The Magazine

What Hath God Wrought

When an elderly philosopher meets a Dallas business consultant.

Jan 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 18 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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We are all up against the fact that, as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it's queerer than we can imagine. Orthodox atheists are left guessing, too, having to pull life and consciousness out of a hat made of matter in motion, or chemical soups, or God-knows-what. There's plenty of room for conjecture.

Some scientists, including Einstein, have thought that if modern theoretical physics were to blur into something vaguely religious, it would have to be some version of pantheism, like Spinoza's, or Eastern religions like Taoism and Buddhism, not Western monotheism with its dualistic matter/spirit baggage. And since the uncertainty principle established by Heisenberg and Schrödinger leaves subatomic particles in a quantum quandary until we observe them, others have detected the shades of metaphysical idealists like Berkeley and Schelling lurking in the more rarefied precincts of physics.

Are we somehow cocreators of a universe that returns the compliment by creating us? Instead of arguing, philosophers might be better off adopting the open-minded curiosity of a William James and looking into mystical or aesthetic experiences. (Even the scathing skeptic E.M. Cioran said that, when he heard Bach, he believed.) Like arguments, they prove nothing, but they assume less.

We might as well let Einstein have the last word. He did metaphorically mention God frequently ("God does not play dice with the universe," etc.), but he offered no arguments and he sharply rejected traditional notions of a judging, intervening, miracle-working personal God. He despised dogmas and fanaticism, but thought that a modest, open-ended religious approach to the cosmos was better than a completely irreligious one. His remarks about the uncanny intricacies of the universe convey awe combined with deep humility. He compares us to a small child entering a vast library full of books in strange languages, dimly perceiving there is an order there but unable to grasp its significance. And he remarked, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."

Luckily, there's plenty of it to go around.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.