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Why science ignores God

Summary

8 August 2012

A few years ago a statement of mine shocked one of my friends. While I cannot recall the details of the conversation leading up to the statement, what shocked him was my sentence "There is no place for God in science."

Once I explained the thinking that underlay my statement, my friend calmed down. However I am aware that many people, especially if they do not have a scientific education, fail to understand the boundary between science and religion.

What is science?

Science is not the body of scientific knowledge that the human race has accumulated.

Instead, science is a process for humans to understand the real world. It develops according to a set of procedures which can be summarised as follows.

Gather observational data

Observational data can be something as simple as an observation with our eyes. We see that when it is not cloudy the sky is blue. We see that ice floats on water.

Conversely observational data can be quite complicated. In the 19th century the Michelson Morley experiment attempted to measure the speed at which the Earth is moving through the ether; it failed to find any evidence of motion which is the observational data that came out of that experiment.

More recently and at enormous expense the Large Hadron Collider operated by CERN in Geneva gathered observational data by accelerating two streams of protons moving in opposite directions and then causing them to smash into each other. The data consists of information about the particles that are created when the protons collide.

It is an essential requirement for observational data to be admissible that the observation can be repeated by anyone who wishes to do so and where necessary can assemble the appropriate equipment. For certain types of observation (for example the explosion of a star in the form of a supernova) we have no power to repeat the precise observation but we can wait until another star explodes and regard observing that as our repeat observation.

Formulate a hypothesis which may become a theory

After studying the observational data, either the original observers or in many cases other scientists will formulate a hypothesis to explain what the data is telling us. To be useful, the hypothesis must also give rise to predictions about the real world which can be tested by making further observations.

Once an explanation about the real world (normally based upon an original hypothesis) has been experimentally tested on a number of occasions it acquires the status of a scientific theory. Again, the essence of a scientific theory is that it makes predictions about the real world which are capable of being tested by making further observations.

Gather more observational data to test the hypothesis or theory

As mentioned above, a hypothesis or theory must give rise to testable predictions about the real world. If it does not, it cannot be regarded as a scientific hypothesis or theory.

Once a theory has given rise to testable predictions, scientists will then gather more observational data to see whether those predictions are borne out by reality. If the new observational data is consistent with the predictions from the theory, that is regarded as giving the theory additional support.

For example, one of the predictions from Isaac Newton's theory of gravity is that planets will orbit the sun in elliptical orbits. For well over 100 years all experimental observations of planetary motion were consistent with theoretical predictions. Indeed calculations based upon the theory predicted the existence of the planet Neptune and its location in the sky before the planet was actually discovered.

However all scientific theories are regarded as contingent in that scientists acknowledge that new observational data may be found which is inconsistent with the theory. For example, in the case of gravitation, the gravitational effect of the motion of the other planets around the sun causes the orbit of the planet Mercury to precess. Newton's theory of gravitation predicts a particular rate of precession but the actual rate of precession is different, indicating that when measurements are taken sufficiently precisely, Newton's theory of gravitation is shown to be incorrect.

In due course Albert Einstein developed the general theory of relativity (which is a theory of gravitation) which was consistent with the observed rate of precession of the orbit of Mercury. As well as explaining observations that were already known, the general theory of relativity also made new predictions which so far have been supported by fresh observations.

An iterative process

This process of observation and theorisation leading to making fresh observations proceeds iteratively and there is no reason to believe that it will ever end.

At one stage in the 19'th century physicists believed that their existing theories provided an almost complete understanding of the universe with only a few minor loose ends needing to be tied up. However within a few decades those loose ends (such as the colour of "black box" radiation) had led to all of these highly successful existing theories needing to be replaced by special relativity, general relativity and quantum mechanics.

The scientific process as summarised above is a closed process which simply contains no place within it for knowledge revealed by God. Revealed knowledge is not observational data and it is not hypothesis or theory (as defined above) and therefore it simply has no place within science.

Asking why science pays no attention to revealed knowledge is rather like asking why there is no "offside rule" (a rule from the game of football) in the game of chess. It is simply not a meaningful question.

God as the cause of all things

The religions that I know best, Islam, Judaism and Christianity all teach that God is the ultimate Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Indeed nothing happens in the universe except by God's will. To give but one quote, the words of Jesus:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will.”

Matthew 10:29, King James Version

Since God's will is required for anything to happen, most religious people will still want to ask why science ignores God.

While I have given one answer above (that science is a closed set of procedural rules for gathering data and formulating hypotheses), there is also another answer. The second answer is that while Muslims, Jews and Christians believe, in my view correctly, that “nothing can happen without the will of God”, that statement contains no explanatory power.

Consider the following five questions and answers:

Question

Answer

Why is the sky blue?

Because God makes it so.

Why does a ball bearing fall to the ground faster than a feather when both are dropped at the same time?

Because God makes it so.

Why do fine grains of pollen jiggle about when they are suspended in completely still water and observed through a microscope?

Because God makes it so.

If you place a needle carefully on the surface of water in a glass, why does the needle not sink?

Because God makes it so.

When an iron poker is heated, why does it glow a dull red at first and then as it gets hotter glow a brilliant white?

Because God makes it so.

In each case, the answer to the question is correct. If you believe, as I do, that God sustains and controls the entire universe, then each of the above answers has to be a correct answer. However for each of the above questions, the answer gives you no additional information that you did not already possess when you asked the question.

Before you asked any of the above questions, you already knew that everything happens because God causes it to happen. Indeed "because God makes it so" is a valid answer to any question about the real world, but it is an answer which gives you no additional information.

We need non-ultimate explanations

Unlike the ultimate explanation provided by religion, the explanations of real-world phenomena provided by science involve immediate (not ultimate) causes with some level of explanatory power.

The scientific answer to each of the questions above gives us additional information that we did not possess from the initial observation. For example the jiggling motion of grains of pollen in water is known as Brownian motion named after Robert Brown who first noticed the phenomenon although he was not able to explain it. Indeed it took almost 80 years before Albert Einstein came up with a scientific explanation. Like all scientific explanations, Einstein's explanation of Brownian motion tells us things that we did not know from simply observing the motion of the pollen.

Can scientists be religious?

Scientists are human beings, and may be religious or non-religious. Many of the greatest scientists in history, for example, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, were deeply religious people.

However a scientist can never plead his religious views in any scientific argument. All that other scientists will take account of are observations and scientific hypotheses or theories based upon those observations, and their predictions regarding possible future observations.

Scientists are only human and sometimes do let their religious views affect the way they develop hypotheses from observational data. However any hypothesis must stand or fall on its own merits, based upon the testable predictions it gives rise to.

Albert Einstein is famous for his quotation “God does not play dice. This view led him to reject the probabilistic view of the world that quantum mechanics entails. Otherwise he might perhaps have gone on to make a worthwhile contribution to the development of the field.

Do religious books contain scientific knowledge?

To keep the question manageable, my comments are restricted to two religious books, the Bible and the Quran.

Both books contain some statements about the real world, which can be categorised as observational data. However such data is no different from any other observational data about the real world. Neither book contains scientific hypotheses or theories, because they are books of religion, not books of science.

There is a temptation for religious people to interpret their sacred texts in the light of the latest scientific theories, and then say to the scientists: “Look, our Bible / Quran foretold your allegedly new scientific discovery millennia ago.” I recall a lecture by Tariq Ramadan cautioning against such an approach. The scientific theory is always liable to be discarded in the light of new observational data, leaving the religious person needing to either reinterpret his sacred text again to find a different meaning, or be left adhering to alleged knowledge about the real world which is no longer consistent with observational data.

Concluding comments

If scientists and religious people (those categories are not mutually exclusive) properly recognised that science and religion are distinct domains, there would be less friction between them.

Science cannot disprove religious beliefs

Science cannot disprove the possibility of miracles. An all-powerful God would have had no difficulty in parting the Red Sea for Moses and the other Israelites to pass through, and we have no observational data that could either prove or disprove beyond all doubt whether that event took place. Similarly it would have been easy for God to enable Jesus to bring the dead back to life.

Strictly speaking science cannot even prove beyond all possiblity of doubt that the universe existed 24 hours ago. We could all have been created by God within the last day, fully equipped with false memories of our supposedly earlier lives, while the mountains would have been created partly eroded. I have no reason to believe that this has happened, but this extreme example illustrates the limits of human knowledge. All that science can say is that the observational data gives us no reason to believe that the universe was created within the last 24 hours.

Revealed knowledge is not relevant to science

Similarly, as explained above, revealed knowledge is simply not a part of science which consists of a specific set of procedural rules.

Accordingly anything that the Bible or the Quran say about the origin of the universe or the origin of man is simply not admissible information as far as science is concerned.

 

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