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Can Science Answer All the “Big” Questions?

Michael Egnor

Oxford chemist Peter Atkins is an indefatigable atheist. He is as much of a fanatic as any of the New (mostly old, actually) Atheists. He was on the receiving end of perhaps the most devastating debate retort I’ve ever seen — in 1998 at the hands of William Lane Craig (the fun really begins at about a minute into the clip).

After Craig’s reply to Atkins’s bizarre claim that science holds all answers, one would have thought that Atkins would slink away in embarrassment. But no. Atkins has written a recent essay for Aeon: “Why it’s only science that can answer all the big questions.” It’s standard atheist boilerplate — there’s no evidence for God, questions about meaning of existence and about the soul are a “waste of time,” religious belief is wishful thinking, religion is violent, and so on. It’s just cut-and-paste atheist twaddle of the kind you might expect from a not-too-bright college sophomore in a state that just legalized marijuana. 

Science and Not Science

Atkins is wrong, of course, as Craig pointed out with such stunning clarity. Many of the most important disciplines — logic and mathematics, metaphysical truths, ethics and moral law, aesthetic judgements, and even basic axioms of science itself — are not scientific questions and cannot be answered by scientific methods. Even the very arguments that atheists like Atkins employ are not scientific issues. The claim that science is the only way to answer all the big questions is itself not a scientific claim — it is an epistemological claim. The assertion that science can answer all questions is self-refuting. The assertion itself is not science. 

But we theists should not make the mistake of abandoning science to Atkins et al. In a restricted sense, Atkins is right about the power of the scientific method. Science is a remarkably effective way to answer many questions about existence. The problem for Atkins is that science provides powerful evidence for the existence of God. Here’s why.

Three Ways of Knowing

There are three ways we can know something about reality. We can perceive it with our senses — the coffee cup on the table in front of us, for example. Or we can infer something by a priori logical reasoning. Much of mathematics is like this. 

The third way is by a posteriori reasoning, which is inferential reasoning. A posteriori reasoning follows this pattern: we collect evidence about things that exist, and via a logical or mathematical process of reasoning we infer a truth about existence. This is the scientific method. This is also natural theology, which is the branch of theology that proves God’s existence using evidence and reason. It is distinguished from revealed theology, which deals with truths about God that are known from Scripture, tradition, etc. 

Natural theology is science. It is exactly the same kind of knowing that is used routinely in natural science. For example, consider our scientific knowledge about the Big Bang. We collect evidence (the red shift, cosmic background radiation, etc.), and by a process of reason and logic (Einstein’s general relativity, etc.) we conclude that the universe began as a singularity 14 billion years ago. It’s good science — solid a posteriori reasoning.

Aquinas’ Second Way

Now consider one of the many strong proofs of God’s existence — Aquinas’ Second Way. We collect evidence (the fact that there are chains of essentially ordered causes in the universe), and by a process of reason and logic (the metaphysics of potency and act and Aristotle’s Law of the Excluded Middle) we conclude that the universe has an Uncaused Cause, which all men call God. It’s also good science — solid a posteriori reasoning.

And it won’t do to object, as atheists commonly do, that inference to God cannot be drawn from evidence in the natural world because God is supernatural. After all, the singularity of the Big Bang is supernatural, in the very real sense that it is undefined in the natural world. Science infers all manner of supernatural (or extra-natural) things — logic, mathematics, the laws of physics, etc., which are not tangible objects in the natural world. Yet they are very real and science uses them and points to them.

If you look carefully, the scientific evidence for God is much stronger than the evidence for the Big Bang or for any commonly accepted scientific theory. The evidence employed in the First Cause argument is the fact that change occurs in nature, which is undeniable, and the logical process that follows is recognition of the nature of potentiality and actuality and the impossibility of something existing and not existing in the same way at the same time. From this undeniable evidence and solid logic we infer that a First Cause exists. The a posteriori reasoning behind the scientific evidence for God’s existence is much stronger — much more compelling scientific evidence — than the evidence for any other theory in natural science. 

We on the reality-based side of this debate must not cede science to the atheists. Atkins is right that science can answer some of the biggest questions we can ask, such as “Does God exist?” Atkins’s problem is that he doesn’t like the answer science provides: using the ordinary methods of a posteriori inference essential to the scientific method, scientific evidence and logic clearly demonstrate the existence of God.

Photo: Mystic Mountain, in the Carina Nebula, via NASA, ESA, M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI).