Friday, November 15, 2013

Why God is Not a Scientific Hypothesis-- And Why We Would Not Want Him To Be

Despite all I have said on this blog, there will still be some who say that God should be treated as a scientific hypothesis. Consider this statement by atheist Richard Dawkins:
“Either admit that God is a scientific hypothesis, or admit that his status is no higher than that of fairies or river sprites.” (in Stenmark 2004:74)

Dawkins is indeed correct that if God is not a scientific hypothesis, then he can’t hold any more prominent place in science than fairies do. However, Dawkins’ statement reveals two logical errors lurking in his philosophy. The first is his assumption that anything that isn’t a scientific hypothesis isn’t worth considering—i.e. he is revealing his scientism. The second error is the reasoning, common to many atheists, that if there is a God, and if he interacts with the natural world at all, then his actions should be empirically detectable. (Don’t ask me how they “know” this-- it is an untestable assumption. One could just as reasonably claim that the way to detect God is through our spiritual rather than our physical senses, and there would be no scientific way to refute that.) Ironically, the sign-seeking argument that a deity must be physically detectable is used not only by some atheists who say, “see, there’s no evidence for God, because we have never detected him,” but also by some believers who wish to make a place for God within science.

I have spent a considerable amount of time cautioning the first of these groups, including my fellow scientists, against representing science as atheistic. It is not. Science is agnosticit  cannot claim any knowledge one way or the other about God. If you don’t want to take my word for it, I would refer you again to the UC Berkeley website and leave it at that for today: Science has limits

Now let’s turn the tables a bit and take a look at those segments of society that wish to embed God in science. Many religious people object to the idea that science tries to describe the natural world—God’s creation—without reference to God. While some of these groups openly regard science as the enemy, others of them try to couch their religious beliefs as a new kind of science that can include God. While I understand their desire to give the Creator credit at every turn (which I do from a religious standpoint), efforts to do so from within science quickly become problematic. This is a complex and multi-faceted topic that keeps me awake at night, and I can only scratch the surface here. But for a start, let’s consider this analogy:

Many believe that God has influenced various historical events. How, then, would you propose to teach in the public schools, to Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, pagan animists, atheists, etc., history with God inserted? Everyone has their own account—commonly called scripture—of God’s dealings with mankind, and everyone has their own idea about how God (defined differently by all of them) has worked. What if, in the middle of a secular history class, the teacher or a student wanted to insert an explanation that the Hindu god Shiva had caused some historical event, or that Allah had, or that Jehovah had? And once that can of worms was opened, someone else could assert that fairies had caused something, or that aliens had. How would you test any of these claims, and how would you settle the disputes? It would be absurd to think that we could teach history or conduct scholarly historical research this way. But no less absurd is the idea that because the study of secular history does not include God, we should reject it as a discipline. The same could be said for political theory, sociology, economics, and innumerable other fields. We don’t throw out a hammer or a wrench just because it can’t saw a board, and we don’t expect any one tool to perform all functions.

It is no different with science. In order to study the natural world and communicate with each other about it, we had to devise a system (over the centuries) that put people of all beliefs on equal ground, with access to the same data, through their senses only. The scientific method seeks to do that by prohibiting up front all hypotheses that cannot be tested by the physical senses. Even this kind of evidence is hard enough to agree on, but at least it can be seen, measured, and experienced by people of any religious persuasion. To insist that science include Diety (and whose Diety?—we’d have to entertain all imagined types) would require us to abandon the hypothesis-testing foundation that makes science reliable. Science (and the centuries of work required to develop its methods) would regress and scientific progress would flounder under the infusion of disparate, untestable beliefs.

Those who have attempted to formalize a method for detecting God empirically have had to begin by adopting untestable assumptions about how God works, and some of these assumptions are objectionable to people of varying faiths. I am thinking specifically of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement in the United States, which is the most sophisticated attempt to date to carve out a space for God within science. (Although spokesmen for ID are usually careful not to specify the designer or imply that they are talking about God, their arguments do indeed have direct theological implications.) On close examination, the assumptions of ID would produce a science that may be untenable for Buddhists, Taoists, and various Christian groups, such as Mormons, among others. (This is to say nothing of the scientific objections to ID, which are many.) Additionally, by attempting to create a scientific way to prove God, the arguments of ID would unintentionally create empirical ways to disprove God, something which science is currently incapable of doing. Thankfully, so far the methods developed by the ID movement don’t work, or else aggressive atheists would have all kinds of new ammunition in their hands! In short, ID is a prime example of why attempts to make God a scientific hypothesis are problematic from both scientific and religious standpoints.

I advocate the scientific method, not only for protecting science against untestable and unfalsifiable claims, but also for protecting religious freedom against the various philosophical claims of pseudoscience, both theistic and atheistic.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for articulating the "issue" with ID. While I have a fervent belief in God and the earth as His creation I really have problems with any science curriculum that wants to present a creator. This helps me better understand why. Great piece.