“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dawkins, the “God of the Gaps,” the Domain of Science, and the Question of Existence

...Popular atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, are fond of saying that science disproves God. But the statement “God exists” posits the existence of a nonphysical object – something beyond our reach of physical observation, beyond physical reality itself. If God exists, we would be arrogant indeed to presume that his existence must be scientifically testable. So no matter how thorough our understanding of the physical world is, it does not and cannot follow that God is excluded from existence.

Granted, Dawkins and his cohorts would probably agree with this and yet maintain that science still “disproves” God in the sense that it has the potential to offer such a complete description of the world that there would no longer be any phenomenon that would suggest a transcendent reality beyond the world. All the gaps in our knowledge of reality would be filled. The universe would be exhaustively explained in terms of simple laws, and God would be not only an unnecessary hypothesis, but a completely arbitrary hypothesis for which there is no evidence. In short, science would provide a sufficient explanation for everything.

It is true that science has explained things that were previously thought to need something beyond the physical world as an explanation – the “God of the gaps” was in certain instances shown to be unnecessary. But even if all these “gaps” were filled, such that through the scientific method humans arrived at a complete description of the physical world, God is not disproved. Science can and does fill gaps in our knowledge of the physical world, and the filling of one such gap does suggest that other gaps will be filled, but philosophical “gaps” of the type considered above (see previous post) cannot, as we have seen, be addressed by science.

Science cannot, then, as Dawkins maintains, explain everything. It cannot answer questions about realities that are not perceived solely with our senses (eg. causation, consciousness, good and evil, etc.), and it cannot by itself support its own presuppositions (eg. the accuracy of our reasoning and perception). That is why we need philosophy of science, and, more broadly, philosophy. Perhaps most importantly, science cannot answer the question “why does something exist instead of nothing?”

No question, including this one, can be answered except in terms of things that exist. That is, the only way this question could ever be answered would be if we could point to something that does exist, the existence of which is so self-evident, or self-explanatory, or obviously necessary, that it explains in itself why anything exists. But can physical experimentation by means of our five senses discern whether or not a thing must exist – whether it explains its own existence?! The closest science comes to this is the discovery of mathematical laws that appear so beautiful that it would seem they simply must be. But the perception of mathematical beauty is of a different kind than that of the lab, achieved through our senses. To say “this theory is beautiful” or “this pattern is simple and elegant” is to make (yet again) a statement of another kind. It is no longer the physicist who draws this conclusion and so approaches the question of existence, but the philosopher, the mystic, the theologian. He has powers of perception that the scientist knows not.1

In short, science only observes the physical realm as it is, so it cannot answer why that realm exists in the first place. Science can offer an accurate description of the physical world, but it is beyond the bounds of science to judge whether that description gives a complete account of reality, or whether hypothesizing something (like God) beyond the physical realm would or would not provide an overall more compelling explanation for reality as a whole. To consider whether any particular description of the world offers a good explanation is to ask whether it is reasonable, elegant, beautiful. Philosophical thought, that is, the use of our minds2 to draw reasonable conclusions above and beyond what science can reveal, is a necessary part of this.

1Scientists at work (especially theoretical physicists) are not only scientists, but also part-time philosophers.
2And, I would argue, our hearts – see “The Reason of the Heart.” It is with more than cold logic that the physicist says “this equation is beautiful, deep, mysterious.”

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