Readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of Robert J. Sawyer, and Calculating God is my favorite of his books. It's Sawyer's most thorough exploration of religious ideas, and makes fine use of the philosophical dialogs that are a trademark of his fiction. The story describes a first contact scenario with two races of aliens, the Forhilnor and the Wreeds, who believe in God—an intelligent designer who has manipulated the universe to give rise to intelligent life. They fear that a soon-to-be-triggered supernova will cause an extinction on our galaxy's three known inhabited worlds, and they seek the help of a paleontologist, Thomas Jericho, in contacting God to prevent an interstellar cataclysm. But Jericho doesn't believe in God, giving the aliens ample opportunity to explain their intermingled theology and science.
The aliens make no distinction between religion and science. Their main spokesman, Hollus, explains:
"The primary goal of modern science... is to discover why God has behaved as he has and to determine his methods... We do not believe that he simply waves his hands and wishes things into existence. We live in a universe of physics, and he must have used quantifiable physical processes to accomplish his ends. If he has indeed been guiding the broad strokes of evolution on at least three worlds, then we must ask how? And why? What is he trying to accomplish?"For these aliens physics, biology, and theology are all aspects of the same thing. They're confused at the divisions that humans have built up: they don't understand conservative Christians' rejection of contraception or the unpopularity of the anthropic principle. And they especially do not understand the supposed conflict between God and evolution; in their system, the existence of God points to evolution and evolution points to the existence of God. They may use terminology reminiscent of intelligent design, but these aliens can't be mistaken for creationists.
You'd think it would be a more popular idea. From dark energy to supersymmetry, there's plenty in modern science to incite a theological renaissance, and to some extent it has. But creationists are still among the loudest voices in the conversation, and they're holding back the development of a more robust theology. As Hollus argues, we need a God that fits the facts of our universe. Evolution is one of those facts, and is actually a gateway to some wonderful theological concepts (among them Teilhard de Chardin's Christ the Evolver).
That's the kind of thing the term "intelligent design" should be used to define—a theology informed by science that seeks to find God's imprint on the observable, explainable phenomena of the universe. It seems deistic at first to say that God acts through scientific, physical laws, and the Forhilnor do seem to view God as a sort of minimally-acting watchmaker. But the Wreeds take a more maximalist view:
"'God observes; wavefronts collapse. God's chosen people are those whose existence he/she/it validates by observing.'...Quantum physics gives a concrete way of explaining the unfathomable awesomeness of God's power, but since it comes with the association of non-theistic ideas, creationists want nothing to do with it. (Indeed, as one Godtube video shows, some creationists go so far as to reject the concept of ex nihilo creation as too similar to the Big Bang theory.) And atheists don't like it too much either—The Skeptical Inquirer lambasted Calculating God as "pro-creationist," prompting two responses from Sawyer. The aliens in Calculating God science and theology feed one another rather than fighting—and in the end their union saves the galaxy.
'You are suggesting,' I said, 'that God chooses moment by moment which present reality he wants to observe, and, by so doing, has built up a concrete history timeslice by timeslice, frame by frame?'
'Such must be the case.'"
Sawyer has assembled an array of articles relating to Calculating God on his website, where you can also read the book's opening chapter. You can also read Sawyer's short essay "Science and God," in which he lays aside the artifice of drama and character to explain his personal thoughts on religion and science.
I discuss the novel's attitude to questions of faith and proof in chapter 7 of The Gospel According to Science Fiction.