Contemporary Confidence Faitheism v. Harvard Biologist George Wald

Harvard biologist George Wald died in 1997, but I can’t help but wonder what he would have made of the vanguard biologists (Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and PZ Myers) who make up the post 9-11 new “confidence atheists” or “faitheists.”

Dr. Wald had a very particular way of speaking and listening to nature, and in his 1967 Nobel Prize lecture he said:

I have often had cause to feel that my hands are cleverer than my head. That is a crude way of characterizing the dialectics of experimentation. When it is going well, it is like a quiet conversation with Nature. One asks a question and gets an answer, then one asks the next question and gets the next answer. An experiment is a device to make Nature speak intelligibly. After that, one only has to listen.

One only has to listen. And what did Dr. Wald believe that nature had told him over a lifetime of study? In 1984, at the age of 78, and thirteen years prior to his death (he died at the age of 91), Wald made an extraordinary confession before a meeting of the Quantum Biology Symposium:

It has occurred to me lately—I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities—that both questions [the origin of mind and the origin of life from nonliving matter] might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality—the stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create: science-, art-, and technology-making animals. In them the universe begins to know itself.

Dr. Wald was a lifelong skeptic who, late in life, came to infer the existence of mind prior to nature. Obviously, Dr. Wald’s inference was only that. And it appears that he held it with humility and not aggressive confidence. But as a way of being in the world, how different his measured expression was from the smugness and contempt for God expressed daily by Dawkins, Coyne, and Myers—our public confidence faitheists.

More intellectually humble scientists and nuanced Dr. Walds, please.

NOTE: In addition to the link provided, the longer quote from Dr. Wald can also be found in physicist Gerald Schroeder’s new book, God According to God: A Physicist Proves We’ve Been Wrong About God All Along (HarperOne 2009, p. 48-49). 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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