need to hear about reason and its relation to faith. Reason is, to paraphrase Steven Weinberg, neither for nor against faith but profoundly disinterested in it.

For those who are interested in the more specifically religious subjects, the chapters on scripture, the historical Jesus, and so on are worth a look. Also, these "non-scientific" chapters help to advance Edis’s main thesis, which is not stated explicitly until well into the book: that if there is a "ghost in the universe", it is randomness and accident. The mistake theists make, he asserts, is that they misrepresent science as narrowly concerned with "law" and nature as narrowly characterized by "regularity", leaving a gap of creativity and order that can only be filled with intelligence and intention. Edis makes the point — and supports it with illustrations from nature, scripture, and history — that the universe is in fact a unique combination of the regular and the random, the lawful and the accidental. History is the fundamental theme: a world that has evolved to this particular state is "a deeply historical world. The evolution of the universe is constrained by the frozen accidents of the past, but novelties also keep arising from, again, accidents. Ours is not a world to be summed up in a few equations" (p 106). Thus, as Gould has said, if we rewound the "tape of time" and let it run again, it might run very differently.

Edis drives his point home well with his analyses of scripture and religious history. Not only natural laws but also social facts are the result of specific identifiable events and the crystallization and institutionalization of successes, failures, or pivotal decisions. While not advocating a "science of history" — one can no more sum up human history than natural history in a few equations — it does show that, with a few diverging events, the religious face of the world could have been very different, too.

If there is one shortcoming of Edis’s religious discussion, it is that he focuses exclusively on the Judaeo–Christian–Muslim complex of religions. He does mention Buddhism in the mysticism chapter, but other religions, including traditional, animistic, "non-theistic" religions, are completely absent. But fair-minded observers of religion cannot allow one religious view to hijack and dominate the "god-talk", nor can we assume that everyone who uses the word "god" even means the same thing by it. In the end, the best argument against God may not be science but all the other gods.

Ultimately, in his main thesis, Edis probably has his finger on the issue that will distinguish the science of the future from the science of the past and that will forever remove the "gaps" into which theists thrust their god(s). While science cannot prove that there are no gods, it can do what Edis, along with Weinberg and Laplace, have suggested it does: demonstrate that there are no "ghosts" in the universe at all — no need for any other hypotheses than the ones naturalistic science offers.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.