Faith and reason;Books;Review;Features amp; arts

5th November 1999 at 00:00
THE GOD EXPERIMENT. By Russell Stannard. Faber. pound;9.99.

DARWIN'S WORMS. By Adam Phillips. Faber. pound;7.99.

The biologist Edward O Wilson claimed in a recent interview: "The scientists, not the philosophers, now address most effectively the great questions of existence, the mind and the meaning of the human condition."

Physicist Russell Stannard's investigation into the existence of God is an example of this trend, although the effectiveness of his arguments is contestable. The God Experiment attempts to show how the possible existence of an omnipotent deity can be assessed as a scientific hypothesis - by gathering evidence and asking whether it makes the hypothesis more or less likely to be true. Stannard, a committed Christian, holds that evidence supports the God hypothesis, flying in the face of the received wisdom that there is a fundamental tension between scientific and religious world views.

This claim is not new. Theologan Richard Swinburne, for example, has argued that the discoveries of science strengthen the case for God's existence. But there seems something perverse in this claim when not one creditable scientific thesis requires such a being to be invoked.

A second problem with Christian apologetics is that, at root, religious belief is not grounded in scientific evidence but in personal experience. Stannard writes that "for many, the inner religious experience lies at the very heart of the God experiment, providing the most compelling evidence for God". In other words, the "experiment" begins with a conviction on the part of the experimenter as to what the result must be.

Psychotherapist Adam Phillips is another non-philosopher grappling with the big questions. Whereas Stannard denies that science has ended the dream of life after death, Phillips examines how we might come to terms with our mortality by examining the thoughts of two people who share some responsibility for the rise of atheism - Darwin and Freud.

Phillips argues that understanding and accepting the transient nature of our existence is part of developing the emotional maturity necessary to be, if not happy, then at least in harmony with the process of living.

While the big ideas Phillips deals with are simple and unoriginal the delight of this book lies in the detail, in the subtle textures of his analyses, and in the great significance of apparently small insights.

Consider, for example, how a short passage from Darwin is used to subvert the reasoning that leads people like Stannard to use their feelings as evidence for God's existence. Recalling Darwin's sense of the sublime at the Brazilian forests, Phillips observes how Darwin celebrates "the 'wonder, admiration and devotion' evoked by natural scenery without belief in God". Precisely the kind of experience believers invoke to support their faith is shown to be possible without any sense of the religious.

In a way, both Stannard and Phillips are allaying the same fear - that the world is a cold, sterile, meaningless place. Stannard's healing balm is a lucid series of arguments that we can retain our ancient religious conception and, with it, a hope of something more. Phillips's alternative account is a beautifully crafted invitation to confront the possibility that the very transience and godlessness of existence gives meaning to life.

Julian Baggini Julian Baggini is editor of 'The Philosophers' Magazine' (

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