What if God were part of the natural order?

Stephen Kosslyn once put forward the intriguing notion that God exists but is not supernatural

How can God affect our lives? Kosslyn uses the analogy of a flock of geese navigating a long migration. Photograph: Thinkstock

How can God affect our lives? Kosslyn uses the analogy of a flock of geese navigating a long migration. Photograph: Thinkstock


I recently came across an interesting book called What Is Your Dangerous Idea? (2006), edited by John Brockman. The book is a collection of “dangerous” ideas proposed by 108 of today’s leading thinkers (including physicists Freeman Dyson, Lee Smolin, Paul Davies, Frank Tipler, philosopher Daniel Dennett and biochemist Craig Venter), with a preface by Steven Pinker and an afterword by Richard Dawkins. Today I present you with one fascinating idea from this book, proposed by Stephen M Kosslyn, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. I am neither advocating nor criticising Kosslyn’s proposal – I merely present it as an intriguing idea.

Kosslyn’s dangerous idea is: God exists but is not supernatural; God is part of the natural order. When looked at in this manner, the God concept can be approached scientifically. On the other hand, the orthodox approach, to which I generally subscribe, is to view science and religion as inhabiting two largely “non-overlapping magisteria” (in the words of Stephen Jay Gould). Kosslyn’s idea will please neither the atheist nor the religious.

Kosslyn’s concept of God is of a supreme being that transcends time and space, permeates our world but also stands outside of it, and can intervene in our daily lives, partly in response to prayer.

A scientific approach to this concept rests on three principles. Firstly, emergent properties: this is a well-known phenomenon whereby new properties emerge from aggregates, properties that cannot be fully predicted from the properties of individual aggregate elements. Thus, life emerges from aggregates of biochemicals of particular types in large numbers, mind emerges from neurons in large numbers, and economic and social systems emerge from minds in large numbers. Secondly, downward causality: events at higher levels (where emergent properties arise) can affect events at lower levels, for example an economic depression affects individuals living in society. Thirdly, the ultimate superset: the set of all living things. This superset has emergent properties that feed back to affect the living things that make up the superset.

In other words, God is an emergent property of the ultimate superset of all living things that feeds back to affect those living things. This entity is transcendent, existing in no specific time or place, like culture, although the constituent elements of culture occupy specific places. God can transcend time analogous to the manner in which culture does – as each individual dies, he/she is replaced by another and the culture continues on as before.

How can God affect our lives? Kosslyn uses the analogy of a flock of geese navigating a long migration, using somewhat unreliable magnetic-field detectors in their brains. A rule is built into each individual brain: stay near the other geese as you fly. The flock, an emergent entity, navigates much better than an individual goose because the noise in the individual navigation systems cancels out. In other words, the emergent entity, the flock, helps the individual goose to navigate better than it could on its own.

How would intercessionary prayer work in this model? Using the bird analogy, imagine a bird becoming conscious of the “keep near” rule and also deciding to try to influence the direction the flock moves in by nudging a little. This nudging effect could be magnified by feedback from the emergent property, the flock.

The monotheistic religions view God as the creator who sustains his creation at every moment. Kosslyn’s model can also accommodate this concept. It is well-known that, as we grow and develop, humans are shaped both by genetic make-up and by the environment. For example, the human brain is pre-programmed at birth to see but not to judge how far away objects are. The infant learns to judge distance by reaching for objects, and this tunes the brain circuits to develop the ability to judge how far away objects are. The emergent properties of the ultimate superset affects all the influences that make us who and what we are throughout our lives.

Christianity, Islam and Judaism believe that God always existed and created the world about 14 billion years ago. In Kosslynn’s dangerous idea, God isn’t even born until life arises, leaving the existence of the universe an unexplained (in religious terms) fact. Kosslynn concludes his proposal by noting that his idea will only become really dangerous when it is buttressed by the results of empirical tests.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC. understandingscience.ucc.ie

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