God Is Not a Scientific Hypothesis

On Christmas Day 2014, the Wall Street Journal, published an essay by the award-winning Evangelical author, Eric Metaxas: “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” He begins by claiming that in the recent past people accepted the narrative that “as science progresses, there is less need for a ‘God’ to explain the universe.” But now, Metaxas argues, that narrative is becoming obsolete: current findings in science show us that the arising of life in the universe is so improbable that it becomes increasingly clear that some master intelligence is probably behind it.

But is this the right way to think about God as Creator? Is the rational basis for believing in His existence really dependent on the deliverances of modern science? Should one calibrate the depth of one’s faith on the basis of what researchers tell us about the plausibility of the “God hypothesis” in recent issues of the leading peer-reviewed science journals? The answer to all three question is no, since God is not a scientific hypothesis. For this reason, it is equally true that advances in our scientific knowledge cannot in principle count against the existence of God.

This is because God – as understood by the Catholic Church and by most other theistic traditions – is not a being in the universe, a superior agent whose existence we postulate in order to explain some natural phenomenon, but rather, Being Itself, that which all contingent reality depends for its existence.

In order to appreciate how this understanding differs from Metaxas’ Watchmaker God, suppose in a few years scientists tell us, after further research, new discoveries, and confirmed theories, that the arising of life in the universe is not that improbable after all. What then happens to Metaxas’ God? He is now superfluous, and Metaxas would have to concede that theists are once again irrational, as they apparently were when the (temporarily obsolete) God hypothesis was down for the count the last time science threw its best punch.

Given the arguments Metaxas summarizes in his essay, it is tempting for the theist to confidently tout such evidence. When faced with a cadre of globally accessible, and endlessly annoying, village atheists who posit the findings of science as defeaters to belief in God, there is nothing quite like the Schadenfreude of pointing out to the self-appointed guardians of reason that they have been hoisted upon their own petard. But you should not acquiesce to this temptation. For in doing so, you concede to the atheist his mistaken assumption that the rationality of belief in God depends on the absence of a scientific account of whatever phenomenon is in question.

"God the Father" by Cima da Conegliano, c. 1515
“God the Father” by Cima da Conegliano, c. 1515

The key to responding to such misinformed unbelief is to challenge this assumption, which is relatively easy to do. First, philosophy, and not any empirical science, is the proper discipline from which to start one’s inquiry into natural theology. In fact, the unbeliever, ironically, assumes this very point by starting with science. How is that possible? His belief that science is the best or only way by which one may properly assess the rationality of belief in God is itself not a deliverance of science, but a philosophical belief about science and its relationship to the limits of our knowledge. So, whether he realizes it or not, the scientific critic of God begins with philosophy, which means that it, and not science, is where the reasonable person should begin.

Second, the philosophical case for God – as St. Thomas Aquinas and his followers have argued –starts from the contingency of the universe, which is a metaphysical claim and not a scientific one. Whatever the universe and its parts are made of – whether they consist of atoms, Swiss cheese, strings, or some weird yet undiscovered fundamental particles – and whether or not the universe had a beginning in time, play no role in this analysis.

Looking for improbable occurrences in nature that cannot be accounted for by either chance or scientific laws, and then from those concluding that one has “made a case for God,” as Metaxas argues, confuses a question of natural science with a question of natural theology. God, in the classical tradition, is not in competition with the contingent universe He creates. He is its First Cause that is itself not contingent. But He is not first in the order of time, but first in the order of being. This means that the contingent universe remains in existence because it depends on Self-subsistent Being, whether or not the universe has always existed.

For example, the impossibility of a perpetual motion machine – even if it is one that had always existed – does not stand or fall on the material nature of its parts, i.e., whether it is made of hamburger, wood, or cookie dough, or some combination. Rather, it depends on the nature of the machine. So, even if the sciences could give us a seamless and gapless account of the universe’s natural phenomena, it would have no bearing on the rationality of belief in God.

Although Metaxas’ heart is in the right place, the “success” of his approach requires that he forfeit large swaths of philosophical real estate to the landlords of unbelief. It is not a price that serious theists should ever be willing to pay.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).