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The prolific Israeli-American mathematician, statistician and historian of science Amir Aczel was best known for his prize-winning 1997 best-seller “Fermat’s Last Theorem.” In 2014, however, a year or two before his premature death from cancer, Aczel published a book titled “Why Science Does Not Disprove God” (William Morrow, 2014).
As its title indicates, the book doesn’t attempt to demonstrate God’s existence. Although Aczel was evidently a theist — “To assume that there was no God or act of creation behind our immeasurably unlikely universe,” he remarks, “seems to me presumptuous” — it’s not a defense of any particular religious view.
Instead, perhaps surprisingly, Aczel said he’s attempting “to defend the integrity of science.” “We have,” he wrote, “by no means reached the point at which people can claim, in the name of science, that God does not exist.”
“My goal is to restore science and faith to their proper realms and end the confusion sown by those who aim to destroy faith in the name of science.”
Aczel made particular targets of the so-called “New Atheists,” and, most of all, of the vocally anti-theistic Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins (who, among other things, he criticizes for “apparent unfamiliarity with the laws of probability”). Moreover, Aczel employs language with which many secularists would usually feel quite comfortable — except that he’s targeting secular polemicists rather than religious believers: “I feel very strongly that the integrity of science has been compromised by some scientists and writers and that it is important to set things straight and to restore the distinction between rigorous logic and improbable supposition.”
“They bend and distort science,” observed Aczel regarding Dawkins and certain other militant secularists, “to further their own agendas in a way that is not too different from what a scientist in the pay of a pharmaceutical company might be doing in writing a favorable report about a questionable drug the company makes.”
Aczel wrote accessibly about big issues in current science. For instance, while he accepted the theory of evolution, he questioned its adequacy to explain such phenomena as human altruism or self-sacrificing behavior, or to account for the origin of consciousness, art and symbolic thinking.
On another front, some scientifically inclined atheists have recently contended that space, time and matter originated out of literally nothing, with no need for divine action. Thus, the age-old question of why something exists rather than nothing supposedly requires no God to answer it.
But Aczel had little patience for this sort of thing. “We do not — and perhaps cannot — know,” he wrote, “what caused the Big Bang or what, if anything, existed or happened before it.” We don’t understand the world of quantum physics well enough to be confident. But, he insisted, there’s no real “nothing” standing behind the universe according to even the most radical current theories. “There is always some pre-existing substance, some kind of medium from which the universe emerges.” Energy and lines of force representing “fields” aren’t “nothing,” he pointed out.
Aczel was also unimpressed with proposals of a hypothetical “multiverse” as ways of escaping the challenge posed to atheism by the apparent cosmic fine-tuning of our observable universe for life. In contemplating such remarkable “coincidences,” he contends, “one must consider” the possibility of “divine intention, or at least something that resides well outside our present powers of understanding.”
However, he observed, some atheists eagerly clutch at the idea of a multiverse because they imagine that it eliminates the need for a creator or “fine-tuner.” After all, if infinitely many universes exist, at least one among them is bound, by sheer chance, to meet the requirements for life.
“The main problem with the multiverse is that there is absolutely no way in which we can validate such theories through experimentation or through any data obtained or derived from the real world.”
Anyway, Aczel said, belief in a multiverse is entirely compatible with belief in God, and, viewed from that perspective, “only makes the needed creator omnipotent on a much vaster scale.” Whatever the case, he wrote (drawing on the early 20 century German mathematician Georg Cantor), the notion of an infinite multiverse is mathematically “absurd.”
Fundamentally, Aczel argued for humility, for a recognition of the limits of human knowledge. The question of God’s existence or nonexistence, he says, “may very well lie outside the realm of science, and be mathematically impossible to address.”
Those who believe that science has eliminated God are wrong, he declared, and they’re abusing science.
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