A Scientific Proof of the Existence of God
If thou wishest the divine knowledge and recognition,… apply thyself to rational and authoritative arguments. For arguments are a guide to the path, and by this the heart will be turned unto the Sun of Truth. And when the heart is turned unto the Sun, then the eye will be opened and will recognize the Sun through the Sun itself. Then there will be no need of arguments, for the Sun is altogether independent, and absolute independence is in need of nothing, including proofs. — ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
Abdu’l-Bahá’s counsel to the seeker after God seems to say at least two things: first, that rational arguments are useful and necessary starting points in the approach to God and, second, that the deepest and most adequate knowledge of God goes far beyond such arguments and is essentially transrational.
Interestingly, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stresses that the result of studying rational arguments will be to turn the heart towards God. This suggests that generating logical proofs of the existence of God is not an end in itself, but rather a means of opening oneself to a deeper experience of the divine presence. Nevertheless, every major philosopher and every religious tradition have presented proofs of God’s existence, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá himself has presented a significant number of such proofs in his own writings. Most of the proofs given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá are variants of classical philosophical arguments, starting with Aristotle’s well-known argument for the existence of a primal cause.
However, in his tablet written in 1921 to the Swiss scientist Auguste Forel, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offers a distinctly modern proof of the existence of God, based on certain facts and principles associated with the phenomenon of biological evolution. He argues that the cause of the composition (and decomposition) of living beings must be an unobservable, objectively existing, voluntary force (thus, a conscious force external to the process of evolution itself). Since this force has produced humanity, it must be greater than humans and is, therefore, a Being endowed with superhuman capacities.
This particular argument may conceivably be original with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Certainly it could not have been given in that form much before the early twentieth century because the scientific theory of evolution on which it is based was developed only in the nineteenth century. Moreover, most scientists who accepted the theory of evolution were philosophical materialists, holding that evolution made God irrelevant instead of proving God’s existence. Though arguments similar to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s have appeared in the more recent literature on the philosophy of science, I have yet to discover any that are earlier or even contemporaneous with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s tablet to Auguste Forel.
The argument based on evolution is not the only proof of God’s existence given in the tablet to Auguste Forel. However, the evolution-based argument is unique in the way it uses sophisticated scientific ideas, and its cogency and force are liable to be underestimated by anyone not familiar with certain fundamental principles of thermodynamics.3 Thus, rather than undertaking a historical—critical approach to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s proof, we propose, in the present article, to give a thoroughly modern formulation of his argument, using scientific terms that were not necessarily current at the time ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote. In taking this approach, we hope to convey something of the full strength of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s argument. Therefore, the remainder of this article will consist of an extended and careful reformulation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s proof in contemporary scientific language.
The Nature of Scientific Proof
Since our proof purports to be scientific, we need to begin by a brief discussion of the nature of science and of proof in science. This discussion is all the more important because there are so many commonly held misconceptions about the nature of scientific proof.
Science is composed of two fundamental aspects. One aspect is its concrete or observable dimension: we accumulate observations of some phenomenon and record these observations in the form of observation statements. This record constitutes our body of observed truths or facts about the given phenomenon.
The second aspect of science is its abstract or theoretical dimension. Having accumulated a certain number of observation statements about a phenomenon, we seek an explanation for these observations. We want to understand how the various facts about the phenomenon are related to each other. In other words, we seek to understand how or why the phenomenon occurs and how it operates. This quest leads us to formulate an hypothesis (or. if you will, a theory) that represents our mental conception of the underlying dynamic of the phenomenon. Such a theory is usually expressed in a language that uses abstract terms, i.e., terms referring to nonobservable entities or forces (e.g., entities like electrons or forces like the strong nuclear force). Observation statements, in contrast, will use concrete terms, that is, terms referring to observable entities or configurations.
The way we test the truth of observation statements is by making further, more exacting, observations and measurements. However, because of the natural, intrinsic limitations of the human sensory apparatus and nervous system, we can never entirely eliminate errors from our observations of a given phenomenon, no matter how careful and exacting we may be. This is particularly true of phenomena that are extremely small (perhaps microscopic) or extremely remote (say, distant stars), but it is true in general, even of ordinarily accessible, everyday phenomena. Thus, the truth value of facts (observation statements) is always relative. The widely held belief that the facts of science are absolute or incontrovertible is therefore a misconception.
Testing the truth of the theoretical statements of science is a still more complicated process. We begin by deducing new observation statements as logical consequences of the theory; then we test these observation statements in the usual way. In other words, if our theory says that such-and-such a thing must happen, then we look to see if such-and-such a thing does in fact happen; if our theory says that snow is white, then we look to see if snow is, in fact, white. The new observation statements deduced from a theory are called predictions of the theory, and if they are confirmed by our experience, then we say the theory is valid, meaning “validated or confirmed by observation.”
Thus, the truth value of a theoretical statement of science is also relative, for even if all current predictions of a theory are confirmed by observation, nothing excludes the possibility that in the future new predictions will prove false. There is also the possibility that newly conceived experiments will lead to the future falsification of current predictions, which, on the basis of current experience, appear justified.
With regard to the truth value of theories, we are therefore in a paradoxical, somewhat humorous situation. It is possible to prove almost absolutely that a theory is false, because if some of the theory’s predictions flagrantly contradict highly authenticated observations, then the theory cannot be true. It will have to be abandoned or else modified in some way. But no matter how many predictions of a theory have been confirmed through observation, the possibility always remains of the theory’s future falsification as a result either of novel predictions that contradict known evidence or novel evidence that contradicts known predictions.
Towards the beginning of this century, it was thought possible to establish rules of so-called inductive logic that would allow us to pass from a set of particulars to a general conclusion with the same degree of precision that deductive logic allows us to pass from general principles to particular conclusions. However, it is now known that this is not possible, even in principle. A theorem of mathematical logic has established that, in general, there are an infinite number of mutually incompatible theories consistent with any given, finite set of facts. Since the finitude of human beings guarantees that there will always be only a finite set of facts for any given phenomenon, it follows that no set of observation statements ever determines a unique theory as an explanation for the phenomenon. As one logician has expressed it: theory is underdetermined by fact.
Thus, fact gathering and theory making are, in some respects, mutually independent. Whereas fact gathering is a slow, gradual process, theory making involves a creative, discontinuous leap of the imagination. When gathering facts, we seek to know how things are. When conceiving a theory, we try to imagine how things might be.
It follows incontrovertibly from these considerations that none of the truths of science can ever be considered as proved absolutely. The notion of absolute proof is simply not part of science. The widespread belief that the essential characteristic of scientific truth is its absoluteness and exactness (in supposed contrast to the relativity and imprecision of truth in philosophy or religion) is a misconception. Though some people may deplore this relativity of scientific truth, it has a quite positive aspect because it makes truth seeking in science an enterprise that is dynamic and progressive rather than static and sterile. Moreover, the efficiency of scientific method has been powerfully confirmed by its success in generating an increasing number of highly validated theories resulting from its systematic application during the last several hundred years.
To summarize, a proposition may be said to be scientifically proved when we have rendered that proposition considerably more plausible (meaning probably true) than all known, logically possible alternatives. Thus, to speak of a scientific proof of God’s existence is to affirm that we can render the proposition that God exists considerably more plausible than any of the known alternatives (and, in particular, the alternative that God does not exist). In other words, we can know that God exists with the same degree of certainty that we know the strong nuclear force or electrons exist. Having dealt with these methodological issues, we now begin the proof proper.
Visible and Invisible Reality
We first establish the principle of the objective existence of an invisible world, i.e., a portion of reality external to human subjectivity but inaccessible to human observation. In other words, there are forces and entities we cannot observe directly but which exist objectively, that is, independently of any human perception.
Let us start with a very simple example. Suppose we hold a small object like a pencil between our thumb and forefinger and then release it. We observe that it falls to the floor, and we say that the force of gravity causes it to fall. But let us look again. Do we actually see any downward force acting upon the pencil, something pulling or pushing it? Clearly, not. We do not observe the force of gravity at all. Rather we deduce the existence of some unseen force (called gravity) acting upon unsupported objects in order to explain their otherwise inexplicable downward movement.
Now, let us look once again more carefully at the initial configuration of the pencil and ask the following question: at the moment the pencil is released, what are the logically (physically) possible directions it can take, based strictly on what we can observe in the configuration? The answer, clearly, is that any direction is logically possible. Nothing we can observe physically blocks the pencil from following any direction; nor can we observe anything that seems to favor one direction more than the others. Yet, what we do in fact observe is that one of the directions (downward) is privileged, for no matter how many times we repeat the simple experiment of releasing the pencil, it is the downward direction that is taken. Thus, what we observe in fact is a persistent and significant deviation from randomness (chance).
In science, we say that the behavior of an observable phenomenon is random (due to chance) if all logical possibilities occur with equal relative frequency. In other words, if the behavior of an unsupported object like the just released pencil was in fact random, then we would expect that some of these other logical possibilities would actually occur from time to time. However, what we observe is not only that the various logical possibilities do not occur with the same relative frequency but also that one of these possibilities is uniquely privileged in being exclusively chosen. Thus, what we actually observe is a persistent, consistent, and significant deviation from, randomness, and it is this deviation from randomness (without any observable reason for such deviation) that leads us to appeal to the existence of an unobserved force as the cause of the observed non-random behavior.
This example concerning gravity illustrates a general principle of scientific method: Whenever we encounter an observable phenomenon that, for no observable reason, exhibits a persistent deviation from randomness, we feel logically justified in asserting that the observed non-random behavior is due to the action of some unobserved force or entity. Indeed, to do otherwise would be grossly illogical and unscientific. The existence of each of the four basic forces of current physics (gravity, the strong and the weak nuclear forces, and electromagnetic force) was deduced in this manner. So basic is this principle that all of science would collapse were it to be discarded.
However, let us note that we have not proved absolutely that gravity exists. It is logically possible (though, of course, highly implausible) that every observed instance of the operation of gravity, from the beginning of recorded history until the present moment, is nothing but an incredible coincidence. A skeptic (an “agravitist”) could say:
“I understand why you believe that gravity exists, but I prefer to believe that there is no such unseen force.”
It is possible the skeptic might say that we will wake up tomorrow to find a world in total chaos and disorder, with unsupported objects flying in all directions, and we will then realize that all we have experienced for thousands of years has been just a series of very remarkable coincidences.
As we know from our discussion of scientific methodology above, we cannot refute such a skeptic in any absolute way. We can, of course, point out just how infinitesimal is the probability that he or she is right, but the skeptic is nonetheless free to choose to persist in an implausible belief. However, the skeptic cannot maintain antigravity skepticism while claiming to be scientific and rational in so doing. We have established that the existence of an unseen force of gravity is by far the most plausible of all known alternatives, and anyone who deliberately chooses a less plausible alternative is by definition unscientific and irrational. (Again, this is not the same as acknowledging that there are other logical possibilities, however implausible.)
Returning now to our example of the downward falling of unsupported objects, observe that we have shown much more than the simple existence of invisible or unobservable forces or entities. We have shown that observable effects can well have unobservable causes. We have shown that there are many instances of observable behavior that cannot be explained observably. In more philosophical language, we have shown that the visible world is not self-sufficient, that it does not contain a “sufficient reason” for itself: the phenomena of visible reality are produced by (or arise from) invisible reality.
Let us illustrate this truth with a simple analogy. Imagine that we are standing on the shore of an immense ocean. The ocean and its hidden depths represent the immensity of invisible reality. Occasionally a fish jumps out of the ocean into the air and then returns to the ocean. The brief moment during which the fish is out of the water represents a phenomenon of visible reality.
This analogy expresses very well the view of physical reality that derives from modern physics (in particular from quantum theory): the perceived macro-objects of visible reality consist of billions upon billions of little energy packets called elementary particles in relative but temporary equilibrium states and in continual motion. These particles arise from invisible reality (pure energy) and, whenever their equilibrium states are destroyed, they return to invisible reality.
By William S. Hatcher