Can Science Replace God?

A common argument from certain contemporary secular voices is that science has, or at least will, replace the need for God. The more science advances in explaining the universe, the less need there is for a Creator. Carl Sagan, for instance, said, “As science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do…. Whatever it is we cannot explain lately is attributed to God…. And then, after a while, we explain it, and so that’s no longer God’s realm.”

At the very end of his fascinating book A Brief History of Time, after outlining the human search for a grand unified theory which explains the entire universe, Stephen Hawking (a non-theist) says this:

“Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to the bother of existing?”

My thought: sooner or later all scientific inquiry smacks into the question of God, for even if we could exhaustively understand everything that happens in the physical universe, we would still have to face the larger, philosophical question of why there is a universe in the first place, and what makes its laws and gives them their consistency. Far from displacing God, scientific advance inexorably leads us back to Him again and again. Greater knowledge about how the universe works makes more poignant, not less poignant, the question of why it works that way – and why it is there at all.

10 Comments

  1. We read Hawkings to answer the big question.

    Hawkings gives a long explanation with a lot of mathematical digressions and leaves us admitting he doesn’t have an answer to the question “What moves the Universe?”. All he knows it is “Something amazing and beyond comprehension”.

    Religions tries to answer with God. Which give us more stories to talk about like and weaves nicely into our human narrative, but when we get past those digressions we are left with the question “What is God?”

    Theists confidently reply with a string of superlatives and that he is beyond comprehension, that understand him requires faith, and end with “God is that which moves the Universe”.

    The word God is still an algebraic placeholder for “Something amazing and beyond comprehension”.

    (I hope this makes sense the logical equation fits in my head but is hard to get out on paper)

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  2. Gavin Ortlund

    Hi David, thanks for commenting. while I think we can understand basically what God is, I agree that we cannot completely comprehend him. I also agree with you that the real God must be more than a cosmological starting point. The Christian God has particular characteristics – he doesn’t just fill the slot of upholding the universe. He is triune – Father, Son, Spirit. He acts in history. He became a man in Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, we can know what God is like. Have you done much reading of the gospels in the New Testament?

    I think God’s reality is testified to by the world we live in. Faith is informed by this testimony – its not a blind leap. I am a Christian, however, not only because it makes sense of the world, but also because it provides real answers to the deep existential questions of life, like forgiveness of sin and hope in death.

    I’d be honored to hear your thoughts in return, either through comment or email.

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  3. Your answer was the digressions I mentioned above. If we stick with the precise question.

    What moves (upholds) the universe? Theists answer God.

    But when asked What moves God (Where did he come from? What gives him his power?)? The closest answer we get is “God was always here” and “God is the ultimate mover”. Which are still descriptive and not explanatory.

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  4. David – At a certain level, all explanation has to cease, right? (Why is pleasure pleasant?) The fact that we’re hitting that ultimate limit which explains everything else (the thing which cannot quite be explained) doesn’t count against it. Perfectly comprehensive explanations tend to explain nothing.

    And Gavin, thank you for the great quote – but I think you need to start reading Richard Dawkins, who has sympathetically and exhaustively answered all these sorts of problems.

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  5. Gavin Ortlund

    Hi David,

    if you’re asking “what moves God?” and not “what is God?,” then I think I’d need to understand why you think God needs an external cause. I think that only contingent things (like the universe) need an external cause. When theists refer to him they are thinking of a non-contingent reality. You can certainly deny that such a reality exists! But to ask where it came from seems to me to confuse categories. Its like asking how much time passed before the big bang. Would you say that all reality must be contingent? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

    Eric – Richard Dawkins. Hmmmm … I think I’ve heard of him – really polite guy? A staunch advocate of young earth creationism?

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  6. I think Gavin posed that science doesn’t answer the question, and that religion does.

    “sooner or later all scientific inquiry smacks into the question of God, for even if we could exhaustively understand everything that happens in the physical universe, we would still have to face the larger, philosophical question of why there is a universe in the first place, and what makes its laws and gives them their consistency. “

    I believe that religion leaves the exact same gaping hole, but hides it under a set of different digressions.

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  7. I was being presumptive in most of my posts, but I am really interested. Are there any good or creative answers to the questions.

    What moves God? How did God get here?

    Anything that doesn’t end in “we don’t know”, “how presumptive of us to ask that question”, or some other form of “bu**** off”?

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  8. Gavin Ortlund

    Hi David,

    I gave my thoughts on that question in my March 11, 10:49 AM comment. Feel free to address the question that I posed to you there or give a more general response if you are interested in pursuing this further.

    Gavin

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  9. Hey Gavin,

    Sorry, I didn’t explain myself clearly the first time.

    You reply with “I also agree with you that the real God must be more than a cosmological starting point.”

    But I want to focus in on God as the cosmological starting point.

    Hawking gives a description but admits that science hasn’t lead to a perfect understanding of the cosmological starting point. Can Theism give any better explanation of the cosmological starting point?

    And, “God has always been here”, isn’t a better explanation.

    Where did God come from? Where does he get his power from?

    Is there really no explanation except for as Terry Pratchett said, “It’s turtles all the way down.”

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  10. Gavin Ortlund

    Hi David,

    thanks for clarifying. Perhaps a metaphor will help. If you came home from work one day to find a window smashed in, your labtop and tv stolen, and dirty footprints all over your home, then you could reasonably infer that someone had broken into your home. But to actually find the IDENTITY of that person, you’d need to dust for fingerprints, ask your neighbors for a description, match the shoe prints, etc. So also, when we observe that the universe is contingent, we can infer that it had an external cause. But to IDENTIFY what (or who) that external cause is, we need to go beyond science. Science tells us that there must be some eternal, non-contingent, immaterial reality behind the universe, but it doesn’t answer your question about what this reality is. That is why I commend to you a study of Jesus in the gospels – figuring out the cosmological starting point is really too huge a question for us – unless that starting point has become like in a man. Its worth considering.

    If your real question (I am having a difficult time understanding you) is, “who made God?,” then all I can do is repeat my request that you explain why you think God needs a maker. The idea of God needing a creator one that would never arise in my mind, because I think only contingent things need an external cause. Again, asking who made God is like asking how much time passed before the big bang – it commits the fallacy of applying the categories of the universe to an object outside the universe. Either God exists or he does not, but in either case, by definition, he is not made. You can certainly deny that God exists, but asking who made him misunderstands what the English word “God” refers to. Its like asking “how long is eternity?” or “how big is infinity?”

    Feel free to clarify again if I have misunderstood what you are trying to get at.

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