An examination of the demand for scientific proof of God's existence.
Science and Supernature
By Timothy O’Fallon
During a conversation with an atheist friend of mine, he said something like this: "You say 'God' exists. Yet to date not one shred of scientific evidence proves your claim. If God is present everywhere - as you say - then science ought to be able to find some evidence of Him." To many, my friend’s critique presents an insurmountable obstacle to rationally defending the theistic position. No real scientific evidence of the supernatural – let alone God – has ever been empirically observed. The evidence which is presented from time to time is anecdotal, fraudulent, grossly misinterpreted, unrepeatable in a scientifically controlled environment, naturally explainable, or (at best) highly questionable. The conclusion my atheist friend naturally draws from this complete lack of scientific evidence is that God simply does not exist.
What interests me about his conclusion is that he does not draw it by following an empirical methodology. The lack of scientific evidence may be the premise from which he forms his argument, but it is not the argument itself. Rather, he draws his conclusion by using logic. Science and logic, while certainly linked, are not synonyms. Apparently, while science is my friend's measuring rod for truth, it cannot be applied without the rules of logic. Think of his argument, then, in the following form:
A. If God exists, then it must be possible to prove His existence by means of the scientific method.
B. No scientific proof has ever been offered confirming the existence of God.
C. Therefore, God does not exist.
I could adjust the above argument to suit the agnostic position by concluding that without scientific evidence there is no way to know for certain that God exists, but the reasoning is essentially the same. In order for my friend's argument to be sound, certain presuppositions must be true and one implication must follow. The first presupposition is that anything that exists must be empirically measurable. The second is that the scientific test trumps all other methods to prove or disprove God’s existence (legal proofs, logical proofs, etc). The third presupposition is that empirical proofs can be true. The implication that follows from the presumption that empirical proofs can be true is that human reason can produce genuine insights into the way things really are, and not only absurd guesses at existence from a purely subjective standpoint.
Must everything that exists be scientifically measurable? Yes, if by ‘all that exists’ you mean ‘what is scientifically measurable’. To say so would be a mere redundancy. This is essentially the position of the Naturalist, who cleanly puts every possible existence within the realm of Nature. Since Nature is governed by certain rules which themselves are governed by the underlying principle of ‘cause and effect’, we observe her behaving in an orderly fashion.* This is because all the universe is related in one giant interlocking matrix of ‘cause and effect’, beginning from the Big Bang and continuing indefinitely. Nothing escapes or is outside the interlocking whole. I am composing this because the precise chain of events which began at the first hint of an explosion at the Big Bang led to more chains of events which necessarily and unalterably produced this solar system, this planet, life on this planet, humans, human history, and the meeting of my parents in which one of some millions of sperm met the egg of the month. This then led to a chain of necessary and unalterable series of events causing the circumstances of my life and the direction of my thoughts, all of which are culminating in the writing of this essay. All things and events similarly exist, and are thus provable using the principles we logically derive from observing this interlocking system of “Nature”. It is a closed system: to the Naturalist, there are no foreigners to land on Nature's shores.
The Supernaturalist, on the other hand, contends that while Nature does indeed exist as an interlocking matrix of ‘cause and effect’ as described above, ‘Nature’ is not synonymous with ‘all that exists’. Nature exists in an open system in which at least one and possibly many Natures similarly exist, but not necessarily with the same ground-rules. As a matter of fact, if our Nature herself was 'caused', then one of these other Natures must differ from ours in the sense that it is both non-derivative and creative. The Supernaturalist calls this “Supernature”, a mode of existence which is neither dependent on our own familiar Nature nor subject to the law of causation. As such, it is necessarily unobservable by our own Nature on Nature’s own terms: namely, the scientific method.
How, then, can we decide which of these two views is correct? By science? As we have shown, the only way science can empirically prove the existence of ‘God’ is if the Naturalist position is correct. But if ‘God’ were empirically proven, He would necessarily be a part of Nature, and thus not Supernatural – nor God – at all. To prove Him scientifically would be to disprove Him. In other words, if the Naturalist position is correct, science could never offer proof of Supernature because once science proves a thing, it proves that thing belongs to Nature. If the Supernaturalist’s position is correct, no manner of science could ever offer proof of a supernatural God, because by definition God is 'not of Nature', the only realm where science is equipped to speak. "...god isn't a scientific phenomenon, and hence cannot be evaluated using scientific methods."**
Suppose I write a sentence like this: My grandmother ate chicken and cheese puffs until she didn’t know where all the cheese puffs went to. Apart from my comment possibly showing disrespect to my grandmother, the sentence ends in a preposition. Suppose you claimed that ending a sentence in a preposition is grammatically incorrect. If I wished, I could ask you to prove it. You would prove your position (or mine) by referring to a rulebook of English grammar, which is an appropriate way to prove an assertion about grammar. But suppose you claimed that my grandmother never ate chicken and cheese puffs together. You might prove your assertion legally (by calling witnesses who observed my grandmother’s eating habits or producing a journal by my grandmother attesting she had never eaten the combination). You might prove the assertion historically (by proving cheese puffs did not exist in my grandmother’s day). But you would be silly to try to prove your assertion grammatically. It isn’t a question of grammar at all.
Thus, when a Supernaturalist maintains, “There is a mode of existence, and a Being who exists in that mode, which operates independently of the cause-and-effect system on which science depends in order to prove or disprove anything,” it is nonsensical to require a proof by means which the assertion, if true, necessarily excludes. Science has about as much to do with Supernature as a book of Grammar has to do with my grandmother's gastronomy.
The presupposition that “all that exists must be empirically measurable” is precisely the claim that the Supernaturalist calls into question. The Naturalist cannot reasonably defend this claim by relying upon the very presupposition the Supernaturalist questions in the first place.
The second presupposition to my friend’s argument is that “scientific proof” trumps all other kinds of proof. Since we now know there can be no such thing as scientific proof of that which – if it exists at all - is inherently beyond the grasp of science, this idea must also be false. However, this does not exclude the possibility of God being provable by other means. Most notably, there remains the possibility that God’s existence may be proven logically.
The third presupposition to my atheist friend’s argument is that empirical proofs can be true. With this I wholeheartedly agree. But the presupposition rests upon the further presupposition – or rather it implies – that human reason (by which all science is ascertained) can produce a genuine insight into the way things really are, and not just the illusions of nonrational causes. Science is a system of inquiry into truth about nature. This system did not appear by itself one day at Francis Bacon's doorstep, swaddled in litmus paper. It was discovered by means of human reason. If human reason cannot possibly produce real truths, then no science can be true. But if Naturalism is true (namely, that there is no supernatural nor is there a supernatural God) , and the interlocking system of cause-and -effect is responsible for all things which exist (including human reason and ideas and theories), then every argument is necessarily and naturally caused. If Naturalism is true, then a scientist who comes to a conclusion about the efficacy of a chemical to reverse male baldness does not do so because he has examined the evidence empirically, but because he was caused to do so by an inexorable chain of events which began at the big bang. He had no choice but to come to that conclusion - the movement of atoms behaving as the law of causation demands forced the scientist to come to that conclusion.
This is a terrible problem for the Naturalist, because if an argument is caused naturally, we have no way of knowing whether or not it is really grounded logically. Every thought or theory our minds produce (if Naturalism is true) is then a result of natural causes and not the 'if, then' process of logical thought. If I think my grandmother ate cheese puffs because events have forced me to think this, then any logical reasons I have for thinking so are just an illusory by-product of Nature and not a genuine insight into anything true. Nor can anything my reason produce be true…including Naturalism...including science itself.*** Thus a theory (Naturalism) which makes science the ultimate arbiter of truth proves that there can be no such thing as truth at all, scientific or otherwise.
On the other hand, if my reason has a source outside the interlocking cause-and-effect chain of events called Nature, then it may in fact be capable of true insights. The Supernaturalist maintains precisely this position: that a Reasonable Being not subject to Nature’s closed and inexorable system has invaded Nature and imbued some of its inhabitants with the ability to reason. If God exists, science can be true.
I realize that it seems unnatural to think about our thoughts themselves in this way, but then again thinking itself is one of the least natural things you can do. It is a connection point with something beyond Nature, and its very ability to do what it is supposed to do rests upon the fact of the existence of that ‘beyond’. Thus, in a roundabout sense science provides compelling evidence for the existence of God; not by the performance of a series of experiments in controlled conditions, but by our confidence in the validity of science itself. "Can science prove the existence of God?" It cannot, in the sense that the scientific method is helpless when applied to the Supernatural; but it does indeed point to the necessity of the supernatural if any of science's claims are true. Certainty of any kind must have roots deeper than the topsoil of our own universe.
* The obvious exception to this orderliness of cause and effect is the behavior of subatomic particles. If the physicists who study these particles can really show that their behavior has no ‘cause and effect’ relationship, then Nature does have a trap door. However, having a more traditional bias in favor of empiricism when it comes to the study of natural phenomena, I suspect that someday the behavior of these particles will be sown to have such a relationship – if only in a different way than we expected. In other words, I don’t want to get my hopes up.
**Barry Purcell, in personal correspondence to me. His comment was meant to effectively sum up the first part of my argument, not necessarily to agree with my conclusion.
***I am not the first to make this argument. C.S. Lewis presents it in detail in Miracles, was refuted by Elizabeth Anscombe and then much improved it in corrected form in the later edition of Miracles (corrected enough to win Dr. Anscombe's admiration if not agreement). Victor Reppert takes the basic argument and restructures it in many enlightening ways in C.S. Lewis' Dangerous Idea. Dr. Francis Schaeffer argues something similar in the chapter "The Epistemological Necessity" from He is There and He is not Silent. Forms of this argument have also been used deftly by philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Traditionally it is known as "The Argument by Reason", but I refer to it as "The Thinking Cap Argument".