Dysteleological Physicalism Essay

Does Science Make God Irrelevant?

Does God still matter? This is the question that seems to be at the heart of the modern debate about God’s existence. Many unbelievers who label themselves agnostic-atheists do not claim definitively that God does not exist. They take the softer position that God probably does not exist, and even if he does exist, he is irrelevant in explaining the universe. As Dr. Richard Dawkins stated in a 2013 Cambridge debate with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, “Religion is redundant and irrelevant.”

But why is God seen as irrelevant? Why don’t modern agnostic-atheists think God matters? One reason, so it is claimed, is that science is sufficient to explain the physical universe.

For example, the world-renowned physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, in a 2010 interview on the Larry King Live show, stated, “God may exist, but science can explain the universe without the need for a creator.” But is this true? Can science give an exhaustive explanation of the universe that would negate the need for God? I’ll give two reasons why I think the answer is no.

Science and the Inductive Method

First, science’s explanatory power is not sufficient, because it relies on the inductive method in order to validate its hypotheses.

Contrary to the deductive method, the inductive method moves from knowledge of particulars to general conclusions. Without getting into the details that differentiate the inductive and deductive methods, suffice to say that absolute certainty about one’s conclusion is impossible when employing the inductive method. Since science relies on the inductive method, it follows that scientists can never be absolutely certain that their theories explaining the universe are complete. They can never be absolutely certain that they have discovered and observed every piece of data necessary to give a complete explanation of the universe—much less a complete enough explanation that would negate the need for God.

My mentor and friend Fr. Robert J. Spitzer likes to say, “Science cannot know what it has not yet discovered, because it has not yet discovered it.” In other words, scientists can be certain only about what they have already discovered through empirical observation. Certainty can never be had for whether there is some piece of data enshrouded in the past or a piece of data yet to be encountered that shifts the paradigm. Therefore, there necessarily exists in science a perpetual openness to discovering something new that could alter its current theory about the universe.

But if this is true, then one can never rationally claim that science can give a complete and exhaustive explanation of the universe—much less a complete enough explanation that God is no longer needed as its creator. So, the claim that God doesn’t matter because science can sufficiently explain the universe is unfounded.

Science and the Universe's Existence

Another way to respond to this objection is by pointing out that science in principle cannot explain why the universe exists in the first place rather than not exist.

Suppose for argument sake that science could give an exhaustive physical description of the universe. Would that necessarily negate the need for God in explaining the universe? Absolutely not! Why? Science has explanatory power given the fact that the universe exists. It presupposes an already existing universe to observe and explain. Consequently, it cannot explain why the universe exists in the first place. It can’t even explain why the universe exists in this way instead of some other way. So, to the question “What determines that there is to be a universe with time, space, and matter instead no universe at all?”, science is silent.

To the question, “What determines the universe to be this way—e.g., governed by quantum mechanics—and not some other way—e.g., not governed by quantum mechanics?”, science is silent. These are philosophical questions that can be answered only by philosophy. Therefore, science cannot take the place of God in sufficiently explaining the universe.

In conclusion, because science must always be open to modification due to its reliance on the inductive method and its inability to explain why the universe even exists rather than not exist, it will never be able to give an exhaustive description of the universe. Therefore, any claim that science has done away with the need for a transcendent creator in explaining the universe is simply unreasonable.

Written by Karlo Broussard

After a three-year apprenticeship with Fr. Robert Spitzer S.J. PhD., nationally known author, speaker, philosopher, and theologian, Karlo works as a full time apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers giving lectures throughout the country on topics in Catholic apologetics, theology and philosophy. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in theology from Catholic Distance University and the Augustine Institute, and is currently working on his masters in philosophy with Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is one of the most dynamic and enthusiastic Catholic speakers on the circuit today. He resides in Murrieta, CA with his wife and four children. You can view Karlo's online videos at KarloBroussard.com. You can also book Karlo for a speaking event by contacting Catholic Answers at 619-387-7200.

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Dysteleological Physicalism

By Sean Carroll | January 17, 2011 8:37 am

As a special behind-the-scenes tidbit for loyal blog readers, I will reveal here that The Pointless Universe was actually my second entry in the Edge World Question Center. My first, making the same point but using different words, was entitled “Dysteleological Physicalism.” To me, that kind of title is totally box office, and I’m happy to take credit for coining the phrase. (Expect T-shirts and bumper stickers soon.) But apparently not everyone agrees, and it was gently suggested that I come up with something less forbidding. Here is my original version.



The world consists of things, which obey rules. A simple idea, but not an obvious one, and it carries profound consequences.

Physicalism holds that all that really exists are physical things. Our notion of what constitutes a “physical thing” can change as our understanding of physics improves; these days our best conception of what really exists is a set of interacting quantum fields described by a wave function. What doesn’t exist, in this doctrine, is anything strictly outside the physical realm — no spirits, deities, or souls independent of bodies. It is often convenient to describe the world in other than purely physical terms, but that is a matter of practical usefulness rather than fundamental necessity.

Most modern scientists and philosophers are physicalists, but the idea is far from obvious, and it is not as widely accepted in the larger community as it could be. When someone dies, it seems apparent that something is *gone* — a spirit or soul that previously animated the body. The idea that a person is a complex chemical reaction, and that their consciousness emerges directly from the chemical interplay of the atoms of which they are made, can be a difficult one to accept. But it is the inescapable conclusion from everything science has learned about the world.

If the world is made of things, why do they act the way they do? A plausible answer to this question, elaborated by Aristotle and part of many people’s intuitive picture of how things work, is that these things want to be a certain way. they have a goal, or at least a natural state of being. Water wants to run downhill; fire wants to rise to the sky. Humans exist to be rational, or caring, or to glorify God; marriages are meant to be between a man and a woman.

This teleological, goal-driven, view of the world is reasonable on its face, but unsupported by science. When Avicenna and Galileo and others suggested that motion does not require a continuous impulse — that objects left to themselves simply keep moving without any outside help — they began the arduous process of undermining the teleological worldview. At a basic level, all any object ever does is obey rules — the laws of physics. These rules take a definite form: given the state of the object and its environment now, we can predict its state in the future. (Quantum mechanics introduces a stochastic component to the prediction, but the underlying idea remains the same.) The “reason” something happens is because it was the inevitable outcome of the state of the universe at an earlier time.

Ernst Haeckel coined the term “dysteleology” to describe the idea that the universe has no ultimate goal or purpose. His primary concern was with biological evolution, but the conception goes deeper. Google returns no hits for the phrase “dysteleological physicalism” (until now, I suppose). But it is arguably the most fundamental insight that science has given us about the ultimate nature of reality. The world consists of things, which obey rules. Everything else derives from that.

None of which is to say that life is devoid of purpose and meaning. Only that these are things we create, not things we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world. The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules; it’s up to us to make sense of it.

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