Does Science Leave Room for God?

Does Science Leave Room for God?

There are problems with believing in God and trusting in science.  The easy solution would be to stop trusting in science, but as I have written before, I do not see how this could really be done.  Sure, I could say I didn’t put much stock in modern science, but those words would ring hollow if I then turned immediately to trained doctors and nurses in the event of an emergency.  Can a person who is already committed to modern science responsibly believe in God?  Many popular atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, are confident that the answer is No.

But what exactly is the problem?  Why can’t science and God get along?

Previously, I described two different ways of imagining God: either God is like Superman, acting in space in time like an extra-powerful person, or God is a rather impersonal metaphysical “source,” something like “The Force” from Star Wars.

Science assumes from the outset that there are no non-physical Superman-like gods interfering with the world.  Whether or not science denies Force-God, who might guarantee the consistency, lawfulness, and intelligibility of all things, is another (less interesting) story.  But a scientist who explains a chemical reaction, the emergence of a certain type of cell, or even a sunset by simply stating “God did that,” without any reference to an inevitable natural process, is a scientist who has failed to understand her field.

It’s worth mentioning that, as much as this might be scary to the faithful, we all profit from this atheistic assumption.  If everyone was satisfied by explaining small pox and lightning strikes as “free acts of God,” many of us might not be alive today.  By diving into the mechanics of our world and refusing to be satisfied with a supernatural explanations, scientists have discovered many, many handy facts about our world.  Thank God for those godless scientists!

But interestingly enough, God is not the only casual agent that modern science cannot acknowledge.  For many (all?) modern scientists living after Darwin, subjectivity itself is denied.  It may seem that you are a free mind, able to control a body and make your own free decisions, but many scientists tell us that this is not really the case.  “You” are just a combination of physical materials mindlessly interacting with each other in the brain, following completely predictable patterns, and this gives the illusion of consciousness.  There is no “ghost in the machine,” no spirit pulling the physical levers of your body.

This is deeply counterintuitive, a violation of basic common sense, but so is much of modern science.  Pebble-sized white capsules can cure diseases?  Handheld conglomerates of tiny metal pieces can allow someone in Alaska to carry on a real-time conversation with someone in Madagascar?  Long metal tubes spitting fire can put human feet on the moon?  It seems hardly fair to accept radically counterintuitive notions like manned flight while rejecting reductionist views of the brain for being too weird-sounding.

But back to consciousness: Why can’t a good scientist believe that humans have free minds which control physical bodies?  For one, a basic premise of physics is “conservation of energy,” a principle stating that [physical] energy cannot be created or destroyed.  This appears to straightforwardly rule out any quasi-magical “force” proceeding from spirit (mind) to matter (body).  This goes without saying, of course, that no divine “spirit” could really “do” anything, either.  A world of un-changeable physical interactions is a world with no room for a free agent – divine or otherwise – who acts.

Notice a theme?  It might appear that modern science assumes, rather than proves that God doesn’t act in the world.  It refuses to acknowledge divine action from the get-go, before the laboratory lights are even switched on.  Superman never had a chance.

Is there evidence for or against this assumption?  Perhaps.  For example, take a moment to marvel over all that modern science (generally conceived) has given us: airplanes, cell phones, vaccines, sky scrapers, space travel, light bulbs.  If Superman-God were roaming about, always reaching down and getting involved, how would modern science be able to so effectively understand and manipulate our world without giving Him any attention?

Or consider science’s counterintuitive point about consciousness:  The classic case is Phineas Gage, an 1800’s railroad worker who lost a large chunk of his brain during a construction accident.  Although he survived, the once-mild-mannered man became nasty and rude.  Why suppose that there’s anything “more” to you than neurons and chemical reactions in your head?  At the very least, these stories (and more recent research) show that “I” am inextricably caught up in the physical structures of my brain.  So why add in some unnecessary mental substance?

Science seems to assume that meaningless, mindless physical particles and impersonal laws are “all there is.”  This set of “physicalist,” atheistic assumptions have, over the last century or so, left the realm of scientific methodology and become a prevalent worldview, especially in centers of higher learning.  Those of us who trust science each day with our very lives cannot casually dismiss any of this, no matter how tempting that may be.

But is there a way forward for a God who acts?

Perhaps.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be diving into what is called “process theology,” a kind of philosophical re-interpretation of both God and the world.  Process theology (and philosophy) is controversial in both scientific and Christian circles, since it challenges several assumptions of both, but it promises to preserve the best of theism and the best of science.  I have been vaguely familiar with process thought for a few years, but in the coming weeks, I will exploring it in more detail by reading two books by noted process theologian, philosopher, and environmentalist John Cobb.

In short, Cobb and other process thinkers believe that modern science has a problem with its vision of all reality and its limits, or “metaphysics”.  Whereas we tend to think of “substances” (i.e. objects) as the fundamental units of reality, process thinkers, as the word “process” implies, think of events as the fundamental unit.  Rather than thinking that, since Darwin has taught us that humans are animals too, humans must be machines like nature, process philosophers think that animals must be conscious like humans.

Science might even be on the side of process thinking.  Quantum mechanics, in one popular understanding, seems to suggest that the tiniest, most elemental particles we know of are impossible to reliably predict using determinstic laws.  It’s almost as if they make decisions.  Further, some evolutionists seem to think that animal decisions play an important role in evolution.  And the extreme unlikelihood of a universe with all the right laws and constants needed to allow life seems to point in the direction of an intentional creator of some sort.  If all of this is correct, then perhaps there is an intellectually honest way of conceiving of a God of the superman variety who actually acts, calling all free agents toward life and goodness. 

I would certainly like to believe something like that, even (or especially!) if it requires me to re-imagine both the world and God in fresh and surprising ways, but can I believe that honestly, without crossing my fingers or turning off my brain?  That is what I hope to find out.

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3 thoughts on “Does Science Leave Room for God?

  1. What you’re talking about is methodological naturalism. Scientific study is the most accurate when it’s done under the assumption that there are no supernatural forces involved. It isn’t mutually exclusive with ontological naturalism though, meaning a philosophical disbelief in the supernatural, so it could be possible to operate under methodological naturalism in the lab but believe in a supernatural worldview.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! Yes, you are correct – I am talking about what happens when the implicit metaphysics of modern science becomes a worldview in its own right. I’ve read some theists who approve of naturalistic methodology for science but not naturalistic worldviews in general, but that seems hollow to me, at least without much elaboration. It begs the question of why, if naturalistic metaphysics fails to account for some genuinely important casual agents, naturalistic methodology could be so effective. In short, if consciousnesses are on the loose, truly “doing stuff,” why are scientists able to ignore them and still get good results? Demonstrating the difference between method and worldview in principle doesn’t immediately solve the issue – at least in my mind. Process thinkers seem to grasp this problem the best, as far as I can tell.

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  2. In fairness, there is a lot we don’t know about the human brain and consciousness. It is not as if, given science presuppositions, that free will is automatically ruled out. Although people, like Richard Dawkins certainly would think so. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Where people like Dawkins often come from, is Newtonian understanding of the universe. In other words, it is notion of the universe and everything in it running like a clock. If know ahead of time all of the information put the system, we can predict the output. This, however, is, quite frankly, a very naive way at looking at the science and even basic problems in the natural world these days. At this point in history it’s quite outdated despite its proponents. The human mind is, going to be many times harder to figure out. Now, I admit the Phineas Gage case was interesting, but if you haven’t read up on the subject, you might look up split brain patients. In particular, look up split brain patients who were initially left handed or ambidextrous. I just think you might find them interesting.

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