Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

Does Science Disprove God?

Christian apologist Melissa Cain Travis has posted her thoughts on an article written by Dr. Amir Aczel entitled, “Why Science Does Not Disprove God,” a complement to his book of the same name. While Ms. Travis agrees with the thrust of the article, she finds some of its language to be a bit vague, and adds some commentary which she believes clarifies these issues. It is likely unsurprising that Travis, a Christian apologist, would agree with Aczel’s premise.

What may be more surprising to my readers is that I also agree: Science does not disprove God.

The reason science does not– and cannot– disprove God is extremely simple. It doesn’t require a whole book, nor even the whole of an article in TIME. Unfortunately, neither the TIME article nor Ms. Travis’ commentary addresses this very clear, and very simple reason. Science requires the exploration of falsifiable claims. The existence of God is not a falsifiable claim. Therefore science can say nothing about it. Theologians are notoriously recalcitrant when it comes to clearly defining what they mean by “God.” The properties which are ascribed to this entity tend to be nebulous, broad, and often paradoxical. Most problematically, many theologians have taken to claiming that God is a completely non-physical entity, entirely removed from our cosmos. Science cannot disprove any such claim. Science works by coming up with ideas, and attempting to prove them wrong. If an idea is unfalsifiable, by definition, it cannot be proven wrong and therefore cannot be addressed by science.

Science has not disproven God specifically because the concept of God has been formulated in such a way as to make it impossible to disprove.

Now that I’ve addressed the overarching issue, I’d like to look at some of the individual claims which Ms. Travis and Dr. Aczel make. The concept of “God,” itself, may not be falsifiable, but a number of the specific points which were made can be addressed. Even though I agree with the article’s primary statement (albeit for different reasons, it seems) I still find issue with several of the assertions made by these authors.

For example, Ms. Travis states:

Aczel mentions that science has no idea what preceded the Big Bang. Do you know why? Because space, matter, and TIME came into existence at that moment. “What happened before?” becomes a nonsensical question. What does that leave you with when you’re trying to determine a cause of the Big Bang? Something immaterial and timeless with power of causation (ahem).

The reason science cannot address what, if anything, preceded the Big Bang is the simple fact that we have no access to any data from before that point. We cannot inform reliable scientific models without having data which might falsify those models. It is true that some (though not all) models of the Big Bang claim that spacetime, itself, is a consequent of that event, that is not the reason science has no access to earlier events. Still, if spacetime had its origin somewhere in the Big Bang event, then Ms. Travis is absolutely correct to assert that “What happened before?” is a nonsensical question– it is a decidedly temporal question asked of an atemporal system. This is why it becomes curious that, in the next line, Ms. Travis would shift to a discussion of the cause of the Big Bang. Causation is a necessarily temporal concept which makes just as little sense in an atemporal system as the words “before,” “presently,” and “after.” Causation necessarily implies change, and change requires the elapse of time. It is incoherent to simultaneously assert that a system is devoid of time and yet also subject to change.

She continues by asserting, “The only thing the materialist can do [in contemplating earlier events] is speculate, but all of the alternative theories suffer from logical problems, such as the impossibility of an infinite past series of events or moments in time.” However, this problem is not one which solely affects materialists. The only thing anyone can do, as regards this subject, is to speculate. Theists have no more data on this point than anyone else, and theistic solutions also suffer from logical problems (often the same logical problems, in fact), in this arena.

Ms. Travis moves on to discuss Intelligent Design. She and I have conversed on this subject once before, which is why I find her next claim to be especially perplexing.

Intelligent design advocates are accused of the “God of the gaps” fallacy, which plugs God into any gaps in scientific knowledge. But this is categorically false. What the design advocate is claiming is that the genetic code and the characteristics of living cells bear unmistakable marks of intelligent agency. That is entirely different from saying, “Since we don’t know where life came from, God must have done it.” In other words, the biological design argument is based on empirical data not on a lack of data.

The last time we discussed this, I pointed out that the truth, here, is the complete opposite of what Ms. Travis is claiming. The Intelligent Design movement has not produced any peer-reviewed literature which shows that “the genetic code and the characteristics of living cells bear unmistakable marks of intelligent agency.” Even the journal BIO-Complexity, which was specifically created by ID proponents to espouse ID claims which are reviewed by ID researchers, is conspicuously devoid of any research which purports to show these “unmistakable marks.” If Ms. Travis is right in asserting that the ID argument is based on empirical data, it is exceedingly curious that such data is completely absent from their scientific literature. However, the ID movement has produced copious amounts of literature dedicated to showing purported failures in current scientific models to adequately account for certain complex patterns in nature. This is precisely the definition of an Argument from Ignorance fallacy: you cannot explain A, therefore B.

Ms. Travis then lists a series of questions asked by Dr. Aczel which she “particularly loves” in regards to the development of human cognition. She continues by saying:

 The higher cognition and rationality that is required for symbolic and abstract thought, for the conception of elaborate and artistic creations, is unique to human beings. Furthermore, these are capabilities that wouldn’t have emerged based on a survival or reproductive advantage out in the prehistoric jungle. It’s a bit silly to think that some ancient hominid who first developed the mental construct of numbers, for example, was somehow more physically fit, or more attractive to a mate who had no such concept.

I have two main contentions with this passage. The first is in her claim that symbolic and abstract thought are unique to human beings. This is absolutely untrue, though it is unquestionable that we excel in these areas above other animals. For example, it is well documented that elephants are able to produce artwork— an ability which Ms. Travis claimed is purely human. My favorite animals, ravens, have long been noted for their exceptional intelligence, which includes not only tool use, but tool creation. A raven cannot bend wire into a hooked shape in order to retrieve meat from a difficult location without symbolic and abstract thought processes. Even more demonstrative is the ravens’ capacity for communication of displacement. They are the only vertebrates, besides humans, which are known to communicate the location of distant objects to other individuals by linguistic means. Put simply, they can tell other ravens where to find food, rather than simply leading them to it.

My second issue with Ms. Travis’ claim is that it seems to misunderstand the implications of natural selection. Though physical fitness and sexual attractiveness can certainly be criteria which guide natural selection, they are by no means the only criteria, nor are they requisite to the process. The idea of the “survival of the fittest” is not synonymous with “survival of the strongest” or “survival of the prettiest.” Contrary to Ms. Travis implications, it is not silly at all to think that the development of symbolic thought and cognitive reasoning would be beneficial to a population’s survival. The development of the “mental construct of numbers” is an emergent property of that symbolic thought and cognitive reasoning. Furthermore, it is quite clear from archaeology and anthropology that humanity’s development of the concept of numbers and mathematics was very influential in allowing our species to expand and thrive. These developments directly led to improvements in agriculture which improved human survival rate.

Ms. Travis then moves on to another subject. Here, she provides a quote from Dr. Aczel’s article with which she completely agrees. As such, allow me to address what he has stated (with the emphasis provided by Travis):

But much more important than these conundrums is the persistent question of the fine-tuning of the parameters of the Universe: Why is our Universe so precisely tailor-made for the emergence of life? This question has never been answered satisfactorily, and I believe that it will never find a scientific solution. For the deeper we delve into the mysteries of physics and cosmology, the more the Universe appears to be intricate and incredibly complex. To explain the quantum-mechanical behavior of even one tiny particle requires pages and pages of extremely advanced mathematics. Why are even the tiniest particles of matter so unbelievably complicated? It appears that there is a vast, hidden “wisdom,” or structure, or a knotty blueprint for even the most simple-looking element of nature.

There are a number of problems with this small passage. When Dr. Aczel asks, “Why is our Universe so precisely tailor-made for the emergence of life?” he is committing a logical fallacy known as “begging the question.” The query simply assumes that our universe was tailor-made for the emergence of life. This claim is completely unsupportable. The “fine-tuning” of the universe is a reference to the fact that many of the physical constants of the cosmos would seem, in certain models, to be able to have a wide range of possible values. If such universal constants were even slightly different, it could alter physics so greatly that, for example, stars would not coalesce and form. No stars means no planets, and no planets means no life, as we know it. Many theists like to claim that this means the universe was fine-tuned specifically for life; however, it’s fairly easy to show, by reductio ad absurdum, that such claims do not hold water. Using the exact same logic, I can claim that the universe is precisely tailor-made for the emergence of a giant Jovian hurricane. After all, if those self-same physical constants were just slightly different, then it would have been entirely impossible for the Great Red Spot on Jupiter to have formed.

Ms. Travis emphasizes Dr. Aczel’s belief that there will never be a scientific solution to the question of fine-tuning. Unfortunately, this is yet another example of an Argument from Ignorance, despite Ms. Travis very obvious desire to differentiate her position from “God of the gaps” arguments. The fact that there is not currently, nor may there ever be, a viable scientific solution to the question of the fine-tuning of universal constants does not indicate that these constants were therefore finely tuned by an intelligent agent. It simply indicates that we do not know the answer. Similarly, the fact that our models of physical reality are intricate and complex does not indicate that there must, therefore, be an intelligent designer of that reality. Intricacy and complexity are not, in themselves, indicators of design.

This is followed by a quote from Dr. Aczel, with which Ms. Travis explicitly agrees, which is such an incredibly clear example of the “God of the gaps” argument that it should be included in textbook descriptions of this fallacy. This, again, comes after Ms. Travis has spent much of the article explicitly distancing herself from “God of the gaps” claims:

Lacking convincing scientific evidence to the contrary, [God] may be necessary to force all the parameters we need for our existence—cosmological, physical, chemical, biological, and cognitive—to be what they are.

Dr. Aczel does temper his statement by saying that God “may be” necessary, rather than saying that God “is” necessary; however, I would argue that he hasn’t even done enough to demonstrate even that less definitive position. Before one can reasonably claim that a thing may be necessary, he must first demonstrate that such a thing is possible, and I remain thoroughly unconvinced of the latter. That is not to say that I think such a thing is impossible; rather, I am simply stating that I am not aware of any good reason to think that it is possible.

Science does not disprove God. I agree with Dr. Aczel and Ms. Travis when they upbraid materialists who ignorantly assert that it does. However, that does not, in itself, lend any reasonability to theistic claims. If a claim is not falsifiable, it cannot be rationally debated. Any beliefs which have been constructed upon the foundation of an unfalsifiable claim are therefore problematic, as a result. Far from being the complementary processes Dr. Aczel and Ms. Travis believe them to be, Science and Theology remain entirely disparate disciplines.

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3 thoughts on “Does Science Disprove God?

  1. Very nicely argued. Thanks for a breath of rationality.

  2. I liked your post, too!! Thank you! All I hoped to do, really, was to start an intelligent conversation about this important topic. I hope you’ll like my book, in which I have a lot more than I was able to put in the Time Magazine article. Thanks again. With best wishes, Amir

    • Thanks for your reply, Dr. Aczel! I’ve already got your book on my reading queue, and I’ll post a review that, as well, once I’ve completed it!

      I absolutely agree that this is a discussion worth having, and a fun topic at that. I’m a big fan of the Socratic Method, so any chance for a dialectic is a chance to learn.

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