Can someone be a militant agnostic

"Coincidence is where God acts incognito"

Can you be a scientist and still believe in a god? Also of a personal God who intervenes in the world? If so, how can he allow so much suffering? A cross-border conversation with the physicists Reinhold Bertlmann, Walter Thirring and Anton Zeilinger.

I gather from Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion that only seven percent of scientists in the United States believe in God. Is atheism or agnosticism the “natural” attitude of a scientist?

Zeilinger: A journalist once asked me whether I was an agnostic or an atheist. So I said: As a scientist, I am an agnostic because I cannot scientifically prove God. But as a person, I am neither an agnostic nor an atheist.

Thirring: I believe that this division of people into atheists and non-atheists is not very favorable. Because the ideas of God of different people are quite different. I mean, if someone doesn't believe anything, they have to be somehow moronic, otherwise they would have some thoughts ... But where exactly you draw the line between atheist and non-atheist, that's a bit arbitrary.

Bertlmann: The seven percent seem very low to me. My special experience with American physicists is that a very high percentage is religious. If you ask them: Are you religious? They say: Yes, I am. I could even name a few experimental physicists.


You emphasize it that way. Would you be less surprised with theoretical physicists?

Bertlmann: Quickly said: yes.


Because theoretical physicists are used to working with concepts that are not entirely comprehensible?

Bertlmann: Yes, I would say intuitively that the experimental physicists are a bit the harder ...


Even among non-physicists, many are quick to say: Yes, there has to be something higher. Everyone can agree on that, including atheists.

Bertlmann: No. An atheist says: No, there is nothing higher.


Why, the universe is something higher.

Bertlmann: No, the atheists see it purely positivistically. They don't see anything behind it.


But even an atheist has to say that there is something behind it, namely the laws by which it works. The laws are not in the universe, the Schrödinger equation is nowhere out there in space.

Thirring: The mathematician Hermann Bondi, who was actually not a pioneer of religion, once said that atheism is actually logically inconsistent: How can you deny something that is so vaguely defined?


There is also the distinction between deism and theism ...

Zeilinger: I have a hard time with isms. Let's not discuss isms, but content.


Well, then we ask: How do you feel about a God who intervenes in world events? You, Professor Bertlmann, can't imagine that?

Bertlmann: That would also be a personal God. No, in my opinion there is no such thing. For me - and here I am perhaps a typical theorist - there is such a thing as a divine principle, something that is there, that is in all things, of course also in humans, but also in the table or in the photon in the laboratory. There is something in that that goes beyond clicking in the experiment. For me it's a kind of structure. I see that being has structure and symmetries. For me this is perhaps the divine.


You, Prof. Thirring, are a professed Christian.

Thirring: If you ask me this yes / no question, I say yes. But of course it's much more complicated. But I also have difficulties with my personal God. It is not for nothing that one should not form an image of God, because this always gives him human traits. A personal God has human traits, just like the God of the Old Testament. The theologians are of course happy about that, they can then, so to speak, psychoanalyze him, they can then say, that's why he does it and that is why.


But isn't that exactly what makes Christianity so special that God has human traits - and man has divine traits? Can one be a Christian without believing in a God who also has human traits?

Zeilinger: One would have to ask Francesco ... For me personally, there is certainly a personal God. A god to talk to. If you now ask what properties this god has, if you start to define things around, then you are on the wrong track. I have a very mystical position there. I believe it is not our human beings to attribute attributes to God. But I do believe that there is a personal God and that He can and does intervene in our world. And I've been wondering for many years: where can he intervene without us having to use the cheap excuse of talking about miracles? For me, chance is definitely a possibility. There are things that happen by chance, like the decay of a radioactive atom: It's a possibility for a god to intervene. If I am of the opinion that it is a question of faith whether there is God or not, then God cannot be scientifically proven. And chance is a possibility in which God could intervene in the world without our being able to prove it to him.


For example, he could make sure that all the molecules in a water glass are suddenly on the left side of the glass and the glass tilts. That would be possible, only extremely unlikely.

Zeilinger: Yes, it is not forbidden.

Thirring: One problem is: With logical quibbles you can quickly prove that God cannot exist: For example, if you tell him to create a stone that is so big that he cannot lift it. Then he is in a bind.

Nor can God make a Cretan who consistently says: All Cretans lie. I mean: is God bound by the laws of logic?

Bertlmann: No no. I believe that when one speaks of God, then it can only be something abstract that I can only approach with my intellect. I cannot prove God with my intellect, but I cannot refute it either. The experience of God is intuitive, I just have to feel that.

Thirring: I believe that the essence of the Christian religion can be formulated in a word from Jesus: We are all children of the same heavenly Father and are required to do his will. Exactly what Heavenly Father looks like - there is no point in worrying about it, I think.


The non-living things dutifully fulfill His will. They stick to the law of gravitation, for example. What I mean by that: isn't there something monotheistic about physics? For physicists it is very important that their laws apply everywhere. Do you also see an inner kinship here?

Zeilinger: A Japanese colleague once said to me: He believes that the idea that we are looking for universal principles in physics, e.g. for symmetries, from which conservation laws then come, that this idea originated in Europe because we have this monotheistic tradition here . I think that is quite conceivable: Then monotheism was also very productive scientifically.


In polytheism I can say: the sun is a goddess and obeys her own laws, the moon is a god and obeys his own laws. The arrogant monotheists say: if God, then his laws must apply everywhere.

Thirring: Modern physics speaks more in the direction of an enlightened religion than against it. Many believe religion is a holdover from superstition, but it is not. In the past, gods were thought to be personifications of the forces of nature, and since there were many opposing forces, monotheism was actually a mistaken idea. But today we see a force behind the forces of nature, the elemental force. That speaks more in favor of monotheism. If there were many gods and each god wanted something different, there would be chaos.

Bertlmann: I also see something monotheistic in natural science: the expression of what is there, of being, and for me that is the structure, the symmetry, which is expressed in the laws of nature. We believe in a kind of primal force from which everything arose, from which we were created, from which the whole universe was created. That is a monotheistic idea. If I ascribe properties to God, then these are images of being that are entirely possible and useful. But there are a lot of illustrations of the truth, which in the end I cannot reach at all. We always make images, also in natural science, with the laws of nature. But ultimately, the ultimate truth is something totally abstract.

Zeilinger: Although we may not be abstract enough in modern physics ... But I am of the opinion that God is also personal. That God is both: both the ultimate abstract and something I personally believe I can communicate with.


If God is personal, is he benevolent too?

Zeilinger: No, I refuse to accept any kind of attribution.

Thirring: There are two ways of looking at it. That God is a person who wants or doesn't want something. Or one says: I myself as a person have a relation to him.


Well, if God can do everything, he can be a person too. But still Christians, Jews, Muslims have the idea of ​​a good God. Then the old theodicy question arises: Can an Almighty God want all the horrors in the world? Hans Jonas proposed a solution for this: We have to stop believing in God's omnipotence. Theoretical physicists believe in a multiverse, in many universes. What if God were only responsible and responsible for one universe?

Zeilinger: The idea that there are multiple gods in multiple universes - in one he is benevolent, in another malevolent, in the third his power is limited - that is an atheist position. In this way one evades the confession of a god. This is just as much a way out as the idea in quantum mechanics that with every measurement the universe splits into several universes. This was only invented to avoid the harshness that the individual process is random. Some people don't want that, so they make up these multiverses that I think are superfluous.

Thirring: Well, the reason for the idea of ​​the multiverse is the idea that universes arise very quickly and cheaply out of the vacuum, as long as the total energy is zero. The question arises: Why should this only have happened once? The idea of ​​the multiverse serves to explain the anthropic principle: Why the natural constants are exactly the same that the Werkel works. We then live in the universe in which the natural constants are just right to enable our existence.

Bertlmann: I also think that's a very plausible idea. For me there is something, a primal force, the vacuum, that's not nothing. Why should only one universe emerge from it?

Zeilinger: But that cannot be proved or refuted any more than my position that the laws of nature and constants of nature were so defined by God.


Either way, we cannot avoid theodicy. How can a god allow so much suffering?

Thirring: That is just our wrong idea of ​​God! We psychoanalyze him and say he could have done better. I certainly don't have a solution to the theodicy problem. But I can quote the New Testament in which someone quarrels with God and Jesus says: Take what is yours and go. We have to take it as it is and be satisfied with it.

Zeilinger: Yes, there we are with the really mystical questions. I think the freedom that we have been given is very important. The freedom goes so far that it also enables evil. It is obviously part of God's will that there is this freedom, that not everything is determined.

Bertlmann: For me, God is neither good nor bad. God is easy. We came into being from God, in this sense God also wanted good and bad to happen to us. I too have suffered severe strokes of fate, but a posteriori I have to say: That was my path in life and that was a good thing. What seems terrible at the moment may turn out to be good.

Zeilinger: If a system is sufficiently complex, the more freedom there is, the more opportunities it has to allow something new.

Berlmann: Yes, that's the only way to develop. It is only because there is good and evil that there is progress.

Zeilinger: This applies to biological evolution, but also to individual development as a human being.


Just as positive and negative energy arose from the original vacuum, so did good and bad emerge from a moral vacuum?

Zeilinger: Yeah, that's a fun picture.

Thirring: There is an interesting exchange of letters between the Tyrolean mathematicians Vietoris and Grödner on the subject of freedom. Vietoris was a pious person, he was also rewarded with a long life. Groebner was a militant atheist, he said: The theological faculty should be abolished; how can the taxpayer be expected to teach something so unproven? The two were good and on good terms with each other, and once they also corresponded on theodicy. Gröbner said to Vietoris: How can you believe in something as stupid as a good God when so much bad happens? Interestingly, Vietoris brought up a multiverse argument and said: It's just bad here, but how do you know that it's not much better elsewhere? Gröbner replied: I don't care what happens elsewhere, I live here. Then Vietoris argued: God has given us the freedom to do something bad too.

Bertlmann: Freedom also has to do with chance.

Thirring: How do you know what coincidence is? I dont know. I only know what Albert Schweizer said: Coincidence is where God acts incognito.

Zeilinger: That's also my opinion. But that's even older, it goes back to Anatol France. He said: Coincidence might be God's pseudonym if he doesn't want to sign.

Bertlmann: The Dalai Lama accidentally always said in your debate: “You have to look closer”, there must be something causal behind it. I think nothing comes of it when you look closer. Why shouldn't there also be chance? I think it is important for all of nature, for evolution, but also in human psychic things. I think there is pure chance, it is related to the freedom that exists in our universe. This is also a feature of the divine. When we talk about God, about good and bad gods or about the Indian goddesses - who I particularly like - then we have to know: these are all just spectral lines from the spectrum of being. We can only ever see spectral lines, the rest is in the dark. We can only approximate the whole. I say: Truth, the divine, is something abstract, mathematics is also abstract, so mathematics is a very good means of approaching ultimate being. So it doesn't surprise me at all that mathematics plays such a big role in science.

Zeilinger: I would like to go one step further. In analogy to quantum mechanics: an image that I form in one situation does not necessarily apply in another situation as well. If I measure a particle, I can measure its location, then the location is correct; or I measure the impulse, then the impulse is correct. But if I now want to transfer the result from one measurement to the other, then that leads to contradictions. That is exactly how I would mean it with God: If you assign a quality to God in one context, that does not mean that it is also true in another context.

Bertlmann: Yes, I like that a lot.

Zeilinger: That would mean that ultimately you just can't get to the essence, and that's a good thing.

("Die Presse", print edition, March 24, 2013)