Belief in God in a World Explained by Science
Too many people—both Christians and atheists—seem to think that the completeness of scientific theories removes any role for God.
I’ve grown up and continue to self-identify as an evangelical Christian. I know that label carries a lot of baggage for many people, and the truth is that I often find myself at odds with the mainstream of American evangelicalism regarding politics and economic policies, the environment, music, and movies. So why, you ask, am I still one of them? I’m sure part of the answer to that is my family and community of origin: from them I imbibed the categories through which I view the world. And although I’ve evolved as a person and as a Christian over the years and my community isn’t always so crazy about claiming me, I still claim them and I actively work as only an insider can to help effect positive change in that community.
But beyond that, I believe that I’ve had an encounter with the risen Christ—the Logos—which has rendered me almost incapable of unbelief. I’m sure there are professionals who could perform a psychological analysis on me and quickly come up with other explanations for my religious experience that appeal to nothing supernatural. And I confess that I’m often equally skeptical of such claims when made by others. But my own first-person experience carries a justifying weight to it that requires more for me to abandon it than some possible “just-so” stories.
When I started graduate school, I thought that everyone who didn’t believe like I did must just be stupid, because my beliefs seemed so obviously true. Then I had a course called “Religious Epistemology” that was taught by a fairly well known atheist. It was his goal to show why every religious claim was misguided, and throughout the semester he made a lot of sense in giving alternate, naturalistic explanations for what religious people thought God was responsible for. After being in that environment awhile, I came to see why people found a naturalistic perspective persuasive. It was as though I learned to speak another language and could shift between them. But that isn’t a stable situation for one’s belief system and I could see there was an imminent crisis. Would I continue down the path that saw my faith as the relic of a bygone era, or perhaps double-down and cling to that faith fideistically?
Perhaps somewhat ironically, it was Carl Sagan who helped to save my faith. He had written a novel called Contact which was made into a movie and released that same semester of my religious epistemology course. I had heard that it addressed themes of faith in science and religion, and so one afternoon I left my library carrel and walked to a small theater in a mall in downtown Boston and watched the film by myself. The story is about a scientist in the SETI program who seemingly makes contact with some extraterrestrial intelligence. She has lived her life according to the code of empirically verifiable evidence. But in the twist to the story, her experience with the aliens did not admit of objective verification by others. In the conceptual climax to the film, she is put before a congressional investigation committee, because they have spent billions of dollars with seemingly nothing to show for it. The lead investigator thinks it has all been a hoax and persuasively constructs an alternative explanation for how things might have happened to account for the experience she had. The scientist is somewhat stunned and admits that it is possible she is wrong, so the investigator presses her to give up her fanciful story and admit that it never happened. She says she can’t, because the weight of her own experience won’t allow it.
I sat by myself in that movie theatre and wept at this somewhat silly science fiction story. I’m not sure if they were tears of joy or despair or relief. But in some sense I no longer felt threatened that there were really smart people who thought that my religious beliefs were silly. It wasn’t that I isolated myself from their criticisms; on the contrary, I plunged myself with new vigor into learning all I could about the world. But I saw that the same facts can look very different from different perspectives, and that the perspective of Christian theism had the resources to organize these facts in a way that does justice to them.
If you don’t already believe it, I don’t expect that any of this will convince you that I’m correct in believing that Jesus is the Son of God, that all things were created through him as the divine Logos, that he exists still today as the Cosmic Christ, and that he loves us all lavishly. I don’t think I can prove any of that to you with the methods of science or through philosophical argument. My aims here are somewhat more modest—namely to claim that someone can reasonably believe that stuff even while at the same time believing the findings of science today.
I suppose attitudes toward science can be added to the evangelical baggage I mentioned earlier: we’re too often threatened by what science claims and so we ignore it. But on the contrary, I fully believe that science is good, that an examination and study of the natural world should be encouraged, and that we don’t have to fear what we might find there. I’ll mention some science here, but for the most part I’ll take it as a given that the findings of science are largely correct (and I don’t mean some ersatz science which denies the amply confirmed theories of contemporary cosmology and biology). It is in this context that I seek understanding for the mystery of faith.
So, for my worldview and philosophy of life, I make the daring wager that ultimate reality is personal in nature. This isn’t quite the same as Pascal’s Wager, in which he said we’re better off betting that there is a God than not, since the payoff is way better if there is. I’m not doing that kind of cost-benefit analysis, but I do see, like Pascal, that the evidence either way from some supposed objective point of view is ambiguous, and it’s possible to construe that evidence for theism or for naturalism without completely flouting our rational duty. From inside Christian theism, though, I find it to be a more satisfying outlook on life, so I’ve committed to it and I’m attempting to work out my faith and come to understand it better from that perspective. It is not a blind leap of faith, since there are confirming evidences that can be produced when things turn out as you’d expect them to if reality is ultimately personal. And it is not immune from disconfirmations and even falsification when evidences are produced that challenge the way you’d expect things to be. I think naturalism works the same way for other people.
What do I mean by saying that ultimate reality is personal? Contrast it to the dominant ancient Near Eastern view that the natural realm was animated by personal beings, but ultimate reality was impersonal. The gods were part of nature and caused the things that we observe in nature, but they themselves were ultimately ruled by impersonal fate. It was the ancient Hebrew people who flipped this picture on its head: in their view there is a personal God who through his own free choice created a natural order that follows reliable laws. And this is what makes science possible. If you believe that the workings of nature are dependent on the whims of the gods, then there is no sense studying nature to try to understand it. This was hugely important as an impetus for studying science and is surely part of the reason why modern science developed in the Judeo-Christian West. But the question is whether science has now shown that there is no sense to positing a personal being at the level of ultimate reality either. Maybe it’s all just impersonal matter and energy. So the big objection to my daring wager of holding on to a personal God is that we no longer need that hypothesis. Here, then, is the central question of this address: if science can explain everything, then why do we still need to posit God? Isn’t God superfluous?
History should have taught us that science has a way of figuring out things we once thought only supernatural intervention could explain. We might still pray for rain, but we can trace back the cause of thunder without invoking bowling gods. Similarly, sudden outbreaks of disease or an individual’s return to health were once so poorly understood that it seemed God must have been directly responsible for superseding the natural order of things to cause those phenomena. As such, God was counted among the otherwise natural causes of events. We see this clearly in the history of cosmology.
The nineteenth-century British mathematician and philosopher Augustus de Morgan published the famous story (probably embellished a bit) in which Emperor Napoleon asks one of the leading scientists of the day, Pierre-Simon Laplace, why he has not mentioned the Creator in his new book, “Systeme du Monde”. Laplace answers, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” This story is often used in the service of naturalism: we don’t need God anymore to fill in the gaps in our understanding, so why believe in God? But I wonder if there is a better way to understand God in relation to advancing scientific explanations. Even for Laplace, it is incorrect to think he was advocating atheism with that claim. Rather, it is a statement about the comprehensiveness of his scientific explanation. Newton’s remarkable achievement in mathematical physics the century before Laplace had left some gaps. Newton gave very precise formulas to account for some of the empirical evidence—like why gravity causes both cannonballs and the moon to trace out the paths they do. But to account for other observable phenomena—like why the “fixed” stars don’t collapse together because of this newly found gravity—he could only say, “. . . and then a miracle happens.” Laplace (and scientists generally) were not satisfied with leaving a miracle in the scientific explanations. His equations and scientific explanations were better than Newton’s and didn’t need to appeal to supernatural intervention to make the system work.
Did that squeeze God out and threaten to undermine a theistic view of the cosmos? If God is one who needs to reside in gaps in the natural order that we can’t explain scientifically, then God was running out of places to hide. But perhaps his fortunes changed in the twentieth century, because natural explanation of the cosmos had run up against a brick wall called the Big Bang. It implied an absolute beginning, a time before which there are no further times—no earlier events that could be appealed to in order to explain it. The cosmologists needed a self-explaining event to get things started, which sounds a lot like a First Cause or an Unmoved Mover. In 1978 the agnostic cosmologist Robert Jastrow wrote:
“At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” (God and the Astronomers, p. 116)
It seemed to Jastrow that theologians had found a permanent seat at the table of scientific explanations for the cosmos. There was an inability to provide a purely natural explanation to bridge the gap between the present state of things in the cosmos and how it all might have gotten started. So it seemed reasonable by many to appeal to something supernatural. But the times, they are a changin’. Scientists are no longer embarrassed when questions about the ultimate origin of the universe arise. They are working very hard to “raise the curtain on the mystery of creation” and provide natural explanations for how the matter, energy, space, and time of which our universe consists could have sprung into existence.
For most of the history of science, there was no problematic beginning to the universe. Scientific orthodoxy held the cosmos to be eternal. There would always be an earlier state of things to which science could appeal. But that is what changed dramatically in the twentieth century. Einstein’s equations for general relativity implied that the universe could not stand still; it must always be expanding or contracting. Just like an object propelled upwards will eventually either escape earth’s gravity or succumb to that gravitational force, so too the enormous masses of the universe must be moving apart from each other or collapsing together. Einstein initially resisted this implication and added a fudge factor to his equations to prevent it (a move he later called the greatest blunder of his scientific career). But Edwin Hubble soon found empirical evidence that the newly discovered galaxies were indeed receding from each other as we progress through time. So if we were to run time backward, we’d eventually get to the spot at which all matter, energy, and space itself are condensed into one point. Other empirical evidence, like the incredible confirmation of cosmic microwave background radiation, eventually convinced even the staunchest critics of the Big Bang model of our universe’s evolution.
The Big Bang proved to be a big boon for the science and religion dialogue. It is no coincidence that the significant rise of science and religion as an academic discipline came in the wake of the cosmological discoveries just after the midpoint of the twentieth century. Many theists saw unmistakable evidence of God’s involvement in the natural world. They took the Big Bang to be scientific proof of the theological doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Even biblical concordists (once they got over their literal reading of the Bible’s timeline) decided the true meaning of “Let there be light” was to be found in the explosion of our universe into being some 13.8 billion years ago. This was fantastic stuff. Even now we imagine the moment of creation using a film clip of the Big Bang in which the camera’s viewpoint is stationed a safe distance away and we see an incredible explosion. But that is a popularized and cartoonish version.
In its scientific guise, the Big Bang is not some fiery explosion that came out of nothingness; the term really just names a placeholder for we know not what. Current scientific theories can’t penetrate to time zero and describe what was going on. By about one second after the Big Bang, we have very precise theories backed up with impressive empirical evidence. At that point the universe was already about 1000 times the size of our solar system, and our physics works for describing its further development. Before that first second, though, things are a bit sketchy.
It’s not quite so bad from about 10-43 seconds after the beginning up to one second. During that period cosmologists believe that our current understanding of physics (quantum mechanics and general relativity) is capable of describing the development of the universe. The problem is that we don’t know how these two highly confirmed theories fit together, so we are left with one way of describing the world on large scales (general relativity) and another on small scales (quantum mechanics). But then before 10-43 seconds—the era known as Planck Time in honor of physicist Max Planck who was a pioneer of quantum theory—these two scales have to be integrated for us to make sense of things, because the whole universe was only the size of an atom. So our current inability to articulate a unified physics precludes anything more than speculation during that period.
Such speculation has become a cottage industry these days. A spate of popular level books has been written by scientists who claim to solve the mystery of the origin of the cosmos without having to appeal to God. Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design (2010) speculates that time folds back on itself in the earliest moments of the universe, just like direction folds back on itself on the surface of the globe at the north and south poles. It becomes meaningless then to ask what came before the Big Bang, just as it is meaningless to ask what is north of the North Pole. You can travel north for only so long before you’re forced to start heading back south. If the analogy is correct, on Hawking’s model we can go back in time only so far with our explanations before we’re forced to move in the other direction. Echoing Nicea’s condemnation of Arius, we cannot say of the universe, “There was when it was not.” So according to Hawking, there is no need to invoke a Creator to bring it about.
Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss takes a different approach to render appeals to God obsolete in cosmogony. He argues in A Universe from Nothing (2012) that a natural explanation of something coming from nothing can be given in quantum theory. There are no material particles or energy, no space or time, in a relativistic quantum field vacuum. But according to the highly confirmed laws of quantum physics it is to be expected in such a vacuum that little packets of space can pop in and out of existence in a kind of random flux. Some of these will undergo massive inflation and develop into full-blown universes complete with matter and energy. Nothingness, Krauss argues, is inherently unstable and will naturally develop into something—or perhaps many somethings.
It has become popular to speculate on this subject of multiple universes. Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality (2011) details some nine different kinds of “multiverses” that have been postulated. The most promising version for our topic intimates that rapid cosmic inflation and some versions of string theory would give rise to an astonishing number of universes, each with different laws of physics. Such a scenario undermines the appearance of cosmic “fine tuning” according to which some think we must invoke God to explain why our universe defies the odds and is hospitable for life. Out of the possible 10500 universes the theory predicts, it is no mystery that we find ourselves in one where the laws are in our favor.
None of these theories is without its critics on scientific grounds. They all reach well beyond the currently available empirical evidence and so remain in the arena of speculation. But it should also be mentioned that they are consistent with the currently available empirical evidence and in some cases suggested by the mathematics. And so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that one of them, or something similar will eventually succeed in giving a complete and fully natural description of the origin and development of the cosmos. Objections might be made on philosophical grounds as to whether science could ever give an ultimate explanation of the universe—a topic explored engagingly by Jim Nolt in a recent book called Why does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story (2012). But regardless of how that part of the story plays out, we Christians should learn something from the science of the past hundred years.
Judging from the past, it seems to be a risky business to bet on God standing in the gaps in our understanding of scientific theories. Whether the gap is why the stars don’t collapse, how bacterial flagella could have evolved, or how all this matter and energy got here, science has proven to be remarkably successful at explaining things on its own terms. Does that success come at the expense of God? Too many people—both Christians and atheists—have seemed to think that the completeness of scientific theories obviates any role for the divine. But when some scientists or news reporters trumpet the latest scientific discoveries as rendering belief in God obsolete, I say that I’m already an atheist with respect to the kind of god they’re talking about. That god is just one of the causes in and amongst the otherwise natural causes. If we’re looking for God in those kinds of gaps, we’ll soon be left with Napoleon wondering what happened to God.
I’d suggest that we shouldn’t be involved in trying to squeeze our God into the gaps in scientific explanations. Some try to preserve a role for God in this way, thinking that unless we keep God involved in at least part of the day-to-day business of the natural world, we’ll wind up with Deism. The god of Deism may start things off, but then just sits back and watches the world go according to the natural laws. It seems, however, that there is only a slight difference between that god and a god who just watches the world go most of the time, but every once in a while has to step in and tinker with the natural systems a bit to make them work right… then goes back to sitting and watching during the parts of the processes we do understand. And again, as science progresses and explains more of the gaps, there will be ever more sitting and watching by such a god.
In that sense, then, science has exposed a flaw in our theology. We’ve been seduced by our lack of understanding into thinking that God is the sort of creator who designed natural systems that were incapable of being described consistently in natural terms. So we have tied the action of God to the normal operation of those systems (I’m not talking about miraculous intervention here). Instead, we should allow the success of science to correct this understanding of God. God’s interaction with and sustaining of all creation must operate at a different level than the forces of nature. This should make us consider God’s relationship to creation to be more like that of a personal agent, rather than a force of nature. Then we can talk about God’s actions in personal terms like “willing” or “governing” or even “loving”, and we don’t need to worry that a new scientific discovery will prove this wrong.
To illustrate this point, British physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne asks us to consider the kinds of explanations that could be given for why a tea kettle is boiling. The physicist might give an explanation in terms of the closed electrical circuit with such and such resistance in the heating element of the stove, and this conveys heat to the bottom of the kettle, which in turn causes the water molecules to move more rapidly within the kettle; the increasingly rapid motion of the molecules eventually becomes sufficient to push the vapor pressure of the water higher than the atmospheric pressure, and the water boils. That is a perfectly legitimate and scientifically complete explanation. We don’t have to appeal to anything supernatural to explain that process.
But we might also give an explanation for the same event on another level. For it is also a correct description of the situation to say that the kettle is boiling because I want a cup of tea! This second kind of explanation is what we might call a personal explanation. It appeals to a different sort of reality—the reality of persons—and provides an explanation in terms more appropriate to that reality. If God is a personal being as Christian creeds attest, then it is perfectly legitimate to explore that personal aspect of reality in theological terms while at the same time encouraging others to explore the level of description more appropriate to the fundamental laws and forces of nature.
Science may well be comprehensive within its domain. When speaking as scientists we need not appeal to supernatural intervention to make our equations work. But theology might persuade us that there are limits to that domain. Natural explanation does not exhaust reality. Science became so spectacularly successful by limiting itself to natural causes, but does that success mean that natural causes are all there is? Chemists might give an exhaustive analysis of the elements and properties of an oil painting, or acoustic engineers might comprehensively describe the action of sound waves in a symphony hall. But if those scientific descriptions were all that were given, we’d be missing the central point of art and music. There is something more that cannot be reduced to forces and particles in motion. There is meaning over and above the physical description.
So too with the origin of the universe. Is the Big Bang as far back as we can go with a scientific explanation? Maybe, maybe not. I see no reason to take a definitive stand on that yet. If scientists can figure out ways to push back their explanations further, we Christians remain committed to the claim that they will not have explained all of reality. They may give a more comprehensive account of one aspect of reality, but if I’m right, there is another aspect to reality. Indeed, on my view, the central meaning of reality is a personal being who loves and sustains and cannot be exhaustively described by science any more than art or music or love can be.
So perhaps we are at a kind of impasse. The atheist cosmologist Sean Carroll discusses in very clear terms in an essay he wrote for a book I edited, why we don’t need God for explanations about the universe any more. But of course he’s talking about the gaps in scientific explanations. Science appears to be able to give a complete explanation for how things work. But he acknowledges that there is a different kind of question along the lines I’ve been suggesting:
“These are very different arguments, but they all arise from a conviction that, in various contexts, it is insufficient to fully understand what happens; we must also provide an explanation for why it happens—what might be called a ‘meta-explanatory’ account. It can be difficult to respond to this kind of argument. The ultimate answer to ‘we need to understand why the universe exists/continues to exist/exhibits regularities/came to be’ is essentially ‘No, we don’t.’ That is unlikely to be considered a worthwhile comeback to anyone who was persuaded by the need for a meta-explanatory understanding in the first place. It is always nice to be able to provide reasons why something is the case. Most scientists, however, suspect that the search for ultimate explanations eventually terminates in some final theory of the world, along with the phrase ‘and that’s just how it is.’” (Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, p. 193)
So here are our options: that’s just the way it is, or God desired for things to be this way. Does the “personal explanation” reduce to the “scientific explanation”? Or are there different kinds of entities like persons and things like meaning which are incapable of being reduced to their constituent elements, and so science can’t give a comprehensive explanation for all of reality? These are two different ways of looking at the world, and I don’t think we’ll resolve which is correct through arguments.
I conclude instead with one more quotation, this time from one of my heroes from literature: Puddleglum of C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair from the Chronicles of Narnia. He’s a funny, melancholy character who helps lead the children in search of a lost Prince, and their journey takes them to a nasty, underground kingdom. There they find the prince, but see that he is under the spell of a witch. And she attempts to put them under the same spell through some incense in a fire and her soothing words that their memories of the world above and Aslan their king are just a dream of silly children. They all come to the point where that explanation does in fact seem perfectly reasonable and consistent with their experience. But then Puddleglum, in a herculean effort to break free from the spell, stamps out the fire and makes this speech to the witch queen:
“One word, Ma’am, he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
If our world is just matter in motion in the vast emptiness of space, that’s ultimately a pretty gloomy and dismal place. Maybe it’s true; again I doubt that I can prove to you otherwise. But even if it is true, I’d prefer to live my life living as much like a Narnian as I can, looking for the Overland.
Note: This essay is adapted from a presentation given at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, IN.
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