I see that Damon Linker and Rod Dreher have beaten me as usual to the discussion of (in this case) the Eric Metaxas “God is the most likely explanation for our unlikely existence” piece. There are undoubtedly dozens of possible points of attack on Metaxas’s piece, and I happily endorse both Linker’s (that the God of Plato and Aristotle bears little resemblance to the God of the Hebrew bible or of the Christian scriptures) and Dreher’s (the point isn’t to prove God exists or to believe God exists; the point is to know God).
But I want to grasp the other end of the question. Why, after all, would anyone want to prove the existence of God? If Dreher is right that this is a mistaken way to approach God, why does anybody try to do it?
A frequently-suggested reason is the prestige of science. In our age, supposedly, if something isn’t validated scientifically then it’s hard to justify believing in it. I’m tempted to retort, “tell that to the anti-vaccination movement,” but really I think this kind of “reason” treats scientific discovery as no different from, say, the miraculous appearance of Jesus in one’s breakfast. That is to say: if you are looking for signs, you’ll surely see them, whether you look in the laboratory or in the kitchen.
I’m not saying that such experiences are illegitimate, or that nothing in the laboratory could affect you as a sign from God – on the contrary. I just think a more honest way of talking about it would be to talk not about proof but about the experience of awe. It is entirely natural to really look at the vast cold universe, and feel that only exceeding tenderness could have nurtured our little spot of green therein. But that’s a subjective experience, not a syllogism. And the same experience awe can also lead to other feelings, ones that are not so suggestive of tender divine concern.
A more sophisticated reason for wanting to proceed to proof is not to shore up religious belief but to shore up belief in science. Science is a highly unnatural activity that rests on extremely shaky philosophical foundations. We don’t even have a well-grounded reason for accepting induction. Ultimately, the knowability of the universe presumes that there is always a deeper order beneath apparent chaos. That’s a very religious-seeming conviction, and inasmuch as science appears to wear away at religious belief one might reasonably fear that science is thereby wearing away at its own foundations. And not merely the foundations of science – the foundations of reason itself. If you are afflicted with that fear, it would seem entirely sensible to find evidence within science that justifies continued belief in God, and hence that the order and knowability of the universe is real, and not just posited.
I happen to think that, for the philosophically-inclined, this is an important reason for wanting to be convinced that there exist good, philosophically grounded bases for belief in God. But I also happen to believe that it’s a mistake.
Neither as a matter of intellectual genealogy nor as a matter of philosophical necessity does science depend on religious conviction. Religion appears to be ubiquitous in human culture, but it is also very varied, and the roots of modern science can be found in pagan Greece, in Hindu India, in the medieval Muslim world, and in the modern era science was as often as not advanced by non-believers. And what is the philosophical problem with saying that ultimate knowability of the universe is an ungrounded but necessary assumption in order to be able to do science? Meanwhile, the activity of science itself is justified entirely pragmatically: it produces useful results.
If you’re the sort of person who worries about the philosophical grounding of inductive reasoning, then what I just said will sound like pure question-begging. You can’t justify induction pragmatically; that’s equivalent to justifying induction by induction. But belief in God won’t get you any closer to some kind of ground than simply believing in induction directly.
The universe, after all, is in practice too vast and deep to actually be known, not merely in terms of its extent in space but in terms of its structure. The discovery of atoms (named so because they are supposed to be the smallest units of matter) leads inevitably to questions about their constituents, the oxymoronic sub-atomic particles. And these have constituents in turn – and once we’ve mapped the behavior of the hypothesized quarks we have to ask whence comes their considerable variety, and so on and so on. It really is turtles all the way down.
So what does it gain you to add God at the bottom? If the universe is unknowably vast and complex, then God, the ground for the universe’s existence and every aspect of its character, must be even more so. If believing in God feels necessary to justify believing in the universe and its knowability, that really just means you have a too-limited notion of what you are believing in when you say you believe in God. You are, by definition, believing in something much harder to know objectively than the universe itself. (The word “objectively” is there for a reason – perhaps God wants to be known, subjectively, in a way that humans can comprehend. If so, well and good – but that still doesn’t help you if you are trying to ground the knowability of the universe in the knowability of God. We already know we can know the universe subjectively – we do it every waking moment of our existence.)
Fine: so far I’ve argued why I think resorting to proof of God’s existence is pointless if your goal is to find a firm ground for belief in the orderliness and knowability of the cosmos. But why do I go further and say it is actually a mistake?
I said above that people who see proof of God’s existence in the physical constants of the universe aren’t really that different from those who see that proof in a piece of toast. What I meant by that is that there’s a powerful confirmation bias operating. Nobody sees an image in their toast and says: I wonder whether that looks more like Jesus or more like Shiva? Similarly, I don’t know a lot of orthodox Christians who have learned about superstring theory, the possibility of multiple universes, or the theory of evolution and said to themselves: gee, it sounds like the Hindus were right after all and the Christians were wrong. But that’s exactly what you’d expect people to do if they were actually treating the toast or the science as evidence for one or another religious system.
Instead, believers tend to reason apologetically – to explain away phenomena that are troublesome and to point to phenomena that are confirmatory. Which is fine – for religion. But it’s not fine for science.
I want to be clear. Science is not some un-psychological, un-social phenomenon. Scientists operate within the constraints of patterns of metaphor that we use to understand the universe – patterns that may be highly individual or cultural. They can’t operate without some such patterns – nobody can; we can’t process the universe directly. But what scientists have to be open to is shifting paradigms as evidence accumulates that the accepted paradigm is faulty. Their only inhibition in that regard should be a healthy natural conservatism about making any hasty large moves.
Religion is a very powerful nexus of such metaphors. It makes all the sense in the world for religions to be extremely conservative, institutionally, about preserving that nexus. For that reason, it’s highly problematic to import that nexus into the realm of science where it necessarily has to risk being discarded or transformed in ways that are not at all sensitive to the religious implications. It’s problematic for religion – but even more so, it’s problematic for science, and for a scientist’s ability to maintain that openness.
Again: to be clear, I’m not at all saying that it’s somehow difficult for a scientist to be an orthodox Christian believer or an adherent of any other kind of religion. I’m just saying that a religious scientist has to be able to say to herself: I don’t necessarily know how to reconcile everything I believe with everything I posit, and that’s ok. I have faith that they can ultimately be reconciled, and that’s enough for today. That is the diametrically opposite position from a scientist who says: I have come to believe because the science convinced me that belief was more justified than not.
As it happens, I don’t think this is much of a problem for believing scientists. They compartmentalize as well as humans do in all aspects of life. It’s more of a problem for popular understanding of science. But that’s still a problem worth addressing.