Sunday, January 20, 2008

Book Review: God's Universe

In the last few months, a number of wonderful books have crossed my desk, and I wish to recommend some of them to you. The first of these is Owen Gingerich’s God’s Universe.

Owen Gingerich is a Harvard Professor of Astronomy and the History of Science, Emeritus, and a life-long Mennonite, a combination I found interesting. As a Bible-believing Christian, his books often deal with the interface of faith and science. God’s Universe (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), is his most recent offering.

The first chapter is a response to the prevalent scientific understanding known as the
Copernican Principle, and its corollary, Mediocrity Principle. Gingerich takes exception to “Mediocrity”, arguing for the unique place humankind may occupy in the Universe, and citing evidence of purposeful design, though the design for which Gingerich advocates is not the same as Intelligent Design. This becomes more clear in the second chapter, entitled “Dare a Scientist Believe in Design?” He is careful to distinguish his view of design from that being asserted by the Intelligent Design movement. On pages 68 - 69, we writes,
Whether we look at the nature and abundance of the atoms themselves or the remarkable ratio of electrostatic to gravitational attraction or the many other details of our physical universe, we know that without these design features we would not be here. In a word, I believe in intelligent design, lower case i and lower case d.

But I have a problem with Intelligent Design, capital
I and capital D. It is being sold increasingly as a political movement, as if somehow it is an alternative to Darwinian evolution. Evolution today is an unfinished theory. There are many question about details it does not answer, but these are not grounds for dismissing it.
Indeed, in the ensuing pages, Gingerich expresses substantial agreement with Steven Jay Gould’s assessment of evolution as being fact. So, how might design express itself in the seemingly random processes of Darwinian evolution? Gingerich answers with his own questions on page 70:
Are mutations blind chance, or is God’s miraculous hand continually at work, disguised in the ambiguity of the uncertainty principle? Or we could be more subtle, and ask whether God designed the universe in the first place to make possible the catalysts and unknown pathways that enable the formation of life.
As for design in cosmology, Gingerich devotes several pages to the fascinating studies of Fred Holye, the late British astronomer who, despite his own development of the overwhelming likelihood of design in the cosmos, remained an atheist his entire life. For me, these pages were worth the price of the book.

In the third chapter, “Questions without Answers”,
Gingerich suggests that when it comes to the “why” questions, religious belief offers up better answers than unbelief. While Gingerich presents a strong case that contemplation of the universe can be more meaningful and coherent if it is viewed as the work of a transcendent designer, he readily admits that metaphysical assumptions may lead one to such a conclusion. In the end, these assumptions are more matters of the heart than the reason, as the closing Pascal quote suggests: “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.”

This little book (just over 100 pages) is easy to read, and it is a wonderful primer to science and faith, randomness and reason, design and purpose. I recommend this book to my readers.

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