The Templeton Foundation has sponsored a debate: Does science make belief in God obsolete? They’ve asked 13 scientists, philosophers, and theologians to weigh in on the topic. They’ve written reasonably brief essays on the topic, and are well worth a read.
In my continuing efforts to explore my own spirituality and understand who this God person is anyway, I’ve attempted to distill these essays down to their primary theses for a hard-core comparison.
Traditionally, a belief in God was attractive because it promised to explain the deepest puzzles about origins. Where did the world come from? What is the basis of life? How can the mind arise from the body? Why should anyone be moral? Yet over the millennia, there has been an inexorable trend: the deeper we probe these questions, and the more we learn about the world in which we live, the less reason there is to believe in God.
Pinker essentially refutes the God of the Gaps as the one being made obsolete by science. Its a fairly straightforward argument–we used to believe in God to fill in for our ignorance, but since we aren’t quite as ignorant as we used to be, there isn’t as much need to believe in God. The more we learn, the less we need God.
…the Nature we know from modern science embodies and reflects immaterial properties and a depth of intelligibility far beyond the wildest imaginings of the Greek philosophers. To view all these extremely complex, elegant, and intelligible laws, entities, properties, and relations in the evolution of the universe as “brute facts” in need of no further explanation is, in the words of the great John Paul II, “an abdication of human intelligence.”
Newtons Laws of motion. They continued to push beyond those facts (ok, 200 years later) into General Relativity and Relativistic Quantum Mechanics. The more complex, elegant, and intelligble the system, the more deeply and fervently scientists dig into it.argues for an Intelligent Creator God. Unfortunately I think he mischaracterizes science as being willing to accept brute facts, and then stopping. That is far from the truth–scientists weren’t satisfied with the “brute facts” of
…religious statements are not necessarily falsifiable. I might say, “God loves us and wants us to love one another.” I cannot think of anything that could prove that statement false. Some might argue that if I were more explicit about what I mean by God and the other concepts in my statement, it would become falsifiable. But such an argument misses the point. It is an attempt to turn a religious statement into a scientific one. There is no requirement that every statement be a scientific statement. Nor are non-scientific statements worthless or irrational simply because they are not scientific. “She sings beautifully.” “He is a good man.” “I love you.” These are all non-scientific statements that can be of great value. Science is not the only useful way of looking at life.
Phillips is proposing that religion and science should maintain separate areas of expertise. However, I don’t think his analogy works. The statement “She sings beautifully” can discussed and debated by all those who have heard her sing. There may be disagreement or consensus, and falsification isn’t really the issue. But at least there can be discussion among those who’ve experienced her singing, and the method for experiencing her singing is clear. The statement “God…wants us to love one another” can’t really be discussed because there is no clear path to determining what God wants. It can’t be falsified in the same way that “Santa Claus is checking his list” can’t be falsified. We don’t know what God wants and we don’t know if Santa has a list.
Let’s face it: the day of the Sky God is long gone. In the Age of Science, religion has been downsized, and the medieval God of classical religions has lost repute and territory. Today people pay lip service to trusting that God but they still swallow antibiotics when sick.
But people today don’t believe in a Sky God. They believe in a God of personal inspiration, and mysterious ways. They trust that God has guided them to the doctor, and that God had guided the doctor to prescribe the correct medication, and that God has directed the germs to fall victim to the antibodies, strengthened by the drugs.
Belief—or disbelief—in God is not a scientific opinion, a judgment about physical facts in the world. It is an element in something larger and more puzzling—our wider worldview, the set of background assumptions by which we make sense of our world as a whole.
I must admit that Midgley’s essay flummoxed me greatly. I read it through three times and still had difficulty grasping it. I think she’s attempting to say that belief in God is a kind of life-fabric, something that pervades everything we do. Since our entire perspective on everything is formed by that God-based-background, we can’t assess it scientifically. I think that’s what she’s saying. I still don’t get it, probably because I don’t have a God-life-fabric.
Science is the best explanatory system that we have, and religiosity as an alternative has a spectacular potential for harm that permeates and distorts every domain of decision-making and attribution in our world. But just because science can explain so many unknowns doesn’t mean that it can explain everything, or that it can vanquish the unknowable. That is why religious belief is not obsolete.
I don’t think science ever attempts to vanquish the unknowable, but why should religious belief seek to provide an answer? To assert that something is “unknowable” means either that a) there is a logical conundrum that prevents knowledge, or b) that attaining the knowledge is beyond the value (to anyone) of that knowledge. “What year will I die?” is the first type, and “Why did lightning strike my house?” is the second. I don’t think religious belief helps answer the unknowable.
Religion, remember, is theism not deism. Faith cannot rest itself on the argument that there might or might not be a prime mover. Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will. Physics and chemistry and biology and paleontology and archeology have, at a minimum, given us explanations for what used to be mysterious, and furnished us with hypotheses that are at least as good as, or very much better than, the ones offered by any believers in other and inexplicable dimensions.
I’m perfectly content to believe that there might be a diety–its the interactive God that seems most difficult to me. An interactive God feels like an explanation for the unknowable. Unfortunately, I think Hitchens reads too much into the question. I can believe in God (a diety) but not rely on God. Science, then, is the method for discovering all that we can about God’s creation while we still can. Hitchens assumes that belief is the same as reliance.
It is not science that renders belief in God obsolete. It is a strictly materialist interpretation of the world that renders belief in God obsolete, and which science is taken by some people to support. But science is more ambiguous than that, and modern scientific belief in the intelligibility and mathematical beauty of nature, and in the ultimately “veiled” nature of objective reality, can reasonably be taken as suggestive of an underlying cosmic intelligence.
I agree that science doesn’t make God obsolete. But since the God of the Gaps is immeasurably small, and we can pretty much define God in any way we please, I think science has made worship of God obsolete. There may be a great cosmic intelligence, but it has been pretty consistent in completely ignoring our pleas, so there really isn’t any point in worshiping it.
The universe we see with our most powerful telescopes is but a grain of sand in the Sahara. Yet we are supposed to think that a supreme being exists who follows the path of every particle, while listening to every human thought and guiding his favorite football teams to victory. Science has not only made belief in God obsolete. It has made it incoherent.
Those who believe would argue that God is not for us to comprehend. Just because we can’t fathom paying attention to every particle, thought, and football team, doesn’t mean God can’t. But I think Stenger’s point is sound: we’re either infantile to believe Daddy is watching out for us, or incredibly arrogant to assert that we matter that much.
The truths of mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics are different from the truths we seek in human behavior and human choices. The truths of science can be measured and experimentally verified; the truths of a moral life are matters of belief—whether you are an atheist or a religious person. Religion should view science as a way to improve the world; science should see religion not as a threat but as a deeply felt path taken by some.
The truths of a moral life can most certainly be measured and evaluated scientifically. There is no doubt that religion is a “deeply felt path” taken by many. However, that doesn’t make it correct.
What would we call an intelligent being capable of engineering a universe, stars, planets, and life? If we knew the underlying science and technology used to do the engineering, we would call it Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence; if we did not know the underlying science and technology, we would call it God.
Shermer has expanded on one of Arthur C. Clarke’s laws: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It may seem crazy to imagine mistaking ET for God. But Cargo Cults demonstrate that Shermer’s assertion has already proven true.
Science places us in an extraordinary universe, a place where stars and even galaxies continue to be born, where matter itself comes alive, evolves, and rises to each new challenge of its richly changing environment. We live in a world literally bursting with creative evolutionary potential, and it is quite reasonable to ask why that is so. To a person of faith, the answer to that question is God.
To a person of science, that answer continues to be explored in cosmology. The atheist would ask the person of faith “If God made us and the universe, what made God?” Why, after creating the world, does God seem content to leave it well enough alone?
…we are in a co-constructing, ceaselessly creative universe whose detailed unfolding cannot be predicted. Therefore, we truly cannot know all that will happen. In that case, reason, the highest virtue of our beloved Enlightenment, is an insufficient guide to living our lives. We must reunite reason with our entire humanity. And in the face of what can only be called Mystery, we need a means to orient our lives. That we do, in reality, live in the face of an unknown is one root of humanity’s age old need for a supernatural God.
When Kauffman refers to “co-constructing” he’s referring to a universe created by both us and God. However, he mistakes that reason and science attempt to predict everything that will happen. Nothing could be further from the truth. Quantum mechanics and probability theory fully recognize that nothing can be predicted with certainty. Science does not attempt to predict the future. It attempts to predict isolated events with specific initial conditions. How does God supply us with an answer to the unknown? How does God help us in the face of Mystery? It seems we’ve been left to our own devices.
In conclusion, I’m not terribly convinced that God is relevant. God may yet still exist, but there seems little to recommend that we pay it homage. Science doesn’t disprove Gods existence, and doesn’t really attempt to. Science is content to assume that the world works as if God doesn’t exist until such time as the evidence proves otherwise.