Searching? Expect Science to Reveal God, But Not to Prove Him — Science Doesn’t Do That
Is there a God? How would a searcher find Him? Is there any proof for God’s reality?
Atheists commonly say that if there’s a God, science should be able to prove He’s real. I can see the appeal in that, actually. Science tells us so much about the world. Even better, it has ways to judge between disputes over facts, especially when scientists have access to very careful measurements, and when they can control all the variables.
But that’s exactly why science is a poor way to detect God.
Science is great for much, but when it comes to proving God, it’s just not up to the job. For if there’s a God, as Christians understand God, then proving His reality isn’t the kind of thing science knows how to do. Reveal Him, yes; prove Him, no. The reason? Simple: He’s God. We aren’t.
I’ll spell that out in more scientific terms.
Scientists often distinguish between “hard” and “soft” sciences. There’s physics and chemistry; then there’s psychology and sociology. There’s some rivalry there: Many specialists in the “hard” sciences say they’re not quite sure the “soft” sciences are science at all.
We can’t pin God down for measurements.
One way to tell the difference between the two is by how finely they can measure their subject matter. Now, this happens to run almost exactly parallel with how much personal freedom their subject matter can express. People have a lot of freedom, so we’re much harder to measure than lab rats. People who know enough about the research can even “game it,” making it say what they want it to say. But rats? Not so smart — yet even they are harder to measure than chemicals in test tubes.
If the Christian God is real, then He’s totally free. He knows what’s going on. He can “game” any measurement He decides to. We can’t pin Him down with measurements.
True experimental science involves controls. Ideally, an experiment involves two or more samples, specimens, etc. matched in every way possible. The scientists puts one of them through some kind of change or manipulation. If the two come out different, the scientists are likely to conclude their treatment caused difference. But if they can’t control everything that happens in the experiment, they know they it’s probably unwise to draw that conclusion. Something else could be going on to cause that result.
If the Christian view is true, then God is in charge. He wouldn’t let Himself be controlled like a lab rat or a chemical in a test tube. And if He wanted to throw some other undefined, undetectable cause into the experimental mix, nothing scientists did could prevent him. There’s no experimental control over God.
Scientists have other ways to do their work, naturally. Experiments like this don’t come easy in the social sciences. So scientists often do comparisons. In one simple form, they’ll measure persons on a pair of variables.
One example of that might be happiness and salary. If they find that salaries tend to be higher among happy people, and lower among less happy people, then researchers have to decide which of these might be true. Is it (a) greater happiness tends to cause higher salaries? Might it be (b) higher salaries tends to cause greater happiness? Could it be (c) neither of the above? Maybe (d) both of the above? Or (e) nothing definite at all?
Based on that information alone, the best answer would be (f) we have no idea.
(My example here is fictional, by the way. I’m not aware of any reliable research showing that happiness varies so neatly with salary levels. It’s complicated.)
Correlation vs. Causation
Scientists say, “correlation doesn’t show causation.”A quick example will show why. My research methods prof told us researchers found that crime rates in St Louis were closely connected with ice cream sales. So which is it: does ice cream cause crime? Or does crime make people want ice cream? (The researchers ended up deciding they both went up and down with the heat outdoors.)
It isn’t hopeless, of course. This kind of research can lead to real, solid, scientific answers. But it works best where all the connections are obvious, clear and simple. Social research just doesn’t work without a lot of simplifying assumptions; and it has to work hard to eliminate or “control for” any “third variables,’ like temperatures in the St. Louis study. The more complex things are, the less science can sort things out, at least in social research.
So if there is a God who truly reigns over all creation, He’d be able to throw all kinds of complications into a research project. And if He freely decided to do that, correlational research could never possibly detect Him.
A God Science Could Prove
Now, everything I’ve said here works whether you believe in God or not. I’ve only said, “If this God is real, science could never prove it. Those ifs should seem reasonable, to reasonable readers.
On the other hand, suppose there were a God science could prove. That God would have to be impersonal. Predictable. Controllable. Nothing at all like the God Christians believe in.
A God Science Could Reveal
But I’ve been talking about science proving God. There’s still a huge role for science to play in revealing God. Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” That is, nature tells us something about God. And science tells us more about nature than we ever could have known without it. It reveals the work of God’s hands on a level not reachable any other way.
One way it reveals God is by showing nature has features that could only reasonably come from an incredibly intelligent and powerful being. (You can explore that topic at the Center for Science and Culture.)
Seek God On His Own Terms
Science doesn’t have the tools to prove God. Why should we think it does? It does its best where everything is controllable, where researchers can manipulate things, and where nothing’s going on they don’t know about. Who ever believed in a God like that?
So the rational thing to do instead of trying to subject God to some sort of scientific proof, is to search out whether God would reveal Himself some other way. In fact we’ve got a record of God doing exactly that. It’s in the Bible.
Other traditions have other holy books, I know. The interesting thing is, though, since we’re talking about carrying out a search of sorts, is that they all agree on one Person, Jesus Christ. That is, they all consider Him at least a prophet, an avatar or a messenger. So a sensible search for God, it seems to me, would start in the one individual every faith thinks points toward God. Then if you’re like me and other Christians, you’ll decide the best starting point is also the best place to land.
But you can’t put God in a test tube. You can’t come to him with a survey to fill out. You’ve got to search for Him on His terms. We aren’t God, after all. He is.
Adapted from an article originally published at ThinkingChristian.net. Used by permission.
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.