“God” is a word. If we define it, even subconsciously, as something that cannot exist in our universe, we sabotage ourselves: we banish God from our reality and throw away all possibility of a truly coherent big picture. But if we take seriously the reliable—and thus invaluable—scientific and historical knowledge we now possess, we can re-define God in a radically new and empowering way that expands our thinking and could help save us in the dangerous era humanity is entering.
For over thirty years I have had a ringside seat for one of the most exciting scientific revolutions of our time, the revolution in cosmology. In the 1970s the great cosmological mystery was this: if the Big Bang was symmetrical in all directions, why isn’t the expanding universe today just a bigger soup of particles? Instead, beautiful spiral and elliptical galaxies are scattered throughout, but not randomly: they lie along invisible filaments, like glitter tossed on lines of glue. Where several big filaments intersect, great clusters of galaxies have formed. Why? What happened to the soup? Where did all this structure come from?
The Double Dark Universe
In 1984 my husband Joel Primack was one of four scientists who put forth a daring theory that threw open the door to solving the mystery. According to the “double dark” theory, everything we can see, including all the stars, planets, and glowing gas clouds in our galaxy and all the distant galaxies, is less than half of one percent of the contents of the universe. The universe is almost entirely made of two dynamic, invisible presences, not made of atoms or the parts of atoms, unknown and undreamed of until the twentieth century. “Dark matter” and “dark energy” have been competitors for billions of years, with dark matter’s gravity pulling ordinary (atomic) matter together and dark energy flinging space apart. Their cosmic interaction with ordinary matter has spun the visible galaxies into being and thus created the only possible homes for the evolution of planets and life.
Over the decades, as data confirming this weird story began to trickle then pour in from telescopes and satellites, I kept wondering, what does it mean for us humans that we’re not living in the universe we thought we were in? Today astronomers worldwide accept the double dark theory as the modern story of the universe, but they have not answered this question.
For most of my life, “God” and “real” in the same sentence would have been a contradiction in terms. Every idea of God I had ever encountered seemed either physically impossible or so vague as to be meaningless. I hardly thought about religion and certainly didn’t believe in any God. Even if I had been a happy camper, that never would have changed. But I wasn’t. Over the same period that my husband was discovering the nature of the universe—and while he and I were coauthoring two books interpreting these discoveries—I was also working a twelve-step recovery program. Any twelve-step addiction recovery program presents a huge and unsparing motivation to find what the program calls “God as we understood him.” Not necessarily as anyone else does. The program challenges every member to search for some understanding of God that is believable, but for me believability was irrelevant. I have never had any interest in a God that has to be believed in, and that was not about to change.
I was looking for a God that cannot help but exist, in the same way that matter and gravity and culture exist. We don’t need to believe in these things; they exist, and we can choose to learn more about them, or not. For me, the topic of God simply doesn’t matter unless it’s about something real. But I don’t mean real like a table, or a feeling, or a test score, or a star. Those are real in normal, earthbound experience. I mean real in the full scientific picture of our double dark universe, our planet, our biology, and our moment in history. I didn’t expect to actually find such a God, although I suppose every seeker harbors some remote hope. In fact my favorite quotation is “Bring me into the company of those who seek the truth, and deliver me from those who have found it.”
Ruling Out the Impossible
So I looked to science. Science can never tell us with certainty what’s true, since there’s always the possibility that some future discovery will rule it out. But science can often tell us with certainty what can’t be true. It can rule out the impossible. Galileo, for example, showed with his telescope that the medieval understanding that earth was the center of the heavenly spheres could not be true, even though he could never prove that the earth moves around the sun. Whenever scientists produce the evidence that convincingly rules out the impossible, there’s no point in arguing. It’s over. Grace lies in accepting and recalculating. That’s how science moves forward.
What if we thought this way about God? What if we took the evidence of a new cosmic reality seriously and became willing to rule out the impossible? What would be left?
I began to look one by one at the characteristics that made God unbelievable and to ask how much each one actually mattered, or whether it was merely traditional. The results of this exercise changed my life. Not one characteristic that conflicts with science turns out to matter. We can let them go. It’s amazing how many arbitrary characteristics people have tacked onto our ideas of God, simply from tradition. These additional requirements divide us from each other as well as from our rational selves. Any religion today that assigns to God powers that can’t exist in this universe sets its members up for constant doubt, which in turn requires of them an exhausting effort to jack up their faith in order to fight the evidence. This is self-destructive. We can have a real God if we let go of what makes it unreal.
These are characteristics of a God that can’t be real:
1. God existed before the universe.
2. God created the universe.
3. God knows everything.
4. God intends everything that happens.
5. God can choose to violate the laws of nature.
If you’ve never taken these five ideas literally but instead seen God as simply a word for the sense of wonder, of the unknown, of endless possibility, of cosmic connection, or the opportunity to not need all the answers, then it may perhaps seem silly to bother refuting them one by one. Yet I would be surprised if your sense of wonder, of the unknown, cosmic connection and endless possibility connected with the idea of God was not based on an unconscious, lifelong association of God with at least one of these impossible characteristics.
God could not have existed before the universe or created it. The whole history of the universe shows us that complexity evolves from simplicity. At the Big Bang there was nothing but free particles and energy, not even atoms, yet over time the galaxies, stars, elements, planets, and life slowly evolved. That’s how our universe works. So something as complex as a God who could plan and create a universe could not have been there to start things off. What’s more, it’s not clear where “there” would be, since cosmologists are continually pushing back the beginning. The beginning used to be the Big Bang, but the larger theory called “cosmic inflation” now explains what set up the initial conditions for the Big Bang. Cosmic inflation has made five predictions; four have been tested so far and all four have been confirmed by observation. So astronomers worldwide accept cosmic inflation as part of the standard modern theory of the universe.
What caused cosmic inflation? A fascinating theory based on mathematical extrapolation but zero data describes a strange state of being that may have come before and is still continuing outside our universe, called “eternal inflation.” So where’s the beginning? Before eternity? If we require that God can only be God by having created this universe, then we don’t understand what we’re crediting God with creating.
We need to let the nature of the universe teach us about God. It may feel unfamiliar to think about God this way, but it can free us from the fuzzy thinking that is preventing us from demanding—and discovering—a real God.
God can’t know everything. In our universe no consciousness can know everything, because there is no possible unified view. This is an implication of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which is supported by immense evidence. For example, events don’t happen in the same order for two travelers moving very rapidly with respect to each other. It’s not their perception: things really do happen in different orders in their frames of reference. There is no absolute truth that God could even know. Truth is local. Furthermore, the speed of light limits how fast any information can travel, and the age of the universe limits the amount of time there has been, so from the viewpoint of any particular place, most of the universe is permanently out of contact because there hasn’t been time enough for information to travel from there to here, and the expansion is accelerating, pushing even more of the universe out of reach. So no intelligence could ever know what was going on or had gone on “everywhere.” Nor could God “be everywhere” (and thus know all local knowledge), or God wouldn’t even be in touch with its own self.
God can’t intend everything that happens. At the level of elementary particles nature is random, according to quantum physics, and the behavior of any single particle can never be predicted. Probabilities are all that can be predicted. For example, physicists can predict the number of atoms in a gram of radium that will radioactively decay in the next minute, but not which atoms. On the larger size scale of biology, evolution is also unpredictable, in principle, because it depends on random mutations interacting with a changing environment. Consequently, a creator God could not have “used” the process of evolution to create us, because if such a God had any intention before starting—for example, to create a creature like us—that would never have been what ended up evolving. For the same reasons God couldn’t intend us, God can’t intend what happens to us.
God can’t violate the laws of nature. Nothing that exists in the real universe can violate the laws of nature, since what exists is an expression of those laws. The belief that God can violate the laws of nature is based on the assumption that the spiritual realm is somehow separate and independent from the physical universe, so God is unconstrained by physics. Yet this nonphysical, spiritual God can reach across, the presumption goes, in some inexplicable way, to affect events in the physical realm. This idea may have been attractive in an era when no one understood the meaning of “universe,” but that time is past. A God that resides outside our universe cannot have any contact with us. It can’t be our God.
God as Emergent Phenomenon
This list pretty much agrees with most atheists’ reasons for dismissing the existence of God. But this is no place to stop. We’ve merely stated what God can’t be. We haven’t considered yet what God could be. We’ve all grown up so steeped in some tradition or other, whether we’ve accepted it or rebelled against it, that it’s hard to grasp that the chance to redefine God is actually in our hands. But it is, and the way we do it will play a leading role in shaping the future of our planet.
To me, this is the key question: could anything actually exist in this universe that is worthy of being called God?
The moment we ask this, the old question “Does God exist?” evaporates, because we’re starting from what exists and asking what, if anything, deserves the name God?
I think there is something real in our universe that is worthy of the name God. It’s completely consistent with science—in fact inspired by it—and as wonderfully effective as any other divine image in connecting us spiritually to what is truly greater than ourselves. For those of us who thought there was no way to reconcile science and God, there is. But it takes an open mind.
Let me explain with an analogy.
Ants are very simple creatures. They can recognize a dozen or so pheromones (scent molecules) and can sense where those pheromones are more intense. They can also tell the difference between meeting two ants in a minute and meeting 200 ants. That’s about the extent of their individual communication abilities. But if we observe 10,000 of them in a colony, we see that a “swarm logic” has emerged. The colony is continually adjusting the number of ants foraging for food, based on the number of mouths to feed, how much food is stored already in the nest, how much food is available in the vicinity, and whether other colonies are out there competing. Yet no ant understands any of this. The colony can engineer the construction of an anthill as high as a man and as busy as a city, yet no one is in charge. Some anthills can last a century. Over its lifetime the colony will go through predictable stages of development, from aggressive youth to conservative maturity to death, yet no ant lives more than a tiny fraction of that time. What is going on? Where does swarm logic come from?
It emerges from the complexity of the interactions among the ants. An ant colony is self-organizing. Emergence is a powerful scientific concept that cuts across many fields—in fact, it happens throughout evolution. From the formation of galaxies to the evolution of life to the folding of proteins to the growth of cities to the disruption of the global climate, emergence creates utterly new phenomena out of interactions between simpler things.
Almost everything we humans do collectively spawns an emergent phenomenon—so, for example, people trading things has led to the global economy, an emergent phenomenon so complicated and unpredictable that not only does no one know the rules; the professionals don’t even agree on what the rules should be about. The never-ending effort to get people to behave decently toward one another has spawned governments. Our insatiable desire for gossip has spawned the media. Economies, governments, and the media are all emergent phenomena—like an ant colony. They follow new and complicated rules that often cannot be derived from the behavior of the parts that make them up. They are real and have immense power over us, but they are not human or humanlike, even though they arise from human activities—any more than a ten-foot anthill resembles an ant, even though it’s made by ants.
But we humans are not just traders, moralizers, and gossips. Far beneath those behaviors, so deep it separates us from the other primates, is this: we aspire. We aspire to different things, but we all aspire. Our aspirations are as real as we are. They are not the same as desires, like food, sex, and security. Every animal has those desires from instinct alone. Aspirations reach beyond survival needs. Our aspirations are what shape each of us humans into the individual we are. Without aspirations, we are nothing but meat with habits. We humans are the aspiring species and may have been for hundreds of thousands of years.
Something new has to have emerged from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations, interacting. What is that Something?—that emergent phenomenon both fed by and feeding the aspirations of every human being? It didn’t exist before humans evolved, but it’s here now, and every one of us is directly connected to it simply by virtue of being human and having aspirations. It didn’t create the universe, but it has created the meaning of the universe, which is what matters to us. Meaning, universe, spirit, God, creation, and all other abstract concepts are themselves ideas that took form over countless generations, as people shared their aspirations to understand and express what may lie beyond the visible world. This emergent Something has created the power of all our words and ideas, including ideals like truth, justice, and freedom, which took millennia to clarify in practice, and which no individual could ever have invented or even imagined without a rich history that made it possible.
This infinitely complex Something, which has emerged and continues to emerge from instant to instant, growing exponentially and shape-shifting, can be accurately said to exist in the modern universe. It’s as real as the economy, as real as the government. It doesn’t matter if you’re Hindu or Christian or Jewish or atheist or agnostic, because I’m not proposing an alternative religious idea. I’m explaining an emergent phenomenon that actually exists in our scientific picture of reality. You don’t have to call it God, but it’s real. And when you search for a name for it, it may be the only thing that exists in the modern universe that is worthy of the name God.
Rethinking God for Our Time
“God” needs to mean something. If you have a concept of God that makes you a more loving and effective human being, you are fortunate; be grateful. But if you have never found such a concept, you can’t simply choose to erase the word. God is arguably the most powerful concept there is. Everyone in the entire world over the age of two or three has some notion or feeling about God, whether positive or negative, sharp or fuzzy. But there’s no single idea of God. Ideas about God have been evolving nonstop for thousands of years, and yet, at any given time, within almost every religious group, rebellious members have been punished—even burned at the stake—for questioning what is in reality a single frame in a multi-thousand-year movie. Unconscious evolution of God-ideas is inevitable, but conscious evolution of God-ideas has been harshly discouraged. This must change, or else we’ll never be able to bring our best knowledge into the process of rethinking God for our time.
If only everyone could relax, even for a moment, the taboo around questioning God. If only everyone could allow themselves for one shining moment to “act as if” this new idea were true—to try it out by moving in with all their furniture, the way scientists are willing to live inside a theory as if it’s true, sometimes for many years, in order to test it and discover its implications. For those who are willing to do this, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it will transform your life. It has mine.
To me, the planetary phenomenon that is emerging from the still reverberating aspirations of all our ancestors and contemporaries is truly worthy of the name God. It’s so much more intimate than the creator of the universe. What a blessing to be freed from the need to justify suffering as something God orders for some inscrutable reason. Did something terrible happen to you or to someone you love? God had nothing to do with it. God doesn’t control events; God influences how we see events and interpret them. God doesn’t control whether people get sick; God influences how our community understands illness and responds to it. God is a collective phenomenon—and yet it is also us. It’s made of us.
This view of God turns out to be wonderfully fertile. It lets us have at last a coherent big picture that serves our time, one that reconciles modern science and spirit in a way that is equally true for everyone on this planet. It gives a whole new meaning to life, death, morality, and prayer. It has other far-flung implications, personal, spiritual, cultural, and political, which I explore in my book, A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet.
We humans are entering an era of enormous danger. Chaos and injustice will inevitably accompany the changing global climate, and right now we don’t have much to unify us in facing that. Our species needs every advantage we can possibly muster, and peace between science and God, peace between reason and spirit, would certainly be advantageous. For millions of thoughtful, rational people to have no way to draw on their spiritual power is a tragedy.
For over five thousand years, since ancient Egypt and Sumer, the most powerful bond of any culture has been a shared big picture, based on a shared origin story and thus a shared identity. A shared big picture provided common ground so that people could cooperate with others who were not members of their family. This made civilization possible. Today science is the most unifying story we have. Its results are the same for every human being. Around the globe, regardless of ethnic background, nationality, or religion, scientists all work by the same standards, even if their personal lives look completely different. This is the kind of model we humans need if we’re going to solve global problems. We need something that, beneath all our obvious diversity, can unify us on a level deeper than just entertainment and consumerism and can help us cultivate our ability to grasp the truly long-term and large scale. God can be real if we let the nature of the universe teach us about God.