In February 2014 philosopher William Lane Craig and theoretical physicist Sean Carroll debated the rationality of believing God exists given the evidence in cosmology (the video can be found here). On several occasions Carroll observed that "theism" is not well-defined, and thus does not lend itself to scientific testing by putting forth falsifiable predictions. William Lane Craig (both at the beginning of the debate and at other times) affirmed that he was not putting forth God as an alternative to naturalistic models, but was scientifically defending the truth of premises in an argument with theological significance. Both debaters seemed to misunderstand one another regarding this. Craig did not give any indication of understanding the scientific concern of Carroll's observation by dismissing the idea that God was even a feature of a competing model, while Carroll did not seem to understand the philosophical insignificance of his charge or the fact that Craig was defending a mere theism that only identified God as "Creator" and "Designer."
I have heard Carroll's challenge on several occasions from scientifically-minded people who are critical of cosmological and teleological arguments for God's existence. Since they dismiss Christianity (and theism, in general) as an unscientific hypothesis, my intent with this post is to investigate the scientific perspective that is responsible for this complaint, the philosophical significance and insignificance of the complaint, and the proper response that theists (and Christians, specifically) should provide to remove the validity of the charge of being "unscientific." I will conclude the post with a challenge to both naturalists and Christians, and I will revisit the debate in light of this discussion.
What is the significance of the observation?
This complaint about theism often comes from the scientific community. In discussions about the origins of the universe their main concern is with the development and testing of highly specified models to explain such origins. A high level of specification allows predictions of future discoveries to be formed. These predictions can be used to test the models against observations and discard the models that do not accurately predict the observations. If a model just misses a few predictions here and there, then the model may simply be adjusted to compensate for the unexpected observation, but the change must not violate any other part of the model. Sometimes unexpected observations will spawn whole new families of models as they attempt to explain the phenomenon in different ways.
When a challenger to a naturalistic explanation of the beginning of the universe identifies the beginner as a "transcendent cause," they are not giving much specification beyond the beginner's existence being outside the universe. This is an extremely generalized claim that does not lend itself to much prediction and testing. If it cannot be tested, then a "transcendent cause" to the universe cannot be established via scientific means.
The Vagueness But Validity Of Theism
While it is true that a "transcendent cause" is a broad term and cannot, on its own, produce many testable predictions, it does not mean that such a conclusion is not valid given the beginning of the universe. As an example, most everyone reading this post will be viewing it on some form of technology: a laptop, smartphone, television, ebook reader, or other electronic gadget. We can take the device apart and come up with all sorts of models about the manufacturing process (the order of the parts, the devices used to put the parts together, the time taken to complete the manufacturing, the same for the individual parts, etc.). These models can be incredibly detailed and can be tested by going to the manufacturing plant to observe the process. However, this does not negate the truth that the device had a "transcendent cause" outside itself. In fact, the very investigation of the manufacturing process assumes that it had such a beginner (the manufacturing process) that was not, in fact, the device itself.
When a person claims that the universe had a "transcendent beginning," it is similar to saying that they are looking at the construction of a piece of technology and are concluding that it was manufactured (had a "transcedent cause" outside itself). They are not getting into the details of the manufacturing process; they are merely saying that one exists. Likewise, claiming that the universe had a cause, is being done by looking at the universe and concluding that a beginning exists. So, just because "theism" is not well-defined, it does not mean that it is an invalid conclusion from the observations of the universe. Any model that includes an event that results in our universe (a cause for its beginning) is a viable option.
Theoretical Physics Study The Cause
Contrary to what naturalists would have everyone believe, every theoretical physicist grants that a beginning of the universe exists (the second premise of the Kalam cosmological argument [KCA]), and their entire research project is focused simply on coming up with competing models for the identity of what caused the beginning (the first premise of the KCA) of the universe. Since their very research assumes both of the premises of the KCA, the conclusion of the KCA is agreed upon (that the universe has a cause) if not verbally, definitely in practice.
The fact that possible descriptions of the cause of the universe are not well-defined does nothing to invalidate the conclusion of the KCA that the universe has a cause. In fact, if a theoretical physicist denies that the universe has a cause, they also deny the need for their model, their research, and their discipline. The denial of a cause of the universe is a science-stopper when it comes to theoretical physics.
Theoretical Physics and Theology
Inherent in the KCA's establishment of a foundation for theoretical physics, is the scientific grounding for investigating all transcendent causes, including God. So, consequently, theists deal in the same realm of investigation (the universe's cause) as do theoretical physicists.
Many theologians have different views of the beginner and (hopefully) submit their views to testing against observations of reality and either adjust or abandon their views (models) as is appropriate. Many theists also utilize the latest research of the universe as a key part to their models. If a theist wishes, though, to say that God exists and is responsible for the beginning of the universe (not to mention many of its other features), then they must grant that God is a part of their model. God must be as defined as the rest of the model and be subject to testing against the observations.
When we are faced with needing an explanation for the beginning of the universe, there really is only one attribute of a model that needs to be defined to be viable to explain our universe's existence: that it has the ability to produce a universe (it has causal power). General theism does do just that. We do not need a "well-defined" deity to know that it, as defined, has the causal power to create a universe. All that needs to be defined is whether or not the deity in question can, and did (according to records about the deity), create a universe. From there it can be predicted that the universe created (if it is our own) has a beginning. The scientific observations and the research projects of theoretical physicists (as explained above) establish that this prediction has been found to be accurate. Theism, in general, does make a prediction that is scientifically testable, and it has passed the test. But that is not enough to differentiate it from other models of the beginning of the universe or differentiate among possible deities. This is a key requirement of predictive models. Simply pointing to a feature that is predicted by most models (including our favored one) is not enough. The predictions need to be unique to our model.
If we wish to use science to confirm the existence of a specific deity, that deity needs to be further defined to identify what we will find in this universe (positive predictions) and what we will not find (negative predictions). If those predictions are found to be true, then the specific theistic view passes the scientific test. But where do we go to further define the deities to begin testing them?
The world's holy books are a great place to get different conceptions of "God." Someone may also look at the theologians who adhere to a specific religion and find that they may have radically different views of the God of that religion based on the same holy book. They may differ on God's attributes, his relationship to creation, his purposes, how he accomplishes his purposes, and numerous other things. These distinctions allow for God to be extremely well-defined, and they make predictions about what we should expect to see in reality. This makes specific versions of theism easily testable, and allows us to determine which views of the cause of the universe (God) is correct and which are not. It allows us to, like creators of models of physical phenomena, to more finely tune our understanding of God.
If a naturalist wishes to complain that theists keep changing their views of God to accommodate the observed data, then they need to accept the theist's objections that naturalists keep changing their models to accommodate the observations. Rather instead of making these complaints (either side), we need to focus on showing inconsistencies in competing models (whether it be for who God is, or who [or what] caused the universe).
The Explanatory Scope of Theism
It is the specificity of the model that defines the scope of what it can explain, by default. If the cause of the universe has been posited as an eternal, conscious, intelligent, omnipotent, omniscient, rational, moral, omnibenevolent, personal being who's many purposes for his creation include the conquering of evil and a deep, eternal, personal relationship with all those who would freely choose such, the scope of explanation of God goes far beyond just merely the cause of the universe. It can explain consciousness, rationality, design, morality, value and numerous other features of reality. But ultimately, God can explain the very existence of the discipline that naturalists claim demonstrates no evidence of his existence: science.
God, as a feature of a scientific model, does not stop investigation; it spurs it forward. Knowing an eternal being truly has value that does not cease with the heat-death of this universe. It extends into eternity. Those who have labored to know God truly, to know themselves truly, and have acted upon that true knowledge will have eternal fellowship with God. Investigating natural phenomena allows us to know God more truly. Investigating psychological and sociological phenomena allow us to know ourselves more truly. A model with God as one of its features gives eternal purpose and intrinsic value to the scientific enterprise, thus also to the desire in the theist to perform it honestly, in detail, and push the envelop further and further to seek out the truths of reality.
To the naturalist: Even though the claim that theism is not well-defined is true in one context, the truth in that context does not negate the validity of general theism. Further as one investigates the different concepts of God, they will find that God can be quite well-defined, and in such specific definition can explain much more than just the existence of the cosmos. Predictions from theists do not only take into account one or two features of God (e.g. Creator or Designer), they take into account his other features, attributes, and purposes to form predictions. God is also not a science-stopper, as many naturalists like to claim. Especially if a purpose of the creation is to prepare the person to spend eternity in fellowship with God. The knowledge of who God is and how he works are vital to a proper relationship with the Creator.
To the theist: Step up to the plate. Be willing to grant that God is a part of your model. Define Him, and subject your understanding of God to the test. Do not be afraid to be wrong; no person is omniscient, thus no one has a complete understanding of God. If it is discovered that you are wrong about an understanding of God, refine your understanding or change it completely, if necessary. If God grounds the very enterprise of science, we must enter the enterprise on its (God's, not man's) conditions; we must follow its (God's, not man's) rules of engagement. If God is the transcendent cause of the universe, then there is nothing to fear from putting God to the test by the methods He has established.
The debate: William Lane Craig framed the debate by explaining that he was defending God as Creator and Designer via the Kalam cosmological argument and the teleological argument, but was not offering God as a competing model to explain the universe. Carroll should have accepted this frame by not demanding that Craig define God further and make predictions based on what Craig was not even offering. Craig answered with a perceivably dismissive stance of saying that God is not part of his model, implying to the scientific mind that predictability is not important in defending God's existence scientifically. However, Craig could have easily addressed Carroll's complaint and avoided misunderstanding by explaining that defining God as Creator predicts the existence of a universe with a beginning, and defining God as Designer predicts the existence of a universe with fine-tuning. This would have laid Carroll's complaint of theism lacking definition and predictability to rest while keeping the debate on topic and within the frame that William Lane Craig established.
Here is a recent article from biochemist Dr. Fazale Rana on identifying the Designer:
Can Science Identify the Intelligent Designer?
For Further Study
The ministry of Reasons to Believe is dedicated to offering a scientifically testable creation model (that uses the Bible to define the Creator) to compete with naturalistic models and other theistic models. I have reviewed a few of their books on Faithful Thinkers:
More Than A Theory
Why The Universe Is The Way It Is
Creating Life In The Lab
Hidden Treasures In The Book of Job
I also recommend browsing Faithful Thinkers' new Science and Faith page for more on testing theism scientifically.
Review of the debate discussed here:
Possible Worlds- Randy Everist