Irrational Faith--What Science Cannot Explain

Matt Tang

Matt is currently a senior in the Electrical Engineering department at Princeton University, with a concentration in Information Systems and Signals.  He plans on pursuing a graduate degree in the field.  In his spare time, he enjoys playing tennis.

When asked to explain their disbelief in God, most atheists will cite the results of science.  They may not go so far as to claim that science disproves the existence of God, but most will invariably argue that science certainly challenges the possibility.  When pressed to explain exactly how science poses such a challenge, however, few can come up with a cogent response.  Indeed, most unconsciously place science on a pedestal, not fully comprehending its limitations yet trusting it as proof of man’s intellectual grasp of a physical universe in which there is no room for God.

I believe, however, that rather than challenging His existence, creation screams of it.  Any open-minded study of His work, the universe we live in, inevitably reveals His glory, His infinite nature, His majesty, and His grace.  The only rational response to such splendor is worship, but too often we are like the blind fool that views a Rembrandt and disregards it as a canvas of accidental brushstrokes.  Yet aren’t we much more foolish?  For surely nature is infinitely more beautiful than that of any Rembrandt!

But pointing out what I believe to be obvious can hardly be considered an argument.  I will therefore try to address a few of the arguments that an atheist might make.  In particular, I will consider the common claim that every phenomenon can be explained by physical laws, thus ruling out the possibility of any sort of spiritual or supernatural essence .1

1. The Atheist’s Claim
This claim seems straightforward enough.  Many would not consider accepting the existence of some set of physical laws, for example, to require any sort of large leap of faith.  And if the universe obeys these laws without exception, how can God exist?  Or more importantly, if God exists, of what relevance is he if he cannot operate outside these laws?  Skeptics of the resurrection and other miracles tend to rely on some manifestation of this argument.

But consider the implications of such an argument.  A universe in which God is subjected to a set of absolute laws is a universe in which we, too, are subjected to the same laws.  If God remains irrelevant because he cannot exert his will, it follows that we, also, cannot exert ours.  So unless we are willing to disregard completely the notion of free will2, we cannot claim God to be powerless in such a universe.

2. The Inexplicable Nature of Free Will
So where does free will fall with respect to the atheist’s claim?  Let us examine free will a bit more closely.  Free will, in its most basic manifestation, allows me to pick up that pen lying next to me simply by willing my arm to move.  No set of physical laws can predict my decision to pick up that pen.  The synaptic firings of the neurons in my brain that constitute that decision arise spontaneously, not as a predetermined result of any chemical or physical reactions obeying a set of laws.

Contrast this to the flipping of a coin.  Classical mechanics will tell us that whether the coin lands heads or tails is predetermined even as it leaves your hand.  The amount and direction of force applied to the coin, the viscosity of the air, the hardness of the surface it lands on; all these and thousands of other variables have already determined the outcome of the toss.  The same can be said of a leaf falling from a tree, or the way dust swirls in the wind.  Their movements are fixed, random to us only because we have no way of determining the values of the variables involved.

Yet, if we are to accept free will, the same cannot be said of a man’s decision to walk in a certain direction or move in a certain way.  Our very sense of self-awareness cries out against the possibility that all of our decisions are mere products external forces.  And this brings up another question.  Can these physical laws accommodate the reality of self-awareness?

Regardless of the scientific hypothesis that one chooses to accept for self-awareness  or free will,3 the inescapable fact that we can control, absolutely, some aspect of our bodies contradicts our intuition about physical laws.  The choices we make are not the result of some deterministic, or even probabilistic4, antecedent state of affairs.  We are completely responsible for our actions.  How ridiculous would it be, for example, if a murderer claimed that his murder was the result of external forces that he could not control?

3. Life as the Driving Force Behind Free Will
So what is this extra-physical force that initiates the decision-making process?  Many will agree that the presence of this force is, in fact, what distinguishes life from non-life.  We classify a rock, for example, as nonliving because it has no will and because the natural forces surrounding it completely characterize its existence.  Even a virus, despite exhibiting behavioral characteristics of a living organism, is not considered living simply because its actions (attaching itself to host cells and injecting viral DNA) can be modeled and predicted.  It seems to follow, then, that life, rather than being defined by physical laws, is defined by the inability of physical laws to explain it.  And if physical laws cannot justify life, what can?

Most atheists concede that life exists, but will stop there.  Life, as they see it, arises in an unpredictable pattern.  After the individual components of an organism come together, the organism becomes more than the sum of its parts, making it “living.”  They take it on faith that life spontaneously occurs, requiring no physical explanation.  This type of faith is reflected in their attempts at reproducing life in an artificial context.  So far, all such attempts have been limited to the replication of the structures found in living organisms.  Because scientists don’t know why life happens, the best they can do is try to reconstruct what they know to be alive.5

I have a hard time, however, accepting anything without explanation.  With life, we don’t have a case of Timon wondering what those “sparkly dots are up there.”  While science will later show that those dots are indeed, as Pumbaa rightly suggested, “balls of gas burning billions of miles away,”6 life will never have an entirely physical explanation.  So while an atheist might accept life without any rigorous justification, I believe that an explanation for life exists.  Particularly, it might be found by considering its origin.

4. God as the Creator
One of the fundamental intuitions of science is that nothing happens without reason.  In fact, most of science consists of discovering the reasons behind various phenomena.  So how and why does life come about?  The rational answer would be that it was caused by some force independent of the life we experience.  Just as a rock does not cause itself to roll down a hill, nor does a house build itself, so our existence must have been caused some force other than ourselves.  What then, is the origin of that force?  Or even the origin of the origin of that force?  At some point, we must come across something or someone with no defined origin, and whose existence spans all time.  I believe Him to be none other than God.

So living in a rational universe, we suppose that the universe must have a creator.  It is important to note that this conclusion relies specifically on the rationality of the universe, one in which things do not happen without explanation.  And it is just as important to note that the universe does not have any obligation to be rational.  Albert Einstein once remarked that “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”  Given a chaotic universe where things happen without reason, life, also, would need no reason.  But the universe is indeed rational, and this life that we take for granted does not randomly come and go.  Both were created by a creator who is living (for He created life), rational (the rationality of creation reflects the rationality of its creator), and timeless (for such a creator can have no defined beginning).

Scientists already believe in the existence of invisible, unobservable, forces (consider dark matter and dark energy), so the existence of an invisible God should not be discounted simply because we cannot see Him.  For without Him, the miracle of life remains an inexplicable phenomenon.

So is God limited by physical laws?  Just as we are able to make our own decisions in this world, not being slaves of physical laws, God, in whose image we were created and being infinitely greater, is not only free of the physical laws He himself created, but above it.  Is it so hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, when the life of those already living is already an incomprehensible miracle?

5. Conclusion As René Descartes declared, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think therefore I am).  But how are we?  The only other alternative to a faith in a rational creator is an unspoken acknowledgment of the current state of affairs.  It requires a blind acceptance of a rational universe, a tenuous recognition of free will (something whose explanation we are as close to discovering today as we were one thousand years ago), and a bleak acquiescence that life is nothing more than a mysterious, but meaningless, phenomenon.

I believe, however, that we were taken “from the dust of the ground” and that our life was “breathed into [our] nostrils” (Genesis 2:7).  We are more than a bag of bones, more than a lump of muscles poked and prodded by the whims of circumstance. Just as we control our bodies, and our thoughts, God controls this universe.  For “through him, all things were made” (John 1:3).  He created the universe, and he existed before the universe.  “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).


1Some will go so far as to claim a belief in mechanism, but a belief in any set of governing laws seems to be sufficient for this particular argument.
2If the reader expresses a belief in determinism, then there is no further need to continue reading this essay.  I believe, however, that most people would view themselves as rational, autonomous, beings.
3One popular theory is that of Emergentism. Simply put, Emergentism posits that given a complex enough arrangement of molecules (or other structure), the property of self-awareness will unexpectedly emerge from it.  In the science fiction novel Ender’s Game, a self-aware entity named Jane emerges from a collection of computers and communication links.
4Some attempts at explaining free will may cite quantum physics, by which the result of a physical interaction is not completely deterministic (the outcome is instead probabilistic, with the probabilities depending on the quantum states of the elements involved).
5As of yet, scientists have not been able to create artificial life.  A recent attempt by scientists (2008) involved injecting genetic material into a protocell.  See
6See The Lion King.

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Copyright 2008 Matt Tang