Origins: Scientific or Philosophic?
There is no such thing as a scientific proof or disproof of God. Science, as such, is not equipped to deal with the subject of origins (origin of the universe, origin of first life, and origin of new life forms). Amazingly, though, when the question of origins comes up in an academic setting, it is most often discussed in, of all places, science classrooms.
Now, are these statements just examples of my personal biases? Perhaps, it is just a case of academic snobbishness or stubborn pontificating. Or, maybe I am just trying to defend my own discipline. The truth is it is not within the scope of the scientific method to seek explanations beyond the natural realm, and/or beyond what can be analyzed under laboratory conditions.
Science deals with what is repeatedly observed, and is therefore, subject to first-hand investigation (i.e. testing). Origins are singular events (at least the ones being presently discussed), consequently, they are not repeatable. Furthermore, since no human being was present to observe the origin of the universe, origin of first life and/or origin of new life forms, there is no possible way to scientifically examine or explain such events. They cannot be tested.
The word science is derived from the Latin scientia, meaning “to know,” so, in the very broadest sense, everything we seek to know can properly be called science. However, when we speak of science today, we normally have only the natural sciences in mind. And, that is the way that I shall use the term in this essay. For, it is clear that questions of origins are generally discussed in the natural science environment (Biology, Physics, Chemistry, etc.). And, these “natural” sciences are not able to function in this capacity. Now, the sciences can furnish information helpful to such a study, but the study itself is a philosophic and/or revelational issue, not a scientific one. This may become a little clearer as we consider what some important thinkers have said on the subject.
What the Pundits Say
Concerning the question of God’s existence, and by implication, the question of origins as well, Mortimer Adler correctly said:
The simple indisputable fact is that the existence of God has never been a subject of scientific inquiry. It has never been supposed that the problem of whether or not God exists can be solved by the means and methods at the disposal of the experimental or empirical natural sciences.
Why not? Because the means and methods of natural science are applicable only to physical, material, or corporeal objects and God is not a physical, material, or corporeal object. (82)
The result of origins (like the origin of the universe, the origin of first life, and the origin of new life forms) may certainly produce physical, material, or corporeal objects. However, the study of origins is not solved “by the means and methods at the disposal of the experimental or empirical natural sciences” either. The empirical sciences are worthless here, and natural scientists are out of their realm when they either speak or write (strictly as scientists) about the question of origins.
Antony Flew, who was reputed to be the most notorious and well- known atheist in the world, said the following:
My concern was not with this or that fact of chemistry or genetics, but with the fundamental question of what it means for something to be alive and how this relates to the body of chemical and genetic facts viewed as a whole. To think at this level is to think as a philosopher. And, at the risk of sounding immodest, I must say that this is properly the job of philosophers, not of scientists as scientists; the competence specific to scientists gives no advantage when it comes to considering this question, just as a star baseball player has no special competence on the dental benefits of a particular toothpaste.
Of course, scientists are just as free to think as philosophers as anyone else. And, of course, not all scientists will agree with my particular interpretation of the facts they generate. But their disagreements will have to stand on their own two philosophical feet. In other words, if they are engaged in philosophical analysis, neither their authority nor their expertise as scientists is of any relevance. This should be easy to see. If they present their views on the economics of science, such as making claims about the number of jobs created by science and technology, they will have to make their case in the court of economic analysis. Likewise, a scientist who speaks as a philosopher will have to furnish a philosophical case. As Albert Einstein himself said, “The man of science is a poor philosopher.” (90-91)
Stephen Jay Gould, a Paleontologist, and one of the most famous macro-evolutionists in the world, correctly noted:
Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while scientists must operate with ethical principles, some specific to their practice, the validity of these principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science. (4-5)
Macroevolution is considered to be a “fully natural process,” meaning that there is no supernatural intervention whatever in the universe. Consequently, God is automatically ruled out as a possible explanation of living things in the universe, including man. And, if one suggests a possible explanation for living things other than the “natural process,” he is accused of attempting to override “good science” with “religion.” Such is, of course, just so much foolishness. This is the case because, as Gould appropriately observed, religion (and philosophy, of course) operate in the “realm of human purposes, meanings, and values.” Truthfully, neither creation nor macroevolution (to distinguish it carefully from microevolution) are scientific subjects. And, if one is inappropriate in a science classroom, then they both are, since both deal with the question of origins. Origins properly belong in a philosophical investigation, although various natural sciences might be used to give us information to use in the analysis of different events (effects) in a search for an explanation of those events.
Is Science Our Enemy?
No, of course not. Given the reality of a theistic universe, scientific inquiry is at the heart of man’s attempts to understand, subdue, and utilize the world in which he lives. As the creation week was brought to a close by God’s creation of the only creature to possess Imago Dei (“image of God” cf. Psalm 8:3-9), the Scriptures record:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:26-27, NASB)
Notice the expressions “rule over” and “subdue it.” The passage from the Psalms, also referenced, adds that God is “putting it all under his [man’s] feet.” Therefore, religion and science are complementary, not contradictory. Science is a tool to be used for God’s glory and man’s benefit. We simply do not object to legitimate science. In fact, we rely on scientific theories for much of what we do in everyday living. As I write these words, I am grateful for the science of refrigeration that makes air conditioning possible, for we are in the midst of a heat wave with temperatures soaring ten degrees or more over the average for this time of year.
We are not opposed to science, but we are opposed to “science falsely so called” (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20, KJV). For instance, consider the following from philosopher Thomas Nagel:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind. (130-31)
We oppose “scientism” and “reductionism,” both of which qualify as “science falsely so called.” Scientism refers to the position that science explains everything and that no knowledge exists outside of scientific inquiry. Reductionism means reducing one thing to another in “nothing but” formulations. For example, “mind” (to Naturalists) is nothing but chemical and electrical stimulations of nerve endings in the brain. “Thought” is nothing but a function of purely natural and material processes. In other words, some try to explain everything in terms of natural processes, without even considering the possibility of a supernatural (beyond natural) explanation of some things within the universe. Bertrand Russell famously said, in his book, Religion and Science: “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know” (243). Well, scientific inquiry does not get us to a supernatural explanation of things, because science does not, by definition, go beyond the natural realm. Thus, God, origins, souls, angels, and a whole host of things are outside such investigations. I am in full agreement here. But, it is a far different contention to argue that, since no knowledge exists outside of scientific inquiry, nothing can be known at all about a supernatural realm. I do not agree with this contention at all. It is certainly rendered understandable, though, why Bertrand Russell identified himself as an agnostic, rather than an atheist. For, he argued that nothing beyond the natural realm could possibly be an object of knowledge for men.
The problem is that a whole host of things are also outside the realm of scientific inquiry. As examples of these things, one must include Russell’s own assertion above, since that assertion is not itself subject to scientific inquiry. It follows then that Russell could never know whether or not his assertion is true. Scientists do not prove causality; they assume it and operate on the basis of causality. As a matter of fact, scientists assume that we have an ordered system of regularities in the universe that enables us to do our investigative work. Science does not account for the existence of “mind;” rather, they assume that human beings have minds that are capable of independent reason and that humans can, therefore, understand the workings of the natural realm. Science assumes the very existence of a natural realm. It is beyond the scope of science to tell us how the natural realm came into existence at all (various “Big Bang” theories or “multiverse” views notwithstanding). Indeed, the most basic question of philosophical investigation is, “Why is there anything at all?” We all know, through common sense, that nothing comes from nothing. When Bertrand Russell was pressed on the question of how did the universe come into being, in the famous Russell-Copleston debate, he said: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all” (qtd. in Hick 175). In other words, the universe, per Russell, is eternal. Finally, science is in no position to answer questions of value, for they do not fit within the scientific method. Russell agrees with this statement (243).
In September of 2010, Stephen Hawking, of Cambridge University, and Leonard Mlodinow, of Cal Tech, published The Grand Design. The book has created a firestorm because of its claim that God is not needed to create the universe. Because of this bold claim, both theists and non-theists have been energized to either attempt to refute or support the book’s thesis. For instance, Richard Dawkins, arguably the most famous atheist in the world today, said: “Darwinism kicked God out of biology but physics remained more uncertain. Hawking is now administering the ‘coup de grace’” (J. P.). But, what are the claims of these two eminent theoretical physicists?
The book opens with a series of profound philosophical questions some of which are: What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? Then they say this: “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge” (Hawking and Mlodinow 5).
As Albert Einstein said, “the man of science is a poor philosopher.” Dawkins, Hawking, and Mlodinow (with many others) seem to go out of their way to prove that Dr. Einstein was right. The professional philosopher will consider such condescension as an insult of the highest order, and hopelessly naive. But, even more telling is the fact that their favored theories are undergirded by a whole host of unexamined philosophical presuppositions. For instance, both plunge into the midst of philosophical speculation when they assert that, because people live in the universe and interact with other things (including people) within it, “scientific determinism must hold for people as well” (30). And, as a consequence, “we are no more than biological machines and . . . free will is just an illusion” (32). Only two very flimsy “arguments” are given to bolster this viewpoint, both of which can be easily answered. And, they never even mention the very important and telling arguments against determinism. Why, for example, do they think that anything they have said in their book is true, since they were simply determined to write it. And, because everything they say is the product of blind physical causes, much like wind blowing or grass growing, what confidence do they have that anything they have said is true—including their assertion that determinism is true? Finally, how is it possible for machines, in the absence of self-determination, intentionality, and independent reason, to communicate with one another? Why try to convince any of us that their thesis is true, for we are as hopelessly determined to believe the opposite as they are to advance their position? There is no possible way to independently say such a simple thing like, “good morning; it is such a pretty day,” and hope that any other pre-determined machine can understand what you are saying, much less respond to it. The book is filled with philosophical assumptions and presuppositions that require deep analysis, not the “wave of the hand” approach taken by these two physicists. Incidentally, physicists are completely out of their element when they attempt to do metaphysics.
The statement that has engendered questions from so many is the following startling assertion: “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. . . . Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going” (180). The central claim of the book is that the theory of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity together help us understand how universes could have formed out of nothing. Mlodinow said, “We’re not saying there is no God, we’re saying there is no need for God to explain the universe. . . . The views in the book are scientific ones” (Vergano).
First, gravity is hardly nothing. And, if gravity was there before the universe came into existence, then how does one explain gravity? The nothing that Hawking and Mlodinow think they are defending, involves gravity and other fundamental laws of physics. This means that one only begs the question of the origin of the universe until those basic laws are explained as to their origin. Indeed, these are non-physical laws that govern the ordinary operations of the physical world, and therefore, renders Hawking’s notion of “spontaneous generation” nonsensical.
Second, gravity has a specific constant associated with it and specific characteristics that have effects on mass-energy and even on space- time itself. This is a very strange definition of nothing. If we translate Dr. Hawking’s statement in the foregoing way, then he has clearly not explained why there is something rather than nothing. He has only explained that something comes from something. This is precisely what the theist argues.
Third, the universe cannot be considered as a whole, since the universe is never fully constituted at any given time. Nevertheless, the universe is either (1) caused by another, (2) self-caused, or (3) uncaused. Most non-theists have adopted number three because they wish to deny that the universe was caused by another, which would, of course, be precisely what I would argue (viz., “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” Genesis 1:1). Precious few have ever adopted number two, since a self-caused cause is absurd. Picture the insanity of such a position: the universe would have to exist in order to bring itself into existence. This is plainly self-contradictory. Only a very few have begun to advance such a thesis, but they always fall into the difficulty faced by Hawking and Mlodinow. They always begin with something, or, some principle, that they argue is necessary to start the universe going. Without such a “something,” they are left with an incredible self-contradictory thesis. This is why most non- theists argue that the universe is eternal. The age-old philosophical question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is one of the most profound, if not the most profound, question pondered by the human race.
Thinking Things Through
Much of knowledge consists in a search for explanatory causes. Some explanations can be given in terms of physical causes and effects. But, it does not follow that all explanations must do so. An ultimate explanation may require a distinction between primary and secondary causality, or, different types of causality. But, so long as one can observe cause and effect repeatedly, and can, therefore, predict continued results based on experimentation, we are operating within the realm of natural science. When, however, we observe only the effects, our search for explanatory causes may go beyond the physical, and enter the realm of the metaphysical. Natural science does not operate (and cannot do so) within this realm.
Now, where do origins fit into this picture? Of course, they fit into the metaphysical realm, and this is squarely within the purview of philosophical investigation. If one means by causes (most of which are never directly observed) that it provides a rational explanation, a sufficient explanation, or it provides explanatory power, then few would be prepared to deny causality. Indeed, we would be prepared instead to say that we know with absolute certainty that “every change presupposes a sufficient cause.” Would anyone dare to deny, or even question, this truth? Not even David Hume was prepared to deny causality; he only argued (on Empiricist presuppositions) that we could not directly experience causation.
The average person understands the reality of cause and effect. Now, explaining it is quite another matter. The difficulty of explaining causality is what makes it one of the perennial metaphysical questions. Still, everyone understands (I would think) that there is a huge difference between what caused a rash on your left arm, and what explains the origin of the universe. The universe presently exists, so, what provides a sufficient explanation as to why it exists, and how it came to be? All things now in existence owe their ultimate origin either to purely natural causes or to supernatural causes. Richard Taylor explains:
If we think of God as “the creator of heaven and earth,” and if we consider heaven and earth to include everything that exists except God, then we appear to have, in the foregoing considerations, fairly strong reasons for asserting that God, as so conceived, exists. . . . And, it seems, there are good metaphysical reasons . . . for thinking that such a creative being exists.
If, as seems clearly implied by the principle of sufficient reason, there must a reason for the existence of heaven and earth—i.e., for the world—then that reason must be found either in the world itself, or outside it, in something that is literally supranatural, or outside heaven and earth. Now if we suppose that the world—i.e., the totality of all things except God—contains within itself the reason for its existence, we are supposing that it exists by its very nature, that is, that it is a necessary being. In that case there would, of course, be no reason for saying that it must depend upon God or anything else for its existence; for if it exists by its very nature, then it depends upon nothing but itself, much as the sun depends upon nothing but itself for its heat. This, however, is implausible, for we find nothing about the world or anything in it to suggest that it exists by its own nature, and we do find, on the contrary, ever so many things to suggest that it does not. For in the first place, anything that exists by its very nature must necessarily be eternal and indestructible. It would be a self-contradiction to say of anything that it exists by its own nature, or is a necessarily existing thing, and at the same time to say that it comes into being or passes away, or that it ever could come into being or pass away. Nothing about the world seems at all like this, for concerning anything in the world, we can perfectly easily think of it as being annihilated, or as never having existed in the first place, without there being the slightest hint of any absurdity in such a supposition. Some of the things in the universe are, to be sure, very old; the moon, for example, or the stars and the planets. It is even possible to imagine that they have always existed. Yet it seems quite impossible to suppose that they owe their existence to nothing but themselves, that they bestow existence upon themselves by their very natures, or that they are in themselves things of such nature that it would be impossible for them not to exist. (95-96)
In other words, when we speak of ultimate origins (i.e. the origin of the universe), we must argue either that the universe is eternal and thus explains all things within it, or the universe itself was caused by something (and, we argue that this is God) outside it. There are no other alternatives. Science is completely impotent here; science can give us no answers whatever to this perplexing question. One might assert, as did Bertrand Russell, that “the universe is just there, and that’s all.” But, this is not at all an explanation of why or how it is that the universe exists. One may suggest, as did Carl Sagan, that “THE COSMOS IS ALL THAT IS OR EVER WAS OR EVER WILL BE” (qtd. in Lewontin 4). But, such a conclusion as this does not come from philosophical wonder (as did Taylor’s). Instead, it comes from a mere assumption that there is nothing over, above, or other than a purely naturalistic explanation for the universe. Perhaps Richard Lewontin is a little more forthcoming, as he states:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. . . . It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door. (28, 31)
In their headlong rush into scientism, a number of natural scientists have so conceived or defined their craft as to exclude any possibility of the supernatural, or to eliminate any consideration of the same in discussions of origins. This, however, is to do violence to the very nature of science itself. The scientific method is an excellent servant of mankind. But, it makes a very poor master.
Science is a marvelous tool to be used to bring glory to the God Who gave us the ability to understand and subdue our environment, and to provide long-lasting benefits to the human race. The only conflict that exists between science and biblical theism is contrived and imagined. At the same time, it must be understood that there is no science of origins at all. Such a study is philosophical and revelational in general, and metaphysical in particular. “Why does anything at all exist?” is still one of the most profound questions to be addressed by any of us.
Dick Sztanyo studied Philosophy of Religion and Apologetics under Thomas B. Warren at Harding Graduate School of Religion. He has done additional study at the International Academy of Philosophy and Andrews University as well as doctoral work in Philosophy at the University of Dallas. Mr. Sztanyo may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adler, Mortimer J. How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th-Century Pagan. New York: Macmillan, 1980.
Flew, Antony. There is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
Gould, Stephen Jay. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine, 1999.
Hawking, Stephen, and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam, 2010.
Hick, John, ed. The Existence of God: Readings, Selected, Edited, and Furnished with an Introductory Essay. Problems of Philosophy Series. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1964.
J. P. “Science and Technology Babbage: Another Ungodly Squabble.” Economist.com. 5 Sept. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.
Lewontin, Richard. “Review of Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted Word.” New York Review of Books. 9 Jan. 1997: 4, 28, 31.
Nagel, Thomas. The Last Word. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.
Russell, Bertrand. Religion and Science. 1935. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.
Taylor, Richard. Metaphysics. 1963. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1983. Vergano, Dan. “Hawking Book Explains Creation of Universe Minus God.” USAToday.com. 6 Sept. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.