Imagine you entered an amazing palace. As you walk through the hallway, you are struck by the size of the building and decide to explore by opening the nearest door. As you enter the room, you see hundreds of chairs and tables arranged like a classroom. Suddenly you lose any motivation to explore the other rooms. You decide to leave the palace and head off to meet your friend at a local coffee shop. As you drink coffee with your friend he asks you, “So what did you see in the palace?” You reply, “Just a room full of tables and chairs arranged like a classroom”. Your friend then asks, “Why didn’t you see the other rooms?” You reply by saying, “There’s no point, there was nothing to see. If this room was full of chairs and tables, then the other rooms will have nothing in them.”
Is your reply rational? Does it logically follow that just because there is something in one room, there will be nothing in the other rooms? Of course it does not. Atheists who claim that science has disproved God follow a similar logic.
Science focuses its attention on only what observations can solve. However, God, by definition, is a Being who is outside the physical universe. Therefore, any direct observation of Him is impossible. However, an atheist may argue that indirect observation may support or negate God’s existence. This is not true. Any form of indirect observation could never negate God’s existence, because it is like saying an observed phenomenon can negate an unobserved phenomenon. This follows the same logic as the above example in the palace.
The fact that science does not lead to atheism is attested by the majority of the philosophers of science. For example, Hugh Gauch rightly concludes that to “insist that… science supports atheism is to get high marks for enthusiasm but low marks for logic.” Gauch makes perfect sense because the method of thinking that relies on observation cannot deny what cannot be observed. What science can do, however, is stay silent on that matter or provide evidence that philosophers can use to formulate a philosophical argument that God exists. Notwithstanding, there are arguments that use scientific evidence that conclude God’s existence is unlikely. These are known as evidential arguments; they are philosophical in nature and not scientific conclusions.
Why do some atheists believe science can deny God?
Science has changed the world. From medicine to telecommunications, science has improved our lives and well-being in ways that no other field of study has. Science continually improves our lives, and aids our understanding of the world and the universe. However, science’s successes have led many atheists to adopt incoherent and false assumptions. Below is a summary of these assumptions.
- First, some atheists perceive that science is the only yardstick for truth and that science has the answers for all of our questions. This motivates the atheist to conclude that God doesn’t exist because science can only address what one can observe. Since God cannot be observed and science is the only yardstick for truth, then to claim God exists is false. This assumption also motivates the atheist to believe that God is no longer required as a reason for things we do not understand. This is a false assumption because science has many limitations, and there are many things that it cannot answer. In addition, there are other sources of knowledge that science cannot justify, yet they are indispensable and fundamental sources of knowledge. This implies that science is not the only way to establish truths about the world and reality.
- The second assumption is that since science is so successful, scientific conclusions must be true. If scientific conclusions are true, and science cannot address an unobserved reality like God, then it follows He does not exist. The logic behind this assumption is fuzzy and it exposes a common ignorance concerning the philosophy of science. Simply put, just because something works does not mean it is true. This is a basic idea in the philosophy of science. Unfortunately, even some highly acclaimed atheists take the incoherent view that the successful practical application of a scientific theory proves it to be true in an absolute sense. I once met Richard Dawkins at the World Atheist Convention in 2010, held in Dublin, Ireland. I spoke to him briefly and asked him why he told one questioner not to study the philosophy of science and “just do the science”. He didn’t give me much of a reply. Surveying his public work, it is now becoming clear that one of his main reasons is that science “works, b*tches”. Although intuitive, it is false. It does not logically follow that a scientific theory or conclusion is true just because it works.
- The third assumption is that science leads to certainty. If science cannot directly prove God’s existence, and it is the only route to certainty, then we cannot be certain of God’s existence. This assumption also motivates the atheist to argue that once something is labelled as a well-confirmed scientific theory, we must dismiss Divine revelation if it opposes it in some way. This is not true. When scientists call something a theory, they are not saying it is absolute and that it will never change. It means it is the best explanation of particular phenomena, based on our limited observations. However, there can always be a new observation—or way of seeing things—that is at odds with previous observations. This is the beauty of science; it is not set in stone. Therefore, if religious scripture and science seem to conflict, it is not a huge problem. Why? Because science can change. All that we can say is our current understanding of observed phenomena—based on our limited observations—is at odds with what a particular scripture says, but it may change. This is a huge difference from using science as a baseball bat to smash the claims of religious scripture. Some scientific facts, based on direct observation, are unlikely to change in science, but most of the arguments that are used to bash religious discourse are based on more complex scientific explanations and theories, such as Darwinian evolution. If the content of a divinely revealed text seems to be at odds with scientific explanations and theories, you must not reject revelation to accept the science. In addition, you must not reject the science to accept the revelation. It is within your epistemic right to accept both! The correct approach, therefore, is to accept the science as the best that we have without making massive epistemic leaps of faith and concluding that it is absolute; at the same time, you can accept the revealed text because you have good reasons to do so.
- The final assumption forms the lens by which many atheists see the world. This lens is naturalism. There are two types of naturalism: philosophical and methodological. Philosophical naturalism is the philosophy that all phenomena in the universe can be explained via physical processes, and that there is no supernatural. Methodological naturalism is the view that if anything is deemed scientific, it can never refer to God’s Divine activity or power. The atheist conflates philosophical naturalism with methodological naturalism. The atheist inadvertently adopts the non-scientific assumption of philosophical naturalism to understand scientific conclusions. The atheist confuses the idea that scientific conclusions, in order to be scientific, must not refer to God’s creative power or wisdom (methodological naturalism), with the fact that His creative power and wisdom do not exist (philosophical naturalism).
The rest of this essay will address these assumptions, and the best way to do that is to go back to basics: understand what science is, explore its limitations and unravel some of the discussions that exist in the philosophy of science.
What is science?
The word science comes from the Latin word scientia, meaning knowledge. Science is the human endeavour to understand how the physical world works. Mathematician and philosopher of science Bertrand Russell nicely explains that science is “the attempt to discover, by means of observation and reasoning based upon it… particular facts about the world, and the laws connecting facts with one another.”
In light of Russell’s definition, let’s further break down the scientific method.
Science has a particular scope. It focuses on the physical world, and can only address natural processes and phenomena. From this perspective, questions such as, what is the soul? What is meaning? are questions outside the scientific process.
Science aims to explain the physical world. As a collective institution, it aims to produce accurate explanations of how the natural world works. The way science aims to produce explanations is that it comes up with testable hypotheses. For a hypothesis to be testable, it must logically generate specific expectations. Consider the following hypothesis: “Coffee improves the performance of Olympic wrestlers.” This hypothesis is testable because it generates the following specific expectations:
- coffee improves performance
- coffee impairs performance
- there is no change in performance
One of the beautiful aspects of science is that it does not just examine true hypotheses; rather, it necessitates experimentation and testing. This is why, ultimately, scientific ideas must not only be testable; they must actually be tested. A single set of results is not the preferred option; true science involves that different scientists repeat the experiment as many times as possible.
There is obviously more to science than what we have discussed so far, but these observations are sufficient to understand the basic elements of the scientific method. This leads us to respond to the key assumptions about science that some atheists use to falsely conclude that science leads to atheism.
Assumption #1: Science is the only way to establish the truth about reality, and it can answer all questions.
This assertion, known as scientism, claims that a statement is not true if it cannot be scientifically proven. In various conversations I have had with atheists and humanists, I have found that they constantly presume this assertion. Science is not the only way to acquire truth about the world. The limitations of the scientific method demonstrate that science cannot answer all questions. Some of its main limitations include that it:
- is limited to observation
- is morally neutral
- cannot delve into the personal
- cannot answer why things happen
- cannot address some metaphysical questions
- cannot prove necessary truths
However, before we discuss these limitations, it is important to note that scientism is self-defeating. Scientism claims that a proposition is not true if it cannot be scientifically proven. Yet the above statement itself cannot be scientifically proven. It is like saying, “There are no sentences in the English language longer than three words”, which is self-defeating because that sentence is longer than three words.
Limited to observation
This may sound like an obvious limitation, but it is not entirely understood. Scientists are always limited to their observations. For example, if a scientist wants to find out the effect of caffeine on baby mice, they will be restricted to the number and type of mice they have and all the variables in place during their experiment. Philosopher of science Elliot Sober makes this point in his essay, Empiricism: “At any moment scientists are limited by the observations they have at hand… the limitation is that science is forced to restrict its attention to problems that observations can solve.”
Not only are scientists restricted to observations, but they are also limited by the fact that a future observation may form new conclusions that in turn can go against what was previously observed (see the section below, ‘The Problem of Induction’). Another limitation involves the fact that what is considered to be non-observable today could be perceived by our senses in the future, either due to improved technology or persistent investigation. The discovery and use of the microscope and the electron microscope are good examples of scientific progress. Therefore, we can never be certain about our current understanding of the physical world, because it can change with improved observations.
Science is morally neutral. Now this does not mean that scientists do not have morals. What it means is that science cannot provide a foundation for morality. For instance, science cannot be a basis for the meaningfulness and objectivity of morals, and it cannot tell us what is right or wrong. This does not mean that it cannot be part of a multidisciplinary approach that informs some ethical and moral decisions. However, science on its own fails to provide a basis for what we consider good or bad.
Science essentially tells us what is and not what ought to be. The statement, “you cannot get an ought from an is”, has become a philosophical cliché; however, it has some truth in it. Science can tell us what happens when a knife penetrates someone’s skin, including all of the processes involved, but it cannot tell us whether it is immoral. The blood, pain and physical damage could be due to important life-saving surgery or the result of a murder. The point is that understanding all the processes involved in cutting and penetrating the human flesh does not lead us to a moral decision.
As mentioned in my essay Know God, Know Good, Charles Darwin considered morals and science (specifically biology), and came up with an extreme example of the possible implications of our morality stemming from a biological process. He suggested that if we were reared under a different set of biological conditions, then what we would consider moral could be very different from our current views. What Darwin may have been telling us is that if what human beings consider to be moral was just a result of previous biological conditioning, then having a different set of conditions would result in different moral standards. This has immense implications for the foundations and meaningfulness of morality. Firstly, establishing biology or a set of physical conditions as a basis for morality renders morals subjective—because they are (and were) subject to inevitable changes. However, this contradicts the innate and undeniable fact that some morals are objective. Secondly, if our sense of morality was based on biological conditions, then what meaning do our morals have? Since our morals could have been different if we were ‘reared’ differently, then our morals lose their meaning. This is because there is nothing necessary about our moral outlook, as it is simply a result of chance and physical processes.
In his book, The Moral Landscape, the outspoken atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris has attempted to justify our sense of objective morality by explaining how science can determine our moral values. Fellow atheists have commended his efforts, but he has also faced tremendous criticism from both theists and his comrades in arms. Harris presents us with his landscape of morality. On the peaks is moral goodness and in the troughs is moral evil. How does he know what is good and evil? Well, the peaks represent well-being and the troughs represent suffering. This may sound like a crude summary of his discussion, but in fairness it boils down to Harris equating evil with suffering and goodness with well-being. This is where Harris fails. If it can be shown that people can increase their own well-being by harming others, his moral landscape is demolished. Another way to dismiss Harris’ argument is to show that some things that can promote our well-being are morally abhorrent. Consider, for instance, incest with the use of contraception. Both parties have increased well-being (as they freely decide to act upon their desires), and there is no chance of harm or suffering—such as conceiving a child with genetic defects—due to the use of contraception. I even raised the issue of incest to Professor Krauss during our debate, and he wasn’t entirely sure about his position (he argued that it was not clear to him that it was wrong and he could not morally condemn it). Some things that can promote our well-being are morally abhorrent. Even if you disagree with this example, there are many other examples to choose from to make this point.
In his book, Rational Morality, fellow atheist and philosopher of science Robert Johnson provides a similar criticism to Harris’s argument. Johnson argues that Harris’s approach lacks justification for morals being factual and objective:
“Harris still appears to be trapped in the problem of admitting that he is just assuming that the moral fact relating to ‘wellbeing’ exists. Will we find this moral fact while studying the ground under rocks? No. Will we be able to imply its existence when examining the issue like with the laws of quantum mechanics? No. In fact the only thing backing up our intuitions that these moral facts simply exist independently is just that: our intuitions… The problem itself can be explained fairly simply: just because Harris correctly identifies how morality is currently defined, it does not mean that morality should therefore be taken as factual. Indeed, Harris himself admits there are plenty of things we currently allow for which are immoral….”
You cannot test the personal
Science prides itself on testing ideas. Without testing there is no science. However, at some point testing must give way to trust. For instance, how do we know what people have intended? How do we know what a person is feeling? The scientist may argue that they can tell someone is lying by using a lie detector; they may also assert that an entire array of physiological and behavioural indicators correlates to certain feelings (this is not true and will be discussed below). They have a point, but it is not as simple as that. Consider friendships as an example. Your friend asks you about your day and how you are feeling, and you respond by saying it has been a great day and that you are feeling quite happy. Imagine, you meet him the following day and he asks you the same question, but will only believe you if you hook yourself up to a lie detector to capture essential physiological data. Would that harm your friendship? If he continued to make the same request every time you responded to his question, would the relationship you have built with him be affected? Of course it would. The realm of personal friendship is preserved, if we are trustworthy in our responses and if we trust what people say.
Another example is emotions. How do we know if someone is feeling depressed? Do we have a depression detector that we could use? Although physiological data provides some input, a significant portion of the vital information is in the personal interaction between the psychiatrist and the patient. This usually takes the form of questions, answers and even a completed questionnaire. These all require that we trust some of the patient’s answers. Therefore, it seems to me that observations alone are not enough for certain domains of human life, such as friendship and mental health. Science, therefore, must rely on trusting, rather than depending solely on testing.
Science can only deal with third-person data, whereas personal attributes, such as feelings and experiences, are first-person data. Frank Jackson’s Mary argument shows that knowing all the physical third-person facts do not lead to all the facts. In other words, they can tell us nothing about the personal first-person data. Science cannot tell us anything about what it is like for an organism to experience an internal subjective conscious state. Knowledge of the physical brain does not lead to an understanding of a subjective experience, and why that experience emerges from brain activity. There are facts about consciousness that cannot be deduced from physical facts. The only way of getting close to an answer is by trusting someone’s description of their personal subjective conscious experience (although you will still never be able to truly know what it is like for them to have that experience). The point is simple: Science cannot test the personal.
Cannot answer ‘why?’
My aunty knocks on your door and presents you with a lovely home-baked chocolate cake. You accept the gift and place the cake on your kitchen table. Once my aunty has gone, you open the box to have a slice. Before you indulge, you ask yourself a question: Why has she baked me this cake? As a scientist you cannot do much apart from explore the only piece of data you have at hand: the cake. After doing many tests, you find out that the cake was probably baked at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and the ingredients included cocoa powder, sugar, eggs and milk. However, knowing all of this information does not help you to answer the question. The only way you can find out is if you ask her.
This example shows us that science can tell us the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, but it fails to give us the ‘why’. What is meant by ‘why’ here is that there is a purpose behind things. Science can answer why mountains exist from the point of view that they were formed via geological processes, but it cannot provide the purpose behind the formation of the mountains. Many would simply deny the concept of purpose altogether.
Asking why implies a purpose, and many atheists maintain that purpose is an illusion, based on outdated religious thinking. This is a very unhelpful way of looking at our existence in the universe. In such a world, everything can be explained via physical processes that we have no control over. We are just one of the dominoes in a falling row of dominoes. We have to fall, because the domino behind us fell. Not only is it counter-intuitive, but it highlights some striking contradictions in the way we reason in normal day-to-day activities. Imagine, while reading this book you reach the final chapter and you see the following sentence: “There is no purpose behind this book”. Would you even consider taking such a statement seriously?
Cannot answer some metaphysical questions
Science can address some metaphysical questions. However, these are the questions that can be empirically addressed. For example, science has been able to address the beginning of the universe via its field known as cosmology. Nevertheless, some valid questions cannot be answered scientifically. These include: Why do conclusions in deductive reasoning necessarily follow from the previous premises? Is there an afterlife? Do souls exist? What is it like for a conscious organism to experience a subjective conscious experience? Why is there something rather than nothing? The reason that science cannot address these questions is because they refer to things that go beyond the physical, observable world.
Scientism cannot prove necessary truths such as mathematics and logic. The conclusion of a valid deductive argument necessarily follows from its premises. Consider the following argument:
- Conclusions based on limited observations are not absolute.
- Scientific conclusions are based on limited observations.
- Therefore, scientific conclusions are not absolute.
The validity of this argument (not to be confused with its soundness) is not based on empirical evidence. Its validity refers to the logical flow of the argument and has nothing to do with the truth of the premises. There is a logical connection between the conclusion and the premises. This connection is not based on anything empirical; it is happening in one’s mind. Can science justify the logical connection between the premises and the conclusion? No, it cannot. There is an insight in our minds that moves us from the premises to the conclusion. We see something that is not based on empirical evidence. There seem to be internal logical structures or aspects of our minds that facilitate this type of reasoning. No form of observation can justify or prove the logical flow of a deductive argument.
Mathematical truths such as 3 + 3 = 6 are also necessary truths and are not purely empirical generalisations. For instance, if I were to ask what is one Fufulah plus one Fufulah, the answer would obviously be two. Even though you do not know what a Fufulah is, and you have never sensed one, you know that one of them plus another one is going to be two.
Other sources of knowledge
Science cannot justify other sources of knowledge, such as testimony. This is a branch of epistemology “concerned with how we acquire knowledge and justified belief from the say-so of other people”. Therefore, one of the key questions it tries to answer is: How do we gain “knowledge on the basis of what other people tell us?” Professor Benjamin McMyler provides a summary of testimonial knowledge:
“Here are a few things that I know. I know that the copperhead is the most common venomous snake in the greater Houston area. I know that Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo. I know that, as I write, the average price for gasoline in the U.S is $4.10 per gallon… All of these things I know on the basis of what epistemologists call testimony, on the basis of being told of them by another person or group of persons.”
McMyler’s summary seems quite intuitive and highlights why we claim some knowledge solely based on testimonial transmission. The world being a sphere is a striking example. The belief that the world is a sphere is—for most of us—not based on mathematics or science. It is purely centred on testimony. Your initial reactions may entail the following statements: “I have seen pictures”, “I have read it in science books”, “All my teachers told me”, “I can go on the highest mountain peak and observe the curvature of the Earth”, and so on. However, upon intellectual scrutiny, all of our answers fall under testimonial knowledge. Seeing pictures or images is testimonial because you have to accept the say-so of the authority or person who said it is an image of the world. Learning this fact from science textbooks is also due to testimonial transmission, as you have to accept what the authors say as true. This also applies when referring to your teachers. Attempting to empirically justify your current conviction by standing on the highest peak is also based on testimony, as many of us have never done such a thing. Your assumption that standing on the highest peak will provide you with evidence for the roundness of the Earth is still based, ultimately, on the say-so of others. Even if you have done it before, it does not in any way prove the roundness of the Earth. Standing on a peak will only indicate that the Earth has some form of curvature—and not a complete sphere (after all, it can be semi-circular or shaped like a flower). In summary, for the majority of us, the fact that the world is round is not based on anything else apart from testimony.
Knowledge is impossible without testimony. Professor of Epistemology C. A. J. Coady summarises the points made so far, and lists some of the things that are solely accepted on the basis of testimonial transmission: “…many of us have never seen a baby born, nor have most of us examined the circulation of the blood nor the actual geography of the world nor any fair sample of the laws of the land, nor have we made the observations that lie behind our knowledge that the lights in the sky are heavenly bodies immensely distant….”
The significance of testimonial knowledge needs no further discussion (for a lengthier discussion on testimony please refer to my essay God’s Testimony).
In summary, scientism, which is the view that the scientific method is the only way to form conclusions about reality, is false. Scientism is self-defeating; it also cannot account for moral truths, logical and mathematical truths, and indispensable sources of knowledge such as testimony. Science is a limited method of study that cannot answer all the questions.
Assumption #2: It works, therefore it’s true
It does not logically follow that just because something works, it is true. Despite this, popular ignorance of the philosophy of science has allowed popularisers such as Richard Dawkins to publicly maintain that scientific conclusions are true because they work. During a public lecture, Dawkins was asked about the level of certainty that we can attribute to science; his answer was—as mentioned previously—crude. Dawkins was obviously mistaken; it does not follow that just because something works, it is in fact true. The phlogiston theory is an apt example to prove this point.
Early chemists postulated a theory that in all combustible objects was an element called phlogiston. According to this theory, when a combustible object burned, it would release phlogiston. The more combustible a material was, the more phlogiston it contained. This theory was adopted as a fact by the scientific community. The theory worked so well that in 1772 Dan Rutherford used it to discover nitrogen, which he called ‘phlogisticated air’ at the time. However, phlogiston was later found to be a false theory; phlogiston did not exist. This is one of many examples to show that a theory can work and produce new scientific truths, and yet later be found to be false. The lesson is obvious: just because something works, does not mean it is true. Some untrained objectors would argue that the example above is specific and cannot apply to modern science. They maintain that the theory of phlogiston was not a complete theory and had assumptions. However, today’s scientific theories do not suffer from these problems. This is completely false. Take Darwinian evolution as an example of a well-established theory. According to mainstream secular academics, it is based on assumptions, considered relatively speculative, and there are disputes about its core ideas.
Scientific U-turns do not care about who is sitting in the passenger seat. Even things which seemed obvious, undeniable and observable can be overturned. A relatively recent example of this is the study of Neanderthal skulls in Europe. Darwinian biologists argued that Neanderthals must have been the ancestors to our species. In textbooks, documentaries and museums, this ‘scientific fact’ was taught; in 1997 biologists announced the Neanderthal simply could not be our forerunner, based on modern DNA testing.
Every aspect of science, and even the subtheories that make up the bigger theories in every field, will eventually revise their conclusions. The history of science has shown us this trend, so to speak of ‘scientific facts’ as immutable is not accurate. It is also impractical. All scientific theories are ‘work in progress’ and ‘approximate models’. If someone claims there is such a thing as scientific absolute truths, then how would he or she explain the fact that ‘quantum mechanics’ and ‘general relativity’, which are both seen as true by physicists, contradict each other at a fundamental level? They both cannot be true in an absolute sense. Knowing this, physicists assume both to be true working models and use this approach to make further progress. The idea that well-confirmed scientific theories are final is therefore misleading, impractical and dangerous for scientific progress. Historians and philosophers of science have been vocal in their opposition of using such language. Philosophers of science Gillian Barker and Philip Kitcher drive the point home: “Science is revisable. Hence, to talk of scientific ‘proof’ is dangerous, because the term fosters the idea of conclusions that are graven in stone.”
Assumption #3: Science leads to certainty
Some atheists have a gross misunderstanding of the philosophy of science. They assume that once science declares something as scientifically proven, then it is absolutely true and will never change. This, however, exposes a lack of knowledge of the basic unresolved issues in science. One of these issues, which is relevant to our discussion, is induction. Although there are many ways scientists confirm a theory or form conclusions about the empirical data they have tested, inductive arguments remain the bedrock of most of them. Yet inductive arguments can never lead to certainty.
Inductive arguments concern our knowledge of the unobserved. They play a central role in human knowledge, specifically scientific knowledge. Inductive arguments use instances of what we have observed to make conclusions for what we have not observed. They can be applied to include the present and the past. For example:
- Past—Premise: The bodybuilders I have spoken to have increased muscle mass as a result of eating a lot of animal protein. Conclusion: All bodybuilders in the past increased muscle mass by eating a lot of animal protein.
- Present—Premise: My friend has always experienced friendly dogs. Conclusion: All dogs are friendly.
- Future—Premise: All of the US presidential campaigns have had a Democrat candidate. Conclusion: The next presidential campaign will have a Democrat candidate.
The above conclusions obviously do not reach the level of true certainty because they are not deductive arguments. The explanations below show why the conclusions in the above inductive arguments do not necessarily follow:
- Vegetarian bodybuilders in the past gained muscle mass from eating only vegetable protein.
- It could be the case that some dogs are unfriendly.
- In the future, there could be a political paradigm shift in US politics, the Democrats could dissolve and a new party could emerge.
The uncertain nature of inductive arguments has caused many philosophers to question the validity of induction as a means to knowledge: this is an area of philosophy known as epistemic justification. This questioning led to what is now known as the problem of induction. It must be noted that inductive arguments are not the same as inductive reasoning, as this type of reasoning refers to the use of the senses and not how conclusions are made. For example, you observe frogs in your garden, and you mirror what you have observed by stating that there are frogs in your garden. You do not make a conclusion for unknown phenomena (in this case all frogs, or the next frog you have not yet observed).
The problem of induction
The challenge to induction can be traced back to the Greek, sceptical, philosophical school known as Pyrrhonism. However, it was David Hume who comprehensively explained the failure of inductive arguments to provide knowledge of reality. Hume argued that the nature of our reasoning was based upon cause and effect, and that the foundation of cause and effect was experience. He maintained that since our understanding of cause and effect was based on experience, it would not lead to certainty. Hume argued that to use a limited set of experiences to conclude for an unobserved experience would not give rise to certainty.
The previous examples show that inductive arguments make a conclusion by moving from the particular to the general. In other words, one moves from a limited set of experiences to conclude for experiences that have not been experienced. Inductive arguments are not deductively valid, in that the conclusion does not necessarily follow from its premises.
Hume does not restrict his argument to the uncertainty of induction; he claims that they are not justified in any way. Inductive arguments are based on an assumption that “the future will resemble the past”, which implies that nature is uniform. However, the only way to justify this assumption would be to use an inductive argument. Hume argues that this reasoning is circular, because the assumption is based on the thing that we are seeking to justify. To justify an inductive argument with this assumption would be tantamount to justifying induction arguments with inductive arguments. After all, it could be that nature is not uniform.
In summary, Hume’s argument is that we cannot justify inductive arguments. The assumption that nature is uniform is based on an inductive argument, and therefore to use this assumption as a means to validate inductive arguments “is like underwriting your promise to pay back a loan by promising you will keep your promises”. 
Inductive arguments as a problem for science
Given that inductive arguments cannot give rise to certainty, it then becomes a problem for scientific conclusions. Scientists heavily rely on inductive arguments to form conclusions about the data that they have observed. However, since all observations are limited or based on a particular set of observed data, then deriving a conclusion based on limited data will not be certain.
The history of science provides many examples that highlight its dynamic nature. Prevailing theories in every field of science are very different from past eras. Samir Okasha, a lecturer of philosophy at the University of York, argues that if we were to pick any scientific discipline, we could be “sure that the prevalent theories in that discipline will be very different from those 50 years ago, and extremely different from 100 years ago.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, physics looked neat and tidy with its Newtonian model of the universe. No one had challenged it for around 200 years as it was ‘scientifically proven’ to work. However, quantum mechanics and general relativity shattered the Newtonian view of the world. Newtonian mechanics assumed time and space to be fixed entities, but Albert Einstein showed these were relative and dynamic. Eventually, after a period of upheaval, the ‘Einstein Model’ of the universe replaced the ‘Newtonian Model’. A cursory glance at the history of science confirms the problem of induction: a new observation can always contradict previous conclusions.
Science and religious scripture
Since scientific conclusions are inductive in nature, and inductive arguments do not lead to certainty, it follows that what we call scientific explanations should not be considered absolute. There are no Moses tablets in science. There are, however, some things that we should not be sceptical about, such as: the roundness of the Earth, the existence of gravity and the elliptical nature of orbits.
Many atheists mock religious scripture for its inability to represent the facts. There are many online and off-line discussions on science and religious orthodoxy. Even mainstream television programmes host debates on religious perspectives on the natural world. However, in light of the discussion above, we have created a false dichotomy of religion versus science. It is not as simple as accepting one over the other.
Science is the application of reason to the natural world. It seeks to understand how the world works. The Qur’an also refers to natural phenomena, and inevitably there have been direct conflicts with scientific conclusions. When a conflict arises, there is no reason to panic or to deny the Qur’anic verse that is not in line with science; nor can anyone use this situation to claim that the Qur’an is wrong. To do so, would be to assume that scientific conclusions are true in an absolute sense and will not change; this is patently false. History has shown that science revises its conclusions. Believing this does not make one anti-science. Imagine how much progress we would make if scientists were not allowed to challenge past conclusions: there would be none. Science is not a collection of eternal facts and was never meant to be.
Since there are good arguments to justify the Qur’an’s claim of being God’s word, then if the Qur’an conflicts with limited human knowledge, it should not create massive confusion. Remember, God has the picture, we have just a pixel. Until the 1950s, all physicists, including Einstein, believed that the universe was eternal; all the data supported this, and this belief conflicted with the Qur’an. Yet the Qur’an explicitly states that the universe had a beginning. New observations using powerful advanced telescopes made physicists drop the ‘steady state’ model (eternal universe) and replace that with the Big Bang Model (universe with a beginning, possibly about 13.7 billion years ago). So, science came into line with the Qur’an. The same thing happened with the Qur’anic view of the sun. The Qur’an states that the sun has an orbit; astronomers disagreed, saying it was stationary. This was the most direct contradiction between observations of scientists and the Qur’an. However, after the discovery of the Hubble telescope, astronomers revised their conclusions and found the Sun was orbiting around the centre of the Milky Way galaxy.
Yet this does not mean that the Qur’an is a book of science. It’s a book of signs. The Qur’an does not give any details concerning natural phenomena. Most of the things it refers to can be understood and verified with the naked eye. The main objective of the verses that point towards the natural world is to expose a metaphysical power and wisdom. Their role does not include elucidating scientific details. These can change over time; however, the fact that natural phenomena have a power and wisdom behind them is a timeless reality. From this perspective, conflict between the Qur’an and scientific conclusions will probably continue, as they are two completely different types of knowledge.
This discussion should not, however, encourage Muslims and religious people to deny scientific conclusions. To do so would be absurd. Rather, both well-confirmed scientific theories and the revelational truths should be accepted, even if they contradict each other. Scientific conclusions can be accepted practically as working models that can change and are not absolute, and the revelational truths can be accepted as part of one’s beliefs. If there is no hope of reconciling a scientific conclusion and a statement of the Qur’an, then you do not have to reject revelation and accept the science of the day. Conversely, the science should not be rejected either. As previously mentioned, it is within your epistemic right to accept both scientific and revelational truths. The balanced and nuanced approach concerning science and revelation is to accept the science and allow the evidence to speak for itself. However, this should be in the context of not making massive epistemic leaps of faith and concluding that the evidence we have acquired and the conclusions we have made are the gospel truth. Science can change. In addition, this approach includes accepting the revelation. In summary, we can accept scientific conclusions practically and as working models, but if anything contradicts revelation (after attempting to reconcile the two), you do not have to accept the scientific conclusion into your belief system. This is why Muslims should not need to deny Darwinian evolution; they can accept it practically as the current best-working model, but understand that some aspects of it cannot be reconciled with orthodoxy. Remember, just because something is the current best-working model, it is not the absolute truth. It is also important to note that scientific knowledge and Divine revelation have two different sources. One is from the human limited mind, the other is from God. One would have to commit an epistemological disqualification to use scientific conclusions as a means to dismiss revelation. We have a pixelated understanding of reality. Our knowledge is finite, God’s knowledge is not. Therefore, if there happens to be a contradiction between the two, the above strategy should be adopted.
Islamic inductive arguments?
Critical and learned observers of this discussion will notice that although this is a mainstream understanding of science (amongst academics and philosophers), it also brings to light potential criticisms of Islamic epistemology. They can argue that in the Islamic tradition, inductive arguments are used to preserve the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions (known as hadith; ahadith, pl.). Therefore, Muslims cannot claim certainty in these vital source texts for Islam. This is a misplaced contention. To explain why, refer back to the earlier distinction between inductive reasoning and inductive arguments. Inductive reasoning provides certainty for basic types of knowledge. For instance, if I observe X in Y, it follows that Y allows X; I observe that crows fly, so it necessarily follows that some crows fly. As you can see, this form of induction just ‘mirrors’ the observation. It states the plain facts without making a conclusion for something that is yet to be observed. This type of induction was used in the preservation of the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions. For example, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ heard the Qur’an, and he simply repeated what he had heard. He never made a conclusion for a verse that he never heard. For example, a companion wouldn’t hear “Iyyaka na’abudu wa iyyaka nasta’een” (it is You we worship and it is You we ask for help) and then conclude “Qul huwa Allahu ahad” (Say, He is God, the uniquely One). Hence this objection is false, as it misunderstands the type of induction involved in the preservation of the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions.
Assumption #4: Conflating methodological with philosophical naturalism
The final assumption behind the assertion that science leads to atheism refers to philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism. Philosophical naturalism is the view that the universe is like a closed system; there is nothing outside the universe that interferes with it, and there is no God or anything related to the supernatural. A key aspect of philosophical naturalism is that all phenomena can be explained via physical processes. Methodological naturalism maintains that for anything to be described as scientific, it cannot refer to God’s creative power or activity.
Atheists who believe that science leads to atheism hold the non-scientific assumption of philosophical naturalism. Philosophical naturalism forms the ‘lenses’ that are put on one’s eyes to understand the world. If you wore some yellow tinted glasses, what colour are you going to see? Yellow. Similarly, if you put on the lenses of philosophical naturalism, all you will see is a universe without God. Philosophical naturalism shapes the way one sees the world. Philosophical naturalism is simply a faith. The atheist Professor Michael Ruse admits this fact: “If you want a concession, I’ve always said that naturalism is an act of faith….” Why is it a faith? Well, naturalism is incoherent, as it blindly believes that everything can be explained via physical processes, despite a number of recalcitrant facts; in other words, facts that resist a theory. For example, we both meet today at a restaurant at six o’clock, and the following day the police come to my house to arrest me on suspicion of murdering someone at the same time we were having dinner. The recalcitrant fact would be that I was with you eating at the time of the murder. My proven whereabouts resist the police’s suspicions that I committed the murder. You may be wondering, what are these recalcitrant facts that render philosophical naturalism as incoherent? Well, many of the essays on my website are a good starting point. Philosophical naturalism cannot adequately explain the hard problem of consciousness, the finitude and dependency of the universe, the fine-tuning of the laws and the order in the universe, the existence of objective morals and much more. In light of this, why would anyone blindly adopt such a philosophy, which prevents one from allowing reality to speak for itself? Many atheists have such naturalistic presuppositions. Therefore, it is not surprising that they dismiss the conclusions of theistic arguments. Usually they reject good arguments, because they are blinded with the false assumption that everything has to be explained by physical processes and that they can never entertain supernatural explanations.
Methodological naturalism however is not a problem for theism, especially Islamic theism. Methodological naturalism is not a problem for Islamic theism because the Islamic tradition accepts that the whole universe is made up of physical causes and these causes are a manifestation of the Divine will. Some atheists, however, conflate methodological naturalism with philosophical naturalism. Just because scientific conclusions and theories cannot refer to God’s power and creativity (methodological naturalism), it doesn’t follow that God doesn’t exist (philosophical naturalism). As evolutionary biologist Scott C. Todd said, “the scientist, as an individual, is free to embrace a reality that transcends naturalism”.
So has science disproved God?
In light of the above, the answer is no. Science is a beautiful method of study that has benefited humanity tremendously. However, its conclusions are not engraved in stone. As a method, it cannot directly reject God’s existence, answer all questions, and it is not the only way to form conclusions about reality. Many of the assumptions that some atheists hold about science are incoherent and based on a gross misunderstanding of the philosophy of science.
Last updated February 2020. Adapted from my book “The Divine Reality: God, Islam & The Mirage of Atheism”. You can purchase the book here.
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 Ibid, p. 305.
 Ibid, pp. 304-5.
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 Okasha, S. (2002). Philosophy of Science, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 77.
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 Moreland, J. P. (2009). The Recalcitrant Imago Dei. London: SCM Press, p. 4.
 Todd, Scott. C. (1999). A View from Kansas on that Evolution Debate. Correspondence to Nature. 401 (6752): 423, 30 Sept. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/46661 [Accessed 10th May 2018].