Mysteries of God and The System

By Marina Benjamin, March 5, 2012
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Consider the distance between mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and the Chief Rabbi and you will appreciate the effort they made in meeting one another half-way during Jewish Book Week. For Lord Sacks, ultimate meaning resides in the interpretative tooth-combing of sacred texts. For Du Sautoy, all we know can be derived from Schrodinger's Equation.

And yet, together, with much back-patting and several bear hugs, they moved the science versus religion debate beyond the impasse created by Richard Dawkins (du Sautoy's direct predecessor at Oxford) and his militant bands of New Atheist followers.

Sacks and du Sautoy agreed that both science and religion are adept at addressing life's big questions. Often, these are the same questions. Such as: why is there something and not nothing? Both require us to balance certainty with doubt and both have endured centuries of rigorous Greek analytic scrutiny and emerged the stronger for it.

The pair also observed that science and religion are equally open in admitting there are things we cannot know. But du Sautoy trumped Lord Sacks by noting that mathematics can prove we don't know things.

Lord Sacks even doffed his cap at Darwin

Quantum theory proves we cannot know the position of an electron and at the same time be able to determine its speed. Nor can we know how fast an electron is travelling once we've located it. Similarly, Godel's Theorem tells us we can make true statements about things (infinities, say) without ever being able to prove those statements.

Science, like religion, has its mysteries. But du Sautoy won't let matters rest there. He says religion is complacent about mysteries, while science does its best to resolve them. It's not content to marvel at the universe being a precision-made instrument - a starting point for the kind of natural theology that styles God as a watchmaker. It wants to know why the universe is so finely tuned.

I'm pretty sure Lord Sacks knows very well why the universe is so finely tuned, but he wasn't going to say so. For, just as du Sautoy's agenda lay in distancing himself from militant New Atheists, so Lord Sacks was outlining his views for the benefit of his flock - showing the way forward to Jews for whom science still remains suspect.

Lord Sacks therefore offered multiple appreciations of science. He admired its aesthetics, its poetry, the service it performs in explaining us to ourselves. He even doffed his cap at Darwin, saying evolutionary theory refuted Aristotelian science, and not religion, by proving there are no purposes in nature.

This prompted a question about the literalism of Genesis, to which he replied, in perhaps the debate's most quietly controversial statement, that he understood Genesis to be "philosophy in the narrative mode".

If you're wondering how Lord Sacks can be so comfortable with science, so generous towards Darwin and Freud and cognitive science and physics, mathematics, geology and cosmology (yes, the Big Bang is no problem for theists), it is because he believes that while science does a sterling job unravelling The System - life, the universe, everything – it cannot touch on the question of God. God, you see, is beyond The System.

For him it boils down to this: "Science offers explanations, religion confers meaning." We need both, he says, so that each can checkmate the other and neither descends into hubris or intellectual imperialism.

I doubt du Sautoy would subscribe to this theory, because, for atheists, there is nothing beyond The System. If we're after meaning, we need to look to ourselves to provide it - to our stories, including religion, and science.

Du Sautoy is happy to admit that mathematics is no good at explaining how society works. Nor is Schrodinger's Equation for that matter. Both are right up there with the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where the answer to the riddle of life is given as 42. For mathematicians 42 has distinct scientific appeal: it's precise, concise and potentially revisable. But the Chief Rabbi would probably say: "Now where's the story in that?"

Marina Benjamin's most recent book was 'Last Days in Babylon; the Story of the Jews of Iraq'.

    Last updated: 11:50am, March 5 2012