Does the Universe Need God? (RJS)

Does the Universe Need God? (RJS) September 20, 2012

Sean Carroll, a theoretical cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology has an article Does the Universe Need God? in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity edited by J. B. Stump and Alan Padgett. Sean Carroll’s article has also received a bit of press lately. I was sent links to an article by Natalie Wolchover by two different readers: Will Science Someday Rule Out the Possibility of God? (HT MB),  also published on Huffington Post (HT R).

Over the past few centuries, science can be said to have gradually chipped away at the traditional grounds for believing in God. Much of what once seemed mysterious — the existence of humanity, the life-bearing perfection of Earth, the workings of the universe — can now be explained by biology, astronomy, physics and other domains of science.

Although cosmic mysteries remain, Sean Carroll, a theoretical cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, says there’s good reason to think science will ultimately arrive at a complete understanding of the universe that leaves no grounds for God whatsoever.

Both of those who brought the article to my attention thought it would be worth discussion here – and I agree.

What is your response to Carroll’s argument?

Can science arrive at an explanation that leaves no grounds for God whatsoever?

I have the book – so have looked at Carroll’s original article as well as at Wolchover’s summary. Sean Carroll doesn’t make quite the claim in his article that Wolchover’s introduction suggests. He is more reserved in his conclusions. Science cannot prove that God does not exist (leaving no grounds for God whatsoever) – but it can, Carroll suggests, make the hypothesis unnecessary and unwieldy.

Carroll’s article begins:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

In many religious traditions, one of the standard roles of the deity has been to create the universe. The first line of the Bible, Genesis 1:1, is a plain statement of this role. Much has happened, both in our understanding of the universe and in the development of theology, since that line was first written. It is worth examining what those developments imply for the relationship between God and cosmology.

In some ways of thinking about God there’s no relationship at all; a conception of divinity that is sufficiently ineffable and transcendent  may be completely separate from the workings of the physical world. For the purposes of this chapter, however, we will limit ourselves to versions of God that play some role in explaining the world we see. In addition to the role of creator, God may also be invoked as that which sustains the world and allows it to exist, or more practically as an explanation for some specific contingent properties of the universe we observe. (p. 183)

The question he chooses to address has to do specifically with explanations for the universe in which we live. Can science, through the development of a self-contained explanation of the universe undermine the reasons for believing in God?  He turns this around and asks it in another form as well. Do we already know enough to conclude that God definitely helps us explain the universe we see, in ways that a non-theistic approach can never hope to match?

God as Theory

After running through various aspects of cosmology and their relationship to roles for God (the universe we know, theories of creation, fine-tuning, the multiverse, and accounting for the world) he turns specifically to the question of God as theory, something akin to a scientific theory. He uses thought experiments to try to flesh it out…

Consider a hypothetical world in which science had developed to something like its current state of progress but nobody had yet thought of God. Would anyone be likely to propose the existence of a God?

The God hypothesis adds a whole new metaphysical category to the observable world. It cannot be disproved, but is there any real reason for the hypothesis? Isn’t the purely naturalistic explanation to be preferred on grounds of simplicity?

God is not described in equations, as are other fundamental theories of fundamental physics. Consequently it is difficult to or impossible to make predictions. Instead one looks at what has already been discovered, and agrees that is the way that God would have done it. Theistic evolutionists argue that God uses natural selection to develop life on earth; but religious thinkers before Darwin were unable to predict that such a mechanism would be God’s preferred choice. (p. 195)

Likewise the God hypothesis doesn’t explain the elementary particles or their range of masses. How does God lead us to the discovery of the Planck scale?

Over the past 500 years, the progress of science has worked to strip away God’s roles in the world. He isn’t needed to keep things moving, or to develop the complexity of living creatures, or to account for the existence of the universe.  … If and when cosmologists develop a successful understanding of the origin of the universe, we will be left with a picture in which there is no place for God to act – if he does … it is only in ways that are unnecessary and imperceptible. … Two thousand years ago, it was perfectly reasonable to invoke God as an explanation for natural phenomena; now, we can do much better. (p. 196)

Is God an explanation – like quantum theory or evolution? A primary theme running through Carroll’s argument is that the major reason and role for God is explanatory. We believe in God because otherwise we have no explanation for the world we see. And, like any good scientific theory, the God hypothesis should be both explanatory and predictive. Carroll sees the inability to deduce evolution from the God hypothesis as a strike against belief in God.

I think the biggest hole in Carroll’s argument is his understanding of God as explanation for “natural” phenomena. God is the creator, he sustains creation, but he is not the scientific explanation for creation. The universe needs God. But the universe doesn’t need God in the way Carroll suggests – to fill an otherwise unfillable gap in our explanation of the universe.  It isn’t a matter of either scientific explanations or God. The evidence for God is personal – in relationship with his creation. This doesn’t satisfy the criteria for a scientific theory – but I don’t think it was ever intended to satisfy such a criterion.

I could expand on this – but perhaps it would be better to stop here and open this up for comment. I posed a couple of questions above, and can pose a few more here to help guide a conversation.

What kind of God is revealed in scripture?

Is Carroll’s view consistent with the God described in scripture?

What is the evidence and reason for belief in God?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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