Some atheists claim that science has buried God by proving he doesn’t exist, or at least by making him irrelevant. Stephen Hawking stated in a 2010 interview, for example, that science can explain the universe without the need for a Creator.
So, is science God’s undertaker? Let’s think it through.
Since science is an empirical discipline, it can detect only things that we can observe. This means science’s detecting powers are restricted to physical things. God, by definition, is a non-physical (incorporeal) being. Therefore, it follows that God is beyond the boundaries of empirical science and thus not subject to scientific inquiry.
It’s a mistake for someone to think God doesn’t exist because science hasn’t detected him. To use an example from philosopher Edward Feser, science’s inability to detect God no more proves God’s nonexistence than a metal detector’s inability to detect plastic proves the nonexistence of plastic cups.
Back to the fundamentals
The claim that science makes God irrelevant because it gives an exhaustive explanation of the universe is flawed as well. One reason is that science presupposes fundamental features about reality that demand God’s existence.
Take change, for example. My experience of setting up a scientific experiment will always be followed by my observation of the results, which entails the actualization within me of a potential for knowledge, and thus change or causation. But in the classical view, there can be no change without there existing something that can impart the power to cause change without itself being changed. This is the reality that Aquinas arrives at in his first way of proving God’s existence (Summa Theologiae, I:Q2:3), the logic of which has its origins in Aristotle.
Science also presupposes things that come into existence and go out of existence, which tells us that for such things essence (what it is) and existence (that it is) are distinct. If they weren’t, there could never be a time when the thing didn’t exist.
But for Aquinas, these kinds of things could not exist for an instant without something causing their existence that didn’t need its own existence caused. St. Thomas refers to such reality as ipsum esse subsistens—subsistent being itself. This is the uncaused cause of Aquinas’s second way.
Something else that science presupposes is complex entities whose parts require composition by something outside themselves—whether those parts are physical (the material parts of a body or chair) or metaphysical (essence and existence, form and matter, substance and accident). But such composite beings couldn’t exist in their composite form for even an instant unless there was, at the beginning of all the composing, a reality that was absolutely simple and did not itself have to be composed.
Finally, biological evolution presupposes final causality or teleology (Greek, telos, “end”) inasmuch as it involves adaptation for the sake of survival, the tendency to reproduce for survival, and the predisposition of genes to mutate only within a given range. Such direction to certain ends could not exist without an absolute intelligence directing things to their ends without itself being directed. This absolute intelligence is the God of Aquinas’s fifth way.
You might say, “Well, you have to prove all these claims!” I couldn’t agree more, since that is where the debate really lies. But the point here is that it doesn’t matter what science says or doesn’t say when we’re inquiring about God’s existence, because the inquiry is more fundamental than science, not less fundamental. Therefore, science is not sufficient to explain the universe and thus cannot in principle be a believer’s foe.
Rules, rules, rules
Science also cannot give an exhaustive explanation of the universe, because it presupposes that a universe exists at alland that it has laws that govern it.
Another one of Feser’s examples is useful here. Consider the game of checkers. The rules tell you which direction the pieces can move, how the game is won, and so forth. But knowing the rules doesn’t tell you why the game exists in the first place, why the checkers are black and red instead of purple and blue, or why the game is governed by one set of rules rather than another. The makers of the game could have adopted the rules my kids use, and it wouldn’t have been any different: in order to arrive at knowledge of the why, you must stand outside the game and the rules.
Similarly, science seeks to uncover the “rules” (the laws of nature) that govern the “game”—the natural world. But that presupposes that the natural world and the laws that govern it exist, just like the game of checkers presupposes that the board and pieces and rules exist.
So to the question “What determines that there is to be a universe, with time, space, and matter, instead of no universe?” science is silent. To the question “What determines the universe to be governed by quantum mechanics and not some other way?” science is silent. These are questions that can be answered only by stepping outside the game and rules of science into the realm of philosophy.
The theist says God is the only answer to these questions. If an atheist wanted to prove him wrong, he would have to do so with philosophy, not science. Since science cannot sufficiently explain the universe, it cannot explain away the need for God.
The narrative among atheists that science has buried God has led many to abandon belief in God in order to be intellectually credible. But if you think it through, in doing so they actually undermine their intellectual credibility, since those who buy into this false narrative fail to understand what the nature of science is and what it presupposes. Science isn’t God’s undertaker; it can’t even dig the grave.
This article was originally published on October 24, 2017 at www.catholic.com.