Does Science Really Disprove God?
Open Letter to an Atheist Loved One
The other day, you asked me how I could believe in God, given all that we know today. Though I joked about the ancient Egyptians being similarly impressed with their high-tech knowledge of pyramids and beer, it’s a question I actually take very seriously. In fact, I’ve given my academic and professional career to some version of it, particularly as it relates to science.
I wanted to put a few of my thoughts down in writing for you — that way you can mull them over in your own time. Not that I expect that what I say will immediately change your mind. But I’d be surprised if it (eventually) had no significant change in the way you think about evidence for or against God, at least when it comes to science.
None of the points I’ll make here is intended to provide absolute certainty; no amount of mere reasoning could do that — whether for or against God. This is why I find crowing triumphalists, whether believers or unbelievers, so frustrating and unhelpful, to be honest. Their confidence-to-competence ratio is out of proportion with reality, and their overconfidence is as harmful to serious discussion as it is common.
“I can no longer see that science has done anything close to showing that there’s no God.”
In any case, I take your question seriously, and my own skepticism has deeply shaped my views about the kind of answers we should expect. That said, over the years I’ve gradually become more and more confident that belief in God best explains the most important aspects of our lives — areas like science, morality, and meaning. Again, not 100 percent confidence, but much more than I think is warranted by the evidence for atheism.
Evolution and M-Theory
Like you, I’m a big fan of science. Scientists are genuine heroes (I’m particularly impressed by physicists). But hasn’t science — surely an impressive source for what we know — shown that there’s no God, or at least that God is unlikely? After all, top-notch biologists like Richard Dawkins tell us that unguided neo-Darwinian evolution can naturally (and not supernaturally) explain the development of complex life-forms — even humans. No need — or room — for God to create humans or any other species.
On a cosmic scale, physicists like Stephen Hawking have argued that the universe’s very existence can be accounted for by the laws of physics — namely, a kind of string theory called “M-theory.” He says that the universe was created by quantum fluctuations, and so we don’t need God to explain how the universe got here.
Moreover, the explanation continues, these quantum fluctuations resulted not only in our universe, but in countless others, each with its own unique set of laws and initial conditions. This “multiverse,” along with its eventual evolution of organisms, can therefore explain the wildly improbable existence of complex, highly ordered human life (or life of any kind): surely at least one of these many universes (10500 or more — more than the number of atoms in the known universe!) is bound to have been the lucky winner.
Yet even given these explanations, it’s still not clear that science — whether neo-Darwinism or relativity or quantum field theory or M-theory — gives atheism much actual support by telling against God’s existence.
“Given all that we know today — given what science has told us — how can you be so confident about your atheism?”
Suppose that all these theories are entirely true. Surely an all-powerful being like God could have made the universe using the very objects and workings described by these theories. If there were a God, he could have easily guided natural selection and made sure that there were the genetic variations needed for the right evolutionary paths. He also could have created an enormous number of universes by way of quantum fluctuations, making sure that at least one of these universes resulted in us. There’s no necessary inconsistency between belief in God and our current scientific theories.
But not only that, it appears that these offered explanations can’t actually explain what they’re supposed to — namely, the existence and order of the universe. For one thing, where did those quantum fluctuations come from in the first place? Don’t they need an explanation? And what exactly was fluctuating, and where did that come from? Where did the multiverse as a whole come from? Quantum fluctuations are a result of the unique laws of our own universe. And why these overarching “meta-laws” that govern the multiverse itself — what explains them? Surely there are (many) other possible meta-laws that could result in, govern, or even prevent multiverses like this one. Why the particular human-friendly meta-laws that we actually have?
In any case, I can no longer see that science has done anything close to showing that there’s no God, at least if science is supposed to have shown this by replacing God as an explanation. In fact, science probably never could do such a thing, simply because of what science is: our theories about the natural workings of the universe. These theories could never explain themselves, even in principle; that’s not in their job description. Scientific laws simply aren’t in a position to answer “Why these laws?” Moreover, our theories are about how the stuff of the universe behaves (whatever that stuff ultimately turns out to be), and not about the ultimate origin of the stuff itself.
Atheism versus Science
What science has told us isn’t in conflict with belief in God. But more than that, belief in God actually fits better with science than atheism does. Actually there’s a conflict between science and atheism. If we’re taking science seriously about what it says (and we both agree we should), I’m convinced that atheism simply doesn’t have the resources to explain science itself.
Take, for example, the mere fact that humans can do physics — that they can uncover the laws of quantum mechanics and particle physics, for example. Many of the objects that these theories describe, such as electrons, quarks, and bosons, are far beyond our ability to (ever) observe. Moreover, they behave so unlike the objects of our ordinary experience that it’s a stretch to call them “objects” at all. Our ordinary intuitions about how familiar objects behave were a hindrance in arriving at today’s physics. And so, these nearly unimaginable (literally) theories were arrived at using uncanny, almost magical methods: largely a combination of obscure mathematics, imagination, hunches, and a vague sense of aesthetic intuition (confirmed by excruciatingly complex experiments).
“What are the odds that unguided evolution resulted in organisms like us with such remarkable abilities?”
The physicists themselves — including Einstein, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Eugene Wigner, Richard Feynman, and Steven Weinberg (all Nobel Prize winners) — have been amazed and stymied by how this was all possible.
So, Dan, my question to you in return is this: Given “all that we know today,” what are the odds that unguided evolution resulted in organisms like us with such remarkable abilities? Should primates really be good at physics given our current theories in evolution and physics?
After all, natural selection sifts for genetic variations and traits that provide survival advantage. But producing humans with the cognitive hardware and software capable of discovering subatomic particles would have been overkill. Our actual intellectual abilities would have been wasteful luxuries — at least on the African savanna where our ancestors, we are told, were running from cheetahs or whatever.
So, neo-Darwinian evolution would have gone far above and beyond the call of duty. It’s not impossible, I suppose, but it seems highly unlikely, given our current theories of physics and evolution. And it is those very theories that supposedly show that God doesn’t exist. There’s an extreme tension here. In any case, given all that we know today — given what science has told us — how can you be so confident about your atheism?
More Important Issues
You might ask (I would ask, anyway), Even if belief in God is consistent with contemporary science, isn’t Christianity in particular — according to what the Bible says — opposed to some of the things that science tells us? I wish I had more space and time (or spacetime) to discuss, but for now I’ll say this: the actual teachings and purpose of the Bible are more amenable to contemporary science than you might think. Some of this is, naturally enough, because people frequently believe that science, or the Bible, or both, say things that neither actually says. Or so it seems to me.
These are some of the reasons I believe in God, given what we know from science (and about science). But there are actually more important issues nearby, not just about what we know, but about how we live. One is the nature of morality. What would a purely human-grounded moral code imply for my everyday life if I took this idea seriously? Another is the meaning and purpose of life itself. Why get out of bed in the morning? Why choose the life goals I do, and why pursue the relationships I do, particularly if the universe and its contents (including us) are just going to end in what physicists call the “heat death”? And if this is the whole story, is that a problem?
I hope we’ll eventually be able to discuss these more important issues.