The Supposed March of Science on God

“God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance,” according to Neil deGrasse Tyson. [1] This is a bold claim, and many people share the sentiment.  In reality, this statement is historically naive, philosophically unjustified, and ignorant of the implications of modern discovery.  In this post, I will show you why.

Religious belief has been the motivation for science.

Twelfth-century theologians thought of God as loving and consistent; he did not make decisions based on a whim.  For this reason, they expected the world to work predictably according to laws.  In other words, they did not expect divine intervention at every turn.  They thought of nature as just another way to know what God was like. They did not see nature competing with the Bible, but rather that nature supplemented the understanding they found there. [2] People around the dawn of science never saw the sort of competition envisioned by men like Tyson. They did not see themselves pushing back against God at all.

They saw themselves pushed bytheir belief in God, not despite it.  Far from their belief in God suppressing their curiosity about the world, they saw their faith as the motivating factor behind their work.  For example, Kepler, who discovered elliptical orbits of planets, said, “For a long time, I wanted to be a theologian…now however, behold how through my effort God is being celebrated through astronomy.” [3] In Kepler’s day, they had a different understanding of orbits, and they used that system to predict a solar eclipse.  Their system got pretty close, but it was off by eight minutes, which Kepler could not stand for. As James Hannam puts it, “There was no imprecision about God, and he did not make eight-minute mistakes.” [4] Kepler sought a better model for orbits because of his faith in God’s precision. Far from the suppressing effect that men like Tyson imagine, Kepler’s faith in God motivated him to further inquiry.

We see the same sort of misunderstanding with Galileo.  Critics of Christianity have claimed that Galileo was persecuted for his scientific beliefs, which shows that religion is opposed to science.  History tells us a different story.  The fact is that Galileo was given a hero’s welcome in Rome in 1611 for his work. [5] What got Galileo into hot water was not his scientific beliefs, but his open ridicule of Pope Urban VIII. Galileo had discussed his theories with the Pope, to which the Pope expressed his doubts.  Apparently, Galileo thought Urban’s reasoning was idiotic as he later published a work titled Dialoguein which he openly ridiculed the Pope by calling him a simpleton.  It was not until this work was published that Urban called Galileo to trial. [6] Admittedly, the Pope should not have used his power to settle a personal score with Galileo, but this is hardly the Faith vs. Reason contest that critics make it out to be.  The story of powerful people abusing their power is nothing new.

We see the same story of religious motivations for Copernicus and Sir Isaac Newton.  Historically, religious faith has been a starter for science rather than a stopper, despite claims to the contrary.

Science relies on philosophy, grounded in religious belief.

Science relies on certain philosophical commitments.  These philosophical commitments are untestable because you have to assume the commitments to begin testing.  Two examples are the understandability of nature and the uniformity of nature. [7] Engaging in science relies on the assumption that what we’ll discover will tell us something about the world (that what I work out in my mind matches what is happening in the real world).  If you cannot trust that what you can work out in your experiments matches the way things really work, you cannot rely on any scientific discoveries.  But why should you believe that what makes sense to you makes sense of the world?  Similarly, nature must be uniform if we can trust science (the laws of nature must be the same everywhere).  If you cannot trust that what happens in the lab happens in the world, then you cannot draw any conclusions from your experiments.  But why should you believe that what happens in a test tube will happen in the real world?

I’m not suggesting that these things aren’t true; I’m pointing out that they are untestable axioms the scientist has to accept.  Without these commitments, scientific discovery is impossible, and so science itself can never explain why they must be true.  Our own worldview has to do that before we ever start doing science.  As a worldview, atheism does not have the resources to ground these commitments. Theism, however, can ground them. These commitments would make sense if God created us to understand the world.  This is not a proof of theism, of course, but it is to say that theism can provide a more complete picture of science than atheism. In other words, theism does not diminish our view of science; it broadens it. It is atheism that must be narrow in the things it can consider.

This isn’t the only place that the atheist must narrow his view of the world.  Atheists often claim that there is no evidence that God exists.  This sort of claim is philosophical rather than scientific.  The atheist hasn’t countered all of the evidence that there is for God, but he concludes by simply denying evidential status to those things that point to God.  Del Ratzsch explains:

Now the Christian might, for instance, hold that the existence of a world, or the existence of life, or her own existence, or perhaps some sorts of experiences she has had, can best be explained by reference to certain religious principles or a Creator.  She believes that those things constitute evidence for her beliefs. When the religious critic says that there is no evidence, he certainly does not mean to be denying the existence of the world, or life, or himself, but is serving notice that he does not accept the background principles that give evidential status to those things.  By claiming that there is no evidence, then, the critic is really saying in effect that the background principles that a believer holds – for instance, that there could not have been a world had it not been for a Creator – are false. It would be interesting to see, for instance, the critic’s evidence that universes could occur independently of being created (And is he not asserting the importance of evidence?). [8]

However, on an even more basic level, Tyson’s claim that science is filling the gaps that God currently occupies is illegitimate.  He presumes that science and religion are competing explanations for the same things, so only one can win. To see the problem here, imagine that you have put water on the stove to boil.  The scientist might come along and explain the water’s boiling by describing the transfer of heat from the stovetop to the kettle, and the excitement of the water molecules to result in boiling.  Suppose you offer a different explanation and say that the water is boiling because you want a cup of tea.  Is the scientist competing with your explanation? Of course not! The explanation in terms of howthe water came to boil is supplemental to explaining whythe water came to boil.  In the same way, religious claims about God’s action in the universe are simply unchallenged by claims about the physical processes involved.  As Del Ratzch puts it, “If God designed his laws to accomplish his purposes, why should we see him then as competing with those laws so that we have to choose between God’s activities and natural laws as somehow rival explanations?” [9] In other words, scientific explanations can provide moreinformation; they do not rule outinformation about God.  The claims of men like Tyson on this matter are simply unjustified.

Science provides challenges to atheism.

Over the past decades, we have discovered that the universe has a beginning in no uncertain terms, supporting the Cosmological Argument (which I have written about here).  We have also discovered a remarkable number of constants and quantities that are fine-tuned for the existence of life, which lends credence to the Fine-Tuning Argument for God’s existence (which you can find here).  Meanwhile, there have been no scientific discoveries that have decreased the likelihood that God exists.

None of this is meant to prove that God exists.  Historically, we can see that philosophically, and in terms of modern discoveries, science and religion are allies rather than enemies.

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[1] 2018, accessed 4/14/2018. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/514667-god-is-an-ever-receding-pocket-of-scientific-ignorance.

[2] James Hannam, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution – Kindle (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc, 2011), pg 57-58.

[3] ibid, pg 295.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid, pg 319.

[6] ibid, pg 332.

[7] Del Ratzsch, Science & Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective – Kindle (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Ch1, Presuppositions of Science.

[8] ibid, Ch 7, Four Challenges: Religious Belief is Unsupported by Evidence.

[9] ibid, Ch 7, Four Challenges: Religious Belief is Superfluous.


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