Has Science Found God?
By Victor J. Stenger
Posted September 9, 2002
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 1.
Stepping over the line
A universe fine-tuned for life
The god of the equations
Still seeking the god of the gaps
When the results of the Cosmic Microwave Background Explorer (COBE)
satellite first became public in 1992, mission scientist George Smoot
remarked, "If you're religious, it's like looking at God." The media loved
it. One tabloid front page showed the face of Jesus (as interpreted by
medieval artists, of course) outlined on a blurry picture of the cosmos.
Reporting on the conference "Science and the Spiritual Quest" held at
the Center for Theology and Science in Berkeley this summer, the July 20
cover of Newsweek
announced: "Science Finds God." The several hundred scientists and
theologians at the meeting were virtually unanimous in agreeing that
science and religion are now converging, and what they are converging on
is God. South African cosmologist and Quaker George Ellis expressed the
consensus: "There is a huge amount of data supporting the existence of
God. The question is how to evaluate it."
The Newsweek story noted that, "The achievements of modern
science seem to contradict religion and undermine faith." However, "for a
growing number of scientists, the same discoveries offer support for
spirituality and hints at the very nature of God." We learn that,
"Physicists have stumbled on signs that the cosmos is custom-made for life
and consciousness." Big-bang cosmology, quantum mechanics, and chaos
theory all are interpreted as "opening a door for God to act on the
Surveys, however, do not confirm the contention that "a growing number
of scientists" are finding support for spirituality in their scientific
studies. A recent poll of U.S. National
Academy of Science members indicated only 7% believe in a personal
creator, down from 15% in 1933 and 29% in 1914. If anything, most
scientists seem to be moving away from spirituality rather than toward it.
Apparently, what we are hearing is not the voice of a growing majority
of scientists, but the well-funded, growing voice of a decreasing
minority. The Berkeley meeting was a kind of "Premise-Keepers" rally for
academics seeking to keep alive their premise that God exists, while
science continues to operate successfully with no need for that premise.
2. Stepping over the line
In a commentary on the Berkeley meeting, George Johnson of the New York Times noted that
"religious believers seem more eager than ever to step over the line,
trying to interpret scientific data to support the revealed truths of
their own theology."
To most theistic believers, human life has no meaning in a universe
without God. Quite sincerely and with understandable yearning for a
purpose to existence, they reject that possibility. Thus only a created
universe is possible, and the data can do nothing else but support this
However, good science practice demands that everything be open to
question, including the premises that are used when interpreting data.
While some assumptions are always present in the scientific process, all
are subject to change as more powerful and economical assumptions become
evident. The Premise-Keepers, pure as their motives may be, practice bad
science when they confine their interpretation of scientific observations
to a designer universe.
To the Premise-Keeper, the big bang provides "evidence" that creation
took place in time -- just as in the biblical (that is, Babylonian) myth.
Something cannot come from nothing, and so the universe needs a creator.
That the creator must have come from nothing is finessed away. God is a
different "logical type" than the universe -- a type that does not require
creation. Theologians do not make clear why the universe itself cannot be
of this logical type.
The Premise-Keepers recognize that they cannot prove the existence of
God. They simply express the strong feeling that intelligent design is
demonstrated by the very order of the universe. Unfortunately, science has
little sympathy for feelings and desires no matter how sincere their
intent. The universe is the way it is, regardless of what anyone might
want it to be. If humanity is in fact a grain of sand in an infinite
Sahara, as our telescopes increasingly indicate, then we cannot wish it
otherwise. We should accept the fact and learn to live with it.
Nonbelievers recognize that they cannot prove the nonexistence of God.
They simply argue that a universe without a creator is the most economical
premise consistent with all the data. An uncaused, undesigned emergence of
the universe from nothing violates no principle of physics. The total
energy of the universe appears to be zero, so no miracle of energy created
"from nothing" was required to produce it. Similarly, no miracle was
needed for the appearance of order. Order can and does occur spontaneously
in physical systems.
3. A universe fine-tuned for life
In recent years, the notion that the laws of physics are "fine-tuned"
for the existence of life has caught the fancy of believing scientists and
theologians alike. Indeed, probably no idea has received more attention in
the latest discussions on religion and science.
The fine--tuning argument rests on a series of scientific facts called
the "anthropic coincidences." Basically, they say that if the universe had
appeared with slight variations in the values of its fundamental
constants, that universe would not have produced the elements, such as
carbon and oxygen, and other conditions necessary for life.
The fine-tuning argument assumes only one form of life is possible. But
many different forms of life might still be possible with different laws
and constants of physics. The main requirement seems to be that stars live
long enough to produce the elements needed for life and allow time for the
complex, nonlinear systems we call life to evolve. I have made some
calculations in which I randomly vary the values of the physical constants
by many orders of magnitude and look at the universes that would exist
under those circumstances. I find that almost all combinations lead to
universes, albeit some strange ones, with stars that live a billion years
or more. Life of some kind would be likely in most of these possible
A second, related line of argument is found in the recent dialogues.
The equations of mathematics and physics are claimed to provide evidence
for a Platonic order to the universe that transcends the universe of our
Recent trends in Christian theology and its rapprochement with science
have moved Christianity closer to a position where a deity is to be found
in the order of nature as a creative entity transcending space, time, and
matter responsible for that order. Indeed, the modern Western theological
notion of God is probably closer to Plato's Form of the Good than the
white-bearded Jehovah/Zeus on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the
beardless Jesus/Apollo on the wall.
And here is where some scientists and theologians currently seem to
find a common ground -- in the idea that ultimate reality is not to be
found in the quarks, atoms, rocks, trees, planets, and stars of experience
and observation. Rather, reality exists in the mathematical perfection of
the symbols and equations of physics. The deity then coexists with these
equations in some realm or mathematical perfection beyond human
observation. This God is knowable, not by his or her physical appearance
before us but by its presence as that Platonic reality. We all exist in
the "mind of God."
Past logical disputes over the existence of God were largely confined
to philosophers and theologians. This type of purely logical discourse, in
which little reference is made to observations, is largely disdained by
scientists -- believers and nonbelievers alike. Premise-Keeper scientists
claim they are going beyond the traditional theological arguments, that
they see direct evidence for intelligent design in their observations and
As Paul Davies has put it: "The very fact that the universe is
creative, and that the laws have permitted complex structures to emerge
and develop to the point of consciousness -- in other words, that the
universe has organized its own self-awareness -- is for me powerful
evidence that there is 'something going on' behind it all. The impression
of design is overwhelming." Note the use of "evidence" rather than "proof"
in this quotation.
Still, a Platonic God need not have anything to do with the God of the
Bible, nor any other imagined deity, abstract or personal. And the
equations need not actually represent a transcendent deity. True that
Platonist physicists view quantum fields and spacetime metric tensors as
"more real" than quarks and electrons. Materialist physicists, by
contrast, think that quarks and electrons are more real than metric
tensors or fields of any kind, these simply being human inventions. But
the majority from both camps do not view either of these possible
realities as deities. They do not see that a "miracle" was necessary for
the universe and life to exist.
This illustrates why the claimed convergence of science and religion
does not hold up under scrutiny. Look at history. Science has always
explained observations in terms of natural (that is, nonsupernatural)
phenomena. Religion has always proposed supernatural explanations to fill
those gaps where science provided no natural explanations, or simply
remained silent. Only one domain of existence has ever been occupied in
either case -- the domain of human observations.
The shamans in ancient forests taught that "spirits" caused rocks to
roll down a hill -- until Newton said it was gravity. Priests taught that
"God" created humans in his own image, until Darwin said evolution created
us in the image of apes. And now we have this new breed of
scientist-theologian arguing yet again that just because science cannot
explain this, that, or the other thing, then we still have room for God.
We cannot explain why the constants of nature have the curious values
they have, so maybe God made them so. We cannot explain the "unreasonable
effectiveness of mathematics," so maybe God invented mathematics.
Maybe. But is this modern God of the gaps any more plausible than the
God of the shamans and priests? Maybe one day science will fill in these
gaps without the premise of God.
Victor Stenger is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii.
This article was first posted at the Council for Secular Humanism website.