Science and Arguments for God

Some, like Richard Dawkins, argue that the Darwinian hypotheses of random mutation and natural selection have destroyed the design argument for a cosmic intelligence, God. For the appearance of design ("it looks as though") can be fully explained on strict Darwinian principles alone.

Even if that is true, however—and it seems unlikely that an explanation rooted in biology could be any sort of complete explanation for everything, biological and nonbiological—an explanation in terms of design by a creator God would still raise the probability of the existence of this universe considerably. The choice can be put fairly bluntly: either this universe is the result of a huge number of amazing coincidences that have progressively, but quite unexpectedly, led to states of great value. That is, the universe is incredibly improbable (though we may just have to put up with that and comfort ourselves with the thought that it is no more improbable than many other universes). Or the "coincidences" have all been superbly engineered so that the values that life makes possible would inevitably come into existence sooner or later. In the latter case, this universe would not be improbable at all (though it would still be just as amazing).

In general, it is a good scientific principle to accept a hypothesis that raises the probability of some phenomenon. Based on that principle, the hypothesis of God is vastly preferable to the postulate of pure chance, even if it is conceded that the universe could (exceedingly improbably) have come about by chance. If someone objects that this is a weak argument because God is just as improbable as the universe, he or she has missed the point. The point is that the probability of this universe is raised considerably by the existence of a rational God. For what we are talking about is the probability of many precisely correlated values, relative to a specific range of possible values that could have obtained, taking as given the general forces and constants of nature (weak and strong, electromagnetic and gravitational, and so on). Against that background of the given general laws of nature, an intelligent God raises the probability of this universe considerably.

It is quite a different question to ask whether the existence of God is probable or whether the existence of the set of physical laws we have is probable. In that case, there is no given finite set of possibilities against which we can measure the probability of the occurrence of some actuality. We have no way of even beginning to assess probabilities when there exists an unknown, possibly infinite, and wholly unspecifiable set of possibilities. Once we get into questions of truly ultimate existence, probability no longer has any purchase.

As I argued in chapter one, the question of what ultimately exists is not a matter of probability at all. It requires a decision about a general conceptual framework for interpreting the experienced world. In reflecting on such a general framework, a spiritual worldview may give fundamental importance to existential problems of suffering, guilt, anxiety, and egoism, leading to a diagnosis of the human condition that offers a way to relieve such problems and to the apprehension of signs of transcendent value that suggest the supremacy of a Higher Consciousness of wisdom, freedom, empathy, and universal compassion. A non-spiritual framework, on the other hand, may discount such considerations as unduly subjective and see the world as fundamentally impersonal, unconscious, deterministic, blind, and indifferent to human suffering and happiness.

"Proofs" of God neither establish the first set of attitudes nor undermine the second. "Evidence" for God is not a set of naturally inexplicable physical events that would, at best, demonstrate the existence of a superhuman magician. Proofs of God are uses of what John Wisdom (1963) called the "connecting technique," drawing analogies, picking out patterns, connecting disparate kinds of data, and suggesting a key interpretative model for human experience as a whole. What might be called evidence for God is, in fact, the evocation of a general perspective on the world as the appearance of Transcendent Spirit.

The same sort of connecting technique and perspectival arguments are also used to construct nontheistic and nonspiritual frameworks of meaning. There are certainly a number of possible frameworks, and there is no neutral way of deciding among them. Materialism is one of those frameworks, and it rarely has a spiritual dimension. But there are other frameworks that are religious but nontheistic.

Two of the great world spiritual traditions—Buddhism and East Asian —would not be concerned with proofs of God at all. Largely bypassing the idea of a Creator, they have an interest in positing a more impersonal yet immaterial basis of observed reality. Some scientists, like Fritjof Capra (1975), find such views more consilient with quantum physics, with its ideas of entanglement and veiled reality. In them, there is a sense that the observed material world is an appearance to human minds of a deeper reality, and quantum physics may be felt to support such a view.

The spiritual interest, however, is not in a purely speculative account of the nature of ultimate reality. It is concerned with finding ways in which the mind can access a deeper reality and be transformed by it. So, nontheistic religious views express an interest and a corresponding set of speculative considerations that wholly nonreligious views lack or even oppose. The existence or nonexistence of such a "religious" interest in self-transformation by conscious relationship to a Supreme Spiritual Reality is a vitally important factor that underlies apparently speculative arguments for the existence of God.

When this is taken into account, arguments for God can be seen as attempts to show that the postulate of a Supreme Spiritual Reality is a coherent and plausible one and that it can be adequately interpreted in terms of one personal Creator.

Modern science can be used to show that the postulate of a Creator is not necessary for a scientific understanding of the cosmos. The suggestion may be made that introducing a Creator is not helpful to science since it threatens to put a stop to further investigation by just saying, "God did it." Science is autonomous, and it does not need appeal to any God.

On the other hand, modern science shows the cosmos to be awe-inspiringly beautiful, complex, and mathematically elegant. Whether by accident or design, it is precisely fine-tuned for the emergence of intelligence and moral consciousness. It can appear to be intelligently designed for intelligent life, and it seems that the basis of the material universe is much stranger, much richer, and possibly more mind-like than the everyday world of material objects in four-dimensional space/time that we see around us.

In sum, it seems implausible to say that science has rendered religion obsolete. It has certainly helped to refine, and often reconstruct, religious interpretations of reality. But the belief that Ultimate Reality is fundamentally unconscious, deterministic, and indifferent is not a conclusion of modern science. It is a perspective as old as recorded human thought, and there are at least as many insights in modern science that count against it as there are in favor of it.

I have outlined some of these. But, in the end, as at the beginning, the religious believer can say that we know consciousness exists and that agents know, envisage, choose, enjoy, and have ideals, values, and purposes. Any adequate account of reality must include those as primary and irreducible facts. So, Ultimate Reality cannot be simply unconscious and indifferent. Somehow, the factors of consciousness and value must be included in any comprehensive account of Ultimate Reality. And this coheres well with the most basic religious belief that consciousness and value are at the heart of reality.

Science can show that some attempts to formulate religious views (like scriptural literalism) are blind alleys. It can help to provide more plausible and coherent accounts of religious beliefs. But science is not materialist by nature, and on the question of whether there is that of which science cannot directly speak, it is silent.

Comte may have been right in speaking of three great ages of human intellectual progress. But they were not ages of religion, metaphysics, and science, one after the other in sequential order. They were ages, in both religion and science, of local preliterate traditions, of classical and text-based reasoning, and of informed critical inquiry. It is just possible that we are at the beginning of a fourth stage, of a truly global consilience among many different cultures, and among religion, the humanities, and science.

Atheists may well think that the fourth stage is too long in coming or even that it is unlikely to come. The worst may happen. Religions may become more exclusive and intolerant. Science may become more subservient to state demands for bigger and more powerful weaponry and means of subjugation. Religion and science together may destroy the world. But it does not have to be like that. If religion is fully humanized and open to the critical methods and established truths of the sciences, and if science is used in the service of human welfare and the flourishing of all sentient beings, there can be a long and positive future for human life and for whatever forms of life may develop from it. That is only likely to occur if scientists and religious believers engage in a serious, sensitive, and inquiring conversation. For that to happen, both fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheism will have to be set aside, in favor of something more self-critical and humane. If that does happen, religion will not disappear, but it may, and it should, change.

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