On Marcelo Gleiser’s A Tear at the Edge of Creation BY WALTER R. HEARN, ON JANUARY 23, 2011

Marcelo Gleiser is described on the flap of his 2010 Free Press book as “Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, where he runs an active cosmology group.” He is cited as author of two earlier books, The Dancing Universe and The Prophet and the Astronomer.

Despite use of the word “creation” in the book’s title, Gleiser is no theist. He even argues that early scientists got off on the wrong track by picking up the religious idea that the universe must make sense because it stems from a creative intelligence: “Following a surprisingly similar notion, scientists have long asserted that under Nature’s apparent complexity there is a simpler underlying reality. In its modern incarnation, this Theory of Everything would unite the physical laws governing very large bodies (Einstein’s theory of relativity) and those governing tiny ones (quantum mechanics) into a single framework. But despite the brave efforts of many powerful minds, the Theory of Everything remains elusive. It turns out that the universe is not elegant. It is gloriously messy.”

At first Gleiser was a “unifier” himself, but gave up the search for a Grand Unified Theory. He seems to have undergone a “conversion” to a Buddhist-like, new-age outlook–though I’m sure he would deny any religious component to the shift in his thinking. No, it’s the prevalence of “asymmetry” in the natural world he encountered as a scientist that led him to decry a basic assumption of both particle physics and cosmology: that some kind of ultimate “symmetry” must exist. The subtitle of the book is A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe. The book blends his personal experiences with a convincing summary of the status of modern science, ending with a naturalistic account of living things. The biochemistry rings true to me so I’m inclined to trust him about things I know nothing about, such as the Higgs boson and super-string theory.

I thought that calling attention to Gleiser’s book might start a good discussion. Some of you may be interested in how I came across it. That story goes back to the late 1990s, after Stephen Jay Gould’s scathing review of Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial appeared in Science. I think it was Owen Gingerich who convened a small seminar to get Johnson and Gould in the same room to hash things out. I’ve heard several different accounts of that meeting, which was apparently not very successful. One person present was a distinguished geologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences, retired from a career at the U.S. Geological Survey, living near Washington, DC, and now intensely concerned about policy issues having to do with environmental sustainability.

Somebody, possibly Owen, gave the geologist a copy of my then recently published book, Being a Christian in Science. Soon I received a letter saying that he liked what I said about science, adding that he was “in no way a Christian.” I doubted that he would say such a thing unless he wanted to discuss it. Thus began a weekly exchange of thoughtful letters by postal mail about all sorts of topics, including religion, science, philosophy, history, literature, art, politics, sustainability, injustice, war, etc. In all this I’ve tried to be a consistent witness to biblical faith in Jesus Christ. I write to him every Sunday as part of my “reasonable service” (or “spiritual worship,” depending on your translation of Romans 12:1).

After some twelve years of correspondence, he remains skeptical toward the gospel, but I consider him one of my closest friends. We’ve met only once, when I flew to the DC area in 2007 to address the “Korean Christians in Science” group inspired by ASA. It was my geologist friend who suggested the Gleiser book to me, saying he would like to have my take on it. The rest of this post is an excerpt from my letter of 01/23/2011:

Thank you for making me aware of Marcelo Gleiser”s A Tear at the Edge of Creation. I can say I liked the book and I’m glad I read it.

I liked Gleiser’s writing style and especially the interweaving of his personal story with the technical stuff. I got a little tired of his mantra, “We know only what we can measure,” which must have been repeated a dozen times, but other than that I didn’t mind a certain amount of repetition because I read the book in segments over a period of several weeks. I bogged down in the sections on the current state of cosmology and of particle physics, though I’ve had a layman’s familiarity with the development of both fields. I first started trying to follow particle physics as an undergraduate chemistry major, not too long after the neutrino was discovered. I don’t think I’ve really understood anything about particle physics since then, in spite of my reading and a number of conversations with practitioners in that field. (I referred to the overthrow of parity in “Scientist’s Psalm,” a poem I wrote in 1963 not long after Lee and Wu accomplished the overthrow both theoretically and experimentally.) Gleiser didn’t make particle physics much clearer to me, but he gave it a good try.

Philosophically, my quibbles may be somewhat different from yours. We’ve discussed before the question of whether science is the only kind of knowledge. Gleiser’s mantra would have had more appeal to me if he had said, “In science, we know only what we can measure.” In several of his personal anecdotes, especially the one of his time on a jungle island, he seems to have been experiencing a different kind of “knowledge,” sensing a direct personal contact with nature that left a deep impression on him. If challenged on this point, he might say, “But that wasn’t knowledge (it had nothing to do with measurement), it was just feeling.”

The final story of what his grandparents’ home in the Brazilian countryside meant to him in acquiring a personal contact with nature was very poignant, especially his sense of loss when years later he saw it going to ruin. It’s clear that he was personally offended by the fact that “seminary students” were letting it fall apart, which may account for his giving up on Christian faith and eventually on monotheistic monism or “unification” itself. I think the basic glitch in his thinking is essentially the same as that of the ICR: seeing biblical faith as an “alternative explanation.” I see faith as only indirectly related to explanation of the natural world. One kind of asymmetry seems to have escaped him. In the final section he contrasts “naturalists” and “supernaturalists,” without noting that while a completely naturalistic worldview eliminates anything supernatural, the opposite is not a mirror image. A supernaturalist view can incorporate naturalistic explanations but go beyond them. He ends up with a moral imperative about ecological responsibility, but it seems clear to me that he comes to that through his experiential relationship to nature, not through measurement. Measurement may help in making a case for either preserving or despoiling the environment, but doesn’t tell us which case to make. That requires commitment, less akin to objective science than to a more personal kind of “knowledge.”

I appreciated his review of the Drake equation and the improbabilities that other intelligent beings might exist in the universe or that earthlings might make contact with them. I personally don’t see why knowledge of the existence of other intelligent beings in the universe should have the profound influence on our moral sense that he talks about: “We would never be the same.” We already know of plenty of intelligent beings in, say, Haiti; does such knowledge “change our thinking forever”? As I see it, we are already aware that we are “alone” in our self-awareness as a unique living individual, yet “not alone” because we belong to a family and a species (and are related to other species). As human beings (and to me, as creatures to whom God has revealed himself) we are individuals in relationship to other selves (and to the cosmos).

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone link the historic origin and rise of science to biblical ideas as closely as Gleiser does. Usually that connection is made by Christians! But people of faith would not go along with his idea that the only meaning in the world is the meaning we invent. Despite his scholarly and sophisticated approach (which carries weight with me because of his own participation in GUT research and of his reasons for abandoning it) his position does seem to boil down to a kind of idol worship warned against throughout the Bible: worshiping created things instead of the Creator. I’m not sure that worshiping all of creation (i.e., nature) is much of an advance over worshiping a chunk of it. Gleiser capitalizes “Nature” and reveres it for its god-like creative power. But “life” is clearly the center of his theology, even though he doesn’t capitalize the word: “We may not be the measure of all things but we are the only things that can measure. The acceptance of our cosmic loneliness is a wake-up call, ringing to arouse a new consciousness. Humans! Wake up and save life with all that you have! Life is rare. Treasure it, worship it, make it last, spread it across the universe! That is our supreme mission as the minds of the cosmos (p. 249).” Who knows? Maybe in Christ he will someday encounter “the living God” of the Bible. Physicists express truth in equations; biologists in histories; human beings in autobiographies. Welcome to humanity, Marcelo!


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