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Redefining God with the New Science of "Emergence"

by Nancy Ellen Abrams


This post originally appeared on Debate This Book, a place for authors and educators to discuss issues.

We are living at the dawn of a new picture of the universe. We now know that everything visible with our best telescopes is less than one percent of what’s really out there. Our universe is made almost entirely of “dark matter” and “dark energy”—two invisible, dynamic presences whose 13.8 billion year competition with each other has spun the galaxies into being and thus created the only possible homes for evolution and life. This must change how we think about God.

I’m a philosopher of science, married to one of the astrophysicists who created the modern picture of the cosmos, Joel Primack. For ten years, he and I co-taught a course at the University of California, Santa Cruz, called “Cosmology and Culture,” trying to help young people with no background in science understand how cosmologies have changed historically and how to wrap their minds around the counterintuitive idea that the “double dark” universe actually surrounds Earth and its newly discovered laws affect our world. We wrote The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos (Penguin/Riverhead 2006). We were invited to give the prestigious Terry Lectures at Yale in 2009, which became The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World (Yale Univ. Press 2011).

Everywhere we spoke, it seemed someone would ask, “But do you believe in God?”

I couldn’t say. Personally, I was an atheist struggling to work a recovery program based on finding a believable “higher power.” I was never interested in any God or higher power that had to be believed in. My quest was to visualize the source of the strength, comfort, and inspiration that the idea of higher power clearly offers through the lens of a reality based not on wishful thinking or tradition but on evidence. I stopped wondering, “Does God exist?” Instead I asked, “Could anything actually exist in the scientific universe that is worthy of being called God?”

A God That Could Be Real coverMy answer is yes: there’s a way to think about God that takes away none of its power but all of its impossibilities, based on the new science of “emergence.” In my new book, A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet (Beacon Press, 2015), I explain that the complex structure of a busy ant hill emerges from the collective behavior of individually clueless ants, and the global economy, which no one understands, emerges from the interactions of trillions of ordinary people’s choices. In almost any system where individual interactions become complex enough, something new and qualitatively different emerges on a higher level or organization. So an “emergent phenomenon” must be arising from the staggering complexity of humanity’s collective aspirations interacting. This emergent phenomenon is real, powerful, and in dialog with every human by definition. I suggest it is worthy of the name God, and I show how rich and fertile this perspective can be. It makes possible a meaningful and coherent big picture for our time.

It’s hard to grasp that the chance to re-define God is actually in our hands. But it is, and the way we do it could play a leading role in shaping the future of Earth.

About the Author

Nancy Ellen Abrams is the author of A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet and coauthor, with Joel R. Primack, of The View from the Center of the Universe and The New Universe and the Human Future. Find her online at www.nancyellenabrams.com and on Twitter (@CosmicSociety).