THE EVIDENCE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD FROM OBSERVATION: INTRODUCTION
The evidence for the existence of God from observation is more subjective than that from philosophy, but more objective than that from experience. Rather than relying entirely on the experience of another individual, or even a group, observation considers what we can all see around us, though we may come to varying conclusions regarding what can be deduced from our observation. Even still, we’re not debating or doubting what is being observed, only what can be concluded from it. Rather than providing the level of certainty that natural philosophy does, the evidence from observation involves observing what we see around us, such as the order of the universe, the world as an interactive whole, and even the existence of something rather than nothing, and asks if it’s reasonable to conclude that there is nothing or no One behind all of this. Like the cosmological argument presented by St. Thomas Aquinas, an objective look at the evidence of design and order in Creation suggests that it’s unreasonable to conclude that this order could be the result of random, non-purposeful vagaries of undesigned nature. Like that observed in man-made laws, or in a building, or even in something as simple as a three-legged stool, we immediately recognize the order in these things and the absurdity of insisting that such order could have come about by chance.
A humorous story is told about an atheist friend who came to visit Isaac Newton in his office. Newton was not a Christian, but he was a theist. Newton had a model of the solar system in his office, and the friend was admiring it. “Who made it?” the friend asked. “No one,” Newton replied. “It just put itself together.” Whether the story is apocryphal or not, it makes the point about how ridiculous it is to suggest that order can emerge from chaos, and that we would ever accept such a conclusion in any other matter.
Order demands explanation. We enjoy the wind-swept dunes of a desert or sandy beach, we stand in awe of the canyons carved over millennia by rivers coursing their way, and appreciate the shade provided by the arthritic twists of tree branches with their leaves above our heads. But, we don’t wonder what person designed and engineered these marvels. The carvings of Mount Rushmore are another matter. It would be foolish to suppose that the wind was responsible for these intricately carved formations that just happen to resemble four of our most esteemed presidents. The same is true for the Lincoln Memorial, the Hoover Dam, and the Sears Tower in Chicago. We reflexively understand the difference between a natural phenomenon and the designed efforts of people with minds to imagine, organize, and carry out such intricate creations. The question is: Is the universe more like the wind-swept dunes or more like Mount Rushmore? For, even in the dunes, the canyons and the tree branches, we find order of some sort, rather than complete randomness. The wind, for instance, doesn’t blow at random, but is set in its course by the rotation of the planet. Barring some force exerting pressure on them, rivers don’t run upstream, but always follow gravity toward the lowest point. And tree branches are drawn along their paths by the search for sunlight. But why is this? Why do we perceive order even in the supposedly randomness of nature? Why does a cell seem to us a tiny factory, or speak of a storm as having a mind of its own? Isn’t it reasonable to see some mind behind the great design of the universe? Is it proof? No. But, is it reasonable? Yes. Indeed, it seems unreasonable to insist on a mind behind the design of Newton’s solar system model, but not behind the design of the real thing. It seems unreasonable to insist on a mind behind the design of the Sears Tower, or even in that of the three-legged stool, and not behind the design of the world as an interactive whole, or of the universe as a wonderment of order and purpose.
Perhaps the difficulty is in our perception of randomness itself. To say that something acts in a way that is random is sometimes confused with making a statement of purpose, especially ultimate or final purpose. It’s usually understood as assuming that there’s no purpose behind the actions. But, this would be a critical misunderstanding. Random simply means that we can’t predict the coarse of a thing. We don’t know, for instance, if the seed will be blown this way or that by the wind. But, that’s not the same thing as saying that something acts without purpose. Seeds, for instance, have the ultimate purpose of finding a suitable place to land and germinate. There’s no reason to insist that the direction the seed travels, blown by the wind, is directly guided by the hand of God (or nature, for that matter) in some form of determinism. Finite beings are thwarted in their purpose all the time. But, neither does the randomness of its travels preclude an ultimate purpose behind it all. St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, understood that fortune and chance play a critical role in a Creation ordered and guided by God. As he wrote in his Summa contra Gentiles, Book 3, Chapter 74: “It would be contrary to … the perfection of things, if there would be no chance events.”
Perfection demands a measure of autonomy. Think about it: if everything was predetermined to act in a certain way, there would be no freedom in our acts, no free will to choose this path or that. As well, there would be no threat of hazard or failure, either by chance or poor choices, in the movement toward the fulfillment of any particular purpose, immediate or final. Perfection itself would be meaningless, since what is perfect is measured against what is imperfect. But, in such a world, imperfection isn’t an option. All that is left are the predictable outcomes of a universe set on its predetermined course. Respect for the autonomy of finite beings, then, is evidence of God’s providence over Creation, not of His deistic retirement from the work of His hands, much less of His non-existence.
As humans, we can’t expect to fully appreciate or understand the divine, ultimate purpose behind Creation, or of the seemingly mundane or genuinely random happenings that take place. Our perspective is as finite as the finite beings that make up the created order, for we’re certainly one of those finite beings. To assume, then, that our perch provides us enough of a view of the world that we need not consider the possibility that our vision is limited is arrogant and unwise, as well as self-limiting. Who knows what dangers and joys lie beyond the horizon? Who can claim to know what grand plan God has in store for those of us who await the full and final revelation of His glory?
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts. For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:8-11
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.