Does Our Understanding of How the Universe Works Negate God’s Existence?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Some skeptics of Christianity are known to argue that the great success of science revealing the physical mechanisms of the universe should lead us to conclude that the God hypothesis is totally unnecessary.  Science will ultimately reveal the laws of nature, and once we know these laws, the need for God has vanished.  Does that follow?

Not according to Philosopher John Lennox in his book God’s Undertaker.  Lennox says, “Such reasoning involves a common logical fallacy.”  Here is how he illustrates the fallacy:

Take a Ford motor car.  It is conceivable that someone from a remote part of the world , who was seeing one for the first time and who knew nothing about modern engineering, might imagine that there is a god (Mr Ford) inside the engine, making it go.  He might further imagine that when the engine ran sweetly it was because Mr Ford inside the engine liked him, and when it refused to go it was because Mr Ford did not like him.

Of course, if he were subsequently to study engineering and take the engine to pieces, he would discover that there is no Mr Ford inside it.  Neither would it take much intelligence for him to see that he did not need to introduce Mr Ford as an explanation for its working.  His grasp of the impersonal principles of internal combustion would be altogether enough to explain how the engine works.

So far, so good.  But if he then decided that his understanding of the principles of how the engine works made it impossible to believe in the existence of a Mr Ford who designed the engine in the first place, this would be patently false – in philosophical terminology he would be committing a category mistake.  Had there never been a Mr Ford to design the mechanisms, none would exist for him to understand.

How does this illustration apply to God and the universe?  Lennox explains:

It is likewise a category mistake to suppose that our understanding of the impersonal principles according to which the universe works makes it either unnecessary or impossible to believe in the existence of a personal Creator who designed, made, and upholds the universe.  In other words, we should not confuse the mechanisms by which the universe works either with its cause or upholder.

Hawking, Dawkins, and other atheistic scientists fail to understand this basic philosophical point.  One day, if there is a full and complete physical explanation of how every particle in the universe behaves, if we arrive at a set of equations that explains every physical mechanism, the fundamental question of where these equations came from will still need to be answered.  Scientists will not have eliminated the existence of Mr Ford.

  • Anthony Ramsey

    Good illustration/analogy!

  • Rigelrover

    The possibilities are that there are truly brute facts at some point in the chain of explanation, some basic facts about the nature of reality (ex. the physical laws) are metaphysically necessary, that there is an eternal, infinite set of universes containing any and all combinations of facts which exist in self-existent but exclusive ‘universes’ (i.e. modal realism), or maybe some combination of these; or that there is a necessary being who is eternal, powerful, and willing to actualize states of affairs from among possible states of affairs.

    Does that seem to cover it?

    Inasmuch as mechanical explanations are never final explanations, Dr. Lennox has nailed the point. The metaphysical necessity of the physical laws of nature is almost never contested these days, but some like Hawking argue for something like that (as well as other Platonists). It seems to me very hard to empirically (or perhaps otherwise) establish the metaphysical necessity of apparently contingent states of affairs, however, without speculating about some metaphysical postulate like modal realism, etc. which have not classically been well established (now that David Lewis is not around).

    As for someone arguing that God is merely an ad hoc brute fact in the same way that a mechanism is, it seems almost completely conspicuous that reason leads to a necessary being almost exactly like what is revealed by historical descriptions of God.

  • Johndoe

    Sorry, Bill, Lennox’s fallacy is a fallacy into itself. It’s the classic things can only be designed if someone designed it. Then, I raise the question: “Who designed God?”

    Do you see how circular your argument is and how it eventually falls flat on its face?

    If god is perfect how could he have designed a universe so flawed? Stars supernova destroying things in their wake. Our own world is filled with diseases such that 3MM children die in Africa from malaria.

    How does perfection beget imperfection? You can’t explain it. Especially when your main argument is that “bible says so.” Then by that logic any book is truthful including “Lord of the Rings” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and every other fantasy/sci-fi book.

  • Rigelrover

    You chimed in just in time to exemplify the common objection that I referred to in the last line of my post!

  • What does asking “Who designed God?” have to do at all with this argument? Sticking to the Ford illustration, you’re saying Henry Ford cannot exist as the cause of the Ford motor car unless we can provide an explanation of what caused him?

  • Anonymous

    The point, I think (correct me if I’m wrong, Johndoe and Rigelrover), is that saying “God made the physical laws” doesn’t really answer any questions at all. You may as well define God as “the set of all natural laws” and skip this totally unnecessary step. If you think that things which exist must be explained by having been created by some intelligent entity, you don’t get to just declare your god exempt from that rule. If you think that things can exist without explanation or cause (like your god), why can’t that be true of the natural laws you objected to in the first place?

  • Ian

    A book has recently come out entitled ‘Who made God’ with an associated blog. Edgar Andrews argues that something outside the physical laws needs to have come into being before the universe could expand in the way it has. It is at:
    http://whomadegod.org/2011/08/could-a-universe-create-itself/

  • Walter Tucker

    The book recommended by Ian “Who Made God?” would be a good read for those who question how it is that an immaterial God does not need a maker, but a material universe does. It is not your standard run of the mill apologetics or theology book.

    As well, any standard run of the mill apologetics or theology book explains why there is a flawed universe despite a perfect God.

    Saying the argument is circular or not understanding the theological reasons for disease and such and such, or saying that the main argument is because the “bible says so” shows a need to pick up an apologetics book to get proper understanding in order to have a reasonable discussion. Actually, there is probably enough material on this website to help increase understanding without having to go get a book. But if you prefer, “Evidence for God,” edited by Dembski and Licona is a reasonable primer.

  • nev

    “If god is perfect how could he have designed a universe so flawed? Stars supernova destroying things in their wake. Our own world is filled with diseases such that 3MM children die in Africa from malaria.”

    According to Genesis, God designed the world a perfect place, free of diseases such as Maleria etc. It was when man/women disobeyed God and rebelled against his rule that the worl was corrupted by disease etc. Now you may not believe in the Bible and God but the argument that the world is not perfect is an argument in line with what the Bible teaches.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I’m not convinced by the analogy. If you replace the motor car with something naturally occurring, then yes you could say that, for example, learning how snowflakes form means one no longer needs to postulate a ‘snow fairy’ who is creating the flakes.

    If your argument is that the evidence for a being is purely that an explanation is required for the ‘original rules’ then you’ve got the same problem of infinite regress, and the Ford analogy doesn’t help.

  • Boz

    Does Our Understanding of How the Universe Works Negate God’s Existence?

    Depends which god/deity.

    The deities of special creationism is disproved by evolution.

    The deity of a 6000 year old earth is disproved by geology.

    The deity that splits the moon in two is disproved by physics.

    The deities of a virgin birth is disproved by biology.

    The deities that live on Mt Olympus are disproved by exploration.

    The deities that create fire are disprived by chemistry.

    I agree that the deity of deism, which this article discusses, can not be disproven. (yet?)

  • Boz

    “Edgar Andrews argues that something outside the physical laws needs to have come into being before the universe could expand in the way it has.”

    The BB singularity, for example?

  • Ian

    ‘The deities of special creationism is disproved by evolution.’
    and:
    ‘The deities of a virgin birth is disproved by biology.’

    I would question these two. The first on the grounds that evolution has as yet come up with an adequate explanation for the origins of life. The organisation required to produce the double helix is too great at present to be explained. It is a matter of faith in a scientific sense that one day the origin of life will be explained.

    The virgin birth is a miracle, and to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton miracles by their very name aren’t of everyday occurrence, so it can’t be proved that the Holy Spirit didn’t conceive Jesus in the BVM.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “The first on the grounds that evolution has as yet come up with an adequate explanation for the origins of life.”

    Evolution isn’t about the origin of life. It’s about the diversity of life. You’re confusing it with abiogenesis. Evolution does indeed disprove special creationism – regardless of what the origins are life are.

  • Walter Tucker

    Depends on what you call “special creation.” I am not a theistic evolutionist, but there are plenty of them, Francis Collins for one. So at least from their point of view, evolution has not disproved a creator who might have used evolution to develop the species we see today.

  • Todd

    What this article and your conclusion illustrate is the yet unanswerable question, “What made the universe?” or it’s cousin “Why is there something rather than nothing.” I agree that if we reach a complete understanding of the natural universe, we could still not know how it came into existence. However, there is no need to invoke god as a creator. It could just as well be natural phenomena from an alternate universe, or perhaps it was created by a consortium of extra planar tinkerers, or as a byproduct of the collapse of an alternate time… we can speculate ad nauseum…

    It is Christianity that arrogantly proposes the answer to this question is the Christian god. And by what proof does Christianity make this ultimate claim? I would challenge a Christian not to say it stems from the worldly bible; which has been shown time and again as an unreliable source for interpreting what is in universe. I see no reason to give credence to what it says is beyond.

  • The hidden premise in your post is that everything has to have a cause, meaning your god must also have to have a cause. If he is considered the “uncaused cause” then we can also say that the universe itself is the “uncaused cause.” According to Ockham’s razor we have no need to posit “entities” in order to have a universe.

    Furthermore, you quote: “In other words, we should not confuse the mechanisms by which the universe works either with its cause or upholder.”

    And neither should Christians deny that the universe could have caused itself, or it could have been caused by Brahman, or Zeus, or perhaps it was one of the other ancient gods or goddesses that Christians “murdered” that are responsible. Christians have eliminated the existence of Ahura Mazda for instance, and it may be this god that is responsible for the universe, and not yours.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Right, and they don’t believe in special creationism!

  • Walter Tucker

    To both Todd and “A”,

    The statement is that “that which comes into existence or that which changes state must have a cause for the change.” That is not a theological statement, but one inherent and critical to the scientific method. We assume causality in everything. Life is difficult to live without it. And in case you say QM proves causality is not fundamental to nature, then you are ignoring that most interpretations of QM are causal with the uncertainty being in our knowledge of the state of the whole universe and inability to observe without affecting.

    If you say there is an eternal universe, then you need a theory for how the universe is running out of usable energy and yet be infinitely old. As well, you have the latest evidence that the universe is speeding up its expansion indicating it is not static. Not to forget the philosophical argument that you can not physically traverse an infinite and say you’ve done so.

    For God, He has always existed because He is infinite, eternal, and immaterial. There are no boundaries in God, temporal or spatial, for which there is a change in state. Therefore God does not need a cause. You are making a categorical mistaken saying that causality must relate to God and the universe in the same way. The universe, being physical and bounded, requires a cause. God, being immaterial and unbounded does not.

    Lastly, the God of the Bible is not posited just because we need an explanation for the universe. That may be the point of myths, but there is more to this God than a mere explanation. First of all there must be a cause to the universe independent of whether we call it God or not. For such a cause to not need a cause, it must be immaterial, infinite, and eternal, which so happens to be the way the God of the Bible is said to be. Also, you have the evidence of the resurrection. That is a discussion for another post which I am quite sure is provided by Bill. But, I, who happen to have a physics degree, am quite convinced that the case for the resurrection is quite reasonable. The statement that it couldn’t have happened just because we don’t see resurrections is bogus. If we regularly saw resurrections, then there would not be anything special of the claim about Jesus. There is an historical argument for the resurrection that is not mere fantasy, but is consistent with historiography. The resurrection, combined with the need for a cause of the universe, combined with the moral absolutes which cannot be explained by mere social conventions, the consistency of Scripture, the prediction of prophecy, and the life change and experience of those who have faith all together give a reason why God is the answer to WHY.

    You might read Andrews’ book “Who Made God?” I think you both would enjoy it. It isn’t your typical book.

  • What is always so interesting about skeptics commenting on my blog posts is that they want to make my posts say far more than I ever attempted to say in the post itself. They want to race ahead to the end of “the argument” and cut me off at the pass. This comment from A is for Atheist is a textbook example.

    The only thing I was trying to argue is that an understanding of mechanistic natural laws does not, in and of itself, demand the non-existence of the Christian God. That is all and nothing more.

  • Andrew,
    The argument is simple. Knowing how something operates does not mean that we know how it originated. To assume that understanding how a thing operates is to know how it originated is a mistake, and the Ford motor car illustration makes that clear.

  • Boz,
    When someone attempts to explain how natural, physical processes regularly operate by positing a deity, then they’ve inserted a “God of the gaps” and science may eventually discover a physical mechanism which will fill in the gap.

    Your examples of special creation and the virgin birth do not count as “God of the gaps” instances. Why? Because they are not attempting to explain the operation of regularly occurring physical processes.

  • Todd

    Thanks for the reply Walter. To begin with causality; I don’t think either of us are saying there was not a cause for creating the universe. I am clearly stating that there is no need to assert that the cause was the Christian god. There is no foundation for the assertion that he exists, much less that he has anything to do with creation of the universe outside of biblical stories, which are unfounded.

    However, when you say… “For God, He has always existed because He is infinite, eternal, and immaterial. There are no boundaries in God, temporal or spatial, for which there is a change in state. Therefore God does not need a cause.”
    … you are producing a low fat ‘word salad’ for which there is no proof. Why is god infinite? How is he immaterial? How do you know he has no boundaries? But most importantly, on what authority do you make these statements and what proof does your authority have of god’s existence, much less these fantastic attributes?

    Your next assertion is the closest I’ve heard to a real argument for the Christian god: “First of all there must be a cause to the universe independent of whether we call it God or not. For such a cause to not need a cause, it must be immaterial, infinite, and eternal, which so happens to be the way the God of the Bible is said to be.”

    It would appear that you are trying to break the infinite regress problem here by saying that somewhere in the chain there was an uncaused-cause. You assert that an uncaused-cause must exhibit the characteristics of being “immaterial, infinite, and eternal.” Finally, you imply that we need not call the uncaused-cause god, but that the god of the bible is described in this way. From this, I assume you would like me to infer then that the god of the bible is the uncaused-cause of the universe. This of course is a logical fallacy and contains more unfounded statements.

    I will however, check out the book you recommended.

  • Matthew
  • Matthew

    there is no explanation required for the best explanation… because it is the best

  • Pingback: The God of the Gaps? | Tough Questions Answered()

  • Boz

    You are misunderstanding the theory of evolution.

    :

    Last Wednesdayism is a miracle, and to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton miracles by their very name aren’t of everyday occurrence, so it can’t be proved that a deity didn’t create the universe Last Wednesday. (this is an argument from ignorance fallacy)

  • Boz

    I agree that positing a deity to explain special creationism and a virgin birth are not god of the gaps arguments.

  • ME

    God IS Universe, Universe IS God. They are not two separate things. Everything comes from ONE source. God is All That IS. We Are not separate from each other, niether is anything separate from you. This is what it means “The Kingdom of Heaven is within” You have to look within to have this realization.