Why Science Cannot Comment on God

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Moses parting the Red Sea. Image Credit: Strange Notions

The theologian Alister McGrath makes it the central point of his book Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Origin of Life. Indeed, after his admirably fair summary of my scientific works, it seems to be the only point in rebuttal that he has to offer: the undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence of God. On page after page as I read McGrath, I found myself scribbling ‘teapot’ in the margin. Again invoking T.H. Huxley, McGrath says, ‘Fed up with both theists and atheists making hopelessly dogmatic statements on the basis of inadequate empirical evidence, Huxley declared that the God question could not be settled on the basis of the scientific method.’

McGrath goes on to quote Stephen Jay Gould in similar vein: ‘To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.’ Despite the confident, almost bullying, tone of Gould’s assertion, what, actually, is the justification for it? Why shouldn’t we comment on God, as scientists? (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Boston and New York: First Mariner Books, 2008, Kindle Edition, pages 77-78)

Richard Dawkins, like many of us, quotes book writers, philosophers, and theologians such as Alister McGrath, and we’re not surprised to see him do it here. What’s interesting, though, is that Dawkins alerts us to a group of folks out there that believe in NOMA — acronymic for “Non-Overlapping Magisterium” (or “Magisteria”). NOMA is a view that says that Science (the study of the natural world) and God (or theology, the study of God) are two different fields (“non-overlapping) where one (science) cannot speak into the other (God, theology).

 

This is why McGrath quotes Stephen Jay Gould’s claim that “science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.” The point of quoting Gould is to say that science cannot argue for or against God because science can only concern itself with the natural — and God is “supernatural,” divine, above nature.

 

Dawkins takes offense with the idea of NOMA and asks a question that hints his belief in the ability of scientists to speak on the existence of God: “Why shouldn’t we comment on God, as scientists?”

This is a good question, and one that I’ll tackle below.

Why Science Can’t Comment on God

I presume that Alister McGrath, Stephen Jay Gould, and others could (and do) say it better than me, but I think there are a few obvious reasons as to why science can’t comment on God.

Science can only observe the natural, not the supernatural

First, there’s the rules of science that are restrictive in nature. Science is naturalist by design, meaning that scientists (and thus, the field of science) can only speak to the natural world, that which can be touched, seen, that which involves the use of the five senses (see, hear, taste, smell, touch). This is what is natural. In contrast, God is divine, invisible, not something that can be seen, touched, or observed. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman in John 4:24 that “God is Spirit,” so God cannot be touched, observed, poured into a test tube, or placed in a petri dish.

 

The word “natural” refers to what is seen, “supernatural” to that which is above nature. God is supernatural; if He is, then science, which can only comment on the natural, can only comment on the visible things God has done and not God Himself.

I want to say this here so as to not be misunderstood: science can tell us that Jesus lived, what His life was like on earth, as well as His trial and death, but science cannot prove to us that Jesus was divine or that He was deity/God. The Christian faith is a rational faith, but one cannot rationalize his or her way into complete belief. At some point, there is a step of faith (not a leap, but a step) one must take in exercising faith toward God based on what science and the historical evidence tell us. Christians should use scientific discoveries of the life of Jesus in witnessing to unbelievers, but they shouldn’t be surprised if some, seeing all the evidence, still choose not to believe.

Science cannot comment on The Virgin Birth

Along the lines of science confirming the natural and not the supernatural, there are the Articles of Faith on which science cannot speak. I’ve preached on The Virgin Birth as of late: it is an example of something to which science cannot comment. After all, the Virgin Birth defies the laws of science and nature: when on earth has a human woman, a virgin, ever bore a child without sexual intercourse? The Virgin Birth is deemed by Christians to be a miracle because it goes against human biological processes.

 

Sure, there’s something biological to the birth of Jesus in that Mary carries Jesus for nine months, but the origin of Jesus’ inception is anything but human. Joseph is never identified as Jesus’ earthly father, and Jesus always points to God the Father above in Heaven as His Father. We also see God the Father affirm that Jesus is HIS Son, not belonging to someone else (see Matthew 3:17; 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35; 2 Peter 1:17). If Jesus is God the Father’s Son, and Mary is His biological mother, then how is Jesus conceived naturally? He isn’t. It takes a human male and human female to procreate a child in scientific naturalism. If Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, as the angel tells Joseph in a dream, then His birth is supernatural and thus, beyond the realm of science.

Science cannot comment on Jesus’ Miracles

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stained glass painting of the Wedding Feast at Cana in John 2. Image Credit: Newemangelization

Science cannot comment on The Virgin Birth, but it also can’t comment on Jesus’ miracles. Here are three definitions of “miracles”:

1: an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs
2: an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment
3 Christian Science : a divinely natural phenomenon experienced humanly as the fulfillment of spiritual law

The English Oxford Living Dictionaries defines “miracles” as “A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.” The key phrase in this last definition is “not explicable by natural or scientific laws,” second to it being “the work of a divine agency.” Science and nature cannot explain how it happens, and thus, is inadequate to speak on it. Additionally, some miracles are said to happen only once and, without repeated verification, cannot qualify as scientific or natural law.

If Jesus turned water into wine at the Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2), for example, science can’t tell you whether or not it happened. Why can’t science comment on miracles? Science can’t comment because no bartender or wine connoisseur has ever been able to replicate the miracle of turning water into wine, among others.

What about healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, making the lame to leap or the mute to speak? When has any scientist ever been able to perform these things? If a scientist has ever done it, let me know, and I’ll contact them personally to find out how they did it.

Science cannot comment on dreams, visions, and angelic appearances

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The Annunciation, a painting by Francesco Albani. Image Credit: Wikimedia.

 

Angelic appearances, along with dreams and visions, are other examples of supernatural forms on which science is unable to speak. How can a scientist verify dreams? Dreams come at random (are not predictable and regular for 99% of all individuals; there’s always the possibility that some dream normally) and thus, can’t be verified by science. Science can only measure repeated actions or effects. Science has to observe patterns, predictable patterns, and dreams come at random and their arrival can’t be predicted with the regularity of the change in seasons (for example).

And what about the content one encounters in dreams? Joseph had a dream in which God revealed by way of an angel (yes, an angelic appearance in a dream!) that Mary’s pregnancy was due to the Holy Spirit and not a human man — nor was it caused by sexual intercourse between Mary and a human man. The passage of Matthew 1:18-25 is believable because Joseph, thinking that Mary’s pregnancy was due to normal biological processes, wanted to terminate his engagement to Mary. When he discovered that Mary’s pregnancy was of God and not man, he reversed his plans and proceeded with the marriage. Divine revelation can enhance our knowledge in ways that science and the natural world cannot.

Science cannot comment on the Resurrection

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The burial clothes are there, but Jesus has risen from the dead.

 

The Resurrection of Jesus is yet another major event in the life of Christ on which science cannot comment. After all, to prove a resurrection, one must first prove a death. Jesus died on the Cross, and His death is documented historically. Scientists can focus in on Jesus’ death because it fits within the naturalist paradigm of science: since humans die all the time, science can speak on the death of Jesus in that “He died as a human man.”

While Jesus was human, He was also divine — so, He could die, but He could also rise. The Bible speaks to Jesus’ divine power in that He raised Lazarus from the dead and called him to come out of the grave. Earlier in John 11, Jesus says, “Lazarus is dead” (v.14), but He then goes and calls Lazarus forth from the grave after he’d been dead about 4 days (John 11:17).

And then, Jesus went and told the Pharisees that He’d die and rise in three days. He died. Science can verify that He died, believing the historical record about “Chrestus, called the Christ.” And yet, Jesus went into Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb on Friday afternoon but rose on Sunday morning.

How can science verify the Resurrection of Jesus? Sure, it can consult witnesses who said that Jesus died and then He rose, but there are no natural means by which science could determine that Jesus rose from the dead. When Jesus rose, He appeared to the disciples as they were eating and ate before them (proving that He was genuinely alive). What in nature could prove that Jesus rose from the dead? The cloths He was buried in? It would be a good piece of tangible evidence (the “Shroud of Turin” is what some believe to be Jesus’ burial cloths), but scientists aren’t able to verify the nail scars in His hands, feet, and the piercing in His side.

Italian physicist and leading Shroud of Turin expert Paolo Di Lazzaro said in an interview with National Geographic that science cannot tell us whether or not Jesus was the man wrapped in the cloth, nor whether or not it is a miracle to be believed:

“One could look at hypotheses outside the realm of science, a sort of miracle,” says Di Lazzaro. “But a miracle cannot be investigated by the scientific method.”

Thomas was able to tangibly verify Jesus’ nail scars and His live existence before the disciples, but Jesus praised those who hadn’t seen the nail scars and piercing and “yet have believed” (John 20:29). Jesus’ words tell us that to believe, to have faith, is better than natural observation. How would science make the most of these words without “leaving the table” of the supernatural discussion?

Conclusion

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The Shroud of Turin. Image Credit: National Geographic

 

Richard Dawkins believes science can comment on God, but I agree with Stephen Jay Gould, Alister McGrath, and others who say science cannot. As we’ve seen, science relies on natural, observable evidence, and the miracles that were done with Jesus have yet to be duplicated by scientists in the lab. Dreams, visions, and angelic appearances are also supernatural occurrences that science cannot explain.

Sure, scientists can explain brain waves and signals that are at work when someone is asleep or not awake, but they can’t explain why brain waves and signals would “produce” or “conjure” up an angel with news that is contrary to normal, biological processes. Science cannot comment on the divine and supernatural because it doesn’t accept the divine or supernatural as true.

As much as Richard Dawkins is unable to accept it, he can’t take scientific naturalism (science can only test the natural) and assume philosophical naturalism (that nature is all there is). As Dawkins himself said earlier in The God Delusion, “Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything does not exist” (page 74). Shouldn’t we trust the word of philosophers regarding the deeper issues of life over a zoologist who only studies animal life?

While science cannot comment on God, science can (and does) point the way to God, though. When we see human intelligence, knowing that nothing on earth comes remotely close to the achievements of human beings, we can surmise that Someone of greater intelligence than ourselves made us and all of creation. Intelligent Design is a powerful movement, but it shows that there’s an extent, a limit, an end, to science. At some point, reason must give way to faith to believe in the supernatural. If you want to reason your way to the supernatural and God, reason alone won’t get you there.