It is a curious thing, and it seems inconsistent. Scientists tend to argue that we should only believe what can be established by the scientific method, or something like it. Since God’s existence cannot be established scientifically, belief in God cannot be justified.
And yet sometimes they use very flimsy arguments that seem to have little scientific substance.
Unless he has been misrepresented by a reporter, cosmologist Sean Carroll seems to be the latest to venture into this territory.
- In the past God was used to explain all sorts of natural phenomena – for example, thunder and lightning, the daily rise and fall of the sun, and life itself. God explained the gaps in human knowledge. But now we understand scientifically how these things happen, the areas where God is needed is shrinking, and the need for God as an explanation is disappearing.
- The two big questions of cosmology – how the universe began and how it is so amazingly well-designed to allow life – are close to being resolved. Quantum gravity is a theory which explains the entire physical universe including its start, and the start of time, at the big bang, or perhaps the rebirth of an eternal universe at that event. And the likely existence of many, perhaps an infinite number, of universes, each with different physical laws, explains how one of them (at least) was suitable for life.
- Perhaps the ultimate question is “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Carroll’s answer to that is that there can be no answer to that question, that’s just how it is. Once science has a complete theory of the universe, there are no other questions to be answered. Postulating God as the answer is just an unnecessary complication.
- Thus the God hypothesis, judged by the standards of other scientific theories, does not do very well.
How good is the argument?
Immediate and ultimate causes
If I am playing snooker and attempt to pot the black, physics can (in principle) describe the immediate cause of the shot, my hitting the cue ball with the cue, and the result, in terms of kinetic energy, momentum, friction etc. But the ultimate cause of the shot may be seen as my decision to pot the black rather than the blue, and physics is not able to describe that in the same way.
It is (I suppose) true that some primitive religions use God to explain the immediate cause of natural phenomena (like “The thunder is God roaring.”). But I’m not sure if Christianity, and Judaism before it, ever did that to any significant degree. In the Old Testament God is seen as the power behind storms, rain, wind, etc, i.e. God is seen as the ultimate cause of everything, but not necessarily the immediate cause, which is what science investigates.
Science is not so good at resolving big issues like ultimate causes, God, morality, the meaning of life, etc. In that respect, science hasn’t replaced religion at all.
The origin of the universe
Some cosmologists claim that their theories show how the universe can appear out of nothing, but their “nothing” is not really nothing. They assume the laws of physics exist, or a quantum field exists, and these are far from nothing. Eminent cosmologist Sir Martin Rees:
Cosmologists sometimes claim that the universe can arise ‘from nothing’. But they should watch their language, especially when addressing philosophers. We’ve realised ever since Einstein that empty space can have a structure such that it can be curved and distorted. Even if shrunk to a ‘point’ it is latent with particles and forces – still a far richer construct than the philosophers’ ‘nothing’.
The design of the universe
The possible existence of a large number of universes (often called the multiverse) may explain the amazing design of our universe, but leaves unresolved the question of how the multiverse was so well designed that it produces zillions of separate universes, each with different laws and properties.
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Carroll may be right that this isn’t a scientific question, and therefore not one he is interested in. But it is clearly an important question for many people, and arguably points to the existence of God.
It seems to me that Carroll has simply avoided the question, not shown it is meaningless.
Science vs philosophy
No matter how much science can explain, and where scientists draw the boundary of their knowledge, it will always be possible to ask How did the universe come to be that way? and Is there anything outside the boundary? These must be, by definition, questions science cannot answer, because they are outside the boundary.
It seems that Sean Carroll has shown that a focus on the questions of science, which are immediate causes, may lead to not recognising the value of looking for ultimate causes.