Everybody knows the following story: At one time, long ago, most or all people believed that when a tree branch fell and caused damage that a god or other spiritual entity caused the branch to fall. This belief was animate, in the sense that the god himself was pictured as pulling the branch or otherwise knocking it off the tree.
Reasons for the god’s behavior were ascribed, usually to sin, and perhaps a ceremony of propitiation was performed to forestall future baleful consequence. But over anything else, it was the fact of the branch falling that was used as evidence for the god’s existence. The branch fell, something caused it to, we can think of no cause, therefore it must be the god.
As time went on and fewer people imagined actually witnessing the god yanking on the tree, but they did not discard the idea that, somehow, that branch fell because the god willed it. Branches falling were still evidence of the god’s existence, but now weaker evidence. Some branches might have fallen on their own, who cares why.
Of course, magical thinking of this kind applied to physical events of all kinds; disasters were called, and not that long ago, “Acts of God.” Once more, these “acts” were a proof of God’s existence, but recently only in a vague sense. The causation really went one way: God to act, and not so much act to God.
Man’s existence, crucially his uniqueness and superiority over all other animals was, and still is, used by few, but a diminishing few, to infer the existence of God. The reasoning goes: because the universe is, God is.
The reason man’s uniqueness decreased in importance as evidence of God’s existence, is because physics itself could explain matters of fact like the biology of man more parsimoniously. That is, when the tree branch fell, we looked to physics or biology explain why. These new explanations worked, in the sense that their accuracy in foretelling future events was high.
Eventually, as far as explanations for any physical phenomena, science was a better theory than one relying on the moods and ineffability of God. Scientists were thus right to boast of their predictive and explanatory power, and they were right to claim their ascendancy over religion.
But then scientists made the same mistake in reasoning earlier people did: they argued that because we have a mathematical equation that describes falling tree branches, we can infer that God does not exist.
It wasn’t just falling tree branches, of course. Scientists became able to explain more of creation, even to the point of inferring that creation itself was a natural phenomenon, fully explicable using a few, minor assumptions.
We now have scientists like Stephen Hawking, in his forthcoming The Grand Design (as reported by the redoubtable Daily Mail), saying things like this: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing…Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”
This may be so; in fact, it is likely to be so. But then Hawking goes one step farther and says this: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper and set the universe going.”
The key mistake Hawking makes is to forget what he started out saying, or to neglect its importance. He said, “Because there is a law such as gravity…” He did not ask why gravity? Why is there not something else that looks like gravity, but isn’t?
That, of course, isn’t a new question, and is usually answered by saying something like this: “We began in ignorance about tree branches, but eventually figured them out. We now understand gravity and various other forces, and they can explain the instantaneous, unforced creation of the universe. We might not now know why these forces exist, but we’ll surely figured out why they do in time.”
This, at first glance, is not an irrational argument, but it is flawed irreparably. While we might figure out why known forces exist, it will be because their origin is explained by other facts. Some of these facts might themselves be explained by other facts and so forth.
But there will eventually come a base beyond which no further proof is forthcoming. There will be, that is, a set of facts so fundamental that we will only know about them through our intuitions. These a priori truths cannot be seen behind. We will never be able to say why these facts are and why other facts are not.
It will be in that still small place that there will always be room for God. Thus, it will always be the case that the reason for what is is because of God.