TCS Daily

Has Science Found God?

By Kenneth Silber - May 8, 2003 12:00 AM

What does science tell us (or not tell us) about God? This question has received stepped-up attention in recent years. There have been numerous articles reporting growing connections between science and religion. ("Science Finds God," Newsweek announced on its cover in 1998.) There have been science-and-religion conferences. The Templeton Foundation has given its lucrative Prize for Progress in Religion to a number of scientists.

There are, to say the least, differences of opinion on the subject. A new book Has Science Found God?: The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe, by physicist Victor J. Stenger, is an interesting dispatch from the skeptical end of the spectrum. Stenger argues persuasively against claims that science has found evidence for God or cosmic purpose. He is less persuasive, however, in arguing that science provides strong grounds for atheism.

The recent debates over science and religion have focused largely on evolutionary biology, although physics and cosmology have come increasingly into play in recent years. Stenger is dismissive of creationist views that the Earth was formed several thousand years ago and that the fossil record shows a lack of "transitional forms." The former, as he notes, is incompatible with the geological evidence; the latter is an arbitrary dismissal of numerous fossils tracing a sequence from one species to another.

Stenger is also critical of the Intelligent Design movement, which argues that certain features of the biological world indicate the activity of a guiding intelligence and could not plausibly have arisen through unaided evolution. He presents a detailed critique of mathematician William Dembski's idea of "conservation of information," a staple of the design movement. According to Dembski, natural law and randomness alone cannot generate new information such as is required for the evolution of increasingly complex organisms. Stenger argues that new information can be generated not only by Darwinian natural selection but also by so simple a process as a couple of magnets toppling over.

Some scientists and others have asserted that the universe as a whole shows evidence of intelligent design. One such argument is that various physical parameters seem to be "fine tuned" to permit life; if nuclear reactions were slightly different, for example, stars would produce little carbon and there would be no carbon-based life such as exists on Earth. There are many problems with this argument, including the assumption that only one type of life is possible. If you vary multiple parameters randomly, as Stenger has done in computer simulations, you end up with numerous "universes" that seem to have potential for some kind of life.

Stenger sketches out a picture of cosmology that gives little indication of cosmic purpose. The Big Bang may have been uncaused, much like the random fluctuations of quantum physics. The arrow of time that we perceive does not seem to apply at the most fundamental level; in fact, there may be a universe running "backward" in time on the "other side" of the Big Bang. Shortly after the Bang, the universe was in total chaos anyway, losing whatever information existed previously. Does the fact that the cosmos follows physical laws suggest a cosmic lawmaker? According to Stenger, the laws of physics follow readily from properties of empty space, mixed with some randomness. They are what you would expect if the cosmic lawmaker didn't do anything.

Does all this mean that the cosmic lawmaker doesn't exist? The current scientific evidence is a dubious basis for reaching such a conclusion. For one thing, the abovementioned cosmological ideas are rather speculative. Moreover, science alone doesn't provide all the relevant information. For many people, of course, religious belief is largely a matter of faith or hope. But believers and nonbelievers alike tend to find tentative "evidence" for their positions through a reading of history or contemplation of their personal experiences. Such considerations carry some weight, especially amid ambiguous scientific data.

Stenger asserts that if a supernatural being has major effects upon the world, these would be detectable and confirmable by science. If an intelligent cosmic creation occurred, there would be signs of it in the structure of the universe. If God responds to prayers, that would be discernible in controlled experiments. But it is far from clear that this is true. A God of anything like the traditional sort would be powerful enough to avoid showing up in the physics equations or biology data, if so desired. Of course, a deity that doesn't exist would also avoid detection. It will be hard for science to settle the matter.

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