The contributions of science to our knowledge are undeniable. In just 300 years it has shown us the age of the universe and of the earth; the origins of the species; and the insides of stars. It has shown us how time travel is possible, and it has enabled us to build life-saving medicines and devices such as MRI machines. Yet this knowledge has not been without its victims, namely; the religious myths of yore.
Gone are Adam and Eve, with advancements in paleontology now showing we are descended from fish. Gone are natural disasters as expressions of God’s wrath - we now have plate tectonics and meteorology. Yet with all this chipping away at the statue of religious mythology, one of its most important elements remains largely untouched - the concept of God itself. What can science hope to say about the existence of a deity? As our scientific knowledge expands to fill the universe, will God be subsumed or supplanted?
These are questions for which answers can be given, ranging from tentative to less tentative but equally evasive answers. One of the more scientifically literate of these has been the argument from “fine-tuning”. The idea goes that if the physical constants of the universe (like the exact strength of gravity, the speed of light, the charge of an electron, etc.) were not exactly as they are, we humans would not exist. What good fortune for us that these constants are set as they are! While scientifically correct, a universe with even slightly different physical laws would be vastly different, this argument does have a weakness worth pointing out.
Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) summarised this weakness best. He asked us to consider the case of the puddle of water, which is astonished to find that it fits the shape of the ground it sits in with absolute precision. “What a miracle!” the puddle thinks. “I happen to be the perfect fit for this hole in the ground!” Of course, we know that there is nothing miraculous about this at all. What puddle could fill that hole, other than the one which fills it?
“We would not be here to be amazed at the fact of our existence, were it not for the fact of our existence in the first place”
And yet, we humans stand in much the same position with respect to the universe. We would not be here to be amazed at the fact of our existence, were it not for the fact of our existence in the first place. For all its scientific pretenses, the “fine-tuning” argument for God’s existence seems tenuous. And this is even without asking the obvious question, who fine-tuned the fine-tuner? And who fine-tuned that fine-tuner? And so on.
Other efforts to reconcile God with our growing scientific knowledge have attempted to claim that there is no conflict between the two, as they deal with different questions. Consider for instance Stephen Jay Gould’s idea that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria”. That is, that science and religion both propose to answer different questions about the universe. Science, Gould claimed, aims to answer the “how” questions, while religion’s purview is the “why” questions.
“Science, Gould claimed, aims to answer the “how” questions, while religion’s purview is the “why” questions.”
This response to the science-religion conflict is only satisfactory if one doesn’t consider religious claims about, say, miracles, or the power of prayer, to be within the realm of scientific enquiry. And is this a reasonable stance? Don’t claims about the efficacy of prayer fall within the remit of science? After all, it is possible to test whether prayer is effective.
As it happens, there has been no substantial evidence that praying to a deity works, and not for lack of trying. Many dollars have been spent on this and similar efforts. According to this theory, any modern concept of God must eschew any commitments to this kind of religious literalism, and must be able to reconcile religious doctrine with the discoveries of science. Given this, what form could our renewed conception of God take?
The scientific endeavour is predicated on the idea that the universe is knowable. But, as our knowledge becomes ever more mathematical and abstract, it seems probable that this “knowing” will be of a different sort than the intuitive understanding that we have come to expect from science. The God we eventually find could be made of equations. Would it be worth calling such an entity “God”? What theologian would sign on to belief in a God of x’s and y’s; a God who was not merely fluent in equations, but consisted of them?
All of this is not to say that something like a higher power doesn’t exist. However, it does imply that what is meant by “higher power” needs to be defined more exactly (needs some fine-tuning?). Going on current evidence, such a notion as a higher power would need to be so abstract as to render theism (belief in a god who intervenes in human affairs) untenable. Deism (belief in a prime-mover who does not intervene), therefore, is the only scientifically-compatible stance. And at that, it would have to be a rather diluted form of deism.
"In recent decades the findings of quantum mechanics show the universe to be, in the words of British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane “not just stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose”"
In recent decades the findings of quantum mechanics show the universe to be, in the words of British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane “not just stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose”. That our ability to understand the universe has already come up against such an insurmountable wall in this early stage of science, does not bode well for our future understanding of the cosmos. Perhaps our growing sphere of knowledge will one day encompass our own cognitive limitations, in which our concepts of God will forever remain.