God’s design or the Big Bang and quantum foam?

In “Einstein, God, and the Big Bang,” a colorful chapter of his new book, Amir D. Aczel maintains that the great physicist truly believed in a higher being. He points out that Albert Einstein attended synagogue during 1913, when he spent a year in Prague.

Repeated are several of Einstein’s famous utterances mentioning the deity: “Subtle is the Lord, but malicious he is not” and “I want to know God’s thoughts — the rest are details.”

And Aczel quotes from a letter written to a little girl in January 1936: “Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man.”

In his intelligent and stimulating book “Why Science Does Not Disprove God,” the author expresses strong displeasure with New Atheists, such as physicist Lawrence Krauss and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who cast Einstein as an atheist in support of their diatribes against religious belief. In his best-seller, “The God Delusion,” Dawkins says Einstein “didn’t really mean it.”

Dawkins, Krauss, with his own book “A Universe From Nothing,” and Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith,” are prominent New Atheists, who use modern science to argue that God is not only unnecessary but unlikely to exist at all, even behind the curtains. There’s a certain religious fervor in all these books.

Aczel, trained as a mathematician, currently a research fellow in the history of science at Boston University, tries to show that such analyses fall far short of disproving the existence of God.

In fact, he accuses these folks of staining the scientific enterprise by bending it to their dark mission. Yet Aczel has a sly mission of his own.

Invoking various physical phenomena that do not (yet) have convincing scientific explanations, he sets out not only to debunk the arguments of the New Atheists but also to gently suggest that the findings of science actually point to the existence of God.

The resulting book is part science (interesting but superficial summaries of cosmology, quantum mechanics, evolutionary biology, chaos theory), part history of religion, part philosophy, part spirituality, and a modicum of backbiting and invective. The latter applies to the writings of the New Atheists as well.

Let’s start with the origin of the universe. No shortage of good scientific evidence that our universe began about 14 billion years ago, in a Big Bang of enormously high density and temperature, long before planets, stars and even atoms existed. But what came before?

Krauss in his 294-page book discusses the current thinking of physicists that our entire universe could have emerged from a jitter in the amorphous haze of the subatomic world called the quantum foam, in which energy and matter can materialize out of nothing.

On the level of single subatomic particles, physicists have verified in the lab that such creation from “nothing” can occur.

Krauss’ punch line is that we do not need God to create the universe. The quantum foam can do it quite nicely all on its own. Aczel asks the obvious question: But where did the quantum foam come from?

Legitimate questions. But ones we will probably never be able to answer.

In his foray into biology, Aczel says the theory of evolution is flawed. In particular, he points out that it does not explain altruistic behavior — such as jumping into a river to save an unrelated child — with no apparent survival benefit to the genes of the do-gooder.

“Human decency and goodness,” Aczel writes, come from religion and spirituality.

Aczel implies a creative power is behind the mysteries of “emergent” phenomena — when a complex system exhibits a qualitative behavior that cannot be explained in terms of the workings of its individual parts: for example, the emergence of self-replicating life from inanimate molecules or the emergence of consciousness from a collection of connected neurons.

But science is a work in progress, and phenomena not understood now may be explained 100 years from now. Before the 18th century, people had no explanation for lightning.

The reason that science cannot disprove the existence of God, in my opinion, is that God, as understood by all human religions, exists outside time and space. God is not part of our physical universe (although God may choose to enter the physical universe at times).

God is not subject to experimental tests. Either you believe or you don’t believe. Science cannot disprove the existence of God, any more than a fish can disprove the existence of trees.

Likewise, no matter what divine and spiritual feelings people have, theology cannot prove the existence of God.

The most persuasive evidence of God, according to the great philosopher William James in his landmark 1902 book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” is not physical or objective or provable. It is the highly personal transcendent experience.

There is one scientific conundrum that practically screams out the limitations of both science and religion. And that is the “fine tuning” problem.

For the past 50 years or so, physicists have become more and more aware that various fundamental parameters of our universe appear to be fine-tuned to allow the emergence of life — not only life as we know it but life of any kind.

For example, if the nuclear force were slightly stronger than it is, then all of the hydrogen atoms in the infant universe would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium, and there would be no hydrogen left. No hydrogen means no water.

On the other hand, if the nuclear force were substantially weaker than it is, then the complex atoms needed for biology could not hold together.

In another, even more striking example, if the cosmic “dark energy” discovered 15 years ago were a little denser than it actually is, our universe would have expanded so rapidly that matter could never have pulled itself together to form stars.

And if the dark energy were a little smaller, the universe would have collapsed long before stars had time to form. Without stars there would be no atoms and no life.

So, the question is: Why? Why do these parameters lie in the narrow Goldilocks range that allows life?

There might be some as-yet-unknown physics that requires these parameters to be what they are. But this explanation is highly questionable: Why should the laws of physics care about the emergence of life?

Second possibility: God created the universe, designed it to allow life.

Third possibility, and the one favored by many physicists today: Our universe is one of zillions of different universes with a huge range of parameters, including many different values for the strength of the nuclear force and the density of dark energy.

With such numbers, the odds are some harbor life. In this scenario, our existence in a universe that has at least one watery planet is simply a lucky accident.

To be sure, there are huge differences between science and religion as each tries to make sense of this fabulous and fleeting existence we find ourselves in.

Religion knows about the transcendent experience. Science knows about the structure of DNA and the orbits of planets. Religion gathers its knowledge largely by personal testament. Science gathers its knowledge by repeated experiments and mathematical calculations, and has been enormously successful in explaining much of the physical universe.

And here we come to the fascinating irony. Whether it’s about God or other universes, both the theological explanation and the scientific explanation require faith.

Alan Lightman, one of the Washington Post Writers Group, is a physicist, novelist and professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT. His latest book is “The Accidental Universe.”