It’s a long standing argument: can theism be justified within scientific thinking? There have been attempts to bypass the argument, by calling the two concepts “non-overlapping magisteria”: the claim that the two concepts simply answer different questions and therefore are never justified by each other and never in conflict (Gould, 2011). However, that is not how the average religious commenter or apologist presents justification of theism generally.
Instead, the average commenter or apologist, including popular debaters (e.g. Craig and Smith, 1995), will try to posit theism from within a scientific framework. They don’t tend to claim that theism and science are compatible; they make a slightly different argument: that theism is a powerful scientific explanation.
In the same way that it is not really sensible to claim that the theory of gravity is compatible with science, because it is actually a robust product of science, religious people like to argue that theism can also be framed as a reasonable product of science. It is worth looking at how well that implicit claim holds up.
What is a robust product of science?
The philosophy of science is not a settled subject. That said, there are some very good ideas on what constitutes the sorts of models, theories and laws we might call scientific ideas. Perhaps the best encapsulation of this is derived from Emre Lakatos, who delineated between productive and degenerative models within science. “Degenerative models” might more commonly be known as pseudoscience or bunk (depending on how degenerative they are), whereas productive models might more commonly be thought of as “theories”, the highest standard of knowledge available through science (Lakatos, 1980)
Given a system, a good relevant model will be able to ‘predict’ the observations made of the system in the past, as well as predict future observations. To word that differently, a good model accounts for the data and predicts future data. The best models will be mathematic models, giving little to no room for ‘linguistic trickery’ to make observations fit predictions.
(In practice, if a model’s predictions and the observations do not line up, some effort should be made to make sure the experimental technique gave reliable observations.)
Good models are also ‘thrifty’. Think of ‘Occam’s Razor’: the idea that models should include as few as possible entities. The more entities a model has, the worse it is (although it doesn’t immediately disqualify it). The parsimonious nature of a model can be a little confusing; it is the procedure within the model that should be minimal, not necessarily the amount of stuff predicted. For example, hyperinflationary models of our universe predict a lot of the data for the early universe, so it is an effective or productive model; it also has very few entities in its formulation, another plus. But these models also a multiverse, and this can throw some commenters into thinking that the model is excessive; that is to confuse a simple model with simple predictions (Tegmark, 2014).
Alternatively, bad models need radical adjustment and ‘just so’ interpretations in order to account for the data. For example, “psychics” who claim to be able to contact the dead keep adding to the model to explain why the predictions of being able to contact the dead don’t hold up: it doesn’t work if there is ‘bad energy’ or sceptics present, for example. The model still makes predictions, but to do this it has to be a less well defined model. Psychics can predict that their ‘talent’ won’t be evidence under experimental conditions, and have excuses ready.
Similarly, the products of psychics’ work can be very broad ― like the content of a horoscope. The predicted data is so broad and poorly defined that any observed data could be said to be a hit. In reality, these are not predictions at all because they don’t just account for the data, but they also account for many other things we should be able to observe, but don’t.
Lamarckian evolution ― the idea that during an animal’s lifetime it would ‘strengthen’ the characteristics it needed and pass on those strengthened traits, like a stretched and lengthened neck ― had a similar problem. It had to account for why amputees didn’t have amputated offspring, and it added an entity to explain this: a distinction between incidental and advantageous traits. But even then it would have to explain why ironsmiths didn’t also have muscular offspring. And so the model had to adapt and change to account for data, and thus was discarded. Lakatos would call that a ‘degenerative’ model, and discarding it is the right action.
How does theism fit into this?
The image of the Deep Hubble Field is artistically boring, until you consider what it is. It is little bright smudges on an otherwise black background. Except, all those smudges are galaxies. Suddenly, it becomes a little more awe-inspiring to consider the immensity of the observable universe.
The system around our star/sun is unimaginably large. It has a radius of about 18 billion kilometers, with our star at the centre (Bryner, 2013). There are about 100 billion more stars in our galaxy, and about 100 billion galaxies of comparable size. What models account for that data?
In a coarser sense, theism can be invoked for explain why the universe exists at all by positing an omnipotent God who wants us to exist. But in a finer sense of the actual observations ― the immensity of the non-human universe ― this explanation starts to degenerate; it doesn’t predict the other galaxies, as they have no impact on us. God could have made the universe for humanity without other galaxies. But, we have observed these other galaxies now, and theism adapts to meet the observations.
Such an adaptation could posit, as Sean Carroll (2011) does, a God who is ‘procedurally thrifty’, who ignited the creation of a universe under physical principles that happen to give rise to the immensity of the universe. Given that God and Its desire to create humans are already pretty big entities to be putting into the model, adapting it with yet another big entity ― procedural thriftiness ― is starting to degrade the model. Moreover, you could claim the mathematical plausibility of a principle that gives rise to immensely large universes and stop talking right there, no God in the picture. Here, the ‘theism’ model is intentionally looking like a natural model with one further supposition.
What’s worse is that a lot of popular theisms actually include an infinite entity creation clause: the mysterious plan. There are no observations that could not be explained by theism under these conditions, but in science that is a ‘bug’ not a ‘feature’.
In debate with William Lane Craig, Carroll points out further observations ― in cosmology and in the way humanity practices religion itself ― that go against the predictions that would be made if theism were an accurate model of reality (2015). He points out that you could explain all these observations in a way that preserves theism, but only by adding entities and adapting the model. And, as pointed out, that is a degenerative model that should be discarded.
Are there other ways of giving theism some scientific credibility?
There are arguments that purport to be nested in science that are meant to be back up the existence of God. We could reel them off: Teleological argument, Cosmological argument, Creationism. But, do they stand up, or do they have serious flaws?
Each of these have their own flaws, but 1 flaw actually unites them. The original teleological argument actually was the creationist argument: that such complexity and design was evident in biology that an immense power with intent must have designed it. Most modern debaters have abandoned this creationist approach; an unintentional and systematically parsimonious process has done away with it: biological evolution by natural selection. The reason this could happen is that the system of the argument was essentially fallacious.
The argument was that the appearance of design demanded an explanation, and no one could see what that explanation might be, therefore God did it. And, no matter how sophisticated the formulation gets, that is the argument in its essence.
Biology is not the only place this has happened. Newton made the same argument when trying to explain the movement of all the planets around the sun. He came up with a model that explained how the moon went around the Earth, and how the Earth went around the sun. And the model agreed with observation extremely well, but not perfectly. It’s not just the sun that pulls on planets, but the planets pull on each other too, and this massively increased the complexity of the system and Newton ended up putting it down to being managed directly by a God.
The six primary planets are revolved about the sun in circles concentric with the sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts…. Ten moons are revolved about the earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, in circles concentric with them. … It is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions. … This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.
The problem is that the solution was found by Laplace, and it was “mere mechanical causes”. It’s the same fallacy again. That fallacy is called ‘the argument from ignorance’ and has the formulation of ‘I don’t see what else it could be, therefore it is this’, or it is the argument from incredulity, which goes ‘I don’t believe it could be the other thing being posited, therefore it is this thing’.
And the history of both the argument from ignorance and the argument from incredulity failing doesn’t appear to have been educational for apologists.
Take the creationist argument and swap “biology” for “cosmology” and you have the new teleological argument all laid out for you. The argument is laced with scientific principles and language. But all they do it set up the question: what is the explanation for the thing currently one level of explanation beyond us? 200 years ago, people asked why life was complex; today people ask why various forces in nature are exactly as strong as they are. The question is legitimate and scientists aren’t ignoring it. But, asking a legitimate question doesn’t make your answer legitimate, even when that is all you are offering.
And the cosmological argument is basically the same in where it goes wrong. It puts a huge emphasis on pointing out that the question ‘what is the explanation for the universe?’ is a legitimate one, and then assumes it must be a powerful being with intent ― because they don’t see any better answers, and they wouldn’t believe the answers even if they saw them.
We might decide to keep Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria to say that religion deals with questions of values (although there are reasons not to, as value creation is increasingly being identified in psychology), because religion has no place where it can overlap with science. This is because theism has tried to be a part of science and should have been discarded over and over.
The theism models make predictions that are not met, which leads to the model being degenerated by excuses and further entities being added. This has added such flexibility to theism that is doesn’t make specific predictions; instead it predicts everything: broad predictions that encapsulate every possible world.
To get as far as a God, patent fallacies have to be overlooked or hidden in formulations of arguments, but they are always there.
Theism is incompatible with science, because all serious methods of science have discarded theistic models.
Craig, W.L. (2015) God and Cosmology: The Existence of God in Light of Contemporary Cosmology | Reasonable Faith. Available from: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/debates/god-and-cosmology-the-existence-of-god-in-light-of-contemporary-cosmol/ [Accessed 15 November 2017].