Science and Religion: Theism and Explanatory Idleness

A few weeks ago I was a panelist at a forum on Science and Religion at the University of Auckland, the podcast of that forum is available here. After this forum a member of the audience sent me the following email. I have reproduced my response below.

Hey Matt

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to ask a question last night, due to having to leave early, so hopefully I can ask now.

I used to be a Christian, and I took my religion extremely seriously, and was very devoted to it.  Over time, as Ive read more and more about religion, trying to expand my knowledge of religion, my views have changed (my eyes have opened) and now I am an agnostic, leaning towards atheism.

My question to you is, why does God need to fit in with science anyway?  It seems very much that your God is just a ‘God of the gaps’ situation.  I have no problem with simply believing what science discovers about the universe and its origins (even you believe the earth is 14.7 billion years old, and believe the theory of evolution, both of which were discovered by science) and God has no need to be in any of this.  For example, the beginning of the universe (or the beginning of the current cycle of the universe), why does God need to be put in the place of creator?  I believe in a matter of time, science will find out how the universe actually began.  I believe science will find what originally started life on our planet, and I believe science will figure out all of the other mysteries we encounter, leaving no mysteries a God would be needed to explain.  If (or when) this day actually comes, which I strongly believe it will (most likely not in our lifetime), wouldn’t your faith become blind faith?  Or would you admit you are mistaken?

I realise you are an expert on this, I’m not trying at all to criticize you or bash your religion, I’m just trying to understand more.

My response was as follows:

If I understand you correctly, you seem to envisage theism (belief in God) as a kind of hypothesis that is postulated to explain things that science currently does not. Second, your suggestion is that, over time, science will fill these gaps and when it does, such theistic explanations will no longer be credible. Let me make two responses to this line of reasoning.

First, when theists argue for the existence of God they do not typically postulate God as an explanation for something that science has yet to explain. The standard arguments are addressed towards areas where there are reasons for thinking that science cannot explain the phenomena at all. This is because, as currently practiced, science commits itself to explaining phenomena in terms of natural causes and there are some things that an appeal to natural causes cannot, in principle, explain.

The cosmological argument, for example, postulates God to explain the existence of the universe or the origin of the universe and it seems that there are reasons for thinking that science could not ever explain this; the reason is, that science as currently practiced explains phenomena in terms of previous states of the universe and natural laws. But prior to the universe there was no previous state of the universe nor were there laws of nature.

Similarly, one cannot explain why the universe exists by appealing to the fact it does exist. Hence, it is not then that science currently does not explain this; rather, it is that reasons have been given for thinking a naturalistic explanation is impossible. You cannot provide a naturalistic explanation of the existence of nature and you cannot appeal to laws of nature to explain the existence of such laws.

The same is true with the arguments from design. One of the most enduring versions of this argument postulates God as an explanation for the regularities and laws of nature that govern the universe. It is hard to see how science can explain these things. Science typically explains one phenomenon by appealing to such laws but you cannot explain laws by appealing to them.

I would say the same about moral arguments. It is not that science currently does not explain morality, it is that there are arguments that purport to show the very real problems with attempting to demonstrate an ought statement empirically. When one appeals to God to explain morality then one is not so much filling in a temporary gap, one is rather answering a question that it seems science cannot and is not likely to be able to answer. So I think the contention that these are merely gaps which science has yet to explain is a misconstrual of the situation.

Second and I think this is a more important point, your argument assumes that God is rationally believed only if his existence is inferred by some kind of argument for the best explanation of a given phenomenon. As soon as all such arguments fail, belief in God is irrational (“blind faith” as you call it). This was precisely the point I challenged in my talk. Not all beliefs are justified on the basis of some kind of argument of this sort. As I pointed out, the claim that one needs an argument to be rational in believing something is subject to an infinite regress. If I argue for A on the basis of various premises the question can arise what is the basis for believing the premises. If I argue for these premises from further ones, the question arises about the further premises and so on, until we arrive at a set of ultimate premises.

There are plenty of things we believe that are not based on arguments. Our belief in the existence of the past or our belief that it is wrong to rape women or our belief that other people exist or that basic axioms of logic are true are not based on inferences to the best explanation so that they are rationally believed because they explain some phenomena better than all alternatives. It is rather that these beliefs are part of the background data that we use to assess proposed explanations against. These things are true because we experience or see them to be true, for example, I see that the basic axioms of logic are self-evident, I remember the existence of a past event, I intuitively see that rape is wrong and think anyone who does not see this is simply morally blind and so on.  These function as fundamental premises that we argue to other theories from.  My position is that believers and non-believers have different fundamental premises.

I think belief in God is like the beliefs above in that it is a basic-belie, something a person directly sees to be true via direct experience or intuition of some sort.  Hence, I would reject the assumption that belief in God needs to be based on an argument of any sort. It follows then, that even if belief in God could not be established by some kind of argument from explanation it would not follow that it is irrational – anymore so, than the fact that my belief that rape is wrong does not explain any empirical data proves that my belief in the wrongness of rape constitutes blind faith.

Has Science Disproved God?” The Podcast

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