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Is God Just a “Hypothesis” Like the Big Bang?

Our friend and interlocutor Edward Feser takes exception to the title of Stephen Meyer ’s recent book, The Return of the God Hypothesis.

Dr. Feser writes:

With all due respect, the phrase “the God hypothesis” gets my hackles up. If X is something on which the world might merely “hypothetically” depend then X isn’t God. An argument gets to God only if it establishes the reality of an X on which the world couldn’t fail to depend.

Hence arguments that present theism as a “hypothesis” are – qua arguments for theism – time-wasters at best and indeed cause positive harm insofar as they yield a distorted conception of God and his relation to the world.

That is not to rule out a priori the possibility that considerations of the kind raised by Meyer point to real difficulties with some particular naturalistic theory, or indeed with naturalism as such as it is generally understood today. And that’s important.

But to criticize naturalism is not by itself sufficient to establish theism. The relationship between the two sets of issues is more complex than that. Moreover, the arguments that explain the rationale of theism take the form of demonstrations (not mere hypotheses), and proceed from premises that go deeper than particular facts about this or that empirical phenomenon (adaptation, fine-tuning, or whatever). For the interested uninitiated reader, these are matters I set out in Five Proofs of the Existence of God.

I think Dr. Feser is exactly right in this sense: God’s existence is not a scientific theory on a par with Darwin’s theory of evolution or Big Bang theory or General Relativity. It certainly possible that Darwinism or the Big Bang or Relativity could be wrong in a fundamental way — in fact, it is obvious that each of these theories is far from an exhaustive explanation of nature.

God’s existence, as Feser has brilliantly shown in several of his books (e.g., here, here and here ), is a necessary predicate for the existence of anything, including the natural world. God is the ground of existence — the Necessary Existence — on which existence itself utterly depends.

But in defense of Dr. Meyer’s book title, there is another perspective that I think is important. Natural theology is a branch of theology (and properly a branch of natural science, in my view) that demonstrates God’s existence from evidence in nature. Feser is an expert in the thought of the great Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225– 1274) In Aquinas’s view, all demonstrations of God’s existence are natural theology, because existence is absolutely distinct from essence.

The implication of this is that any valid demonstration of God’s existence must begin with evidence and proceed to the most satisfactory explanation that accounts for that evidence. This is the basis for Aquinas’ refutation of Anselm’s Ontological Argument: the Ontological Argument is a purely formal deductive argument, and you can’t prove the existence of anything by logic alone (essence) without invoking evidence (existence) of some sort.

Thus, as I understand Aquinas’ metaphysics, God’s existence is a theory in natural science, and (aside from revelation) it is only via natural science (i.e., natural theology) that His existence can be demonstrated. Of course, when you look carefully at the natural demonstrations of God’s existence, His existence is absolutely undeniable, because to deny His existence is to deny the reality of change in nature (The First Way), causation in nature (The Second Way), the existence of anything in nature (The Third Way), degrees of perfection in nature (The Fourth Way), teleology in nature (The Fifth Way), interconnectedness of processes in nature (The Neo-Platonic Proof), the reality of universals (The Augustine Proof), the real distinction between essence and existence in nature (The Thomistic Proof), the existence of sufficient reason for nature (The Rationalist Proof), and the reality of Moral Law.

To deny God’s existence is to admit abject ignorance or, if the denier is conversant with these proofs, insanity. But nonetheless, by Aquinas’ own criterion, these proofs are hypotheses in natural science, in the sense that they are inductive arguments that begin with natural (scientific) evidence and proceed to inference to best explanation.

It is in this light that I see Dr. Meyer’s book title — the validity of the God hypothesis is demonstrated by modern science correctly understood. Of course, the arguments presented by Dr. Meyer are not Thomistic or classical philosophical proofs, but his arguments are accessible to the public and to scientists in ways that classical natural theology may not be.

I suspect that more people in our philosophically innocent modern culture will be convinced of God’s existence by the Big Bang, the genetic code and anthropic coincidences than will be convinced by the Augustinian Proof or the Neo-Platonic Proof. Dr. Feser makes excellent points — particularly the point that it is dangerous to use atheists’ own metaphysical presumptions in this debate — but what Dr. Meyer did was enter the atheist camp, take up their flawed tools, and defeat them with their own weapons.

Dr. Meyer’s brilliant book is a 21st century Areopagus Sermon, fitted to the scientistic world in which we live and move and have our being.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Is God Just a “Hypothesis” Like the Big Bang?