Does God exist and what can science say about it?

By Dr. Mir Faizal and Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Mir Faizal is an Adjunct Professor in Physics and Astronomy at the University of Lethbridge and a Visiting Professor in Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: When people talk about atheism or theism, it is important to know what is being asked. So, I  would like to start the discussion with you by directly asking you if you think God exists.

Dr. Mir Faizal: To answer this question, we need to first define what we mean by God. The problem with this question is that the word ”God” has been used for so many different concepts, that it is hard to understand what one is talking about. This also causes problems in the discussion. It is known in physics that you cannot derive consistent results from a system, with unphysical gauge degrees freedom in it. So, to derive consistent results in such a system, we need to follow a procedure called gauge fixing to fix these unphysical degrees of freedom. Now in this question, we actually have unphysical degrees of freedom. This question actually contains two different questions. The first is about the meaning of the word “God,” and the second is about the existence of God.  Usually, people try answering the second one without answering the first one, and this causes confusion. So, let us discuss the first question, then we will be more precise about better understand what we are discussing. 

Jacobsen: So, you want to start by defining what you mean by the word “God.” Ok, then tell us, how would you define God? 

Faizal: I would define God as the most fundamental aspect of reality from which all other aspects of reality are derived, and it is not derived from anything more fundamental. If it can be derived from something more fundamental, then it is not God, according to my definition, but that something from which it is derived is God. In other words, God by definition cannot “not” exist and everything that exists, exists because of God, and God does not exist because of anything more fundamental. Now this definition is pure tautology, and it does not provide any new information. It only fixes the unphysical degrees of freedom, and so we are now only left with one well defined question. Now we have assumed by definition that God is the most fundamental aspect of existence, it is meaningless to ask if God exists, as by definition it is equivalent to asking if existence exists. Now we are left with the unambiguous question about the nature of the most fundamental aspect of existence. This question is much more well defined than an ambiguous question about the existence of God, when we have not even fixed a definition of God. 

Jacobsen: So, what is the most fundamental aspect of existence? May be start from telling us, what is the most fundamental aspect of physical reality?

Faizal: Well to understand that we need to understand an important concept in physics called as the effective field theories. If you are seeing any object around you, say a ball, it is actually a complex system of interacting atoms. But you do not need to know about atomic physics to know how the ball will move at your scale. All only need to know is Newton’s laws at that scale, as Newton’s laws are a good approximation to atomic physics. Going deeper, it is known that atoms are also made of fundamental particles. However, atomic physics is a good approximation to that system of fundamental particles. Now if you keep going deeper and deeper, you will come to a Length scale called the Planck scale. The physics here would be described by quantum gravity. Even though we do not have a full theory of quantum gravity, we have various approaches to it. String theory and loop quantum gravity are two famous approaches to quantum gravity, but there are several other approaches too. A universal prediction of quantum gravity is that space-time should break down at Planck scale. So, if you really look deep enough, you will discover that space-time and all objects in it are approximations to something more fundamental, and this fundamental aspect of existence is information. In other words, information is more fundamental than substance. In technical terms it is described as “it (substance) from bit (information), not bit from it.” So, the laws governing nature are more fundamental than nature itself. Instead of relativity existing because of space-time, space-time exists because of relativity. Physically the most fundamental aspect of reality is information, which is a mathematical structure. This structure is more fundamental than any physical structure like space-time, and hence cannot be possible derived from it. Even the multiverse exists as the level of it, and comes from some bit.

Jacobsen: So, would you say this is God? 

Faizal: Well there is even a problem with that. A mathematical structure is an axiomatic structure. So, we start from some axioms, and derive consequences from those axioms. The problem now comes from Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. The first theorem states that any axiomatic structure is incomplete, or in simple words there are things which cannot be proved within an axiomatic structure. The second theorem states that the consistency of an axiomatic structure is one of those things. In other words, the consistency of a mathematical structure cannot be proved within that structure. Penrose has argued that even though formal proof cannot be provided for Gödel’s unprovable statements because of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, human mathematicians can still prove them. In other words, we need consciousness to do mathematics, but reality is mathematics, and so I would say we also will need consciousness there to overcome this problem. However, it should be known that human consciousness occurs at low energies due to neurons in our brain, and now we are talking about a scale at which even space-time does not exist. So, rather the statement should be that a better linguistic approximation for the most fundamental aspect of reality is it has consciousness rather than the lack of it. However, this is still an approximation, and the actual nature of what produces this mathematics structure cannot be accurately expressed in language, which has evolved to express simple human actions. 

Jacobsen: Can you give a simpler explanation about existence of God? 

Faizal: We again start from the definition that God as the most fundamental aspect of existence. Then we can look at our universe and try to infer the nature of God from it. Now in popular discourse, theism is the assertion that the fundamental aspect of reality is infinitely intelligent, and atheism is the assertion that the fundamental aspect of reality has zero intelligence. It is difficult to deal with zero or infinity, and in physics usually a finite number is assumed during calculations, and this finite number is set to zero or infinity at the end of calculation. So, let us also do it here, and make the argument more precise. Let us assume that our universe is a simulation, and now what can we say about aliens who have simulated it. Well if they can simulate an complex living system, they would be intelligent. If they can simulate evolution on a planet, by which complex living system will evolve, they will be very intelligent. Finally, if they can write an mathematical structure, which produce correct physics, and which will cause the big bang and the right evolution of galaxies, and finally cause complex life to evolve from evolution, they have to be hyper-intelligent. If those aliens would be stupid, the universe would be full of inconsistencies, and would require corrections. As our universe is free from such inconsistencies, we can infer that the reality behind this universe is very intelligent. However, we cannot still prove if it is not a simulation, but that does not change the argument. As if this is a simulation, then the arguments just shift to the universe, where aliens have simulated us. Even if this is an infinite sequence, the argument will still hold using limits. After all infinite is just another number, and we can consistently deal with it using limits. Furthermore, the multiverse will just add another layer to it, as to simulate physics which will generate a multiverse is more difficult than to simulate physics which will generate a single universe. The problem with naive creationist argument is that they get stuck on biological evolution, and try to assume a God who breaks natural laws to spontaneously create complex life. The whole nature is exists because of God, and in this there is no need to assume that God will perform some miracle and spontaneously create complex life.

Jacobsen: How does this idea of God relate to the common religious ideas of God? 

Faizal: There are again two aspects to it. Now in almost all religions there is a concept of the most fundamental aspect of existence, from which other existence proceeds, and it does not proceed from anything more fundamental. Interestingly it is also assumed that it conscious and it is not an object in space-time. So, Yahweh/God in Judaism, the Heavenly Father in Christianity, God/Allah in Islam, Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism, Brahnam in Hinduism, Tian in Confucianism all represent this idea. It may be noted that as in Christianity both Word and Spirit have a non-temporal causal origin from the Heavenly Father, who in turn does not have a causal origin from anything more fundamental, Heavenly Father in Christianity is linguistically equivalent to other terms in this list. Also it may be noted Tian in Confucianism has a will, and so again has consciousness and thus linguistically equivalent to other terms in the list. But then there is another aspect of these religions, in which earth or even humans are made the centre of existence. We humans are an insignificant species, living on an insignificant planet in an insignificant solar system in an insignificant galaxy, in possibly an insignificant universe. It is one thing to get inspiration from Moses or Jesus or Muhammad or Zoroaster or Confucius or Ram or Krishna or Buddha, and it is another thing to say that one of them is the most important being in the whole multiverse. There will be countless alien species, billions of times more intelligent than us. This anthropocentric view seems to be the result of our own imagination. Furthermore, the idea that a human is the most fundamental aspect of reality is totally meaningless. It is like saying a human being is gravity, or human being is evolution, which if taken literally is totally meaningless. It is not even wrong; it is simply meaningless.

Jacobsen: In this definition of God, how do you address the problem of evil, or the paradox relating to God’s ability to create a stone which God cannot lift? 

Faizal: We have to differentiate between the most fundamental aspect of existence being conscious, and the linguistic approximation of this most fundamental aspect of reality in theology as God. The problem is that our language only evolved with us to express objects at our scale, and when we are dealing with such a fundamental reality, it breaks down. So, it is important to understand that any description of God, in any language is only a linguistic approximation of reality. So, as any approximation, this approximation will also break creating apparent paradoxes. Now these paradoxes occur due to breaking of linguistic structure rather than the concept that is being described. It is well known that deterministic mathematical structure cannot consistently explain nature. If we try to answer the question regarding the exact position and momentum of a quantum particle, we will not get consistent answers. It is not that we cannot obtain such information, but such information does not exist in the system. If we extract information about position, we are not left with any information about momentum. Now we cannot even ask this question. Similarly, we can adopt a non-deterministic language to solve such paradoxes. For example, God is good and God is powerful, but you cannot linguistically ask both questions at the same time. It is just like asking about momentum and position of a particle at the same time. Similarly, can God create any stone, and can God lift any stone, are two questions which cannot be asked at the same time. I think it would be nice to try to see how for such a non-deterministic language can be developed to rule out such paradoxes. But in any case, it is important to distinguish between fundamental reality and its linguistic approximation. 

Jacobsen: How do you see miracles that break physical laws, which some religious people talk about? 

Faizal: Another aspect that seems to be strange is to assume that certain miracles break natural laws. In our definition, God is the most fundamental aspect of reality. Now we also expected that space-time to break down at Planck scale, so this fundamental aspect of reality cannot be constrained by time. In other words, God’s nature would not change with time. As God’s action do not change with time, similar causes lead to similar effects, and this is why science works. However, it is possible that improbable events can occur (without breaking natural laws), and they can be interpreted as miracles. It may be noted that both the idea of God interfering only at specific points of time to do miracles, and God only interfering at the beginning of universe, as if that point is special, does not fit with this description of God. This is because in this description of God, as God is defined as the most fundamental aspect of existence, so linguistically we can say that God does everything. However, God does everything consistently, and there are no inconsistencies in the universe. So, even though we do not still have a consistent physical understanding of the physics at the point of big bang, big bang has to be explained physically. In simple words, God is not the God of gaps, with big bang being a big gap, but a God whose intelligence is so perfect that no gaps are left.

Jacobsen: Thank you!

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

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