Has Science Killed the Belief in God? By Basil Altaie
In August 1977 I met Steven Hawking during a coffee break of the 8th conference on General Relativity and Gravitation held at Waterloo University (Canada). I asked him, “Do you think, Professor Hawking, that behind all these equations and mathematical formulations that we are presenting on boards of this conference, there could be something that goes beyond physical and mathematical reality so it cannot be described with mathematical equations?” Hawking paused for a while, turning his head slowly from the left side to the right and said, “If there is something, I believe it has to be logical.” Then I asked, “But does your intuition tell you anything about this?” He replied, “I can only say that I am searching for the answer.”
About ten years later and after getting a result showing that the universe could have existed for endless imaginary time before its physical existence, Steven Hawking proclaimed: “What place, then, for a creator?” (Hawking and Mlodinow 2008) In this he is ignoring the fact that imaginary quantities are mathematical entities that cannot be directly measured despite their important role in the mathematical formulations of physics.
Investigating the quantum state of the vacuum, Hawking found that the universe could have been created from nothing by gravity only, accordingly again he claims in his book The Grand Design that there is no need for the creator. Similar claims were made by Lawrence Krauss in his book Something from Nothing.
Both Hawking and Krauss are ignoring the fact that a very strong gravity (or spacetime warp) is needed in fact to convert nothing into something. Virtual particles, which are assumed to be present within the quantum vacuum, cannot spontaneously pop out without the presence of a strong gravitational field. Paul Davies admits this fact but he argues that it could be a matter of semantics (Davies 1984).
Confronted with facts that points to a kind of transcendental existence in a debate with John Polkinghorne during the SSQ conference (2002), Steven Weinberg exclaimed, “My argument can be falsified if a fiery sword will come from nowhere and hit me for my impiety.” In a similar position during a public lecture, Lawrence Krauss agreed that he may believe in God if he finds one evening that the stars are aligned in the sky to read, “I am here.” This implies that both Weinberg and Krauss can see the necessity for God only if the universe is run miraculously. A miraculously-run universe is described by the absence of any order or law that can explain it. In fact such a universe may not need God altogether but a mere force to sustain the chaos. This is what usually one would expect out of blind nature.
When Richard Dawkins tried to stretch the hypothesis of multiverse to refute a pre-setting of a fine-tuned universe and has put the question to Steven Weinberg during an interview, Weinberg remarked that one should not underestimate the fix that atheists are in: that consistent mathematical results cannot be guaranteed to be describing realistic states since there are many consistent mathematical formulations that do not find real presence in nature.
Now we ask: Has science killed the belief in God? This is a delicate question indeed, for it involves several terms that have to be identified and precisely defined first. This question comes in a philosophical as well as theological context and may require serious encounter with scientific knowledge on a specialized level.
The answer could be YES for a certain understanding of the concept God, and could be NO for another understanding of what we mean by God. So, first we need to define what we mean by God. Without such a definition, one may then confuse it with superstition or the idiot’s God. Second, we need to discuss whether the world needs God, and whether this need is psychological, physiological, epistemological, or otherwise practical. On the other hand we need to discuss the question whether this need is temporal due to lack of our information, or is it a fundamental part of the truth of our world. In all cases we should remember that our views are always bounded with the extent of our knowledge at the given time; for no one can claim that science has reached ultimate knowledge.
Who is God?
Apart from the religious concept of God, here I shall first discuss the rather minimal view adopted by Keith Ward which says that “God is a non-physical being of consciousness and intelligence or wisdom, who creates the universe for the sake of distinctive values that the universe generates.” (Ward 2014)
One might consider the terms ‘non-physical’ and ‘consciousness’ as being incompatible, for consciousness might be considered to require physical existence of sensors in order to achieve sensation. Accordingly, this definition of God is embedding the assumption that consciousness might exist in a non-physical form. But what is physical and what is non-physical? From our modern understanding, we can construe that a physical entity is something that can always be addressed in real time with validated causal relationships, and by causal I mean the verifiable relationships in which a cause precedes the effect. A physical object has to be measurable. Complex numbers, for example, are not measurable, thus are to be considered non-physical. However, complex numbers are an essential part of the mathematical formulation by which we understand nature. Therefore, a simple understanding of God perhaps is to say that God is a symbol pointing to a supernatural agency standing behind, but not necessarily limited to, the creation, sustainment and maintenance of the universe. God is an order that validates the laws of nature. Being supernatural, such identity cannot be studied with pure reason alone and might not be fully comprehensible.
Laws of Nature
What other major factor would render the belief in God obsolete other than saying that the world needs no God because the laws of nature are ruling the whole game? But, then, what are the laws of nature and can they stand for the role of God?
During the seventeenth century the notion of laws of nature started to crystallize; Descartes (1596-1650) was perhaps the first in the West to discuss the existence of ‘laws or rules of nature’. In the Principles of Philosophy he stated three laws concerning the natural motion of bodies and a conservation rule for the quantity of motion. Descartes connected laws of nature to the activity of a transcendent immutable God. A very good analysis of the concept of laws of nature in the Cartesian and other philosophies during the seventeenth century can be seen in (Jalobeanu 2001). This claim, and all the other laws, are grounded explicitly in the activity of a transcendent God on his creation. Descartes held a version of the doctrine of continual recreation. Garber tells us that ‘the idea of a law of inanimate nature remains quite distinctively Cartesian throughout much of the seventeenth century.’(Garber 2013) The notion of a law of nature cannot be found, for example, in other reformers of the period such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626) or Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).
In contrast, Hobbes (1588-1679) did not think that God has any role to play in natural philosophy. In order to explain how a law of nature works, he resorted to geometry. The way in which Hobbes explained nature through geometry was to say that a body at rest will remain at rest just because it has the possibility to move in any and all directions. Since there is no preferred direction for motion, the body would have to remain at rest. A similar argument applies to a body in constant motion. This kind of understanding is ignoring the need for an active agency to activate the action of such events. The geometrical argument is similar to saying that a free stone falls on the ground just because there is a gravitational force between the stone and the Earth. But here we are ignoring to ask where gravity comes from and who is activating the gravitational force to work? If you are a free rational thinker you would set up such questions no doubts, but if you would like to ignore such a query you would always be able to attribute the action of the gravity to another cause, the existence of mass according to Newton or the presence of a curvature of the spacetime according to Einstein. Hobbes denied divine intervention as he could not understand how the non-physical can affect the physical. This we can see through the following paragraph of Hobbes as cited by (Garber 2013)
The subject of [natural] Philosophy, or the matter it treats of, is every body of which we can conceive any generation, and which we may, by any consideration thereof, compare with other bodies, or which is capable of composition and resolution; that is to say, every body of whose generation or properties we can have any knowledge. [. . .] Therefore, where there is no generation or property, there is no philosophy. Therefore it excludes Theology, I mean the doctrine of God, eternal, ingenerable, incomprehensible, and in whom there is nothing neither to divide nor compound, nor any generation to be conceived.
In fact the question of how a non-physical entity can affect a physical entity is one of the big challenging questions at present in the science and religion debates.
Modern sciences, mainly physics and biology, may have contributed to weaken the belief in God by assuming that the universe can be explained through a collection of self-acting laws that can be expressed in mathematical forms. This eventually means that the universe is logically intelligible on the basis of deterministic causality. Classical celestial mechanics, for example, has verified this deterministic causality to the extent that allowed Pierre Laplace (1747-1827) to claim that once the initial conditions for any system are known then one can predict all the subsequent development of the system without the need to invoke intervention of the divine. He said,
We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes. The perfection that the human mind has been able to give to astronomy affords but a feeble outline of such intelligence. (Laplace 1840)
The view that the world is developing independent of the notion of God was culminated later by the declaration of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) that God is dead. This same belief in deterministic causality may have motivated Albert Einstein to ask if “God had any choice in creating the universe.”
Some intellectuals believe that the advancement of science has kept no place for God. In replying to the big questions of the John Templeton Foundation, Christopher Hitchens, editor of the Portable Atheist, sees no point in claiming that there remains even a little evidence about the existence of God. “To say that there is little ‘scientific’ evidence for the last proposition is to invite a laugh. There is no evidence for it, period.” (Hitchens 2014)
Hitchens asks, “What plan, or planner, determined that millions of humans would die without even a grave marker, for our first 200,000 years of struggling and desperate existence, and that there would only then at last be a “revelation” to save us, about 3,000 years ago, but disclosed only to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?”
But here Hitchens is dealing with the creator as if he is the employer and God is a contractor. This is not the case. One may object to the way the universe is run, and to how things are designed, for example Dawkins considered the long nerve passing all the way through the neck of the Giraffe a sign of bad design, despite the fact that he does not possess all the knowledge of the function of the animal body. Reality suggests that we are spectators in this universe, we should admit this fact and realize that a ruler would not necessarily care to take the discretion of other creatures into his action or plan.
Stuart Kaufmann, the director of the Institute for Bio-complexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary claims that we need to develop our understanding of God. He thinks that we should abandon thinking of a supernatural God and replace that notion with a natural God. In his response to the question posed by the Templeton Foundation, Kaufmann says, “The schism between science and religion can be healed, but it will require a slow evolution from a supernatural, theistic God to a new sense of a fully natural God as our chosen symbol for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe. This healing may also require a transformation of science to a new scientific worldview with a place for the ceaseless creativity in the universe that we can call God.” (Kaufman 2014)
He calls upon us to ‘re-invent the sacred’ despite admitting that this goal is dangerous as it implies that the sacred is invented. However, he asserts that having our understanding of God being under continuous change over the ages indicates that “It is we who have told our gods what is sacred, not they who have told us.” This means that our comprehension of God has defined his sacred status. Well, one may say that this might be true in the case of Christianity and Judaism, but may not be the case in Islam. Scriptures of the Bible are but the reflections and the understanding of the followers of Moses and Jesus Christ, while the Qur’ān is believed to be the direct word of Allah revealed to Muhammad. Nevertheless, we should admit that as far as the divine attributes are concerned, the Qur’ān presents similar, may be less personal, attributes in Allah. The Qur’ān describes Allah as the creator, the sustainer, the omniscient, the omnipotent who can hear, speaks and see. The point to make here is that along with these personal attributes the Qur’ān also mention that ‘Nothing resembles Him’; meaning that nothing is like Allah and the given attributes are only meant to be exposed examples. For this reason the Muʿtazilites declared that the attributes of Allah are intrinsic part of his character and is not an additional meaning to be added to him. Wolfson (Wolfson 1976) has studied the problem of the denial of the reality of the divine attributes in much details. However, taken within the practical deliberation of these attributes, the popular concept of God in the mind of an average Muslim has more or less, similar patronage to that in the mind of Jews and Christians. This was established since the early centuries of the Islamic era.
The presentation of the divine as a personal agency places many obstacles against achieving a vivid comprehension of God. With this personal deliberation we face many difficult questions concerning the realization of the notion of the divine in his existence, action and purpose.
But would it be serious to think of God who is unphysical to affect our physical world? Michael Shremer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, approaches this question by reminding us that “Science traffics in the natural, not the supernatural. The only God that science could discover would be a natural being, an entity that exists in space and time and is constrained by the laws of nature. A supernatural God would be so wholly Other that no science could know Him.” (Shremer 2014) On the other side, Keith Ward finds that if we agree on his above definition of God, then “it follows that a non-physical conscious intelligence is possible — so a materialist view that all existent things must be physical, or must have location in space-time and must be subject to the causal laws of such a space-time, must be false.” Clearly then, it is the different concepts of God that cause the difference of opinions in responding to this question.
Kenneth Miller, Professor of Biology at Browns University, criticized the atheists for mistakenly considering God to be part of the natural world and failing to find him there. He says, “The categorical mistake of the atheist is to assume that God is natural, and therefore within the realm of science to investigate and test. By making God an ordinary part of the natural world, and failing to find Him there, they conclude that He does not exist. But God is not and cannot be part of nature. God is the reason for nature, the explanation of why things are. He is the answer to existence, not part of existence itself.” (Miller 2014) Indeed, if you believe in God or you are a non-believer, either way it is very important to acknowledge that God is not part of the natural world. Being part of the world, such a God would have to abide by the laws of nature and thus could be brought into laboratory tests or tracked by observations. Miller correctly recognizes once again that “The hypothesis of God comes not from a rejection of science, but from a penetrating curiosity that asks why science is even possible, and why the laws of nature exist for us to discover.”
God and the New Physics
Quantum physics, which sprung out of the discoveries made during the first quarter of the last century in the atomic realm, has shaken the well-established confidence in deterministic causality. The wave-like behavior of microscopic particles introduced new concepts in the dynamic of mechanical systems. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle does not allow for simultaneous identification of the momentum and the position of a particle with absolute certainty. Physical parameters of microscopic systems are found to have a spectrum of values that are distributed probabilistically and that any of them can be predicted only with a limited accuracy. Deterministic presentation of microscopic phenomena, like the hidden variables theories of David Bohm, is outside mainstream physics and several experiments have already ruled out such local hidden variables theories, thus confirming the non-local character of natural phenomena. Here I am referring to Alain Aspect’s experiment of 1982 and the other experiments that followed (for non-technical presentation of these experiments, see (Davies 1984)). Literally, no event is known to happen with 100% accuracy. The world is non-local and things are entangled one way or another. This fact is independent of the theories and their involved interpretations, and no matter what arguments are presented in defense of the deterministic view, the established fact is that nature is indeterministic since it has been established by many laboratory experiments. Here we can then ask the question: can the laws of nature stand for the assumed role of God?
In the old kalām cosmological view, especially the Ashʿarite description, the world is understood to be composed of atoms, each of which is made of a substance and a set of accidents (Dhanani 1994). The substance, called jawhar, is fixed and the accidents (called a‘raḍ) are the ever changing properties that the jawhar may acquire and which is assumed not to endure two instances. Such a picture allows for the action of an external agency dominating the events and controlling the development of the world through the change that takes place on a microscopic scale. The behavior of the world is said to follow some customized rules that we recognize through the persistent occurrence of the natural phenomena. The physical theory of kalām suggests that the world is ruled through certain well-respected principles expressing relations that we are accustomed to recognize among its constituents (Altaie 2010). The world is not a collection of miraculous events, but at the same time is indeterministic according to kalām. This understanding has echoes in contemporary quantum physics, although the two approaches and their explanations are quite different. For more details see (Altaie 2009). Perhaps it would be necessary here to point to the fact that the kalām view concerning atomism and the detailed structure of matter is different in many fundamental aspects from the views expressed by the Greek atomists as well as the views of the seventeenth century European philosophers who adopted atomism and some versions of the notion of re-creation. For this reason the critiques that address those views do not apply to the views of kalām, and this is a detailed topic that has to be studied in its own merits.
Does the world need God at all?
What sort of a need is there that requires the assumption of the existence of God and his action in the world? Sean Carroll, a theoretical cosmologist, says: “It’s certainly conceivable that the methods of science could lead us to a self-contained picture of the universe that doesn’t involve God in any way” (Carroll 2012). This sort of claim is repeated in many essays and books. But how can the method of science lead us to a self-contained picture of the universe other than through the assumed self-action of the so-called laws of nature? If we recognize that laws of nature are actually the phenomena that occur in nature, then by the fact that these phenomena are indeterministic it would be legitimate to ask if these laws can act on their own? Well, as long as the efficacy of these laws become probabilistic, I cannot see how these laws would act on their own; being indeterministic, the action of these laws will be pending the decision by another agency. How then can we claim that the universe is self-contained and needs no agency to run it?
To be able to predict the natural abundance of elements in the universe, for example, is certainly something fascinating and is a bold exposition of the ability of the human mind to discover the logic according to which the universe is developing, but by no means can this be considered evidence for the absence of a ruling agency. Our endeavor to understand how the world develops will never end and whatever claim is made for reaching ultimate knowledge is only a dream of the ignorant. Let us not be deceived by what we call laws of physics, and perhaps we need to read again some of the original arguments presented by Nancy Cartwright in her classic book How the Laws of Physics Lie (Cartwright 1983) and also her essay, No God, No Laws (Cartwright 2008), in which she argues that “the concept of a law of Nature cannot be made sense of without God.” Obviously, Cartwright has treated the subject from a philosophical perspective, whereas here I am presenting the argument from the scientific perspective in the light of the discoveries of quantum mechanics.
We need to assess the value of science and expose whether it can be taken as an absolute reference for the truth. This is needed in order to know the meaning and the value of our scientific knowledge. Experience tells us that science is a product of our cognition and the laws of physics are only our constructions of the observed facts of nature. This we have learned from the history of science particularly our knowledge about gravitation where Einstein’s theory of general relativity offered us a picture about gravity totally different from that of Newton and it was shown that Newton’s picture was conceptually in contrast with Einstein’s theory despite the fact that the former provided us for centuries with very accurate calculations for movements of the bodies in the solar system.
Then, is it our logic and the structure of our cognitive capabilities which is shaping the need for God? Certainly, yes. It is our built-in logic which tells us that precise systems as the ones that we see in our world and the directive development of these systems: the big bang, biological evolution, the fate of the stars, the presence of black holes as gates for other worlds; all these need to be designed by a supreme power that has knowledge of everything. Chance and necessity, being relevant parts of the structure, play the role of relevant factors for manipulating the game, but certainly the game itself is not played by chance and necessity alone. Therefore, I would agree with Keith Ward in saying that “It is not science that renders belief in God obsolete. It is a strictly materialist interpretation of the world that renders belief in God obsolete, and which science is taken by some people to support.”
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By Mohammed Basil Altaie, Task Force Essay on Islam’s Response to Science’s Big Questions.
Mohammed Basil Altaie is a Professor of Physics of Iraqi descent currently at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan.
We gratefully acknowledge Dr. Osama Athar, Founding Editor and Publisher of Muslim-Science.Com for permitting us to reproduce this very much valuable essay emanating from the Task Force on Islam’s Response to Science’s Big Questions
This task force initiative, launched by Muslim-Science.Com (an online platform and portal dedicated to a revival of science and scientific culture in the Islamic World), seeks to jumpstart dialogue, discourse, and debate on critical issues and big questions at the intersection of science and religion within the Islamic world.
The list of the Task Force members with their credentials can be found here