Can Science Prove -- or Disprove -- God?


Issue #5 of  DIALOGOS: 
An Interactive Journal of Science, Philosophy, and Theology

Updated and expanded Mar. 16, 1999 and again on April 7, 2014.


Richard W. Kropf, editor


Introductory Remarks:

Since the first appearance (February 1997) of this issue , which originally consisted of a number of questions asked of two authors, not only have individual comments been sent in, but also a number of replies by way of whole essays on the subject .  While these essays merit reading, one in particular advances the dialogue in a particularly provocative way.  Accordingly, this issue has been reorganized as follows:

First; the interview (immediately below) with Kitty Ferguson, author of Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God (Eerdmans, 1994), and with Fred Heeren, author of Show Me God: What the Message from Space Is Telling Us About God (Searchlight Publications, 1995).  For continuing comments on this interview, click here.

Second, a paper by British microbiologist Richard Thornhill, a British microbiologist presently living in Japan, who takes issue with the positions held by biologist Richard Dawkins, one of the foremost exponents of Darwinism today. (To proceed directly to Thornhill's paper, click here)

It should be noted, that three different positions come out of these three authors: Heeren believes that science, particularly cosmology, tends to prove the existence of God. Ferguson believs that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, and Thornhill seems to believe that science, particularly Dawkin's science, cannot disprove it.  To me this raises an interesting question in terms of Popper's thesis that only ideas that are "falsifiable" in terms of scientific method can be said to be scientific.  Applied to the positions voiced here, can belief (or disbelief) in God be "scientific"? Send your comments to Dialogos.

Finally, as an update to this issue, I would like to add a quotation from theologian Jozef Ratizinger, most lately known as Pope Benedict XVI, from a passage which he read as part of his messasge to the World Youth Day held in Rome on April 12, 2006.  In part it reads as follows:

 

The more we can delve into the world with our intelligence, the more clearly the plan of creation appears.  In the end to reach the definitive question I would say: God exists or he does not exist.  There are only two options. Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of creative Reason that is at the beginning of all things and is the principle of all things — the priority of reason is also the priority of freedom — or one holds the priority of the irrational, inasmuch as everything that functions on our earth and in our lives would only be accidental, marginal, an irrational result — reason would be a product of irrationality.  One cannot ultimately “prove” either project, but the great option of Christianity is the option for rationality and for the priority of reason.  This seems to be to be an excellent option, which shows us that behind everything is a great Intelligence to which we can trust ourselves…

           

I don’t know what a huge milling crowd of young people made out of this passage, which I think the pope may have quoted from something he had written some years before as the church’s theologian-in-chief during his long term as “Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”, otherwise known in in past centuries as “The Holy Office” or even before that as “the Holy Office of the Inquisition”.  But I think these remarks are particularly interesting in that the First Vatican Council, which came top an abrupt halt when Gerabaldi’s revolutionary army invaded Rome, scattering the assembled bishops back to the various parts of the world from whence they came, that the council had declared in one of its “canons” as follows:

 

 Si quis dixerit, Deum unum et verum, creatorum et Dominum nostrum, per ea quae facta sunt, naturali rationis humanae lunime certo cognosci non posse: anathema sit.  (Denzinger  1806)

 

Now my Latin may have become a bit rusty after all these years away from theology school, but what Pope Benedict said or read on that occasion as recently as 2006 would seem to contradict, at least to some extent,

what was decreed back in 1870. On that earlier occasion, the council convened by Pope Pius IX, who got his way, despite quite a bit of dispute on the subject, when it came to his claims of papal infallibility, yet he seems to have had no problem at all in finding unanimity in the claim that (if I’m translating the above passage correctly) that “If anyone says that the one and true God, our creator and our Lord, cannot be certainly known by the light of human reason, through that which has been made, then [that person] is declared to be anathema.” – which last word in Greek means “outside [or apart from] the prize”, in otherwords “damned”.  So where does that put the last, even if resigned, pope?  I would invite comments from readers on this.    

 

 


INTERVIEW as follows:

Question #1:
Both of you seem to give somewhat contrasting verdicts (as your titles seem to indicate, Heeren being most positive, Ferguson less so) to our main question: "Can Science Prove God?" Ferguson remarked that as long as God was not thought of as a "person", most scientists seem to have little problem with the idea. So suppose we distinguish between the existence of God and the essence or "nature" of God: would this distinction cause you to qualify your answers?

Ferguson: No, sorry, but I would not qualify my answer. I don't believe that anyone taking an unbiased look at science could say that science proves (by scientific standards) either the existence or the essence or nature of God. It does not uphold atheism. If one chooses to be an atheist one must find another reason besides science.

God does, certainly, reach out to us through nature and science. If we already believe in God, as I do, then science and nature make us feel worshipful, can draw us closer to God, can become a celebration of the glory of God, can fill us with immense awe -- cause us to fall to our knees, can make us feel tremendous elation as we gain better understanding through science of God's magnificent, clever mind manifested in His Creation. Those who don't believe are sometimes surely led nearer to belief by an experience of nature. But science in no case that I know of offers independent proof of the existence of God.

In fact, in many instances in history where we thought we had found proof in science (the argument from design, for example), science turned right around and pulled the rug out from under our feet. Belief in God (or unbelief) because of supposed proof from science turns out to be terribly slippery footing, because science is a shifting body of knowledge, insisting on the "right to be wrong" and to change its mind frequently. Even before Darwin, theologians warned that using the "argument from nature" even as "secondary evidence" tended to give it too much importance and detract from more profound reasons for belief. Most who believe in God do so because they have experienced God's love and power and presence in their own lives and have seen it at work among those around them, not because of independent proof from science.

One might argue (on behalf of there being scientific proof) that St. Paul wrote (in Romans 1:20) "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." But Paul was talking about a common sense response to what we see in this universe, not about scientific proof as we insist on it today...

Heeren: My book certainly does not claim that "science can prove God." Since the scientific method cannot be applied to such an entity, God is clearly outside the domain of science. However, different scientific expectations about our universe arise according to one's personal view about the existence of a Creator, and these expectations can be met or disproved, in the spirit of putting the Creator's handiwork under the microscope rather than the Creator Himself. An atheist, to make his case most clear, would like to make discoveries about our universe to show that its development can best be attributed to random processes. A God-believer would predict that we should find clear evidence of care and precision, for our benefit, in the way that the universe is set up. What cosmologists find, of course, are carefully chosen values in nature's constants, adjusted to a degree that makes the odd too great to be explained by blind chance.

Most scientists acknowledge the evidence for some kind of organizing principle. And perhaps this is as far as science can take us. In Show Me God, however, I examine all the alternatives for various types of Creators. All can be summed up in three fundamental categories: God is the universe, God is us, or God is "other." By "other" I mean that God is not part of or one with the universe, but is of a distinctly different substance, independent of the physical universe we observe. My conclusion is that this century's greatest discoveries about our cosmos strongly support this latter view of the Creator: an entity beyond time, beyond space, a causeless cause, an infinite, all-knowing being, whose care and purpose show that this Creator of persons has at least as much attributes of thought, consciousness, will -- in short, "personhood" -- as we do.

Question #2:
I was particularly struck by your reactions to the whole idea of an "Anthropic Principle" (Heeren in particular seems very much put off by the whole idea, Ferguson remaining rather ambivalent). As a theologian, my own reaction has been much more positive, seeing in the AP a certain vindication of what seems to come very close to the teleological proof of the existence of God. Granted that some who have tried to advance the principle have gone to great lengths to avoid its theological implications, still, would you not both be encouraged by interest in the subject?

Heeren: Yes, I certainly would be encouraged by interest in the anthropic principle -- or anything else that draws people's attention to the amazing-but-not-so-well-known fact that our universe has been put together, against incredible odds, in a way that makes it look like it was designed for our benefit. As a matter of fact, in a recent video I did man-on-the-street interviews on Michigan Avenue in Chicago and on the U.of C.'s Berkeley campus, asking people what they knew about the fine- tuning of the universe -- and no one had ever heard of such a thing!

Cosmology, apparently, is not taught in high schools. But everyone takes a high school biology course, in which they are taught that evolution works without a goal -- its randomness is its essential feature. My book and my new magazine, Cosmic Pursuit, have as their core purpose the spreading of the word on the sort of discoveries that have given us our anthropic principle.

I'm only "put off" by the idea of taking too seriously the strong anthropic principle (esp. in its "multiple universes" and "participatory" variations) or by non-theists who misuse the general principle to say it "explains" the finely tuned physical constants as [simply] a "brute fact".

Ferguson: I think we can be encouraged by the questions that have led to the invention of the anthropic principle; for example, How is it that the universe is so remarkably fine-tuned to allow for our existence? However, the anthropic principle itself is (simply put) the statement that we find things fine- tuned for our existence because if they weren't we wouldn't be here to wonder why they are fine-tuned. Of course, the definition gets more sophisticated, but that remains the bottom line. The theological implications of this answer are that we don't necessarily need God in order to explain the fine-tuning. But I don't think we should be particularly discouraged. No one, not even scientists who don't believe in God, such as Stephen Hawking, claims that the anthropic principle has to be the correct explanation. In fact, most would rather find a better one.

Question #3:
One of my own areas of concern has been in "theodicy" or the problem of evil in this world. It seems to me that the whole process of evolution, with its inherent randomness or play of chance, for the first time gives us a rational insight into why so much suffering can coexist with a God that is inherently good. Would you care to comment?

Ferguson: I appreciate your point, and you have stated it eloquently in your piece "Evolution and the Problem of Evil, " but I am sorry to say that this is not an insight that I personally find very satisfying. It is my belief that God does have absolutely free choice as to whether and how to create, and it is not limited by any pre-existing standards or conditions. I don't even accept the notion that God is limited by the fact that He by nature is good and has no power to be anything but good. To me, that is a meaningless statement, since it is God Himself who is the very definition of good. In other words, God limits what "good" is. There is no reason or opportunity for "good" to limit what God is.

Be that as it may, if God chose to create the process of evolution as a way of allowing the universe to develop and eventually produce creatures such as ourselves who could exercise self-reflective awareness, seek God, and decide whether or not to respond to God, He chose a remarkably ingenious process but one in which there is immense suffering, and He is, then, wouldn't you say, responsible for that suffering? I don't think this contributes much to solving the problem of evil. We are right back with Augustine.

In defense of Augustine, I submit that one problem with discarding the Adam, Eve, and original sin explanation for evil is that, despite its flaws and woeful inadequacy (for example, it doesn't explain why the possibility of evil had to exist at all, and it seems incompatible with some of the evidence for evolution that we have discovered), and old-fashioned ring, nobody has managed to come up with a significantly more helpful explanation. Even if it is a metaphor or a parable (which to my mind does NOT downgrade its essential truth and power) it gives us very deep understanding of ourselves, God, and our estrangement from God.

May I add that I do not see God as perched up there in heaven ignoring our pain and suffering. I believe that God suffers intensely with his creation ... that whatever the root cause of evil and pain, God is in this with us all the way. Someone once suggested to me that we should get our priorities right, stop sniveling about unimportant things, and pray that our hearts would be broken by things that "break the heart of God." I could not pray for that. Not that my heart shouldn't be more like the heart of God for his creation, but I don't think I could bear to remain alive or maintain my sanity for a minute if I really had a heart for the suffering of this world like the heart of God -- if I really felt the world's suffering as God must do. Only God can bear to love us as He does and at the same time know and share our suffering without avoidance. Why, then, does He not put an immediate stop to it? I've heard lots of attempts to explain that, but I don't think any of us knows.

Heeren: The problem that Kropf is addressing is well worth the efforts he has made to explore it. I find his ideas intriguing. In reading his essay, I see that he has come to his solution on the basis of supposing that certain physical restrictions may be placed on the Creator, a solution that is only possible for a limited God.

Here's another solution to consider. This one is based on the idea that there is a logical, not a physical, restriction placed on the Creator, which is possible even for an infinite, unlimited God (consistent with Spinoza's First Cause, which could not be limited by anything, in order to be truly independent of His creation).

The solution is the necessity of free will, which Kropf and others so quickly dismiss. Now hear me out. Most people think it is good that we have moral choices. But then we have a problem with God allowing evil. You can't have it both ways. It's contradictory to have a morally free creature who can't choose wrong, thereby messing up the Creator's otherwise perfect universe. It's not a matter of God's lack of power: it's just a logical contradiction. It's like the old question: If God can do anything, then can God create a rock so big He can't lift it? It's just a logical contradiction. It doesn't say anything about God's physical limitation.

The questions, however, are so worthwhile because they lead us to good reasons for hope: How could a good God allow all the evil and suffering? Would He really just ignite the big bang and then sit back to watch us make a mess of things? Or would He have a plan? The answer, I believe, is wrapped up in the very essence of the good news of the Christian faith. No, the Creator who showed such initial care and purpose wouldn't sit back, powerless or unwilling to cure the evil that we do. And yes, being omniscient, He would have a plan from the beginning to do something about it. What He would do is spelled out in my book ...and in His. (See esp. "Seven Cosmic Histories" in Show Me God , pp 247-249.)

Kropf: I want to thank both of you for the time you have taken to contribute to "DIALOGOS". Although I do differ with both of you on several points. For example, I'm inclined to think, that with the advent of the Big Bang hypothesis, the argument for the existence of God is considerably strengthened, even if it hardly gives us much of clue as the nature of God, other than simply as an "uncaused cause". But of course, science could be wrong about the Big Bang.

As for my own attempt to solve the "problem of evil", I would like to point out that I do see (contrary to Heeren's impression) the existence of human freedom as THE key to understanding evil, but in a way that stresses the necessity of the chance and randomness of nature as causes of human tragedy and suffering, but (again) not in a way that all of this can be traced to human sinfulness. Of course, I realize, as both of you point out (and object to), that my approach assumes that God is in some way constrained to create this way, although I do not see this constraint so much as a "physical limitation" (God could create an entirely "perfect" world) as it is a logical one, as such a perfect world would be a world of robots. In other words, in some way I do put a limit to God's power just as did Rabbi Harold Kuschner in his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. You might even say that my book Evil & Evolution attempts to replace the "WHEN" in Kuschner's title with WHY (For a summary of the book's main thesis, see Dialogos Issue #4.)

But as for God's ultimate answer to this whole problem, I strongly agree with both of you. God identifies with our suffering completely, whether that suffering be part of the "growing pains" of the universe or somehow "atoning" for the all the evils committed by humankind. This is the essence of the Christian belief in the redemption, so much so that Ignatius of Antioch, one of the earliest of the "Church Fathers" (died about 110 CE/AD) could write boldly, without qualification, of "the passion [or suffering] of my God." (See Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans 6:3.) Perhaps the three of us can at least agree on that. Again, you have my thanks!


Notes:

Kitty Ferguson's book The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion & the Search for God was published in 1994 and is available from William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 255 Jefferson Ave. S.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49503.

Fred Heeren's book Show Me God: What the Message from Space Is Telling Us About God was published in 1995 and can be ordered directly from Searchlight Publications, 326 S. Wille Ave., Wheeling IL 60090.

Richard Kropf's book Evil & Evolution: A Theodicy was published by Fairleigh Dickenson University Press in 1984 and can be ordered from Associated University Presses, 440 Forsgate Dr., Cranbury, NJ 08512.

Harold Kuschner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People was first published by Schocken Books in 1983.


For further comments from readers on this interview , go to linked file

To proceed to Thornhill's paper: Richard Dawkins: Science, Non-science, Nonsense


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