I didn’t know anything about the Witherspoon institute, where Catholic religious philosopher Edward Feser has published a strident piece called “Scientists should tell Lawrence Krauss to shut up already“, but it appears to be a right-wing think tank. According to Wikipedia:
The Witherspoon Institute opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and deals with embryonic stem cell research, constitutional law, and globalization. In 2003, it organized a conference on religion in modern societies. In 2006,Republican Senator Sam Brownback cited a Witherspoon document called Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles in a debate over a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. It held a conference about pornography named The Social Costs of Pornography at Princeton University in December 2008.
Be that as it may, reader Candide called my attention to Feser’s piece, a critique of Krauss’s recent piece in The New Yorker, “All scientists should be militant atheists” (my take on it here). Feser argues that Krauss doesn’t given any reason for scientists to be atheists, but in fact he does, in the final paragraph of Krauss’s piece:
We owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass to governments—totalitarian, theocratic, or democratic—that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered “sacred.” Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may offend.
That seems to me pretty clear: in science no values are sacred, and it’s abandoning the notion that any ideas are beyond question—the habit of doubt that is endemic and essential in science—that militates against religious authoritarianism, endemic to most faiths. Feser also argues, contra both Krauss and me, that the empirical propositions of religion, as opposed to its moral dicta, are not questions of science:
Krauss might reply that, unlike checkers, dentistry, or engineering, science covers all of reality; thus, if God exists, evidence for his existence ought to show up in scientific inquiry.
There are two problems with such a suggestion. First, it begs the question. Second, it isn’t true.
But if in fact one construes science broadly, as a combination of reason, empirical study, and verification, yes, existence of God should show up in “scientific” inquiry. Since it doesn’t, religionists use the word “reason” to encompass a brew of dogma, scripture, and personal revelation. But these of course lead different people to different conceptions of god. So all the “evidence” adduced by different faiths is simply a confusing muddle of different “conclusions.”
Feser instead proposes philosophy as a way to demonstrate God, starting with the ineluctable proposition that reality is real:
[The claim that we should have empirical evidence for God] begs the question because whether science is the only rational means of investigating reality is precisely what is at issue between New Atheists like Krauss and their critics. Traditional philosophical arguments for God’s existence begin with what any possible scientific theory must take for granted—such as the thesis that there is a natural world to be studied, and that there are laws governing that world that we might uncover via scientific investigation.
To Feser, the existence of the natural world is itself evidence for God, for he keeps insisting that that world had to have a beginning, and if that beginning was the Big Bang, or even if the Big Bang had a natural origin and there are universes that spawn other universes, well, those, too must have a causal chain that, in the end terminates in God.
As far as “laws governing the world,” well, that’s a result of science, not an assumption. It’s entirely possible that some physical laws might not be constant (for example, the speed of light in a vacuum might vary throughout the universe), and if we found that out, well, that would become part of science too. Indeed, the speed of light is not a constant in other media like water or glass, so the “law” isn’t universal. Other physical laws, such as those governing molecular interactions, must exist lest we not be around to observe them. In Faith versus Fact I note that the human body depends on physical and chemical regularities to function. So yes, we’ve found regularities, but that is inevitable given that that finding itself depends on regularities in the brain: a sort of Anthropic Principle of our Body.
Imputing such regularities to a divine being, much less Feser’s Catholic and beneficent God, is no explanation at all. It’s merely saying, “We will call God the reason for the constancy of nature.” Where from these regularities can one derive a Beneficent Person without Substance—one who not only loves us all, but demands worship under threat of immolation, and opposes abortion as well?
And so Feser proves the existence of God from his usual claim: the Uncaused Cause:
The arguments claim that, whatever the specific empirical details turn out to be, the facts that there is a world at all and that there are any laws governing it cannot be made sense of unless there is an uncaused cause sustaining that world in being, a cause that exists of absolute necessity rather than merely contingently (as the world itself and the laws that govern it are merely contingent).
. . . Similarly, what science uncovers are, in effect, the “rules” that govern the “game” that is the natural world. Its domain of study is what is internal to the natural order of things. It presupposes that there is such an order, just as the rules of checkers presuppose that there are such things as checkers boards and game pieces. For that very reason, though, science has nothing to say about why there is any natural order or laws in the first place, any more than the rules of checkers tell you why there are any checkers boards or checkers rules in the first place.
Thus, science cannot answer the question why there is any world at all, or any laws at all. To answer those questions, or even to understand them properly, you must take an intellectual vantage point from outside the world and its laws, and thus outside of science. You need to look to philosophical argument, which goes deeper than anything mere physics can uncover.
For a response to the “Uncaused Cause” argument, and the outmoded notion of Aristotelian causality in modern physics, I refer you to the writings of Sean Carroll (for example here and here, especially the section called “accounting for the world”), and Carroll’s debate with
Feser William Lane Craig here.
No, science cannot yet answer the question why there is any world at all, or why the laws are as they are (though the latter question might someday find an answer), but neither can religion. As Caroll notes, the answer to these questions may ultimately be this:
“. .. . the ultimate answer to “We need to understand why the universe exists/continues to exist/exhibits regularities/came to be” is essentially ‘No we don’t.’
. . . Granted, it is always nice to be able to provide reasons why something is the case. Most scientists, however, suspect that the search for ultimate explanations eventually terminates in some final theory of the world, along with the phrase “and that’s just how it is.” It is certainly conceivable that the ultimate explanation is to be found in God; but a compelling argument to that effect would consist of a demonstration that God provides a better explanation (for whatever reason) than a purely materialist picture, not an a priori insistence that a purely materialist picture is unsatisfying.”
Indeed, theists like Feser face their own Ultimate Questions: Why is there a God rather than no God? How did God come into being, and what was He doing before he created Something out of Nothing? To answer those, some people might point to scripture or revelation, but that’s unsatisfying, for different scriptures and different revelations say different things. In the end, Feser must resort to the same answer physicists give. When told by rationalists that we need to understand where God Himself came from, Feser would have to respond, “No we don’t. He was just There.” What I don’t understand is how God can just be there, but the universe and its antecedents, or the laws of physics, cannot just be there.
Nor do I understand how an empirical proposition–the idea that there’s a supernatural being who affects the universe–can be demonstrated by philosophy alone, without any appeal to empiricism.