Can Science Replace God?
Can Science Replace God?
A Fundamental Misunderstanding
Much of modern debate between atheists and theists has centered on a purported conflict between science and religion. One of the more prominent claims made by skeptics is the idea that science can disprove God, or at the very least, can make his existence extremely unlikely. Bertrand Russell, in his famous teapot analogy, claimed that if there exists a teapot revolving around the sun too small to be revealed by telescope or any other method, it is nonsensical to believe in the existence of that teapot even though its existence is impossible to disprove.[i] In the same way, he claimed that while God is impossible to disprove, our belief in his existence should not be the default position. Thus he argued that the burden of proof is on the theist to show why God exists. God, like the teapot, is a hypothesis that requires evidence.
To many modern secular thinkers, the advances of science have eliminated the need for God as a necessary hypothesis. Douglas Adams, in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, asked the question, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”[ii] He believed that God was not necessary to explain the rational order of the universe. Adams not only rejected God’s existence, but also saw the question of God as an unnecessary afterthought. Whether God exists or not is irrelevant—one can recognize the intricacies and beauty of nature without evoking God as an explanation.
This paradigm has expanded its reach beyond the realms of philosophers and creative artists and into the thinking of some in the scientific community. For many Christians one of the strongest arguments for God’s existence is the argument from creation, often titled the cosmological argument. While the argument takes on many forms, it is centered on the idea that the universe requires an explanation for its existence. If God did not exist, it seems unfathomable that something (the universe) would come from nothing.
Despite the cosmological argument’s enduring persistence in philosophical circles, recent developments in quantum physics have put this paradigm of creation under new scrutiny. In 2010, physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow published a book titled The Grand Design. In the book, they argue that the combination of quantum mechanics and general relativity explain how the universe could have formed from nothing:
Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.[iii]
While a full exposition of the novel is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to realize the philosophical point they proposed. To Hawking, Mlodinow, and many other atheistic scientists, the existence of the universe is entirely self-contained and the universe is self-perpetuating. The fundamental laws of physics are sufficient to account for the existence of the universe. God does not light the touch paper because he does not have to. The environment allows the blue touch paper to light itself.
The biggest problem with this argument is not an issue with Hawking’s physics, but that Hawking and Mlodinow are arguing against the wrong god. In fact, the entire conception of God that many modern atheists such as Russell, Adams, Hawking, and Mlodinow hold is vastly different from the conception of God espoused in classical Christian theism. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, in his book, The Experience of God, describes the god of these modern atheists as a “demiurge.” Hart defines demiurge as a “benevolent intermediary between the realm of eternal forms and the realm of mutability; he [the demiurge] looks to the ideal universe—the eternal paradigm of the cosmos—and then fashions lower reality in as close a conformity to the higher as the intractable resources of material nature allow.”[iv] This definition of God is restricted to a divine world-maker, an intelligent designer that uses pre-existing materials and laws to fashion an ideal world. This god is an immensely powerful and intelligent being, but is ultimately still finite and operates within the laws of nature. The arguments given by Hawking and Mlodinow presuppose a “god-of-the-gaps” scenario in which, when current scientific knowledge is unable to account for a particular phenomenon, God is given as the explanation. Hawking and Mlodinow are not arguing against the God of Christianity, but against a “demiurge-of-the-gaps,” a mere replacement for the scientific laws that have not yet been discovered. In doing so, these scientists set up a straw man of the Christian God that is startlingly misinformed.
Often, this line of thinking implies that God is contingent, that is, a being whose existence is dependent on a set of circumstances. The modern secular view of God is that of a contingent God. If God were contingent, however, he would be no different from the many deities found, for example, in Greek mythology. These deities are immensely powerful and watch over the world they create, but have limits on their power. The modern atheists’ redefinition of God leads to a belief system that is conceptually indistinguishable from polytheism and is a far cry from the Christian God, who is transcendent over all things.
This atheistic conception of God is also built on a materialist foundation filled with contradiction and circular reasoning. Materialism denies that anything exists apart from matter and material interaction.[v] Many secular thinkers assume this deficient view of God due to their own belief in a materialistic philosophy that attempts to account for the universe’s existence. Hart argues that materialism is fundamentally irrational, since it relies on circular reasoning to justify its claims:
We tend to presume that if one can discover the temporally prior physical causes of some object—the world, an organism, a behavior, a religion, a mental event, an experience, or anything else—one has thereby eliminated all other possible causal explanations of that object. But this is a principle that is true only if materialism is true, and materialism is true only if this principle is true, and logical circles should not set the rules for our thinking.[vi]
Materialism relies on certain assumptions that cannot be proven within the context of materialistic thinking. Materialism states that the only way to determine truth is through empirical means. Hart argues that this narrow view of reality removes all other causal possibilities if an explanation is found using the scientific method. That is, only things that can be determined with the scientific method exist, and supernatural explanations are meaningless. A skeptic, however, would immediately question the legitimacy of that statement itself. For that principle is only true if one holds the ideology that only physical causes exist (i.e. materialism). On the other hand, materialism is only true if one can reduce every object to its physical foundation, which brings the logic back full circle.
By assuming that the creation of the universe can only be achieved through material causes, skeptics inadvertently substitute God with an unknown material explanation, oblivious to the fact that they have defined a “god,” not “God.” In order to have a proper conception of God, one must abandon materialism as a method and a philosophy. The failure to do so leads one to miss the beauty of God as depicted in the classical Christian context.
In Christian theism, God is not a discrete object that may or may not exist; rather, God is the ultimate explanation for the question of being itself. The question of being asks why anything exists at all. American philosopher Richard Taylor illustrated the mystery of existence through his forest analogy. He posed a scenario of a man walking through a forest and unexpectedly finding a large translucent sphere.[vii] He would naturally and rightly suppose that the sphere could not have inexplicitly appeared without a cause. What Taylor argues is that, devoid of any cultural bias, the man is equally justified to ask the same question about every other object in the forest. In the same way, whether the sphere were the size of a pebble or the size of the universe is irrelevant to the question of why it is there. The question is not about the object’s nature, but about the very fabric of its existence.[viii] Any attempt to understand what God is must be done with this consideration in mind.
The question of existence does not only apply to the universe, but also to all contingent realities. Like the translucent sphere, nothing exists necessarily or inherently in and of itself, and thus must have an explanation that transcends itself. Surprisingly, it does not matter whether the universe was created out of nothing, from the laws of gravity, or if it existed eternally. Contingent objects may cause other contingent objects, but a non-contingent reality must be the cause of all contingent entities. Christians hold that this non-contingent reality is God, and is qualitatively different from the universe. Hart explains that whereas contingent objects rely on a foundation for their existence, God “is beyond all mere finite being, and is himself that ultimate ground upon which any foundations must rest.”[ix] God is independent of nature and exists unconditionally, but nature depends on God and could not exist apart from him. In essence, this was God’s revelation to Moses when he declared his name as being, “I am who I am.”[x] In other words, God is the only self-existent One. All others get their existence from Him.
One implication of the truth that all things are contingent on God is that the traditional deist conception of God as a cosmic craftsman that creates the universe and then retreats outside the cosmos is just as deficient as the atheist conception. By deducing God from the contingency of the universe, Hart claims that God is the creator “not as the first temporal agent in cosmic history…but as the eternal reality in which all things live, and move, and have their being.”[xi] Thus, it is impossible to separate God from his creation because the very existence of creation implies that God is present. This is not a pantheistic god identical to his creation, but a God that transcends his creation. If God is the necessary condition for existence, then creation is not just the product of divine power, but also a reflection of God’s eternal nature.[xii] In fact, Hart writes that because God transcends contingent reality, he does not “exist” in the same way we do. Rather,
He may be said to be ‘beyond being,’ if by ‘being’ one means the totality of finite things, but also may be called ‘being itself,’ in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity underlying all things.[xiii]
While this appears abstract, it is analogous to describing a God that is ultimately beyond full human comprehension. We say that God is the source of all reality from logic and reason, and we can know him personally through divine revelation and Scripture, but some things, such as the ways by which God forms and sustains the existence of nature, are ultimately unknown to us.
By adopting the classical Christian conception of God, one would see that recent developments in science pose no threat to the rationality of God’s existence. Both Russell’s teapot analogy and Adam’s comparison to fairies fail to understand the concept of what God is in relation to creation. Both fairies and teapots are contingent objects that may or may not exist. When Richard Dawkins quips that “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further,” he is not talking about the God of Christianity, but a contingent, polytheistic god like that of the Greeks.[xiv] Rather than a god that uses the laws of nature to fashion the world, God is “the infinite actuality that makes it possible for photons and (possibly) fairies to exist, and so can be ‘investigated’ only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or spiritual experiences.”[xv] While we can deduce God from logical reasoning, we can use science to determine the existence of revolving teapots. It is not a quantitative difference but a qualitative one—a god that can be compared to fairies and teapots occupies a conceptually different framework of reality compared to a God that is the infinite source of all being.
It is clear then that the attempts of some in the atheistic scientific community to explain away God’s connection to creation using quantum mechanics can never be successful. If science were to somehow prove an eternal universe, it would still be consistent with the principle of a necessary creator. For God’s act of creation should not be thought of as a moment in time, but an eternal act where he continuously sustains the existence of his creation. If the Big Bang did precede the universe, theories explaining the Big Bang would fail to disprove God. For example, if Hawking and Mlodinow’s theories were correct, the ultimate question would then be how the laws of physics and mathematics came to exist. In fact, Hart argues that if the laws of mathematics and physics alone created the universe, it would actually point towards God: The moment one ascribes to mathematical functions and laws a rational and ontological power to create, one is talking no longer about nature (in the naturalist sense) at all, but about a metaphysical force capable of generating the physical out of the intellectual…In short, one is talking about the mind of God.[xvi]
It is beyond the scope of science to provide an answer to the question of being. Nature is a closed system—to attempt to use science to explain the existence of nature is circular and self-refuting. By recognizing and defining God as the infinite source of being, Christians are not treating God as a substitute for mechanisms that they do not know. Rather, they are making a deduction of known facts about the universe and recognizing what God could not be. Without God, existence is fundamentally irrational. With God, creation is logical and beautiful.
i. Bertrand Russell, The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 11: Last Philosophical Testament, 1943-68, ed. John G. Slater and Peter Kollner (New York: Routledge, 1997) 547–548.
ii. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (London: Macmillan, 2009) 105.
iii. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010) 180.
iv. David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) 35.
v. Daniel Stoljar, “Physicalism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 9 September 2009, <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/entries/physicalism/>.
vi. Hart, Experience, 68.
vii. Hart, Experience, 91.
viii. Hart, Experience, 91.
ix. Hart, Experience, 95.
x. Exodus 3:14 (NIV).
xi. Hart, Experience, 106-107.
xii. Hart, Experience, 59.
xiii. David Bentley Hart, “God, Gods, and Fairies,” First Things (June 2013).
xiv Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion,” The Root of All Evil? Television, dir. Russell Barnes, United Kingdom: Channel 4, 2006.
xv Hart, Fairies.
xvi Hart, Experience, 112-113.
Joshua Tseng-Tham ’17 is from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a prospective double major in Economics and Philosophy.
Image: Days of Creation (First Day) by Edward Burne-Jones from WikiArt.Tags: apologetics, beauty, Bertrand Russell, David Bentley Hart, Douglas Adams, Leonard Mlodinow, philosophy, reason, Richard Dawkins, Richard Taylor, science, Stephen Hawking