Will Science Someday Rule Out the Possibility of God?

By Natalie Wolchover | 17 September 2012
Life’s Little Mysteries

Over the past few centuries, science can be said to have gradually chipped away at the traditional grounds for believing in God. Much of what once seemed mysterious — the existence of humanity, the life-bearing perfection of Earth, the workings of the universe — can now be explained by biology, astronomy, physics and other domains of science.

Although cosmic mysteries remain, Sean Carroll, a theoretical cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, says there’s good reason to think science will ultimately arrive at a complete understanding of the universe that leaves no grounds for God whatsoever.

Carroll argues that God’s sphere of influence has shrunk drastically in modern times, as physics and cosmology have expanded in their ability to explain the origin and evolution of the universe.  “As we learn more about the universe, there’s less and less need to look outside it for help,” he told Life’s Little Mysteries.

He thinks the sphere of supernatural influence will eventually shrink to nil. But could science really eventually explain everything?

Beginning of time

Gobs of evidence have been collected in favor of the Big Bang model of cosmology, or the notion that the universe expanded from a hot, infinitely dense state to its current cooler, more expansive state over the course of 13.7 billion years. Cosmologists can model what happened from 10^-43 seconds after the Big Bang until now, but the split-second before that remains murky. Some theologians have tried to equate the moment of the Big Bang with the description of the creation of the world found in the Bible and other religious texts; they argue that something — i.e., God — must have initiated the explosive event.

However, in Carroll’s opinion, progress in cosmology will eventually eliminate any perceived need for a Big Bang trigger-puller.

As he explained in a recent article in the “Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), a foremost goal of modern physics is to formulate a working theory that describes the entire universe, from subatomic to astronomical scales, within a single framework. Such a theory, called “quantum gravity,” will necessarily account for what happened at the moment of the Big Bang. Some versions of quantum gravity theory that have been proposed by cosmologists predict that the Big Bang, rather than being the starting point of time, was just “a transitional stage in an eternal universe,” in Carroll’s words. For example, one model holds that the universe acts like a balloon that inflates and deflates over and over under its own steam. If, in fact, time had no beginning, this shuts the book on Genesis. [Big Bang Was Actually a Phase Change, New Theory Says]

Other versions of quantum gravity theory currently being explored by cosmologists predict that time did start at the Big Bang. But these versions of events don’t cast a role for God either. Not only do they describe the evolution of the universe since the Big Bang, but they also account for how time was able to get underway in the first place. As such, these quantum gravity theories still constitute complete, self-contained descriptions of the history of the universe. “Nothing in the fact that there is a first moment of time, in other words, necessitates that an external something is required to bring the universe about at that moment,” Carroll wrote.

Another way to put it is that contemporary physics theories, though still under development and awaiting future experimental testing, are turning out to be capable of explaining why Big Bangs occur, without the need for a supernatural jumpstart. As Alex Filippenko, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a conference talk earlier this year, “The Big Bang could’ve occurred as a result of just the laws of physics being there. With the laws of physics, you can get universes.”

Parallel universes

But there are other potential grounds for God. Physicists have observed that many of the physical constants that define our universe, from the mass of the electron to the density of dark energy, are eerily perfect for supporting life. Alter one of these constants by a hair, and the universe becomes  unrecognizable. “For example, if the mass of the neutron were a bit larger (in comparison to the mass of the proton) than its actual value, hydrogen would not fuse into deuterium and conventional stars would be impossible,” Carroll said. And thus, so would life as we know it. [7 Theories on the Origin of Life]

Theologians often seize upon the so-called “fine-tuning” of the physical constants as evidence that God must have had a hand in them; it seems he chose the constants just for us. But contemporary physics explains our seemingly supernatural good luck in a different way.

Some versions of quantum gravity theory, including string theory, predict that our life-giving universe is but one of an infinite number of universes that altogether make up the multiverse. Among these infinite universes, the full range of values of all the physical constants are represented, and only some of the universes have values for the constants that enable the formation of stars, planets and life as we know it. We find ourselves in one of the lucky universes (because where else?). [Parallel Universes Explained in 200 Words]

Some theologians counter that it is far simpler to invoke God than to postulate the existence of infinitely many universes in order to explain our universe’s life-giving perfection. To them, Carroll retorts that the multiverse wasn’t postulated as a complicated way to explain fine-tuning. On the contrary, it follows as a natural consequence of our best, most elegant theories.

Once again, if or when these theories prove correct, “a multiverse happens, whether you like it or not,” he wrote. And there goes God’s hand in things. [Poll: Do You Believe in God?]

The reason why

Another role for God is as a raison d’être for the universe. Even if cosmologists manage to explain how the universe began, and why it seems so fine-tuned for life, the question might remain why there is something as opposed to nothing. To many people, the answer to the question is God. According to Carroll, this answer pales under scrutiny. There can be no answer to such a question, he says.

“Most scientists … 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,'” Carroll wrote. People who find this unsatisfying are failing to treat the entire universe as something unique — “something for which a different set of standards is appropriate.” A complete scientific theory that accounts for everything in the universe doesn’t need an external explanation in the same way that specific things within the universe need external explanations. In fact, Carroll argues, wrapping another layer of explanation (i.e., God) around a self-contained theory of everything would just be an unnecessary complication. (The theory already works without God.)

Judged by the standards of any other scientific theory, the “God hypothesis” does not do very well, Carroll argues. But he grants that “the idea of God has functions other than those of a scientific hypothesis.”

Psychology research suggests that belief in the supernatural acts as societal glue and motivates people to follow the rules; further, belief in the afterlife helps people grieve and staves off fears of death.

“We’re not designed at the level of theoretical physics,” Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, told LiveScience last year. What matters to most people “is what happens at the human scale, relationships to other people, things we experience in a lifetime.”

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover or Life’s Little Mysteries @llmysteries.

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Is god omnipotent? Any god described as omnipotent cannot exist, via the following: Can god create an object that he cannot lift?

    Does god have a mind? If so, then he must have a brain. If he has a brain, then he could not have existed prior to the universe. God = dead.

  2. Will science.. rule out God?.. Words and their meanings become fleeting in a society that does not have an unmoving Source of truth, and the word 'science' has obviously been given impetus it should never have now that "correctness" is trumping truth. It is a wonder that laws of any kind can even exist where truth is as relative as it has become.
    This really comes down to a single word: knowledge. As far as I am concerned the more I know the more I know that I do not know and the more impetus for truth belonging to The one who does. Of course there is a theory that has been installed as fact via the unconstitutional D.O.E. that has given science the power to remove us from a place of humble gratitude and disciplines of discovery to a place of arrogance and narcissism. That indoctrination is Darwin's theories that are now seen as fact due to man's promotion of them outside of any realistic honesty and his ever pushing towards being free from owning a con science. The concept God installs accounting and accountability .. we can't have that! Conclusions and conclusiveness are generally what bring us to knowing that we did not know what we thought we knew and that there was certainly a whole lot more to know. The previous commenter reveals that in that four sentences is all it takes to undo the creation and replace God with time itself. His faith takes a lot more faith than mine. The very idea of intelligence becomes so fleeting in the minds of those that think truth is something to own rather than something to obey. The very world we are living in vomits us out as we live in such complete and utter arrogance.

  3. THINK SCIENCE IS CRITICAL FOR MODERN WORLD CIVILIZATION? I think that we reveal ourselves as arrogant when we see science as central. So much of what we thought was scientific over the centuries has been proven us to have no more intelligence than a worm. Knowledge should take us to a place of humbleness because when we look into the past and into the future we know just enough to know just how much we don't. Takes a huge amount of faith to think that time is God rather than someone who has and uses intelligence, that, by the way, looks like us.

  4. Science has been reductionist for far too long. If it aint proven by science, it does not exist. What a stupid way to look at a world that has so much more in it than we can comprehend! Many scientists would like to broaden their view, but FEAR that they might lose their job! Science tries to deny intuition, yet Einstein and many others got their insights through intuition.

    Now there is at least one scientist who has written a book about his research, showing that science's idea that all this occurred by chance is invalid, and that there is in fact, good scientific evidence for the existence of a guiding, organizing, designing force (G.O.D.) that influences all our lives, whether we believe it or not. His name is Gary Schwartz PhD and one of his books is The G.O.D. Experiments. Pity the poor reductionist scientist on his voyage through this wonderful world!

  5. CREAT YOUR OWN UNIVERSE AND THEN CONDUCT RESEARCHES ON IT…..FIRST TRY EXISTING WITHOUT THE BREATH IN YOUR NOSTRILS AND THEN TALK….

  6. “Every scientist becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men.”[9]
    Albert Einstein
    Science can only hope to describe what is already in existence. No one will ever understand how it came to be in existence. There are more atoms in a grain of sand than grains of sand on all the beaches on earth. Scientists know this for sure where we can only take their word for it. Can you not imagine they (scientists) are in awe of the Universe? If it's not God then what is it? Because its obviously SOMETHING. To deny that obvious fact is to be simple minded like the child who covers his eyes and believes you can't see him.

    • That's an oversimplification. Just because your id/ego tells you it "must" be something doesn't mean you are right.

      Evidence, quantify, test, repeat.

      You are on an Internet created by the science you deny….

      The irony hurts…

  7. It is not the job of Science to rule out God which unfortunately seems to have taken hold in groups like talkorigins or facebook pages like "I f'nlove science' and even among some atheistic scientists. Rather science is a tool for discovering and understanding the world around us. One can argue that the rational arguments for an Intelligent Designer are actually way more rational than nothing did it because we can prove and test over and over again that nothing produces nothing, and something produces something. We even have laws of science like Biogenesis which shows that life only comes from life, and we can deduce that design or code rationally comes from a coder or intelligence in every place that we find it. Atomic Biology is postulated in defense of an Intelligent God who does Intelligent work daily that we can observe in the book, "So Who is this God of our Nations and What does He Do for Me?" ( http://www.realityrandd.com ) the view in that book is that what we observe at the atomic level is a definitive look at a superior intelligence infront of our eyes. Though it could be argued as a "God did it" type of argument it also logically implies that we need to address this deeper look at what happens millions of times a day.

    • Why you say it is not susceptible to be objectively measured and tested if according to human and documentary scriptures (possible fictitious) it's supposedly extant and interacts with Matter and Energy. More than that, according to those who imagine him (without any evidence, solely out of childhood indoctrination), it is the creator of everything.

  8. The fact is that according to physics and Biology, there is no need for a deity at all. Actually, given the fact that the recent apparition of breakthrough theses on important areas on astrophysics and computer science which, along with the previous theories from Newton, Einstein, Feynman, Friedman and others, explain thoroughly enough the existence and creation of matter from literally “Nothing” (quantum subatomic vacuum fluctuations) onto a totally autonomous, self contained and finite but continuous Universe by Professor Lawrence Krauss and another from Dr England about the spontaneous self evolving complexity as its primordial embedded Entropic property (which includes Evolution and also explain satisfactorily the paradoxical nature of “Time”). It is possible to assert Science has accomplished enough for anybody to conclude with great certainty that even if a god exist, the fact that it requires so much more complexity and trouble for elaborating the process to explain its own creation than the reason for what he’s been proposed, along with the notorious recent facts which demonstrates it is so infinitesimally almost totally powerless, useless and absent, would make its existence so superfluous and unnecessary that its mere presence would not be needed at all for anything. Therefore, it also would intrinsically be somebody lacking any godly attribute at all, it would be just a worthless nullity of a being, even with less power than a simple mortal human being, an ant or a quantum of light…I think it's far worse to let people to believe in a god that behaves totally indifferent and purposeless, sometimes needlessly cruel and immoral, than to just say the most likely true: the Universe is as it is just because there is none and we humans are the ones entitled with empathy, ideals and morality to change that, being ultimately ourselves nothing but the realization of an in principle simple thermodynamic self evolving complexity gradual process that started 13.7 billions years ago simply to dissipate more and more efficiently the original energy from the Big Bang, following this relentless gradient on increasing Entropy…We are the transitory real time self-aware universe observing itself in this time and place.

  9. Interview with Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, 30 September 2008: "I don't say there's no God, I'm not an atheist because I find atheism to be a mirror of the certainty of religion and I don't like certainty about the next world because we can't know… What I say is I don't know." Bill Maher

  10. I have never in my life, read so much ignorance and stupidity as I have here. You reject science, but not the technology that it gives you to use in your daily lives. Science gives you everything you have and use today. Electricity, Clean water and safe food. Modern medicine and healthcare, your washer and dryer, your computer and the internet. Everything you have and use is brought to you by SCIENCE!

    If you truly believe in god… Next time you have a true life threatening emergency CALL HIM instead of 911. Go ahead I dare you… If you dial 911, you are an Atheist.

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