And why theists (and atheists alike) should be totally cool with it.
If you are a theistic believer (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or other) and you are hoping that science will one day prove conclusively the existence of God, I’m here to tell you that you may be waiting for a very long time. Science won’t give you that satisfaction. Why? Because it can’t.
Whether God exists—or not—is a big deal. If he (or she, or it, or them) exists, then we owe it to ourselves to know who this God is (as much as is humanly possible) and find out if we have any personal and/or collective obligation to him. If God does not exist and we find out that he’s a mere figment of our imagination, then everything changes. All bets are off. And all the social conventions, mythologies, and moralities we have created based upon the false illusion of God’s dominion over universal affairs will need to be fundamentally reexamined.
In my past I have struggled as to whether God exists. Growing up in a Christian family in a Christian community that’s located in a predominantly Christian nation, I had assumptions. One was that Christianity is ultimate truth and all other truths must be understood through the lens of the Christian faith. I am sure people who have grown up in Delhi have a similar Hindu lens or Muslim lens. As do people who have grown up in Chengdu, China with a Confucian lens. Still others may have a Buddhist or an Atheistic lens.
With the advent of global communications, affordable global travel, and a growing global sensibility (especially since the last two world wars), 21st Century humans are exposed to more world views, more religious systems, and more variant cultural norms than in any former generation in history. When it comes to speculations about our beginnings, what happens to us after death, whether or not we have a collective soul, or the basis of our ethics—all options are on the table for us now. And there are many.
Because of the softer evidentiary underpinnings of these opinions, it’s hard to know what—or who—to trust. I think this is why so many people are seeking some definitive answers that will yield authoritative proof as to who’s right and who’s wrong about the big stuff: God’s existence, the nature of the divine (if there is such a thing), and our responsibility to said divinity.
For the past four hundred years, especially since René Descartes gave us a wonderful idea in his 1637 book entitled Discourses on Method, we humans have uncovered a common language to discover new knowledge more reliably and discuss ideas with an understanding that more closely resembles certitude. We call it science. And scientific knowledge, when properly applied, reaches the same conclusions across national, linguistic, ethnic, even chronological boundaries. We have observed that pure water freezes at the same temperature in Russia, Peru, and Cameroon given similar conditions. The homeostatic temperature of the human body is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit no matter if we are sweating on the beaches of Biloxi, Mississippi in July or bundled in flannel in the frozen tundra of Northeast Wisconsin in January. (I know this personally. I’ve tried both.) And, to top it all off, two plus two equals four no matter if we calculate it in English, Punjabi or Arabic.
We wish theological and spiritual knowledge worked the same way. It doesn’t. Zen Buddhism communicates through paradox. Judaism and Christianity rely on sacred stories. Hinduism employs extended allegories. Islam conveys truth through divine axioms. Taoism communicates through ambiguity. Theology feels imprecise with nondescript borders. Therefore, there are many of us who are understandably looking for science to mediate the differences in our world views. We are hoping that science can give us tested and true knowledge where religions and traditions have been only able to offer us self-validating truths and sensational stories.
Science has become the favored son of all of human knowledge today. The “harder” sciences of math, physics, and chemistry are still revered by many as the most reliable expressions of human knowledge. The “softer” sciences of psychology, sociology and economics are trustworthy, but, due to their highly complex fields of study, not as firm nor as empirical. Ironically, the root of the word for science, from the latinate scientia, simply means “to know.” Just a few hundred years ago, many of the sciences most trusted today were looked upon as being lesser expressions of “knowing” than the knowledge one could glean from theology, philosophy, religious traditions, hagiographies, or “wisdom literature.” My, how the tables have turned!
The “science” I refer to in this essay is specific. I am using the term in the way we commonly use the word today. But, in doing so, it’s still more complicated than just a single word. It’s a word with two meanings. Even within our modern and postmodern discussions we throw around the word “science” to explain two separate things: (1) science as a body of knowledge and (2) science as a method of understanding. It is the context of “science as a method of understanding” that I refer to specifically here.
When we talk of “science proving…” (as we do in this essay) we are already pushing the second definition by context. Science as a method is simply a way of referring to the Scientific Method: a process of researching, crafting a hypothesis, observing/detecting, testing through experimentation, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and reviewing findings with peers.
Scientific methods are being applied to more and more areas of knowledge every day. In fact, the more a body of knowledge matures, the more scientific it tends to become. Just a few generations ago, we talked primarily of the art of medicine. Now we more commonly refer to medicine as science. Medical diagnoses and prognoses are becoming more scientific by the day. We see the same trends in economics, psychology, sociology, marketing, and, rather amusingly, even within the fine arts themselves (the science of color, human value perception as affected by brain physiology, etc.) If we can codify knowledge scientifically then we feel much more comfortable with what we know. We should expect—and welcome I must add—science to overtake more areas of human knowledge as time goes on.
So, why not apply the Scientific Method to one of the greatest ideas humans have ever thought: the existence of a Creator God? What can be known of him? Does he really exist? Can I see him? Can I find irrefutable evidences of his creation and/or involvement in this world? These seem to be reasonable questions. Many today are asking science to deliver answers to these questions, both theists and atheists alike, but with polar-opposite hypotheses.
But there’s a problem …
Science isn’t equipped to prove the supernatural. If he exists, God is supernatural—or else he isn’t God. Science deals with validating knowledge through testing data gleaned from naturally-occurring phenomena and using reasoning techniques that have been honed within a system of naturally-occurring phenomena. It’s technically called methodological naturalism. To science, material effects are the result of material causes. The supernatural is not natural. It’s above nature. Therefore it cannot be constrained inside of any form of scientific inquiry. That’s why science can never have an opinion about miracles. To science, miracles are stochastic noise. They are one-time, non-repeatable, non-testable anomalies that are better classified as highly likely human misperceptions than as bona fide upsets to the laws of the material world.
Using Occam’s Razor, a bizarre event (that appears to be miraculous) has, given enough time, a much higher chance of being explained naturally rather than supernaturally. In our checkered history we humans have called many things “acts of god” that were naturally occurring phenomena we simply didn’t fully understand yet: lightning, changing of the seasons, why woodpeckers have red heads, birth of identical twins, the lunar eclipse, shooting stars, and so much more.
Earlier humans considered these unusual, exotic phenomena as obvious evidences of the divine. As we have gotten better at science, we’ve uncovered the natural causes of these strange events. So, it only makes sense to say it’s simply a matter of time that any supposed “miracle” will be explained naturally in the future as we learn more about our world. Scientists have called these miracles as “god of the gaps” fallacies (meaning we insert God as prime mover into the gaps of our current understanding when we aren’t sure of the real cause.) In fact science assumes that any event we perceive as miraculous today will be proven eventually to be a result of natural causes, not supernatural ones. As of late science has stripped so many so-called miracles of their divine patina that it’s becoming rather ordinary and predictable to do so.
Why is science so skeptical? Because by its nature it is supposed to be. Observe. Test. Verify. Don’t assume anything. Look at an effect. Determine its cause. Test it again. And again. And again. Publish your ideas for peer review. Don’t go beyond what we can really know. Don’t see the cause yet? Dig deeper. It’s there somewhere. The material cause may be unknown right now, but it’s doubtful that it’s unknowable. The material world is what we can trust. All else is speculation.
To add insult to injury, we humans have also observed this about ourselves: our first impressions, imaginations, and predictions as to causes and effects often trick us. We’re really not that great at coming to accurate conclusions without rigorous scientific methods. What we may feel certain that we know may not be true at all. (As proof, think of all the disproved superstitions, conspiracy theories, UFO sightings, and paranormal phenomena that have come and gone over the years.) Because of our innate weaknesses in perception, our sensory inputs—sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell—must be disciplined by strict, systematic, and unbiased reason to be a reliable arbiter of truth.
Yet within science’s strength lies its greatest weakness…
Science is wholly dependent on sensory observation guided by reason. To science, that’s all there is: what I can observe (or detect as we do in quantum mechanics) and what I can reason through. That’s what Bertrand Russell, the great philosopher, ultimately concluded. Because of that, Russell went to his deathbed convinced there was not enough evidence that there is a God. Bound by strict scientific thinking, a non-God universe was all a strict materialist like Russell could grab hold of. The larger question is this: did Bertrand Russell limit his ability to know things (his epistemology) too narrowly to consider all evidence of existence?
Russell was right: science must regulate its data—or science will stop being science. If it doesn’t put up restrictions, it will become vulnerable to erratic guess-work (like the kind of unreasoned theories we routinely are forced to endure in sloppy political rhetoric and free-form spirituality.) For science to be science, it must limit its discovery to observed phenomena that (1) can be reproduced in controlled experiments and (2) can be articulated ultimately into rational, predictable conclusions. Miracles don’t fit. Neither does God.
There has been an unintended consequence for scientists as it pertains to trying to solve the riddle of God’s existence through the lens of the scientific method. Just because an event can be explained through natural means does not necessarily follow that it cannot have supernatural origins. This has been a blind assumption of many practicing scientists. Theists have always maintained that God is the creator of the supernatural and the natural both. Strict adherents of scientism assume that because observable, explainable phenomena do not need God as a variable in the equation, there is no need for God. Conclusion: God does not exist. Based on reading many scientific thinkers, this reasoning appears to be a large contributor to why many scientists would more comfortably classify themselves as atheists rather than theists today. This is rather unfortunate. Why? Because they are basing their conclusion on a simple misunderstanding of the meaning of words. And it has to do with the single word, “why.”
When scientists ask the fundamental question, “Why?” when processing observations, they are not asking the ontological (nature of being) or teleological (nature of purpose) “Why?” as is used in philosophy and theology. They are asking the simple question, “How?” instead. So, when the scientist asks, “Why does the Universe exist?” They talk of the triggering event of the Big Bang just under 14 billion years ago, starting with the Planck epoch (representing 0 to 10-43 seconds), then the rapid inflation of basic electromagnetic forces into subatomic particles, the recombination of those particles into the first Helium and Hydrogen atoms, and the formation of the first stars that turn into the galaxies we observe today.
That’s how the Scientific Method attacks the “Why?” question. It does not ask (nor can it ask), “Why the universe to begin with?” That’s because the metaphysical (the ontological, teleological, and axial dimensions) cannot be fully addressed by material scientific means. And for scientists to stop their inquiry at the investigation of material evidence doesn’t take the full reality of the universe’s existence into consideration.
Here is the resulting thought: the very idea of God cannot be processed within a scientific system of inquiry. Why? Because science cannot go outside the very system it is bound by: the material universe. If God exists, he is beyond the universe. He would be immaterial then. The idea of his being “the Immaterial First Cause” that created the material the universe, by necessity, slams the door on scientific investigation into his existence. This is our fundamental problem. (Sure, we can classify knowledge of the supernatural as a fallacious argument from ignorance—as many do—but isn’t that precisely the point? Doesn’t “the supernatural” lie outside the natural methods of inquiry, therefore forcing science to be ignorant of it?)
There are many atheists and theists alike trying to get science to do a job it is totally unqualified to do: prove the existence, or nonexistence, of the supernatural. This is a fool’s errand. That’s why the tired statement, “Well, then, who created God?” makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. That question is asking a system-bound process (the natural universe and the method of science of the natural universe) to deal with issues outside the system (the supernatural). The arguments about God’s existence from science that’s being blasted back and forth today from both theists and atheists are better appreciated for their entertainment value rather than for their contribution to true human understanding.
If God exists, he is above nature. He would be supernatural. The theist should rejoice in this. And God’s original miracle—his creation of all created things ex nihilo—is the most spectacular miracle of all. Science has been assigned the glorious task of unpacking all the effects of creation. Science can help us appreciate this original miracle in reverse fashion, or from the bottom-up so to speak. Science sees effects and retraces them to their causes until it runs out of its own rope. The Original Cause that stands behind the first observable effect (creation) cannot be pursued by science. Science’s rope does not extend that far.
How does this impact the theist?
First off, the limitations on science do not make science a waste of time. Science should be a noble, trusted realm of discovering God just as revealed scripture is. In the words of the medieval philosophers: nature and scripture are God’s two sources of divine expression. For the believer both realms are worthy of his greatest joys. If God is a Unity, shouldn’t his revelations reflect that unity. It should be the theist who is the most passionate and skilled scientist because of science’s ability to richly inform the human soul of who God is through nature.
As a result, if science gives the theist more insights into reality that challenges his currently conceived doctrines concerning God, it may very well be that his conceptions might be the very things that need further analysis, not necessarily the method of science. This is a warning that St. Augustine of Hippo, the great Christian theologian, gave us over sixteen hundred years ago.
How does this impact the atheist?
Unfortunately, the scientific method can’t deliver the certainty of God’s existence or nonexistence every thinking human so desperately craves. Our inquiry into God must come from a more comprehensive place: a place we’ve been told we should never trust, according to strict materialists like Bertrand Russell and many others of his bias. We must trust our hearts—that immaterial best part of us that rises above the material by pointing to things we can only whisper about in our laboratories and testing facilities. For it is in these deep and indescribable places when our hearts and minds are at their stillest where we know we are fully known by something, or, more precisely, Someone who is beyond our natural experience. And to go there might, in our current day, feel like a betrayal of science but it most certainly is not. In fact it honors science when we look into the ineffable and find that all our inquiries into the effects of the Original Cause yield so much beauty and transcendence that it expands our minds with meaning and explodes our hearts with wonder.
Science is a virtuous pursuit. It is not to be diminished in its importance just because we know its limitations. Nor should it be demonized as a system hell-bent on destroying knowledge of the supernatural. Science cannot reduce God to a deterministic variable within a closed system. For God is the creator of nature. Just as Vitruvian Man can never prove he was drawn by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci by analyzing the pen strokes and the paper stock he is trapped within, science will never prove God’s existence or nonexistence from analyzing the elements of nature. Yet Leonardo da Vinci exists even though we cannot see him materially in his creation. So it is with God.
For the theist science serves its Creator honestly just as revealed scripture does. Science should be appreciated for what it is and what it does so well: help us discover the beauties of divine personality as he reveals himself through his great—very material and very observable—creation. That alone makes science one of the most important pursuits for the theist. And, as believers, we should relish what science discovers. For it is the great mystery into our knowing God most fully.
So, can miracles happen in nature? There is no reason to think that God would be powerless to assert himself through his own created system at any time and in any way he so chooses: whether the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead, the manipulation of natural systems, or even inserting himself into space-time in human form. However, we shouldn’t expect science to come alongside and verify any of this as scientific fact.
And for the atheist, science will never satisfy that abiding sehnsucht we all struggle with. We will have to expand our search elsewhere. But our quarrel with the Absolute cannot, nor should not, be lazily dismissed as pointless speculation as some are tempted to do. If anything, the understanding of our ultimate existence deserves better than that—even if the method of science cannot take us the full distance. Science is a wonderful gift to mankind. It just isn’t enough to satisfy all the curiosities we have nor explain the fulness of human existence we are currently experiencing. And for atheists who “conclude” that God does not exist due to lack of scientific evidence are betraying the very science they say they champion.
Maybe human inquiry will grow beyond our current scientific method in the future and include non-methodological, non-material data we find in the realm of the supernatural. Right now, our methods of science haven’t figured out a path forward on this. Maybe someday it will. The pre-scientific minds who wrestled with reality before the scientific revolution couldn’t imagine how rich our understanding would grow during the past few centuries employing the scientific method. We scientific thinkers of today may be equally astonished to learn how future methods of epistemology develop once another paradigm-shattering discovery arises similar to Descartes’. When that happens, I will need to rethink, then rewrite, this article from the ground up—a project I truly hope I can undertake in my lifetime. But for now, that’s just wishful thinking. So until then, we still have at our disposal the very useful and necessary Scientific Method to assist us.
That leaves us with our final problem: if science can’t resolve our insecurities about knowing our Creator with certainty, what can? And, more pragmatically, how do we moderate all the differences of opinion as to who God is and mitigate the stresses we all feel because of these differences? That’s the basis of my next series of questions I will begin to explore in a sister article coming very soon.