Not long ago the Internet was set a-Twitter by a letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal by Eric Metaxas that brazenly asserted that “science increasingly makes the case for God” (Metaxas, lest anyone be surprised, is not himself a scientist of any kind). The article made use of the Anthropic Principle, fine-tuning and some (dated) astrobiology to assert that the universe bore the traces of a supernatural Creator. Lawrence Krauss, who has secured a coveted (and lucrative) seat amongst the leadership of the New Atheists was having none of it. He fired back a response that effectively eviscerated the arguments made by Metaxas (a longer version of this is available on The New Yorker). Rather than rehash the argument here, suffice it to say Krauss pointed out that the astrobiology relied upon by Metaxas was out of date, and he also, quite deftly, poked a gaping hole in the Anthropic argument.
This whole exchange struck me as more amusing than anything else. I am no fan of Mr. Krauss-not because he is merely polemical (he is that but then again so am I), but rather because he is a world class, grade-A [insert expletive]. That being said, Krauss knows his science and has roundly defeated most of the apologists he has debated. I’ve noted before that John Lennox did extremely poorly in a debate against Krauss (others responded to points made by Krauss better than Lennox himself did), and as far as I’m concerned Krauss utterly trounced William Lane Craig (Craig’s response was too little too late). In each case-Lennox, Craig, Metaxas-it seems to me the problem is the same: The apologist makes the mistake of attempting to invoke science he simply does not understand.
In the case of “The Wall Street Journal Skirmish”, as far as I’m concerned, the beating that Metaxas took was well deserved. It makes an extraordinarily sharp contrast with the far more scientifically literate (and humble) approach of Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit and astronomer with the Vatican Observatory and author of the book Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? Br. Consolmagno displays a humility that seems to be lacking amongst both Christian and New Atheist apologists (for instance, in one talk, he repeatedly stresses we cannot draw conclusions when we don’t know what we don’t know). Incidentally, the possibility of alien life should not be at all threatening to the Christian. Those interested in the potential theological implications of that issue should read the always calm and restrained thoughts of C.S. Lewis (specifically his essays Religion and Rocketry and The Seeing Eye).
In any case, I attempting to use science to “prove” the existence of God is a perilous matter. In his book A Universe from Nothing Krauss quite accurately recounts the exchange between George Lemaitre, the Belgian-priest physicist who helped develop the standard Big Bang theory, and Pope Pius XII. Lemaitre was livid when the Pontiff attempted to appropriate the theory as scientific evidence for the creation of the universe, and proceeded to (privately) give the Holy Father a dressing-drown. It seems to me that if the standard Big Bang theory turns out to be true-and that space and time did indeed have an absolute beginning and came from “nothing” (Lennox and Krauss somehow spent almost 10 minutes debating the meaning of the word) then, to quote none other than Stephen Hawking, it seems there would clearly be some religious implications. Father Robert Spitzer explains this position further in New Proofs for the Existence of God.
The problem, of course, is that we do NOT know-not yet at least-if the standard version of the Big Bang theory is true. A variety of theories are making the rounds today, many of which postulate the existence of something “before” the Big Bang. Incidentally, Fr. Spitzer argues that most of these theories still seem to point towards some kind of absolute true beginning that, for lack of a better way to put it, predates physicality (this position seems to be shared by the eminent physicist Alexander Vilenkin). With these competing theories of the Big Bang, and the possibility that the “eternal universe” of Aristotle appears to be hovering in the background prepared to return should one of these competing theories prove correct, it would be wise to avoid being hasty on drawing theological conclusions from cosmology (incidentally neither Maimonides nor Thomas Aquinas was intimidated by the idea of an eternal universe).
Is this, then, the same thing as saying that science leaves no room for God? Has modern theoretical cosmology completely obliterated the need for a Creator? Here I would like to cite an article by another atheist physicist Sean Carroll, simply and appropriately entitled, Does the Universe Need God? Carroll makes the by now predictable argument that science can arrive at a perfectly coherent understanding of the universe that leaves no room for a supernatural Creator. The essay explains quite well the emerging theories of the Big Bang I referenced above, as well as a critique of the Anthropic argument. I highly recommend reading this essay, not only for what is an excellent scientific summary, but because Carroll sets forth with unusual clarity the real battleground and the real point of divergence, when he writes the following:
For convenience I am brutally lumping together quite different arguments, but hopefully the underlying point of similarity is clear. These ideas all arise from a conviction that, in various contexts, it is insufficient to fully understand what happens; we must also provide an explanation for why it happens – what might be called a “meta-explanatory” account.
It can be difficult to respond to this kind of argument. Not because the arguments are especially persuasive, but because the ultimate answer to “We need to understand why the universe exists/continues to exist/exhibits regularities/came to be” is essentially “No we don’t.” That is unlikely to be considered a worthwhile comeback to anyone who was persuaded by the need for a meta-explanatory understanding in the first place.
Granted, it is always nice to be able to provide reasons why something is the case. Most scientists, however, suspect that the search for ultimate explanations eventually terminates in some final theory of the world, along with the phrase “and that’s just how it is.” It is certainly conceivable that the ultimate explanation is to be found in God; but a compelling argument to that effect would consist of a demonstration that God provides a better explanation (for whatever reason) than a purely materialist picture, not an a priori insistence that a purely materialist picture is unsatisfying.
Why are some people so convinced of the need for a meta-explanatory account, while others are perfectly happy without one? I would suggest that the impetus to provide such an account comes from our experiences within the world, while the suspicion that there is no need comes from treating the entire universe as something unique, something for which a different set of standards is appropriate.
One could not ask for a clearer delineation separating the Christian/theistic/religious POV from that of scientific naturalism. The issue is not one of physics, but of metaphysics. The argument is over whether the truths of science fit into a larger “meta-narrative” (or “meta-theory” as Carroll would say) of the world, or if we are content to say “That’s just the way it is”. This is hardly a new divide by the way, Bertrand Russell said it long before Krauss and Carroll came on the scene. It is also shared by other physicists, including Brian Greene who has remarked “… if you don’t view God as the reservoir of temporary answers to issues we haven’t solved scientifically, but rather as some overarching structure within which science takes place, and if that makes you happy and satisfied, so be it. I don’t see the need for that; others do”; and the British physicist Jim al-Khalili, who says “For me the universe is just there.”
The essence of the debate, then, is not really scientific, it is philosophical. It is not a debate about this or that piece of data, or any particular scientific analysis (pace the efforts of the Intelligent Design community) but rather a question of how the data is interpreted, whether it is to be understood as part of a wider framework. James Arraj, as he so often does, nails the problem:
…scientific discourse sometimes becomes encrusted with the philosophical and religious inclinations of the scientists.
There should be nothing shocking about this observation, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have both noted that there really is no such thing as “pure science” uncontaminated by some form of philosophy. One can get a particularly intriguing glimpse of this in the debate over consciousness-as James Alison remarked to me recently “The battle between cognitivists and pre-cognitivists, one where the preconceptions of each party’s lenses dominate their explanations entirely, will, I suspect be going on long after we are food for the worms!” Indeed.
Now, back to Sean Carroll for a moment. Carroll argues that historically God has been seen-in some sense-as an explanation for the universe, after all we speak of God as Creator. Again, Carroll is not wrong. Here I’d like to quote the Pope Emeritus from a homily in his book In the Beginning,
A mere “first cause,” which is effective only in nature and never reveals itself to humans, which abandons humans-has to abandon them-to a realm completely beyond its own sphere of influence, such a first cause is no longer God but a scientific hypothesis. On the other hand, a God who has nothing to do with the rationality of creation, but is effective only in the inner world of piety, is also no longer God; he becomes devoid of reality and ultimately meaningless. Only when creation and covenant come together can either creation or covenant be realistically discussed-the one presupposes the other.
Incidentally, the twin parallels of creation and covenant are Biblical as well, as N.T. Wright has written. The bottom line, however, is that Carroll is correct, the idea of God as Creator is indeed central to us. But to again quote the Pope Emeritus, this does not mean that belief in creation concerns “information about the external processes by which the cosmos and man himself comes into being.” Rather,
Faith in the Creator Spirit is an essential part of the Christian creed. The fact that matter has a mathematical structure, is spirit-filled, is the basis of the modern natural sciences.
It is only because matter is structured intelligently that our mind can interpret and actively refashion it. The fact that this intelligible structure came from the Creator Spirit who also gave us our own spirit, brings with it both a duty and a responsibility.
For the Pope Emeritus, as for me, the overall intelligibility-the rationality, the mathematical structure of the universe-cries out for explanation, and the idea of a “Mind Behind it All” is far more palatable than the atheist notion that the universe is “just there.” And intriguingly, I sometimes catch glimpses of a metaphysics in the New Atheists that is not as far from the Catholic worldview as some may think. For instance:
- Keith Ward, in a talk on his newest book, remarks that Peter Atkins once told him (Ward) that he (Atkins) is not a materialist, given the primacy that he (Atkins) gives to the laws of nature;
- Steven Pinker has denied that scientism is “the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise”;
- Daniel Dennett, in an interview with Robert Wright, the following telling exchange took place:
Wright: I guess the question is: You don’t see belief in God or even belief in any kind of higher power or even a belief in a transcendent foundation for morality? You don’t see any of that as really necessary as far as creating good behavior
Daniel Dennett: Let’s talk about transcendent…
Daniel Dennett: … and morality. One of the things that we have evolved to discover on this planet is arithmetic. We didn’t invent it, we didn’t make it. We found it. It is eternal. A priori. True. It’s this great stuff and it’s true everywhere in the universe. It’s true anywhere in any universe. There’s only one arithmetic. Is that transcendent, I would say yes. I don’t know for sure what you mean by transcendent …
Wright: Sort of a Platonic thing…
Daniel Dennett: Yes yes a sort of Platonism…
Wright: We happened upon it’s truth.
Daniel Dennett: We discovered it and it’s true. Could there be a sort of similarly Platonic ethics? Could we find the universal principles of good behavior for intelligent beings? I’m agnostic about that. I don’t see why we couldn’t. I don’t see that the parochialism of our concerns would necessarily stand in the way of … we can ask … we can ask the same question about ethics that we ask about antithetic. If we went to another planet, if the search for intelligent life, for extraterrestrial life was intelligence, if this paid off if we discovered another civilization somewhere in the galaxy that was intelligent… What would they share with us? We’d certainly share arithmetic. Maybe not base 10 arithmetic that’s anybodies guess. It might be base 12 or base 16 or base 8. Who knows? That’s an accident. But it would still be arithmetic. Now, we can say and would it share ethical principles with us? And I think in some regards yes it would. I now does that make those principles transcendent. Yes. It’s not might makes right. And it’s not this is what our grandfathers did so this is what we’re going to do. It’s not just historical accident. I think that there could be a truly universal basis for ethics.
Mathematical Platonism? A Platonic set of ethics? This recognition that there is a “transcendental” dimension to nature is, though the New Atheists themselves would bristle at this, a great step towards the Christian worldview. It was none other than John Polkinghorne who argues that the Good, the True and the Beautiful are transcendentals discovered by human beings, not things made up. The mathematical structure of reality, the “Moral Law”, true beauty, are all cut from the same cloth. Polkinghorne rejects materialism, idealism and dualism as all being found wanting, and instead speaks of “dual-aspect monism”, the notion that creation is defined by complementary material and non-material poles. Those on the transcendent end can be known by all.
Again, of course, this isn’t proof. That the intelligibility of the world demands an Intelligence behind it, a Mind, is something Polkinghorne and Benedict (and myself) concur on, but it fails to impress Pinker or Krauss. Even this, remains at the last, a question of meta-narrative and not something that all intelligent people will agree on. But between the “it’s just the way it is” explanation, and the possibility that a Mind lies behind the world in its material and non-material dimensions, I’d gladly bet on the latter any day of the week.
A few more thoughts, which I’ll pose as questions:
1: Do I believe there is any “scientific proof” of God’s existence?
Not really. Again, there is the mathematical character of reality, which points to intelligence. And as Stephen Jay Gould noted in his essay Mind and Supermind (included in the anthology The Flamingo’s Smile) I think it is fair to consider the Anthropic principle a possible interpretation of the evidence. I also would posit that Something had to “breathe fire in the equations” to make a universe for them to describe, but that’s another matter.
But broadly speaking, no, I do not think God can be “proven” by science.
2) Do I believe there is a “good” atheist argument against God out there?
Sort of. Victor Stengar, in his posthumously published God and the Multiverse, asks (rhetorically) “Why should non-being, rather than being, be the default state of existence?” Again, this is hardly a new question, it is simply the eternal universe popping up again (which, incidentally, just came up in another article). Nonetheless, I will grant that this is a fair question. Even so it doesn’t persuade me. As David Bentley Hart repeatedly hammered in his book The Experience of God, existence is not a brute fact. Like DBH I think naturalism as a philosophy is logically untenable, but again this comes down to a philosophical debate and the argument one finds most persuasive. As provoking as Stengar’s question is, the sheer sense of wonder at existence, coupled with DBH’s arguments, overpowers it.
3) Why believe then?
For me, it is the power of religion as a force in history (in particular the survival of Judaism and its contribution to Western civilization far disproportionate to its size), as well as the extraordinary possibility of the resurrection of Christ in history (I’m eternally grateful to the work of N.T. Wright on this subject). It is also seeing Christianity-Tradition, the Church-as a living and integrated force in history. There are the countless lives touched and transformed by God, the Risen Christ, who are nourished and shaped by and within that system. This Revelation complements and completes the natural theology I’ve discussed above. Natural theology alone is superfluous in science as Carroll noted (interestingly both Krauss and Dawkins have signaled at various points that they are not opposed to Deism) and simply pointless otherwise.
A final thought. In a debate between Jonathan Sacks and Richard Dawkins the former argued that science addresses “how” questions, whereas religion is concerned with “why”. Dawkins, intriguingly, responded that he would accept this dichotomy but only if there was some scientific reason to accept “why” questions as valid. One could not ask for a better example of scientism, which is a rejection of all other forms of knowledge. I am afraid that for one who demands scientific proof for something which is simply not scientific, there is no answer to be given. That impasse cannot be bridged. We are left, then, with the clash of the meta-narratives.