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Guestwords: Science and God

Wed, 04/21/2021 - 18:40

“If I were walking in some wild place and tripped over a stone, and my companion asked how the stone got there, I might have gotten away with something like ‘It’s always been there.’ But suppose I found a watch on the ground and was asked the same question. I could hardly give the same answer. Why not? Obviously it’s because a watch, unlike a rock, is a complicated piece of machinery that must have been designed for a purpose.”

This is an abbreviated and modernized version of one of the most famous passages in the history of religion’s encounter with science. It was written in 1802 by the Anglican churchman William Paley.

Paley was arguing that the complex workings of the universe are no more likely to have come about by chance than would a pocket watch found on a windswept moor. Therefore a supreme intelligence must be behind it all.

Paley’s “watch on the heath” argument for the existence of God satisfied most people at the time, and it still satisfies many today.

But then, a half-century later, along came Charles Darwin with his theory of evolution by natural selection. Contrary to what many people think, his theory has nothing to say about whether there is a God or not. It did, however, weaken Paley’s argument by showing that, at least in some cases, a phenomenon that would seemingly be impossible without intelligence behind it could happen because of natural processes only.

To go any further with science and God, we need to ask two questions: What is God? What is science?

Philosophers and theologians have attached the name God to a variety of notions, but here I’ll stick to the one meant in ordinary language: God is an extremely powerful being who has always existed and who created the natural world.

Well then, what is science?

For starters, science is a particular kind of human activity known as a game. A game has objectives defined by rules. The rules limit the kinds of behavior allowed in the game and provide rewards for certain outcomes toward which the players strive. The rules define the game.

The game called Science has many rules, but here are three very important ones.

First, scientific activity must involve natural phenomena only. It is not allowed to invoke supernatural causes to explain something. This doesn’t mean there are no supernatural causes. It just means that such things, if they exist, are beyond the scope of science. This rule is called methodological naturalism.

The second important rule is that any scientific theory must be testable. The philosopher Karl Popper framed this in his notion of falsifiability. As Popper pointed out, theories are never absolutely proved, they only survive tests. A theory that can’t be put to the test isn’t scientific. Again, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is false; it just isn’t science.

The third rule is that to be good science a theory must be fruitful. By that I mean it leads to more science. My favorite example of a fruitful theory is the electrodynamic equations formulated by the Scottish physicist James Maxwell in 1865. These led to the invention of radio communication and to Einstein’s theory of relativity.

What’s all this got to do with God?

It is key to any critique of attempts since Darwin to use science to prove that God exists. These attempts come in two distinct kinds, and it is important to distinguish between them.

The first of these goes by the name of creation science. Participants in this activity start with the assumption that the account of creation in the Bible is literally true, and strive to show that the findings of science can be squared with this. Creation science is unequivocally misguided. The world is billions of years old, not six thousand. The Grand Canyon was not formed by Noah’s flood. The dinosaurs are gone because an asteroid hit the earth 60 million years ago, not because they didn’t make it onto the Ark.

The second activity goes by the name of intelligent design. Intelligent design theorists accept that the earth is billions of years old. They may even accept much of Darwin’s theory. They hold, however, that it is impossible for science to explain the origin of life, something about which Darwin himself expressed complete ignorance. They conclude that there must be an intelligent designer who was responsible for it all.

Intelligent design theory is not stupid, nor is its conclusion necessarily wrong. It just isn’t science. It isn’t science because it violates all three of the rules I just described.

It violates methodological naturalism because it invokes a cause outside the natural world (God) to explain phenomena within the natural world (life).

It violates the requirement of testability because there is no scientific experiment or observation that could disprove God’s existence. Even if scientists were to discover how life arose from natural causes, it would still be possible that God chose to create a universe with laws sufficiently potent to produce life.

The third reason that intelligent design isn’t science, or at least isn’t good science, is that it isn’t fruitful. It doesn’t lead to more science.

But science can no more disprove God than it can prove God. Putting God into science, whether positively or negatively, breaks the essential rules by which science has advanced over the past few centuries.

Science may have rules, but can’t the rules be changed? Why not, as the intelligent design people propose, abandon methodological naturalism and allow supernatural causes into science? After all, didn’t Einstein change the rules with his relativity theory?

In a sense, yes, but there are some rule changes under which it’s still the same game and others that would make it a totally different game. Take football. There was a time when the forward pass wasn’t allowed. Allowing the ball to be thrown rather than carried certainly changed the game, but it was still football. On the other hand, if the rules were changed to allow drones to carry the ball through the air, it wouldn’t be football anymore.

The three rules stated above are essential to science. Einstein didn’t change those. If he did, it wouldn’t be science anymore.

Isn’t that kind of arbitrary? What right do I have to make the rules? I have no such right. It is the community of scientists as a whole that does. The process of peer review is the control mechanism. If you violate the above rules, you can’t get published in a respectable scientific journal. That’s a good thing. It’s these rules that have enabled science to advance.

Science can’t prove or disprove God, but I nevertheless believe that its findings can contribute greatly to our quest for meaning. Some people fear that the more science advances, the less room there is for relationships, values, and purpose in life. I beg to differ. The more science learns, the more we realize how little we know. As science expands our knowledge, it also broadens the horizon beyond which is awe.

As a scientist I rejoice in the thought that there will always be mystery.

John Andrews is a physicist and a member and past president of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Bridgehampton. He lives in Sag Harbor.

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