Me and Him
When I was in college, I thought it was cool to question the existence of a supreme being. But as I grow old, it seems to me that faith is almost irrepressible. Thank God for that.
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WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID, I imagined that God looked like Dick Tracy, my favorite comic-strip character. I saw the Almighty in a snap-brim hat and trench coat, carrying a snub-nosed .38 that blasted large holes in evildoers with names like Prune Face. I don’t remember if it was my parents or my beloved granny who first told me about God, but I understood him to be an all-powerful, all-knowing Super Dad who was invisible but always present and who loved us dearly but was not opposed to cleaning our clocks when we didn’t mind the rules. That’s as far as it went with God and me in my pre-school days.
By the time I was in college, God’s existence had become an existential question, “existential” being a word I’d learned from a friend in philosophy class at the University of Texas. My friend, who claimed to be an atheist, was smart, hip, and well read, and I’d seen him with the girl whose spectacularly tight sweater I’d admired all semester, lying on the grass in front of Garrison Hall, reading aloud from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. While I wasn’t ready to declare myself an atheist, I agreed with him that it was cool to question God’s existence. Of course, a few months later I was on my knees, asking God to alleviate some crisis or other that had momentarily darkened my path, a habit I’ve followed to this day.
My epochal showdown with God happened in the fall of 1996, when my oldest son, Mark, was dying of leukemia. In the small chapel at M. D. Anderson, in Houston, I prayed for hours, asking God to spare my son and offering to strike any bargain he might find attractive. God wasn’t interested. In my grief and despair, I concluded that he had no time for individual lives. It was a dismal thought, but it vanished along with the despair in an amazingly short time. I thank God for that.
As I grow older, it seems to me that faith is almost irrepressible, which makes me wonder if some of us aren’t hardwired to believe in God. I suspect there are people who mistrust the notion of a supreme being because of the randomness of life and because they think it’s unscientific. Such doubters will be interested to know about a symposium on science and religion at New York University in May 2004 that posed the question “Has science discovered God?”—and answered in the affirmative. The symposium was organized by Roy Abraham Varghese, a writer-philosopher and the founder of the Institute of Metascientific Research, in Garland. Varghese started the discussion by suggesting that we live in a world of intelligent systems that can be explained only by the existence of an infinite intelligence. “The universe’s history,” he explained, “is a story of quantum leaps of intelligence, the sudden yet systematic appearance of intrinsically intelligent systems arranged in ascending order.”
At the close of the discussion, Antony Flew—the octogenarian British professor of philosophy who set the agenda for modern atheism half a century ago in a debate with the Christian philosopher C. S. Lewis—startled both the atheist and theist worlds by announcing that he now believed the universe to be the creation of a superior intelligence. After considering the arguments of such world-class scientists as Israeli physicist and molecular biologist Gerald Schroeder, Flew admitted that DNA shows that “intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements together” and that he was now persuaded that “it is simply out of the question that the first living matter evolved out of dead matter and then developed into an extraordinary, complicated creature.” The famous atheist also credited his change of heart to the influence of Varghese’s book The Wonder of the World: A Journey From Modern Science to the Mind of God. He said the book provided “an argument which becomes progressively more powerful with each advance in mankind’s knowledge of the integrated complexity of what used to be called the system of nature.” These revelations, however, did not prompt Flew to run out and join a church. He continues to believe that God has no interest in our lives.
“I hope and pray that Professor Flew will find the real and true glory of God,” Varghese tells me over lunch at a Dallas restaurant in March. Meeting him for the first time, I had expected to be intimidated. His work has been praised by some of the great minds of our time. The Wonder of the World is not an easy read. It asks a staggering number of intriguing and convoluted questions—how do proteins and nucleic acids like DNA communicate and construct, repair and replicate?—but always gives the same answer: It’s the work of a superior intelligence. To my surprise, I find him exceptionally approachable, articulate on matters of science, philosophy, religion, and history and yet almost apologetic in his demeanor. Whereas Flew takes no pleasure in his grudging admission that the universe is the work of a superbrain, Varghese gets giddy just thinking about it: God is his tonic of life. A native of India, Varghese was born into a family whose Christian sect traces itself back to the Apostle Thomas (he is now an Eastern Rite Catholic). He studied literature at the University of Madras and for a time professed to be an atheist before “finally recovering my senses.” In 1980, when he was 23, he came to Texas to do graduate work in international journalism at Baylor University. Soon he was coediting a book with the eminent former Yale physicist Henry Margenau.
“I had always heard that science was hostile to religion,” Varghese says, “but Margenau opened my eyes to the fact that many of our great scientists, like Einstein and Heisenberg, were deeply religious men.” In the years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, scientists generally believed that life originated by chance. By the early twentieth century, however, many of them had recognized “the mind of God” as the intellectual force behind the laws of nature. Life was found to be immeasurably more complex than previous generations had believed. “Intelligence and intelligent systems came fully formed from day one,” Varghese tells me. “Intelligence did not evolve out of non-intelligence.” The discovery of DNA, which contains not only the genetic code of life but an encyclopedic quantity of information, blew the lid off previous theories of life’s origin, convincing many scientists that all existence is the expression of a wisdom so vast we are barely able to grasp it. So who’s the wise guy who invented all this fabulous stuff? Dare science speak his name? “A belief in God is natural to human thinking,” Varghese says. “That’s what I try to teach people.”
Varghese approaches scholarship with what he calls an “ontological perspective.” Ontology is the study of principles that underlie the universe but can’t be proven by science. I ask for some examples. “Science can only deal with the quantifiable and measurable,” he tells me. “Science studies things; ontology tells us how things exist. Science tells us there are laws of nature and what they are; ontology tells us how those laws originated. Science deals with the hardware, the physical makeup of the universe, ontology with the software, the instruction sets that make the universe intelligent. For most scientists, trying to understand ontology by scientific methods would be like trying to find the meaning of time by opening up a clock.”
“Yet you say that Einstein was an ontologist?”
“Einstein said the man of science is a poor philosopher, and it’s true: Discussing ontology with a scientist can be a daunting task,” Varghese allows. “Nevertheless, most of the pioneers of modern science, including Einstein, were intuitively sound ontologists who recognized that the laws of nature can’t be explained without an intelligent mind. It’s simply incoherent to claim that a universe of pure matter—with no purpose, no intellect, no consciousness, no will whatsoever—can give rise to conscious, thinking, willing beings.”
“The great American poet Walt Whitman wrote that in the faces of men and women he saw God,” I tell Varghese. He nods.
He has little use for today’s hot-button religious issues, particularly the debates over teaching evolution, creationism, and, most recently, intelligent design in the public schools. Michael J. Behe, of Lehigh University, a leading proponent of the theory of intelligent design, writes that ID is not a religion-based idea. Nevertheless, religious conservatives use it to advance their belief that Genesis, not Darwin, explains the origin of life, while secular liberals fear that ID is just another tactic of religious zealots to get their agenda in the classroom. Where does Varghese stand on the issue?
He shakes his head, a smile of infinite patience warming his face. “This is not a religious or a scientific issue,” he explains. “What’s important is, How did living things come to be? Both sides need to understand that life is not simply a biological phenomenon but an ontological reality of intelligent agents—beings that are their own source and center of action, beings that replicate, as opposed to, say, planets and pebbles. By ‘intelligence,’ I mean the algorithms of biochemical code we call DNA. Science can’t tell us how intelligent agents arose in a universe of undifferentiated matter. On a biological level, consider also the breathtaking way in which proteins are created. Scientists have calculated that every cell in our bodies, other than sex and blood cells, produces two thousand proteins every second. Do you know how long it would take a supercomputer to perform the calculations involved in the reproduction of even one protein? Trillions and trillions of years.”
Varghese is working on another book that will deal with, among other things, life after death: What happens to the mind when we die? When I ask about it, he says, “I hate to give away the end, but the starting point is acknowledging the existence of the self. Neither scientists nor philosophers have competence with respect to the existence and nature of the self. I believe the self—the soul—survives.”
So do I. When I finally had to say good-bye to Mark before he died, words momentarily failed me. Then I hugged him one last time and mumbled, “Until I see you again.” My words came out of the blue, and I think he knew it. He hugged me back and repeated, “Until I see you again.” We both knew it wouldn’t be in this world.