Exploring the Edges of Our Knowledge on Matters of Science and Faith

As often is the case with me as I read, listen to discussions, and watch YouTube videos, a number of strands from those media come together. I am going to attempt to weave some of those strands together today as I tackle the edges of our human limitations, dark matter, and knowing God.

In a recent discussion between Saleem Ali and Stephen Meyer on the Unbelievable! podcast, Some things that Ali said prompted me to want to respond. I wrote of the discussion recently in What is the Basic Order of the Universe? Bottom Up? Or Top Down? But, today, I want to take my observations a bit further.

Saleem Ali has a background in chemistry and environmental studies, and Stephen Meyer has a background in physics, history and the philosophy of science. In their discussion, Meyer argues that our study of the physical world reveals evidence for a God who created it (a top-down design). In Ali’s response, I agree with his statement that certain things are unknowable to human beings because of our empirical limitations.

Ali said these things to highlight that we cannot know with scientific certainty that God exists. I agree with that. I would simply add this: Because science is the study of the natural, physical world, and humans are creatures of the natural, physical world, we are constrained to the limitations of the natural, physical world in our scientific endeavors.

Ali also admits that we may not ever be able to know the origin of the causes of the universe, or of the origin of the laws of physics, or of the origin of life because these things would require us to search beyond the parameters of the constraints of the natural, physical world in which we are bound.

Since we, ourselves, are physical creatures in a world that is limited by physical constraints, we may never know with scientific certainty what else exists.  

This assumes, however, that we have no capacity to know of anything that exists beyond the natural world. Some people are content to foreclose the idea that we are incapable of knowing anything that is not material and physical in nature. I am not convinced, and I see evidence that we are not so limited.

We have basically two choices: 1) assume that the existence of the universe is nothing more than a brute fact; or 2) assume that the universe had a creator. We can either resign ourselves to agnosticism or choose to test one of those two assumptions.

I made the assumption that the universe makes more sense on the premise of a creator, and I have been testing that hypothesis ever since. I won’t apologize for making that assumption, and the degree to which I have tested that assumption has not left my unsatisfied.

To those people want to judge me on that point, I say that you may be in a worse position than me to be a judge. I assume an intellect far greater than me created me with intellect. I do not trust it on my own account. On what basis do you have confidence in your intellect and agency that derived merely from inert, unintelligent matter?

To the extent that you believe your reasoning power evolved from lower life forms, why do you have confidence in the reasoning of a monkey’s mind? I say this not of my own accord; I am applying Darwin’s reasoning that he applied to own his convictions. (See Reflections on Faith and Atheism and Universal Design Intuition and Darwin’s Blind Spot))

As hints of the painter appear in his painting, our study of the natural world can (and does I believe) give us hints of the God who created it. We see the personality of the painter in his painting as we see the personality of God in His creation – including the creation of human beings.

I cannot prove that, just as I could not prove the painter by virtue of his painting. If I had no connection with the painter and knew no one who knew him, my knowledge of him would be mere speculation. But, I would be right in assuming a painter.

Ali says that finite creatures such as ourselves are going to encounter a certain amount of mystery and awe, but that mystery and awe does not necessarily validate a theistic explanation. Mystery and awe by themselves do not warrant a conclusion that God exists. I agree with him on the statement, as far as it goes, and I think we need to be candid about these things.

If God exists, who preexisted, and caused the universe and all things that we know to come into being, including ourselves, we may be cut off from knowing that God and from viewing that causality by our physical limitations and the physical limitations of the universe in which we are bound. Even if the universe hints of Him, we may be incapable of knowing Him by our own abilities because of our limitations.

The only exception I can think of would be for such a God to reveal himself in some way to us. Of course, that is the claim of theism.

We do not know the painter of a painting unless we meet him, and we cannot know the God of the universe unless we “meet” Him in some way. We might be able to track down the painter of a painting, because that painter exists within the same bounds of the same world as we do. Because of our limitations, however, God would have to introduce Himself to us.

That is the claim of people who claim to have “met” God in some fashion. We can explore those claims as we can explore the claims of anyone who witnessed an event or met a person we we have not met ourselves, but let’s lay that aside for the moment.

Taking this a step further, just as humans cannot know that God exists through our own exploration of the natural, physical world, we do not know that God doesn’t exist. We don’t know what we don’t know; thus, we can’t be sure that God doesn’t exist.

Now, let’s jump to another thread in my recent philosophical wanderings: a recent Piers Morgan/Richard Dawkins interview.

Dawkins has made some very strong statements about the nonexistence of God in his time, but this interview shows that he has backed off those categorical statements in more recent times. Dawkins still champions the evolutionary paradigm as always, but he admits, “We don’t know how [life] started.” He says, “That is still a mystery and may always be a mystery, because it happened a long time ago, and we don’t know exactly how it happened.”

When Piers Morgan asked Dawkins, “What was there at the start?” Dawkins answered, “We don’t know. I don’t know, and you don’t know…. [and] It’s a fallacy to say that since you don’t know, and I don’t know, that God did it.” When pushed by Morgan, Dawkins capitulates slightly by saying,

“It doesn’t help to postulate God did it…. Because science starts with simplicity, which is relatively easy to understand, and from that it develops into the whole of the universe and the whole of life. It doesn’t help to start with complexity, and a creator has to be complex.”

Dawkins classically countered with a God-of-gaps-argument. (We don’t know so we say God did it). Then he added that positing a God isn’t helpful for doing science. I believe he would also say, if given the chance, that positing God also gets in the way of science.

Therefore, we shouldn’t speculate there is a God. This is what Saleem Ali seems to believe, also, though he isn’t as dogmatic or insistent about it.

We certainly don’t need the proposition of a God to do science. Science is the study of the natural, physical world. God is “other” than the natural, physical world, so we don’t need intonations of God to study it.

But, that doesn’t mean the “God preposition” is of no consequence. I would argue that whether God exists is not an insignificant question. But, I digress.

The God-of the gaps fallacy is the proposition that, if we don’t know how or what happened, then we say, “God did it.” We have no proof of God, but we just assume a God and claim that God caused it. End of story.

This approach is called fallacious for a reason. If we are supposing a God because we have no other explanation, and are supposing God when we have no evidence in support of that supposition, it’s a fallacy. It’s fallacious if we have no reason to suppose a God other than as a way to fill the gaps in our knowledge.

I have heard Dawkins say that faith is believing something with no evidence, and faith is believing “in the teeth of the evidence”. I have heard people say, there is no evidence for God. These statements are equally as fallacious as the God-of-gaps position.

Even Dawkins concedes that the natural world, and biological life in particular, have the “appearance of design”. Without getting into the particulars, the appearance of design is evidence of God, and this is not a god-of-the-gaps conclusion.

Stephen C. Meyer does a good job of explaining how we can draw this conclusion based on the appearance of design without resorting to god-of-the-gaps reasoning. The reasoning really isn’t that complicated. (A better example of the reasoning than what I might give is provided in the article, Yes, Intelligent Design is Detectable by Science.)

In my own words, we should interpret what we see in science according to what we observe to be true, and we should not propose interpretations that are speculative and have no basis in observable fact.

This approach was fundamental to Darwin’s proposition of the evolutionary paradigm. We see changes in animal structures developing from what appear to be small, random mutations over time, and the changes that survive are the ones that are fittest for life. Therefore, we postulate that changes in animal forms result from a series of small, random mutations that survive because of their fitness for survival.

The mutations we observe appear to be random, and the mutations that survive contribute to the morphology of animal structures over time. The mutations appear to be random because some mutations do not survive, and they do not survive because they do not make the animal structure more fit for survival: they make them less fit for survival.

This paradigm starts with the appearance (what we can observe). The evolutionary paradigm has proven to be very fruitful for scientists for a long time. It does have explanatory strength that has proven useful in understanding life as we know it.

On the other hand, life also has the appearance of design. We might call this the appearance of top down design, rather than bottom up “design” that develops out of the evolutionary process. We see this appearance of design in the almost inconceivable complexity of information present in DNA that functions like language or computer code.

Dawkins, himself, observes that “machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like.” Bill Gates says that DNA operates at a level of complexity that is far more advanced than any software ever created by human beings.

DNA and RNA combine with the epigenetic material in cells to reveal an information processing system that is exponentially more complex than the information in DNA. This level of multi-layered, interrelated complexity seems highly improbable on the evolutionary, bottom up paradigm.

Mathematical modeling suggests that life has not existed long enough to account for the multi-layered, interrelated complexity of the animal structures that have developed on the basic Darwinian model. Perhaps, a purely “Darwinian” explanation exists that we haven’t identified yet. Perhaps, not.

Just as we can postulate the evolutionary paradigm from the change we observe operating on seemingly random mutations over long periods of time that we observe in nature, we can postulate mind or intelligence as a source for the multi-layered, interrelated complexity we see operating in the simplest of lifeforms in nature.

In short, the appearance of design inherent in the fabric of those lifeforms should be taken as seriously as the appearance of random mutations operating on those lifeforms giving rise to “inadvertent” change over time. In fact, both paradigms can be true at the same time.

The information seemingly inherent in living cells may be operating together with random mutations to produce change. That complex information system may be “programmed” for survival.

More to the point, though, the kind of design we see in the complexity of the DNA, RNA, epigenetic systems that we observe in living cells should cause us to consider where we see that level of multi-layered complexity in nature. We see it in the architecture of buildings, computer systems that combine hardware and software, in computer code, itself, and in books to provide a few examples.

The architecture of a building designed by a person’s mind is complexity on an exponentially different scale than a beaver dam designed by the beaver’s instinctual behavior. When we see the kind of multi-layered, nuanced complexity in the design of the Empire State Building, we know intuitively that it was designed by a person and not an animal like a beaver (or the brute forces of nature).

Thus, to postulate “mind” behind the complexity we see in the multi-layered information processing systems of the DNA, RNA, and epigenetic sequences is not unreasonable. We are simply reasoning from what we know to be true based on our observation and experience. Intelligent agents routinely cause these things, and we do not observe alternative causes.

Consider cultural, political, anthropological, and social structures in human society that interrelate with each other. We can do some mathematical modeling and predict certain things based on the data and trends in the data. Those calculations may even be very accurate, but they do not necessarily mean that these interrelated “processing systems” are not products of intelligence and agency.

To say that our societal structures are not the products of intelligence and agency would be a fallacy, but they aren’t just the product of minds. To say that seemingly random mutations (occurrences that cannot be predicted) have no effect on those systems is also a fallacy, but they cannot be explained on the bases of these random occurrences, alone.

Take COVID, for instance. No one could have predicted COVID, specifically (though something like COVID certainly has been conceived). COVID changed the world, and the world was changed by intelligent responses to COVID. We see both seemingly random occurrences happening and intentional, designed responses to those occurrences at the same time.

I have heard theism called a science stopper, and it can be a science stopper in the sense that positing God can be asserted to put an end to the inquiry. This may be partly what Dawkins means when he says it doesn’t help (and actually hurts) to bring God into science.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a science stopper. Christians championed science before the Enlightenment precisely because they believed in God. Because they believed in a Lawgiver, they expected the universe to behave according to laws.

Christianity gave birth to the scientific method. Because people believed in God, they believed the universe was rationally ordered and could be understood by us. They believed that studying the universe was, in effect, appreciating and giving praise to God for His handiwork. Far from inhibiting science, faith in God propelled science forward before the Enlightenment.

Materialism can also be a science stopper. The a priori determination that God doesn’t exist or that the possibility of God should be kept out of science can shut off questions or areas of inquiry.

For instance, people assumed on a materialistic, purely evolutionary paradigm that most DNA was junk. Many scientists didn’t inquire into the possibility that “junk DNA” may have a purpose because they believed, on the evolutionary paradigm, that most DNA was leftover from random mutations that weren’t fit for survival.

Of course, it turns out that all DNA seems to have some function (or purpose), and that was only discovered by people who were willing to explore beyond the boundaries of those assumptions informed by a non-theistic worldview.

I have traveled a long way here to conclude that we should not foreclose possibilities. Science can be done by the atheist and the theist alike. There is room at the table for both. A theist may see things in the evidence that an atheist might never consider, and vice versa, of course.

2 thoughts on “Exploring the Edges of Our Knowledge on Matters of Science and Faith

  1. Nice article. You might want to consider writing an article from a mathematical perspective. I’ve seen some really good stuff that show if you assume NO intelligence was involved (i.e. everything was random), the universe is FAR from being old to explain the level of complexities we see today… because the number of “trial” events that would need to occur each second require a universe that is FAR (10**”gazillion”) greater than what we’ve observed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have read those articles, and they seem to make a compelling point. Of course, the mathematical conclusions ultimately depend on the assumptions, as in how much time is required for random mutations to affect changes over time, and a million variables to that calculation. While the answers I have seen seem compelling to one like me who is skeptical of effectiveness of natural selection acting on random mutations to create life in the first place, and then to generate the multi layered complexity we see in living organisms, I couldn’t begin to guess whether the assumptions that go into those calculations are accurate. I would think it’s ultimately speculative. Like the calculations that inspired Carl Sagan and others to launch the SETI project, which now seem exponentially too optimistic, th he assumptions used to produce the figures that show life could not have evolved as it has in our universe may be grossly pessimistic. I am not show how we know one way or the other.


Comments are welcomed

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.