Can God’s Existence be Proved?

The Creator has not filled creation with items stamped ‘made by God’. God’s existence is not self-evident in some totally unambiguous and undeniable way. The presence of God is veiled because, when you think about it, the naked presence of divinity would overwhelm finite creatures, depriving them of the possibility of truly being themselves and freely accepting God. It will be a recurring theme in this book, that, out of love, God has self-limited the exercise of divine power to give creatures the space to be themselves and, as we shall think when we come later to evolution, even to ‘make themselves’. This does not mean that there are no signs of the will of the Creator or motivations to believe in God’s existence, but that we have to look a little below the surface of things to find them.

Interestingly enough, science is some real help to us here. While science is competent to answer its own questions, there are questions which arise from our experience of doing science, but whose answering will take us beyond its narrow confines.

  • Why is science possible at all? Of course, we have to be able to understand the everyday world in order to survive in it, but why are we able also to understand the subatomic quantum world and the vast universe of cosmic curved spacetime? These domains are very far from having direct impacts on our daily lives and their understanding has called for ways of thinking that are quite different from our normal habits. (In the cloudy quantum world, if you know where something is, you can’t know what it is doing, and if you know what it is doing you can’t know where it is. We cannot picture such a world, but it turns out that we can understand it to a large extent.)
  • Why is mathematical beauty a guide to truth?. Fundamental physics is always expressed in terms of what mathematicians recognise to be ‘beautiful equations’. A very frequent and rewarding scientific experience is that of wonder at the beautiful patterns of order revealed to our enquiry. Science does not explain these marvellous facts. It is simply happy to exploit the opportunities that they offer. Yet the rational transparency and rational beauty of the universe are surely too remarkable to be treated as just happy accidents. Belief in God can make all this intelligible, for it sees the deep order of the world – a world shot through with signs of mind, one might say – as being indeed a reflection of the truth that the Mind of the Creator is revealed in this way. Science is then understood to be possible because the universe is a creation and we are creatures made in the image of the Creator.

Another question arising from science but taking us beyond its explanatory reach is the question

  • Why the universe is so special? Scientists do not really like things to be special. They prefer the general. Our expectation was that our universe would be just a common or garden specimen of what a universe might be like. This has turned out to be far from the case. The argument is as follows. The universe started in an extremely simple way. Following the big bang it was just an expanding ball of energy. Now, after 13.7 billion years, it is rich and complex, the home of saints and scientists. This fact in itself might suggest that something significant has been going on in cosmic history. But there is much more to say. As we have come to understand many of the processes by which this great fertility has come about, we have come to see that their possibility had to be built into the given physical fabric of the world from the start. The laws of physics (which science assumes but does not explain) had to take a very precise, ‘finely-tuned’ form if anything as complex as carbon-based life was to be possible. For example, the only place in the universe where carbon is made is in the nuclear furnaces of the stars. Every atom of carbon in our bodies was once inside a star – we are literally people of stardust. The process by which this happens is very delicate and if the laws of nuclear physics had been even a little bit different, there would have been no carbon, and so no you and me. There are many more examples of such fine-tuning that have been identified. What are we to make of them? It would be far too intellectually lazy just to say it was all a happy accident. So remarkable a fact surely calls for an adequate explanation. Some scientists have suggested that there are trillions of different universes, all different and all separate from each other. If there were such a vast multiverse, then maybe one of those universes might by chance be suitable for carbon-based life – a kind of winning ticket in a multiversal lottery, you might say – and that of course would be ours since we are carbon-based life. Such a prodigal suggestion is not science, since we have no knowledge of, or access to, any universe other than our own. The multiverse is a metaphysical guess. A much more economic suggestion is that there is only one universe which is the way it is, in its fine-tuned fruitfulness, precisely because it is not just ‘any old world’, but a creation which has been endowed by its Creator with the potentialities that have given it so remarkable a history.

Moving away from science, there are further indications of the veiled presence of God if we are prepared to look for them.

  • We have moral knowledge that assures us that love is better than hate, truth is better than the lie. Where does this come from? The religious person can understand our ethical intuitions to be intimations of God’s good and perfect will.
  • Our aesthetic experience of encounter with deep beauty can be understood as a sharing in the Creator’s joy in creation.
  • There is widespread human testimony to a meeting with a dimension of reality that can only be described as an encounter with the sacred. There are the particular records of unique events, preserved in the faith traditions, that have been understood as moments of divine self-disclosure. On the website, Nicholas answered this question with a single word, ‘Jesus’.

There are no knock-down arguments for the existence of God – or, for that matter, for divine non-existence – in the sense that it would be completely irrational to deny them. The question is too deep for a 2+2=4 kind of proof response. Yet there are good motivations for belief in God, sufficient for many of us to commit ourselves to betting our lives on them. The claim is not that atheists are stupid, for that is clearly not the case, or that there are no possible alternative explanations to each of these observations: there are always alternative possibilities to anything complex.  But that theism explains more than atheism ever could, making intelligible what otherwise would have to be treated as merely a happy accident.

In the end, we have to make a decision. The whole of the Universe is teeming with matter and energy – dark and otherwise – and is amazingly finely tuned to carry within it the potential for intelligent life. Behind this, some see nothing: others discern the mind, and the love, of God.

(c) John Polkinghorne & Nicholas Beale, adapted from Questions of Truth.

See also the page on Is God a Delusion? and the Starcourse Blog on Ian Semple’s Guardian Article

“a refreshing contrast to the polemic and misinformation that have characterized much of the writing in this area” William Phillips

“Richly nuanced responses … simply a fantastic resource” Francis Collins

“Wonderfully accessible, informative and authoritative.” Alister McGrath

“an important contribution” Martin Nowak

“this matters to every man and every woman” Onora O’Neill

“of universal interest. Many readers will welcome this accessible format” Publishers Weekly

“antidote to Richard Dawkins … intriguing … a thought-provoking work” Library Journal

“deals eloquently with many of the issues…in the science-religion debate.” Times H. E.

“commendably clear…those who would most benefit from reading it are… atheists who believe that the religious are manifestly irrational” FT.

“remarkably even-handed …lucid explanations … a valuable lesson” Physics World

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One Erratum has been found in Appendix A – see here.

The new Polkinghorne Q&A website is now here.