In ages past the world was full of mystery and magic. The universe was so vast, diverse, and intricate that no human individual or society could explain how it all worked. So, in order to explain the universe, the way it came to be, and the manner in which it works, societies invented religions. God was posited as a powerful being who made and designed the earth and humanity. God became the answer to everything we didn’t know about the world. Why do the tides rise twice a day? God makes it happen. Where did the stars come from? God placed them in the heavens. Why does the universe exist? God decided to create it. Why are humans conscious? God made them that way. The list could go on, but you get the idea. God is a “god of the gaps,” God is the solution to all holes in knowledge or understanding.
As history progressed humanity learned more and more about the universe and how it works. Especially at the time of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, humankind made a massive leap forward in our understanding of the cosmos. The mystery and magic of the universe gave way to logic and empirical observation. Scientific discovery and enquiry succeeded in, to a large degree, explaining and answering all the questions of our ancestors. Thus, God is no longer necessary as a hypothesis to explain the unknown. We know that tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon, we don’t need God to explain why the ocean rises and falls twice a day. Many claim that science has successfully explained away God.
This is a powerful and convincing story. It is no wonder so many people tell it and believe it. However, there is a fundamental error in this narrative: mechanism is confused with agency.
Mechanism & Agency
The mechanism of a thing refers to the way it works. A person with no knowledge of how a car works (the mechanism) might be mystified as to how pistons firing cause the wheels to spin. Without an understanding of all the parts connecting the engine to the wheels, the fact that they turn would seem like magic. However, a careful study of the car would reveal that as the pistons in the engine fire, the driveshaft turns. The driveshaft is connected to the rear axle, the axle to the wheels. When the pistons fire, the driveshaft turns causing the axle to turn which causes the wheels to turn. Having understood the mechanism, have we also proven that there is no agent, that is, no intelligent being that purposefully designed the car?
An agent, broadly speaking, is a being with intelligence, purpose, and creative capability. Every human is an agent. We have the capacity to use our intellect to create things that serve specific purposes. The things we make all have a design, or mechanism, that allows them to fulfill their purpose. Here’s the important point: understanding the mechanism of something doesn’t prove that there is no agent who designed and created it. If you studied a car, took it apart and put it back together, if you understood how every single part of it worked, you would understand the mechanism, but you would not have proved that nobody made or designed the car.
This is the exact mistake made by the claim that science has explained away God. If we could explain the mechanism behind everything in the universe, all the way down to the level of quantum physics, that would not answer the question of whether or not the universe was created by a designer or merely the product of time and chance. Explaining how something works does not address why it exists in the first place.
Science Can’t Explain Away God
Science can’t explain away God because God’s existence is ultimately a question beyond the realm of scientific enquiry. The question of God’s existence is not about how the universe works, it is asking whether or not there is an agent behind the universe. Through empirical observation science can potentially explain all the mechanisms of the universe, but it cannot tell us why there is a universe in the first place. Science can tell us how the universe works, but it cannot discover the reason why the laws of nature function the way they do with such regularity. There is an important difference between an explanation of how a thing works and why it is there. Asking why the universe exists–why there is something rather than nothing–is ultimately a philosophical and theological question. Even if we can explain all the mechanisms of the universe without recourse to God the question remains: is there an agent that designed and brought the universe into existence?
Which is More Likely?
Is it more likely that the universe came to be without any agent causing it, or as the result of an intentional agent, i.e. God? It is widely believed by scientists, both atheists and theists, that all space and time came into existence in a moment 13.8 billion years ago. Putting aside for the moment what you may believe about the age of the earth, the important point is that the universe is not eternal, it began to exist. What is the best explanation for this? If there is no agent, then we are faced with the mind-numbing problem of conceptualizing how something could come from nothing. Just trying to wrap our minds around the idea of nothing, no space, no time, no matter, is enough to give ourselves a migraine! Now just try to understand how out of nothing something could pop into existence without a cause. It seems, to me at least, more likely that the universe was in fact caused by an agent.
What Kind of Agent Could Create the Universe?
What kind of agent could have caused the universe to pop into existence? This agent would need to be a necessary being. In other words, an eternal and uncaused being is the only thing that could be the first cause behind the emergence of the universe. This self-existent, self-sustaining being would need to be powerful and creative to make a world such as ours. This agent clearly fits the traditional notion of God as a transcendent, all-powerful being who created the universe. It would follow that we could learn about this agent from the creation, just as we might learn about an architect from their plans or an author from their writing. The Apostle Paul argued that, “What can be known about God is plain… For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20). The sheer fact that the universe exists–not to mention its detail, fine-tuning, intricate mechanisms, and beauty–points to an eternal God.
What Has and What Has Not Been Said
It is important to be clear on what has and what has not been argued. I have argued that science does not explain away God. The God of Christian theism in particular is not a “god of the gaps” who fills in the blank when we don’t fully understand how something in the universe works. That “God” is only a way to hold things together until we can fully understand the mechanism. A “god of the gaps” is certainly explained away by science, but that is not the God that most theists believe exists. God is an agent, an eternal, self-existent, uncaused being. God is not a theory that explains what we don’t know about the world, God is the intelligence and power who designed the cosmos and brought it into existence out of nothing.
What I have not argued is that this is the God of the Bible. I do believe that the agent behind the universe is the God revealed in the Christian Scriptures, but to explain why is not the goal of this article. This argument is limited in scope and should not be thought to prove more than it can. In sum, science cannot disprove God’s existence—through observation of the natural world science can explain the “how” of the universe’s mechanisms—but science cannot provide the answer to the “why.” Science does not answer the question of whether or not there is a supernatural, metaphysically real, agent that caused the universe to come into existence.