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Has science buried God?

Has science buried God?

In spite of the pioneering work of Colin Russell, John Hedley Brooke and others there is still a widespread impression that science has squeezed God into a corner, killed and then buried him with its all-embracing explanations. Atheism, we are told, is the only intellectually respectable position and any attempt to re-introduce God is likely to impede the progress of science.

There is something seriously flawed in this picture. Consider the prestigious Human Genome Project. Its first director was James Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the double-helix structure of DNA. Watson is an outspoken atheist. Its current director is Francis Collins, a Christian. Collins is not at war with science - he is one of its finest exponents. Such a change in personnel is instructive, suggesting that if there is a conflict, it is not between science and theology as such, but rather between the world-views of atheism and theism. And there are scientists on both sides of the battle.

The key question to be asked, therefore, is: with which world-view, theism or atheism, does science most comfortably sit? I would argue that far from supporting atheism, science supports (biblical) theism, an argument that is supported by evidence from the history of science, the beliefs of science and, finally, the results of science.

Consider, first, the history. The biblical world-view played a key role in the meteoric rise of science in 16th and 17th century Europe. The pioneers of modern science, far from regarding their faith in God as a hindrance to their research, found that it was a positive stimulus. Their discovery of the mathematical expressions of the laws that governed motion did not lead them to jettison God - they did not make the naïve yet common mistake of confusing laws and mechanisms with agency. Nor did they by and large make the mistake of looking for God in the gaps in knowledge that science could not yet fill. Rather, the more they discovered of the law-governed universe, the more they worshipped its law-giving creator. They saw themselves as thinking his thoughts after him.

That leads us to an analysis of the basic beliefs (yes, science needs faith) upon which science is based - in particular the belief in the rational, mathematical intelligibility, the basic lawlikeness, of the universe. Science is such a powerful explanatory tool that we sometimes fail to ask why this is so. Why does science explain?

Whereas atheism, with its obligation to provide exhaustive reductionist (bottom-up) explanations in terms of the basic stuff of existence (mass/energy), must inevitably undermine the very rationality on which science depends, the biblical view that the same rational Creator is responsible for both the universe and the human mind gives a coherent explanation of why we can, at least in part, understand the universe around us in such a way as to make science possible.

Finally, there are the arguments based on the results of science - what the scientific method tells us of the universe in which we live. These tend to divide into two types: those in which theism is, supposedly, in confrontation with mainstream science and those in which there is an obvious consonance between the two. Since the former (mainly those relating to Darwinian evolution) are more controversial they tend to get a lot more publicity, with the latter (more powerful) arguments getting screened out in the noise.

The latter arguments, from physics and cosmology, point, with rapidly mounting evidence, towards the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of nature in such a way as to make life possible, maybe even inevitable.

The former remains a source of controversy, not least because many of today’s finest scientific popularisers see it, and in particular natural selection, as an incontrovertible nail in God's coffin. And yet, if, as some evolutionary biologists now think, the evolution of conscious, moral, creative beings was, given the starting conditions of earth, all but inevitable, evolutionary biology may find itself swapping sides, and being used to support the idea of a relational, Creator God.

The world views of theism and atheism may be summarised as follows: atheism assumes that in the beginning was mass/energy (and, presumably, the laws of nature wherever they came from) and everything else is derivative - human life, the mind and the idea of God since, of course, there is no God. Biblical theism claims that in the beginning was the Word (logos - command, information, rationality) who was God and that all things were made by him. That is, everything else is derivative.

As a scientist I find it surprising that some people claim that their intelligence leads them to prefer the first to the second.

John Lennox is Reader in Mathematics at the University of Oxford and Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science, Green College. God’s Undertaker – Has Science Buried God? is published by Lion Hudson. To listen to the debate between John Lennox and Richard Dawkins, click here.

Posted 10 August 2011

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