God in the light of science

Author: Fernando Sols. Full Professor de Física de la subject Condensed Physics, Complutense University of Madrid.
Published in: www.catolicos-on-line.org
Date of publication: September 6, 2010

A news preview of British physicist Stephen Hawking's forthcoming book, which appears to exclude God as creator, has reignited discussion about the ability of science to affirm or deny the existence of God. The snippets of Hawking's argumentation that have reached us seem rather perverse but I am not going to analyse them without having read the book. I prefer to make some general considerations.

There is a widespread image that religion is based on mystery and retreats as science advances. This myth of the "god of the holes" seems to be present in those debates on science and religion where a surprising, unexplained (or apparently highly improbable) scientific fact is a point in favour of religion, while an explained (or understood as plausible) scientific fact is a point in favour of science. This conception of the relationship between science and religion as a zero-sum struggle (one side only wins if the other loses) is wrong. The Christian Philosophy is based more on certainties than on mysteries, and when it does reference letter to the latter, these are mysteries of subject theological or philosophical, not of subject scientific.

In an intellectual discussion , it is a symptom of insecurity to resource to twist the adversary's speech into something easily refutable. The "hole-covering god" is certainly easy to refute, but that is not the God of Christian doctrine. If, moreover, as is often the case, the alleged argumentation is not based on proven scientific knowledge but on speculation motivated by philosophical prejudices, then the intellectual fragility is doubly manifest.

An example would be the claim that a universe with highly improbable 'a priori' properties is necessary for the existence of God. This arbitrarily introduces the "hole-covering god of singular initial conditions". It is then speculated, out of philosophical prejudice, that, since our universe cannot be so singular, there are in fact many other universes with properties of all subject and that ours is only one among many possible ones. With this double fallacy, it is intended to prove the non-existence of a god that has previously been invented and, to top it all off, it is presented as a result of science. The truth is that the existence of God does not require a universe with a singular beginning, although this may be suggestive. On the other hand, if there were other, different universes, the resulting "multiverse" would be nothing more than a larger universe. If it is further argued that, by construction, we cannot communicate with the other "universes", then these would no longer be the subject of science but of mere speculation.

A central point to remember is that the most surprising thing of all is that there is something rather than nothing (and that something includes the laws of physics). This is essentially the third way of St Thomas, suggesting the existence of a creator God. This creator is undoubtedly powerful, but is he intelligent?

Let's make the following imaginary experiment: let's suppose that we know nothing about physics but we are given a very powerful computer with which we can simulate a reality with laws invented by us that we can also skip whenever we want. What would we come up with? Probably result would be something like Harry Potter, or the Matrix, where absurd things happen, without regularity, the result of our will. The ancients did not know the laws of physics and thought that natural phenomena were the whims of the gods. As far as we know today, the God who created the Universe is far more subtle than that.

Science provides us with a sophisticated knowledge of material reality. We know much more about it today than we did a thousand years ago. We know the laws of physics: the four forces, which may one day be one, with their fine symmetries; quantum mechanics and non-linear dynamics, with their non-local correlations and their dose of indeterminism; the irreversibility of time, characterised by the increase of entropy. Although we do not understand all the details, we know that these laws allow the development of a portentous universe where the complex biological subject emerges, including that human mind which in turn is capable of discovering science, mathematics, Philosophy and art.

In this imaginary experiment, would we have come up with those laws which, with a reduced issue of equations and rules, allow the generation of such an astonishing reality as the one described above? A reality in which it is also possible for determinism and indeterminism to combine to make room, on the one hand, for the regularity of many phenomena (a regularity that eventually allows an intelligent being to reveal the keys to nature) and, on the other, for the action of freedom and providence, and the elusive randomness.

Louis Pasteur, the father of modern medicine, said: "A little science leads away from God, but a lot of science leads back to Him". Today more than ever we can make that statement our own and remember the text of St. Paul: "For the invisible nature of God, since the creation of the world, has been revealed to the intellect through his works: his eternal power and his divinity" (Romans 1:20).

Christians should not be afraid of scientific research when it is carried out and interpreted correctly. The pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (Vatican II) reminds us: "The methodical research in all fields of knowledge and in accordance with moral norms will never really be contrary to faith, because profane realities and those of faith have their origin in the same God".