Amir Aczel, Science, and the Existence of God

Not only do the atheists not seem to get it, but a lot of theists apparently don’t either. I’m referring here to Amir Aczel, the author of Why Science Does Not Disprove God. I have not read Aczel’s book, but he provides a synopsis of his thesis in a recently published piece in the Wall Street Journal: “Are Science and God Incompatible?

In his article he argues the existence of God has not (yet!) been disproven by recent scientific discoveries:

But has modern science proved that there is no God, as some scientists are now claiming? The answer is a resounding no! Science is a wonderful undertaking: it teaches us about life, the world, and the universe. And it has brought us immense amounts of information: Human knowledge is said to double every few years. But none of it has so far disproved the existence of some kind of supreme force that exists outside our universe—a force some people choose to call God.

I cringed when I read this. “Oh no, more ammunition for Jerry Coyne & Company.” So I zipped over to Coyne’s website to see what, if anything he had to say about the book. Of course it had not gone unnoticed. Coyne accurately zeroes in on the critical weakness of Aczel’s argument: “What is it,” he asks, “with this revival of God-of-the-gaps arguments?”

Good question. I’m asking the same thing. If science could prove or disprove “God,” “God” wouldn’t be the transcendent Creator who has made the cosmos from out of nothing: he/she/it would be a demiurge. The God of Christian faith is neither a deity nor a Deity-of-the-gaps. He cannot be investigated alongside all other forces and entities in the universe. Nor can we point to a feature of the universe and say, “Aha! this demonstrates that the universe needed a divine creator to get it started.” The divine act of creation does not make the universe different from what it would otherwise be; it makes it be. Consider the astute observation by Herbert McCabe:

All created causes make a difference to the world. They are parts of the world which impose themselves on other parts of the world. When the hurricane has passed by, you can see that a hurricane has passed by; the world is different from what it was before. But God’s creative and sustaining activity does not make the world different from what it is—how could it? It makes the world what it is. The specific characteristic effect of the Creator is that things should exist, just as the specific characteristic effect of a kicker is that things should be kicked. But clearly there is no difference between existing and not existing. The world is not changed in any way by being created. If you like, you can talk about the horse before it began to exist and the horse after it began to exist (though it is an odd way of talking); but you must not say that there is any difference between the two, for if the horse before it began to exist was different, then a different horse would have come into existence.

A hurricane leaves its thumbprint on the world, but God does not leave any such thumbprint. We can say, ‘This looks as though a hurricane has been here’, but we cannot sensibly say, ‘This looks as though God has been here.’ That is why the famous ‘Argument from Design’ (commonly attributed to William Paley) is a silly one. You can’t say, “look how the world is [orderly, complicated or whatever], so it must have been made by God.’ You can no more say, ‘This sort of world must have been made by God’, than you can say, ‘This sort of world must exist.’ (Faith Within Reason, pp. 74-75)

So Jerry Coyne and I finally have something in common (beside the fact that we apparently attended the same high school): neither of us believes in the God-of-the-gaps.

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17 Responses to Amir Aczel, Science, and the Existence of God

  1. Michael Bauman says:

    The question is will scientists continue to limit their science while imposing all sorts of ethical, moral, social and ontological dilemmas on the rest of us or will they abandon the materialistic and nihilist premise on which they can arrogantly bray that they will create the next dominant life form on the planet in favor of the reality of God incarnate and filling all things continually creating and bringing to fruition?

    Shot will Christians believe like Christians instead of like some truncated materialist ghost cowering in the corner in “The Light of Science” and its “billions and billions of stars”

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  2. Kim Fabricius says:

    Absolutely. And don’t you just love the delicious apples passage on p. 74:

    “We do not say that the more apples there are in the basket the less room there is for God. The apples do not have to shift over to make room for God. The presence of God does not leave less room for the apples. On the contrary, it because of the presence of God that the apples are there at all. We can say, ‘There is nothing her except an apple’, just because God is there too. The apple is not moved to one side by God. It is where it is because of God.”

    And, as you know, D.B. Hart is endlessly, wonderfully, grumpily scathing about this whole demiurgical understanding of God by Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee alike in The Experience of God (2013). O tempora! O mores!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      McCabe had a real gift for helping folks to look at problems from fresh perspectives. His noncompetitive construal of divine and creaturely agency is the only view that presently makes sense to me. It still leaves a lot of questions, but I have yet to hear another position that comes close to being as persuasive. It all depends on “seeing” what divine transcendence really means. Until we get a handle on the radical difference between God and his creatures, we will remain stuck in the Scopes Monkey Trial.

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      • Michael Bauman says:

        The Scopes Monkey Trial was an ACLU setup from the beginning as a show trial for secularism. It worked.

        What is at stake, IMO, is the difference between a secular/nihilist approach to creation vs one in which it is seen as iconic and celebrates the sacred. That does NOT mean there can be no scientific thought or exploration, it will just allow science to be creative rather than destructive. To operate within God’s will for His creation rather than at odds with it.

        In my experience, most folks tend to read my words, even fellow Orthodox, and think Creationist!!!!. Anathema!!! Could not be further from the truth.

        The Incarnation infused all of God’s creation with His life and grace. It would seem to make simple sense to acknowledge that reality in all we do rather than continuing to “worship the created thing more than the Creator.”

        Now I realize such a change would require the entire culture to change, including the public indoctrination system, the media, the politics and most of all my own heart. So in the short term, I am pessimistic.

        BTW anyone read or seen the play: “Exit the King” by the Romanian Orthodox playwright, Ionesco? He wrote it in the late sixties I believe and is not produced much any more but it has a rather interesting approach. It is informed by a great deal of Orthodox spiritual understanding although I did not know that until I came into the Church some 25 years after first encountering the play. I had one of those, “Oh, that’s what that meant!” moments concerning the play which had deeply affected me at the time.

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  3. I am not so sure. I have two problems. First, it does seem as though we can know about God by consideration of the nature of the universe. The Scriptures tell us that “the heavens proclaim the glory of God” (Psalm 19). There are many other similar passages. This seems to imply that we can come to know something of God by considering the basic features of the universe. To claim that we can know *nothing* about God from consideration of the natural world seems way too strong to me. I grant that God is qualitatively different from creation (Being not a being), but that doesn’t get you the strong inference the author is making. Second, there are times where we infer God from particular instances. It seems to me as though the most likely explanation for the Resurrection of Jesus is that it was a miracle done directly by God. Is this a “god-in-the-gaps” argument? If so, then all Christians are committed to believing in this kind of a God. Furthermore, if arguments from miracles are accepted, then why not arguments that point to long-lasting miracles (e.g., the constancy of the laws of nature, the cosmic fine-tuning for the evolution of intelligent biological life, etc.)?

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    • Michael Bauman says:

      I am certainly not claiming “one can know nothing about God by studying His creation. Such a statement is profoundly untrue.

      The Incarnation reveals God to be all in all. There are no gaps. Only sin keeps us from appreciating that.

      Modern science however is based either on an out right denial of God or the choice to avoid Him as an explanation if and only if everything else(no matter how implausible) is disproven first. It is quite difficult to find something that all your a priori assumptions assume does not exist or is irrelevant if it did.

      Not all working sciencetists think that way but the scientific community as a whole, particularly the educators do. Science has become the quest for grants rather than for truth.

      They are simply politicians with more degrees. I trust them not a whit.

      God of the gaps is a whining to those who “really know” to please, please give us a little place for our delusion.

      Makes me queasy.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Jason. Welcome back to EO. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. A couple of thoughts.

      First, McCabe’s argument is focused and narrow: Can one infer the existence of God based on a particular feature of the universe? Given God’s radical transcendence and given that he has created the world ex nihilo, what could such a feature be and how would we recognize it (apart from faith)? How can we distinguish such a feature from a gap in our present understanding of the universe?

      Consider the fine-tuning argument. I am not a philosopher and I have not read a lot on this argument, but I really do not get it. First of all, I don’t know how we can even talk about probabilities here. It’s not as if we can step outside our universe and compare it with a million other universes. All we know is that this universe exists, no matter how “improbable” it might appear. We just got lucky (or unlucky). Maybe the multiverse theory is right, and we just happen to be living in the one universe, out of a zillion, that produced the proper conditions for intelligent life. I enjoying playing No Limit Texas Holdem. Sometimes my opponents really do hit their straight flush. But as I said, I’m not a philosopher.

      Second, I do not believe that biblical verses like the one you cite from Psalm 19 really apply. The psalmist already assumes the existence of God. He is singing from faith to faith. Faith rightly sees the presence and activity of God throughout creation and throughout history. But none of this counts if we do not already assume God’s existence.

      Third, as a disciple of Aquinas, McCabe does not deny that we can know that God exists based on our contemplation of the universe, but he argues that this knowing is not based on a particular feature of the universe but on the philosophical experience of the universe as a whole: Why is there something rather than nothing?

      What do you think?

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  4. Agni Ashwin says:

    “the existence of some kind of supreme force that exists outside our universe”.

    Well, if multi-verses exist, and if science can show that they exist, then that would point to some kind of force that exists outside our universe.

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    • Michael Bauman says:

      Sigh

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    • Agni–Yes, but it would simply recreate the same set of philosophical problem again at a higher level. Why does a multiverse exist at all? Or more to the point, why THIS multiverse? Perhaps you can appeal to the laws of nature, but, of course, this only recreates the problem again.

      Michael–I think that your claims are much too strong here. The situation, I think, is far more interesting and subtle than your critique permits.

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      • Michael Bauman says:

        Perhaps. I am sure that there are philosophical and ethical changes going on in the scientific world, at least I deeply hope for that. Nevertheless, what I see and hear and experience on the popular level is antithetical to even the mention of God. My son experienced this in his Intro to Biology class not long ago which turned into a political polemic against all things Christian forcing students to take ‘scientific’ sides on homosexuality, abortion and such. His grade suffered because he wouldn’t play that game. That was in an “Introduction to Biology Course”.

        The most recent science headline: “Humans will no longer be the dominant life form on the planet by 2045.” Real headline, real intent. Scary as hell, because these are the people who will get the funding and the PR support and the educational indoctrination.

        Like the reboot of Cosmos.

        Science is a potentially wonderful thing, but it is a tool not an end in itself. The conclusions that are reached depend so much on the assumptions made about the natural world. A science practiced with an orientation toward God, especially a loving and incarnational God as Christianity is would produce drastically different results than a science based on naturalistic/materialistic, often anti-God assumptions and orientation.

        So I will remain unconvinced until I see a revolution among scientists refusing to work within the materialist shackles no matter how much the technocrats “improve our lives” like the scientists in Japan who are hell-bent on making robotic care-givers. Oh and it would be great if they would just stop trying to help me move out of the hateful anachronism of belief in God.

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  5. Hi, a lot of people ‘reply’ to my arguments without having read the book. Reviews don’t quite make it. The book is much deeper, and in fact the Alan Lightman review in the Washington Post should make you curious about the book. It’s really far from just a ‘God in the gaps’ argument. I do hope you’ll read the book itself (and the very short piece for the WSJ doesn’t even scratch the surface). I’d be curious to see what you think! Amir (adaczel AT yahoo)

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  6. How I enjoy your blog, especially when it makes my head hurt. I am not a theologian or a philosopher, but this piece oddly brings to mind my Discordian friends, who claim it is all chaos. I don’t know (who does?) if there is a God or not; all I know is that I hope there is and that He sometimes listens to us, although I have my doubts. This topic certainly has generated many interesting responses.

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  7. Michael Bauman says:

    vitoriagrimalkin: There are people who know not only that there is a God, but how to reach Him. Some of them post here from time to time. Keep looking with an open heart.

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