Review of Amir Aczel’s “Why Science Does Not Disprove God”

Amir Aczel, a mathematician at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and author of numerous papers on mathematics and science, has just published a new book, Why Science Does Not Disprove God.

Aczel was prompted to write this book in the wake of several recent works by authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Lawrence Krauss and others, who have argued strongly that modern science has effectively disproven the existence of any being that could be viewed as the Judeo-Christian God, namely a being that oversaw the creation of the universe, the earth and living things, and in some sense governs the world today.

Aczel reviews the progress of modern science, including the rise of geology, biological evolution, and, in the 20th century, relativity, quantum physics and big bang cosmology. It is worth emphasizing that Aczel is certainly no creationist. He readily acknowledges the multi-billion-year age of the earth, and the evolution of the biological kingdom through the eons. With regards to the biblical account, he writes

The biblical story of creation in six days thus is a literary device. … Scripture is written allegorically, not literally, and it does not agree with what scientific observation clearly tells us. The same is true of the literal idea that the sun rises and sets around a static earth.

A universe from nothing?

Aczel focuses his discussion mostly on big bang cosmology, pointing out that claims by Dawkins, Krauss and others that the big bang was “creation out of nothing,” eliminating the need for any God, are wholly unfounded. He points out that a paper by Vilenkin, which was cited by Krauss as evidence of “creation from nothing,” actually describes creation from a quantum foam, not literally from nothing.

Aczel emphasizes the many indications of fine tuning in the design of the universe we inhabit, ranging from the construction of protons and neutrons from quarks to the exquisite balance of gravitation and expansion, as evidence that a reasonable person could interpret as evidence of a creator. Aczel also takes aim at the notion of a multiverse, which has been adopted by many scientists (e.g., Brian Greene of string theory fame) as an explanation of sorts of the apparent fine tuning of our universe, and demonstrates it to be on highly tentative ground — hardly a compelling, knock-down argument against God. He points out that inherent in quantum mechanics is an acknowledgement of uncertainty as to the present state of the universe, and thus the future of any physical system. Thus science can never claim to have a complete picture.

Aczel also takes aim at Dawkins’ claims that while we cannot say with absolute certainty that there is no God, we can certainly state that with very high probability there is no God. Aczel points out that Dawkins is being very naive here about probability — one cannot possibly formulate a rigorous notion of the probability of God, and so claims such as those made by Dawkins have no foundation.

Aczel concludes that modern science simply cannot comment one way or the other on God. As he wrote,

In this book, I have not proved the existence of God in any shape or form, and this has obviously not been my purpose. What I aimed to do was to argue — convincingly, I hope — that science has not disproved the existence of God. Since we do not know what God is and have no way of perceiving infinite power, infinite space, infinite time, infinite wisdom, infinite love, and other deep concepts we may associate with God, it is well outside the realm of the possible for us to ever hope to answer such questions.

God of the gaps?

While the present author feels that Aczel’s work is one of the better treatments of the general topic of science and religion in recent years, it definitely has some weak points. The principal difficulty here is the book’s excursion, in later chapters, into the realm of consciousness, chaos theory, evolution and Godel’s incompleteness theorems of mathematics. The reader may well wonder if Aczel really believes that consciousness, for instance, really requires some form of supernatural operation. The reader may also wonder whether evolution truly “makes no reliable predictions” or is entirely “non-mathematical,” as Aczel claims in Chapter 12. Those who have studied mathematical and theoretical biology for decades will surely be surprised at this conclusion. And does he really think that Godel’s incompleteness theorems (which state that under certain conditions, any axiomatic system of mathematics will always be incomplete) can be viewed in theological terms?

In the present author’s view, these chapters are significantly less convincing than the material with which he began the book, namely in the realm of physics and big bang cosmology, and mar the effectiveness of his arguments. Indeed, this material has the definite ring of “God of the gaps” theology — working hard to identify “gaps” in present-day knowledge, and then suggesting that God resides somewhere in those gaps. This approach has often been described as tantamount to “theological suicide,” as scientific progress fill gaps that once were thought to exist in the scientific worldview.

The present author was also struck that in Aczel’s diligent efforts to deflect the New Atheist literature, that he failed to offer much of anything positive in return. Why not emphasize the magnificence of the universe, which is now known to be far grander than ever before realized in human history, and governed by natural laws far more beautiful? Even Carl Sagan, who rejected Judeo-Christian theology, acknowledged the power of awe and wonder. As he wrote in his book Pale Blue Dot,

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.

So while this book is recommended reading, it is not without faults. I hope that other authors, even more qualified and familiar with modern science, can step in to fill the “gap.”

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