The question here is not, “Does science disprove God?” Science normally addresses natural events in terms of natural causes. Whoever agrees on that (at least approximate) definition of science thereby grants that science doesn’t prove or disprove God. It just doesn’t address God’s existence. It’s not the right tool for that job.
Science can, however, address effects in nature which might have supernatural causes. In this way science could discredit or lend credit to different lines of evidence for God. Remember, “science” is usually a reference to “natural science,” and so it addresses natural events and is usually restricted to natural causes. If we are to connect scientific data to the question of God’s existence we need a mediator, like theology, philosophy, or even art. By that understanding, Science isn’t the right tool for directly addressing God’s existence.
The data we glean from science has to be passed off to other fields to consider how it might best be interpreted if natural events/causes seem unable to account for that data. Science can identify and clarify things that are not explained or cannot be explained by natural causes. Science can also discredit/falsify some supernatural claims by pointing out sufficient but natural cause for an event. For example, debunking magic tricks and various fraudulent religious claims like spoon bending, levitation, mind reading, etc.
The question at issue here is, not about whether science disproves God, but is more subtle: “Does science preclude God?” This is a more sophisticated question because it allows that God may exist, but to do science we have to assume/believe/conclude he doesn’t exist. Doing science makes God-belief impossible, or, at least, does it make God-belief impossible while one is conducting science? At minimum, this is a question about methodological naturalism–must we deal strictly in natural causes, allowing only natural explanations into the mix whenever we do science? I myself am torn on that question, depending on how one understands “methodological naturalism.” At maximum, this is a question about metaphysical naturalism–does the operation or outcomes of science somehow make God’s existence impossible? I’m not torn here.
The short answer to this question is: No, science does not preclude God’s existence. We can conduct science as well or better than our atheistic counterparts precisely because we allow that God exists. In God’s existence there is a sustaining cause for the regular order of nature. Moreover, things like consciousness, purpose, language, and knowledge all have sufficient grounding in a divine mind so that our access to these things is at least broadly reliable for accessing truth.. Were all of these features merely arbitrary outcomes of aimless natural forces, then we’d have little reason to trust our minds, to employ semantic language, or to believe we are dealing in truth and knowledge at all. Science does not preclude God because of the following reasons.
So, Does Science Preclude God?
1. We can give natural causes high priority without ruling for or against potentially supernatural causes.
It is entirely possible to do science, giving high priority to natural causes, and when all the known and theorized natural causes are exhausted, settle one’s scientific case on a neatly clarified set of sufficient causes which, so far as we can tell, only supernaturalism can satisfy. We can infer, for example, that tests have shown that event X requires Y and Z in it’s causal set, but since Y and Z are strictly contradictory in nature and are nowhere found together, then Y and Z reveal a potentially supernatural cause. One doesn’t have to sacrifice scientific caution, humility, or rigor just because one has adduced a potentially supernatural cause. This sort of conclusion, about Y and Z can be handled with patience, modesty, and a strict adherence to falsifiability criteria–demanding that this theory be subjected to further testing (i.e., find a way to make Y and Z compatible, or show that X can arise without Y and Z). One does however have to allow that aspects of science can overlap with theology (and of course, all of it overlaps heavily with philosophy). This understanding of science implies that the true heart of science isn’t naturalism (methodological or metaphysical). The true heart of science is curiosity. If a supernatural event were to happen right in front of our eyes, it seems deeply unscientific to surrender our curiosity and forbid science-minded people from pushing for a satisfactory explanation even if all natural causes fail to account for it.
To be fair, some folks, even theists, are liable to push back against this point, doubling-down on methodological naturalism. Admittedly, this point does not strictly adhere to methodological naturalism. Methodological naturalism (which says that only natural causes are allowed into one’s scientific explanations) is the normal operating guideline for natural science. I personally do not think it’s necessary for science, but I grant it’s functional value to keep people from flying into theological fancy any time they find something presently inexplicable in nature. For those folks who hold fast to methodological naturalism as the strict and exclusive operations of science, there’s a way to make it work with my point. A person can retain a strict adherence to methodological naturalism for the sciences and still allow for, scientifically inaccessible, supernature. He or she would just have to take off their lab coat, so to speak, and put on their theologian or philosopher cap before discussing any potentially supernatural causes. The difference between these “soft” and “hard” views on methodological naturalism is that the “soft” version allows that science and theology can overlap but the “hard” version says they don’t overlap.
Either way, however, the data of science can still be used in arguments for God’s existence. This has been a historical norm for philosophers of religion and theistic apologists across the centuries. Heck, even David Hume, the imminent skeptical empiricist, granted natural theology, that is, nature can provide empirical evidence of a supernatural God.
2. Miracles and natural laws are compatible. Natural laws describe events in a closed system. Miracles describe events in an open system.
Perhaps the most pressing threat science poses against supernaturalism is it’s potential ability to debunk miracles. Some have said, in line with David Hume, that one can never trust testimony about miracles because, for example, the miracle stories are always better explained as natural anomalies, interpretive error, or outright falsities from errant witnesses. That’s all well and good–though Hume has some glaring problems in his own right–but whatever one believes about knowing a miracle happened (epistemology) there is a deeper question about the the potential fact of a miracle happening (metaphysics). Alvin Plantinga spends many pages in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies explaining, in what amounts to a watershed moment, that miracles describe events in an open system while natural laws describe events in a closed system. If nature isn’t tampered with then it’s operations will, at least for the most part, be regular and somewhat predictable. Of course, this stuff gets messier whenever we descend into quantum physics but setting that aside for a moment, Newtonian physics still describes things just fine at its respective level of observation–medium sized objects moving at medium speeds will relate in Newtonian ways, never minding what might happen at the macro scale (Einsteinian physics) or the micro scale (Quantum physics). These three levels of physical description–Einstein, Newton and Quantum–give a fairly deep and wide account of the mechanical operations of nature so they are great fodder for natural science. Plantinga’s point, both simple and sublime, is that miracles don’t break, bust, or ruin any of that. Miracles are no threat at all to the laws of nature. They just describe different events than do the laws of nature. The laws of nature all describe nature when it’s operations are “left to themselves,” unchanged by any outside forces (i.e., supernature). A person is still free to deny that miracles occur, or consider all miracle claims unreliable. But if they were to occur it’s no particular threat to the laws of nature.
3. Philosophy, not science, rules on whether nature must always be closed. And Philosophy has rendered no thorough defense or consensus in that regard.
Philosophy gets a bad rap these days. I can understand why. I’m a degreed philosopher and sometimes I don’t even like hanging out with philosophers. Their language, and their focus, and their modes of inquiry can be infuriating. Setting that aside, philosophy is still the spacious field of study that inquires into the ultimate questions, the framing questions, and the definitional questions which do not, themselves, submit to a neatly and empirically testable hypothesis. Science is wonderful, but science still needs parentage to find entry into this world. But who birthed science? It was natural philosophy. Ta Da! Philosophy appears from behind the curtain, revealing itself as the formal cause behind natural science. Once natural philosophy incorporated the scientific method (and perhaps a few other distinguishing features such as falsification, and/or methodological naturalism) modern science was born. We owe our advanced technology whether industrial, medical, commercial, and even media to the findings of modern science. Yet nowhere in science itself do we find the ideological breadth and depth to even access questions of whether nature is closed or open, or whether supernature exists. Scientists tend to assume that nature is closed, and conduct their studies accordingly. But the moment a scientist slips that idea from “operating assumption” into “scientific conclusion” he has become a philosopher-theologian. Such meta-level ideas just don’t submit to the scientific method. They aren’t science in the sense of modern natural science. Also, whenever a person uses science to draw direct conclusions about God’s existence (for or against it) he has conceded that science is theological and/or philosophical. In my experience, scientists have some prestige and authority as a group in society and that sort of move, surrendering fairly exclusive authority as the arbiters of knowledge, would be a downgrade. That move would sacrifice a measure of societal sway to theologians. I just don’t see institutional science, especially secular scientists, readily sharing their authority in society with theologians as if natural science was a peer or subordinate to theology or philosophy.
4. The true heart of science is curiosity, not atheism.
As mentioned earlier, the heart of science is curiosity. When we formulate a hypothesis and begin testing it with observable measures then we are doing modern science, like the professionals do it. But we are still doing science when we try to know about the world around us, what it’s doing, how it operates, and why it works–even without using methodological naturalism or the scientific method. There’s something deeply unscientific about roping off all potentially supernatural possibilities because they don’t fit one’s preconceived set of possible causes. Many scientists forbid certain “why” questions because they imply goal-directedness in nature and that’s a staple of Intelligent Design theory, and that might threaten the Evolutionary-Naturalistic paradigm.
5. Some of the greatest scientists were theists.
Perhaps the most straight-forward and practical rebuttal here is that, ideology aside, some of the best scientists in world history have been theists. Whatever people may believe about God and religion, there’s no strict contradiction between being a good theist and a good scientist. People can be devout in both. The list of accomplished scientist-theists includes such heroes as Grosseteste, Kepler, Newton, Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Galileo, Boyle, Descartes, Pascal, Faraday, Mendel, Kelvin, Planck, Asa Gray, Francis Collins, Marconi, Babbage, Eccles, Pasteur, Millikan, Heisenberg, James Clerk Maxwell, Schrodenger, Arno Penzias, Alfred Russell Wallace, Chardin, G.W. Carver, A. Eddington, A. Compton, Dobzhanski, von Braun, Polkinghorn, Jaki, I. Barbour, C.H. Townes, and Stephen Barr. There are many thousands more, but these are just some of the more noteworthy examples.
6. Methodological naturalism isn’t metaphysical naturalism.
As alluded to in the preface and in #1, there’s a critical distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. Methodological naturalism makes no claims for or against supernature (including God); it is merely the method of inquiry which allows only natural causes into its explanations. Metaphysical naturalism, however, is the claim that nature is all that exists. By implication, it denies theism or any other supernatural beings. Perhaps when atheists do science, they can easily mingle these two, but there’s nothing about science that strictly demands one believe/imagine/assume that nature is all that exists. Just because an atheist might have no need for a strong divide between these two categories that doesn’t prove that no such distinction is possible. Quite the opposite is more likely. Atheistic scientists tend to see their scientific work as categorically distinct from theology, barring supernatural causes, with no overlap between the rigorous forms of science and the amorphous conjecture of theology. Such atheists would do well, for their own sake, to honor a strict distinction between metaphysical and methodological naturalism forbidding the natural sciences from drawing any direct conclusions about supernature (positive or negative). If science can speak to those matters directly, then science overlaps with theology. I’m okay with that option, but I’d imagine most atheists would not be.
7. It’s circular reasoning to admit only natural causes in effort to prove that there are only natural causes
A sneaky trick I’ve seen among some atheists, John Loftus and Matt Dillahunty for example, is to use methodological naturalism to filter all evidence on route to concluding in metaphysical naturalism. This argument form is logically circular. It’s fallacious. It would be like a judge allowing only the prosecution to call witnesses or present evidence, banning the defense team and defendant from the courtroom. That judge might render a “guilty” verdict, but that judgment would be highly suspect. By allowing only naturalistic evidence into the courtroom one has biased the court against any supernaturalistic conclusions. Loftus and Dillahunty, have countered with something like, “Well show me something better, like some evidential criteria that’s falsifiable, reliable, etc. and that supports supernaturalism?” The trick here is that whenever these additional criteria are explained, they look suspiciously like the methods of natural(istic) science all over again. That is, they are criteria suited to a non-personal, mechanistic, natural object. If supernaturalists aren’t careful, and concede to that request they risk self-defeat. If the criteria are mechanistic types of things (i.e., brute material interactions), such as repeatable experimental data, then we’d have to show that God isn’t a person per se but rather a machine. If the criteria requires a law-like behavior in nature then it’s a natural law, and we will have surrendered supernature, again sacrificing deity for naturalistic evidential criteria. In summary, atheists and secular scientists who play this game are basically saying, prove to me that your god is imperson, natural, and neatly quantifiable and then I’ll believe in him. That is, prove to me that your “God” isn’t God and then I’ll believe in him. The circularity problem rears it’s ugly head once more.
7. There are plenty of other fair, reasonable, and responsible ways to evaluate supernatural causes
At this point in the conversation, I’ve had atheists and secular scientists throw up their hands in despair saying, “You’ve denied all the ways of scientifically testing a claim; there’s no way to know about this ‘God’ you’re talking about.”
Au contraire, That very assumption is itself contradictory. It’s self-defeating to claim that scientific methods are the only ways to know something is true since that very claim is not itself a scientific claim, it’s philosophy. People who treat science with such exclusive privilege like that are following what’s called “Scientism.” This position says that science is the only way to know things. Everything else is conjecture, faith, opinion, etc. But scientism is a kind of faith-based position of overzealous seculars. Its literally impossible to assert scientism without using non-science to do it. I understand why seculars and atheists would celebrate science. Science has been been a boon of the modern era, a wonderful fruitful distinguishing feature separating modern civilization from barbaric ancients. Science itself is fine; I have no objections. But adding an “-ism” gives science a kind of tyrranical rule over all other modes of knowing, and excludes some amazing stuff–natural and supernatural–just because it’s not suited to scientific methods. It’s fine to grow in our understanding of the world and in our technologies but we cannot risk losing knowledge of ourselves and human experience in that effort; and science just can’t reach those corners of reality like philosophy, theology, or even common sense can. Just because your free-will doesn’t submit to Newtonian measures, Physical Relativity, or Quantum Theory, or some other natural rubric doesn’t mean we’re all determined. Instead, we can turn the table and say, “I have direct, unmediated experience of my free choices I know my own free will better than I know any of the indirect meditated evidence from my 5 senses that come to me through the sciences.”
Besides the whole battery of direct and unmediated knowledge we have, there are many ways to evaluate claims besides strictly natural scientific methods, including properly basic knowledge (see, Alvin Plantinga’s notion of “Properly Basic Belief”), intuition, modal logic, formal logic, math, abduction (a.k.a., argument to the best explanation), wholistic appeal, Ockham’s Razor (a’la, William of Ockham), Internal Coherence, Principle of Credulity (a’la, Richard Swinburne), and various applications of Logical First Principals. Essentially, mankind was finding out all kinds of things about himself and about the world long before modern science was born. Science is wonderful, and it lends a great deal of rigor so we can neatly measure and predict the ways of this world. But its self-defeating, false, and unnecessarily limiting to treat science like the only means of knowing. We do well to allow that science is a wonderful and promising gift, but it’s not the whole party.
In summary, Science is not a good tool for directly addressing God’s existence but it is a fine means of vetting our various natural evidence to see which of them point beyond natural science to a supernatural cause. Science is very important and we should not dismiss it as some tool of Satan or some alarmist reaction like that. Science is another gift of God and while there’s always the risk of idolizing it neither do we honor God by discarding it. Instead, our most reverent use of science is do excellent science, not venerating it as if it’s the sole means of knowledge, nor antagonizing it like knowledge of the world is hostile to God (who created the world). In between these extremes is a modest sort of science that can render true and useful knowledge about the world, and even some great evidences of supernatural causes.