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Rats in the Cosmic Laboratory: Is God a Scientist?

Updated on April 3, 2014
The Cosmic Laboratory
The Cosmic Laboratory | Source

In one especially poignant scene in the movie "Shadowlands",* famed English writer and Oxford University professor, C. S. Lewis (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins) has gone to a pub with his brother, Wally (Major Lewis). Having just lost his wife, Joy Gresham Lewis, to cancer, Mr. Lewis is met with expressions of sympathy offered up by friends and colleagues who are attempting to console him. An interesting exchange ensues between an Anglican vicar and Mr. Lewis:

Vicar: Only God knows why these things have to happen, Jack.

C. S. Lewis: God knows, but does He really care?

Vicar: Of course. We see so little here. We're not the Creator.

C. S. Lewis: No, no. We're the creatures, aren't we? We're the rats in the cosmic laboratory. I have no doubt that the experiment is for our own good, but that still makes God the vivisectionist, doesn't it?

"Rats in the cosmic laboratory." An apt analogy if the universe is an experiment in process. But is this the case? If God were running an experiment or cluster of experiments (some embedded in others), it would indicate that something is being tested -- an hypothesis or many hypotheses -- whose outcome is unknown. While some religious traditions might accept a God who is not all knowing, and hence might need to perform such experiments, this is conjecture. (Actually, God is conjecture, insofar as His/Her/It's existence lies beyond the purview of science; which is to say, belief in God is not based on provable fact, but on faith) Bearing this in mind, what follows is pontification built on conjecture, albeit hopefully both informed and thought-provoking.

Consider..... | Source

What we do know of the cosmic cauldron and the processes that gave rise to us can be succinctly summed up thusly: The universe we can measure and probe appears to be the expression of physical laws in operation. The Big Bang happened, stars and galaxies formed, planets formed, and on at least one world, this one, life arose and evolved to that state which we call "consciousness."

For we who believe in God, the laws that set all this in motion and govern it are the handiwork or signature of the divine. This is not something scientifically provable, but like the concept of Providence, is based on faith.

And while some people might still cling to the idea that humankind is the center of the universe, the scale and grandeur of our universe would suggest otherwise. We are rather insignificant, at least in terms of our impact on the cosmos. We are, at best, perhaps big fish in a very, very small pond. And least we get puffed up about this exalted position, the dinosaurs held a similar role for about 170 million years before going belly up. Mass extinction, in fact, has occurred no less than five times during geologic history. We are but a massive comet or asteroid strike, nuclear war, or the like away from joining the dinosaurs. (A compelling enough reason to take out some "species insurance", as in set up a human presence elsewhere in our solar system. Mars seems a likely prospect.)

We are the tentative king of a very, very small hill. And what natural processes produced and govern, God seeks to relate to. At least this is the basic message of most extant (as well as extinct) religious traditions. And within the constraints posed by our individual limitations, i.e., our genetic-based propensities as amplified by environmental and other situational factors, the ancient brain wiring or paleocircuits in our brains, etc., we go through life making choices and exercising that which we know as "free will".

Is the universe thus an experiment and we it's aim? While the universe may well an experiment, it seems doubtful that it designed specifically to produce conscious life forms like us. Which is to say, life forms capable to distinguishing "I" from "other", and of contemplating its own mortality (It is unlikely that God can relate to a life form lacking these 2 cognitive features. Only a self-conscious creature that knows it will someday die would be capable of responding to anything God shared concerning an existence beyond the grave). Even if we accept the Weak Anthropic Principle, which asserts that the laws that govern our world would tend to give rise to life and something like us, it still seems unlikely that the "local phase" of the grand cosmic experiment was designed to produce us. Indeed, as the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was fond of pointing out, if we were to go back and rerun the history of life, it is doubtful anything like us would emerge at all.

The experiment,...the universe,...did obviously tool us into existence. And God, it would seem, set about to interact with and relate to our bipedal twig on the primate branch of the evolutionary bush. Assuming that what we know and identify as "free will" is more real than illusion, the question naturally arises, "If God knows everything and is absolutely sovereign, how can humankind truly have and exercise free will?" And if God does not know in advance precisely what we will do or say, then He is less than omniscient and sovereign. If omniscient and absolutely sovereign, then while the universe may be a grand experiment in progress, we have been removed from it by God's exercise of sovereignty. But if God is not omniscient and/or sovereign, or somehow attenuates or submerges either or both, then the give-and-take twixt God and humankind, the tests posed and our responses and God's, do constitute a social experiment (of sorts) in progress. Logic and an abundance of scriptural support tend to argue for a divinity who works within and in response to contingency; who experiments and then blends our responses into the fabric of His grand designs . And this, I argue, makes God a scientist.

God the Scientist
God the Scientist | Source

God as scientist: Support from ancient writings

Support for this view can be readily found in the Tanakh (Hebrew scriptures), which contains numerous stories and accounts that suggest that God is posing a test or permitting same, watching for the results, and responding accordingly. Consider the account of Abraham and his son, Isaac. In chapter 22 of Genesis, God has instructed Abraham to take his son to the land of Moriah and "offer him as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you" (verse 2). Abraham, a man who trusts God implicitly, is facing perhaps the severest test of faith imaginable. But for whose benefit is this test for? Abraham, Isaac, or God? Maybe all three? In verse 12 we see that for sure God has benefited by way of gained insight: "And he said, 'Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not with held your son, your favored one, from me' "(Gen. 22:12). " I know...". Now. Before the test? The clear implication is that prior to the test,...this particular experiment,.....God did not absolutely know the outcome (albeit He probably had a good idea extrapolating from Abraham's past acts of faith and obedience).

In the book of Ezekiel, we again see God conducting a test. In this instance, He goes looking for someone to divert judgment being executed:

"The people have practiced fraud and committed robbery; they have wronged the poor and needy, have defrauded the stranger without redress. And I sought for a man among them to repair the wall or to stand in the breach before me in behalf of this land, that I might not destroy it; but I found none. I have therefore poured out my indignation upon them;...(22: 29-31)

See also Exodus 15:25

If the future were closed, known and thus settled from God's vantage point, He would learn nothing from these tests. But we are told repeatedly that God uncovers something unknown; that free will is being exercised and as such outcomes cannot be known until the person making a decision has made it.

The contingency element in human affairs is underscored by numerous biblical entries that imply conditionals such as "if/then". One example is to be found in the account of God's declaration to King Zedekiah in Jeremiah chapter 38 (Part of which is quoted herein):

"If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down. You and your household will live. But if you do not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, this city will be delivered into the hands of the Chaldeans, who will burn it down and you will not escape from them." (verses 17-18. Emphasis mine)

We can also find supporting evidence of the (at least partial) tentativeness of history in the various accounts of God having changed his mind:

In the 32nd chapter of Exodus, God has told Moses of his intent to destroy Israel. Moses prays and we read "And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people." (verse 14).

Among contemporary Christian theologians, the religious and philosophic notion that human-divine interaction is unfolding and not predetermined, is treated and perhaps best characterized in the writings of proponents of "open theism". One very highly acclaimed introduction to this is a book by Dr. Gregory A. Boyd titled "God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God" (ISBN: 080106290X) Content description of this book, as well as many others that delve into various aspects of Open Theism, along with pro & con articles and posted point/counterpoint exchanges can be found on the "Open Theism Information Site" ( . It is well worth the proverbial 'look, see'.

Within Judaism, an "open view" type of perspective can be found among many rabbis and scholars. Many aspects of this line of thinking can no doubt be traced back to the Pharisees. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, the Pharisees, mindful of the fact that predestination precludes free will, essentially concluded that humankind is predestined to a certain station in terms of the material aspects of life, but has absolute free will in areas that impact spiritual life.  

The Islamic faith also boasts a school of thought that leans towards contingency, and free will as a supreme player in human affairs and in God's dealings with humankind. This perspective is supported by many passages in the Qur'an, such as "Surely the Almighty changes not the condition of a people unless they change that which is in themselves." (13:11), and "Whoever goes aright, for his own soul he goes aright; and whoever goes astray, to his own detriment he goes astray." (39:41)


God as scientist: Methodology

The actual nature and extend of the experimental work God engages in is, of course, unknown. Judging from accounts recorded by ancient biblical writers such as that of Abraham and Isaac (above), many tests seem geared to gauge such human qualities and attributes as faith/trust, capacity for obedience, the mechanics of decision making, and various aspects of judgment and reasoning. Some appear to involve only a within subject, single variable design. Others reflect a between subjects design, some being single variable experiments and others multiple variable.

While we cannot ascertain the exact mechanics of the divine research program, it would seem from the glimmers of methodology we see reflected in the ancient record that God would use approaches that are not entirely removed from those we ourselves have found reliable in terms of generating meaningful approximations of reality. One logical possibility is Bayesian inference, a powerful method of analysis that involves comparing hypotheses. The Bayes theorem, worked out by Rev. Thomas Bayes (1702-1761), assigns probabilities to all the possible outcomes of an experiment, combines this with relevant knowledge obtained or known prior to performing the actual experiment, and then calculates the probability of each hypothesis being true given the actual observation. In a nutshell, the Bayesian approach readily facilitates the modification of existing beliefs or views in the light of new evidence.

According to the Bible, on more than one occasion God expected Israel to change course (repent), but they did not do so (Isa. 5:2; Jer. 3:6-7, 19-20). God apparently modified certain aspects of the divine agenda accordingly, though undoubtedly without compromising crucial long-term objectives. This process could reflect His use of Bayesian reasoning.

To learn more: A very concise lay level introduction to Bayesian inference is "In praise of Bayes", The Economist, Sept. 30th, 2000

God the experimentalist, the cosmic weaver
God the experimentalist, the cosmic weaver

Concluding remarks

The many tests and conditional promissory statements found in ancient accounts of God-human interaction support the notion of free will as ascendant over predestination, and bespeak a future that is at least partially undetermined. They speak eloquently of God being an experimentalist who, after obtaining a result, weaves the new thread into the immense fabric that is His grand design.

It has been said that Albert Einstein had a plaque on his mantle that read, "God is a scientist, not a magician." Whether or not this in any way reflected the great scientist's sentiments, one can't but marvel at how appropriate it was -- and is.

The most important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.
Albert Einstein


* Shadowlands copyright 1993 Savoy Pictures, Inc. (distributed by HBO Home Video)

Scripture quotations from the Tanakh, 1985, Jewish Publication Society.

“Rats in the Cosmic Laboratory: Is God A Scientist?” Original copyright 2002 by Dr. Anthony G. Payne. This revised version copyright 2009 All rights reserved.

© 2014 Anthony Payne

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