“The aching questions that trouble the human imagination about which the sciences, when seriously considered, are resolutely silent, remain just as they were. And the religious tradition, especially the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, has offered a coherent body of belief and doctrine by which they can be explained.
Do we understand why the universe arose? No, we don’t. Do we understand why it’s here at all? No, we have no idea. Do we understand how life emerged on Earth? Not a prayer right now. Do we understand the complexity of life? We can’t even begin to describe a living creature in anything resembling precise terms. A recent article in Science Digest said that cell division requires four thousand coordinated proteins acting together. What a remarkable statement. What a wealth of information we possess about biology. What an abundant lack of understanding we have about living systems.
Do we understand why the laws of nature are true? No, we have no idea. Do we understand the miracle of analytic continuation in physics—when certain kinds of functions can be pushed forward into the future contrary to all experience? Do we understand why the universe remains stable from moment to moment? The medievals pondered this question. Ladies and gentlemen they came to the conclusion, and I quote a Medieval theologian, that ‘God is everywhere conserving the world.’ What a remarkable declaration—can we do without it?
Do we have an explanation for the continuity and stability of the universe? There is one paper that I know of in the literature by Freeman Dyson that addresses the stability of matter, but beyond that, everything is enigmatic.
How can we propose, seriously and solemnly, to rule out of court in advance a hypothesis that not only answers to the human heart in many respects, but that answers to genuine intellectual needs in other respects? When one sees the American scientific community like a herd of wildebeests trotting across a fruited plain, it’s very reasonable to ask are they going someplace or are they fleeing from someplace? And I think the overwhelmingly obvious answer is that they are fleeing. They are fleeing from an idea that they reject for a variety of reasons. Not only is the inquiry about atheism not necessary in terms of the history of social thought, it’s not necessary in terms of the outline of scientific thought.
But there is a last question to be addressed. It is perhaps the most important for you and me. The cosmologist Joel Primack asked an interesting question. He asked what compels the electron to follow the laws of nature. Good question. I don’t know. But Heinrich Himmler, who had presided over the destruction of churches and synagogues throughout Europe and was the mastermind behind the extermination of the Jewish people, asked a very similar question in 1944. When confronted with the onerous treaty obligations the German state had adopted with respect to its own satraps, he asked insouciantly but pregnantly, ‘After all, what compels us to keep our promises?’ Moral relativism is very often derided as an unhappy consequence of atheism. I don’t think moral relativism is a particularly deep issue, but I do think the issue of what compels us to keep our promises is very relevant.
I have in front of me a rather remarkable button. If you should press it, yours would be untold riches and whatever else you desire. The only consequence to pressing it beyond your happiness is the death of an anonymous Chinese peasant. Who among us would you trust with this button?'”
The photograph was taken at sunrise from atop the plateau of Masada in Southern Israel.