From the Wall Street Journal, 10/13/2017, reprinted at LuxLibertas.com.
I recently learned that I play a role in Dan Brown’s new novel, “Origin.” Mr. Brown writes that Jeremy England, an MIT physics professor, “was currently the toast of Boston academia, having caused a global stir” with his work on biophysics. The description is flattering, but Mr. Brown errs when he gets to the meaning of my research. One of his characters explains that my literary doppelgänger may have “identified the underlying physical principle driving the origin and evolution of life.” If the fictional Jeremy England’s theory is right, the suggestion goes, it would be an earth-shattering disproof of every other story of creation. All religions might even become obsolete.
It would be easy to criticize my fictional self’s theories based on Mr. Brown’s brief description, but it would also be unfair. My actual research on how lifelike behaviors emerge in inanimate matter is widely available, whereas the Dan Brown character’s work is only vaguely described. There’s no real science in the book to argue over.
My true concern is with my double’s attitude in the book. He is a prop for a billionaire futurist whose mission is to demonstrate that science has made God irrelevant. In that role, Jeremy England says he is just “trying to describe the way things ‘are’ in the universe” and that he “will leave the spiritual implications to the clerics and philosophers.”
Two years ago I wrote in Commentary magazine that it is impossible simply to describe “the way things are” without first making the significant choice of what language to speak in. The language of physics can be extremely useful in talking about the world, but it can never address everything that needs to be said about human life. Equations can elegantly explain how an airplane stays in the air, but they cannot convey the awe someone feels when flying above the clouds. I’m disappointed in my fictional self for being so blithely uninterested in what lies beyond the narrow confines of his technical field.
I’m a scientist, but I also study and live by the Hebrew Bible. To me, the idea that physics could prove that the God of Abraham is not the creator and ruler of the world reflects a serious misunderstanding—of both the scientific method and the function of the biblical text.
Science is an approach to common experience. It addresses what is objectively measurable by inventing models that summarize the world’s partial predictability. In contrast, the biblical God tells Moses at the burning bush: “I will be what I will be.” He is addressing the uncertainty the future brings for all. No prediction can ever fully answer the question of what will happen next.
Humans will always face a choice about how to react to the unknowable future. Encounters between God and the Hebrew prophets are often described in terms of covenants, partly to emphasize that seeing the hand of God at work starts with a conscious decision to view the world a certain way.
Consider someone who assumes that all existence is the work of a creator who speaks through the events of the world. He can follow that assumption down the road and decide whether God seems to be keeping his side of the bargain. Many of us live like this and feel that with time our trust in him has been affirmed. There’s no scientific argument for this way of drawing meaning from experience. But there’s no way science could disprove it either, because it is outside the scope of scientific inquiry.
Some religious adherents do make claims that deserve to be disputed by science. For instance, they may openly acknowledge that their deepest beliefs are incompatible with the existence of dinosaurs. The fictional me—and perhaps Mr. Brown too—might hope to put these holdouts back on their heels. But disputes like this never answer the most important question: Do we need to keep learning about God? For my part, in light of everything I know, I am certain that we do.
Mr. England is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.