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What Does Science Really Say About the Existence of God?

September 8, 2023


Philosopher Peter van Inwagen once stated that there are only two relatively recent scientific discoveries that impact the metaphysical debate concerning God’s existence. The first is that the universe appears to have begun to exist. The second is that the universe appears very old. That the universe may have begun to exist apparently leans in favor of God’s existence, if only as some further indicator of the universe’s contingency—that is, the fact that the universe is, but need not have been, and thus cries for some deeper (higher? transcendent?) explanation. The second point concerning the age of the universe may, by itself, not seem immediately relevant, but in conjunction with evolutionary theory, it is often taken to exacerbate the problem of pain, given how extensive the suffering of life has been throughout its gradual development. And this apparently leans against the existence of God. That is, assuming people think it “queer” that God would use such a painfully drawn-out process to produce beings like us.

To be clear, none of these considerations, absolutely considered, are novel. Philosophers have long contended that the entire physical realm is radically contingent (i.e., it exists but need not have existed), and that contingency demanded necessity for its ultimate explanation, and that only a very special sort of being—namely, a being that is qualitatively infinite, absolutely simple, unchanging and eternal, and possessed of all purely positive perfections—could be necessary in its existence. And that, philosophers called God (for an extended defense of the line of argumentation, see my book The Best Argument for God). Additionally, philosophers have always been quite aware of the enormous range of suffering that befalls our experience and there appears to be some—to put it lightly—tension between the idea of a perfectly good and omnipotent God and the awful things that happen to us and other animals. Again, none of this is new, even if each consideration is strengthened to whatever degree by modern cosmology or evolutionary theory. The question is whether these scientific advances tilt the scales in decisive favor of either of these prior considerations. 

If anything, God is required for science to even count as a genuine source of knowledge . . .

In an attempt to answer that question, we can make use of common-sense intuitions for how to select the best explanation of things—something, for example, like the likelihood principle—and ask how much we would expect some phenomena or situation if God exists versus how much we would expect that same phenomena or situation if God did not exist. For example, how much would I expect the universe to have an absolute beginning if God exists? To be honest, I’m not sure. Probably, I see it as being fifty percent likely, since perhaps God could have just as well created an everlasting universe, one with no beginning in time. However, we must also ask: How much would I expect the universe to have an absolute beginning in time if God did not exist, if physical reality was all there is? I don’t know about you, but here, my expectation is very low indeed. Probably half of one percent, if that. Thus, I must count any evidence of the universe—that is, all physical reality—having an absolute beginning as evidence for the existence of God, just so long as I assume (reasonably enough, I think) that things don’t pop into existence from nothing. 

What about evolutionary suffering? Is this so unexpected if God exists? Is it so expected if God does not exist? To the first question, I don’t think the evolutionary process, even replete with suffering, is so unexpected if God exists. In fact, the reason why I think people assume it is unexpected is because their picture of theism is not very well filled-in—not metaphysically complete, as it were—so they think God is just directly willing all the bad stuff. But that is not the traditional theistic picture. In fact, the theist can say—as many in the tradition have said (even if not related directly to evolutionary theory, which is a modern discovery)—that creation is mediated through other spiritual entities—namely, angels. Some of those entities sinned and turned from God and have attempted to infuse chaos into the unfurling of material creation, which itself is aiming toward the emergence of beings like us (spiritual-material realities). From this more “filled-in” theistic perspective, the resources are there to make quite a good bit of sense of both the incredible beauty, harmony, and painful discord in the development of the material cosmos. The staunchly skeptical naturalist, of course, will scoff at such an angelic (or demonic) narrative, and that’s fine. The theist is under no obligation to provide an account that doesn’t generate jeers; rather, they just must give an account that is logically consistent and plausible (if not probable) within their worldview, and certainly the one just given is. Angels with delegated roles might seem silly to someone who already does not believe in God, but they make quite a bit of sense—and are just the sort of thing we would expect—if God exists. 

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So, I do not see evolution, including the suffering suffused throughout the evolutionary process, as being wholly surprising if God exists. But what about if God does not exist? What would I expect if reality, at bottom, was just fundamentally indifferent and mindless? The answer is I would hardly expect anything, and most certainly, I would not expect the enormous amount of order, organization, and stability that is required to get any sort of evolutionary process off the ground in the first place. Speaking honestly, I would less likely expect an evolutionary process if God did not exist than I would God does exist, even when I put to mind all the suffering involved therein. But to make my contention as modest as possible, I should say the consideration of evolution and evolutionary suffering doesn’t obviously lean against the existence of God, at least when one really thinks the matter through from both perspectives. 

That leaves us, so far, with science lending more support to traditional considerations for the existence of God than against. But the story isn’t over. For we might part ways with Professor van Inwagen and suggest science has turned up more than just two discoveries relevant to the metaphysical debate of God’s existence. We might, for example, consider the discovery of physical fine-tuning and how many philosophers and scientists have thought that it provides quite compelling evidence of transcendent intelligence. Or perhaps we consider what many argue are irreducibly complex biological systems or the information inherent to genetic code, and how features such as these, even if not strictly incompatible with atheistic naturalism, are definitely a better “fit”—which is to say, are more expected—if God exists than if God does not. Importantly, one need not argue that such discoveries cannot possibly be accommodated by a naturalistic worldview; it is quite enough to say they are more easily accommodated by (better anticipated by) a theistic worldview. In that sense, they are scientific evidence of God.

In summary, then, when one collects all the relevant scientific facts—shoot, even when one just considers the necessary conditions for science itself (a stable, orderly universe, with intelligible structures that can be discovered through sustained human inquiry; a reliable cognitive apparatus endowed to human beings; and so on)—it seems almost laughable to suggest that science has somehow disproved God or even provided any significant evidence against God. If anything, God is required for science to even count as a genuine source of knowledge in the first place, and his existence is strongly confirmed by the knowledge science has given us.