At science’s beginnings, the scientific method existed peacefully alongside theology. Science explained surface-level phenomena and allowed for predictability, whereas theology answered the deeper questions that science seemingly would never be able to penetrate.
Sir Isaac Newton, for instance, viewed his laws as describing the way God had arranged the world: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”
Newton’s contemporary John Locke described a common sentiment of scientists and philosophers in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke presumed there would always be a gap in scientific knowledge – there would always be things that we wouldn’t know – that could be filled by God.
Pierre-Simon Laplace, who lived in the latter 18th and early 19th centuries, was one of the first scientists to publish a treatise without once mentioning God. As legend has it, Laplace was called into the court of Napoleon shortly after his treatise, Celestial Mechanics, was published and challenged thus: “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace shortly replied: “I did not need to make such an assumption.”
Undoubtedly, science has moved forward from Laplace’s ambitious attempt to explain the universe without deferring to God’s hand when things got tricky. However, in the age of Richard Dawkins, we’ve taken Laplace’s argument to the extreme.
Nowadays, scientists who try to invoke God are brought to trial. We adhere to the dogma of rationality and anyone caught suggesting something resembling the spiritual is attacked as a heretic.
For the purpose of scientific progress, this is entirely appropriate. However, in our personal understandings of the world, is it possible to reapply the nuance of God – however subtlety, however gently – as a way to understand the unfathomable and to allow us to reflect on our lives as human beings in a more complex, fundamentally fulfilling way?
Defining the Problem
The initial disjunction between science and faith seems to be inherent in the contrasting mission statements of the two movements. Science offers impersonal explanations for why things happen a certain way – employing laws and relationships that describe a mechanistic universe. Theology defers to the realm of the intentional – God has motives that can be described by agents acting out narratives.
For example, theology says that God created each species on earth individually in accordance with his will to populate the planet with crawling, swimming, and flying things. Science says that evolution did the same through natural selection: the most fit genes – those that are able to produce the greatest number of copies of themselves – survive. Science and theology have vastly different explanations for the same phenomenon. What to do?
The first step is to see if we can differentiate science and religion to occupy different but complementary niches in our conception of and approach to studying the world.
In the words of science writer George Johnson, in the process of reviewing the Dalai Lama’s book The Universe in a Single Atom for the New York Times, “spirituality is about the ineffable and unprovable, science about the physical world of demonstrable fact.”
The problem with this approach is that science is getting too good! Science has advanced to a point where its methods seemingly invade all frontiers, leaving little ground for spiritual explanations.
Science has succeeded in definitively providing plausible explanations for problems that were at one time thought unanswerable and hence easily chalked up to the influence of God. Why the planets maintain their orbits, how the universe began, and what consciousness is all now have plausible scientific explanations.
Even questions that were previously thought to be squarely in religious territory are being invaded by scientific reasoning: where morals come from, why people suffer, what “feeling spiritual” is all about.
Furthermore, a larger problem goes beyond scientific theories: the scientific mindset expressly states that non-testable, nonfalsifiable hypotheses are not scientifically valid. While this is an entirely appropriate and necessary scientific claim, the conflict arises when scientifically minded individuals end up extending this principal to the notion that any belief that is non-testable and non-falsifiable should be automatically disregarded.
Thus God goes right out the window without being able to make a case for himself. The question is, in what ways and in what circumstances can we believe in ideas that we concede are unmeasurable and unprovable?
Specifically, a belief in God seems to result in four tenets derived from traditional Judeo-Christian theology that, even if not ultimately accepted as part of an individual’s God concept, ought to be at least considered. 1) God created the world. 2) God has effects in the world. 3) Humans are ordained with a divinely-inspired soul. 4) There are objective moral principles.
The following is a look at the four tenets of spirituality and an analysis of whether or not they are at odds with science and in what ways we can begin to reconcile them with science if there is a conflict.
#1: God created the world
The conflict between this tenet and the scientific method is that when trying to understand a phenomenon of the world, the science does not allow deference to the realm of the supernatural. To say that God created the world is to presume that physical laws alone are insufficient explanation for the creation of the world. This is at odds with science.
A similar problem exists for the design of the world. Did God have a hand in creating the species that exist today, or was our earth created by evolution working through the mechanism of various random processes including natural selection?
If you are inclined to interpret the Bible literally that God had a hand in the creation of every species, then we are up against the same problem that we found ourselves in when considering whether God created the world.
As scientists, our explanations for natural phenomenon must appeal to purely natural laws and processes and may not farm out our explanations to supernatural entities. That simply isn’t science.
Is there any way to salvage this tenet of spirituality? An easy way of getting out of this problem might be to look at the scientific theory and note the holes in it. Anything that science is unable to explain, we can safely attribute to God’s influence.
This method is unsatisfying for multiple reasons, however. First, it goes against the very principles we established as being problematic: an appeal to the supernatural to explain phenomena in the world. We’re worried about the methodology even more than the actual theory.
Second, this explanation will constantly have to be revised as our science gets better thus resulting in God’s place in the universe getting smaller.
If you believe that science will never be able to explain every nook and cranny of the universe, then you may not have a problem using this line of logic because God will always have a place in explaining the world – it’s just a matter of refining and correctly determining where that place is.
Practically speaking, however, as evolutionary theory increases its complexity and quantum mechanics increases its predictive nature, it seems that eventually these theories will be able to explain exactly how life began and developed.
Rather than saying that we will include God where that science hasn’t yet determined the answers, we can actually include God in places that science has definitively determined that there are no answers.
Inherent in the theories of evolution and quantum mechanics are appeals to the principles of random chance. Therefore, whenever random chance in invoked, we can instead invoke the will of God that chooses one particular orientation or outcome in order to yield a result amenable to his will, thus allowing for a certain degree of design.
This is quite a low-risk assumption because invoking the will of God in these places makes the will of God scientifically indiscernible from objectively random chance. This way of believing in God does not interfere with scientific principles; we are just allowing ourselves to believe in God’s influence in creating life.
#2: God has effects in the world
This conflict is similar to the one discussed above: science aims to explain each and every event in the world as having a naturalistic source. Thus, God cannot have effects in the world because the results of his actions would appear entirely supernatural. Accordingly, a similar solution may be applied – we can invoke God in the random chance situations.
However, there is another way to think of God as having constant effects in the world without having his effects disrupt the normal ebb and flow of universal laws. In David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the philosopher explains that, as purely rational beings, we have no reason to believe that the future will resemble the past.
That is, the only reason we assume that the sun will come up tomorrow morning is that it has come up every morning in the past. However, an infinite amount of evidence from the past will not prove anything about the future.
The same thing goes for our scientific laws. We accept that F = ma as de facto “true” because it accurately describes how things have worked in the past. We go about our scientific business assuming that F will continue to equal ma tomorrow because we’d never be able to make any progress otherwise.
But what keeps F unwaveringly equaling ma and what keeps the sun coming up every morning? That last one can be explained by gravity and the rotational movement of the earth. But what keeps those things working? Boyle asserted that our experience is consistent from day to day and science is reproducible because God is keeping it that way.
If that is somehow unsatisfying, then you might prefer to abandon this tenet altogether and prefer to think that God has no effect in the world. However, the idea of a passive God is not entirely inconsistent if you are willing to adopt Gottfried Leibniz’s philosophy.
Leibniz believed that God – who is infinitely good, knowledgeable, and powerful – must have created the best of all possible worlds. However, if God is required to actively sustain the world’s order, then the world is clearly not the best of all possible worlds – a better one being that which ticked on its own, without God’s support.
Thus, Leibniz concluded, God’s presence is not necessary to sustain the world, which must run with its natural laws perfectly and independently.
#3: Humans posses a divinely supported soul
Traditionally, the emergence of consciousness is identified with the soul. Scientists are wont to say that it is entirely possible for consciousness to arise out of the physical processes of neuronal firing.
Nevertheless, this line is pure projection. It is not at all philosophically certain that this “physicalist” means of viewing consciousness is accurate. There are things associated with consciousness that seem to be somehow beyond the pure neural activity.
For example, if we designed a computer with the same series of connections as a human brain, would that computer know what it feels like to see colors? Would the computer know what sounds sound like and what it’s like to taste something?
Of course, the computer would be able to detect sourness and sweetness. But would sourness taste like what sourness tastes like to a human? This is the question posed to physicalists: would a duplicate of the world be a duplicate simplicitur? Is there nothing in the world besides physical stuff?
Once we question the physicalist’s viewpoint, we aren’t automatically thrust into the realm of pure dualism where mind and body separate entities with the unsolvable conundrum of how they’re connected.
Rather, I suggest that we’re left with a mostly physical explanation of how the mind arises from brain states, but with some questions as to where consciousness comes from and if we can offer – and be satisfied by – a spiritual explanation.
#4: There are objective moral values
By some accounts it seems as if all humans share a basic set of moral principles. Some of those may be active very early in infancy and perhaps even in our non-human primate relatives. These conclusions lead scientists to believe that the principles could be evolutionarily embedded in our genes.
This may at first seem to cause a conflict with the fourth tenet of spirituality. If God exists, then God establishes what is right and what is wrong, not evolution. There are a few ways to address this problem.
First, evolution establishes extremely rudimentary notions of what is fair. For example, if you were a primate in an evolutionarily ancient landscape, it would be beneficial to be able to determine which of your peers return the help you give to them and which of them are freeloaders, a general innate sense of the Golden Rule.
However, these values require extensive elaboration by a more complex system of ethics. The ways in which individuals choose to extend these innate principles is a matter of personal preference.
Some stick to Kant’s ethics, some learn the values of their cultural communities, and some seek moral advice from the Bible, choosing to believe that the principles laid out therein are divinely supported and right.
Furthermore, although evolution endowed us with a general gut feeling of what is fair, we need not accept those principles as actually fair, lest we fall victim to the naturalistic fallacy. Simply stated, the fallacy purports that what is decided by biology is what ought to be.
Instead, as humans, we have the ability to objectively analyze our biology and decide if what our animalistic instincts tell us to do is actually right. Therefore, if our basic inclinations about right and wrong seem to go against the biblical assertions of what is right and wrong, we are free to throw out our gut instincts and instead choose to follow God’s moral principles.
Additionally, we may choose to accept that evolution has established certain moral principles but still find room for God in that assertion. This line of reasoning can be successfully demonstrated by taking a look at the conflict between evolution and the belief in God himself.
With Dr. Dean Hamer’s 2004 publication of The God Gene, the idea that spirituality could be genetically hardwired into our brains has been floating around the popular media. To those who study evolutionary biology, however, the discovery of such a gene is hardly surprising.
It seems plausible (though remains unproven) that such a gene – one that increases a person’s sense of self-transcendence and inclines them to believe in the unproven – would be evolutionarily beneficial for a variety of reasons.
Hamer suggests that it leads people with the gene to be more optimistic and thus have more children. Another plausible explanation is that it would bind communities more strongly together, resulting in the members of those communities being safer and healthier and producing more children.
However, while the discovery of such a gene might go a little ways towards showing that certain people are genetically predestined to be more likely to believe in a higher power, the results make no claims about whether that higher power actually exists.
After all, if God did exist, then believing in God would provide the believer with a truer picture of reality. Thus, we might expect a God interested in such results to endow us with a gene that gives us a predisposition to think about God.
The lesson to take from this example is that spiritual individuals should not be disheartened by evolutionary explanations for their spirituality. When we discover that a process is hardwired into our brains from our primate ancestry, we need not come to the conclusion that the experiences we have are somehow not as real and somehow not as fulfilling.
Human beings are still animals and many of the processes we think of as uniquely human (spirituality, love) have their basis in animal instincts. This idea need not undermine their complexity, however, and the ways we struggle with and contemplate them.
Now that we’ve considered how science treats the four tenets of spirituality that I outlined, let’s take another look at the initial question at hand: the belief in God Himself. While science can take issue with the effects that God has on the natural world, science doesn’t seem to be able to comment on the existence of a mystical deity himself.
God Himself – when not claiming to have effects on the natural order of things – is immune to scientific inquiry. This obviously does not prove God’s existence, it just opens a window allowing those who wish to believe to believe uninhibited.
But what does it mean to believe in a God that exists so silently – without effects in the world, without endowing humans with a divine soul, and without establishing moral principles? If this is the only sure way we can believe in God, perhaps we’ve given up too much and left ourselves with an inconsequential figment of the imagination. Or perhaps for some this notion provides a beacon of hope, a sense of grandeur and humility, or a heightened purpose to life that science will never be able to offer.
About the Author
SYDNEY LEVINE is a senior in Davenport College.
Special thanks to Troy Cross and Fred Sigworth who offered their insights on this dilemma.
- The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, by the Dalai Lama
- The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis Collins