In Chapter 4- Strangers, Friends, Lovers: Cooperation, Not Competition, Wallace continues to expand on his version of Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA: that faith and science occupy separate spheres of influence with science covering the empirical universe and faith covering the moral and ethical universe. His metaphor is that faith and science meet and go out for coffee.
What happens next? Well, what happens when you meet someone new? You ask questions… You look for common ground… At the coffee bar, they take a corner booth and promptly discover that they’ve both been misunderstood… Science complains that everyone thinks it’s always super-objective and universal, the final word on everything.
“People think I show the whole world exactly, precisely, as it is, science complains, “But I see through my own lenses. I do not provide unbiased and complete information about all things. I ask and answer only certain kinds of question. I do not stand outside the world. I am a part of it and share its messiness and uncertainty.”
“I’m misunderstood also”, says faith. “So many people think I depend only on private and personal and touchy-feely emotions! It drives me bananas. I, too, live in this world and am likely to see it clearly as anyone else. I, too, have methods and norms. I, too, am shaped by reality. I am at my best when I engage the world as it is, just like you.”
Then Wallace supposes that faith and science hit it off completely. They fall in love and get married, and in the words of Jesus become one flesh. He thinks this perspective is most commonly expressed in two kinds of theology. The first, he says, is natural theology, that looks not to the Bible or Christian tradition, but to reason and nature and science for clues about the character of God. In other words, learn about someone by considering the things they create. The second kind is process theology; that attempts a complete synthesis of science and Christianity. It rejects divine omnipotence and claims God creates in cooperation with his creatures and is not in complete control of the universe.
All three perspectives he outlines – strangers, friends, and partners in marriage – emphasize cooperation over competition, and maintain that faith and science share a common status, like two fundamentally equal human beings. In the next chapter he considers how either science comes to rule over faith or faith will come to encompass science.
In Chapter 5- A Universe with a Point: How Science Enlarges Faith, Wallace tries to deal with the words of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg who said, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Wallace says that science indeed cultivates wonder and fills his mind but “leaves his heart stranded in the midst of a vast alien dance”. And yet he says not a single person inhabits a world without a point. None of us has lived a single meaning-free moment. He says:
Even experiences of meaninglessness point to this truth, for it is out of our craving for meaning that such feelings arise. We continually think and speak and write and act on the basis of values like love. Questions of purpose and meaning (what should be) occur to us at least as often, and nearly always more urgently, as questions of science (what is). We are bound to morality and driven by love, the greatest of Christian virtues.
And he points out the love that goes far beyond natural affection and gives the examples of Oscar Schindler, Rosa Parks, and James Harrison, an Aussie who donated his unique antibody-laden blood once a week for sixty years, thereby saving 2.4 million lives.
Wallace sets up the “two roads diverge” dichotomy between faith and science. Down the first road we are moral creatures coughed up by an amoral universe, saddled by evolution with the unshakeable sense of value and an obsession with meaning. We are, he asserts, doomed to live out our short and difficult life in a cosmos that doesn’t care about us or our choices. We may endure a while, but all things will eventually wind down in the face of endless cold and infinite time. The universe will not be tamed: it will swallow us.
He says down the second road, our morality and sense of values reveal something as actual and fundamental as energy, time, space, and light. We belong in the universe no less than electrons and quasars. We cannot stop living our lives as if love were real and as if it matters ultimately. So, he says, maybe it is real and does matter ultimately.
Of course, there is the famous quote from Richard Dawkins, from Out of Eden:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
The “Ask an Atheist” site expands on that somewhat with:
This is really a two-part question that deserves unpacking. The first part is: “Did the emergence of life in the universe have a purpose?” In brief, atheists believe that it did not. Atheists would prefer that life have a purpose just as theists would. However, just wishing something to be true does not make it true. Atheists believe that any meaning that we can derive from life can only be done here and now.
This brings us to the second part of the question: “Do our lives have purpose?” Each of us, atheists and theists alike, want to achieve something in our lifetime. Purpose can be anything from finding happiness to raising kids to ending hunger and suffering. This is the kind of purpose we each find in our own lives. From this perspective, life most definitely has a purpose!
Wallace quotes P.Z. Meyers from The Happy Atheist:
You don’t have a heavenly father at all. You’re a mediocre product of a wasteful and entirely impersonal process. We’ve done the paternity tests. We are apes and the descendants of apes, who were the descendants of rat-like primates, who were the children of reptiles, who were the spawn of amphibians, who were the terrestrial progeny of fish, who came from worms, who were assembled from single-celled microorganisms, who were the product of chemistry. Your daddy was a film of chemical slime on a Hadean rock, and he didn’t care about you – he was only obeying the laws of thermodynamics.
Wallace then re-writes Meyers thusly:
You have a heavenly father. You’re an amazing product of his ongoing creation project. We’ve discovered a lot about that project, which has been going on for billions of years. We are human beings, the descendant of apes, who were drawn from earlier smaller primates. Our lineage also includes reptiles and amphibians and fish and worms and even single-celled organisms. Like a flower that grows from the dirt itself yet is not itself dirt, we have been gradually assembled out of chaotic and disorganized elements. You were formed from the dust of the ground, given the breath of life, and carry the image of a loving and creative Father who is crazy about you.
Wallace then forces the point home, that no matter which meta-narrative you choose, no scientific experiment or observation can distinguish between them. These statements differ only in what is not scientific about them.