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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > October 2012 > Why the Sciences Will Never Disprove the Existence of God
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Why the Sciences Will Never Disprove the Existence of God

By Very Rev. Robert Barron

Given the ruminations of Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, one might have thought that the absolute limit of scientistic arrogance had been reached. But think again. Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, was quoted in a recent news article asserting that “science” is on the verge of providing a complete understanding of the universe — an explication, it goes without saying, that precludes the antiquated notion of God altogether. Before addressing the God issue specifically, let me make a simple observation. Though the sciences might be able to explain the chemical make-up of pages and ink, they will never be able to reveal the meaning of a book; and though they might make sense of the biology of the human body, they will never tell us why a human act is moral or immoral; and though they might disclose the cellular structure of oil and canvas, they will never determine why a painting is beautiful. And this is not because “science” is for the moment insufficiently developed, it is because the scientific method cannot, even in principle, explore such matters, which belong to a qualitatively different category of being than the proper subject matter of the sciences. The claim that “science” could ever provide a total understanding of reality as a whole overlooks the rather glaring fact that meaning, truth, beauty, morality, purpose, etc., are all ingredients in “the universe.”

But as is usually the case with scientistic speculation, Carroll’s thought is designed, above all, to eliminate God as a subject of serious intellectual discourse. The first and most fundamental problem is that, like Hawking, Dawkins and Dennett, Carroll doesn’t seem to know what Biblical people mean by “God.” With the advance of the modern physical sciences, he asserts, there remains less and less room for God to operate, and hence less and less need to appeal to him as an explanatory cause. This is a contemporary reiteration of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s rejoinder when the Emperor Napoleon asked the famous astronomer how God fit into his mechanistic system: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” But God, as the classical Catholic intellectual tradition understands him, is not one cause, however great, among many; not one more item within the universe jockeying for position with other competing causes. Rather, God is, as Thomas Aquinas characterized him, ipsum esse, or the sheer act of to-be itself — that power in and through which the universe in its totality exists. Once we grasp this, we see that no advance of the physical sciences could ever “eliminate” God or show that he is no longer required as an explaining cause, for the sciences can only explore objects and events within the finite cosmos.

To demonstrate the relationship between God and the universe more clearly, it would be worthwhile to explore the most fundamental argument for God’s existence, namely the argument from contingency. You and I are contingent (dependent) in our being in the measure that we eat and drink, breathe, and had parents; a tree is contingent inasmuch as its being is derived from seed, sun, soil, water, etc.; the solar system is contingent because it depends upon gravity and events in the wider galaxy. To account for a contingent reality, by definition we have to appeal to an extrinsic cause. But if that cause is itself contingent, we have to proceed further. This process of appealing to contingent causes in order to explain a contingent effect cannot go on indefinitely, for then the effect is never adequately explained. Hence, we must finally come to some reality that is not contingent on anything else, some ground of being whose very nature is to-be. This is precisely what Catholic theology means by “God.” Therefore, God is not one fussy cause within or alongside the universe; instead, he is the reason why there is a universe at all, why there is, as the famous formula has it, “something rather than nothing.” To ask the sophomoric question, “Well, what caused God?” is simply to show that the poser of the question has not grasped the nettle of the argument.

Now Carroll seems to acknowledge the probative power of this sort of argument of first instance, but he makes the common scientistic mistake of identifying the first cause with matter or energy or even the universe itself in its endlessly fluctuating rhythms of inflation and deflation. But the problem with such explanations is this: they involve an appeal to patently contingent things or states of affairs. Energy or matter, for example, always exist in a particular modality or instantiation, which implies that they could just as well be in another modality or instantiation: here rather than there, up rather than down, this color rather than that, this speed rather than that, etc. But this in turn means that their being in one state rather than another requires an explanation or an appeal to an extrinsic cause. And the proposal of the fluctuating universe itself is just as much of a non-starter, for it involves the same problem simply writ large: how do you explain why the universe is expanding rather than contracting, at this rate rather than that, in this configuration rather than another, etc.?

Finally, a cause of the very to-be of a contingent universe must be sought, and this cannot be anything in the universe, nor can it be the universe considered as a totality. It must be a reality whose very essence is to-be and hence whose perfection of existence is unlimited. As I have tried to demonstrate in very short compass, philosophy can shed light on the existence of God so construed. The one thing the sciences cannot ever do is disprove it.

Posted: 10/1/2012 12:00:00 AM by Word On Fire | with 12 comments


Comments
Ron Alexander
Fr. Barron, in my view, is the expert par excellence on the classical argument for God: a first cause that exists beyond a chain of causation, beyond the world of contingent/dependent beings and things. It is Aquinas brought forward to the 21st Century. I agree, and certainly couldn’t say it better.

However, I have a different approach to offer in the debate between science and religion: both science and religion speak in metaphors, or poetry, but their differing metaphors speak of the same essence, God.

During the Enlightenment, in a Newtonian world, the condemnation of religion was that it was “irrational,” not needed, as Laplace said to Napoleon. The scientific method of Bacon and Descartes, in a deterministic world of Newton, relied on empirical observation, measurement, and then formulaic exactitude reflected in the Newtonian laws of nature. Science was rational; religion was not. Religion relied upon “faith,” which, by definition, was outside the world of empiricism. The two world of religion and science seemed unalterably opposed.

But for the last 100 years, science has itself become “irrational.” And science has now, itself, begun to speak in terms of “faith” … “scientific faith” perhaps but faith nonetheless. Thus science has evolved into the language of metaphor. So both religion and science now speak in metaphors and poetry. And they speak of the same God.

The two revolutions of the last century are Einstein’s Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. In place of Newtonian exactitude, we now have Quantum Mechanical probabilities and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Let’s quickly survey modern physics: Einstein tells us that space and time are a continuum in 4 dimensions and String Theory/M Theory tells us that 4 becomes 10 or 11 dimensions. Newton told us that we had one universe, while Cosmology speaks in terms of an infinity of Multiverses occupying the same space-time: another universe just beyond the tip of your nose. Classical logic tells that either A or not A are possible, but not at the same time. Quantum Mechanics (the famous “Schroedinger’s Cat”) tells us that both A and not A coexist until measured. Gallileo looked at the heavens and saw the universe. Scientists today look at the heavens and see 5% of what they think is the total energy-matter that exists: 5% observable matter-enery, 20% dark matter, and 75% dark energy. We “see” the effect of dark matter in gravitational distortions and we “see” the dark energy in the acceleration of the expansion of the universe, but we don’t what these entities are. We don’t even have a theory to explain them. Cosmologists today say that “time” itself is an illusion with no physical reality. “Quantum Entanglement” (Bell’s Theorem) tells us that quantum paired particles can communicate instantaneously across the vast expanse of the universe by changing states in response to each other … the entire universe in an instant. And we now have tentative “confirmation” from CERN that the Higgs boson and field exist. The Higgs boson has been called the “God particle,” meaning that existence relies upon the Higgs field/boson fundamentally. The Higgs field is the non-zero vacuum expectation value of “empty space.” In other words, in the utter vacuum of totally empty space, there is … (a) God … for the faithful, or (b) the Higgs Field … for the cosmologist.

So modern science is indeterminate (Heisenberg), probabilistic (Quantum wave equation), illogical (A and not A, Schroedinger’s Cat), unempirical (10 dimensional multiverses), and connected in bizarre ways (Quantum Entanglement) … i.e., modern science is based on “faith.” Science can no longer attack religion by claiming religion to be “irrational” and “unprovable” when science itself has become exactly that.

Is it not immediately clear that there are two sets of metaphors speaking about the same “ipsum esse” of creation?
10/26/2012 8:15:23 PM
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Ron Alexander
... Just as Ed Witten saw that 5 different mathematical formulations of string theory were expressions of one underlying mathematical reality (M Theory), ... and just as Paul Dirac unified the disparate Heisenberg and Schrodinger formulations of quantum mechanics, ... so too do religion and science express, in different metaphorical formulations, the same underlying reality.

In neither formulation do we see clearly; in both we rely on faith.
10/27/2012 10:38:08 AM
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Ron Alexander
What then is the “grand unification metaphor” that unites science and religion, faith and reason? Music. Perhaps as an intermediate unification, art: the iconography of Orthodox Christianity, the religious “worm hole” across the cosmos into the heavenly realm. But as a final unification, music: ... Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms. And what, perchance, might be the epitome of this grand unification? Bach’s B Minor Mass: a combination of faithful adoration, musical sublimity, mathematical symmetry into a transcendent, eternal beauty.
10/28/2012 11:18:06 AM
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Ron Alexander
And in the central moment of the Mass, in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the transcendent and the empirical, the heavenly and terrestrial, the rational and the irrational, are united. As the Book of Common Prayer recites: “Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of Hosts: Heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High.”
10/31/2012 4:41:55 AM
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Robert Johns
In addition I wish to add the following:
1. The universe must have been created outside of itself.In other words the universe could not and did not create itself.
2.Physical science posits that space and time were created at the instant of the universe's creation.It follows that either nothing existed prior to the universe's creation or something did which was the cause of the birth of the universe.There is no evidence of the latter so any hypothesis of the latter is nothing but a belief without a shred of any evidence of any kind to support it. Such hypothesis can never be falsified and like string theory is not science but no more than an idea.
3.The contracting/expanding universe or bouncing universe is also nothing more than an idea- there is no evidence to support it- the same applies to parallel universes.Indeed most credible cosmologists have debunked such ideas.
4.People who do not believe in the existence of a supreme intelligent being(God) will grasp any idea or theory that supports their belief that God did not create the universe because they falsely claim God does not exist.Note the word "belief".
5. We only know some things about the observable universe. Nobody knows how large the universe really is.Without knowing all of the reality of the universe how can we ever understand it let alone explain ow it came to be?There are several unsolved mysteries of the universe.
6.Science is nothing more than a process of discovery of what exists.It does a pretty good job explaining what it has discovered and usually on how the thing discovered works.Physical science does a lousy job explaining why a thing exists or why it works the way it does.
7.The Big Bang (BB) theory commences after the instant of creation. It does not even attempt to explain how the universe was created.
8.First principles and the first cause needs to be addressed.
9.Particle accelerators or colliders can never simulate the origin of the universe - from where did the original particles come from?
10.where did the physical laws come from? Where did the fundamental forces and gravity come from? Without physical laws the universe would not exist or have existed for very long - there would have been chaos and we would not have an orderly universe which we do have.Laws require a law giver (God).
11. Humans have a spiritual soul. The human race has the intellect to rational thinking and has free will.the soul can experience goodness, evil, love, kindness, which are immaterial.From whence the soul? Note even ancient races believed in the spiritual soul or spirit as do the vast majority of people today which survive our physical death( we often hear, read, see and speak the words "mind, body and soul."Physical science cannot and never will discover the soul as it is immaterial and explain why e humans have one.
12. Either God created the universe or he did not.It must be one or the other.
If God did not create the universe then what did?note the word "what".The 'what' could not have been a 'who' because then we would revert the sole alternative that God created the universe.Now physical science has proved that a non living thing (the what) cannot create a living thing.
In conclusion what anti God creationists want us to believe is that a what outside of space and time created an intelligent universe which included a small planet on which live intelligent peoples who in the main, have the common sense to denounce people like Sean Carroll as being well intentioned but misguided people at best and charlatans and evil men at worst.

Knowledge of the Truth and living accordingly will come true Love and only then will we find Peace. Truth, Love and Peace are inseparably linked.You cannot have one without the other two.
11/23/2012 4:33:52 AM
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kathy
The contigency is also interdependent, is it not? When working with comatose patients, the equipment was terrifying but necessary. But the biology could be sustained, maintained, and hopefully reversed to healthy. Much more necessary, much more terrifying, was the approach of that humaness, the human word shared and explaining to a stillness, the human touch shared with the stillness, and yes, I firmly believe, the soul knew where and how it abided. Upon waking, many patients would recognize the human voices who recognized the mutlidimentional existence within their care. Humbling.
God Speed!
11/23/2012 4:43:29 PM
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Ron Alexander
"I am who I am." All things have a referent, except God, who is self-referential. God's brilliance, even in his name, is profound.
11/24/2012 10:40:34 AM
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Michael Kos
Fr. Barron,
First off, excellent and informative website! One of my favorites. I just have a few questions for you that have been bothering me lately. I'd appreciate any insight!

1 - Why are there so many different religions and denominations of such? Everyone is convinced that their religion is the one true "path to God." How can we be sure if God doesn't show Himself in any tangible way (forgive me for the brashness of that, wasn't my intent)? Are we confusing feelings as being communication from/with God?

2 - If Condition A = spending eternity in eternal bliss with God, why allow there to be a Condition B which consists of what we're going through now; war, terror, disease, children dying, animals abused, etc.? Why not just skip B, and allow there to only be A? I know about free will and all, but instead of robotic love, why not allow us to choose how to serve Him in work in eternal bliss?

3 - Since there has to be a first cause, why couldn't that first cause be a mix of particles that gave way to the Big Bang?
11/24/2012 11:15:23 PM
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eM
I recently had to do a paper for Intro. to Philosophy about proving the existance of God according to certain philosophical theories. It was hard and I had to think long and hard. I did not think that I had the intellect to posit a good argument. I got through it with this thought. How can we prove God exists without any revevelation knowledge of Him? Moses knew who God was after the Lord told him "I AM who I AM".
I enjoy learning about the universe out there and am in awe of what God has created. They say it is chaotic but I think that God has an order in it that perhaps we do not fully understand. But That Is not important in whether I believe in God's existence because like Moses, I have received a revelation knowledge of Him.
11/29/2012 12:53:47 AM
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Ron Alexander
Three principles have served me well: Certain things we will never understand in this life. Certain question we are not allowed to ask. And certain things belong to God to judge, not to us. All tempered by Porverbs 9:10, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."

Michael, you ask "are all religions true?" This is for God to judge, not us. As Christians, it is our concern to live the life of faith that Christ taught us. That is enough. Matthew 7:3, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

Why do I believe Christianity is true? Because of Paul’s confrontation with Christ on the road to Damascus. Paul, a devout Jew who persecuted the early Christians, had no reason to fabricate the experience and, given his ensuing temporary blindness, was not merely confused. And because not one of the 12 Apostles (with Mathias replacing Judas) forsook Christ after his crucifixion. All importantly, the 12 Apostles experienced the risen Christ and all but John were martyred themselves. They knew the divine truth first hand and were prepared to die for it. No greater "earthly" proof is possible.

Michale, you ask "Why are there so many Christian denominations?" Because man is sinful. There once was a commission that met on Catholic – Anglican reconciliation. Many years ago, I heard a talk about the impasse reached. The commission had agreed on the nature of God, the nature of salvation, the importance of grace and faith, the importance of the Eucharist and Baptism … all the matters of importance to God. But they could not agree on the institution and governance on earth of the church … all the matters of importance to Man. We confound ourselves. And God weeps. The joke at the time was that the Catholics had the Pope and the Anglicans had the Book of Common Prayer… making the basis of a “deal.” In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI allowed Anglican parishes to join the Catholic church, and bring the Book of Common Prayer with them. So there is progress.

Why must we suffer on earth? Certain things we will never understand in this life. But it appears that the divine purpose is accomplished through the catharsis of suffering: God himself, in Christ, was betrayed, tortured, mocked, crucified, and descended into hell … all to accomplish the divine purpose of salvation for man. In the face of that suffering, which Christ experienced as Man, who are we to complain? In fact, in Luke 9:23 we are told by Christ to "take up [our] cross daily and follow [him]."

Why is this so? Job asked that of God. He got his answer. As lawyers say, the question has been “asked and answered.” Job 38: 1-4, God thundered from the whirlwind “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” We are not to question the Lord in this.

For "Enlightment" progeny, children of the "Age of Reason," there is no more bone-chilling verse in the Bible than this.

Abraham Lincoln quoted the Psalms in his Second Inaugural Address: Psalm 19:9, “the ordinances [Lincoln said "judgments"]of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Where are we left? With Micah 6:8, “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
12/2/2012 5:08:58 PM
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Charles La Rue
Why does God allow evil? Shouldn't God step in and prevent humans and maybe even animals from doing evil?
We don't know if animals do evil things or not, but we do know that humans do evil all the time in varying degrees. As C.S. Lewis points out, this question shows that humans are naturally aware of, and repulsed by evil, and therefore aware of a moral code, a code that is universally used to criticize, judge, and condemn the wrong actions of others. Of course when we ourselves do wrong, it is always justified in some way, again proving how strongly this moral code seems to press on us.

It also shows that we think that humans have a choice about doing good or evil. After all, if we knew that someone had no choice about doing evil, but was compelled to do so by circumstances, such as killing a human or an animal in self defense, then we would render a verdict of justifiable homicide. So the key to doing evil is making an evil choice when a good choice was available.

And this brings up another observation that C. S. Lewis made about evil. In almost every case, the evil thing is a perverted good thing. Sexual mating by two loving individuals is a soul satisfying experience, but rape is always considered evil. One drink of alcohol can be considered good for digestion, but getting drunk is not a good idea. Working hard and saving for the future is considered good, but pushing others aside and taking advantage of them to advance oneself is unkind. Giving is considered good, but being forced to give at gunpoint is a crime. And so on. In every case a person doing evil is violating the moral code by twisting something good into something evil. Therefore we see that good always has to be present for an evil perversion to exist. And therefore we have no reason to suppose that God ever created anything but good. He didn't have to create evil. We do a fine job of creating evil all by ourselves by perverting God's goodness.

There might even be a scientific way of defining evil. Life is all about organizing nature to create and support further life. Life, in direct opposition to the law of decay (second law of thermodynamics), constantly and consistently creates order out of disorder. Plants grow, birds procreate, people clean their houses, wash their cars, bathe their children, grow crops, raise animals, cook healthy meals, and so on. Since we are talking about a code of conduct, we could define human evil as any human act which does the opposite, which increases disorder. This clearly puts war, pollution, drug abuse, abortion, child abuse, stealing, unfaithfulness, oppression, lying, cheating, neglect, addiction, and so on directly into the evil class.

One last thing. Accidents do happen for which no one can be blamed. A tree falls and kills a child. Are we to consider the tree evil? Or gravity? We understand that these things happen and we don't put them into the category of evil. Maybe a complaint could be made that God should not have allowed the tree to fall on the child. But we can't see the child's future or the events that follow the death, and so we don't know whether this is a valid complaint. On the other hand, we do hear of many cases in which a child is spared injury by a miraculous intervention.

With this understanding, we can now address the problem of God permitting evil. Let's take it from the point of view of the perpetrators of evil acts. It is obvious that for God to prevent people from doing evil things, he must step in and alter the situation in some way. Since the thought comes before the action, he must actually step in early and prevent a person from even thinking about making a wrong choice. Since perception comes before thought, and since events come before perception, then God would have to step in even earlier and prevent events from occurring which could be perceived as good or bad and result in a person thinking about making a wrong choice. Taken to its ultimate foolishness, God would have to put every human into a "safe" box in which no conflicts could ever arise. This would be an evil thing to do to a human since it would prevent growth and maturity. So we see that God cannot prevent evil without doing evil himself. The idea is then seen to be self contradictory and therefore nonsense. And so the answer to the question is that God permits evil because he permits life, and life requires events, perception of events, thoughts about what is perceived, and free choice of action based on thought.
12/3/2012 8:19:08 PM
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Ron Alexander
Charles, I had a lot of fun reading your comment. At first, I thought the argument obscure, but then I found thoughts that are interesting.

Do animals do evil? This strikes me as a profoundly important question. We have all seen nature films showing an innocent prey (perhaps a new born) being stalked, separated from its herd, attached en masse, and devoured by its hunters. Is it evil? One answer is that there is a natural food chain in which all creatures participant, even humans, although we are the ultimate hunters … except that microorganisms feed on us and sometimes we feed on ourselves (cancer). An ancillary to this perspective is that animals only kill when hungry; i.e., in fulfillment of the natural order. But another answer is that God created the world and saw that it was good (Genesis). So, whatever is of the world is, by definition, good. Evil must, therefore, be some form of perversion of the created order, usually a “perversion” animated (no pun intended) by “evil intentions,” of which only mankind is capable; i.e., human freedom of choice is the source of evil. [On the other hand, “suffering” (unconnected with evil) … one sentient animal devouring another sentient animal for food … is part of the natural order, and for man to ask “why” is just man “baying at the moon.”]

You then discuss evil as if it is a “separate entity” existing in the world and that “we do a fine job of creating evil all by ourselves.” The parallel that struck me was to alchemists (Newton being one). Alchemists tried to take lead and “create” gold. You seem to suggest that man is a “reverse Alchemist”: man takes “good” (gold) and creates “evil” (lead). This strikes me as a half-step from Manichaeism, the belief that good and evil are separate, combative forces in a dualistic world. Whereas Manichaeism thought there was a separate “God of Evil” distinct from our “God of Good,” your argument seems to make man himself the “God of Evil.” God creates” good,” then man perverts it to evil. The church turned from Manichaeism centuries ago.

Your concluding argument betrays that you must be a mathematician. You posit an hypothesis: is evil a separate entity. You then argue that if it were, then God would have to do evil himself (“put every human in a ‘safe box,’… which would be an evil thing to do”) which is self-contradictory for God, who is only capable of good. Therefore, you conclude (with mathematical logic) that the hypothesis is untrue: i.e., evil is not a separate entity. Consequently, evil must be a result of man’s freedom of choice.

You end up, in my view, in the correct place: “evil” is a result of man’s free choice not to turn toward God and do good, but rather to turn away from God and thereby do “evil.”

I think, though, that your concluding proposition is true simply because God is good and wanted man to have freedom of will and not to be an automaton. How much more wonderful for God to be worshiped by man’s free choice to do so rather than simply having man pre-programmed to do so. I don’t see the need for an Aristotelian argument winding its way through Manichaean alchemy. Occam’s razor.
12/4/2012 8:21:22 AM
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