Owen Gingerich grew up in a Mennonite home on the plains of Kansas, and he retains much of the plainspoken and humble demeanor of his upbringing. He has spent nearly his entire academic career at Harvard University, first as a student and then as professor of astronomy and the history of science. Now retired, he recently published God’s Planet, which examines the scientific discoveries of Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, and astronomer Fred Hoyle. The book uses these lives to consider areas of overlap between science, philosophy, and religion that are often overlooked in scientific accounts of the world. CT senior writer Tim Stafford spoke with Gingerich about his view on the relationship of religion and science.
God’s Planet uses storytelling to focus on personalities. Why did you take this approach in a science book?
God’s Planet came out of a series of lectures I gave at Gordon College. I don’t know how the inspiration struck, that I could center it around three quite different people who had transformative ideas that took people a long time to wrap their heads around. My first chapter asks the question, “Was Copernicus right?” that the earth goes around the sun, rather than the sun going around the earth. Today, everybody would say, of course he was right. Yet it took 150 years for a majority of educated people to accept that the earth moves through space. Why? There is a question there about how scientific ideas work with a whole structure of other ideas.
I have been doing a lot of work on Darwin for another book, The Divine Handiwork. Even today you have in America only a fair majority of people who accept his theory of evolution. How is that?
And finally, to bring in a more contemporary example, Fred Hoyle got famous at the beginning of his career by giving an extraordinary talk on BBC radio which staked out his atheistic position. Later on he made remarks suggesting that he did not find that position so convincing. I have been fascinated by Hoyle’s changing position, and I realized as I began to research it that Hoyle had written quite a few things that indicated an openness to the idea of a creator of the universe.
There’s an underlying theme that emerges from the stories of these three figures: When we consider scientific questions, a lot of other ideas besides science help us decide what we think. These ideas get mixed up with science, sometimes without our realizing it.
Stephen Jay Gould thought of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria”—science on the one hand, religion and philosophy on the other—that can be friendly as long as they keep to their own turf.
The more I thought about that position, the more I realized that science and religion are overlapping. We need to understand that and use it to help interpret what people are saying. People sometimes make claims that sound like scientific statements, when in reality they may well be associated with a magisterium—be it religion or some secular authority structure—that is quite independent of their scientific beliefs. I address two examples of that at the end of the book—life in other worlds, and so-called multiverses.
Why did it take 150 years for Copernicus’s idea that the planets revolve around the sun to be accepted?
Copernicus was going up against a framework of understanding. The people of his time believed not only in a relatively young earth, but in a God-centered universe, with God not that far away from earth, dwelling in an abode someplace in the heavens. Throw the earth into motion, and this is disconcerting to people who have lived with an understanding that seems to be entirely self-evident, namely that the earth is very solid except for the occasional earthquake. It’s not that having the earth at the center was so essential; it just seemed to people that was how things were.
The way the story is commonly told, the religious people were trying to throttle science. Do you read the story that way?
It’s interesting that Copernicus’s book was not seen as a threat. It was not placed on the index of prohibited books until the time of Kepler and Galileo. The reason was that it was only accepted as a hypothesis, a means of explaining the motions in the heavens, but not a physically real description of the universe. You could use his numbers to calculate the positions of the planets without believing that the earth was actually in motion.
This remained the case until the time of Kepler and Galileo, who began to argue that no, this really is physical reality. We don’t feel it, but we are on a moving platform, and it makes a great deal of sense in understanding the motions of the planets to take the earth as a moving platform. All of a sudden this was very disconcerting to a Christian picture of an earth-centered universe. It seemed to cast doubt on the story as told in the Bible. And beyond that, if the earth was spinning around its axis every 24 hours, why weren’t people spun off into space? It wasn’t that people were locked into a biblical picture; they were locked into what seemed a common-sense picture.
Popular mythology has it that Galileo proved that the earth was moving. That is not true. It wasn’t as simple as popular mythology suggests, scientifically speaking. The magisterium of emerging science was in competition with another kind of common-sense magisterium, a way that people had understood the world for a long time. It made enough sense that people weren’t about to give it up quickly.
What about Darwin? It almost seems that advocates and disbelievers of his theory of evolution popped up immediately, and haven’t changed positions since.
I like to tell the story of Darwin on the HMS Beagle, setting sail for the Galapagos Islands. There, you see a wide-eyed young man who is not doctrinaire in any sense, who is going out making all these natural history observations and trying to come up with an explanation. People can have a lot of sympathy for the young Darwin as he goes off on this long sea voyage. If they can see some of what he was seeing, they might think that he was telling a story of evolution because it made a lot of sense. It especially makes sense the more we understand that the earth has been around for a very long time, much longer than was believed in earlier historical eras. None of that evolution stuff makes any sense unless you have a long time to play it out. It’s easier to understand Darwin’s arguments if people can begin to understand that if the universe is indeed ancient, then a lot of Darwin’s evidence hangs together.
In discussing the friendship between Darwin and Harvard’s Asa Gray, you suggest that if Gray, a Christian, had used words like purposeful or intentional, Darwin might have made room in his theory for a creator God. Instead Gray used the word design, which Darwin refused. Can you talk about “design” and the difficulties it raises?
I once got into an argument with Mortimer Adler, the philosopher, which I mention in God’s Planet. He objected to my use of the word “design” because he believed it went against human free will. I could see his point. In my earlier book God’s Universe, I asked, “Dare a scientist believe in design?” I should have asked whether a scientist can believe in purpose. Adler took “design” to mean a pre-ordained pattern that is going to fall in place no matter what. This would go against the idea of freedom in the universe, or human freedom.
I wrote in God’s Universe that I believe in intelligent design, lower-case I and lower-case D, but I am against the movement calling itself Intelligent Design. It seems to me to be an attempt to scientifically prove the existence of God, which is not something science is equipped to do.
Why do you think Darwin might have accepted language like purposeful or intentional?
Because Darwin was always on a knife’s edge on these issues. He would write, “I’m all muddled about this.” He wavered. I would say that Darwin was very thoughtful. With a different word in play he might have thought differently about God and evolution.
And what about Fred Hoyle?
Hoyle’s story brings us into the subject of “fine-tuning” in the universe. This is the idea, which came about in the 20th century, that many physical constants of nature seem singularly tuned to allow the existence of intelligent life on earth. Hoyle changed his mind about the possibility of atheism after discovering how the heavier elements could be built in the cores of evolving stars. Carbon, in particular, which is necessary to all life as far as we know, could only occur in abundance if the carbon atom had what is called a resonance level at exactly the right place. Hoyle predicted it, and it was found experimentally to be exactly as he had predicted. That was one example of fine-tuning, and made him rethink his prior commitment to atheism.
The theory of multiverses (that there are infinite possible universes governed by different physical laws) is an attempt to escape the logic of fine-tuning. But this seems so far beyond physics that I call the whole idea metaphysics. Multiverses are a wild and wonderful speculation, very comforting to those who like to think that this finely-tuned world is merely random chance. It is an example of where science is colored by personal beliefs, including our religious or irreligious sentiments.