Why trying to explain away God with science is an ERROR
In order to please my readers, I have made the bold decision to begin this essay in an utterly groundbreaking fashion…by providing a surprise bonus feature (that will, at first, seem unrelated to the topic of this essay): I will now explain the mystery of the JFK assassination. The decades of waiting are finally over. Sit tight…here it goes:
The ignition of a powder mixture consisting of the chemicals sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter caused a rapid expansion of gasses which, consistent with Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, forced a lead projectile down a metal tube at a supersonic velocity. The collision of the projectile against certain of Kennedy’s vital organs caused a transference of kinetic energy, which severely damaged these organs, resulting in death.
What’s that I hear you say? You’re disappointed?! You were suspicious of my bold claims from the outset?! All I did was describe aspects of a gunshot (and subsequent wound), in pretentious scientific terms, rather than explain the assassination? You were hoping I would explain who the guilty parties were, and what their motives were?
Well, you were justified in feeling suspicious and then disappointed. The same suspicion, and then disappointment, should surround any bold claims atheists make about science “explaining” things without the need for God. As I note in The God of the Gaps: Why God and Science Are Not Competing Explanations, atheists commit what is known in philosophy as a category error any time they declare that science and God are competing explanations for natural phenomena. Below is an excerpt from the Wikipedia post for Category Error:
A category mistake, or category error, is a semantic or ontological error in which “things of one kind are presented as if they belonged to another”, or, alternatively, a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property. Thus the claim that “Most Americans are atheists” is not a category mistake, since most Americans could be (contingently) atheists. On the other hand, “Most bananas are atheists” is a category mistake. This is because bananas belong to a category of things that cannot be said to have beliefs.
Just as bananas cannot have beliefs, science cannot provide complete explanations for natural phenomena. Rather it can only provide useful descriptions. This is why bold declarations from atheists that “science explains things without the need for God” amount to a category error. Edgar Andrews writes in Who Made God?:
“…far from explaining everything, science actually ‘explains’ nothing. What science does is describe the world and its phenomenology in terms of its own specialized concepts and models — which provide immensely valuable insights but become increasingly non-intuitive as we dig ever deeper into the nature of physical reality.”
“…The formula [that describes the force of gravity] equates the gravitational force between two objects to the product of their masses multiplied by a universal constant (the ‘gravitational constant’) and divided by the square of the distance between them. But does the equation ‘explain’ why you don’t bump your head on the ceiling? Not really. It tells us there is a force that keeps your feet on the ground, but you knew that already. It also quantifies that force, allowing us to calculate its strength in any particular case, which is extremely useful. But it doesn’t tell us why there is such a force, why it follows an inverse square law, and why the ‘gravitational constant’ has the value that it does. The equation is a description of gravity rather than an explanation.” [underlining mine]
Science describes natural phenomena in terms of laws, but it does not explain where those laws came from, who (or what) enforces those laws, or why the universe has laws in the first place (rather than just chaos). Scientific description, in other words, ends at the level of natural/physical laws. So how does theism explain the above mentioned phenomena? The answer is simple. As I put it in I Believe In Science, Why Do I Need Religion?:
Such laws are the result of a lawgiver (God). Moreover, theism asserts that matter is nothing more than a manifestation of consciousness (God’s consciousness), which is the view most compatible with modern physics, as I demonstrate in God Is Real: Why Modern Physics Has Discredited Atheism. Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry, summarized the theistic explanation of why matter follows physical laws succinctly when he said: “The nature of this or that body is but the law of God prescribed to it [and] to speak properly, a law [is] but a notional rule of acting according to the declared will of a superior.” [the word “notional” italicized by me]
Or as James Joule, the propounder of the first law of thermodynamics, for whom the thermal unit of the “Joule” was named, put it: “It is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed.”
Albert Einstein marveled at the existence of physical/natural laws, and the exquisite order (rather than the chaos that we should a priori expect) which lies therein. He wrote (as cited in The God of the Gaps: Why God and Science Are Not Competing Explanations):
“…a priori, one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way. The kind of order created by Newton’s theory of gravitation, for example, is wholly different. Even if man proposes the axioms of the theory, the success of such a project presupposes a high degree of ordering of the objective world, and this could not be expected a priori. That is the ‘miracle’ which is constantly reinforced as our knowledge expands.”
And as Edgar Andrews points out, we could take the description of gravity a step further by mentioning how, as Einstein described it, gravity results from a curvature of the space-time fabric. But rather than providing an explanation, this would still be just a case of taking description a step further. Eventually, science hits a dead end when it arrives at “conceptual quagmires from which there is no escape” (in Andrews’ words) such as the curvature of space-time fabric. In order to provide a final explanation, one must cite some sort of first principle which explains the “high degree of ordering of the objective world” (in Einstein’s words)…like God.
But this is only the beginning of the problem for atheists when they claim that science “explains” things without the need for God. The next problem is that there is much in nature that cannot be described by referencing physical/natural laws. Andrews continues:
“…When we play chess, the laws determine the moves we can make but not the moves we do make. That is, the laws are not deterministic; they don’t impose a particular outcome for the game. In the same way, the laws of nature determine what is and what is not physically possible, but they do not determine what actually occurs within the multitude of available possibilities.”
A similar point is made by the former Manhattan Project physicist, and leading information theorist, Hubert Yockey, in the primary text on the application of algorithmic information theory to the origin of life, titled Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life (also cited in Why God? Why Not Just Plain Luck?):
“The laws of physics and chemistry are much like the rules of a game such as football. The referees see to it that these laws are obeyed but that does not predict the winner of the Super Bowl. There is not enough information in the rules of the game to make that prediction. That is why we play the game. [Mathematician Gregory] Chaitin (1985, 1987a) has examined the laws of physics by actually programming them. He finds the information content amazingly small.”
“The reason that there are principles of biology that cannot be derived from the laws of physics and chemistry lies simply in the fact that the genetic information content of the genome for constructing even the simplest organisms is much larger than the information content of these laws.” (Yockey 1992).
This is why Yockey concludes that the origin of life from non-living matter is “unsolvable as a scientific problem.” Scientific description cannot continue past the level of physical/natural laws. Science can only describe “the rules of the game,” not the events or outcome of the game. And, more importantly, it cannot describe who or what is playing the game in such “games” as the origin of life from non-living matter, and the origin of the universe (or universes if you prefer multiple universes) from a state in which there were no universes.
Scientific description cannot continue past the level of physical/natural laws. Science can only describe “the rules of the game,” not the events or outcome of the game.
Further, both above mentioned “games” involved an almost unimaginable information specificity and complexity. As I mentioned in Why Life Could Not Have Emerged Without God, the simplest living thing (the first self-replicating molecule) is several orders of magnitude more complex than anything humans have ever produced…supercomputers, spacecraft, anything.
Regarding the immense information content contained in the language of life (the language of DNA), Nancy Pearcey writes in her book Total Truth:
“…in principle, laws of nature do not give rise to information. Why not? Because laws describe events that are regular, repeatable, and predictable. If you drop a pencil, it will fall. If you put paper into a flame, it will burn. If you mix salt in water, it will dissolve. That’s why the scientific method insists that experiments must be repeatable: Whenever you reproduce the same conditions, you should get the same results, or something is wrong with your experiment. The goal of science is to reduce those regular patterns to mathematical formulas. By contrast, the sequence of letters in a message is irregular and non repeating, which means it cannot be the result of any law-like process.”
“To illustrate the point, let’s invoke our imaginary Scrabble game… but this time when you organize the letters, you decide to follow a certain formula or rule (an analogy to laws of nature). For example, the formula might require that every time you have a D, it is followed by an E. And every time you have an E, it’s followed by a S, then an I, then a G, and an N. The result would be that every time you started with D, you would get DESIGN, DESIGN, DESIGN, over and over again. Obviously, if the letters in a real alphabet followed rules like that, you would be limited to spelling only a few words—and you could not convey very much information. The reason a real alphabet works so well is precisely that the letters do not follow rules or formulas or laws. If you know that a word begins with a T, you cannot predict what the next letter will be. With some minor exceptions (in English, q is always fol-lowed by u ), the letters can be combined and recombined in a vast number of different arrangements to form words and sentences.”
So who or what is the author of this codified information? It is not merely the case that science has failed so far to answer this question. Rather it is that science can never, even in principle, answer this question. And one is more likely to get a coherent answer to this question from a banana than from an atheist. As I point out in Why Life Could Not Have Emerged Without God, the cream-of-the-crop atheist scientists have proposed answers to the question of the origin of life that include such gems as aliens-brought-life-to-earth-in-their-spaceship (called “directed panspermia”), and life-came-to-earth-from-space-without-alien-assistance (just “panspermia” without the “directed”), and life emerged as a result of a piggyback ride on crystals.
And how did a universe (or universes, if you prefer) emerge from a state in which there was no universe…and therefore no space, no time, no matter, no energy, and no laws? As the great astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington put it, “The beginning [of the universe] seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.”
Or as Allan Sandage, who is widely regarded to be the greatest living cosmologist, put it:
“I find it quite improbable that such order came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery but is the explanation for the miracle of existence, why there is something instead of nothing.”
Put another way, naturalistic explanations are simply insufficient for explaining why there exists a natural world for us to explain, in the first place. (Please read OK…I Want Numbers. What is the chance that the universe is the result of chance? and Is There A God? (What is the chance that our world is the result of chance?) for a further discussion of the origin of the universe).
Just as the scientific description of a gunshot that I gave at the beginning of this essay provides no explanation whatsoever for the JFK assassination, scientific descriptions of natural phenomena provide no explanation whatsoever for those natural phenomena. In order to truly be an explanation (rather than a mere description) of natural phenomena, any explanation must include: 1) where physical/natural laws come from, 2) who or what enforces those laws, and 3) who or what is responsible for the aspects of nature that cannot be attributed to physical/natural laws. Because science cannot even in principle answer any of these questions, the suggestion that science provides an alternative to God is an open-and-shut category error.