God in the Details
Roy Abraham Varghese has a God equation. It is self-evident. He sees it in a grain of sand. He sees it in bees, especially bees. By rights, bees shouldn't fly. The haphazard way in which they beat their wings simply shouldn't haul their pot-bellied bodies aloft. But they fly, hovering and reversing over bluebonnets and bachelor buttons. Bees flout the laws of physics and aerodynamics, a puzzle that perplexed scientists for 70 years. "How is it that they can do that?" he asked in a 2005interview at Perry's Restaurant while smacking on bites of filet mignon. "The fact that these insects can do this..." Varghese trailed off.
To Varghese bees are a wonder, and wonder is what fascinates him. In his 2003 book The Wonder of the World: A Journey From Modern Science to the Mind of God, Varghese laments the loss of wonder. "[T]he modern world knows little of wonder," he writes. "Some Grinch has stolen the magic that makes us wonder and turned the paradise we call the world into a desolate wilderness."
Varghese blames modern science but not in the way you might think. Varghese isn't in the grip of science phobia, sounding a call to have it stripped from schools and cut off from federal funding. Varghese revels in science, from the weirdness of astrophysics, to the radiating blooms of life embedded in the fossil record, to the mind-blowing implications of quantum mechanics. He is entranced by the effectiveness of mathematics in the natural world. Eerily, everything before our eyes—and far more beyond—follows exacting laws and has attributes that can be expressed through numbers and exotic equations. This effectiveness presupposes profound thought, he believes. Profound thought presupposes infinite mind. Infinite mind presupposes...
Varghese blames "a band of intellectuals trapped in vacuous abstractions and irrational ideologies" for stripping away wonder. They can't see the lush forest of the universe for the trees of scientific theory, experimentation and discovery. We must be saved from these bandits who have blinded us to the glory and mystery of the world.
The universe teems with intelligence at all levels, he says. This intelligence, expressed in the laws of nature, was implanted in the universe by an infinite mind. "I mean the humblest bacterium is an absolutely unbelievable miracle. How can that come to be in a universe of undifferentiated matter?"
To explore such questions, Varghese founded The Institute for Metascientific Research in Garland in 2003. He calls the institute a forum to deliberate the debates raging in science, philosophy and religion. Its mission is to refute the arguments of atheists and those who perceive the world strictly in material terms. He spreads this gospel via books, documentaries and symposiums.
But well before the birth of the institute, Varghese was organizing and funding conferences featuring some of the world's greatest thinkers, beginning in 1983 at the Plaza of the Americas in Dallas. His collaborators have ranged from noted atheists Sir Alfred Ayer of Oxford University and Marvin Minsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to prominent theists Richard Swinburne of Oxford and Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame. "Science cannot proceed without the basic assumptions that imply the existence of God," Varghese insists. Not surprisingly, many prominent scientists and atheists vehemently disagree.
A computer systems and high-tech business consultant by trade, Varghese, 49, calls the institute and these conferences his hobby. He funds them largely out of his own pocket, the way other men might indulge a golf habit or a poker fetish.
"When he puts his mind to something, he does it," says former MIT physicist Gerald Schroeder from his home in Jerusalem. "What he says, he accomplishes." Schroeder's first brush with Varghese was via e-mail some four years ago. Varghese sent comments on Schroeder's controversial books The Science of God and The Hidden Face of God, in which, among other things, Schroeder attempts to square the six-day account of creation in Genesis with a 12- to 15-billion-year-old universe by using Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. Schroeder told Varghese he was preparing a trip to the States for a series of lectures. He was startled when Varghese invited him to lunch. "On a very windy, rainy day, he flew from Dallas to Los Angeles," Schroeder says. "We had lunch...spent a half-hour talking at the airport. He got on another plane and flew back to Dallas. That was my introduction to Roy."
His meeting with Schroeder would lay the groundwork for a pivotal New York University summit in May 2004 featuring a handful of some the world's most renowned philosophical thinkers. There, British philosopher Antony Flew, who set the agenda for modern atheism with his 1950 treatise "Theology and Falsification," made a stunning announcement: He had renounced atheism and had come to accept the existence of God, thanks largely to the arguments of Varghese and Schroeder.
An academic storm erupted. Atheists felt betrayed. "They claimed he had gone senile...that this guy Schroeder had duped him," Schroeder says. Flew has been largely silent ever since.
God exists. Varghese insists that's provable. A focused man with thinning dark hair framing a warm, round face and gentle yet stealthily fierce eyes—a puppy-dog gaze with a viper glint—Varghese unfurls his arguments elegantly, but he hammers them just the same. He bases his arguments on the rationality of the physical universe, consciousness, conceptual thought, self-awareness and the existence of matter and life. These things in principle are irrefutable evidence of God's existence, Varghese says. They cannot logically arise from a universe of undifferentiated, mindless matter. They can't emerge exclusively from the passive mechanisms of evolutionary natural selection and random genetic mutation. How did consciousness arise? How can you even speak of something that has no property of consciousness producing consciousness? Over and over he asks these questions. The world is filled with autonomous agents, beings that sense their environment and act on it over time in pursuit of their own agendas. "All of these guys talking about the origins of life have no idea what life means," Varghese says. "There's no abstract thing called life. They're living beings. Living beings are agents, autonomous agents that operate on an infrastructure of intelligence."
Varghese stresses he is not talking about intelligent design, the controversial theory that triggered a tempest on the campus of Southern Methodist University in mid-April when several of the university's science professors tried to shut down a conference dubbed Darwin vs. Design. The conference was staged by scientists and theorists from the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that actively promotes the theory that an unspecified intelligent mechanism drives evolution. ID theory is not science, the SMU profs scoffed. "Intelligent design does not contain the criteria for science, because a deity comes in and makes things happen," says SMU biology department chair Larry Ruben. "And once that happens science can't prove or disprove that."
Varghese mostly steers clear of the ID debate. He says the arguments sustaining it, such as the idea that certain biological systems are too complex to have evolved from less complete predecessors, are easily refuted. His arguments, he says, transcend such disputes.
A devout Syrian Rite Catholic, Varghese was born and raised in the mountains and jungles of Kerala, India, a small state on the southwestern side of the peninsula that's known for its lush natural beauty. Kerala is home to Anai Peak, which at 8,842 feet is the highest in peninsular India, and a linked chain of lagoons and backwaters along the coast, interspersed with vast coconut palm groves—the "Venice of India." Kerala is known as "God's own country."
Jewish immigrants arrived in Kerala in the first century A.D., and Syrian Rite Christians believe the Apostle Thomas arrived around the same time to proselytize amongst Kerala's Jewish settlements. Varghese belongs to one of the many Kerala families who believe they are the descendants of those converted by St. Thomas.
In college, Varghese studied literature and liberal arts, earning a master of arts from Madras University. While studying science and philosophy Varghese came to embrace atheism because, he says, atheism was the canon of many of the world's most famous thinkers. Why not emulate them? "I went through my own period of insanity," he admits. He has other names for atheism: confused, schizophrenic, arrant nonsense, a form of irrationality. After deeper study he became convinced of God's existence and gradually found confirmation in the works of leading philosophers and scientists.
In 1982, Varghese moved to Dallas to attend Baylor University, where he earned a master's degree in international journalism. But he is best-known for his passion for exploring the interface between science and religion. His writings have been praised by Nobel laureates such as Charles H. Townes (inventor of the laser) and Arno Penzias (co-discoverer with Robert Woodrow Wilson of the microwave background radiation in the universe that lent credence to Big Bang cosmology). In 1992 he edited (along with the late Yale physics professor Henry Margenau) Cosmos, Bios, Theos, a series of replies from 60 scientists (including 24 Nobel laureates) to questions exploring the relationship between religion and science as well as the origins of life and the universe. In 1995 he captured a Templeton Book Prize for his book Cosmic Beginnings and Human Ends, the reflections of leading scientists and thinkers on the limits of science in making sense of the cosmos. He landed on the science and religion panel of the Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago in 1993. Varghese is a man of huge philosophical appetites.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Wonder of the World, a book that demands stringent focus to maneuver through its many arguments and assertions. It's structured as a chat-room dialogue between two fictional characters: Joseph Levin, an MIT artificial intelligence researcher, and Madhva Mitra, founder of the fictional Sakshi Hermitage in the Himalayas and a professor from the fictional Wykeham College in Oregon. Levin says religious belief is superstition. Mitra argues modern science supports a religious view of reality. Levin adopts the screen name "Geek." Mitra takes "Guru." The chat is often clumsy, with Guru expelling torrents of philosophical argument running for pages to Geek's antagonistic spurts that barely form a paragraph. Geek seems a token, perhaps owing to his embrace of what Varghese deems arrant nonsense. Nevertheless, Varghese claims he has received requests seeking the e-mail addresses of Guru and Geek, so it seems an effective device.
The foundation of Wonder is what Varghese dubs "the matrix," a sort of theory of everything distilled by four great religious thinkers: Moses Maimonides (Judaism), Thomas Aquinas (Christianity), Avicenna (Islam) and Shri Madhvacharya (Hindu). The matrix is the engine of logic underlying the scientific method, Varghese says. Its basic tenets are simple: The world exists; the universe is intelligible and rational because it was brought into being by sheer intelligence; human beings can discover and know truths about the world because human beings have minds distinct from matter that function rationally and discern meaning.
Varghese argues passionately that science cannot proceed without faith in scientifically unprovable assumptions that the universe is logical, rational and governed by a consistent set of physical laws, that these assumptions are valid and that we can explore and then understand what is observed. If the universe is at bottom irrational, the product of chance without purpose or intelligibility and merely a random assemblage of atoms and fields, we should have no confidence in our judgments concerning it. Atheism is contradictory at its core in that it denies underlying rationality while clinging to the rationality and logical consistency on the surface of things.
Varghese says the foundation of the matrix is the God equation: God must exist and cannot not exist. In other words, for anything to exist at all, something must have always existed. This primal essence cannot possess any limitation because then it would necessarily require a source that transcends such limitation. And so on, without end, back to God.
"It was a triumph of human thought to come up with these things," says Varghese. "Why look for laws when you say laws are not possible?"
Varghese calls the matrix the womb of science, the beginning of basic assumptions at the heart of scientific logic and inquiry. Matter can't generate concepts, patterns or mathematical constants. Fields don't plan, think or calculate. But something does.
These are strange times for Varghese and his God proofs. Since the publication of Wonder and his pivotal summit with Anthony Flew, evangelical godlessness has become a craze. For the past several months, a number of books assaulting religious belief and castigating the faithful have been crusading through The New York Times best-seller lists. University of Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins' acerbic but eminently readable The God Delusion has nested on the list for more than 31 weeks as of this writing. Neuroscientist Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation catapulted to the top of the list almost immediately after it was published last September. Though not necessarily a raging best-seller, Tufts University professor Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon has had pounding impact as well.
The in-your-face atheism of Dennett, Dawkins and Harris and the New Atheism movement it has spawned was recently splattered over the pages of Wired magazine. In "The Church of the Non-Believers," journalist Gary Wolf chronicles how these writers condemn not only belief in God, but respect for belief in God. The probability that God exists is near zero, Dawkins says. Violence inspired by religious faith will soon bring civilization to an end, Harris says. Faith that requires adults to blindfold their children to scientifically sound education ought to go extinct, Dennett says.
As secular investigations take the lead, sacred doctrines collapse, Wolf writes. "There's barely a field of modern research—cosmology, biology, archaeology, anthropology, psychology—in which competing religious explanations have survived unscathed," he adds. Example: creation. Evolutionary theory has stubbornly survived 150 years of rigorous scientific testing.
The power of evolutionary theory to repeatedly predict the unexpected is nothing short of astonishing. In September 2005, following the mapping of the exact sequence of chimpanzee genetic code, The Washington Post reported that scientists from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University deployed a mathematical formula that emerges from evolutionary theory to see if they could predict the number of harmful mutations in chimp DNA using the number of known harmful mutations in another species and the population sizes of each. Bingo! Researchers predicted the number almost exactly, reinforcing evolution as a formidable, predictive system based on ever-mounting scientific fact. Charles Darwin didn't even know what DNA was when On the Origin of Species was published in 1859.
This is not to deny evolutionary theory is fraught with unexplained puzzles. Oddly, Varghese doesn't dwell much on evolution. He says the discussion has gotten so muddled with its sticky web of catchphrases and buzzwords and the shifting meanings of "evolution" and "creationism" that he prefers to step back. He doesn't quibble with Big Bang cosmology, the theory that the universe emerged some 13.7 billion years ago from the rapid expansion of a tremendously dense hot speck. He doesn't contest that the solution to the origins of biological structures is embedded in molecular biology and the fossil record. Nor does he argue that the genetic interrelatedness of species and the phenomenon of evolution in certain populations via natural selection is anything other than established fact. But he insists the theory in sum relies heavily on inference—as all historical scientific theories must—as it courses from the Big Bang, through the formation of the chemical precursors of life on to the first life forms, and through the bloom of species culminating in self-conscious human beings. Varghese points out scientists have no explanation for the origins of life itself.
"We don't have a theory of the origin of life. We don't know how it happened," says professor of philosophy Keith Parsons of the University of Houston, Clear Lake. "But with the rise of modern science, we find that increasingly science can explain things that previously had been thought to be explicable only in terms of the direct action of deities...That's just been the story of the history of science; it's the steady retreat of the supernatural in the face of naturalistic explanations."
Yet biblical faiths endure. Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, once a born-again Christian before undergoing what he describes as an epiphany inspired by his discovery of the richness of evolutionary theory, says humans innately hunger for something larger than themselves. Our conscious minds desperately crave permanent existence—everlasting life—and belief in eternal life helps ensure the survival of civilizations. Faith has an evolutionary function. "There is a hereditary selective advantage to membership in a powerful group united by devout belief and purpose," he writes in his book Consilience. "Even when individuals subordinate themselves and risk death in common cause, their genes are more likely to be transmitted to the next generation than those of competing groups who lack equivalent resolve."
The widespread preference for God-based explanations over the empirical can be blamed on the emotional shortcomings of science, Wilson says. Science is bloodless. It lacks the poetry of affirmation woven into religion and fails to satiate the deep cravings for immortality and the transcendent.
Certainly there are theistic evolutionists. The Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, among other religious organizations, have issued statements acknowledging the evidence for evolution and its compatibility with faith.
Yet most of the religiously faithful, if polls are to be believed, seem to care not a whit for the mounting evidence supporting scientific explanations for the universe and the existence of varied life forms. According to a March 2007 Newsweek poll, 91 percent of Americans profess belief in God while a tiny 3 percent self-identify as atheist. Fully 48 percent of those polled reject evolutionary theory out of hand while 73 percent of evangelical Protestants, 39 percent of non-evangelical Protestants and 41 percent of Catholics do so, holding that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago.
Newsweek's poll data potentially promise a wide audience for the Museum of Earth History, a repository of exhibits taking shape in Oak Cliff on the campus of Christ for the Nations Institute, a Christian missionary organization and Bible school. The 20,000-square-foot museum with 8,500 square feet of exhibit space will present "research-quality dinosaur fossils and authentic scientific artifacts" bolstering the biblical account of creation, its founders claim. John Heffner, a mathematician who is on the museum's board, says the museum will present evidence that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and probably closer to 5,000 years in age. He says most of the dating methods employed by scientists contain huge fudge factors and are unreliable. He suggests a conspiracy is afoot to suppress this evidence from the public as well as edit out of textbooks anything that disproves evolutionary theory or calls it into question.
"We're not hiding the fact that we think the biblical account is accurate," Heffner says. "But we hope to show the scientific evidence from secular sources [disproving evolution] that is buried...In fact [evolution] is so deeply entrenched that some suggest it's not going to die out until this generation of older scientists, that are swallowing it and pushing it, are gone."
Such widely held beliefs infuriate evangelical atheists. Sam Harris points out that the idea of such a young earth means it was created right around the time the Sumerians invented glue. "Our country now appears, as at no other time in her history, like a lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant," he writes in Letter to a Christian Nation.
Entering this thicket of agitated atheism is University of Colorado philosopher and physicist Victor Stenger, whose recent book God: The Failed Hypothesis has climbed the lower rungs of The New York Times' best-seller list. Stenger stresses that the central conflict is not between creationism and evolution. "It's between reason and superstition," he said in an interview just after the publication of his book.
Arguments such as Varghese's are eminently refutable, Stenger says. The physical laws governing the universe are not a framework sprung from a supernatural source. They are human inventions, mathematical models used to describe observations. "[T]he most fundamental laws of physics are not restrictions on the behavior of matter," he writes in God. "Rather they are restrictions on the way physicists may describe that behavior." Stenger believes scientific investigation will ultimately explain consciousness, free will, thought, self-awareness and the other phenomena Varghese attributes to infinite mind. "There is no reason that we can see now, from the study of the brain, that would require you to introduce any immaterial element," he says.
Stenger speculates free will may be nothing more than the brain interacting with radiation both from external cosmic rays and potassium in the blood. Self-consciousness may be an evolutionary coping mechanism whereby little stories are formulated in memory to help the human brain make sense of and digest the stream of step-by-step calculations it rapidly performs continuously.
Yet as much as these books construct logical arguments against the existence of God, they are also screeds against the texts that inform religious faith and the apparent ignorance among the faithful of what is actually written in these texts. Writes Dawkins: "The oldest of the three Abrahamic religions, and the clear ancestor of the other two, is Judaism: originally a tribal cult of a fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his own chosen desert tribe."
As a text for establishing moral rectitude, the Bible is an abysmal failure. The Old Testament God is a violent tyrant who repeatedly condones—even commands—pillaging, slavery and genocide. God demands a man be stoned to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. He seemingly turns a blind eye to aberrant behaviors among his faithful including incest, the seeding of offspring among family servants and the offering up of wives and daughters as sexual favors.
As a source of prophecy, the Bible is equally derelict, these books argue. The famous prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 foretelling the virgin birth of the messiah is widely accepted among Hebrew scholars as a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for young woman (almah) into the Greek word for virgin (parthenos). In essence, the Gospels were jury-rigged to fulfill a prophecy based on an error. Equally confounding, points out Dawkins at least, is the establishment in the New Testament of Joseph, Jesus' father, as a descendant of King David to fulfill Old Testament prophecy that the messiah would emerge from the line of David. If Mary was indeed a virgin, Joseph's ancestry is irrelevant to Jesus' genealogy. Dawkins' conclusion: The Bible contains no compelling truths to substantiate its legitimacy as a source of timeless moral principles or of special revelation.
Varghese calls Dawkins' critique of theism among the most superficial he has ever seen. "It [the Bible] is neither a textbook of science nor a textbook of theology," he says. "It is an account of God's interaction with humanity. And humanity's interaction with humanity."
Still, why the sudden rash of caustic tracts espousing godlessness? "The increase in atheism is a backlash to the religious right," Stenger argues. "They're trying to convert the country into a theocracy so that they can have power over the rest of us. It's hard to believe it is happening in this country."
Stenger's claim seems a bit overwrought. Adoption of the social and political desires of many on the religious right—abortion prohibition, blocking widespread condom distribution, barring government sanctioning of homosexual relationships, tightened public decency standards, the rollback of sex education in schools and the tolerance of religious symbols and texts in the public square—would merely turn the clock back to the late 1950s. Was America a theocracy up through the Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower administrations?
Other scientists believe the current surge of rambunctious atheism may be the gasp of strict godless evolutionists struggling to cope with the baffling scientific discoveries of the last few decades. For example, the fossil record now suggests bacteria and algae appeared almost immediately after the earth cooled and liquid water formed some 3.5 billion years ago. Scientists previously believed billions of years of evolutionary dynamism were necessary for amino acids to form and combine randomly into early life forms in a primordial soup. "The soup's gone," Varghese says. "They are as far away from finding the origin of life as they ever were."
SMU's Ruben suggests organic molecules may not have even evolved on Earth. He speculates they came from outer space. "The tail of comets passing around the Earth may have seeded Earth with organic molecules," he says.
Then there is the bizarre spectacle of the Cambrian Explosion, the geological era beginning some 505 to 550 million years ago. In this evolutionary leap, virtually every major life form and all the basic body plans in existence today—intestinal structures, jointed limbs, gills, eyes with fully formed lenses—seemingly emerged fully formed from single-celled and other simple life forms without any apparent evolutionary antecedents. This explosion from single-celled simplicity to multicellular complexity occurred within a geological moment of 5 to 10 million years. Before the Cambrian discoveries, scientists believed well more than 100 million years of evolutionary incrementalism were necessary for the basic body plans of advanced life to develop from simple life forms, which loitered for 3 billion years before this biological boom.
Tulane University professor of mathematical physics Frank Tipler, author of the just released The Physics of Christianity, believes recent discoveries in the field of physics have profoundly unsettled scientists once wedded to the idea of an eternal, material universe. In 1929, astronomer Edwin Hubble postulated that the universe was expanding. His discoveries lent the first observational support for Big Bang cosmology. "[T]he laws of physics tell us the universe began a finite time ago in an initial singularity...the uncaused first cause," Tipler says. "They [secular scientists] do not like the idea of a universe beginning in an uncaused first cause."
Big Bang cosmology was one of the discoveries that rattled Antony Flew's strident atheism. If there were no reason to think the universe had a beginning, "there would be no need to postulate something else which produced the whole thing," he says in Varghese's documentary Has Science Discovered God?
"I think what's happening is that the world is becoming polarized," muses Schroeder of the recent godless surge. "The more we understand about the complexity of life and how unlikely it is to have happened by randomness, the stronger the arguments that have to be made for a non-teleological world, a world without a metaphysical presence."
It's this denial of a metaphysical presence in the universe that Varghese passionately seeks to dismember. The metaphysical and its profound intelligence can be detected everywhere, he stresses. It's locked in physical laws governing particles, fields and energy. Einstein famously remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. Varghese insists this comprehensibility has a distinct source.
"There's an infinite source of rationality," he says. "There's an infinite mind, a mind behind everything. That's something you can't deny without running into incoherence."
Canadian social theorist Marshall McLuhan famously stated "the medium is the message." Techno-utopian writer and Discovery Institute senior fellow George Gilder, in the article "Evolution and Me" published in National Review (July 17, 2006), took McLuhan's premise and flipped it on its ear: The medium is not the message. Gilder teases out a clash between information theory, a thing invented by Claude Shannon of MIT, and evolutionary theory. Stripped down to its bolts and nuts, information theory states that the transport channel of information—wires, fiber optic strands, satellite signals or the DNA molecule—is distinct from the source of the information. Content (girly jabber) is utterly divorced from its conduit (cell phone signals).
Gilder illustrates his thesis using a computer. Silicon microprocessors, carefully assembled in all their multibillion dollar precision, could never give rise to an operating system, such as Microsoft Windows. "In a computer, as information theory shows, the content is manifestly independent of its material substrate," writes Gilder. "No possible knowledge of the computer's materials can yield any information whatsoever about the actual content of its computations."
Scientists, Gilder says, reflexively blur information and the physical structure of DNA molecules, implying life is biochemistry rather than information processing. "[T]he DNA program is discrete and digital, and its information is transferred through chemical carriers—but is not specified by chemical forces," he writes.
Varghese concurs. "Information precedes its manifestation in matter," he writes. Matter and energy are merely vehicles of all information in the known universe. "The next breakthrough is realizing that the foundation of it all is intelligence," writes Varghese. "Implicit in all its phases of discovery is the greatest insight of modern science: Everything is intelligence."
This intelligence is clearly visible, Varghese says, in the phenomenon of protein folding, the process by which proteins self-assemble from different sequences of 20 standard amino acid molecules. These proteins, which assume precise structural or functional roles in the flesh, are assembled at a rate of roughly 2,000 per second in every cell in the body (save for sex and blood cells) from thousands of these acids. The process is so complex, Varghese says, citing Scientific American, that a supercomputer programmed with the precise rules for protein folding would take billions of years to generate one final folded protein from 100 amino acids. Schroeder says chemical laws may explain the sugars, bases and phosphate components of DNA but not its rich information content.
Varghese hinges his case on other phenomena. He sites the anthropic principle, or the idea that the universe was precisely fine-tuned from the beginning for life. This "fine-tuning" is expressed in a set of physical laws and mathematical constants. If any single one of these parameters varied by the tiniest fraction, the universe as it exists would never have come into being and life would not be possible.
"Some of the 'remarkable precision' of physical parameters that people talk about is highly misleading because it depends on the choice of units," counters Victor Stenger in God. The flaw in the principle, he says, is that a single parameter is varied while the others remain fixed. But what if you varied each parameter in concert? Stenger says it's plausible to construct a cosmology in which stars, planets and intelligent life arise with different sets of parameters varying from those currently observed.
But perhaps the most confounding puzzle undermining the theory that life and intelligence is fully explainable in material terms is the origin of reproduction. "How did reproduction start?" asks Varghese. "Nobody dares discuss that."
This is where evolutionary materialism backs itself into a wall. Reproduction is the engine driving the whole evolutionary process. "How is it that the first living beings had the power of replication?" he writes. "How is it that life came with this fundamentally purposive capability preinstalled?" Darwin himself admitted in Origin of Species his whole theory rests on the existence of an unexplained being already in possession of reproductive powers "into which life was first breathed."
Scientists admit reproduction is baffling, and they offer a variety of speculative explanations. "It was originally just an accident," says Keith Parsons. Precursors to reproduction are inherent throughout the natural world, he says, citing complex molecules forming other compounds that multiply in chain reactions.
Stenger points out that computer and mathematical models have been composed employing very simple rules from which complex patterns emerge and then reproduce themselves, though he admits such models are just an analogy and still require intelligence to create the programs. Ruben says the puzzle of reproduction may be unraveled through study of self-replicating forms of RNA, the compound that functions in protein synthesis and carries protein codes from the cell's nucleus to sites where proteins are formed. "You can replicate RNA in a test tube," he says. "Making it [self-]replicate, that's the holy grail right now." He has no doubt that the riddle will be solved. "Science can't suddenly say, 'God did this and it happened,'" he says. "You could replace God with aliens. You could replace God with anything else."
Other than the Antony Flew conversion, the most stunning revelation in Varghese's Has Science Discovered God?, the film documenting the pivotal 2004 New York University summit, is the suggestion by New York University psychologist Paul Vitz that atheism is a neurosis stemming from subconscious urges to kill one's father and replace the father with oneself. Such urges are triggered by paternal abandonment. Examples: Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously claimed "God is dead," lost his father when he was 4 years old; Sigmund Freud, an avowed atheist, did not respect his weak father; the Episcopal clergyman father of English philosopher Thomas Hobbs (Leviathan) abandoned his three children when Hobbs was a teen. Vitz suggests atheism is a neurotic illusion spawned from such circumstances. "That's why I love psychologists," says Stenger, who says he had a fine relationship with his father. "They're so full of shit."
Yet it's Flew's rejection of atheism that triggered the ruckus. Varghese's film is interspersed with clips from a debate at the University of North Texas in 1976 between Flew and theologian Thomas B. Warren. Flew's arguments erupt like bullets propelled by bursts of condescension.
"Certainly I am inclined to believe the universe is without beginning, and will be without end," he says. Belief in God is a self-contradiction, Flew insists. Belief in God as all-powerful and all-good is inconsistent with the undenied evils in the world and with the system of salvation and damnation He created. "If after all the things that are said about his proposed being are contradictory, then to say that there is such a being, thus and thus described, is like saying there is a round square or an unmarried husband," he scoffs.
Flew, now 84, says his atheism was shaken loose by recent scientific discoveries, namely the evidence of the Big Bang, which assumes a beginning of the universe; DNA and the unlikelihood of a naturalistic explanation for its enormous complexity; and the lack of plausible theories explaining the first self-replicating forms of life. "I don't know that anyone has offered any sort of theory," he says of reproduction. "[It's] a virtually insoluble problem."
Yet Flew most certainly hasn't revealed himself a theist in the Christian, Judaic or Islamic sense. In a BBC Radio interview in March 2005, Flew tossed aside the notion of a deity actively engaged in the universe. He also rejects the existence of an afterlife, strangely citing the same reasoning that riles evangelical atheists: the unpleasantness of the biblical God. "If I believed...I would get very worried indeed," he says, "because...the facts of the universe suggest that it's run by this, you know, this [evil] sort of being."
Flew refused to comment for this article. According to Varghese, he is irritated with many of the subsequent interviews—which he claims misrepresented his views—in the wake of his change of heart. But his refusal to be interviewed seems due as much to commerce as annoyance. Flew and Varghese are currently collaborating on a book titled There Is a God that will articulate Flew's position and the evidence and thinking that brought him there. Varghese says the publisher has asked that Flew abstain from interviews until the book is released in November.
Varghese is working on other books exploring life after death, evolution with an "elaborate critique of Richard Dawkins' many errors" and what he loosely describes as "the 10 truths that keep you from going crazy." But he suggests his work with Flew has been his most fulfilling.
Varghese resolutely insists the origins of life and reproduction will never be explained in purely material terms. Science will never unravel the mysteries of thought, consciousness and self-awareness. These are not scientific phenomena, he says. They're irreducible to scientific methodology. "To give an analogy, you can never study/observe the concept of justice in a test-tube," he writes in an e-mail. He's probably right.
Still, it seems wise to remain open to the unexpected strangeness of science. Just two months after that 2005 lunch meeting at Perry's where Varghese rhapsodized on the wonders and mysteries of hovering bees, researchers from the California Institute of Technology and University of Nevada Las Vegas announced a startling discovery based on evidence from high-speed digital photography and sophisticated robotics. After 70 years of confounding confusion, scientists had finally unraveled the secrets of bee flight.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Amid K2 Crisis, Dallas Might Regulate Head Shops Like Strip Clubs
Sat., Feb. 13, 2:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 7:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 7:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 9:00pm
- Mayor's Campaign Against Convention Center's Exxxotica Expo Is Like Salem Witch Trials
- Details Emerge in Johnny Manziel Domestic Violence Incident