Atheists commonly make the claim that the history of science has displayed a remarkable tendency for naturalistic explanations to overcome supernaturalistic explanations. Jeffrey Jay Lowder, in a recent article of his, has made this claim:
“If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that naturalistic explanations work. The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones.” 1
I will refer to this argument as the Argument from the History of Science (AHS). This argument is rarely explicated or defended in a rigorous fashion, but it is embraced implicitly by many critics of religion. I will offer one possible formulation here:
1.) If scientific explanations consistently replace supernaturalistic explanations, then it is unlikely that any remaining supernaturalistic explanations are true.
2.) Scientific explanations have repeatedly replaced supernaturalistic explanations.
3.) Therefore, it is unlikely that any remaining supernaturalistic explanations are true.
However, I think both premises of this argument, upon examination, are completely unfounded. In this essay, I will address these two fatal flaws of the AHS.
1.) It is not true that the history of science, whatever the results, has any impact whatsoever upon the likelihood of the existence of God.
Upon first glance, the AHS may seem quite reasonable. After all, our theistic ancestors did credit God or gods with all sorts of natural phenomena, such as rain, wind and lightning bolts. In our day and age, however, such events have thoroughly naturalistic explanations. God’s actions in the universe seem to be receding further and further back in time. Some have claimed that it appears God has been left without a job.
However, whether or not it is true that God’s supposed sphere of direct influence has shrinken, this is not any sort of evidence against His existence. For, it is entirely possible that our ancestors would have behaved differently. Let us hypothesize a second possible history (which we will call H2), in which only the good arguments (let’s say, the cosmological, teleological, and origin of life 2) for the existence of God were used, and naturalistic phenomena were generally not attributed to acts of God. If this history were actual, then the second premise of the AHS would be false, and thus the AHS would not be a sound argument for the nonexistence of God. Since in H2 there is now one less argument against God’s existence, God’s existence is consequently more likely than in H1 (our actual history).
But surely this cannot be correct. We are still living in the exact same universe. Nothing has changed between H1 and H2 save for the more conservative philosophical and theological claims of our theistic ancestors. Nothing objective about the universe has actually changed, so there is no conceivable way that the existence of God could actually be objectively more or less probable. We thus see that the entire foundation of the AHS is false because it leads to an absurd conclusion.
In other words, the probability of the existence of God can and should only be based on the soundness or cogency of the arguments that are currently used for His existence. The Cosmological argument loses no plausibility because historically some theistic philosophers have used faulty arguments for the existence of God. Nor does the Cosmological Argument gain any more potency under the historical scenario described by H2. The Cosmological Argument still has the same premises, the same arguments, and the same conclusion in either history. This is true of all arguments both for and against God’s existence- they must be analyzed on their own terms.
It appears then, that the Argument from the History of Science is fundamentally flawed. Premise 1 is incorrect, and the argument cannot get off the ground. Since this point completely undermines the foundation of the argument, the AHS is essentially dead. However, for the sake of thoroughness I wish to show that the 2nd major premise of the argument is empirically unsupported.
It is untrue that history shows an overwhelming tendency for naturalistic explanations to overcome theistic explanations.
Obviously, the scientific community will never “officially” declare that the God hypothesis is the final solution to any given problem. However, many scientific finds in recent times do lend credibility to theistic explanations, as anybody, even naturalistic scientists, can admit. A brief survey of a few such examples will be enough to show that it is quite false that the overwhelming trend of data found confirms naturalism and renders irrelevant theism. In fact, the exact opposite may be true.
1.) Spontaneous Generation and the Origin of Life.
The first topic I will discuss is that of the origin of life. In the past, it was thought that spontaneous generation (that is, the creation of life from inanimate matter) was possible. It was thought that maggots were literally created out of molding food, rats were literally created out of garbage, and so on. Quite obviously, the theory of spontaneous generation renders naturalistic explanations for the origin of life more likely and exposes theism as a needless hypothesis with regards to the origin of life.
Unfortunately for the atheists, the theory of spontaneous generation was refuted by later finds in science. 3 This creates a serious problem for atheists. A new theory for the origin of life is needed. Moreover, in a huge double-whammy, scientific finds have shown the cell to be fantastically complex and intricate, which makes the naturalistic origin of life without spontaneous generation even more unlikely.
The only possibility that seems to be left for the atheists is Abiogenesis. Whether or not Abiogenesis is a successful theory is up to debate, but certainly it must be admitted that spontaneous generation, if true, would be a much simpler explanation of the origin of life. In fact, there seems to be several serious problems with the theory of Abiogenesis. 4,5,6 I also think it is safe to say that the issue of the origin of life is not a favorite for naturalists. This is one powerful example of scientific finds supporting theistic contentions rather than naturalistic theories. In fact, it is hard to imagine any possible finding on the origin of life, other than the tremendous complexity of the “simplest” organisms, that would more effectively bolster theism.
2.) Cosmology and the Beginning of the Universe.
The question of why the universe exists is one of the most mind-boggling issues mankind has ever faced. Atheists, naturally, must account for the universe’s existence. This used to be done by postulating that the universe had existed for an eternity- that it had no beginning. Thus, the universe was a necessary being, requiring no explanation external to itself.
Unfortunately, things took a sour turn for the atheists. As I have documented in my article HERE, scientific finds have overturned the notion of an eternal universe. This has left atheists with much more difficulty in explaining the origin of the universe. Once again, it is difficult to imagine a more convenient find for theists. This is another good example of science overturning naturalistic theories and supporting the theistic hypothesis.
3.) The Physical Constants of the Universes’ Origin
In the past, science had not vindicated the concept of “cosmic teleology”, or, design in the cosmos. Theists still used cosmic teleology as an argument for the existence of God, but science had yielded very few concrete examples. However, according to William Lane Craig, this situation changed in recent years:
“In recent years, however, the scientific community has been stunned by its discovery of how complex and sensitive a nexus of conditions must be given in order for the universe to permit the origin and evolution of intelligent life on Earth. The universe appears, in fact, to have been incredibly fine-tuned from the moment of its inception for the production of intelligent life on Earth at this point in cosmic history. In the various fields of physics and astrophysics, classical cosmology, quantum mechanics, and biochemistry, various discoveries have repeatedly disclosed that the existence of intelligent carbon-based life on Earth at this time depends upon a delicate balance of physical and cosmological quantities, such that were any one of these quantities to be slightly altered, the balance would be destroyed and life would not exist.” 7
Thus, we see once again science vindicating theistic hypothesis and leaving naturalists with a tough hill to climb. See my article HERE on the Teleological Argument for further discussion of this.
Case Studies of Naturalism Overturning Theism
Now that I have compiled a short list of scientific discoveries that bolstered the theistic hypothesis, I will turn my attention to those discoveries which, atheists claim, support naturalism over theism.
1.) Theory of Evolution
This is the probably the most common and convincing example of a scientific hypothesis rendering irrelevant a theistic contention. It must be conceded that the theory of evolution surely did (and does) help the case for atheism. However, the extent of evolution’s alliance with atheism may not be as impressive as some nontheists would have one believe.
First, I must mention the possibility that evolution is not true. It is not entirely clear that evolution is scientific fact, and if evolution is false atheism takes a tremendous blow. Moreover, evolution has to be completely true in order for atheism to benefit from it. In other words, if Michael Behe is correct that most but not all structures can be explained by evolutionary means, then evolution as a theory does not bolster the case for atheism at all, because a designer or outside intelligence would still be required.
Secondly, evolution may actually support theistic contentions. After all, on the assumption that atheism is true, it seems much more likely that evolution would only have resulted in simple life forms. Since evolution has no goal, it is not true that there is any sort of motivation for evolutionary processes to create complex, sentient, and self-aware beings like homo sapiens. See HERE (upcoming) for a fuller explanation of this.
In the ancient past, humans declared weather related phenomena as “Acts of God”. Science, however, has shown that such events have naturalistic explanations.
However, I think on the assumption that the Biblical God exists it would be quite unreasonable to suppose that such Acts of God would occur with frequency. The gods of the Greeks and Romans, perhaps, could be expected to engage in such activities often, but I do not believe in these gods.
Whatever the case, I have absolutely no problem with acknowledging that the weather is, for the most part, a natural phenomenon. Such is certainly compatible with a rational creator who created a rational world.
As far as I know, this is about it with regards to naturalistic hypothesis overturning theistic contentions. 8 It certainly is not true that there is an overwhelming tendency for supernaturalism to be refuted by scientific analysis. Furthermore, since it is the atheist making the claim, they actually have the burden of proof to show that almost all scientific finds vindicate naturalism. This is burden I do not think the nonbelievers can live up to.
The Argument from the History of Science fails on two counts. Both major premises are found to be flawed. Scientific finds from biology, cosmology, and physics have actually bolstered theistic hypotheses, showing that it is altogether untrue that science is the enemy of Christianity. In any case, the argument is faulty because it is not true that the past history of human thought and claims concerning God’s activities in the world have any bearing on the probability of His existence. Atheists must look elsewhere if they wish to construct an impressive argument against God’s existence.
1. Lowder, Jeffrey. “A Brief Survey of Evidential Arguments for Atheism” Also see HERE for my rebuttal to Lowder. NOTE: I have not linked to the article because it is no longer available on the Internet. However, most of the article is preserved in my linked critique.
2. Obviously, most nonbelievers would be reluctant to consider these “good” arguments, which is not surprising. However, it is clearly the case that these arguments are superior to “arguments” that God causes lightning bolts or rain. Additionally, the cosmological, teleological, and origin of life arguments still at least theoretically fall under the realm of things that science has not yet fully explained.
3. “Spontaneous Generation- a Look at an Old Chestnut.” ASA found at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Origin%20of%20Life/spontaneous_generation.html
6. Kenyon, Dean and Gordon C. Mills. “The RNA World: A Critique” http://www.arn.org/docs/odesign/od171/rnaworld171.htm
7. Craig, William Lane. “The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle” http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/teleo.html”
8. Some may claim that neuroscience has slowly eroded the necessity of the soul or of a creator of consciousness. However, these arguments are inconclusive, as there are still viable theories of the soul despite this increased understanding of the brain.