Has Science Replaced Religion?

Tuesday, August 10, 2004
First Aired: 
Tuesday, March 23, 2004

What Is It

Has science replaced religion? Can one be religious and maintain a scientific viewpoint? Does belief in evolution undermine morality or belief in God, or vice versa? Ken and John take on the big questions with George Ellis from the University of Cape Town, author of On the Moral Nature of the Universe.

Listening Notes

Has science replaced religion? In John and Ken's first discussion on the issue, Ken claims that science can explain everything. Religion insofar as it does anything, certainly does not explain how the world works. Religion and science, then, shouldn't be seen as two different worldviews designed to examine and provide solutions for the same questions. John, on the other hand, challenges this claim. Historically, there have been two arguments from design that have persuaded many people that God must exist in order for the world to exist as it does. The first argument ranges over a somewhat lesser scope than the second, and points to the fact that many things seem to have some kind of purpose or design without which they or other species could not exist or, at least, flourish. For example, it can be argued that trees bear fruit designed in such a way that people can eat it. Sheep grow wool designed to be useful protective human clothing. Even machines, which are not as complicated as human beings, are not a product of luck or random chance. Therefore their must be some higher being, God, who designed the world in such a way to explain its complexity. As Ken points out, this argument lost its soundness after Darwin posed his theory of evolution.

  The second argument from design, however, begins by questioning the origins of evolution itself. It runs as follows: first, grant that evolution—and not God—can sufficient explanation for the complexity discussed in the first argument. Still, the universal constants that define important parameters for our universe such as the smallest measurable length, the gravitation constant, the rate of expansion, and so on need to be so precise—they would define a different universe if they weren't—that it seems that we couldn't possibly be here by chance. Again, there must be some higher being, God, who selected the constants for the universe in order to explain why such a universe that can sustain human life exists. Physics itself seems to point to the conclusion that if the constants determining the fundamental aspects of our universe were any different, a universe like ours would not exist. However, at least Ken concedes that even if there were an ultimate objection to this argument, it seems that science could not explain everything. After all, questions of ethics and how we ought to live tend to lie outside science's domain. To say that science explains everything, then, is not to say that every question is a scientific one.

George Ellis discusses the reasons he finds this second argument from design so appealing. Without postulating a God who could determine the laws of physics, it seems hard to believe that conscious beings could arise spontaneously and purely by chance from protons and electrons. Furthermore, there is the “fine tuning” of the universe. If, in the history of the universe, any of the laws of physics were slightly different, atoms wouldn't be able to form: there would be no protons or electrons, light, or anything else if any of the fundamental forces were altered or if the balance between gravity and the expansion of the universe was any different than it is. Our universe is especially unique, even among possible universes that could have supported intelligent life forms. But the question as Ken puts it still remains: why should a God be a necessary condition for the unlikelihood of the universe? Why not simply explain our existence in a universe as a matter of luck? Ellis answers the question by explaining some of the arguments for the claim that the universe arose from chance. There are two such arguments. The first argument claims that there was only one universe created and that it happened to be the kind that could produce human beings who could observe it. Since only one universe is postulated, the amount of chance involved is incredulously large. The other argument or theory states that there are actually billions of other universes—or regions of our universe beyond our observable universe—that had various expansion constants and consequently evolved differently. Some of these universes, then, survived long enough and had the right conditions to support life: many did not. Some cosmologists claim that the multiverse theory is more scientifically acceptable than the prior theory because it can be statistically verified—in theory—and its probability is much better than that of a single universe happening to be the one in which we live.

  • Amy Standen the Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek To 00:04:30): Bob Russell, a physicist and director of the Center for Theology in the Natural Sciences at Berkley, relates a personal story of when he confronted the issue of science and religion as a twelve-year-old boy.  Russell now believes that in doing science he is coming to know God's creations in a new and meaningful way. For him, then, science can be understood in a broader framework, a framework that does not automatically exclude God from its worldview.
  • Ian Shoales, the Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek To 00:37:50): Ian Shoales discusses the life and work of B. F. Skinner.
  • Conundrum: Dave in Boston calls in for advice about a roommate who stole a not insignifanct amount of money from him. The roommate confessed and returned the money, but Dave worries about whether to tell the other residents of the house.