Science and God

You sometimes hear it claimed that “Science has disproven God” or more modestly “Science has not discovered any evidence of God.”

The first claim is false.  The second is true but trivial.

What is science?  This is a question we really need to get clear about before we can talk about what science has done, or not done, because we need to know what science can do, and what it can’t do.

The first thing to note is that “science” is a vague concept which cannot be defined precisely.  It is a Wittgensteinian “family resemblance” concept (as is the concept “religion”) which covers a wide variety of activities and their results, which share many overlapping features (in the way that members of a particular family all “look alike”) without there being or needing to be any one particular feature that they all have in common.

We can talk about science in broad strokes: we can say that it is a way of acquiring knowledge about some areas of the world.  We can say that science is methodical, although again there is no such thing as “the scientific method”—rather we are again faced with a number of methods which bear a family resemblance to one another.  The Big Bang cosmologist does not proceed in any way like the psychologist (for example, neither observe, at least not in any direct way, since neither the past nor the psychē can be observed—even though “observation” is often held to be central to “science”).

There is dispute about whether the social sciences are sciences at all.  Certainly disciplines like sociology and cultural anthropology do not produce results which are the same kind of stable, objective, universally-agreed upon knowledge as is given by, say, chemistry.

I am going to suspend judgment about the status of the social or human sciences as sciences, and affirm that natural science is definitely science.

Let me offer what I think is fairly good (if necessarily broad) definition of “natural science”: the study of physical nature by means of an empirical-quantificational method.

This definition would assert that science has a specific domain: physical nature, by which I mean all parts of reality that involve material existence, e.g. the realm of matter and motion, usually disclosed (at least initially) by the senses.  This is the part of reality the Greeks called γένεσις (becoming) or simply φύσις (nature).  What we call “natural science” Aristotle called “physics,” which is knowledge of φύσις.  Aristotle also called it “second philosophy.”  First philosophy was the name he gave to what we nowadays call metaphysics—a discipline that gets its name from Aristotle’s texts that come, literally, “after physics” and go “beyond physics” (“after” and “beyond” are both ways of reading meta-).

My definition would further assert that science is a methodical study of nature, which has the characteristics of being empirical, that is, based ultimately in experience (usually in the restricted sense of sense experience) but which aspires to a level of certainty and objectivity closer to that of mathematics, by means of measurement and quantification; e.g. anyone can experience that objects fall towards the earth; but it is “scientific knowledge” that objects accelerate towards the earth in proportion to their mass and inversely to the square of the distance between them and the earth and in accordance with a specific constant G, the gravitational constant), and indeed this is true of any two objects which possess mass, not merely objects and the earth, so:

Gravity Formula

On my understanding of science, “natural science” proper would have begun 17th century, with the work of people like Bacon and Galileo, although there were certainly many precedents for what they were doing.  In a way, then, I am taking Newtonian physics as a kind of paradigm for “what natural science looks like.” Or James Clerk Maxwell’s discover of electromagnetism.

Two things are absolutely crucial to notice about science, on this understanding:

  1. Science, by its very nature, does not study all of reality.
  2. Science, by its very nature, does not even study nature in all its aspects.

If science studies nature, and nature is only one part of reality (or Being, if you prefer the more ancient way of speaking), then it is clear that science does not study all of reality.  What parts of reality lie outside the scope of science? If nature is defined as above, the part of reality that involve matter and motion, then science would not study those parts of reality which do not involve one or both of those aspects.

What aspects of reality do not involve matter or motion? Arguably, the entirety of the psychical or mental realm, the realm of thought or consciousness, does not involve matter—at the very least it does not obviously do so, nor could it possibly in all respects.

And just as importantly, if not moreso, there is the realm of what me might call Platonic reality, in which would be included such things as eternal nonmaterial truths, e.g. those of mathematics, and of logic, Platonic forms or essences, and even the laws of nature which science seeks to formulate (there is a sense in which the laws of nature are not part of nature and so are not studied by science).

Take as a simple example the logical form modus ponens:

  1. P ⇒ Q
  2. P
  3. ∴ Q

There is no obvious sense (and no sense at all, I would say) in which the validity of this form of inference involves matter.  It is true that this is a valid form of inference, whether or not anyone knows this or actually infers in accordance with it.

Truth in general is nonmaterial.  This point cannot be overstated.  There is no intelligible sense in which truth can be construed as a physical substance or entity which e.g. occupies space, or has mass, or is subject to physical forces, or motion, or change.

This was the realization which caused St. Augustine to abandon materialism and eventually atheism.  His great intellectual stumbling block to accepting Christianity was his difficulty in rising above the senses and seeing how anything nonmaterial could be (his other great nonintellectual stumbling block was his addiction to fornication).  It is obvious that a materialist is not going to be able to believe in or even readily comprehend the concept of an immaterial God.  But every human being has a direct experience of truth. And truth cannot be material.  Even if truth is apprehended only in by thinking, and thinking is somehow a function of matter (e.g. physical events in the brain or some such), it will still be the case that truth is what it is entirely apart from the thinking which apprehends it.  To think long and clearly about the nature of truth is the best way I know of to overcome materialism.  There is simply no way that one can torture truth into a material entity (not even when it is truth about material entities) nor is it possible for a sane person to renounce truth.  And of course, once the materialist realizes that something as important and all-pervasive as truth is nonmaterial, the dam has been broken, so to speak, and he or she is then free to realize that many things are not: goodness and being, unity and plurality, identity and difference, logic, mathematics, essence and existence, consciousness and on and on.  And once that step into the realm of Platonic reality is achieved (call it the first step out of the Cave), the way is at least no longer blocked for such a person to reason their way upwards to what Plato called The Good, or God.  

Nor is it plausible that thinking itself or consciousness is reducible to material events.  To begin with, the two are logically distinct.  No contradiction is involved in thinking that there is thinking which involves no matter.  Indeed, it is only within consciousness that we have an experience of what we call matter.  This is the main thrust of Descartes’ Meditations of First Philosophy: I am able to doubt, as a matter of principle, that my experience of the physical world is veridical (I could be dreaming; I could be inside a “Matrix” or other virtual simulation or illusion)—but I cannot doubt my own thinking or my own having of experiences, even if they should turn out to be non-veridical.  What is absolutely impossible to doubt is that, so long as I am aware and thinking, I am: Cogito; Sum.

Thinking or the mental realm thus has a certain priority over the physical world. Whatever relation pertains between the two in fact, it is a given that the mental world is, for us, first; it is logically first, in that we cannot doubt it—and it is closer to us in another way, it is, in a primal way, what we are.  As Descartes says “I am a thinking thing.”  Even if we wish to side with Aristotle and say that a human being is a hylomorphic unity of body and soul (which we should), we must still admit with Aristotle that “I am most of all my thinking.”

Let’s take a step back.  On the account I have given so far, science would be unable to study nonmaterial realities such as mathematics and logic (I do not consider these disciplines to be “natural science,” which is certainly not to say I doubt their validity); nor would science be able to study any aspects of the mental or of consciousness which could not be resolved into “third person, objective” knowledge that has some kind of material empirical correlate.  Again, by its very nature, as third-person objective knowledge of physical nature, science does not and cannot know things that are irreducibly first-person, subjective—i.e. what philosophers call qualia, the raw “what it is like” to experience something. For example, the redness of red.

Qualia are a much-debated subject in the philosophy of mind, but if there are qualia (which there evidently are) it is clear that they lie outside the purview of science. Here is a link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Qualia: The Knowledge Argument—which argument I find entirely conclusive.  Here is, from the same page, philosopher Frank Jackson’s deservedly famous thought-experiment about Mary the neuroscientist:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.

Jackson’s thought-experiment attempts to show that there is simply more to the world than third-person objective physical facts about it; there are also irreducible first-person subjective experiences of what-it-is-like.  Mary the neuroscientist knows all the physical facts about color perception; but Mary the human being does not know something very important about the color red, namely, what it looks like.  And this is something she could never learn from science, because science can never know this.

Another seminal article is this debate is Thomas Nagel’s also justly famous “What is it like to be a bat?” in which he discusses this question of “what-it-is-like-ness.” I urge you to read this article as well. TL;DR: bats find their way around largely by echolocation; no human knows “what it is like” to “see” the world by means of echolocation, but it makes perfect sense that there is “something it is like to perceive the world by means of echolocation” just as there is “something it is like to see”—something which congenitally blind people do not know, never having experienced it.  (Reading the accounts of congenitally blind persons when they describe their second-hand experience of sight in others is fascinating—sometimes as a kind of touch-at-a-distance that one cannot feel.)

I should note here that in asserting that science has certain intrinsic limitations because of its nature and method, I am not disparaging science in any way.  As the Dutch philosopher René van Woudenberg puts it

Saying that science is limited is, of course, something very different from criticising science. I take science with utter seriousness. I take my guitar with real seriousness too—but I must say the instrument has its limits: I can’t produce the golden sound of a horn by means of it (nor, for that matter, drive to Chicago in it). Saying so much is not criticizing my guitar.

Science is a remarkable and wonderful method, and I appreciate science greatly. However, since science is our great success story as moderns, we have an unfortunate tendency to overestimate science and attribute to it a kind of omni-competence that it simply does not possess.  Hence the popularity today among the semi-educated of scientism, the ridiculous doctrine that science is our only source of knowledge.

A final area in which science is limited is axiology, or the study of values.  One of the major things often asserted about science, in fact, is that it deals with facts rather than values.  And so it does (although, as I have argued, with only some of the facts, the physical facts). But this marks another clear limit of science, if we suppose that any values have truth content which can be known; and almost all of us think that this is the case; we think that some things are better than others, e.g. we think that science is a good thing, because we think that knowledge is better than ignorance, or that scientific discovery can produce technological benefits, that is, goods, such as advances in medicine—something which makes sense only on the recognition that somethings, such as health, are real goods for human beings.

But science is simply mute with respect to values: science cannot tell us that health is good, although it may be supremely useful in helping us to be healthy. Science cannot tell us that science is a good thing to do.  Science cannot tell us anything about ethics, or how we should live our lives well or morally. Science cannot tell us anything about politics, that is, in what the common good of a people or society consists.  Once we have come to know that something is good or bad, science can indeed be useful: for example, once we know by extra-scientific means that human extinction is bad, we might be able to use our scientific knowledge to prevent it from occurring.  But science itself has nothing to say about whether or not ecological devastation or human extinction is good or bad.  Or whether anything is good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, just or unjust, and so on.  If we can have knowledge of these matters (and I hold we can) it will not be scientific knowledge.

I suppose the time has come to bring this to a close.  I have argued that science is a method for acquiring knowledge about physical nature, and that, as such, it has intrinsic limitations to what it can do: science does not and cannot have anything direct to say about immaterial Platonic realities, including essences, logical entities, and mathematical entities; science does not and cannot have anything to say about irreducibly mental entities such as direct first-person conscious experiences, qualia, what-it-is-like-nesses and other such things; science does not and cannot have anything to say about the entire realm of value, about good and evil, good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, and so on.  All of these things are limits of science.  The fact that science has limits is not a judgment that science is bad or useless.

So we come to the point at last. God, as God is understood in traditional classical Christian theism (and in all higher theism), also very clearly falls outside the domain of natural science. God is an immaterial being who utterly transcends not only physical nature, but all other reality as we know it, since God is understood to be, by definition, the transcendent source of all being, reality, truth, goodness, and so on.

If the God of traditional Christian theism exists, science has absolutely nothing to say about the matter, one way or the other.  Let’s return to the two propositions I began with:

“Science has proved that God does not exist.” This is, as I said at the start, absolutely false. To prove such a thing would be completely beyond the competence of science to do.

“Science has not discovered any evidence of God.” This is, as I said at the start, true but trivial.  Science has not discovered any such evidence because science is a method which not only does not look for such evidence, but as part of its rigorous method, actually excludes such evidence from consideration.  That an event E had a supernatural cause could be true, but it could never be accepted as scientific explanation of E; not because it is false (it isn’t; by hypothesis, it is true), but because science, as the study of nature, methodologically excludes supernatural explanations.  It does not follow from this methodological exclusion of the supernatural by science that nothing supernatural exists, or that we cannot know the supernatural.  All that follows is, if there are supernatural beings or causes or events, science will necessarily be blind to that aspect of them, and will thus remain scientifically puzzled at such events, since they will have (by hypothesis) no true natural—and thus, scientific—explanation.

As a traditional, classical, liturgical, Orthodox Christian, there is not a single point at which my beliefs conflict with science, nor is there any genuine scientific knowledge that I am logically required to renounce.  The idea that there is some sort of deep and abiding conflict between science and religion, or between reason and faith, is false.

Concerning the existence of God, science simply has nothing to say about the matter.


2 comments on “Science and God

  1. Jason says:

    Great stuff as always, Eve. Do you plan on doing a post on evolution by natural selection? This topic seemed a bit of an elephant in the room as I read this post.


  2. Bonsai says:

    Well done! We are so limited in our senses. And these days that should be more evident than ever. I put this simply in a post called Flying Pigs And The Truth. It was written for everyone vs. the philosophers I love.


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