Oxford scholar Peter Atkins accuses Christianity of propagating ‘manifest nonsense that is totally incompatible with our scientific understanding of the world’. His colleague Richard Dawkins calls a God-centred worldview, ‘ignominious, contemptible and retarded’, and claims that religion ‘is no longer a serious candidate in the field of explanation’.
This is rousing stuff, and countless people now believe that Christianity is ‘old hat’ and that science holds the golden key to knowledge and understanding.
Science (man’s ongoing search for truth in the natural world) undoubtedly has a brilliant track record and with its prolific daughter, technology, is transforming our lives in many ways.
Yet to make such imperial claims about its ability flies in the face of the facts. One way in which this materialistic mantra can be exposed is to note some of science’s obvious limitations.
Firstly, science is unable to tell us why the universe came into being. The First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics show us (as certainly as science can show anything) that there was a moment when energy, matter, time and space came into existence.
But as this takes us to the point beyond which the laws of physics begin to operate, science can neither describe nor explain the event of origin. Nor can it tell us why there should have been such an event.
As Stephen Hawking concedes: ‘Although science may solve the problem of how the universe began, it cannot answer the question: why does the universe bother to exist? I don’t know the answer to that’.
Secondly, science is unable to explain why there are scientific or natural laws or why they are so consistent and dependable. Science works because scientists assume the validity, consistency and dependability of the laws of physics – yet there is no scientific explanation of why these laws exist, where they come from, or why they operate as they do.
When Peter Atkins tells us that, for all its staggering immensity, diversity and interlocking order, the entire universe is ‘an elaborate and engaging rearrangement of nothing’, he is hardly making a helpful contribution.
There is more to the world than physics can ever explain or express, and science has no idea how energy came to order itself in such a way so that our universe is cosmos, not chaos.
Thirdly, science cannot explain why the universe is so amazingly fine-tuned to support intelligent life on our planet. For Earth to sustain life as it does, there needs to be an extremely complex and exact arrangement of terrestrial and extra-terrestrial factors.
Earth’s rotational speed, the tilt of its axis relative to the plane of its orbit, its distance from the sun and its land-water ratio – all have to be correct.
But let us consider one specific example at the atomic level. Carbon and oxygen are essential for life, yet the structure of the carbon atom depends on such narrow tolerances that even the slightest deviation would have made life impossible.
Commenting on the precise values of the energy levels required, Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees and science writer John Gribbin concluded: ‘This combination of coincidences, just right for resonance in carbon-12, just wrong in oxygen-16, is indeed remarkable’. There is no better evidence that the universe has been designed for our benefit – tailor-made for man.
When the world-renowned astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle grasped the implications of this he confessed, ‘Nothing has shaken my atheism as much as this discovery’. Stephen Hawking goes even further and says, ‘It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings just like us’ (emphasis added).
Life and living
Fourthly, science cannot explain why as human beings we are persons and not merely objects. In February 2001 the international Human Genome Project published its long-awaited report spelling out the three billion ‘letters’ that make up the human genome.
The British physician James Le Fanu told The Sunday Telegraph that this ‘impressive achievement’ was also ‘devastating news for science, and in particular for those who, for the past 20 years, have regularly promised us that once the genome is cracked, all that is currently obscure will be made clear’.
He went on: ‘The holy grail, the dream that science would soon tell us something significant about what it means to be human, has slipped through our hands – and we are no wiser than before. The human genome … can tell us absolutely nothing about the really important things in life’ (emphasis added).
Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer paints the wider picture: ‘No one has presented an idea, let alone demonstrated it to be feasible, to explain how the impersonal beginning, plus time, plus chance, can give personality. We are distracted by a flourish of endless words, and lo, personality has appeared out of the hat’.
Fifthly, science cannot tell us why the mind exists and functions as it does. Peter Atkins says that ‘decisions are adjustments of the dispositions of the molecules inside large numbers of cells within the brain’.
But to dismiss the thinking process in this way raises a host of massive questions. If rational thinking is nothing but a natural (that is, mindless!) process, how can we rely on it to produce valid theories or conclusions?
Would we trust a computer print-out if we knew the data had been generated by random processes?
In Possible Worlds, published in 1945, the British geneticist (and atheist) J. B. S. Haldane developed this even further: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms’.
The Oxford biochemist and Templeton Prize winner Arthur Peacocke gives us the simple truth of the matter: ‘Science can investigate all the physical aspects of the brain, but there is still something about the mind – and therefore about who you really are – that it cannot get at’.
Quality of life
Sixthly, science can add nothing to the inner quality of life. Science and technology can radically affect our lives in terms of things like health, comfort and communication, but these do not touch the inner qualities of life itself.
In 1991 the International Council of Scientific Unions held a conference in Vienna to discuss the likely needs for science and technology in the twenty-first century. Sir John Houghton later assessed the results of a session on the theme ‘Quality of Life’. He wrote:
‘Although we could largely agree on those factors which ideally make up quality of life, as scientists we could say virtually nothing (and there was considerable debate on the issue) about how to achieve it in practice.
‘In particular, how could we overcome the inherent selfishness, greed and other undesirable characteristics shown by human beings? The problems can be described by science, as can the factors which may exacerbate them, but science cannot solve them’ (emphasis added).
Seventhly, science cannot define or explain ethical principles. Recent years have seen great advances in socio-biology, behavioural science and related subjects, yet science has been unable to explain the principles involved in human behaviour.
It can say nothing about love, justice, freedom, beauty, goodness, joy or peace. Science cannot explain what the conscience is or why it operates as it does. Simply put, it is impossible for us to jump from atoms to ethics and from molecules to morality.
If we are merely genetically programmed machines, where can we find a reliable basis for morality? William Provine, one-time Professor of Biological Sciences at Cornell University, admits what happens when we rule out God:
‘No inherent moral or ethical laws exist, nor are there any absolute guiding principles for human society. The universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life.’
This is a recipe for moral and social chaos, yet science is unable to lift a finger to help us. As J. B. S. Haldane bluntly put it: ‘Science can’t give an answer to the question, “Why should I be good?”‘
Eighthly, science is not able to answer life’s deepest questions. Steve Jones, an avowed atheist who lectures in genetics at the University of London, freely admits this:
‘Science cannot answer the questions that philosophers – or children – ask: why are we here, what is the point of being alive, how ought we to behave?
‘Genetics has almost nothing to say about what makes us more than machines driven by biology, about what makes us human. These questions may be interesting, but scientists are no more qualified to comment on them than is anyone else.’
Yet ‘these questions’ are among the most fundamental we could ever ask – and the world-renowned Austrian philosopher and mathematician Ludwig Wittgenstein confesses: ‘We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched’.
The ultimate issue
But the greatest questions of all concern the existence of God – and here, too, science is impotent. It is uncovering an amazing amount of fascinating information about the wonder and vastness of God’s creation and the ways in which natural laws function. But there are three obvious reasons why molecular biologist Andrew Miller is right to say, ‘It is certainly not a scientific matter to decide whether or not there is a God’.
The first reason is because the God revealed in the Bible has no physical or material dimensions or characteristics. In the Bible’s own words, ‘God is spirit’, that is to say he has no ‘parts’; he is simple as opposed to complex, indivisible as well as invisible.
This means that while science can examine creation it cannot examine the Creator. As Sir Gabriel Horn, Head of Zoology at Cambridge University says, ‘Scientists seek to understand the universe … through observation and experiment. Science is an empirical discipline. So far as I am aware, no empirical tests have been devised that provide compelling evidence to refute the existence of God’.
A second and related reason why science is unable to disprove God’s existence is that he is transcendent – over, above and beyond time, space and all finite reality. For all our exciting explorations of space – from sending men to the moon to dropping space probes on Mars – God cannot be ‘reached’ in this way.
He is distinct and separate from the entire universe and everything in it, essentially ‘other’ than creation, and so outside of anything that is open to scientific investigation. The Bible records God as saying, ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways … As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’.
It is impossible for a scientist operating entirely within the natural world to make any discovery in the realm of the supernatural. As science lecturer Michael Poole puts it: ‘Science is the study of the physical world. Questions about God are outside its terms of reference’.
The third reason why science cannot demonstrate the non-existence of God is because it is impossible to prove a universal negative. For someone to do so would require their being in possession of every single fact in all of reality.
If even one fact was not known, God’s existence could not be ruled out, as it might be the fact in question. God is clearly a possible fact and to say that science is able to rule him out of existence flies in the face of both logic and common sense.
Nothing written here is to be taken as a criticism of science. Science is a success story, and gets more successful every day. It is an exciting, elevating exercise in which we can take great pleasure and from which we can derive great benefit.
We should thank God for scientists, even for those who mistakenly believe that they are within reach of the answers to all of life’s questions.
But we do science no favours by ignoring its intrinsic limitations and pretending that it can explain everything.
This article is a substantial abridgement of a chapter from the author’s book Has science got rid of God? (Evangelical Press, 160 pages, £6.95, ISBN 0852345682) . For the sake of brevity, notes and references have been omitted but can be found in the book.