God in Science–No Need for that Hypothesis

It’s funny how one can remember something read decades earlier but cannot remember the contents of a book read only last week. Back in seminary I read a little book by Arthur A. Vogel titled The Power of His Resurrection. I recall very little of it, except one important point: the divine transcendence must be given logical priority over the divine immanence, as the latter depends on the former. God’s ontological difference from us makes possible his intimate presence to us and his salvific involvement with us. This understanding of transcendence—God’s radical difference from everything he has made ex nihilo—became a critical principle in all of my subsequent theological reflection. Incarnation, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, sacraments, providence, predestination, human freedom—all look different when seen in the light of God’s radical difference.

Consider the question of divine agency: how does the infinite Creator interact with his creation? Many have noted that the rise of modern science was made possible by the adoption of a mechanistic construal of nature. The universe became understood as a closed system of natural causes. The exclusion of divine causality produced remarkable experimental results, as it compelled scientists to look for natural explanations for natural phenomena. Upon reading Pierre-Simon Laplace’s discourse on the variations of the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter, the Emperor Napoleon asked him, “But where is God in all this?” The great astronomer famously replied, “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.” The Laplacean presupposition underlies all scientific experimentation, resulting in the explosion of scientific knowledge over the past few hundred years. If the divine Creator is not the answer to the gaps in our scientific knowledge, then we must continue to investigate the world in order to fill in the gaps.

Some scientists were loath to abandon God completely, either for reasons of faith or reasons of science. Even as great a scientist as Isaac Newton would occasionally posit the activity of God in order to explain discrepancies between his theories and the way things really worked. Philosopher Diogenes Allen elaborates:

Newton, whose views had great authority because of his achievements in mathematics, optics, and celestial mechanics, was troubled by the way nature was treated as virtually autonomous by the new mechanistic model. Except for the initial moment of creation and God’s initial design of nature, it appeared that the cosmos operated on its own accord. As Aleandre Koyré put it, the workaday God was replaced by the God of the Sabbath, that is, once the work of creating the world was complete, God rested because nature, once made, could run itself. Newton resisted this understanding of God’s relation to nature. On the basis of the scientific knowledge of his day, he pointed out that God was still needed to sustain nature’s order. For example, according to his calculations, there were slight irregularities in the orbits of the planets which would in time cause the solar system to collapse. Unless those irregularities were corrected by divine intervention, the solar system could not continue indefinitely. This was but one of several things which God needed to do to keep the machine in running order. (Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, p. 45)

Thus the transcendent Creator became a “God of the gaps,” with the deity being invoked to explain present scientific inability to account for regularly occurring phenomena. Scientists, however, eventually demonstrated that gaps in our scientific understanding of the world could, at least in theory, always be corrected by further research, experimentation, or even new ways of interpreting the data. There is no reason to posit a supernatural being when human ignorance is the problem. Modern science is now programmatically committed to the practical exclusion of the supernatural in scientific investigation. There’s no need for that hypothesis.

But not only is the “God of the gaps” bad science, it is also bad theology. Allen explains:

There are profound biblical objections to such a “God of the gaps,” as this understanding of God’s relation to the universe has come to be called. By “gaps” it is meant that no member or members of the universe can be found to account for regularly occurring phenomena in nature. God is inserted in the gaps which could be occupied by members of the universe. This is theologically improper because God, as creator of the universe, is not a member of the universe. God can never properly be used in scientific accounts, which are formulated in terms of the relations between the members of the universe, because that would reduce God to the status of a creature. According to a Christian conception of God as creator of a universe that is rational through and through, there are no missing relations between the members of nature. If, in our study of nature, we run into what seems to be an instance of a connection missing between members of nature, the Christian doctrine of creation implies that we should keep looking for one. If planets inexplicably deviate from orbits which would in time cause the solar system to collapse, we are to look for some mass which is exerting force to account for the deviations. (In the case of Saturn’s orbit, a new planet, Uranus, was discovered; in that of Mercury’s orbit, it took Einstein’s entirely new theory to account for its eccentricity.) But, according to the doctrine of creation, we are never to postulate God as the immediate cause of any regular occurrence of nature. (pp. 45-46)

But if God is properly excluded from scientific inquiry, what is his role, if any, in the processes and events of the universe? Is he merely a watchmaker who got the watch working and now stands on the sidelines and watches the time go by?

(Go to “Exorcizing the God of the Gaps”)

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9 Responses to God in Science–No Need for that Hypothesis

  1. Vasco Gama says:

    «But if God is properly excluded from scientific inquiry, what is his role, if any, in the processes and events of the universe? Is he merely a watchmaker who got the watch working and now stands on the sidelines and watches the time go by?»

    I have to say that I found this last part quite disturbing and I must make a few comments.
    I would have to say that God is properly excluded from scientific inquiry, so far has science has no way (either possible or imaginary) of considering God, not because God is not meaningful, but because science is not able to include God, science is limited (by its own nature) and is devoted to the study of the material reality (matter and energy) that it is able to observe. From its own foundation science relies on the presumption that the world is intelligible and that we can comprehend the rationality of the world (which are basic theist presumptions, in the sense that God created an intelligible universe and that we are rational creatures, able to grasp its intelligibility). From this it doesn’t follow that God is anything like a mere watchmaker, which doesn’t follow from a conception of God as the creator and sustainer of the universe that maintains a loving relationship with humans and human kind. In spite of being only natural that we humans rightful feel amazed by the creation of God, and seek to observe it to the very finest details (by science and all other sources of human knowledge).
    Besides a variety of misconceptions that have been debated over time, God surely is not confined to being a mere comfort for human ignorance or lack of knowledge (in spite we may appreciate whatever comfort God may provide us), nor is there any sort of evidence that show that reality is either magic or incomprehensible.


  2. john burnett says:

    Yes. Would you kindly explain this to your intelligent designists and creationists, Fr?


  3. Science and God are the topic of this new documentary exploring the ramifications of some spectacular and epic observations being made.


  4. john burnett says:

    Isn’t the “god” of that movie **exactly** an example of what Fr Al is calling the “god of the gaps”— the one who underwrites “bad science” and “bad theology”?

    And aren’t silly god-movies like that one, exactly *one of a kind* with silly *anti*-god movies like Religulous, Zeitgeist, and What the Bleep— because they all rely on an identical theology, in which “God” is a “cause” (albeit the “first” one), just like all the other causes in the universe?

    As a cause within the universe of causes, that god very safe and comfortable, of course, whether we believe in him or not— because he’s just a part of our wonderful whacky universe, along with billiard balls and physics. Not in *any* way transcendent, but merely the “first” of the series that ends with— us! His presence (or absence) explains our lives, we’re so “special”, and— well, “religion” is “confirmed” as having been “right all along”— or else “wrong”!

    And now— can we please get back to the shopping channel?

    I think that apart from the production issues, it must be pretty easy to make a movie that panders (and it *is* pandering) to the religious prejudices of the masses. After all, you don’t have to think a lot. Just take some stock footage, add some cool effects, dramatic music, and a bunch of scientific-sounding sound-bytes and voila, you’ve got a blockbuster of pop mysticm that actually says nothing of significance at all. “Makes ya think”, though, doesn’t it.

    Problem is— and what gives the whole ruse away, of course— is that of such a “god”, we can always ask, what caused *him*. And we can’t deny that something had to, even if we’ve just decided we’re just going to stop asking about it, once we get to him. Because that silly “god” (or is it a “goddess”?) remains part of the universe we were asking about in the first place.

    We find Newton’s idea that God was needed to fine-tune the planetary orbits from time to time amusing, of course. Even creationists have more or less had to admit that “God can never properly be used in scientific accounts, which are formulated in terms of the relations between the members of the universe, because that would reduce God to the status of a creature”, and that “in a universe that is rational through and through, there are no missing relations between the members of nature.” So we’ve exiled him to the other side of the Big Bang— but he’s still there!

    Well but Newton was a smart guy. So one *expects* that he would have taken at least a passing glance at philosophy, along with all that ceremonial magic nonsense he was into. So doesn’t anyone else (particularly people who make movies) find his notion not only quaint, but strangely *illiterate* as well? I mean, he really ought to have known better.

    So then a really *interesting* movie might be one that talked about why *Newton* was such a sophomore when it came to God. Because *that* illiteracy is *ours*, and it would be useful, and a lot more interesting, to *address* it instead of pandering to it.

    I mean, wouldn’t it be great to see a movie that explains why the God who is “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same”, as Chrysostom put it— the God who sent his son to be the Jewish Messiah— will **never** be found by a particle accelerator, no matter how big we build it?

    We could find out more about *that* God through the gospels, too, though (again) not through Hollywood’s version.

    Alas, I fear it just ain’t gonna happen. But we can enjoy our “culture wars” instead.


    • It would be interesting to read a study which looked at Newton’s background in Platonic or scholastic philosophy, but I suspect you’d find that what one would find are the influences of what SF author, blogger, and Catholic Mike Flynn would call only half-processed “Neoplatonic rigmarole” (if I may paraphrase him) characteristic of the late Renaissance.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I don’t know how accurate it is, but I found this article on Newton’s religious views: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton's_religious_views.


      • To be fair to Newton, however, this wasn’t just him or even simply Renaissance-related. I’m reading “Aristotle’s Children” at the moment for a second time (excellent book, by the way – somewhat oversimplified but still a nice, basic overview of medieval intellectual history); even some Franciscans in the 13th and 14th centuries had difficulties with the more Dominican demarcation between the absolute primary causation of God and secondary causes so that some, like Roger Bacon, went so far as to say that the physical phenomenon of light (not the spiritual light of God’s energies per se) was more participant in God than other material things – i.e., God operating within the universe directly. Even J. Kepler apparently believed the Holy Spirit somehow pervaded in a physical sense the solar system and held the planets in orbit.


  5. Kim Fabricius says:

    Fr. Aidan and John Burnett: Bingo!


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