A week ago, I wrote an article, Feet to the fire, in response to Dr. Stacy Trasancos’s essay, Does Science Prove God Exists? Dr. Trasancos has been gracious enough to respond to my article. In this post, I’d like to make a final reply, and I will happily give her the last word, if she wishes to make a closing rebuttal.
Dr. Trasancos’s question for the Intelligent Design community
I’d like to begin by answering the (rather lengthy) question which Dr. Trasancos poses at the end of her response to my article. She writes:
If 1) certain molecules provide the best evidence for a Designer; and if
2) the “primordial Fiat Lux, uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chemical elements split and formed into millions of galaxies” is inductive evidence for the Creator; and if
3) we can agree that atoms and the orchestration of all their subatomic particles guiding the physical and chemical interactions of matter and energy throughout the universe can be described as intelligently designed…
…then how can anything within the legitimate purview of science not be intelligently designed?
As a matter of logic, Dr. Trasancos’s conclusion doesn’t strictly follow from her premises. The fact that both the Big Bang and the laws governing interactions between subatomic particles were produced by God’s intelligent design does not necessarily entail that more complex kinds of entities which are composed of these particles were also intelligently designed.
Nevertheless, I would personally agree with Dr. Trasancos that any kind of entity which science can study is indeed the product of God’s intelligent design, and I think that most Intelligent Design theorists would do likewise. However, the kind of evidence that ID appeals to is strictly scientific evidence – not philosophical reasoning or theological argumentation. Hence the question we need to address from an Intelligent Design standpoint is not whether the kinds of objects studied by science are intelligently designed, but whether there is any scientific evidence that they are. And what I’m claiming is that for most kinds of entities that we observe in Nature, there is no good scientific evidence that they were designed. For instance, while there’s plenty of good scientific evidence that the elements carbon and oxygen were designed, I don’t know of any scientific evidence that the element technetium was. Or to take another example: we currently have very powerful scientific evidence that the proteins found in living things were intelligently designed, but I know of no evidence that sodium chloride crystals were designed, even though sodium chloride is essential to life on Earth. And while there’s excellent scientific evidence that molecular machines (such as the bacterial flagellum) were designed and that the first living cell was designed, no-one has produced any scientific evidence that each and every species of living thing was also designed. Nor can I think of any scientific evidence that macroscopic objects such as planets, continents, mountains, ocean currents, typhoons or tornadoes were all intelligently designed. For all scientists know, maybe none of them were.
So when Dr. Trasancos writes, “It sounds like they [Intelligent Design advocates] are saying: ‘Hey God, nice job on certain things, like DNA and bacteria! Those rocks and mud piles? What happened there?'”, she is overlooking a vital distinction between scientific evidence for design (which is typically based on complex specified information) and philosophical evidence for design (which appeals to features such as mutability, composition, contingency, grades of perfection and goal-directedness). Rocks and mud piles are composite, so for that reason alone, they require a cause that explains what holds them together – and ultimately, a First Cause of their existence. But the kind of reasoning that takes us to this First Cause is metaphysical reasoning, and the premises it appeals to are not scientific premises but philosophical ones. And even if today’s New Atheists are inclined to agree that rocks and mud piles are contingent beings that require some sort of explanation, they are likely to stop at some point in their search for explanations, and say, as Bertrand Russell did in his famous 1948 BBC radio debate on the existence of God with Fr. Frederick Copleston, and declare that “the universe is just there, and that’s all.” In arguing against such people, we have to appeal to a category of evidence which they cannot dismiss in such a fashion.
Intelligent Design deals with scientific evidence
As I mentioned above, Intelligent Design is the science of design detection: it tells us how to recognize patterns arranged by an intelligent cause for a purpose. Thus the kind of evidence ID appeals to is strictly scientific evidence – not philosophical reasoning or theological argumentation. So when Dr. Trasancos writes, “Either we believe God created everything and holds everything in existence before we even think about science, or we take a lesser view and posit some science-dependent god,” my response (as a classical theist) is that of course I believe that God created everything and holds it in existence. However, I hold this belief on philosophical grounds, which appeal to metaphysical premises – and as I’ve learned over the past few years, an increasing number of New Atheists adamantly reject the view that philosophy can furnish us with any additional knowledge of reality that science cannot. For that reason, they deny that metaphysics can tell us anything new about the world. Rather than trying to prove to these people that “scientism” is (a) self-contradictory and (b) incapable of explaining why science works at all (which tends to make them dig in their heels and say, “It just does!”), I have found that it is better to meet these people on their own terms, and put forward scientific arguments for the existence of God, which New Atheists still treat with a certain degree of respect. In particular, I have found that they take the Argument from Fine-Tuning (which points to the existence of a cosmic Creator) very seriously.
Saying that there are scientific arguments for the existence of a Creator does not make God “science-dependent.” That would be absurd: after all, God is the Author of scientific laws. Instead, what it means is that if you’re in the unfortunate intellectual position where the only kinds of arguments for a Creator that impress you are scientific arguments, then your belief in God will be entirely dependent on the evidence of science.
Now, belief in God which is based solely on scientific evidence might strike Dr. Trasancos as resting on a rather shaky epistemic foundation. But that’s still a lot better than having no foundation at all (as is the case with fideists, who believe in God without appealing to any supporting evidence). It’s quite true, of course, that scientific theories are subject to further revision; nevertheless, some theories are so deeply entrenched that their revision is almost impossible to envisage. (For example, I have absolutely no doubt that 500 years from now, children learning chemistry will still be taught about atoms, and will still learn some version of the periodic table.) So it seems prudent to trust scientific arguments for God which appeal to well-established theories, as opposed to speculative hypotheses. In short: you could do a lot worse than believing in God on scientific grounds.
I’d also like to point out in passing that Dr. Trasancos’s dichotomy of inductive versus deductive arguments is a little simplistic. Not all scientific arguments are inductive; many are abductive, which means that they involve making an inference to the best explanation. Medical diagnoses are a good example of abductive reasoning: given this set of symptoms, what is the diagnosis that would best explain most of them? Intelligent Design reasoning is also abductive: proponents argue that patterns which are both highly specific and astronomically improbable are best explained as the work of an intelligent agent, and that no unguided cause is sufficient to explain these patterns.
The point of my “Feet to the fire” thought experiment
In my last post, I described a horrifying scenario in which an mad atheist dictator takes over your country and requires every citizen to publicly profess atheism. Those who refuse to do so are tortured by having their feet held to the fire, until they either perish or declared that they have abandoned their faith in God. (In order to forestall the possibility of believers in God avoiding torture by pretending to be atheists, I added that this dictator is pretty good at spotting fakers, and that he’ll torture the entire family of any individual found to be lying about their beliefs.) In my article, I argued that the deductive philosophical proofs of God’s existence would probably not be enough to sustain your belief in God during this time of trial, but that the less rigorous inductive (or rather abductive) scientific arguments for God’s existence, coupled with the evidence from miracles and consciousness (and, many would add, morality), would sustain you through your ordeal.
Dr. Trasancos’s response to the scenario I proposed was that “it is grace that strengthens a martyr at his or her moment of death — not logic, not science, not even reason, but a supernatural gift in the soul called grace.” Grace would sustain you through your ordeal at the hands of the mad atheist dictator. What she overlooks is that according to Catholic teaching, you don’t need grace in order to believe the proposition that God exists. That’s the proposition that the mad dictator wants you to deny – not Christianity or any other religious creed. Indeed, the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) anathematizes those who hold that “the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason.” Thus in the hypothetical scenario I described, you should (theoretically) be able to endure martyrdom on behalf of your Creator, without recourse to any supernatural gifts on His part. Argumentation alone should be enough to sustain you – even without God’s grace. You shouldn’t need religious experience to bolster your belief in God, either – which is why I was careful to stipulate that the person being subjected to this ordeal by fire hadn’t had any such experiences.
So that raises the question: if argumentation alone should suffice in the scenario I described, what are the best arguments?
In a 2014 post titled, On not putting all your theological eggs into one basket, I explained why I think it would be very unwise to base one’s faith entirely on the Scholastic arguments for the existence of God. I view these arguments as rough diamonds: they contain valid metaphysical insights, but at the present time, they are nowhere near rigorous enough to ground the conviction that there exists an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving Being Who holds all created things in existence. For this reason, I think it would be prudent for theists to study the scientific arguments for God’s existence, in addition to studying the philosophical arguments.
Dr. Trasancos writes that “[a]mong the news of today’s martyrs, I have never heard that the intelligent design arguments convinced any of them to die for a Creator.” But today’s martyrs are not being asked to die for the proposition that God exists. Rather, most of them are being martyred for their faith in Christianity – which does require supernatural grace in order for us to assent to it.
Dr. Trasancos would have been better off asking whether Intelligent Design arguments have convinced any atheists of the existence of God. Here, they have had much greater success. They persuaded Professor Antony Flew, the most prominent atheist of the 20th century, to renounce atheism and embrace Deism before he died, declaring: “It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism.” They persuaded 1996 Nobel Chemistry Laureate Richard Smalley, a lifelong skeptic, to embrace Old Earth Creationism shortly before his death in 2005, saying: “Evolution has just been dealt its death blow. After reading Origins of Life [by astrophysicist Hugh Ross and biochemist Fazale Rana – VJT], with my background in chemistry and physics, it is clear evolution could not have occurred.” And they persuaded the British astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle FRS, to accept the fact that “a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.” I could go on, but I think these examples will suffice to illustrate my point.
Lastly, Dr. Trasancos contends that if we allow scientific arguments to count in favor of God’s existence, then by the same token, we’ll have to allow scientific arguments to be invoked against God’s existence:
If you invoke science to (inductively) prove God exists, then in my opinion you have no ground to complain if someone else invokes science to (inductively) prove God does not exist. Both of you play the same game.
That’s true. The sword of science is double-edged: it can cut both ways. And to slightly adapt a Biblical saying, if you’re prepared to live by the sword, then you have to be mentally prepared to die by that sword, too. There’s a name for this virtue: intellectual honesty.
Nervous Nellies: “But what if the arguments are wrong?”
At this point, some readers are likely to object: “Yes, but what if the arguments for Intelligent design later turn out to be wrong?” I’d like to make five quick points in reply.
First, I have never advocated basing one’s belief in God’s existence on Intelligent Design arguments alone. I think a mix of scientific and philosophical arguments is a much better idea: hence the title of my 2014 post, On not putting all your theological eggs into one basket.
Second, even if Intelligent Design arguments do turn out to be wrong, a believer who follows the strategy recommended in the preceding paragraph will still have other good arguments to fall back on.
Third, it’s irrational to refuse to believe in an argument, simply because there’s a possibility that it may be proven wrong in the future. For that matter, arguments for God’s existence based on miracles may turn out to be wrong, but that does not stop people such as former Nobel Prize winner Dr. Alexis Carrel (1873-1944) from converting from atheism or agnosticism to theism because of these arguments.
Fourth, the fact that some Intelligent Design arguments turn out to be wrong does not imply that all of them are wrong, or even likely to be wrong. Some ID arguments are much stronger than others. Similarly, some arguments for the reality of miracles are stronger than others: personally, I think the reality of the Lourdes miracles is now open to doubt (see here and here), but in the meantime, my own investigations have convinced me that the reality of St. Joseph of Cupertino’s levitations is so well established that only a person whose mind was completely closed would deny it (see here and here). It would be foolish to discard all arguments for the miraculous, just because some of them turn out to be bogus; and the same goes for Intelligent Design.
Fifth, the objection mistakenly assumes that science is steadily reducing the number of unexplained phenomena to zero, giving rise to the derisive phrase, “God of the gaps.” In fact, however, many of the current arguments for Intelligent Design were totally unknown when I was a child. I was born in 1961, and at that time, the Big Bang theory had not yet been confirmed, scientists were as yet largely unaware of the remarkable fine-tuning of the universe (although later that year, physicist Robert H. Dicke would discover that gravity and electromagnetism need to be fine-tuned for life to exist anywhere in the Universe), and the improbability of functional proteins arising via unguided natural processes had yet to be demonstrated. Two hundred years before I was born, belief in spontaneous generation was still intellectually respectable and the mystery of the Cambrian explosion was completely unknown to science: indeed, the Cambrian period wasn’t even identified until 1835. Who says science is closing the gaps?
The non-circular empirical criteria for Intelligent Design
In her article, Dr. Trasancos accuses Intelligent Design proponents of inferring the existence of an Intelligent Designer on the basis of their own, specially selected criteria for design – a procedure which she finds both question-begging and blasphemous, writing: “Who are we to give God a test of intelligence?”
But it is not God that we are testing, but the alleged evidence for design in the cosmos, which we need to sift very carefully, in order to make a good case for design. There is nothing blasphemous in attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff, when searching for good scientific evidence for a Designer of Nature.
Dr. Trasancos appears to think that the criteria appealed to by ID advocates as evidence for design are criteria of their own devising, making Intelligent Design reasoning circular. Not so: the criteria are frequently appealed to by people hostile to Intelligent Design. In his novel Contact, scientist Carl Sagan, who was an outspoken agnostic and a mocker of religion, wrote: “No astrophysical process is likely to generate prime numbers.” Consequently, when a team looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence located a signal containing a sequence of the first 100 primes, they were quickly able to infer on purely scientific grounds that this, at last, was “the real thing.” Apart from the astronomical improbability of finding such a sequence of numbers, the decisive factor that warranted the inference to intelligent design was its high degree of specificity. Sagan, who was no religious believer himself, recognized that a pattern which is both highly specified and vanishingly improbable is best explained as the product of an intelligent designer. The criteria he invoked are essentially the same as those which ID proponents appeal to, in their quest for scientific evidence for design.
Indeed, the very term “specified complexity,” which is commonly used by ID advocates, was originally coined by origin of life researcher Leslie Orgel (an atheist and a critic of Intelligent Design, who also coined the witticism, “Evolution is cleverer than you are”), in order to denote what distinguishes living things from non-living things:
In brief, living organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals are usually taken as the prototypes of simple well-specified structures, because they consist of a very large number of identical molecules packed together in a uniform way. Lumps of granite or random mixtures of polymers are examples of structures that are complex but not specified. The crystals fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; the mixtures of polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity. (The Origins of Life, 1973, John Wiley & Sons Inc., p. 189.)
In a similar vein, physicist Paul Davies wrote: “Living organisms are mysterious not for their complexity per se, but for their tightly specified complexity.” (The Fifth Miracle, 1999, Simon & Schuster, p. 112.)
Arguments continue over the most appropriate way to quantify the specified complexity found in living things, but the important thing is that the the specified complexity of even the humblest living organism far exceeds the probabilistic resources of the observable universe – a point recognized by evolutionary biologist Professor Eugene Koonin, who calculated that the odds of a simple replication-translation system arising anywhere within a universe like ours were astronomically low.
It may interest Dr. Trasancos to know that St. Thomas Aquinas himself put forward an Intelligent Design-style argument in his Summa Theologica I, Question 91, article 2, reply to objection 2, where he dismisses Avicenna’s fanciful theory of spontaneous generation, which stated that the power of the heavenly bodies was capable of generating animals of all kinds from the elements of Nature, on the ground that even if “the power of heavenly bodies suffices for the production of some imperfect animals from properly disposed matter,” it was quite certain that the heavenly bodies were incapable of generating the higher or “perfect” animals, “for it is clear that more conditions are required to produce a perfect than an imperfect thing.” From a mathematical standpoint, “more conditions are required for X than for Y” is just another way of saying: “X is more improbable than Y.” I discuss Aquinas’ Intelligent Design-style argument at further length in my online essay, St. Thomas Aquinas and his Fifteen Smoking Guns.
Can science falsify God?
Dr. Trasancos vehemently rejects the idea that science can falsify belief in God. I’ll discuss her reasons below. But before I do that, I’d like to quote from a blog article titled, A specific brand of evolutionary creationism, by former atheist Dr. Wayne Rossiter, Assistant Professor of Biology at Waynesburg University and author of Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God:
Finally, I find it logically onerous to begin with the assumption that, whatever we find in the material world, God did it. Call me an empiricist, but some aspect of the God hypothesis ought to be falsifiable. That is, the argument in favor of God must have some way of being logically or empirically validated (and therefore falsifiable). When we set God up as the cosmic Prime Mover, first, we need sound reasons for believing this is so, and second, we then essentially say, no world, no matter how brutish, cruel or sloppy, would be evidence against God’s existence. I don’t find that persuasive.
Dr. Rossiter has a point. If we are to seriously maintain that the order in the world bears witness to God’s existence, then we should be able to specify a minimum threshold of order, below which the inference to God would not be warranted. Ditto for the goodness and beauty of the world.
Dr. Trasancos also rejects my argument that the discovery that determinism holds true in our cosmos would falsify theism. Determinism, she contends, is a philosophical doctrine, and science can never establish the truth of a philosophical doctrine.
Now, if Dr. Trasancos is referring to determinism as a universal hypothesis (“All events are determined”) then she is perfectly correct, but if she is referring to determinism as a hypothesis that applies to our cosmos (“All events in space-time are determined”), then she is mistaken: science certainly does have quite a bit to say about that claim. It is commonly held, for instance, that Newtonian physics was deterministic (actually, it wasn’t), and there are some scientists who continue to favor a deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics, while others prefer an indeterministic interpretation. Suppose it turned out that the physics of our cosmos was deterministic: what would follow then? Since (as I argued in my last post), theism is incompatible with physical determinism and since our decisions take place within the universe of space and time, it would follow that one would need to posit a Deus ex machina supernatural intervention every time I made a choice, in order to preserve my freedom as a moral agent. And since the notion that God intervenes supernaturally every time I decide something is ridiculously far-fetched, that would render theism a highly improbable hypothesis. (While we’re on the subject of freedom: I have argued that while indeterminism does not, by itself, make us morally free agents, when combined with top-down causation, it can explain libertarian freedom.)
In short: whether we like it or lump it, science can potentially falsify theism. What matters for believers, however, is that (a) so far, it has not done so, but has rather tended to support theism, and (b) if the world is indeed God’s handiwork, then we can be confident that science never will falsify theism.
Pope Pius XII: did he go too far?
Dr. Trasancos also takes issue with Pope Pius XII’s claim, made in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on November 22, 1951, titled “The Proofs For The Existence Of God In The Light Of Modern Natural Science“, that the Big Bang theory was scientific evidence for God. She points out that the Pope went on to say that science only provides inductive evidence for creation in time, that science always awaits further research, and that absolute proof of creation in time is outside the limits of science. That’s perfectly fine by me: when did I ever argue otherwise? But then she goes on to add that Fr. George Lemaître, who first proposed the Big Bang hypothesis, took exception to the Pope’s remarks, because “because he knew that his theory was subject to further revision.” Fr. Lemaître insisted that incomplete scientific theories should be “judged on their scientific merits alone and not be used in support of theological conclusions.” Dr. Trasancos’s account is historically accurate, as far as I can tell. Nevertheless, I would argue that in hindsight, it was Fr. Lemaître, and not the Pope, who was wrong. The Pope’s address was made in 1951, when the Big Bang theory had a viable scientific alternative: the Steady State theory. But by 1965, the tide had turned: the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation at the temperature predicted by the Big Bang theory (3 Kelvins) confirmed a striking prediction of the theory, rendering it highly unlikely that it would ever be falsified in future. Even though Pope Pius XII may have “jumped the gun” by 14 years, science does indeed lend support to the notion of an ultimate beginning – even if it’s not clear yet whether this beginning corresponds to the Big Bang itself, or to some earlier event preceding it.
A closing question for Dr. Trasancos
I hope that this post of mine will have cleared the air somewhat, and helped to clarify my own position. I’d like to conclude by thanking Dr. Trasancos for taking part in this exchange, and I’d also like to pose a final question to her. I would ask her to think back to the horrifying, feet-to-the-fire scenario that I described above. Here’s my question: “If you were being tortured by fire for your belief that God exists, which arguments for God would sustain you the most, and why?”
Over to you, Dr. Trasancos.