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Is science replacing God?

October 22nd, 2012

Adam but no God

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.

The argument

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Read more

Is there no evidence for God?
How did the universe start?
The cosmological argument
Was the universe designed for us?
The teleological argument

7 Comments

  1. It’s a bit shocking that he doesn’t even consider the God “hypothesis” as anything other than a scientific theory. No consideration is given for philosophy.

  2. Yes, it seems to be a blind spot. Define science as the only way to know things then argue that nothing outside it matters because it doesn’t add to scientific knowledge.

  3. How could some of the scientists permit themselves to make a claim that would necessitate knowledge as extensive as the scheme of the universe, when their knowledge of the total scheme of being is *close* to zero, when confronted with a whole mass of unknowns concerning this very earth and tangible, lifeless matter, let alone the whole universe?

    Do scientific discoveries and knowledge cause such a scientist to conclude that matter, *unknowing and unperceiving*, is his creator and that of all beings?

    Some people regard matter as independent and imagine that it has itself gained this freedom and elaborated the laws that rule over it. But how can they **believe** that hydrogen and oxygen, electrons and protons, should first produce themselves, then be the source for all other beings, and finally decree the laws that regulate themselves and the rest of the material world?

    What is called science by the *science-worshippers* of the present age and regarded by them as equivalent to the sum total of *reality*, is simply a collection of laws applicable to a single dimension of the world. The result of all human effort and experimentation is a body of knowledge concerning a minute bright dot comparable to the dim light of a candle-surrounded by a dark night enveloping a huge desert of indefinite extent.

    All praise is due to ALLAH, the Lord of the Universe.

    http://www.al-islam.org/god-and-his-attributes-sayyid-mujtaba-musawi-lari/lesson-3-god-and-empirical-logic

  4. Hi, thanks for reading and commenting. Even though I am Christian and you are Muslim, there is much that we agree on. I too believe we cannot explain the universe adequately without God.

    Nevertheless, I think science can give us extensive knowledge of the universe that we both agree God made, even including the laws which govern the universe on a large scale. I’m not sure if you think that?

  5. There is something which we all know, and it was born after the existence of the earth, namely: life. Our scientists state that earth was too hot (and some of them say it was too cold) for any kind of life to exist on it. It took the earth millions of years to become a suitable place for life. Life, therefore, is, undoubtedly, a newborn.

    Science, however, tells us that life does not originate from non-living being. Pasteur’s experiment, which took place in the 19th century, is still standing. Through his sterilized soup, he proved beyond any doubt that life does not originate from inanimate material. The scientists of today are still unable to disprove his conclusion.

    The earth, along with its atmosphere, at the time of its formation was sterile and unproductive. Transforming the inanimate materials, such as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and iron into a living being could not, therefore, be done through a natural process. It must have been done miraculously.

    This means that the existence of life on this planet is a shining evidence on the existence of an Intelligent, Supernatural Designer.

    http://www.al-islam.org/inquiries-about-islam-mohamad-jawad-chirri

  6. I agree with you that the origin of life is a challenge for the non-theist, but scientists believe life CAN arise from non-life. They haven’t been able to prove that yet, and many different processes have been tried and rejected as not “working”. But it may be that they WILL discover a process that works one day. My view is that we should be wary of being too definite about this either way.

    Many christian theologians believe God created the universe so that life would arise from non-life and evolve to produce humanity (and maybe many other forms of intelligent life too – who knows?) – and they say this is are harder task than stepping in every now and then to make the next stage happen, and so shows God to be even greater. Would you be able to accept that view?

  7. All beings were originally non-beings; they were non-existent, and then they became existent. Atheist scientists wish to say that the energy/matter/universe/natural forces/ etc are eternal, but this notion is incorrect for the following reasons:

    First, if the material energy/matter/universe/natural forces/ etc are eternal, it follows that an eternal being should be subject to change and cessation, which is impossible.

    “Second, if the elements comprising the energy/matter/universe/natural forces/ etc are eternal by virtue of their essence, how is it possible that they should enter the embrace of death and disappearance?

    And if, conversely, they lack life in their essences, how can life surge forth from them?

    “If the say that living beings emerge from living elements and inanimate beings from inanimate elements, we reply that an essence that lacks life in and of itself cannot be eternal and cannot be the source for life.

    Belief in the eternity of the energy/matter/universe/natural forces/ etc is held by those who deny the existence of a ruler and planner of creation, reject the messengers of God, regard the books they bring as the fables of the ancients, and **concoct** beliefs pleasing to themselves.

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