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Why Philosopher Quentin Smith Saw Belief in God as Unscientific

Reader Laszlo Bencze looks at his list of reasons for thinking so and offers some thoughtful comments

In the first part of the discussion between Robert Lawrence Kuhn and Western Michigan University philosopher Quentin Persifor Smith (1952–2020) at Closer to Truth, “What Does a Fine-Tuned Universe Mean?” (Aug 31, 2022), Dr. Smith asserted that — while physicists may write about the fine-tuning of our universe in books aimed at the public — they do not discuss it in peer reviewed journals. Jonathan Bartlett supplied a number of references to such discussions in journals.

In this second part of the discussion, Kuhn gave the floor to Dr. Smith to explain why he thought that belief in God is unscientific. A partial transcript follows, with some notes and comments interspersed:

Quentin Persifor Smith: (7:20) But I think the real problem with the fine-tuning thing — the whole idea that God could solve the problem — is itself a self-contradiction because this fine-tuning problem presupposes that science and the scientific method has correctly shown that the values of the constants and forces and laws of the universe are what they are. But then the theist said, well, uh, there is an explanation to that. It’s a God. (8:03)

But the concept of God is inconsistent with science for several reasons:

One, God is a mind without a body, which contradicts neurophysiology and psychology (8:11).

Comment from thoughtful reader Laszlo Bencze: “God is understood to be the creator of the material world. Therefore, God cannot be material himself. He must be something other than the matter and energy he created. This is simple logic.”

Laszlo Bencze

Quentin Persifor Smith: One is that God contradicts the law of conservation of mass/energy which implies that nothing outside the universe can cause the universe, that mass/energy continues to exist by itself. (8:27)

Comment from Bencze: Excuse me but when we speak of the creator of the universe, the physical laws within the universe he created do not apply. In attempting to describe God we can only use the via negativa: God is not this. God is not that. God is completely other than.

Quentin Persifor Smith: And it contradicts the idea of causality in science where each state is caused by earlier states. And, for the theist to come up with a disembodied mind, they’re using an anti-scientific method, a method that says the scientific method is wrong. But on the other hand, to get the data they want, to hypothesize God, they use the scientific method. So they’re in an internal contradiction. (9:03)

Comment from Bencze: Indeed causality requires a cascade of effects. But that cascade must have a beginning agent which is not part of the cascade: the prime mover or, as we say, the creator. That this creating agent is necessary was well understood by the ancients. They were not stupid. Why would a current scientist not understand something that was clear to Aristotle or Plato?

Quentin Persifor Smith: They can’t do both. They can’t both follow science and rely on that and believe it [and] at the same time believe in theism, which contradicts the scientific method. (9:15) And it contradicts the scientific theories and so it’s an internally contradictory theory. And so that’s that’s the real problem [with] this. You don’t have to postulate other universes to explain it ( 9:28).

Comment: As Bencze notes above, there is no reason to think that the creator of a universe would have the same nature and limitations as the elements of that universe — any more than we would expect a novelist to have the same nature and limitations as the characters in her novel. God, if he exists, could certainly have created other universes but we have no evidence as to whether he has done so.

Quentin Persifor Smith: I mean, just the very idea that a God could explain the fine-tuning is self-contradictory. This is saying “Science is true but it’s also not true. It’s true because it supplies fine-tuning but it’s not true because it doesn’t. It’s inconsistent with this God who causes the fine tuning. So the theists pick and choose among the scientific evidence and they take it out, take out bits of scientific evidence by itself and ignore the rest of science and say that God caused it and don’t say, well if God caused it, how is that consistent with all the rest of science? (10:20)

Well it’s not, and no physicists would accept that it is. [If] physicists thought that it was consistent with science they’d say that and they don’t [10:30].

Comment: The confusion here seems to stem, once again, from failure to distinguish between the creator of an artifact — in this case a universe — and the artifact itself. One can argue that the universe arose from nothing via an unguided process. But if one assumes a creator, the creator cannot be fully understood from within the creation by science or any other method. Of course, a creator might choose to reveal himself.

Incidentally, a number of prominent physicists are theists. John Polkinghorne and George Ellis come immediately to mind. Here is a list of 15 key figures in physics who were theists.

Here’s the first part of the discussion, with notes and comments: Philosopher: “Universe fine-tuned for life” is just folk belief! Do physicists only claim that the universe is fine-tuned for life only when writing for a popular audience — and not in their professional work? That’s late philosopher Quentin Smith’s claim. If correct, it would be significant. But fine-tuning is acknowledged by physicists writing for their peers.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Why Philosopher Quentin Smith Saw Belief in God as Unscientific