Over at RealClearScience, biologist Steven “Ross” Pomeroy has written an interesting piece titled, Why God Cannot Be Proven: A Star Trek Argument. Pomeroy contends that since aliens could duplicate anything that a Deity could do, author Eric Metaxas was wrong to claim that science could make a case for God, as he did an a Wall Street Journal article last Christmas.
It strikes me that there are several things wrong with Pomeroy’s argument. I’d like to point out four major flaws before I go on to discuss what I see as a paradox for naturalism which is implied by his argument: if it is correct, then our own species (Homo sapiens) was almost certainly produced by intelligent designers (aliens) who have intervened repeatedly in the course of evolution.
Four flaws in the “Star Trek” argument
First, I should point out that Eric Metaxas’s article was modestly titled, “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” Making a case for God is not the same as proving the existence of God – something which Metaxas never claimed to do.
Second, even New Atheist Jerry Coyne thinks that the argument that aliens could duplicate the miracles wrought by a Deity isn’t a very good one. To begin with, let’s look at how Pomeroy argues for this conclusion, in his recent article:
Even if Metataxas presented stronger evidence, his argument still would have failed spectacularly. We can use Star Trek to elucidate why.
Perhaps the strongest evidence possible for the existence of God would be if some being came down from the sky and repeated all the feats performed in the Bible. But, as one enlightened listener of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast recently pointed out, “What could a God do that couldn’t either be done by a being such as Q or faked with high technology? Even if the Bible were 100% true, how could we be sure it wasn’t just some Q-like being screwing with us?”
Later on in his piece, Pomeroy quotes Rabbi Alan Lurie’s argument (made in a 2010 Huffington Post article) that even the growth of new limbs on amputees wouldn’t prove the existence of God):
Even if this did happen, it would not prove the existence of God but would instead prove that there is some kind of regenerative force or energy that responds to the right kind of conscious thought. Likewise, a glowing presence and booming voice appearing on the White House lawn proclaiming “I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” as the waters of the Potomac part, would prove that there is an entity with powerful technology, and would be no more a proof of God than an airplane to a cave man.
However, Professor Jerry Coyne rebutted this line of reasoning in a post he wrote back in 2012, where he responded to the “aliens-could-do-it-too” argument by pointing out that signs and miracles could still provide provisional evidence for the existence of God, if they were sufficiently distinctive:
I’ve previously described the kind of evidence that I’d provisionally accept for a divine being, including messages written in our DNA or in a pattern of stars, the reappearance of Jesus on earth in a way that is well documented and convincing to scientists, along with the ability of this returned Jesus to do things like heal amputees. Alternatively, maybe only the prayers of Catholics get answered, and the prayers of Muslims, Jews, and other Christians, don’t.
Yes, maybe aliens could do that, and maybe it would be an alien trick to imitate Jesus (combined with an advanced technology that could regrow limbs), but so what? I see no problem with provisionally calling such a being “God” — particularly if it comports with traditional religious belief — until proven otherwise. What I can say is “this looks like God, but we should try to find out more. In the meantime, I’ll provisionally accept it.” That, of course, depends on there being a plethora of evidence. As we all know, there isn’t…
Science can never prove anything. If you accept that, then we can never absolutely prove the absence of a “supernatural” god — or the presence of one. We can only find evidence that supports or weakens a given hypothesis. There is not an iota of evidence for The God Hypothesis, but I claim that there could be.
Third, Pomeroy boxes himself in by asserting, in the final paragraph of his article, that science is committed to methodological naturalism:
Science is a far-reaching enterprise, but its purview is constrained to the natural world. Seeing as how God is undeniably a supernatural concept, the question of his existence falls outside science’s reach. No scientific evidence will ever conclusively prove the existence of God.
But it turns out that Professor Jerry Coyne convincingly refuted this argument, in his 2012 post, in which he wrote:
I don’t see science as committed to methodological naturalism — at least in terms of accepting only natural explanations for natural phenomena. Science is committed to a) finding out what phenomena are real, and b) coming up with the best explanations for those real, natural phenomena. Methodological naturalism is not an a priori commitment, but a strategy that has repeatedly worked in science, and so has been adopted by all working scientists.
Coyne goes on to quote a commenter named Explicit Atheist, who explains why science is essentially a pragmatic, rather than a naturalistic enterprise:
Science is about discovering what is true about how our universe works. If divine revelation given to those who worship a particular deity in a particular way was the method that worked then science would adopt methodological supernaturalism and scientists would be people who devote themselves to obtaining revelations about how the world works by worshipping that deity that way. Mr. Coyne, Stenger, and Dawkins are correct, science a- priori presumes nothing and rules nothing in or out. Science is completely pragmatic and will adopt any methodologies and any conclusions that are successful. Success is the only criteria that defines what is scientific and what is not, both up-front with methodologies and down-back with conclusions.
Fourth, one could plausibly argue that there are certain miracles which aliens could not duplicate. Thomist philosopher Ed Feser has argued that the resurrection of a dead person is such a miracle:
A miracle that could reasonably be expected to be compelling evidence of a divine revelation across different cultures and historical periods would have to be … something that could not in principle have any cause other than God (which means, of course, the God of classical theism). Fire coming down from the sky doesn’t fit the bill. But I would submit that a man known for certain to be dead coming back to life does fit the bill. (Obviously I mean literally and unambiguously dead, not merely “brain dead,” or “having flatlined,” or the like.)
In a subsequent post, Feser explains that a resurrection from the dead is beyond the power of natural agents (such as humans, aliens, or even angels) because some of the powers possessed by human beings (viz. intellect and will) are immaterial powers, whose exercise does not involve the operation of any bodily organ:
Though not naturally possible, such a resurrection is nevertheless supernaturally possible because the human soul is immortal. If there were nothing that persisted between the death of an individual human being and his resurrection, the resurrected human being would not really be the same human being, but only a duplicate. (This is why a non-human animal cannot be resurrected. Since such animals have no immaterial operations, there is nothing left of the individual after the death of its body. The most that could come into being after Rover’s death is an exact duplicate of Rover, but not Rover himself.)
Now, I happen to find Feser’s arguments for the immateriality of the human intellect (and the human will) highly persuasive – indeed, I cited them in my online e-book, Embryo and Einstein: Why They’re Equal. However, I would like to point out that Feser’s arguments are philosophical arguments that contain built-in metaphysical assumptions which require an elaborate defense, and which an atheistic materialist is likely to reject. For instance, someone who doesn’t believe that things have essences or substantial forms won’t be particularly impressed by the Thomistic argument that a material entity is incapable of receiving the substantial forms of many different kinds of beings at once; hence, the human intellect (which can grasp the forms of many kind of things at the same time) must be immaterial.
For that reason, I prefer to appeal to scientific considerations, when arguing against the possibility of raising an individual from the dead – complete with all their memories – by purely natural means. A strong prima facie case could be made that the level of specificity involved in such a resurrection – especially in remaking a living human brain and restoring its old memories – would be prohibitively high, even for advanced aliens. (I might point out that the human brain contains about 1.5×10^26 atoms. Duplicating that, or even making a passable approximation, would be a formidable technical task.)
Why the “Star Trek” argument generates a paradox for naturalism
But even if it were possible for aliens to transform a corpse into the living body of a recently deceased human individual, complete with all their memories, the “Star Trek” argument generates a paradox for naturalism: if it is correct, then we probably live in a universe designed by aliens who intelligently guided the course of evolution in order to produce us. The paradox can be formulated as follows:
(a) as Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has pointed out in his simulation argument and as physicist Paul Davies has also argued, if the multiverse is real, then our own universe was probably designed by aliens;
(b) since the probabilistic resources of a multiverse are infinite, whereas the probabilistic resources of our own universe are finite, then we may conclude that if we ever encountered any aliens who were capable of raising a long-dead human body back to life, these aliens would most likely come from some other universe outside our own;
(c) however, if such aliens were capable of reaching into our universe in order to bring a long-dead body back to life, then they would also be quite capable of intelligently guiding the course of evolution, since the latter requires only the ability to engineer specific mutations, which is a much easier technical feat than resurrecting a long-dead body;
(d) moreover, if aliens wanted to make a world containing sentient and/or intelligent beings (such as ourselves), then it would make much more sense for them to do so by a reliable process (such as intelligently guided evolution) than a hit-and-miss process like Darwinian evolution, or for that matter, neutral evolution;
(e) consequently, if there exist aliens in other universes who are capable of bringing a long-dead human body back to life, then our own evolution is most likely the result of intelligent design.
Let’s now examine premises (a), (b), (c) and (d) in more detail.
As we have seen, premise (a) is argued for by top physicist Paul Davies, as well as Oxford philosopher Simon Bostrom. It assumes nothing more than the existence of the multiverse.
Premise (b) appears mathematically unexceptionable. It does, however, make the implicit assumption that it is possible for aliens in one universe to control events occurring in another universe – something they could easily do if the latter is a virtual reality simulation, which premise (a) implies most universes would be.
Premise (c) merely states that genetic engineering (causing a mutation here or there) would be easier for aliens to accomplish than bringing a long-dead human body back to life. Again, it seems difficult to argue with this point: our own scientists can easily do the former, but are light-years away from accomplishing the latter.
Finally, premise (d) merely makes the psychological assumptions that (i) if our universe was generated by aliens, as premise (a) asserts, then presumably one of their aims was the creation of sentient and/or sapient life, and (ii) if an agent intends to accomplish a task (in this case, the generation of sentient and sapient life), then they are more likely to choose a method that is guaranteed to work (i.e. intelligent design) than one that isn’t (i.e. Darwinian evolution or neutral evolution). Once again, this seems a fairly obvious point.
Assuming that the foregoing reasoning is sound, then Ross Pomeroy’s “Star Trek” argument generates an interesting paradox: if its claim that aliens could accomplish any technical feat that a Deity could accomplish is correct, then by the same token, our own existence is most likely the result of intelligent alien intervention in the evolution of life on Earth. In other words, if Pomeroy is right in claiming that the existence of God cannot be scientifically proven by any technical feat that God alone could accomplish, then his claim actually reduces the likelihood that we are here as the result of a purposeless process that did not have us in mind, as the majority of biologists (who are intellectually wedded to naturalism) currently believe.
At this point, I will throw the discussion open to readers. Comment is welcome.