Feet to the fire: A response to Dr. Stacy Trasancos
|February 28, 2016||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design, Philosophy, Religion|
Stacy Trasancos, a homeschooling mother of seven with a Ph.D. in chemistry and an M.A. in Dogmatic Theology who is an Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, has penned a thoughtful essay over at the Catholic One Faith blog titled, Does Science Prove God Exists? Her answer, in a nutshell, is that while science can provide inductive support for the existence of a Creator, only theology can provide deductive arguments for God’s existence. In any case, we shouldn’t need to prop up our belief in God with scientific arguments. Dr. Trasancos rejects the view that some scientific conclusions are compatible with God’s existence, while others are not. Christians, she says, should start from the fundamental notion that God made everything, and then proceed to view scientific findings in the light of faith.
There is much wisdom in Dr. Trasancos’s brief but profound essay, which is written in a warm and engaging style. She is surely correct when she contends that science cannot provide us with deductive arguments for the existence of God; the most it can do is provide evidence which is best explained by positing the existence of a Transcendent Intelligence, Who designed the laws that govern our cosmos, so as to make it able to support embodied, intelligent life-forms (e.g. human beings). That’s the conclusion argued for by Dr. Robin Collins in his widely cited essay, The Teleological Argument, which infers God’s existence from the fine-tuning of the cosmos. (Biological versions of the argument from design are far more modest, as Intelligent Design proponent Professor Michael Behe publicly stated as far back as 2001: “Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel — fallen or not; Plato’s demiurge; some mystical New Age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being.”)
Could science falsify belief in God?
She is mistaken, however, when she pooh-poohs the notion that “some scientific conclusions are compatible with the idea that God exists and others are not.” This, I have to say, is nonsense. Suppose that science were to establish that determinism is true. If that were the case, then there can be no freedom and hence no moral agency. As Cambridge philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe put it in her Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University in 1971, titled Causality and Determination: “My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory. The truth of physical indeterminism is then indispensable if we are to make anything of the claim to freedom.” Likewise, there can be no good grounds for belief in God, in a universe where my thoughts are physically determined – for as philosopher Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, what guarantee would there be, in such a universe, that my reasoning on purely metaphysical matters (as opposed to practical problems) could even be trusted? Similarly, there would be no room for God’s existence if science were to establish that we live in an infinite multiverse of the kind postulated by Max Tegmark, where every logical possibility is realized in some universe. On such a scenario, choices could never matter, since whenever I am confronted with a choice to do X or not do X, there will always be a world in which I do it, and another world in which I don’t. Or again, suppose that science were to prove that time travel is possible. Such a discovery would be profoundly atheistic in its implications, as it would violate the notion of causality – and hence, overthrow the notion of a First Cause. Finally, the discovery of a naked singularity would destroy the very notion of causality – and wreak havoc with science itself, as experiments conducted in the vicinity of such a singularity would no longer be replicable.
Science in the light of faith
With regard to Dr. Trasancos’s suggestion that Christians should view scientific findings in the light of faith, I have no quarrel with this way of proceeding. It was St. Anselm of Canterbury, after all, who famously declared, “I believe in order that I may understand,” and in a similar vein, C.S. Lewis wrote: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” What I reject, however, is Dr. Trasancos’s implied assumption that faith should always be a starting point for viewing scientific discoveries. I would maintain that there are some discoveries that boost faith (e.g the discovery that even the multiverse must have had a beginning), just as there are some potential discoveries that would weaken or even destroy it. For my part, I identify more with Peter Abelard, who declared: “I understand in order that I may believe.”
Dr. Trasancos adds: “Seeing science in the light of faith is an all-or-none proposition. Either it all bespeaks the wonder of the Creator, or none of it does.” Yes, but some parts of God’s creation point to God much more clearly than others. A religious person will see God’s glory in the “unimaginable, ineffable order and symmetry” of Nature, which Dr. Trasancos writes about so eloquently – everything “from stars to dandelions down to the smallest particles of matter.” But a hard-nosed atheist will ask why order could not simply be a basic feature of the cosmos. If I were trying to convince an atheist of the existence of a Creator, I would point to something far more convincing, like the ATP synthase enzyme shown in this 86-second Youtube video by creation.com. Any unbiased viewer can see at once that ATP synthase is the product of design:
The inference to design here is obvious. As chemist Jonathan Sarfati explains in another video, entitled Evolution Vs ATP Synthase – Molecular Machine:
You couldn’t have life unless you had this motor to produce the energy currency, so it looks like this motor must have been there right from the beginning, and I’d say that because this motor is so much better, so much tinier and more efficient than anything we can design, … the Designer of the motor is far more intelligent than any motor designer we have today too.
Scientific proofs for God: what one Pope said
I might add that Pope Pius XII was firmly convinced that science could establish the existence of God. Here’s a brief quote from his 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”.
2. In fact, according to the measure of its progress, and contrary to affirmations advanced in the past, true science discovers God in an ever-increasing degree – as though God were waiting behind every door opened by science.…
44. It is undeniable that when a mind enlightened and enriched with modern scientific knowledge weighs this problem calmly, it feels drawn to break through the circle of completely independent or autochthonous matter, whether uncreated or self-created, and to ascend to a creating Spirit. With the same clear and critical look with which it examines and passes judgment on facts, it perceives and recognizes the work of creative omnipotence, whose power, set in motion by the mighty “Fiat” pronounced billions of years ago by the Creating Spirit, spread out over the universe, calling into existence with a gesture of generous love matter busting with energy. In fact, it would seem that present-day science, with one sweeping step back across millions of centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to that 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…
49. What, then, is the importance of modern science for the argument for the existence of God based on the mutability of the cosmos? By means of exact and detailed research into the macrocosm and the microcosm, it has considerably broadened and deepened the empirical foundation on which this argument rests, and from which it concludes to the existence of an Ens a se, immutable by His very nature.
50. It has, besides, followed the course and the direction of cosmic developments, and, just as it was able to get a glimpse of the term toward which these developments were inexorably leading, so also has it pointed to their beginning in time some five billion years ago. Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, it has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the cosmos came forth from the hands of the Creator.
51. Hence, creation took place in time. Therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists! Although it is neither explicit nor complete, this is the reply we were awaiting from science, and which the present human generation is awaiting from it…
52. The knowledge of God as sole Creator, now shared by many modern scientists, is indeed, the extreme limit to which human reason can attain. Nevertheless, as you are well aware, it does not constitute the last frontier of truth. In harmonious cooperation, because all three are instruments of truth, like rays of the same sun, science, philosophy, and, with still greater reason, Revelation, contemplate the substance of this Creator whom science has met along its path unveil His outlines and point out His features. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Dr. Trasancos’s remarks on Intelligent Design are, I have to say, misinformed. She writes: “Others point to ‘Intelligent Design’ where they decide intelligent design must exist and call that proof that an Intelligent Designer must exist, a most circular form of reasoning.” In all my years as an Intelligent Design advocate, I have never met an ID proponent who argued in such a circular fashion. The New World Encyclopedia defines the logic of Intelligent Design clearly and succinctly: “ID may be considered to consist only of the minimal assertion that it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent agent.” More specifically: “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” (Discovery Institute, FAQs about Intelligent Design.) No circularity there!
Feet to the fire: A thought experiment
Nevertheless, Dr. Trasancos’s objection to the need for Intelligent Design-style arguments needs to be taken seriously. She asks: if theology can provide us with deductive arguments which establish the existence of God with absolute certitude, why should we need scientific arguments to buttress our belief in God, given that the inductive arguments provided by science are of vastly inferior quality to theological arguments? I’d like to answer that question, by inviting my readers to imagine the following hypothetical scenario.
Imagine that the country where you live is taken over by an atheistic madman whose avowed aim is to stamp out religious faith of any kind. The madman issues an order requiring all citizens to publicly profess atheism, or suffer the torture of having their feet held to the fire until they either recant or die. The madman is also very good at spotting liars, and he decrees that anyone he catches lying when they make their profession of atheism will face an even more terrible fate: that of being hung, drawn and quartered, along with all their family members. You, of course, believe in God, and you refuse to accede to the madman’s demand that you publicly professing atheism, so he sentences you to be tortured. As you ponder your impending fate of being slowly roasted to death from the feet upwards, you ask yourself whether your faith in God will be strong enough to survive the ordeal, or whether it will destroy your faith and turn you into an atheist.
On the night before your ordeal by fire, you mentally review the arguments for God’s existence, for it will be these arguments that will support you in your time of trial. During your life, you have met a few people who have had a religious experience, and who claim to have been personally touched by God. Unfortunately, that has never happened to you: although you pray regularly, you have never heard the voice of God answering your prayers, or sensed His indwelling presence. Despite being a Christian, you have never had a personal experience of Divine grace in your entire life: your experience is one of lifelong silence from on high. That doesn’t bother you, as you are quietly confident that you will meet and commune with your Maker in the next world. However, your lack of any religious experience forces you to rely entirely on the arguments put forward for God’s existence. The question you have to ask yourself is: which of these arguments will sustain your faith best, as your feet are being held to the fire?
It might seem that the deductive, metaphysical arguments for God’s existence would offer the surest support for your faith, and that the inductive – or rather, abductive – arguments provided by science offer a very weak support for belief in God. But it occurs to you that even the deductive arguments are not based on indubitable premises – and you are quite sure that you will have doubts aplenty, as the flames lick your feet and you ask yourself: “Do I really want to go through with this?”
The cosmological arguments for God’s existence all assume that whatever exists must have an adequate explanation for its existence – either from within its nature or from something outside it, which maintains it in existence. That sounds reasonable enough – but you realize that the contrary view, that the existence of certain things (e.g. the universe as a whole, or quantum fields) is an inexplicable brute fact (as Bertrand Russell maintained), is not obviously contradictory. Some Scholastic philosophers have argued that explanations resting on an ultimate “brute fact” cannot really explain anything at all, which would imply that scientific explanations are a big charade if the cosmos itself turns out to be a brute fact. Science, in other words, presupposes the Principle of Sufficient Reason. However, being a widely read person, you are also well aware that there are atheistic scientists who argue that the task of science is merely to systematize our observations by accounting for them in the simplest possible manner, and that the universe itself requires no external explanation: it exists, and that’s all one can say. Of course, you know that there are excellent grounds for believing the universe to be contingent: it appears to be composite, and nothing about it appears to be necessary: it doesn’t have to be the way it is. But a nagging voice in your head asks: “Can I even prove that the notion of a Necessary Being makes sense? And exactly what kind of necessity are we attributing to God, anyway?” (You know perfectly well that even theistic philosophers differ in their accounts of Divine necessity: some maintain that God’s existence is logically necessary, others define God as a self-explanatory Being, while yet others propose a more modest definition: God is the kind of Being Which, if He exists, requires nothing outside Himself in order to exist – which would make God independent, but leave His existence a profound mystery.) You wonder whether the cosmological argument alone will be enough to sustain your faith in God, as the flames lick your feet, and you soberly conclude: probably it won’t.
Other doubts trouble you, too. Even if you could be 100% sure of the existence of an Uncaused Cause which is necessary and which doesn’t require anything outside itself to actualize its capacities, it is another thing altogether to claim that this cause is an intelligent personal Agent. Many philosophers have argued that the tendencies of various kinds of things – be they fields, particles, chemical substances or organisms – to act in a regular, lawlike fashion indicates that their behavior is somehow goal-directed, and that the notion of goal-directed behavior makes no sense unless there is an Intelligence which governs all things and directs them towards their built-in ends. (This is the conclusion of Aquinas’s Fifth Way.) You find these arguments very reasonable, because they help you make sense of the order you find in Nature: indeed, it would be difficult for you to account for the laws of Nature in any other fashion. However, you’re also aware that some Thomist philosophers find Aquinas’s Fifth Way less than convincing, and you also have problems with some contemporary defenses of the Fifth Way, which you have read. You are not unduly perturbed by these difficulties; indeed, you think the Fifth Way can be successfully revamped in a way that surmounts them. But in the end, you realize that the whole force of the argument depends on a particular way of looking at the world, and you wonder whether you will be able to keep looking at the world in that way, as your feet are held to the fire. You realize that you will need something more to sustain you.
Your anxieties increase when you consider the sloppy arguments put forward by philosophers to establish God’s infinitude – a particularly vital Divine attribute, as a finite being would not be worthy of worship. The Scholastic axiom that act can only be limited by potency (which would entail that a Being Who is Pure Act must perforce be infinite) has always struck you as doubtful, as some actual properties (e.g. triangularity) seem to be limited by their very definition. Neither are you impressed by the argument that a Being Who is Pure Act must contain all perfections, for although it is obvious that such a Being can contain no imperfections, it doesn’t follow that it must contain all perfections within its nature. Of course, you recognize that a Necessary Being cannot be composed of parts; hence its essence must be identical with its act of existence. However, the inference that God, being Pure Existence, must contain (at least virtually) all possible perfections strikes you as logically flawed. For it is one thing to say that God is identical with His own act of existence; quite another to equate Him with “Pure Existence” – whatever that phrase means.
Most doubtful of all are the metaphysical arguments put forward by theists, in order to establish God’s goodness. The argument that a Being Who is Pure Act must be perfectly good, because it is Being Itself, leaves you cold. The vital question, as far as you are concerned, is not whether God is “good” in the sense of being perfect, but whether He is “good” in the sense of being all-loving – and more particularly, whether such an all-loving Being loves you personally, as an individual. For a Being Who did not love you personally would not be worth dying for.
Weighing up these deductive arguments, you feel dissatisfied, and sense that you will need something more to get you through the fearful ordeal that awaits you. At this low point in your theological reflections, science comes to the rescue. You recall that there are other, independent arguments for the existence of God which do not rely on metaphysics, but are empirically based. These scientific arguments do not pretend to establish the existence of the God of classical theism, for they do not go that far; nor do they offer the certitude provided by a deductive argument, for their logic is abductive, proceeding by way of inference to the best explanation. Despite these deficiencies, however, you find that the arguments fortify the thin metaphysical arguments of Scholastic theology. Where the metaphysical arguments are weak, the scientific arguments are strong, and vice versa. The metaphysical arguments are more rigorous, but you find yourself wondering if the philosophical axioms which they rest on are really true. They are rational, but by no means indubitable. The scientific arguments, on the other hand, strike you as far more accessible and less open to doubt, precisely because they are purely empirical in nature. While they are not as certain as the rigorous metaphysical arguments for an Uncaused Cause and a Necessary Being, you find that they are more convincing, because accepting the truth of their premises requires no metaphysical commitments on your part: the science speaks for itself. You realize, of course, that these scientific arguments might turn out to be wrong: perhaps the apparent fine-tuning of the cosmos is merely a reflection of our current scientific ignorance, and physicists of the 22nd century will laugh it off. But you live in the 21st century, and based on what you currently know, it seems pretty likely to you that the universe (and for that matter, the multiverse) is fine-tuned to support life, and that the fine-tuning was intended as a signal by the Creator to His intelligent creatures, to make us aware of His existence. You also review the biological arguments for Intelligent Design – especially those based on protein folds and the astronomical improbability of even a simple life-form – a replication and translation system – arising through undirected processes. Some scientists have proposed the existence of an infinite multiverse to get round those difficulties, but you realize that this proposal won’t work either. While the biological arguments for Intelligent Design don’t establish the existence of a Cosmic Creator, they do point to the existence of a being capable of creating digital codes in the DNA of organisms. A being capable of creating a code would presumably also be capable of using language. That points to the existence of a Creator Who can talk to us, if He wishes to.
The argument from miracles also impresses you. There have been many miracles recorded throughout history, but perhaps the most carefully documented one, which leaves very little room for doubt, relates to the levitations of St. Joseph of Cupertino (for more details, see this article here and see my posts here and here). An article written by a modern biographer, Michael Grosso, summarizes the evidence for St. Joseph’s levitations as follows:
The records show at least 150 sworn depositions of witnesses of high credentials: cardinals, bishops, surgeons, craftsmen, princes and princesses who personally lived by his word, popes, inquisitors, and countless variety of ordinary citizens and pilgrims. There are letters, diaries and biographies written by his superiors while living with him. Arcangelo di Rosmi recorded 70 incidents of levitation; and then decided it was enough…
…[T]he Church progressively tried to make him retreat to the most obscure corners of the Adriatic coast, ending finally under virtual house arrest in a small monastic community at Osimo. There was no decline effect in Joseph’s strange aerial behaviors; during his last six years in Osimo he was left alone to plunge into his interior life; the records are unanimous in saying that the ratti (raptures) were in abundance right up until his dying days. The cleric in charge of the community swore that he witnessed Joseph levitate to the ceiling of his cell thousands of times.
What impresses you about this evidence is that like the scientific arguments pointing to God’s existence, it is purely empirical: the evidence speaks for itself. To repudiate the evidence for St. Joseph’s levitations, one would have to assume colossal mendacity and/or unbelievable stupidity on the part of thousands of people who witnessed these levitations. While the evidence does not establish the existence of the God of classical theism, it is worth noting that what typically prompted St. Joseph’s levitations was hearing the name of Jesus, of the Virgin Mary, or of a saint: this was enough to make him go into an ecstasy and remain floating in the air for several hours. Evidence like this not only points to the existence of God, but of a highly personal God, Who cares about individuals like you.
A final fact which impresses you very greatly is the existence of subjective self-awareness. Although you are not given to religious experiences, you recall that yesterday, you walked down the street in the afternoon sunshine, and marveled at the beauty of it all – and at the fact that you were able to enjoy that beauty. Viewed from a purely naturalistic perspective, the existence of any consciousness, anywhere in the world (let alone the self-consciousness which you enjoy) is a surprising fact – one which we have no reason to expect. A “survival machine” doesn’t need to be conscious: it just needs to make the right moves. From a theistic perspective, on the other hand, the existence of consciousness makes perfect sense: one would expect a personal Creator to make beings who were capable of knowing and loving their Creator (as well as each other), if He were going to make a world at all.
Pondering these facts, you realize that you will have something to sustain you through your ordeal by fire, after all. You know that in your last moments on this earth, you will die screaming in agony – but because your faith in God is buttressed on many levels, the agony you endure will not destroy your conviction that the world has a Creator. And science will have helped, in no small way, to reinforce that conviction.
A closing thought from St. Thomas Aquinas
I’d like to close with a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic theologian whom I know Dr. Trasancos respects greatly. In his Summa Contra Gentiles Book III, chapter 99, paragraph 9 (That God Can Work Apart From The Order Implanted In Things, By Producing Effects Without Proximate Causes), Aquinas writes:
[D]ivine power can sometimes produce an effect, without prejudice to its providence, apart from the order implanted in natural things by God. In fact, He does this at times to manifest His power. For it can be manifested in no better way, that the whole of nature is subject to the divine will, than by the fact that sometimes He does something outside the order of nature. Indeed, this makes it evident that the order of things has proceeded from Him, not by natural necessity, but by free will.
Here, Aquinas says that God’s power and voluntary agency “can be manifested in no better way … than by the fact that He sometimes does something outside the order of nature.” I conclude that not all manifestations of God’s power are equally effective in manifesting the fact of His existence, and that certain kinds of evidence much stronger than others. Stars and dandelions are all very well and good, but I’m sure that St. Thomas Aquinas, were he alive today, would have had no qualms whatsoever about appealing to the best kind of we have empirical evidence from the natural world – molecules that require a Designer and miracles that manifest the existence of a supernatural Creator – in order to convince skeptics of God’s existence.
What do readers think?