Does Science Prove That God Does Not Exist?
A Look at Richard Dawkins1
Does the universe as we observe it fit better with the theistic story than it does with the atheistic story? We must make careful observations to see whether there are good reasons to think that Richard Dawkins’ best argument against the existence of God is true.
By Gregory E. Ganssle
It is not uncommon for people to think there is a strong conflict between the claims of science and the notion that God exists. Some even hold that science proves that there is no God. In this article I investigate this question with the work of Richard Dawkins in mind. Dawkins’ book The God Delusion2 is a popular-level defense of atheism in light of current science. I point out that Dawkins never claims that science can disprove the existence of God. He thinks science can show that the reality of God is highly improbable. One of the conflicts between science and religious beliefs he addresses concerns the possibility of miracles.
Science and Miracles
It is clear that the sciences cannot directly investigate the existence of God because, according to science, we cannot detect God with our senses. Any connection between scientific investigation and God will need to be indirect. Miracles, however, are events in space and time. If a miracle occurs, we can detect it with the senses. Can the sciences show that miracles cannot occur? Dawkins writes, “miracles, by definition, violate the principles of science” (Dawkins, 59).
If miracles cannot occur, this undermines our confidence in the truth of our religious belief. Can science show that miracles are not possible?
People often think of a miracle as a transgression of a law of nature. Some claim that either science in general or some particular science establishes the fact we cannot transgress the laws of nature. Dawkins connects his comment that miracles violate the principles of science to this aspect of the miracles question. Whether we accept this claim depends on what it means to transgress a law of nature. Unfortunately, Dawkins’ claim reveals a misunderstanding of science.
The laws of nature discovered by the sciences tell us how things normally behave. They tell us, for example, that if we provide enough water and sunlight, grass grows well. Suppose you are doing a science experiment to show that water helps grass grow. You put two trays of dirt together and sprinkle each with grass seed. Over the next few weeks, you water the first tray but not the other. Your aim is to compare the trays and show that the tray you watered has the healthier grass. The result is what normally happens. If, however, I sneak into your room each day and pour a little gasoline into the tray you are watering, I will ruin your experiment. The grass will not grow. Will you be able to conclude that water does not help grass grow? No. I have interfered, and your experiment no longer is a reliable means to tell what normally happens.
A miracle is the same kind of interference. God intervenes and causes something to happen that would not have normally happened. The fact science investigates what normally happens should lead us to recognize that science cannot show that miracles cannot occur. The methods of science cannot rule out God’s intervention. So, if the methods of science cannot show that miracles cannot happen, how can they enter into arguments for or against God’s existence?
Dawkins defends the idea that the claim that God exists is a scientific claim. He seems to imply that we must determine God’s existence scientifically: “I shall suggest that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other. Even if hard to test in practice … God’s existence or nonexistence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle, if not in practice” (Dawkins, 50). It sounds as though Dawkins thinks we must establish the question of God’s existence with the methods of science.
Although Dawkins hints at this position, this is not his real view. Nor should it be. God’s existence, he thinks, should have evidence that is available to scientific methods. He does not think scientific methods are the only ones that are relevant. The arguments Dawkins raises against God’s existence, although they draw on scientific conclusions, are primarily philosophical arguments.
It is not unreasonable to think, as Dawkins does, that if God exists, there should be some empirical evidence for His existence. So, even if we cannot discover God directly by observation, there should be some traces of God’s existence in the universe He made that provide clues to His existence. Scientific methods should discern some of these traces.
In the rest of this article, I investigate how Dawkins employs some of this evidence in what I think is his best argument against God’s existence.
Dawkins’ Best Argument Against God’s Existence
Natural process or theistic creation?
Dawkins’ response to science and miracles, however, is not his best argument. So, after looking at the relationship between science and miracles, I turn to Dawkins’ best argument against theism and offer reasons to conclude that it is not very good.
Dawkins’ builds his best argument on the claim that a universe made by God would be different from one that is only a product of natural processes. That is, God’s existence would make some detectable difference in the world. If God’s existence made no difference to what we observe about the universe, we would wonder what belief in God amounted to. Does our universe look like a universe that God made, or does it look like an atheistic universe?
Dawkins claims our universe fits better with an atheistic worldview. His observations about the world show that it has the marks of an atheistic universe rather than the marks of a theistic one. Dawkins does not spell out his argument precisely, but we can summarize his reasoning in the form of a deductive argument:
- A universe made by God would be different from one made by only natural occurrences.
- Our universe fits better with a naturalistic universe than with a theistic universe.
- Therefore, our universe is more likely to be a naturalistic universe than a theistic universe.
This type of argument is valid. If the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. It is also an argument about fit. This argument claims that our universe fits better with the view that there is no God. It also claims that the universe as we find it does not fit as well with the existence of God. In this way, we can test our two worldviews. We can figure out what sort of universe best fits with each, and we can look and see through scientific and other means whether the universe fits better with one theory or the other.
It is important to clarify the notion of fit. What Dawkins has in mind is that there is a connection between what our universe is like and what we would expect it to be like if there is no God. Dawkins presents most of the work in his argument by this claim.
Does the universe as we observe it fit better with the theistic story than it does with the atheistic story? We must make careful observations to see whether there are good reasons to think that Dawkins’ second premise is true.
Although Dawkins does not precisely spell out the way our universe fits with atheism, he does point in the direction of what he has in mind. He believes that any atheistic universe with complex life would include a long period of biological development through a process something like natural selection. Furthermore, I think he holds that a theistic universe would most likely not include a long development. Dawkins does not make this claim explicitly, but it seems to lie behind his approach. His argument, then, is that natural selection does not fit well in a theistic universe, but it fits neatly in an atheistic universe. Since Dawkins believes the evidence for natural selection is strong, the probability that the universe is atheistic is very high.3
Let us suppose that Dawkins is right — biological development through natural selection does not fit as well into a theistic universe. But if God exists, we cannot restrict the origin of various life forms to gradual processes. God could use any process He wanted to create living things. If God exists, it is possible that He brought the variety of living things into existence at one moment. God is not restricted to processes over long periods of time.
If God exists, our expectations about the development of biological life are wide open. Theism does not rule out a long process of biological development, but theists are not restricted to such theories. In an atheistic universe, however, life has to develop over a long time. The variety of life forms cannot arise all at once. Complex life required a long developmental process.
Since God could create life in any number of ways, the fact it came as a result of a long process does not provide evidence for theism. Atheism, however, requires some kind of long-term biological process for complex biological life. Therefore natural selection does provide evidence for atheism. This aspect of the universe, then, does support Dawkins’ claim that there is no God. It is important we recognize that natural selection provides evidence for atheism even though it is compatible with theism.
Three elements that fit better in a theistic universe
According to Dawkins, natural selection supports the claim that the universe is atheistic. This makes Dawkins’ argument the best one he offers. If all we look at, however, is the development of complex biological life, his case would be quite strong. Other aspects of the universe as we find it, however, point in the opposite direction. Here are three major elements of our universe that fit significantly better with a universe in which God exists than in the atheistic universe. It is not that they are incompatible with atheism, but they do not fit neatly into the atheistic world.
A world that is ordered and open to rational investigation fits better in a theistic universe. If God exists, the universe is made by an intelligent mind for reasons. This fact leads us to expect that our universe will be something we can grasp rationally. It makes sense that there would be stable laws that allow us to make predictions and draw inferences. If God exists, we would expect an ordered universe. If God exists and made the universe for reasons, it would be surprising if that universe exhibited none of the order that would make it open to rational investigation.
If atheism is true, however, the universe would not need to be open to rational investigation. It fits perfectly well with atheism that the universe be wildly chaotic. While being open to rational study is compatible with an atheistic universe, the theory that God does not exist allows the universe to exhibit any one of a wide variety of descriptions as far as order is concerned. The fact our universe is ordered and susceptible to investigation, however, fits better with the claim that God does exist.
The fact an ordered universe fits better with theism than atheism weakens Dawkins’ argument in another way as well. This fact is not merely one way the universe we observe fits with theism. It also provides evidence that Dawkins’ contention that the way biological life developed provides evidence for atheism. But life could not develop in the way Dawkins thinks it does unless the world were ordered and followed laws. In other words, it takes a theistic universe to make even evolution possible.
Consciousness fits better in a theistic universe. Human consciousness is difficult to account for if atheism is true. One feature of consciousness is that each person experiences his own mind directly. We have access to our own thoughts and ideas. I know that I am thinking about coffee. I may not know what you are thinking. You can tell me you are thinking about coffee, or I can deduce it from your behavior or your habits, but I know my own thoughts directly. I have ownership of my own first-person perspective.
If God exists, then the primary thing that exists is a conscious mind. The notion that a conscious mind, if it creates anything, would create other conscious minds that have their own first-person perspectives and can think is not a great mystery.
The view that there is no God claims that any complicated living thing is the product of a long natural process of development from simpler living things. Any species of animals that have conscious minds originated ultimately from species that had no conscious minds by processes that are not carried out by conscious mind. If atheism is true, it is surprising that there would be any conscious minds. The existence of conscious beings, like the order of the universe, is a detectable feature of the universe that confirms theism as contrasted with atheism.
Objective moral obligations fit better with a theistic universe. It seems clear there are moral obligations that are objective in the sense they hold whether or not one wants them to hold or one wants to fulfill them. The claim, “It is wrong to torture a person to death just for fun” seems to be true, and the obligation it prescribes seems to apply to all human beings. It is hard to imagine that such an obligation is binding only because of the desires or goals of some person or society. It is reasonable to think that objective moral obligations exist.
If there are such obligations, they make up another detectible feature of the universe that does not fit well within atheism. Philosopher John Mackie, in his rigorous defense of atheism, admits that such values would ground a strong argument for God: “[Objective moral values] constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events, without an all-powerful god to create them. If, then, there are such intrinsically prescriptive objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them.”4
If God made us so we would embody certain virtues, the objectivity of moral obligations makes sense. If God has spiritual purposes for us — that we would find a relationship with Him and experience Him as our highest good — He may set up moral rules as guidelines for how best to do that. Whatever God’s purposes are, it makes sense He would make us the kinds of beings who are subject to moral truths and who can understand and act on them. If theism is true, we should expect a moral world — a world with objective moral obligations. In contrast, such obligations do not fit as well in an atheistic world.
Dawkins bases his best argument against the existence of God on the claim that our universe fits better with atheism than it does with theism. The feature Dawkins points to is the fact complex life developed over a long period of time through natural selection. In a universe with no God but with complex life, we would expect there to have been a long process of development. If life did develop in this way, it would count as evidence that atheism is true. So Dawkins’ argument identifies one way that the universe fits better with atheism. I have identified, however, three other detectable features of our universe that point to a different conclusion. Each of these features fits better with a theistic universe than with an atheistic universe. The three features I identify show there is good reason to reject Dawkins’ claim that the universe fits better with atheism than theism. Furthermore, one of these ways, that our universe is ordered and follows laws, shows that Dawkins overestimates the strength of the support evolution gives to atheism. Dawkins’ best argument in the end does not deliver. Science, as we should expect, cannot disprove the existence of God.
1. This article is adapted from my book A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009).
2. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006). Citations to Dawkins will be parenthetical (Dawkins, pp).
3. Many Christians do not think the evidence of biological development through natural selection is high, but they need to recognize that Dawkins thinks it is. He will not be persuaded by any challenge to his argument that doubts current evolutionary theory. It is most wise, in engaging his argument, to find the most common ground and challenge his argument on premises he will accept.
4. J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 115,116.