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God’s Universe

Owen Gingerich (Belknap Press : September 30, 2006)

In God’s Universe, Owen Gingerich, a Harvard University astronomer and science historian, tells how in the 1980s he was part of an effort to produce a kind of anti-Cosmos, a television series called Space, Time, and God that was to counter Sagan’s “conspicuously materialist approach to the universe.” The program never got off the ground, but its premise survives: that there are two ways to think about science. You can be a theist, believing that behind the veil of randomness lurks an active, loving, manipulative God, or you can be a materialist, for whom everything is matter and energy interacting within space and time. Whichever metaphysical club you belong to, the science comes out the same. In the hands of as fine a writer as Gingerich, the idea almost sounds convincing. “One can believe that some of the evolutionary pathways are so intricate and so complex as to be hopelessly improbable by the rules of random chance,” he writes, “but if you do not believe in divine action, then you will simply have to say that random chance was extremely lucky, because the outcome is there to see. Either way, the scientist with theistic metaphysics will approach laboratory problems in much the same way as his atheistic colleague across the
hall.” ~ Scientific American

Astronomer Gingerich believes in a designed universe, although not in intelligent design (ID), the antievolution theorizing that some Evangelical Christian activists want taught in public-school science courses. His intent isn’t, however, to flay ID as Michael Shermer does in Why Darwin Matters (see review on p.22); it is to explore a few topics in science that suggest design and a designer, God. He weighs the Copernican principle that intelligent life isn’t exceptional in the universe against the Darwinian emphasis on the uniqueness of life on Earth. He probes the differences between atheist and religious scientists (this is where he dismisses ID along with “evolution as a materialist philosophy” as ideologies), especially over the big bang and cosmological teleology. Finally, he raises some “Questions without Answers” to point up the different, irreconcilable concerns of physics as opposed to metaphysics, science as opposed to religion. Utterly lacking scientific or religious triumphalism, demonstrating why both ways of knowing are indispensable, Gingerich’s highly rereadable remarks may well outlast all the brouhaha of the ID-evolution fracas. ~ Ray Olson for Booklist