Does the Universe Need God?

I’ve had God on my mind lately, as I’ve been finishing an invited essay for the upcoming Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. The title is “Does the Universe Need God?“, and you can read the whole thing on my website by clicking.

I commend the editors, Jim Stump and Alan Padgett, for soliciting a contribution that will go against the grain of most of the other essays. As you might guess, my answer to the title question is “No,” while many of the other entries will be arguing “Yes” (or at least be sympathetic to that view). I think of my job as less about changing minds than informing — I want thoughtful people who are committed Christians reading this volume to at least understand where I am coming from, even if they don’t agree. Think of it as an elaboration of “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists Are Atheists,” which was a bit breezier.

Hopefully there is still a bit of time for tweaking the essay before the editors get back to me with their comments, so please let me know if you think I’m getting something importantly wrong. Again, the whole thing is here, but I’m including the final section (minus the footnotes) as a teaser below the fold. In the earlier sections I do more nitty-gritty cosmological stuff, talking about the Big Bang, the anthropic principle, and meta-explanatory maneuvers. In this section I finally evaluate the God hypothesis in scientific terms.

God as a theory

Religion serves many purposes other than explaining the natural world. Someone who grew up as an altar server, volunteers for their church charity, and has witnessed dozens of weddings and funerals of friends and family might not be overly interested in whether God is the best explanation for the value of the mass of the electron. The idea of God has functions other than those of a scientific hypothesis.

However, accounting for the natural world is certainly a traditional role for God, and arguably a foundational one. How we think about other religious practices depends upon whether our understanding of the world around us gives us a reason to believe in God. And insofar as it attempts to provide an explanation for empirical phenomena, the God hypothesis should be judged by the standards of any other scientific theory.

Consider a hypothetical world in which science had developed to something like its current state of progress, but nobody had yet thought of God. It seems unlikely that an imaginative thinker in this world, upon proposing God as a solution to various cosmological puzzles, would be met with enthusiasm. All else being equal, science prefers its theories to be precise, predictive, and minimal – requiring the smallest possible amount of theoretical overhead. The God hypothesis is none of these. Indeed, in our actual world, God is essentially never invoked in scientific discussions. You can scour the tables of contents in major physics journals, or titles of seminars and colloquia in physics departments and conferences, looking in vain for any mention of possible supernatural intervention into the workings of the world.

At first glance, the God hypothesis seems simple and precise – an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being. (There are other definitions, but they are usually comparably terse.) The apparent simplicity is somewhat misleading, however. In comparison to a purely naturalistic model, we’re not simply adding a new element to an existing ontology (like a new field or particle), or even replacing one ontology with a more effective one at a similar level of complexity (like general relativity replacing Newtonian spacetime, or quantum mechanics replacing classical mechanics). We’re adding an entirely new metaphysical category, whose relation to the observable world is unclear. This doesn’t automatically disqualify God from consideration as a scientific theory, but it implies that, all else being equal, a purely naturalistic model will be preferred on the grounds of simplicity.

There is an inevitable tension between any attempt to invoke God as a scientifically effective explanation of the workings of the universe, and the religious presumption that God is a kind of person, not just an abstract principle. God’s personhood is characterized by an essential unpredictability and the freedom to make choices. These are not qualities that one looks for in a good scientific theory. On the contrary, successful theories are characterized by clear foundations and unambiguous consequences. We could imagine boiling God’s role in setting up the world down to a few simple principles (e.g., “God constructs the universe in the simplest possible way consistent with the eventual appearance of human beings”). But is what remains recognizable as God?

Similarly, the apparent precision of the God hypothesis evaporates when it comes to connecting to the messy workings of reality. To put it crudely, God is not described in equations, as are other theories of fundamental physics. Consequently, it is difficult or impossible to make predictions. Instead, one looks at what has already been discovered, and agrees that that’s the way God would have done it. Theistic evolutionists argue that God uses natural selection to develop life on Earth; but religious thinkers before Darwin were unable to predict that such a mechanism would be God’s preferred choice.

Ambitious approaches to contemporary cosmological questions, such as quantum cosmology, the multiverse, and the anthropic principle, have not yet been developed into mature scientific theories. But the advocates of these schemes are working hard to derive testable predictions on the basis of their ideas: for the amplitude of cosmological perturbations, signals of colliding pocket universes in the cosmic microwave background, and the mass of the Higgs boson and other particles. For the God hypothesis, it is unclear where one would start. Why does God favor three generations of elementary particles, with a wide spectrum of masses? Would God use supersymmetry or strong dynamics to stabilize the hierarchy between the weak scale and the Planck scale, or simply set it that way by hand? What would God’s favorite dark matter particle be?

This is a venerable problem, reaching far beyond natural theology. In numerous ways, the world around us is more like what we would expect from a dysteleological set of uncaring laws of nature than from a higher power with an interest in our welfare. As another thought experiment, imagine a hypothetical world in which there was no evil, people were invariably kind, fewer natural disasters occurred, and virtue was always rewarded. Would inhabitants of that world consider these features to be evidence against the existence of God? If not, why don’t we consider the contrary conditions to be such evidence?

Over the past five hundred years, the progress of science has worked to strip away God’s roles in the world. He isn’t needed to keep things moving, or to develop the complexity of living creatures, or to account for the existence of the universe. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the scientific revolution has been in the realm of methodology. Control groups, double-blind experiments, an insistence on precise and testable predictions – a suite of techniques constructed to guard against the very human tendency to see things that aren’t there. There is no control group for the universe, but in our attempts to explain it we should aim for a similar level of rigor. If and when cosmologists develop a successful scientific understanding of the origin of the universe, we will be left with a picture in which there is no place for God to act – if he does (e.g., through subtle influences on quantum-mechanical transitions or the progress of evolution), it is only in ways that are unnecessary and imperceptible. We can’t be sure that a fully naturalist understanding of cosmology is forthcoming, but at the same time there is no reason to doubt it. Two thousand years ago, it was perfectly reasonable to invoke God as an explanation for natural phenomena; now, we can do much better.

None of this amounts to a “proof” that God doesn’t exist, of course. Such a proof is not forthcoming; science isn’t in the business of proving things. Rather, science judges the merits of competing models in terms of their simplicity, clarity, comprehensiveness, and fit to the data. Unsuccessful theories are never disproven, as we can always concoct elaborate schemes to save the phenomena; they just fade away as better theories gain acceptance. Attempting to explain the natural world by appealing to God is, by scientific standards, not a very successful theory. The fact that we humans have been able to understand so much about how the natural world works, in our incredibly limited region of space over a remarkably short period of time, is a triumph of the human spirit, one in which we can all be justifiably proud.

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121 Responses to Does the Universe Need God?

  1. kris says:

    Hi there,

    Well thought out, written, and executed. While I may have gone about things differently on a few points, your way is laudable and comports itself well within the context of the essay.

    There is one statement I think may aid in completeness, however. In the final paragraph you are describing the merits of scientific models. Isn’t another important characteristic of a good model that it makes accurate predictions?

    Just a thought. As I said, well done.

    Kris

  2. Nex says:

    Wow, what a nonsensical question to ask.

    Does the Universe need god? Of course, if humans had never came up with the concept of god the Universe would have surely imploded by now! Thankfully we did and the absurdity of this idea is the only thing that keeps the expansion going.

  3. Josh says:

    Nitpicky question. Sean writed in dtung:

    “To his surprise, Einstein found that general relativity implied that any uniform universe would necessarily be non-static – either expanding or contracting. In response he suggested modifying his theory by adding a new parameter called the “cosmological constant,” which acted to push against the tendency of matter to contract together. ”

    Did Einstein really appreciate that GR could imply an expanding as well as a contracting universe? When I usually teach this stuff, I note that the dynamics implied from Einstein’s Equations and most normal entities that have non-zero stress-energy tensors imply a global contraction. This leads more-or-less naturally to an attempt to balance out this “attractive” stuff so that the Einstein Tensor is uniquely to zero with the normal sign-convention on the metric yielding a positive energy density with a negative pressure for a cosmological-constant-like entity.

  4. Christopher Kandrat says:

    I think it causes a lot of tension between people who believe in different gods. And if you tell people theres one or none, the current people would go insane.

  5. David George says:

    Does the universe need physical cosmology?

    “All else being equal, science prefers its theories to be precise, predictive, and minimal – requiring the smallest possible amount of theoretical overhead.”

    Accepting this statement and given all the possible “theories” that follow in the article, it appears that physical cosmology has a long way to go before it meets the scientific preference for low overhead. And what is the theory that “predicts” big bang nucleosynthesis and microwave background radiation? (Or the “initial” hot dense state?)

    I believe there are several arguments to be made for a universe — and a non-omnipotent, non-omniscient, non-omnibenevolent creative power — that is not dreamt of in the philosophy of “standard model” physical cosmology, but I get the feeling you aren’t interested in them. Good luck explaining not-God by string theory, etc.

  6. AnotherSean says:

    Well, I get stuck thinking about this issue also. Probably, I have no more favorable opinion of an anthropormphic character than you do. But, in reviewing your article, I notice you admitt that “God” is an entirely different metaphysical category, completely different than any scientific hypothesis. I agree. But if thats true, then I don’t think that the arguments following from the scientific method you give are particularly useful in deciding its existence. In other words, if God is not a scientific concept, then we end at that point, and nothing more can be said. Now at this point you can say the concept is gratuitous, Ockham’s razor cuts it out, so forth. Thats fine, but this is just seems to me to be another way of saying we shouldn’t believe things we don’t have scientific evidence for, which is an hypothesis and not a conclusion. Please let me know if I’m missing something which is entirely possible.

  7. Jim Johnson says:

    Sean, I wouldn’t say this is importantly wrong, but since you did ask for input…

    In your final paragraph, in the sentence, “Such a proof is not forthcoming; science isn’t in the business of proving things. ” I would change that to “isn’t in the business of disproving things”.

    “Disproving” fits in the context of the paragraph better than “proving”, and besides, most readers would probably react with, “Wait! Science proves things all the time. It proved water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen.” or some such, which I’m sure is not where you want your reader’s mind to be during your summation.

  8. spyder says:

    I don’t know about this God of which you are talking, but it appears to me that Shiva is sure dancing on our heads at the moment.

  9. Why just one GOD ?

    The fact is – Life is too hard to do for just your self – we humans need someone to look up to – to fear – to – challenge us , and to reward us (with supersymmetry ?) and at times – horrifyingly punish us.

  10. Lord says:

    Cosmology already has God in the multiverse.

  11. eyesoars says:

    IMO, the question “Does God Exist?” is ill-posed.

    Simpler questions, “Did a sentient entity create the observable universe?” are still unanswerable, but may make the absurdity of the proposition more apparent.

  12. Sean says:

    Josh– I’m not sure what you mean. For every contracting solution of GR, there is an expanding solution, just by time reversal. I’m pretty sure Einstein knew this.

    Jim– “Proving” is really what I meant, in particular to draw a distinction between the logical/mathematical notion of “proof” and the necessarily more provisional nature of scientific demonstration. That may not be clear to everyone, but unfortunately the essay is already far too long and they’re going to cut it.

  13. Shecky R. says:

    I s’pose I’m in the Stephen Jay Gould camp of viewing science and religion as two completely separate magesteria with little to say to one another. I love (good) science, but also recognize that it could conceivably be almost entirely wrong (…i.e., if we are all just simple automata created by a highly advanced civilization that has pre-programmed our every thought, perception, and sense of reality). On the religion-side, if there is a God I imagine he is so beyond human comprehension and understanding that it is almost futile to attempt discussion or description of him.

    Can’t help but think from wording of the question that most respondents will be promoting the Anthropic Principle in one form or another — your essay may not have spent enough time on it, and a little too much time on some side topics (hard to know without actually seeing the other respondents). But it’s certainly a fine essay.

  14. Glenn says:

    Love it! We can’t find 96% of the universe or prove string theory, but we know enough to decide it God exists.

    Funny stuff thanks for the laughs.

  15. Nullius in Verba says:

    Does the universe need meaning?

    Ideas, concepts, meanings, semantic information, even the abstract mathematics used to describe the universe are all things that exist, but are they actually required? Is a universe without meanings conceivable, and if so, what would it be like? Is it inevitable whenever self-similarity exists in the laws of physics?

    If the laws of physics as they exist have given rise to computation and meaning, and our qualia-experience of them, and the laws of physics are as they are because they could be no other way, then what are the boundaries on the physical systems where this can apply? If physics is computation, and the state of the universe holds meaning, would it not be peculiar if this was limited to that tiny bit of the universe that is ‘alive’? (As if life was at all distinct from dead matter from the point of view of the laws of physics.) If the laws of physics require it, can any physical system be entirely without it? Absolute zero? Few categories have such sharp boundaries on close enough examination. How many neurons are required before we quantum-jump from ‘zero’ to ‘one’? Are not all universal Turing-machines equivalent? On what basis can we reject outright the idea that the universe computes, that the subject of its computation has meaning (however dim and confused or nonsensical), or that by the same means that we qualia-experience our own thoughts, that the universe itself might too?

    And if the entire universe is conscious, and our own consciousnesses only especially dense concentrations of awareness within this sea of thought, what would you call such an experiencing ‘mind’?

    Pure speculation, of course, but all done without stepping outside the bounds of natural law, or inventing phenomena not already known to exist (i.e. in ourselves). We cannot know whether the universe needs such a pantheist ‘God’ without understanding the physical roots of intelligence, information, meaning, and qualia-awareness.

    Philosophy is fun! But not very amenable to getting definite answers to interesting questions.

  16. GMH says:

    My only objection to this is that you shouldn’t be talking about a “dysteleological” set of uncaring laws, but an “ateleogical” set. The laws have NO purpose, rather than a malign or hostile purpose. A dystheist would be somebody who believes that God exists, but that God is evil; an atheist says there is no God.

  17. Qubit says:

    Does God need a universe?

    What would be the purpose of it anyway?
    Maybe he just wanted to become a real man! Maybe anybody can be God.

  18. Alan says:

    Thanks for the article. Isn’t space itself the origin of everything – Professor Frank Wilczek’s “grid” (the quantum vacuum) or something beyond that ? I am very interested in what life, for instance me as a being actually is, “sitting” in this grid (isn’t 99.9 % of our mass actually an energy in this vacuum?), and the possibility of continuation of consciousness/awareness after death simply because there is scientific work looking at this possibility. If these studies pan out to an affirmative this raise the question:

    What is the structure of space, this grid and indeed our universe that may allow this possibility? Doesn’t this make this whole universe/space thing God-like? And all generated within the multiverse.

    You cite Hawking’s question in your main article “What place, then, for a creator?”. John Polkinghorne answers:

    It would be theologically naive to give any answer other than: “Every place – as the sustainer of the self-sustained spacetime egg and as the creator of its quantum laws.”

    I also find it rather spooky that, for our universe, you can’t have consciousness without quantum-based laws running through and through so that if there is some continuation of awareness then this is all built in.
    And then another question, where do “I” actually go afterwards – what is this journey? Is it a journey? It just seems to me that in this violent universe universe governed by known laws there may be a kind of deeply personal aspect which is being missed.

    Camp fire+beer questions but valid surely.

  19. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I know Blackwell’s title is meant to provoke somehow, but it’s so simultaneously loaded and vacuous it barely warrants acknowledgement, much less a respectful answer. It’s incredibly silly to talk about the “needs” of the universe, even as a metaphor, so why ruin a potentially interesting debate with such a turd for an opening salvo?

    Anyway, the discussion is fine as far as it goes, but limiting arguments to more-or-less doctrinaire conceptions of God vs. the superior explanatory power of science is shooting fish in a barrel. Of course religious thinkers have done a piss-poor job at describing the world and predicting its behavior (when predictable at all). That any of them would attempt to argue otherwise simply demonstrates how impervious to reason they are, not that this particular horse hasn’t yet been flogged enough. It’s been beaten to atoms by now; I doubt cracking its nuclei will be any more persuasive.

    A far more interesting debate might go this way: Religious thinkers would first acknowledge, at least for the sake of argument, that whatever The Explanation might be for existence, neither their particular mythology, nor any recognizable derivative thereof, have anything useful to contribute to finding accurate answers. With that out of the way, to what extent has modern scientific theory excluded any necessary role for an intelligent, purposeful actor in shaping existence? What role, if any, could a Creator worthy of the name yet play? If any, what scenarios are conceivable in which the Creator might be “natural”? Would it be worthy of worship, or even consideration? If we were to, say, inhabit a simulation or a false vacuum deliberately created in a lab, how might that effect science? Religion? Is it even worth it for scientists and theologians to consider such questions?

  20. Joseph Smidt says:

    Sean,

    I really admire your posts and thinking but I think this conclusion is weak:

    “Most scientists, however, 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.””

    You get rid of God, fine, but you now want people to accept a universe that exists which has rational laws and just assert there is no explanation at some point. You point out the laws the universe operate just fine on their own, again I think this makes sense, but then I think you make a stretch implying the question “so where do these laws come from in the first place?” doesn’t need an answer.

    Now, you bring up a good point with “Humans just think explanations are needed but there doesn’t need to be one.” But not only is this disappointing intellectually, that we will come so far only to find out the answers stop, but also, it seems to me to be no more than a guess.

    Sorry to be making a “watchmaker” type argument here, but when you come across a very rational set of laws that describe all aspects of the universe (something like string theory hopes to do) I think it is a much easier pill to swallow thinking rational laws may have origins in a lawgiver then to conclude “well, I guess this is just how things are and there is no reason I should expect an explanation”.

  21. Joseph Smidt, comment 20, wrote:

    “You get rid of God, fine, but you now want people to accept a universe that exists which has rational laws and just assert there is no explanation at some point. You point out the laws the universe operate just fine on their own, again I think this makes sense, but then I think you make a stretch implying the question “so where do these laws come from in the first place?” doesn’t need an answer. ”

    I agree. We don’t know the answer != these questions don’t have answers.

  22. Nullius in Verba says:

    “Is it even worth it for scientists and theologians to consider such questions?”

    If a pantheist proposed that artificial intelligence would have to be aware of the meaning of the information it processed, that it would experience it, is that a testable prediction? Would that open a way to identify the minimum required? Or if it’s not testable, what else might there be that isn’t testable?

  23. jpd says:

    i hesitate to speak for most scientists, but i think this is more accurate:

    “Most scientists, however, suspect that the search for ultimate explanations eventually terminates in some final theory of the world, along with the phrase “and that’s the only way that makes sense.””

  24. Julia says:

    The universe may not need God (and science certainly doesn’t need God since I believe science and religion are two completely different concepts – one is fact based observations and one is a philosophical meditation on existence as a whole) but apparently people have always needed a God. My husband just finished reading The Faith Instinct and kept reading bits and pieces of it out loud to me. It’s so interesting I want to read it now. He’s an athiest and I’m a Christian and it was fascinating to both of us.

    Your comment “imagine that no one had thought of God yet” got me thinking that after hearing bits and pieces from that book it sounds like from anthropologist’s point of view that would be impossible for our species to not have come up with some greater diety that comes in the form of us. I don’t think scientific discovery will ever make athiests out of everyone but hopefully it will continue to break down dogma in religion as ancient superstitions are shown to be just that – superstitions.

  25. Sean,

    I haven’t read the whole piece — just the part in the post above — so, maybe some of my remarks are anticipated in the other material. That said, I wasn’t sure about the following:

    1. You write, “How we think about other religious practices depends upon whether our understanding of the world around us gives us a reason to believe in God.”

    I’m not sure exactly which religious practices you have in mind, but my own experience with religious practice leads me to think that your claim is false. Religious practices are more often grounded on revelation or something similar to revelation (or more neutrally, supposed or alleged revelation) than they are on scientific (or even pseudo-scientific) inferences from the character of the world. That is, for many religious people, experience of and relationship with God is direct. Conviction that God exists follows from direct experience of God (or what is believed to be direct experience with God), not from scientific or logical/ontological proofs, demonstrations, arguments, or evidences that God exists.

    2. You write, “If and when cosmologists develop a successful scientific understanding of the origin of the universe, we will be left with a picture in which there is no place for God to act.”

    I have heard this in a few places recently, and I don’t see any methodological justification for it. What I *can* see methodological justification for is the weaker Laplacian claim that given an account of the type you suppose, there would be no reason to hypothesize that God acts. But in order to say that there is no room left for God to act, you need to preclude cases of causal over-determination, and I see no grounds for doing that in general.

    3. Related to my previous two points, I worry that your title is apt to mislead. The right question isn’t whether the universe needs or fails to need God, it is whether our *models* or *theories* of the universe need or fail to need God. Here, I think atheist/agnostic cosmologists are on pretty firm ground. You can say with Laplace, “I just don’t need that hypothesis.” You give some compelling philosophical arguments in your wrap up, and though I haven’t read the rest, I’m sure the scientific arguments are compelling as well. Such a conclusion should be devastating to anyone who bases his or her religious practice on cosmological arguments for the existence of God. But, as I said earlier, I don’t think there are any such people. So, the fact that we don’t need God in order to account for facts about cosmology is no challenge at all to religious practice.

    4. Finally, I am worried about this passage:

    “There is an inevitable tension between any attempt to invoke God as a scientifically effective explanation of the workings of the universe, and the religious presumption that God is a kind of person, not just an abstract principle. God’s personhood is characterized by an essential unpredictability and the freedom to make choices. These are not qualities that one looks for in a good scientific theory. On the contrary, successful theories are characterized by clear foundations and unambiguous consequences.”

    I might be reading uncharitably, but at first glance, it looks like you are putting meteorology, history, sociology, economics, epidemiology, ecology, psychology, neuroscience, and big chunks of animal biology out of science. Those fields are characterized by lots of complexity that makes prediction fraught, appeals to the “free” actions of persons or near-persons in explanations of phenomena (especially in history, sociology, and economics), and a basic lack of well-confirmed, generic equations that describe phenomena in their domains (scattered equations here and there, yes, but not anywhere near the level of physics). Am I just being unfair here?