Science and the Question of God, Part I
Today’s blog is the first entry in a series adapted from a new Scholarly Article found here. All references have been removed for the blog series but can be found in the full paper.
Can science provide substantive insight into the question of God’s existence? This series of blogs will examine three schools of thought regarding the possibility of detecting God’s existence through science: Evolutionism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design. I will then assert, though without formal proof, that science may not be able to lead us to a clear conclusion regarding the existence of God. In harmony with the revelation of God’s Word, however, science brings us to a deeper and more profound understanding of God and his works.
The rise of modern science in the western world brought a mixed relationship to science and Christian faith. On one hand, the basic monotheistic Judeo-Christian concept of one divine Creator of all things was a significant contribution that helped enable and foster scientific ideas and methodology. On the other hand, new scientific knowledge sometimes raised troubling questions. Though Galileo’s differences of opinion with the Pope were more complex than a science-faith conflict, the affair did raise fundamental questions of biblical interpretation in light of scientific discoveries as well as of the influence of biblical interpretation on scientific understanding. Less than a century later, Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, and others developed a mathematical framework that was remarkably accurate in describing classical motion of bodies in the heavens as well as those on earth. The invention of the calculus and Newton’s basic laws of motion were a seminal breakthrough in scientific understanding but they also led to theological difficulties. How could God’s providence and human free will be understood in the light of a deterministic universe?
In the nineteenth century, the debate on God’s providence in a deterministic world continued but there was one major discipline that was exempt. Living organisms did not seem to be subject to the simple laws of motion of classical mechanics. Into this environment, Darwin’s Origin of Species made a powerful impact. The idea of evolution wasn’t new but previously it had been on the fringes of science. Darwin’s ideas were not all correct. His notion of heredity through pangenesis was one incorrect idea. Some of his ideas that did turn out to be correct, like natural selection, were not immediately accepted. Instead, the shockwave that Darwin sent through the scientific community was that living organisms could be studied systematically and could follow natural laws analogous to those that the rest of the world followed, for example, Newton’s laws of motion. Until Darwin, living organisms represented a possible escape from the philosophical constraints of a mechanistic world. Darwin gave rise to the expectation that life itself was orderly and subject to study. It was not, however, deterministic. The randomness inherent in evolutionary processes prevented determinism and even, in Darwin’s opinion, divine control.
Pitting Darwin against God
Some secularists of the day did not wait for philosophical clarity and accuracy. They seized the chance and proclaimed Darwin’s theory of evolution as a triumph of science over classical religious ideas. It seemed to them that the final frontier of science could now, at least in principle, pre-empt theological explanations. For secularists who aspired to the status and authority of the clergy but without the cloak of religion, this opportunity was not to be missed. John Tyndall, John Draper, Herbert Spencer, and Andrew Dixon White, among others, led the charge to declare the victory of science over traditional theology, a fate sealed by Darwin’s theory of evolution. For most, like Thomas Huxley, the emphasis was more on agnosticism than on atheism, which became more prominent in the twentieth century.
John William Draper and Andrew Dixon White authored two books that had enormous influence in the coming decades. Draper’s 1874 work, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, was a seminal book on the conflict theory of science and traditional religion (the view that science and religion are and always have been at war). White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) reflected many of the ideas that Draper had discussed and continued the theme of science’s triumph over theology in every confrontation. These works were tremendously influential until the early to mid twentieth century when historians came to realize that the supposed research reported in these books was not sound. Many of their versions of historical conflicts were not supported by independent research and the accounts were slanted to advocate the conflict theory. Recently, Ron Numbers edited Galileo Goes to Jail, and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009) which is a collection of chapters by historians that systematically debunk the myths in works of Draper, White, and others. Nevertheless, the damage was done. A very vocal and influential group of secularists had succeeded in positioning evolution as the ultimate victory of science over religion, extending the mechanistic universe to all of life.
One of the reasons for their success was the concept of “univocal metaphysics” as Mark Noll describes it in his essay Evangelicals, Creation, and Scripture: An Overview. Stemming from a historical perspective of univocity, where there is a single essence of being, and the simplicity of a single explanation in Ockham’s razor, the perspective of univocal metaphysics led to the notion that there could be only one explanation for natural phenomena. Theological explanations and scientific explanations were considered to be mutually exclusive. In this way, science could answer the question of God in the negative by finding a naturalistic explanation to replace any theological explanation. Darwin’s theory of evolution, while far from complete in its details, provided the expectation that life itself could be explained scientifically without appeal to theistic causes.
Charles Darwin was an astute and observant naturalist. His theory of evolution represented years of careful observations and thoughtful analysis. Yet it may have been inevitable that the scientific idea of evolution quickly moved to the philosophical ideas of evolutionism. The scientific observations of how species competed for survival and adapted to environmental conditions quickly moved from descriptive to prescriptive notions. The ideal of progress as inherent in the human destiny was eagerly accepted in society with scientific evolution as “evidence.” Alas, those ideals were shattered with two major world wars in the twentieth century. Other philosophical aspects of evolutionism waxed and waned but one of the most enduring was that evolution somehow replaced God in the grand scheme of the origin and development of life. To this day, the mutual exclusivity of evolution or divine creation dominates the public’s perception of the conflict between science and faith.
Is this aspect of evolutionism warranted? Has the question of God been answered in the negative? The logic of those proposing this answer does not hold up to scrutiny. God’s creative action and sustenance of all things includes not only the mechanistic characteristics of Newton’s laws and the probabilistic ones of quantum mechanics, but also of evolutionary processes. God can choose his creative path as he wishes and he may do so either in ways we cannot comprehend or in ways that are systematic and subject to our comprehension. As we can see from the rise of modern science, the view of God as the creator with the consequent consistency and order in the natural world is a highly successful perspective. Scientific explanations are not mutually exclusive to God’s creative and constant control. Not even the inherent randomness that we see in nature belies his providence. Despite the strident claims of some late nineteenth century secularists and their modern descendants, science has not disproved the existence of God.
Note:The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of the American Scientific Affiliation.
Randy Isaac is a solid-state physics research scientist and executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), where he has been a member since 1976 and a fellow since 1996. Isaac received his bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in Illinois and his doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined IBM to work at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in 1977 and most recently served as the vice-president of systems technology and science for the company.