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Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe

[Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from the book No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe, and was previously published in The Skeptical Inquirer, September-October, 2001, pp. 57-60. It is reproduced here with permission. Copyright © 2001 by Matt Young. All rights reserved.]

If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Albert Einstein

I used to have a colleague I shall call Robin. He is a bright guy and a good scientist, and I think highly of him. He is also a member of a small Baptist sect and a Biblical literalist. Once, Robin owed me a favor, so I said, in essence, “Sit down. I would like to know why you hold your religious belief without evidence or, if you have evidence, what that evidence is.”

We talked for the better part of an hour. Robin told anecdotes, talked about reports of “miracles” from all over the world, and spoke of his inner conviction, his inner feelings. I asked why he thought the religion of his parents was right and all others were (therefore) wrong. I asked if he would be a Koranic literalist if he had been born in Islamabad instead of Cleveland. He calls this my “accident of birth” argument, but he has no real answer to it.

Early on, I asked whether his belief was allegorical, that is, an approximation to the truth, or simply his way of getting at God and no better or worse than someone else’s. Was his belief a hypothesis that he would employ as long as it worked, or was it absolutely true?

No, he answered, it is absolutely true.

At the end of the hour, he said, as best I can recall, “Look, what you said earlier, about being a hypothesis. [Pause.] I guess it is sort of a hypothesis.” Saying so made him feel threatened. You could see it in his body language, hear it in his voice, see it in his eyes. So I quickly stopped the conversation.

The discussion with Robin kicked off what has become a 4- or 5-year investigation into religion and the basis for religious beliefs. Specifically, I set out to demonstrate, first, that empiricism is the only way to establish reliable knowledge about the physical world and, further, to show why it is appropriate to examine the claims of religion empirically. Accordingly, I applied a scientific approach to claims made by religious believers and apologists. Whether or not the universe has a purposeful creator, after all, is a matter of fact. It is therefore inappropriate for people who generally support their beliefs with evidence to believe without evidence in God. What, then, is the evidence?

My investigation brought me from science and philosophy of science to religion and philosophy, Biblical criticism, evolution and cosmology, mathematical physics, and the science of the brain. I do not have first-hand knowledge of many of these fields, so I have gone to the literature for my information. Except for a handful of books and articles on physics and one statistics paper, every one is accessible to the diligent layperson; that is, anyone could read the same material as I read and draw his or her own conclusion. I present mine here.

We come a long way by the time we get to the end of the book. We find that, contrary to postmodernist assertion, there is objective reality or, if you prefer, objective truth that exists independently of the observer and the belief system of the observer. I argue further that the only way to get at that truth–more precisely, the only way to approximate it, as a map approximates a continent–is through empirical observation. That observation must not be casual, however; observation must be supplemented with reason and care, or else you fall into related traps of believing what is agreeable to you and of relying on selectively chosen anecdotes or vague and unprovable hypotheses as supporting evidence.

The hypotheses of religion, and (as I have tried to show) they are hypotheses, must be treated the same way as any other hypotheses: They must be examined critically and tested. That is, we must ask–we have an intellectual obligation to ask–are the hypotheses supported by the available evidence? In my book, No Sense of Obligation, I have tried to show that they are not. I will give an all too brief summary of my conclusions here.

Hypotheses and Evidence

I have dismissed what I called “popular” beliefs such as the belief in signs or miracles on several grounds. First, most presumed miracles can be explained or accounted for without assuming divine intervention. Storms and other natural disasters are just those: natural disasters and not acts of God. We may therefore reject the arguments of those who give God credit for all that is good and ignore all that is bad; they are using evidence selectively in order to bolster a belief that they must intend to hold onto come hell or high water.

Similarly, we cannot accept the kind of wishful thinking that there must be a God because, otherwise, there would be no purpose to our existence, no fixed values, no universal code of morality. You cannot arbitrarily hypothesize, for example, a universal code of morality and then use the presumed existence of that code to “prove” that there must be a God. This hypothesis is not obviously true and requires evidence to support it. Basing one unsupported hypothesis on another, equally unsupported hypothesis is not progress.

Even though Bible codes are tantalizing because they appear statistically significant in a way that anecdotes do not, we cannot accept them as a sign from God, particularly in light of the strong circumstantial case that the Bible was compiled from a multiplicity of sources, which are often at odds with one another. In addition, it now appears that the input data used to “uncover” the Bible codes may have been adjusted to achieve a desired result.

In the Western world, a great many people nevertheless think that the Bible is the literal word of God. The myriad of errors and inconsistencies in the Hebrew Bible and in the Gospels ought to deliver a death blow to that belief: At most, the Bible is the word of God as interpreted and distorted by generations of oral tradition and then by later redaction. The Book of Jonah is so obviously a fiction that I am astonished any time I hear someone argue for its literal truth. The Gospels are not contemporaneous accounts of the life of Jesus, and they are unsupported by external evidence. Each successive account may be no more than an embellishment of the preceding account; only the first account is even roughly accurate, and there is no independent evidence for supernaturalism. As important as the Bible is, it is not the literal word of God.

Let us make a distinction between evil (that is, the deliberate infliction of harm on one human by another) and misfortune. Both are a problem for those who believe in a benevolent God. Evil, oddly, is less of a problem: You can argue that evil is an unfortunate but necessary side effect of our having been granted free will, but it is hard to justify debilitating diseases by the same argument. The Bible gives no answers. Specifically, the most commonly cited theodicy, the Book of Job, offers little or no help. The comforters mostly blame the victim, assuming that he has done something wrong, even though readers of the book know that he is a righteous man. God himself never once claims to be just: only powerful. He seems to be saying, “Might makes right,” a sentiment that our society has long abandoned as moral justification.

We can, however, find a potential source of evil in biology. When we see analogies to evil in the animal kingdom, we are properly reluctant to classify them as evil. In our minds, only humans can perpetrate evil. I conclude, therefore, that evil does not exist except insofar as we define it. It needs little or no explaining unless we hypothesize a benevolent God. Indeed, the God hypothesis hinders our understanding of evil, rather than helps it.

Philosophical Arguments and Evidence

I have therefore found wanting almost all the arguments of the laity and the clergy alike. How do philosophers fare? Not well: Their proof texts are not as old as those of the scriptural literalists, but they seem as dated, and, except for a few philosophically minded scientists, philosophers of religion seem as unwilling to incorporate the discoveries of modern science into their worldviews as are the Biblical literalists.

The Ontological Argument of Saint Anselm asks you to imagine a “greatest possible being” and goes on to argue that such a being must be real because existence in reality is “greater” than existence in imagination. The argument makes no sense to me. It is based on the unsound premise that any valid logical argument must necessarily apply to the physical world. Neither does it define greatness, so you cannot evaluate its comparison between greatness in reality and greatness in imagination. Finally, it is a wild extrapolation from the finite to the infinite, and it is not testable.

The Argument from First Cause argues that every event has a cause. It assumes that the universe cannot be infinitely old, so there must have been a first cause, which Thomas Aquinas identified with his pre-existing notion of God. The Argument from First Cause fares slightly better than the Ontological Argument, but only because of the empirically supported claim that the universe has a finite age. If it has a finite age, then it probably had an ultimate cause. There is, however, no evidence that the ultimate cause was purposeful, so the Argument from First Cause ultimately fails as well.

The Argument from Contingency assumes that all objects are contingent, that is, that objects exist only as a result of a series of past events that did not need to have happened. Some event or entity, however, created the universe, and that event or entity could not have been contingent, since its existence is based on no past events. The Argument from Contingency presumes that events are contingent and not deterministic. It further presumes that the creator is a purposeful entity. Neither presumption is obviously true, and the Argument from Contingency fails for much the same reason that the Argument from First Cause fails: It assumes without evidence that the creation was initiated by a being.

The Argument from Design sees both design and purpose in nature and presumes therefore that the entire universe was designed for a purpose. As a general argument, it is weak, but a couple of modern variations are more compelling. One such variation, which I call the Argument from Evolution, is firmly grounded in the fact that complexity increases almost inexorably as (geological) time progresses. The haphazard nature of evolution, especially the periodic mass extinctions, however, argues strongly against the claim that the universe was created with intelligent beings or anything else as its ultimate goal. A similar argument, the Anthropic Principle, argues that the universe is so “hospitable” to life that it must have been designed with life in mind. The Anthropic Principle seems to me to be completely circular and impossible to take seriously.

Another design argument, which I call the Argument from Mathematical Physics, depends on whether you think there is order at the deepest levels of reality. Even so, there is no a priori reason to ascribe such order to a purposeful creator, and the Argument from Mathematical Physics fails: The universe need not have been created by a mathematician just because we can describe it by mathematics.

The Argument from Religious Experience presumes that, if people tell you that they have had certain experiences, then those people should be believed. I was frankly surprised that professional philosophers take this argument seriously. There is not one shred of evidence, credible or otherwise, that mystical or religious experiences are objectively real and not hallucinations or other well understood mental phenomena. That is, although the mystical experiences seem real, no one has ever devised a test that can be used to distinguish them from well known and well understood artifacts such as hallucinations and dreams. In addition, the religious experiences that people report are strikingly at variance with one another and highly dependent on the cultures of the reporters, which strongly suggests that they are mental phenomena.

Belief, Knowledge, and Feelings

I conclude that the evidence in favor of a purposeful creator, let alone a benevolent God, is so weak as to be virtually nonexistent. Indeed, it is so weak that we are justified in arguing that the God hypothesis has been falsified. There is almost certainly no purposeful creator and certainly no benevolent God.

What then do I believe in?

Believe is a strong word. I do not think that the universe had a purposeful creator. I am almost certain that God does not intervene in our affairs, that there is no absolute code of morality, and so on. I probably believe these things as firmly as all but the most rigid literalists believe the very opposite. I differ from the literalists, however, in my admission that I could be wrong and in my continuing search for the evidence, either way. In short,

I try to believe what I have to believe, not what I want to believe. I am nearly convinced [partly by a thought experiment of a particle in a bowl, described in the book], that the universe is completely deterministic. Even if it is not, the wavefunction of a complicated quantum system such as a brain evolves with almost perfect predictability. Far more of our personalities may be determined by the physiology of our brains than is generally recognized. Indeed, my statement that the universe is deterministic compels me to hypothesize that all our actions and thoughts are determined once and for all by the laws of nature. In this sense we have no free will: Free will is an approximation that we make because we can do nothing else; it is a concept that we developed because we seem to be free and have a great many choices open to us. But I doubt that we are free in the strictest sense of the term.

Some people find this argument very threatening: It might imply that mind is an epiphenomenon, that is, the result of physiological processes in our brains and bodies, and nothing more. That there is no purpose to our existence. That one day there will be no more humans, no earth, no universe as we know it. To me, however, these are plain physical facts with no moral or ethical content. The fact that we do not have immortal souls does not justify unethical behavior. We might like the world to be otherwise, but it is not.

The Cosmic Religious Feeling

What then can I propose in place of theism? First, the knowledge that the universe is intelligible. As a scientist, I see or read about phenomena that must seem like miracles to laypersons and certainly seemed like miracles to the ancients. The ancients postulated a god or gods to explain the natural order. Today, however, we find the universe understandable in terms of physical laws and have no need to invoke supernatural powers. In place of theism, I propose what Einstein called a cosmic religious feeling, an “unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” The awe and humility Einstein felt in the presence of the “magnificent structure” of Nature were a genuinely religious feeling, but it was firmly grounded in reality and required no supernatural God.

Second, without a literal belief in a god who dictates moral codes or guides us along our paths through the universe, I propose the idea that we are grownups, on our own and responsible for ourselves, not children for whom someone else is responsible.

Finally, I propose, to those who want it, a religious humanism that is human centered, not God centered. In this view, our lives have meaning, but it is meaning that we and our communities give them, not meaning that is derived from a supernatural source. We have to act as if we had free will, because we can do nothing else. But we and our communities have to develop our own ethics. There are no moral imperatives and no universal code of morality, no automatic rewards for good deeds, no automatic punishment for bad deeds, no God looking over our shoulders. All we can do is strive to improve ourselves and our world, and we are completely on our own. Far from despairing, however, I consider hopeful the facts that medicine and sanitation have improved our health and longevity; science and technology have given us shorter working weeks, more abundant food and resources, and more leisure; and our political systems have given us more freedom and dignity. The power to improve the system further and to extend our good fortune to the rest of the world is in us and our own rational thinking, not in God. To put it in theological terms, we must seek our salvation in this world, because there is no other.