Science and the Evidence for God

Still from the movie "Father Brown the Detective," based on the stories by G.K. Chesterton and starring Alec Guinness as the titular character.
Still from the movie “Father Brown the Detective,” based on the stories by G.K. Chesterton and starring Alec Guinness as the titular character.

One of the more memorable G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories is The Resurrection of Father Brown. In this short story the titular character is “murdered” and then appears to return to life at his own funeral, shocking the mourners present. And though he is somewhat dazed in the aftermath of being attacked and then finding himself suddenly awakening and arising from his coffin, he keeps about him the presence of mind to declare to anyone who will listen that no miracle has transpired. His first move is in fact to telegraph the bishop to warn him against the fraud which has been perpetrated—for he was only drugged, and not actually dead.

I have recalled this story, because I have seen that a recent article is making the rounds: it claims that a well-known scientist has discovered “definitive proof that God exists.” When I read headlines of this sort, I usually regard them with at least some suspicion. A part of this suspicion can be summarized by a brief reaction from one of my friendly acquaintances, philosophy professor Rob Koons, whose initial response to this article was to write that “I always get nervous when physicists try to do metaphysics without bothering to get grounded in the literature.” To be fair, my suspicions are equal-opportunity: these articles are sometimes posted by people with some grounding in philosophy and none in science.

bigthink-michio-kaku-brain-net-futureBCI-brain-computerinterfaces
Michio Kaku. Image source.

In reading the actual article I see that the well-known scientist is string-theorist and CUNY professor Michio Kaku, who is indeed a reasonably well-known scientist [1]. Setting aside the exotic and never-before observed particles and untested conjectures which are the cornerstone of String Theory, what Prof. Kaku has allegedly done is to hypothesize that we live in a sort of “Matrix”, a non-base reality of sorts. The article quotes Dr. Kaku as saying that

“I have concluded that we are in a world made by rules created by an intelligence… Believe me, everything that we call chance today won’t make sense anymore.”

“To me it is clear that we exist in a plan which is governed by rules that were created, shaped by a universal intelligence and not by chance.”

Unfortunately, neither version of the article which is making these rounds gives any link or other reference to original source material. Indeed, Dr. Kaku’s website and twitter feed make no mention which I have found of this supposed discovery of a Matrix-like reality, or the intelligence behind it. Assuming, however, for the sake of argument that this news is real and not the next round of Snopes-fodder for the internet [2], what then?

The_Matrix_Poster
A Gnostic’s fairytale.

The first thing that I notice is that the headline of the article is somewhat misleading with respect to what is actually being claimed—this is, I suppose, to be expected. Indeed, what Dr. Kaku is actually quoted as claiming is that we inhabit a “Matrix” reality which is “shaped by a universal intelligence and not by chance,” which certainly does sound like there is a God behind the scenes.

However, theory is always under-determined. Thus, there is more than one possible interpretation (e.g theory) which can explain a given set of data (e.g., “evidence”). Christians and other theists could point to this discovery as possible evidence for the existence of God, just as some of us have pointed to other findings in the past; yet, we should not be surprised when the skeptics, the atheists and the agnostics, remain unconvinced. Even assuming that Dr. Kaku’s quoted interpretation does make sense of the data—or at least of the existing theory [3]—this interpretation is subject to modification. Barring that, the interpretation itself may be further interpreted to include God, gods, other intelligences, or additional realities.

Parallel Universes: great for "Star Trek," but not as experimentally verifiable science.
Not exactly what we mean by “multiverse” or the more explicit yet oxymoronic phrase “multiple universes”

This is in fact what has happened, to some extent, with other theories which have been pronounced “proof (or evidence) of God’s existence.” The Big Bang theory of Fr. Georges Lemaitre was at first rejected by the overwhelming majority of “steady-state” theorists (often though not always on religious, that is unreligious, grounds), then grudgingly accepted. But by the time it had been accepted, additional interpretations of the theory had sprung into existence, most of which denied the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe, or at least of its beginning in time. A theist might point to the fine-tuning of the physical laws of the universe, yet an atheist will happily posit the existence of an infinite number of universes (e.g. a multiverse), each with its own laws, as a possible alternative to the existence of one God of infinite power [4].

Indeed, even at the time of the early scientific revolution—indeed, before then—the evidence of nature appears to point one way for the theist, and another for the atheist. The very orderliness of the universe is for the Christian more evidence of Providence, and for the skeptic it is the “proof” that we need no God, on account of the universe’s working fine on its own [5].

We should never take the latest physical theory—or worse, conjecture—to be the last word in proving (or disproving) the existence of God. For one thing, this can lead us into the trap of clinging to a wrong (or outdated and since supplanted) theory long after it has ceased to hold sway. Such was the sin of some—though by no stretch all—of the actors in the drama which was the Galileo Affair. Similarly, if we attach our faith too strongly to one or another scientific theory, we may be too slow in accepting a better (more accurate, more complete) theory when it is developed.

Caesarea Philippi, the former temple of Pan, and the site at which Jesus told Peter that he was the rock upon which the Church would be built.
Caesarea Philippi, the former temple of Pan, and the site at which Jesus told Peter that he was the rock upon which the Church would be built. Image source.

Worse still, we may fall into the tap of losing faith altogether if the right theory should be proven wrong, or if the wrong theory should be demonstrated as more reasonably right [6]. Our faith should be grounded on the Rock of Christ, and the smaller rock of St. Peter, rather than the shifting sands of natural science. Conversely, the study of the sciences should not be for the purpose of finding evidence of God—we often find that whenever and wherever we sincerely look for it, and seldom otherwise—but rather for the sake of appreciating and understanding His creation.

Faith, for its part, is a gift of the Holy Spirit, something which we merit only by supernatural grace. In his essay “Our Awesome Creed,” the philosopher Charles de Koninck states that

“If we truly appreciated the mysteriousness of the truths that faith enables us to accept, and how inscrutable is this power to accept them, we could never show anything but understanding towards those who cannot join us, a humble gratitude for the light in which they do not share and which we ourselves have in no way deserved—ever mindful that this gift does not confirm us in the good…. The utter impenetrability of mysteries like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the authority of the Church, the primacy of Peter and of his successors, is so great that the gap between them and man’s ordinary powers may be truly called infinite.”

There is, to some extent, a leap of faith involved in looking at the evidence, seeing that it points to a Creator, and then concluding that God exists and that the other tenets of our religion are also true. Later in that same essay, de Koninck states that

The Temptation of St. Thomas Aquinas, Diego Velazquez, (1631-32).
The Angelic Doctor. “The Temptation of St. Thomas Aquinas,” Diego Velazquez, (1631-32).

“It should help us to realize how unreasonable we are if we appreciate that everything we are saying for the entire Creed holds good, to a considerable extent, for mere belief in God, a thing which need not be taken on faith alone, but which actually can be proved… St. Thomas teaches that even though he existence of a Deity can be demonstrated, the task of doing so is extremely difficult: so difficult as actually to serve as one reason why it was right that God should make even His very existence the substance of a special revelation. What the Angelic Doctor is maintaining, then, is that, if God had not told man of His own existence, only a very few human beings could have come to know Him, and these only after a long time, and at the conclusion of researches and reasonings which would be sure to be mingled with many mistakes.”

In other words, there may exist some proofs and demonstrations of God’s existence, but these are likely to be really understood only by those who dedicate time and expertise to studying and understanding them. Said proofs will also be recognized and accepted as such only by those who are at least somewhat inclined to seek them out. “We see as through a glass, darkly,” writes St. Paul of this life. This admonishment is as true of making sense of natural evidence when it points to supernatural conclusions as it is of supernatural revelations themselves.

Upon arising from his drugged sleep—and appearing to rise from the dead—Fr. Brown says in response the reactions of the crowds:

“‘Oh you silly people,’ he said in a high and quavering voice; ‘Oh you silly, silly people…No; of course it’s not a miracle. Why should there be a miracle? Miracles are not so cheap as all that… Bless you, bless you,’ said Father Brown hastily, ‘God bless you all and give you more sense.'”

Indeed, a miracle is rarely so “cheap” as this—and neither should we expect the miracle of faith to come so cheaply as the latest conjecture by a well-known scientist.

 

Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman (Image source: Richard Hartt/Caltech Archives)

—-Footnotes—-
[1] Then again, so is Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is a scientist with some accomplishments who is much more well-known for being a popularizer of science than for his actual contributions to science. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, and of course a person can be both (Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman are two examples of this).

[2] Catholic Online is also carrying this story, and gives slightly more details (though none of substance). Intellectual Takeout also caries the story, and claims that the source is a Big Think video–but they embed the same Big Think video as all the other sites, which makes no such claim. Thus, I can’t shake the suspicion that this is akin to Father Brown’s “Resurrection.” The original sites both look like a hoax-news sites akin the World News Daily tabloid, complete with fatuous and fanciful articles about UFOs and man-beast hybrids. As for the embedded video, I think it is best left as grist for another day.

[3] This latest conjecture is based on String Theory, which perhaps is the most untested theory as such in all the sciences. For all of the work done by String Theorists, there is not one single “String Experiment” that I am aware of, and indeed not one new prediction made by String Theory which we can test at this time.

[4] I am here simplifying both sides arguments due to time constraints. I also do not wish to imply that the only reason to hold a theory of a multiverse is for religious (that is, nonreligious) reasons—it may well be the right theory! Conversely, we should not hold to one or another scientific theory only for religious reasons, because it may well be the wrong theory.

[5] Saint Thomas specifically addresses this very argument, I think satisfactorily but apparently to others unconvincingly.

[6] Theories are by their nature difficult or even impossible to actually “prove” as being right, but they can often be shown to be wrong, or inadequate, on the one hand, and good at making accurate predictions on the other.