Review of The Ghost in the Universe (2005)

Anthony Campbell

[This review was originally published on Anthony Campbell's book reviews page.]

Book coverReview: Taner Edis. 2002. The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of Modern Science. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. 326 pp.

Taner Edis belongs to that company of skeptics about the existence of God who nevertheless find religious questions to be important. As a result, his treatment generally avoids superficiality and is well-referenced. He has read pretty widely and, somewhat unusually, has a good grasp of the Islamic view of God, having grown up in Turkey. Now, however, he lives and works in the USA, where he is a physicist.

The book is largely concerned with Christian and Islamic notions of God, though since both these religions have roots in Judaism and the Old Testament, Jewish concepts of the divine are also cited. There is little or nothing about non-Abrahamic religions apart from a few references to Buddhism; this is no doubt understandable in view of the expected readership for the book, which is mainly American and Christian. However, some reference to the considerable, if often unacknowledged, importance of Zoroastrianism for postexilic Judaism and for Christianity would have been useful.

There is a widespread notion afoot which holds that religion and science have nothing to say to each other. Edis finds that this idea tends to trivialize religion by making it overconceptual and a topic for philosophy alone. If we take religion seriously, he says, we should apply the whole of human knowledge to the question. He therefore avoids much discussion of the classic "proofs" of God (which are widely recognized to be inconclusive in any case), but he does look at what light can be shed on the subject from our modern knowledge of evolution and of physics. (This is, in effect, a discussion of the argument from design.)

Inevitably, in a book destined for the American market, he has to dispose of so-called "creation science"; once this has been done, Darwinism in his view leaves little room for any kind of divine plan in biology. As for physics, theists have claimed to find evidence for God both on the large scale, in cosmology (the apparent "fine tuning of the universe for life"), and on the small scale, in quantum mechanics, where some believe that consciousness plays a vital role in deciding what happens. But Edis points out that the fine tuning can be explained in nontheistic ways and that there is no real evidence for a divine mind directing quantum events; as Laplace remarked to Napoleon, the phenomena can be explained without this hypothesis. "We seem to live in a strictly natural, impersonal world, indifferent to our hopes and fears."

All the Abrahamic religions attach great importance to Holy Writ, and this is particularly true of Islam, which regards the Quran as directly inspired by God. Edis treats all such claims even-handedly, concluding that all sacred texts are of human origin. And he has a separate chapter on Christianity, which will evidently be of prime interest to most of his readers. Here he echoes much modern scholarship in finding a large mythic element in accounts of Jesus's life, though he does not feel able to go as far as those, such as G.A. Wells, who doubt the entire existence of Jesus as a historical figure.

As far back as the nineteenth century, disillusioned refugees from conventional religion sought to find a way of maintaining faith in a science-dominated world by seeking the paranormal. Psychical research, now renamed parapsychology, began largely as a reaction to perceived soulless materialism. Edis considers this option, but concludes that the evidence for the paranormal is unconvincing. The same applies to reports of miracles in general; a nonmiraculous explanation can usually be found if one looks hard enough, he believes.

While this may well be true, Edis does not wholly avoid falling into the skeptic's trap of adopting rationalist explanations uncritically. For example, when the Virgin made her final appearance at Fatima in 1917, a large crowd turned up to witness the promised miracle and duly saw the sun performing extraordinary gyrations. Edis suggests that this may have been due to a rare atmospheric phenomenon called a "sun dog" or "false sun." The difficulty with this idea is to account for the occurrence of such a rare event on cue at just the promised time. His alternative suggestion of a "contagious misperception" is perhaps more plausible.

There has always been a tendency to seek for evidence of God's existence at the subjective level, in those experiences usually designated as mystical. That such psychological events do occur, are widespread in all societies, and are enormously important for those who have them is certain, but the question is whether they are merely subjective or afford genuine knowledge about ultimate reality. They produce feelings of utter certainty, but could this be delusive? And how far is all mystical experience inevitably colored by the culture of the person to whom it occurs? Edis offers a pretty balanced discussion of such questions but concludes, as one would expect, that claims to knowledge based on mysticism cannot be sustained.

This is one of the best books on its subject to have appeared in recent years. It will not, I imagine, persuade any readers to alter their opinions about the questions it deals with, for religious views are not accessible to intellectual argument. Tertullian famously remarked: "I believe because it is absurd," and a similar attitude was adopted centuries later by Kierkegaard. Although he does not cite these authors, Edis appears to recognize the hopelessness of the task of persuasion. "It is scientific thinking, not religion, which is profoundly unnatural for us; no matter how science progresses, most of us will be most comfortable explaining the world through the actions of personal agents.... For most people, learning to go without a God is a costly undertaking for no clear benefit."

I do have two relatively minor gripes about the book. One is that Edis uses "It" as a neutral pronoun to refer to God instead of the more usual "He." This usage seems to be creeping in quite widely in progressive circles these days and is no doubt yet another manifestation of political correctness, but I find it jars. The second quibble concerns the large number of notes that are stuffed into untidy cubbyholes at the end of each chapter. I know that this is pretty well inevitable nowadays (footnotes are nearly extinct), but I think Edis would have done better to work at least the more important of these addenda into the text.


Copyright ©2003 Anthony Campbell.

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