God's Mechanics: Vatican Astronomer reconciles religion and science

"God's Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion" is the new book from Brother Guy Consolmagno, who is, in no particular order, a scientist, a Jesuit, a science fiction geek, an MIT alum and a Vatican Astronomer. Obviously, religion is a central part of Brother Guy's life, but so is technology, rationalism and science.

God's Mechanics is a relgionist's explanation of his faith, in terms aimed at showing techies how one of their own can simultaneously believe in supernatural phenomena and practice rigorous, materialistic science. The most interesting part of the book is an amateur ethnography of geek faithful, in which Brother Guy schleps up and down Rte 101 between San Francisco and San Jose, interviewing engineers, scientists and programmers about their practice of faith. Their answers surprise Guy (and they surprised me, too) with their variety and distinctiveness. There doesn't seem to be a single way, or even a small cluster of ways that technologists square up their religion with their science.

For my part, I'm a second-generation atheist. I think that our experience of the numinous is both undeniable and entirely biological: the state of spiritual peace is the result of tickling some evolved center of our brain, a bit of neurology that conferred a survival advantage on our ancestors whose numinous hallucinations of a higher order in the universe drove them to catch more antelopes, eat better, and have more babies. I have no need of, nor interest in a supernatural god or a supernatural universe.

But I'm not so blinkered that I believe all religionists to be deluded fools. There's clearly some serious value that smart, ethical people derive from participation in spiritualism and even organized religion. Brother Guy's exegesis on faith as a systematic way of organizing and exploring the human experience of the numinous was fascinating to me. It is is a thoroughgoing, charming, quick-paced trip through a wide variety of personal experiences of spirituality and religion.

The only place where this book lacks is in its exploration of atheism as an alternative to religion. Brother Guy delves deeply into the reason for faith, but skims lightly over the reason for its absence. At times, it seems like he's addressing straw men from my side, not our strongest argument. This is the beginning of a discussion, but it's not the whole discussion. Link

See also:
Vatican astronomer on ETs

Update: Some great comments in this thread, especially Tom's note on Bayesian stats and faith: "We live at the beginning of the Age of Bayes, in the sense that the Bayesian understanding of probability and explanation is gaining ground on other views, and will probably supplant them at the end of the day. This is important because Bayesian reasoning makes it clear that 'faith' is synonymous with 'incoherent' in a precise sense."


  1. Like yourself, I’m an atheist – although being from a southern family I’m the first and only one that I know of in our particular lineage. We’re pretty rare down south.

    Anyway, having been raised in such a religious environment, faith has always fascinated me, and the Good Brother sounds like he might have a cool book there. Thanks for bringing it up.

  2. Strange coincidence, a Vatican Astronomer also makes an appearance in this month’s Ex Machina … is the Vatican starting a meme?

  3. Brother Guy is a frequent guest at Chicago local SF conventions, a cool guy and a hoopy frood. If his book’s as good as his presentations, you’re in for a good read (this from another atheist)

  4. We live at the beginning of the Age of Bayes, in the sense that the Bayesian understanding of probability and explanation is gaining ground on other views, and will probably supplant them at the end of the day. This is important because Bayesian reasoning makes it clear that “faith” is synonymous with “incoherent” in a precise sense.

    In particular, the notion of “supernatural explanation” is incoherent on a Bayesian view, because to be an “explanation” all a thing has to do is increase the posterior plausibility of a proposition.

    On this basis, all explanations are of exactly the same kind, so nothing is beyond the reach of science, and “God did it” just becomes one more proposition no different from any other (and not a very plausible one at that.) Insofar as “God” is “supernatural” (which to a Bayesian means beyond the reach of Bayesian reasoning) it is not and cannot be an explanation for anything, and insofar as it is an explanation of anything it cannot be supernatural.

    This is significant because it challenges the notion that there can be any explanatory value to faith. As the Bayesian notion of explanation becomes more widely accepted the people who understand it are going to have to ask themselves what they mean when they “explain” anything by reference to God, and will have to come up with an entirely novel and non-Bayesian notion of explanation to account for it. Their problem will be that Bayesian notions of explanation are thus far demonstrably superior to all known alternatives, and these sorts of “separate-but-equal” epistemological moves never end well.

    If history is any guide we might see quite a little epistemological renaissance from all this, as clever people who want to hang on to their faith invent novel epistemologies in attempts to preserve it. I’m betting they’ll fail in the same way medieval logicians did, but they could provide us with some awfully interesting stuff along the way.

    Other notes: 1) Sam Harris is apparently quite good at stating the case for atheism (although he points out that we don’t have a word for people who don’t believe Elvis is still alive, so why do we have a word for people who don’t believe in god?) 2) Christopher Brookmyre’s latest, Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, is a somewhat preachy but generally excellent and typically Brookmyre-esque take on faith that many BoingBoing readers would probably enjoy.

  5. As a man of God and a professional geek I’ve had trouble in the past making the two meet. In the end I find that all true science fits with my beliefs, including a lot of evolutionary theory. It just takes a lot of thinking outside of the box and not listening to the assumptions made on either side. For example, the bible doesn’t say that dinosaurs had to exist at the same time as man, and not everything everyone says about evolution is accurate to proven theory.

  6. “For example, the bible doesn’t say that dinosaurs had to exist at the same time as man, and not everything everyone says about evolution is accurate to proven theory.”

    I really don’t want this to sound like an attack, and religious discussions get me riled so i’m going to be extra special concious of what i post here.

    In regards to your post. The bible doesn’t say that dinosaurs had to exist at the same time as man. But it does say a myriad of other things that are blatantly false. And here is how the game is played: I point out something wrong with what the bible says, science wise, like… the earth (and universe) is not constructed like its description in genesis. Then you say that that description was just a metaphor, or that the bible was written by man, so its not accurate in the literal sense.

    You’ve taken a book and start out under the assumption that its true, and then you have to constantly alter what you believe about that book as more facts become known. We also have to adjust what we feel about the bible as our social attitudes evolve. Its no longer acceptable to go to a town and steal all its virgins and force them to marry you if your gang is low on women. Thats rape. But thats exactly what the tribe of benjamin was commanded to do.

    Its like, we’re evolving, and the bible stays the same, and we have to come up with excuses how this ancient book was written by a loving god, infinite in mercy. People point out it was a different time, but you’d think a god that was in the habit of destroy cities and flooding the earth could have set down some better rules “don’t kill” was a good one, but “if a man rapes a woman he has to pay the father and then marry the woman.” is not so cool. Likewise “if you beat your slave and he dies, its murder. but if he lives for a few days and then dies its not, because he’s your property.” also doesn’t jive with my sense of morality.

    Then you have the other side of your coin. “and not everything everyone says about evolution is accurate to proven theory”

    Thats exactly how science works. we throw stuff out there that seems to fit the facts, and we evolve a theory, and when the facts contradict it, we modify that theory. Thats why science is the clear winner. Religion is just like star trek, theres lots of continity and factual errors and religious people and hardcore geeks spend their time adding their own bits here and therea and coming up with explanations so that it still works as a whole.

    Science doesn’t share that static framework, as its only master is the facts, and all facts do is paint a picture, they don’t make demands of people to pay tribute to them, and then threaten them with eternal damnation if they do not.

  7. There’s clearly some serious value that smart, ethical people derive from participation in spiritualism and even organized religion.

    I see it differently: It’s no surprise that there are some good lessons and stored wisdom in the tales told by the religious; otherwise, the stuff would be really hard to sell.

    On one hand, you’re telling me that the invisible entity who made the universe in 6 days cares how much skin I have on my penis — but on the other hand, who can argue with ‘Thou shalt not kill’?


    I don’t believe people can come back from the dead, but that line about treating other people the way I’d want to be treated — you can take that to the bank!

    As memes, religions need the sensible material that everyone can appreciate in order to carry along the nonempirical theological beliefs; otherwise they wouldn’t propagate.

    So I’d reframe the quote above:

    There’s clearly some serious value that spiritualistic and religious people derive from intelligence and ethics.

  8. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with using our growing understanding of science to better understand what God means in His Word. Remember my perspective here: I have a book that I believe is written by someone who knows more about science than any man because He created it. If you read a paper by Einstein when you were 15, then read it again later on in life when you had a better understanding of the subject, you’d probably interpret it more accurately having a more mature understanding of the subject.

    I didn’t mean to offend anyone by saying that “not everything everyone says about evolution is accurate to proven theory”. I wasn’t knocking the scientific method – I was simply saying, “Hey. Just because someone says something doesn’t make it fact.”

    And as far as all the damnation talk is concerned, I don’t believe in that crap either.

    (Feel free to bash on my beliefs now. I won’t argue anymore.)

  9. I think the subtitle is a little misleading, sounds like the book explains how all scientists and engineers resolve the big faith v. science questions.

    Whereas the vast majority of scientists I know couldn’t give a hoot for the argument (or religion for that matter…), just get on with the interesting stuff.

  10. i’m waiting to really weigh in with a full theory, but i wanted to add this one caution to the debate.

    it is logically wobbly to equate all the interest in “spirituality” out there with dogmatic religious worship. many “spiritual” paths warn against dogma!

    keep it up, though…

  11. “I didn’t mean to offend anyone by saying that “not everything everyone says about evolution is accurate to proven theory”

    you didn’t offend me at all, because what you said is a core facet of scientific theory. Its not proven. So we strive to prove it. To go with your aging analogy, the older i get the more excited i get about science, more and more is unlocked every day.

    but as i get older, every time i read the bible i find something else thats hideously distasteful and i wonder why i didn’t think so when i was a child being indoctrinated.

  12. also: grinn.net, i had assumed you were a christian when reading your first post, so if i was wrong there i apologize.

    I have a question to ask but only IF you identify as christian. You say you don’t believe in damnation. I actually get this position from christians i’ve talked to more and more these days. How do you reconcile that particular belief with the actual text you base your beliefs on?

  13. http://www.noebie.net/2007/10/19.html

    It is a testament to Doctorow’s confidence in his own beliefs that he is able to recognize that not all religionists are “deluded fools.” This is a refreshing contrast to the strident tone of so many others (among both the Atheists and the Faithful).

  14. I feel we need to hear more about those scientists who are acknowledging the subjective in their work and beginning to recognize the role of the observer in determining the outcome of the experiment.

    Such thinkers might include: Fred Alan Wolf, David Bohm, Stan Graf, Gary Zukav, IONS, etc. and they are all challenging both the Newtonian universe and even the “clockwork” God.

    They’re generally not about “god” or “religion” or even “faith” (a misunderstood concept) Rather they are dealing with beliefs, thoughts, expectations and consciousness and they ways in which these affect our experience (and generally the inter-connectedness of all things)
    The polarizing reductionism of “science vs. the bible” is not interesting to me at all. Give me The Seth Books by Jane Roberts any time.

  15. Hi CPT.TIM, actually the term “damnation” does not appear in Scripture, at least in the New Revised Standard Version. So I’ve got nothing to reconcile :)

    If you’re referring to the idea of “hell” then there is more to understand beyond the Medieval/Fundamentalist interpretation of eternal punishment, see Wikipedia’s Hell in Christian Beliefs.

    For instance, some New Testament references of hell are actually referring to a physical location known as “Gehenna.”

    If for no other reason, an understanding of Gehenna will make the Coen Brothers The Lady Killers far more entertaining.

    To answer your question, like many other texts, Scripture can be read to argue for just about anything you want it to. Thus it’s important to read Scripture as a whole within the context of Tradition as well as the present Christian community.

    I believe the primary message of Scripture is “forgiveness” (and love too, but not really the way Americans understand it). And the concepts of Hell and judgement are only properly understood in relationship to this central theme of forgiveness.

    Thanks for the post Cory.

  16. @CPT. TIM: Yes, I am a Christian but don’t believe in eternal damnation. I believe that, like many of the beliefs that dominate modern Christianity, the concept of hell didn’t originate in the Bible. Instead it was indoctrinated by the Christian church to help convert people of other faiths to Christianity (the concept of hell exists in many “pagan” beliefs), and is still used today as fear motivation in many Christian groups. Most of the biblical examples people give of hell as we think of it today are actually just referring to “the grave” or “the ground”.

    This probably isn’t the proper forum for a discussion on Theology though. If you want to talk more about this feel free to send me an email by visiting grinn.net and clicking Contact Us.

  17. “To answer your question, like many other texts, Scripture can be read to argue for just about anything you want it to.”

    well except for ones that say specifically you can beat your slaves to death as long as they die a few days later, and the ones where rapists have to marry rape victims.

    Of course those never came up in sunday school. Damnation did however, and i’ll endevour to read more about what the bible specifically says about hell. I may be drawing some of my ideas from church teachings rather than specific verses.

  18. as an addition to my post: i think the most visceral tale of hell that struck me as a kid was the rich man and lazarus (not the ressurected one)

    In the parable the guy gets sent to hell, and abraham tells the guy that no one can cross over, ever.

    Granted, thats a parable, but it would be odd for christ to use an account of eternal punishment as a metaphor when he allegedly knew that his words would be used to dictate belief for a millenia.

  19. Faith is all about humility, though not in a particularly religious sense. Faith is simply the recognition of Man’s limitations – an acknowledgement of our incomplete understanding of the natural world. Religion is an avatar of faith and provides a construct for its expression principally (though not exclusively) for the simple and narrow.
    The rise of science has created a growing intellectual hubris in modern humanity that lends itself to the erroneous notion that we’ve discovered and understand more than we have yet to. There is far too little wonder in science today and far too much arrogance. There will always be things we don’t know. Always. Science has become too ready to dictate to the world what is and is not real, what is and is not possible.

  20. i personally don’t any problem mixing spirituality and science. i consider myself an alchemist. an alchemist rationalizes his faith with the subconscious mind and his science with his conscious mind. the spiritual imagery which speaks to him serves as a language tool that brings forth the subconscious world to the conscious. you do not think of the characters and events in a religious story as exterior beings from yourself, but as materialized expressions of elements of your own psyche. meditate on these expressions to develop consciousness. this is every shamans trick and every wizards psychology.

  21. Tom: This is important because Bayesian reasoning makes it clear that “faith” is synonymous with “incoherent” in a precise sense.

    Depends on how you view faith. Faith can also apply to acting 100% certain, when you’re merely dealing with the most likely of a set of possibilities. This trait has demonstrated survival value. I grant that Invisible Sky Wizard does not strike me as the most likely of the set; the principle remains.

    Uncle Eccoli: Science has become too ready to dictate to the world what is and is not real, what is and is not possible.

    You mistake an assessment of what is probable for what is possible, and an assessment of being uninteresting (such as possibilities that lack observed consequences) for being unreal.

  22. Without wanting to start any religious arguments (so please don’t): atheism for some people is as much a matter of faith as religion is – people take it as an article of faith that a god does not exist, without any proof.

    I am an agnostic: I don’t know, one way or another.

    One of my favorite bumper stickers (seen around town, I don’t have one unfortunately) read “Radical Agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t either!”

  23. In as much as the cover suggests That God is a robot or an enhanced that needs a clean room for his engineering, i believe that the notion of his existence is preposterous even to his possible self.

    I’m sure that on other worlds they have equally ridiculous notions.

  24. Science is for discussing what we know. Faith is for discussing what we don’t know.

    The number of things we know is growing exponentially. But that doesn’t mean we’ll ever run out of things we don’t know.

    So no matter how big Science gets, there will always be a certain amount of Faith just beyond it.

  25. Random tangent: Bayes is buried in Bunhill Cemetery, a two minute walk from my flat in London. His tomb is regularly visited by the statisticians who work for a local government ministry. Also buried there is his patron, another statistician credited with inventing actuary. Not buried there: Gauss. He’s apparently evenly distributed all over the world.

  26. Bloo: so does that mean that you’re an invisible pink unicorn agnostic too? or a russels teapot agnostic, or that you’re agnostic in the idea that there may be a enormous cloud of superintelligent jello in the oort cloud waiting to destroy us?

  27. Usually the posts at Boing Boing about religion are mean spirited and antagonistic. So it was a nice surprise to see this posted here today.

  28. Cpt. Tim

    Going back to the text is going to be very helpful, but keep in mind that if you are reading English (or any language other than Hebrew or Greek) it’s a translation. So look at several of translations to see a more complete view of the meanings. I think you’ve pointed this out in other discussions, so it’s probably superfluous information. If you’re really interested in the meanings behind the words look into the history of the culture and what else was going on. Rabbinic tradition is very important to understanding the context of most of what is in the Hebraic and Christian scriptures. Like the parable you bring up – it is told in the context of a people who are waiting for salvation. The interpretation I’ve heard most often from Biblical scholars who aren’t horribly dogmatic is that both Lazarus and the rich man are waiting in a place that is best understood as purgatory for the messiah to come with their final judgement. This opens the door on whether or not the rich man is going to be punished for eternity, or face a second death (a common, ambiguous phrase for the fate of the unsaved). Context is very important in adding meanings to texts, and they can be really interesting.

    This post has sparked some interesting, less heated conversations, thanks Cory.

  29. I identify myself as an atheist, but I don’t subscribe to the sort of Dennettean reductionism that Cory so ably describes. Maybe I read too much RAW as a kid, but scientific materialism just seems like another source of zealotry to me.

    I’d categorize myself as more of an existential atheist. I believe authentic religious revelation arises from a personal realization of the void.

    As for religion having serious value to people, I was suitably chastened after reading Harry Brunius’ “Better For All The World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity” when I realized that it was what we would now call evangelicals and the religious right who protested against eugenics programs in the early days of the 20th century. For the most part intelligent men of science and letters thought eugenics was just groovy.

  30. well o.k. here goes an attempt at a reconciliatory theory. i’m going to use a lot of quotation marks (or dubious marks, as etta cetera calls them) here to hopefully aid clarity by reducing specifics.

    i’m going to focus this “argument” around one of the major debates around “god,” which is whether any “being” can have instantaneous control over vast reaches of space and time (non-locality.)

    first, let it be said that regardless of who is correct there are extensive parallels between modern science and mystical traditions. for example the hindu concept of indra’s net is remarkably similar to the non-locality that has been described in quantum physics. this is the concept that every “thing” in the universe is both connected to every other “thing” in the universe and in some cases acts upon “things” that aren’t nearby. i find the hindu image of a multi-dimensional net with jewels reflecting each other a vivid way to imagine this.

    second, let me say that i have experienced non-local space very vividly. people have tried to find holes in this story since i started telling it, but i assure you it is the truth and that i am reporting it accurately. a friend (who happened to be recently taking some higher level philosophy and shamanism classes at trackerschool.com) accomplished a successful and detailed remote viewing of my basement music studio. i was lamenting the fact that he couldn’t see it because he was 7 hours away and he suggested that he try anyway! i was on the phone with him at the time. i didn’t say a word the whole time. he instructed me to try to feel happy and enjoy what i was seeing and that that would help him locate me. he began by describing what i was looking at, including simple, guessable (but correct) things like the hole where the doorknob was to go and some of the complex sound-disrupting angles we used in the wall design. but then the real kicker came. he said he saw “a man that looks like santa claus sitting on a rug with a woman playing what looks like a banjo or a fiddle.” i had no idea what he was talking about. i turned my head (important!) and saw on the wall behind me a print that my housemate had just put up the day before of a man in a red coat and hat both with white trim sitting on a rug with a woman playing the saw-u (aptly named!) which is a thai instrument that looks like a cross between a banjo and a fiddle. my jaw dropped. then he said he was seeing blue and white birds. the border of the print featured blue and white birds. at this point i interrupted him to tell him of his great success. he was as surprised as i was. what i think separates this from what could be called telepathy is that i was not looking at the image when my friend saw it. i didn’t even know it was there. the closest i had gotten to it was that i dumpster-dived the book it was torn out of two days before. i believe (as much as i ever “believe”) he was truly non-local during those moments.

    let me quickly dissuade people from wasting our time with these common counter-arguments:

    1. he guessed… prints of that very specific type are not a common fixture of sound studios. he also made no “wrong” guesses the whole time.

    2. my friend told him about the print… absolutely not. i brought up the studio, if my friend was planning this he would have needed to get an immense amount of specific data for every room. this would have also had to happen in the two days previous to the conversation. my housemate does know the remote-viewer, and they talk, but they didn’t have any conversation like that in those two days. my housemate who has no need to lie to me has sworn that he didn’t tell him anything. i even woke him up early in the morning to ask him during the hypnotic moments right after sleep. no, no, no…

    3. he set up a spy camera… seriously, i’ve heard this. my friend is not in the c.i.a.

    anyway, that significantly ruptured my sense of local space. i have similar stories about time, but as they are friend’s experiences and not mine, and this is already getting longer-winded then i like, i will not recount them here unless asked.

    note that almost every mystical tradition speaks about these powers as real, usually for the highly “evolved.” (they also note that if you really want these powers you probably wont get them, that they arise out of wanting “good” if wanting at all…)

    now, if we stir a big theoretical stew of jung’s collective unconscious, quantum physics, 100th monkey syndrome, deep meditation, shamanism, brain-programming in the robert anton wilson sense and a heaping of fortean ideas, you arrive at my theory.

    my theory, which might be over-simplified as agnosticism, is:

    1. while “god” may exist, it may be entirely different than the bible or any other “text” or tradition puts it.

    2. while “god” might not exist, there may be “action” in the universe that is “god-like.”

    3. while most of us don’t (and so far can’t) know one way or the other, we can experiment in belief one way or another.

    4. a traditional scientist may find it beneficial to believe that there is no “god”, if for no other reason than it makes for less variables.

    5. a spiritual seeker may find it beneficial to believe that there are “gods”, if for no other reason than to keep humble in light of “skills”.

    6. i don’t belive it can be proven one way or another yet.

    7. this means that it isn’t stupid to believe one way or another (with some shades of stupidness reserved for some of the more “limited” reasons to go one way or the other, of course.)

    i find my life goes better and i am more successful in my activities when i interact with “spiritual” “forces” like “gods” or “goddesses” or “animal spirits” AS IF THEY ARE REAL. i find myself more moral if i view karma as LAW. i also find it explains more of my personally observed data if there were powerful forces in the universe that aren’t typically included in the old-school scientific picture of our reality, (the typical completely-materialistic, deterministic model.) modern science is a lot older-school in that it resembles mysticism more than newton.

    however i don’t KNOW “gods” exist. i reserve some doubt. it might be all the biology of the brain, and that the “forces” i observe may be human in origin (the “god-is-all-of-us-acting-as-one-without-our-individual-knowledge” model) or simply a trick of the mind to convince us to strive.

    either way it is quite beautiful and marvelous…

  31. Obviously, religion is a central part of Brother Guy’s life, but so is technology, rationalism and science.

    That’s a good description of where I am, substituting ‘a relationship with Jesus Christ’ for ‘religion,’ which people tend to interpret in light of this or that denomination. I am a man of belief, not a man of denomination(nor dominionism, which is another topic entirely).

    Another cool resource to read up on. Thanks!

    (As an aside, how do you find the time to read all these books? I have stacks of them scattered all over my property, in my car, in my cube at work, and I see to acquire them faster than I can plow through them.)

  32. Cpt. Tim, we already know you don’t like religion. Do you have anything to say about it that isn’t elementary? Yes, there are distasteful stories in the Bible. No, the account of creation in Genesis doesn’t match what we know about geology or the origin of species. Et cetera. Any thinking religionist in the Judeo-Christian tradition knows that stuff and has thought about it.

  33. I get tired of theories of the existence of God and the necessity of his being that rely on stuffing him into all the ‘gaps’ in human knowledge. There is mystery to be sure, but God’s existence is not dependent on it. God simply is experienced in a way that many millions continue to find more compelling than all the ‘best’ ‘killer’ atheistic arguments out there…Why is that?

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