Supposing science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe. Is it not plain that the questions ‘Why is there a universe?’ and ‘Why does it go on as it does?’ and ‘Has it any meaning?’ would remain just as they were?
~ C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Materialists have been making the bizarre claim that we ‘no longer need God to explain the universe.’ Their argument is, more or less, that we have enough knowledge of the natural world to understand how it generally works, and that appeal to the supernatural is therefore unnecessary. They say this as though God were a magic genie summoned to provide an explanatory cause for phenomena that we do not yet understand. And this is a gross misunderstanding.
There are two types of explanations — what I will call ‘causal’ and ‘descriptive’ explanations. Causal explanations answer the question ‘why?’, while descriptive explanations answer the question ‘how?’. Most of the time, and particularly in science, our explanations are of the second type. We may ask ‘why?’, but our ‘why’ is usually searching for a way to describe what we observe in terms of what we already know (or think we know), even if what we know must be expanded in order to settle on such a description. The causal ‘why’ is rare; it seeks the ontological (having to do with existence) reason for something rather than the dizzying cause-and-effect explanations that describe the means by which the thing got to its present state.
“Why are you here?”
“Well, because I got into my car, turned the ignition, pressed the gas, and steered myself to this very spot.”
That is the scientist’s answer — a perfectly reasonable answer in the descriptive sense, but far from a satisfactory cause for his (apparently unsolicited) appearance. Similarly, you might describe in startling detail how chemicals in a man’s brain were activated and released to produce a particular feeling, but, try as you might, you could not in all your description explain why those chemicals ultimately exist, and why they ultimately followed such a procedure. To do that, you would have to invoke a ‘why’ on an entirely different plane than that of mere descriptions of physical processes.
In this light, things which we consider to be ‘miracles’ are no different from the many natural mysteries which have been ‘explained’ over time and those which still remain without satisfying scientific descriptions. A miracle, however otherworldly it might appear, is a physical event with a physical explanation, just like any other event. The only distinction is that, in the case of the miracle, we do not yet know what the explanation is.
Which is harder, to be born or to rise again? That what has never been should be, or that what has been should be once more? Is it harder to come into existence than to come back? Habit makes us find the one easy, while lack of habit makes us find the other impossible.
~ Blaise Pascal, Pensées
A miracle is not some anomalous, spiritual interruption of the normal, self-sustaining cycle we call ‘existence’. “Miracles,” to borrow again from Lewis, “do not, in fact, break the laws of nature.” Far from it; each passing second of our very existence is a miracle. The perpetual adherence of matter and energy to the laws of physics is a miracle. There is nothing more miraculous about a person pronounced dead coming back to life than there is about an electron orbiting a nucleus. The only difference is that we have invented a model for one and not for the other. The phenomena that we call ‘miracles’, or ‘anomalies,’ are merely different miracles than the ones we are used to.
Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.
~ C. S. Lewis, Miracles
The premise of the naturalist, then, is entirely correct — there is nothing in the natural world that cannot be described in terms of natural phenomena. But his conclusion does not follow, because it is those very phenomena which beg for an explanation.
So then, can science describe the universe without God? Absolutely. Can science explain the existence of the universe — or of anything at all, for that matter? No. Science is an endeavor to understand the processes at work the observable universe. Matter is what it observes, and matter is what it describes. It has no power to deduce anything beyond that. As good and as useful as our reason is, it is still not enough.
Thankfully, as Pascal put it, “We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart.” Reason is not God’s only modus operandi. When the Truth has found us, we will know it.