Science and Religion: Part IV

I. Introduction
II. Definitions
III. Areas of purported conflict
IV. Evidence for God from Science
V. The hiddenness of God

IV. Evidence for God from Science

Although this is a huge topic, I want to briefly sketch a few arguments that I believe point to the existence of God. If you’re an atheist or an agnostic tonight, I want you to resist the temptation to simply reject these observations out of hand because they don’t “prove God”. “Proof” is generally relegated to the realm of mathematics. Instead, I am asking: which worldview is more consistent with these observations? And that’s what science does: it doesn’t prove things. Instead, it examines the evidence and then seeks to infer the best explanation for the evidence. That is the question I want us all to consider: which worldview better explains these five pieces of evidence. Are these five pieces of evidence better explained by the hypothesis that God exists or by the hypothesis that God does not exist?

A. The mathematical structure of the universe

First, let’s consider the mathematical structure of the universe itself. Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner wrote a very famous paper entitled “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” [Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. I (1960)] in which he observes that the remarkable success of mathematics in describing the physical world is actually very surprising. Mathematics He repeatedly uses the words miracle and miraculous to describe this phenomenon. After all, it is not metaphysically necessary that the universe is the way it is. We could conceive of a universe that was wholly chaotic, described by no underlying mathematics at all. We could conceive of a universe that was just partially chaotic, with temporal and spatial regularity sporadically interrupted by chaos. Perhaps the laws of nature in one laboratory are different than in another laboratory. Perhaps the laws of nature on one planet are different than what they are on another planet. But instead, we observe a universe with a deep and beautiful underlying mathematical structure.

But in addition to the mathematical structure of the universe, there is another surprising observation: that we are able to perceive and understand this structure. This fact is also quite surprising. After all, while one might argue that evolution could select for enough intelligence to escape sabertooth tigers or to avoid falling off cliffs, why exactly are human beings -and human beings alone- able to comprehend quantum mechanics or molecular biology? Surely, that didn’t confer any reproductive benefit to our ancestors, who would have been far better served by sharper teeth than by the (unused) ability to understand string theory. After all, chimpanzees and dolphins are both very intelligent but have nowhere near the capacity for abstract thought that humans do. Why should we expect human beings to understand science any better than them? As Einstein said: “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

So we have a conjunction of two very surprising phenomena: a deep, beautiful mathematical structure that pervades the entire universe and the remarkable ability of human beings -alone, uniquely- to comprehend this beauty. What explains this conjunction? It is hard to explain why either of these two phenomena would exist in a purely naturalistic universe. But both phenomena fit quite naturally into a universe created by an infinitely wise God who uniquely created human beings in the divine image to perceive and appreciate the world He had created.

B. The beginning of the universe

Second, the vast majority of modern astronomers now believe that the universe is not eternal; instead, they believe it had a beginning about 14.3 billion years ago in an event known as the Big Bang. What most people aren’t aware of was that this model was resisted for decades because it contradicted the prevalent belief of physicists that the universe was eternal (which went back at least as far as the ancient Greeks). BigBang

Indeed, as recently as 1989, John Maddox the editor of Nature magazine -one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world- wrote that the Big Bang is “philosophically unacceptable” and that “Creationists and those of similar persuasions seeking support for their opinions have ample justification in the doctrine of the Big Bang” [“Down With the Big Bang”, Nature, 340 (1989)]. And you can see why the Big Bang was problematic to naturalists. If the universe was eternal, then there was no need for it to have a cause. But if the universe began to exist, wouldn’t something or someone have to have caused it to come into being? And if the all of time, space, matter and energy came into being at the Big Bang, then wouldn’t the cause of the Big Bang have to be immaterial, outside of time, and outside of Nature? While this observation doesn’t prove that the cause of the universe had to be God, it certainly seems to be suggestive.

C. The fine-tuning of the universe

Not only has the origin of the universe furnished suggestive evidence for theism, but the recently discovered fine-tuning of the universe has provided even more suggestive evidence. The standard model of physics is our best working model describing the interaction of fundamental forces and subatomic particles. However, this model includes a number of independent parameters -like the ratio of the gravitational force to the strong force or the cosmological constant- that must be obtained from experiment. Right now, they cannot be obtained from other more fundamental equations; they are simply inputs to the model. What physicists have recently discovered is that a number of these constants appear to have been exquisitely finely-tuned to allow for the existence of intelligent life in the universe. If some of these constants had been changed even a fraction of a percent, life would be impossible.

The most dramatic example of fine tuning is found in the cosmological constant, which is finely tuned to one part in 10^120, which is 1 part in 1 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. This is just one example of fine tuning among the fundamental constants and parameters that determine our universe, which is why it is widely recognized by both Christian and non-Christian physicists to be a real phenomenon. Reflecting on these discoveries, renowned British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle said: “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.

So what is the most popular non-theistic explanation for fine tuning? Currently, many atheists posit the existence of an infinite number of undetectable parallel universes. In each of these parallel universes, the fundamental constants are all slightly different. As a result of this variation, every possible value is sampled somewhere in the infinite multiverse; we just happen to be the universe that got lucky. Now there are physical objections to this explanation, but right now, I want to focus on just one practical objection. Many atheists say: “I could never believe in God; it takes too much faith.” But surely, it takes at least a little faith to believe that there exist an infinite number of undetectable parallel universes. After all, if an infinite multiverse does exist, then there are actual universes out there in which pink unicorns exist. There is some universe out there composed entirely of Gorgonzola cheese. If God’s existence seems implausible to you, surely these ideas are at least as implausible!

D. The surprising implications of quantum mechanics

Fourth, I can’t resist saying a brief word about quantum mechanics since it is my professional area of expertise. Although it doesn’t necessarily provide reasons to believe that God exists, it does seem to have some very important implications for naturalism.

Let me list two well-accepted features of quantum mechanics that are surprisingly not well-known to most non-physicists. First, quantum mechanics makes it extremely hard to identify inviolable “laws of nature.” According to quantum mechanics, while events may be extremely improbable, very few events can be ruled out as absolutelyimpossible.

For instance, when physicist Alvaro de Rujula was asked whether the LHC, a particle supercollider, has the potential to destroy the world, he replied: “the random nature of quantum physics means that there is always a minuscule, but nonzero, chance of anything occurring, including that the new collider could spit out man-eating dragons” [Dennis Overbye, “Gauging a Collider’s Odds of Creating a Black Hole”, NYTimes, 4/15/08]. He was making a joke, but he was also technically exactly correct. Almost anything is technically possible under quantum mechanics. As a result “miracles” can no longer be dismissed as impossible. And if God decided to intervene in the universe, he could do so without violating any of the natural laws he created.

Second, quantum mechanics dictates that there are some entities that will never be accessible to observation. In contrast to a Newtonian universe in which every entity can theoretically be measured, quantum mechanics presents us with a universe in which the most basic description of reality, the wavefunction, cannot be measured even in principle. This idea may be a bitter pill to swallow for many proponents of scientism and perhaps even naturalism, because it implies that there are hidden, unknowable entities that are fundamentally inaccessible to science.

Finally, although I can’t go into detail, many of the founders of quantum mechanics, such as Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann, held that quantum mechanics demonstrates that consciousness plays a role in the universe distinct and different from matter. Now their view is only one interpretation and is not held by all modern physicists, but it remains popular. I think that a conservative assessment would affirm that quantum mechanics makes the possibility of mind-body dualism far more plausible than it would have been on a Newtonian view of physics. So while quantum mechanics doesn’t provide direct evidence for God’s existence, I think it does challenge naturalistic ideas about reality in at least three areas: the possibility of the miraculous, the fact that not all entities are accessible to science or observation, and the possibility that mind is distinct from matter.

E. The intrinsic goodness of truth

Finally, I want to ask what the search for truth itself can tell us about God’s existence. One prerequisite for the entire scientific enterprise seems to be the assumption that truth is intrinsically good and that we ought to seek it. If truth is not intrinsically good, then why seek the truth at all, either through science or some other means? Any worldview which cannot explain why we ought to seek the truth is going to undercut the very foundations of the scientific enterprise. So let’s ask the question: is truth intrinsically good and should we seek to know the truth? The difficulty arises when we try to explain why truth-seeking is intrinsically good and morally obligatory if naturalism is true, if Nature is all that exists.

Most naturalistic theories of morality tend to equate ultimate value and moral goodness with human flourishing. So if we wanted to try to explain why truth is good on naturalism, we could say something like “Truth is good because it promotes human flourishing. Scientific truth enables us to cure diseases and feed the hungry. That is what makes it good.” Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work in this case because it makes truth an instrumental good not an intrinsic good. What do I mean? An intrinsic good is something that is an end unto itself. It is good because of what it is. An instrumental good is a means to an end. It is good only insofar as it leads to some other, ultimate good. So why does it matter that naturalism makes truth an instrumental good rather than an intrinsic good? It matters because truth-seeking and human flourishing are often in deep conflict.

For instance, let’s imagine that you are an atheist and your Christian grandmother is dying; her only comfort is that she believes that she will soon be in the presence of Jesus. She says “I’m sad that I’m dying, but I’m so happy that I’ll soon be face to face with Jesus, that I’ll be reunited with my husband and my little son who died when he was young.” Do you urge her to seek the truth? No, because it will diminish her flourishing. Or perhaps atheists like Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre are right in their assessment that atheism is a terrible, miserable, agonizing truth. So what if it turned out factually that most people would be happier believing religious delusions rather than believing the truth of atheism? In that case, a commitment to human flourishing as the ultimate good would require us to promote religious beliefs, even if they are obviously false, because we’re ultimately committed to human flourishing, not to truth.

So it doesn’t seem that naturalism can furnish us with any reason to think that truth is intrinsically good or that truth-seeking is morally obligatory. And that inability tends to undercut the entire scientific enterprise. So can any worldview explain why truth is intrinsically valuable and why truth-seeking is morally obligatory? Yes.

If a truth-loving God exists and commands us to seek the truth, then we can explain why truth-seeking is good and obligatory. We can even resolve the tension between truth-seeking and human flourishing because -if Christianity is true- then the truth will ultimately lead to our eternal flourishing. Jesus Christ claimed that he himself was “the way, the truth, and the life” and said: “You will know the truth and it will set you free.” So no matter what hardships or difficulties or miseries attend truth-seeking here, there will be no ultimate conflict between the truth and our joy.

So we have a very odd paradox. Atheists, who tend to rightly value truth very highly, have no way to explain why it is valuable. This inability also calls into question the entire scientific enterprise, which is founded on the assumption that truth is a good thing. Moreover, if an atheist approaches a Christian and says “You ought to abandon Christianity and seek the truth of atheism,” I think that the Christian is well within his rights to ask “Why? If you are right and atheism is true, why should I seek to know the truth? Is truth intrinsically good? Am I obligated to seek it?” On the other hand, Christians can always urge everyone to seek the truth because the truth is intrinsically good and because God commands us to seek it. So Christianity provides a foundation for truth-seeking and for the entire scientific enterprise not available to atheists.

Previous: Science and Religion: Part III – Areas of Purported Conflict

Next: Science and Religion: Part V – The Hiddenness of God