The heavens declare…

Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Many people are inspired to faith by the wonder of nature, whether it be cosmology, biology, geology or any other discipline. In this essay I want to give an overview of the problems that I see with that, and, in fact, saw with it even when I used to be a Christian.

An analogy: Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

This analogy is just to explain how I view the relationship between our observable universe and god. It is not intended as a proof, and it may be unprovable, which is ironic, as you will see.

In formal mathematics, there is a famous theorem known as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (discovered by Prof Incompleteness) and immortalized in the famous book Gödel, Escher, Bach. In essence, the theorem states that for any consistent, formal mathematical structure (a system with axioms and rules, where you can use the rules on the axioms and on theorems to come up with new theorems) there exist theorems that you can write with the rules of the structure that are undecidable. Potentially you can determine whether or not the theorem is true, but only by reverting to arguments outside of the formal structure. Within the structure, you cannot deduce certain propositions.

The analogy to the universe is that god is, by definition, outside of the observable universe, and so he is like an undecidable statement, beyond the powers of science to determine, as science is constrained to act within the observable limits of the universe. I think it is an attractive analogy, though, of course, there is no such thing as a proof by analogy, so this is just to describe what I think, rather than to persuade you of its verity. However, there are some serious issues with the idea that science and observation of the universe in any form can lead you to belief in god, which I want to outline here.

Philosophical Problem: God of the Gaps

Tis a dangerous thing to engage the authority of scripture in disputes about the natural world, in opposition to reason, lest time which brings all things to light, should discover that to be evidently false which we had made scripture to assert.” This quote, by Thomas Burnett in the 18th century summarizes a fundamental issue that has long been understood even by Christians, which is the danger of teleological arguments for the existence of God. Strangely though, while apologists now appreciate that a ‘God of the Gaps’ argument is flawed, proponents of these kinds of arguments for the existence of god merely assert that for some subtle reason, their argument does not fall into this category.

Gradually god has been squeezed into smaller and smaller domains of usage by this argument. For example, people say that the fine-tuning of the universal constants is so remarkable that it must be God. A tiny change would mean that we would not exist, so there you go! They go on to say that the probability of these constants being just so, is so vanishingly small that we must classify it as a miracle, and therefore someone must have done this miracle, ergo god. But this is wrong-headed. What if tomorrow a paper came out showing that these constants could only be this way because of some fundamental physics constraint (which would undermine the probability calculation that apologists performed using all manner of assumptions)? Then we say that god must have made that constraint? So we squeeze him out even further? The correct response is to look further for an explanation, not to shrug your shoulders and say it must be god.

In the old days, he scattered the stars across the sky and set the planets into motion; now he twiddles a few knobs to fine-tune the universal constants? We find similar examples in evolution, abiogenesis, quantum mechanics or any other area of physics by going right to the edge of our understanding and pointing over the precipice and saying ‘that must be God!’ Scientifically it has never been a helpful perspective because it stops further inquiry. Scientifically it has always been better to say ‘we just do not know … yet’, followed by further exploration. This removal of God from science is what allows humanity to advance our knowledge. Scientists who are Christians have understood this for hundreds of years. But some modern apologists have forgotten their moral philosopher roots and have reverted to this kind of argument. We saw many examples in Section 2.

Theological Problem: Deist to Theist

But suppose that you were able to demonstrate conclusively that some particular phenomena were inexplicable outside of a divine or spiritual entity? Given the above discussion, I doubt that such a thing is possible in the normal course of events, but let us go with it for now. You then establish a deity, but you still have all your work ahead of you to establish any of the major religions. It has done nothing to distinguish between Christianity, new age spirituality, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, polytheism, etc. All of these and many others, including religions now dead, have an equal claim to the deity. As a Christian, it was evident to me that I believed in God and then His creation inspired me, not the other way around. Now that I have dropped the belief in God, I remain just as inspired by nature.

Theological Problem #2: But Is it Good?

Inspiration from the beauty of nature also requires cherry-picking. There are also aspects of life that are horrifying: ‘red in tooth and claw.’ We have to see both sides of nature’s nature. It is not sufficient to say “well, of course, that is because we live in a fallen world. It is like this because people sinned.” This is saying that the beautiful parts of nature prove that God exists and the ugly parts prove that man is evil. But, if you are willing to split up the evidence to support your view, discarding half the evidence for each of your two statements, then you need to be honest and say that the evidence is not supporting your beliefs at all. It might as well support the view that God made an evil universe and good human behavior has allowed it to be beautiful in some respects.

The alternative, of course, is that it speaks of capricious gods, like the old Greek and Roman pantheon. Those would make much more sense and are a much more sane view of gods if you consider the sheer randomness of everything around us.

Empirical Problem: The Stats Show Scientists are Less Religious

Another issue is that if scientifically studying the natural world leads to faith then you should expect the scientifically literate to be more faithful than the rest of the population. In fact, the opposite is true, and dramatically so. An article from Seeker says:

In 2009, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press polled members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on belief in a higher power. The study found that 51 percent of members polled expressed such a faith, compared to 95 percent of the American public. Additionally, the National Academy of Science charted belief in God as low as 5.5 percent among biologists and 7.5 percent among physicists and astronomers in a 1998 study.

In the end, science is agnostic, and most scientists end up rejecting the belief simply because it is unsupported. Many people are turned off from religion because they think they would have to give up their scientific beliefs, such has been the impact of the fundamentalists. I lost my faith at least in part because I realized that if Christians were willing to promote beliefs that I knew to be false, how sure was I that they were not doing the same for their central stories? That led me to further exploration into the historical credibility of the Bible, which in turn led me to atheism. I would be interested to know what proportion of professional historians believe. Because, in the end, it seems it is history, not science, that is the biggest challenge to faith.