God and scientific enquiry 19

The Reverend Dr. Peter Mullen, rector of the delightfully named St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in the City of London (and a conservative with whom I have had the pleasure of co-operating on the battlefield of British politics – JB) has written this article about Richard Dawkins’s views on whether God comes into the purview of scientific enquiry. Dr. Mullen thinks he does not, and we agree with him. 

Dawkins is not  … an intelligent atheist. … For example, he writes: “Either God exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question. The existence of God is a scientific question, like any other.”

This is idiotic. Science investigates material phenomena, observable entities in the universe. No competent theologians or philosophers – not even the atheist ones – have ever declared that God (if he exists) is an object in his own universe. Perhaps there is no God, and intelligent Christians readily admit that there may be some legitimate doubt. But if the Judaeo-Christian God exists, then he is the maker of the universe and not an entity within it.

It is not the business of science to ask if there is a God. It is not a scientific question. Science is concerned with nature, not the supernatural. (See our review of Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, by C.Gee.)

It may be that Christians are tragically misled and that there is no God. But before you rush into atheism, you have to know something about philosophical reasoning and how theology works. In other words you have to know what it is about and what it is not about. When he discusses religious belief, Dawkins does not know what he is talking about. And to fire off ignorant opinions is only the first mark of a fool.

We don’t think Dawkins is a fool. Far from it. His books on evolution are wonderfully reasoned. But we disagree with him on political issues as well as on this one.

It is as if I should presume to lecture the zoologist Dawkins on his own subject: as if I should idiotically declare that all the subtleties of modern biological science could be summed up in a book entitled Janet and John Look at Frogs.

By contrast, there have been, and no doubt are still, competent atheists. If I were asked to name my favourite atheist, I would say David Hume. Hume was a thorough-going atheist, a man who on his deathbed declined the consolations of religion, saying: “I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.”

Moreover, the atheist David Hume did not possess an irrational, inhumane, roaring opposition to men of faith. He was a close friend of that great English Christian, Samuel Johnson. Unlike Dawkins, Hume did not wish to obliterate Christianity from the public realm.

Well, he might have, even if he didn’t say so.

Though we don’t have “an irrational, inhumane, roaring opposition to men of faith”, only a rational opposition to their ideas, we would be happy to see the obliteration of Christianity and all religion – by argument, not force.

  • C. Gee

    Harold and Apost8:

    Harold, Dawkins deals with both the creator God and a personal, prayer-answering God.   The  distinction between deism and theism  – whether God is outside or inside his creation – is irrelevant to the epistemological question: Is the statement that God exists a factual statement susceptible of scientific inquiry? (No. See below to Apost8) . As believers do not trust their senses or their reason to arrive at knowledge, continuing to dazzle them with science, maths and statistics will not change their gnosis of the supernatural.  

    The deist’s God leaves God Effects in flagella. The theist’s God answers prayers, 
    punishes, saves, performs miracles, leaves likenesses of Mary on left-over pizza etc.  Both types of God Effect have been explained in non-supernatural terms. Why is it that believers will not accept evidence that God is not the explanation as proof of his absence ?  Because there is always metaphysical space for the supernatural for those who believe. Wherever science’s explanation is incomplete, faith delivers the God explanation. (By the way, Harold, I do not know what you mean by “…the only way Christians could be wrong is for Atheists to be right, but statistically it is far more likely that one of the other religions is right.”  Huh? Right about what? What statistics? )

    Apost8, you explain: “So, if God exists, and He acts in the universe, those actions should be scientifically measurable in some way. In other words, there should be something observable out there that cannot be explained by any means other than the existence of God. Call it the God Effect, if you wish.” Upon this assumption, and rightly confident in not finding anything observable that can be explained only by the existence of God, scientists (like Stenger and Dawkins) think that they can circumvent the impossibility of proving a negative.  They cannot. 

     Stenger states that “religions make factual claims which enjoy no special immunity from examination in the cold light of reason and objective examination.” By attempting scientifically to measure the efficacy of prayer, or any other attribute of God’s purporting to signal his existence, and coldly demonstrating that God is not necessary to explain God Effects, scientists are prosecuting the atheist case one Effect at a time.  But, as stated above to Harold, believers come up with new Effects all the time, and persist in believing debunked ones.  After all, a prayer for someone’s death will come to pass, eventually.  Evidence of absence of God in the God Effects, is not scientific proof that God does not exist. 

    And this is why – in my opinion – atheists should adopt a fundamental epistemological tenet:

    Metaphysical  agency does not exist,  may not be an object of scientific inquiry or hypothesis, nor be revealed in the course of any scientific inquiry or discovery.  Any inquiry which assumes or hypothesizes or discovers metaphysical agency is not scientific. 

    This is conceding NOMA, but it has the advantage of not dignifying religion as offering anything important to say about the universe. Theologists are not, and will never be, worthy of the same intellectual respect as scientists.  I never want to see any scientist diligently undertaking to clarify self-evidently fantastical nonsense. It merely affords an opportunity for professional silly buggers to aggrandize themselves, to assert a spurious expertise and to place  dogma and science on an equal, albeit separate, footing. 

    • Harold

      My “statistical” point was to express that christians can be wrong in far more ways that there being no god.  If we were just to randomly pick a belief system (including Athiesm), then the chances are we would come up with some non-christian, non-atheist one.  The existence of God is just a strting point for demonstrating a religion.  I did not express it well.

  • Infidel91

    “This is idiotic. Science investigates material phenomena, observable entities in the universe.”

    This comment seems to rely on the religious idea that there can be such a thing as a non-material phenomenon or a non-observable entity — to the paradoxical idea that there can be any valid concept of an existent without measurable attributes.

    If existence includes all things that exist, then nothing can be said to *be* “outside of existence.”  And anything “inside” existence would seem to be a legitimate target for scientific inquiry.

    To concede that some alleged deity is not, at any level of technology or under any circumstances, susceptible to observation and measurement is to concede the unsupportable and arbitrary religious conceit of a formless, locationless existent that cannot be found within the boundaries of “existence.”

    That Dawkins does not make such a concession may be grounds for reasoned argument, but I do not think it can be written off as “idiotic.”

    • Jillian Becker

      Infidel91, I recommend that you go into deep cogitation over what the meaning of “is” is. 

    • Liz

      Thank you for expressing succinctly a concept that I have tried to articulate before without much luck – that “if existence includes all things that exist, then nothing can be said to ‘be’ outside of existence.”  This concept is profoundly simple, but hard for someone brainwashed to believe in the “supernatural” to grasp.  Once one understands this, the way out of the woods is much easier.  

  • Frank

    “Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: ‘My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.’ This stranger is a theologian.”
    ~ Denis Diderot (October 5, 1713 – July 31, 1784)

  • Harold

    This is an interesting point.  I think the meaning of “god” that Dawkins uses is quite important.  He is clear in the beginning of the God Delusion that he is talking about a personal god – one that cares for and interacts with humanity.  He is specifically not talking about some general “prime cause” which we could call God, but is not represented by any  religion.  Once we understand that, his position becomes more defensible.

    As Apost8 said, if this personal god exists, then by definition it acts in the world, and these actions may become the subject of scientific enquiry.  Therefore, it may be that the existence of  some being outside the universe called God is not the subject of scientific enquiry, but really, this is not the God that anyone cares about.

    By placing God outside the realm of enquiry, it is an admission that he is not influencing the world through prayer, miracles or the like, since these are surely legitimate areas for enquiry.

    Religious folk also mix up the possible existence of some greater being we could call God, and the personal gods of their religions.   Above it says “it may be that Christians are wrong and there is no God”.   It implies that the only way Christians could be wrong is for Atheists to be right, but statistically it is far more likely that one of the other religions is right.   Perhaps Jupiter is hurling down his thunderbolts, cursing Humanity for their non-belief.

    • Apost8

      Thank, you, Harold. That is what I was attempting to express.

    • Is it really likely that *any* religion invented by humans has a chance of being correct? Intelligent extraterrestrials would beg to differ with that statement, and I would beg to differ with both sentiments. Metaphysics cannot be detected through the application of physics.

      As far as answering questions regarding human purpose, the ancient Buddhist thought exercises, psychotropic drugs, and Sam Harris’s pioneering research in consciousness studies offer us our most promising leads. Heaven and hell are states of the mind, nothing more and nothing less.

  • Jillian

    Thank you for commenting, Apost8, but I can’t make any sense of what you say is “Victor Stenger’s approach”.  

    What can be described as a “God Effect”? And how is it to be “teased out”? 

    It’s something that “can presumably be measured”? 

    I’m not surprised it “doesn’t attract much press”. It seems a completely empty proposition.

    Please could you explain? Give some concrete – even if hypothetical – examples perhaps? 

    • Apost8

      Certainly, Jillian.

      Please see my reply to Don L, below.

  • Apost8

    The question of God’s existence is certainly more complicated than Dawkins presents it. I much prefer Victor Stenger’s approach, which is more along the lines of “if God exists, and He acts within our universe, those actions can presumably be measured – so let’s see if we can, through observation, tease out the measurable God Effect in our universe.”

    That is, in my view, a much more rational and scientific approach of which, I’m sure, Dawkins is well aware. The trouble is that it doesn’t attract as much press.

    • Don L

      As i read your comment…I get this vision of a pimply kid with thick plack rimmed glasses and a pocket protector…don’t know why, just do. 
      Anyway, “…He acts within our universe, those actions can presumably be measured…”  PRESUMED BY WHO and MEASURED…LOL.
      You haven’t addressed the Hume argument that Science deals with MATERIAL phenomena.

      • Apost8

        Thanks for ad-hominem ridicule, Don L. It’s not a good day on the internet unless someone insults me.

        Perhaps I’m mistaken, but my “pimply, thick-glassed” understanding is that science, to a large degree is about MEASUREMENT. Measurement = Data = Evidence.  You can’t prove a scientific claim without it.

        So, if God exists, and He acts in the universe, those actions should be scientifically measurable in some way. In other words, there should be something observable out there that cannot be explained by any means other than the existence of God. Call it the God Effect, if you wish.

        Ever heard of intercessory prayer? There’s a concept eagerly in need of scientific investigation. If God truly answers prayers, then we should be able to MEASURE if that is so. For example, are Baptist prayers more effective than Methodist? What about Lutheran prayers? Or Catholic?

        Does the soul exist? Believers in the soul argue (among other things) that the soul is what makes us “us” and that it is in some way linked to God. If this is the case, there should be some MEASURABLE way of determining what part of us would, in Stenger’s words “suggest the possibility of some reality that is highly unlikely to be consistent with metaphysical naturalism”.

        Believers insist that God is, in fact, active in the material universe. As any good methadological naturalist should know, events that occur within the material universe, even those caused by a non-material source, should be measurable in some way. If they aren’t measurable, then the events did not occur, and the non-material source is also in doubt.

        For more detailed information in this vein, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Victor Stenger’s book: God: The Failed Hypothesis. I read it several years ago, when I was forty-five.

        • Liz

          I agree.  The “supernatural” is of no interest to scientists, but if believers claim that a supernatural being is influencing the outcome of events in the natural world, then it does come into the domain that can be measured and scrutinized.  If it can be proven that there is no measurable evidence of that influence, as for instance in answer to intercessory prayer, as it has been, then the believers claims hold no water. 

        • Don L

          First, I am aware my pimply-faced, black-rimmed glasses comment wasn’t …hmmm…nice…sorry.  It was, however, an impression stimulated by the whole discussion.
          It’s all BS.  you measure and find there’s no Tebow effect…the godlies merely say…it’s god, it doesn’t have to leave a trail…it can do as it wants…it can kill your children in front of you in the absolute most horrid and gruesome way and get you to say it saved me!

          Souls, prayer…geez, 2000 years and they haven’t proven it exists yet…it’s called faith…to even enter into any serious discussion of it is insane.  Even Stephen Hawking got sucked in. 

          So much death and destruction in the name of gods…yes, thiose who don’t believe would love to shove it in their face and say ” see jackas…there’s n o F’n God…jesus F’n Christ…fer god’s sake get real!”  LOL

          Anyway keep on pretnding that this ‘measurement’ stuff has merit.  Personally, a fat, old, stupid-retired-cabby thinks yer nuts…have fun!

  • Liz

    I like this argument, and can agree with it up to a point.  But do you really have to know the intricacies of Leprachaun lore to declare that Leprachauns don’t exist?  To say that we must leave the question of whether God exists or not to the theologians, who know so much more about the subject of God than scientists, sound like the argument of the Accomodationists to me.  I really think Dawkins does have a point that the existence of God should be subject to the same rational scrutiny as any other claim. 

    • Jillian Becker

      Rational scrutiny is always good, but how can it be applied to irrational faith? 

      If a belief is not arrived at by reason, the believer cannot be persuaded by reason that it isn’t true.

      • Liz

        Yes, the only way to persuade a believer is not to enter into his irrational state of denial, but to point out to him that he is in that state, and that it doesn’t fit with the rest of his rational understanding. So that is a way of applying rational scrutiny to irrational faith – simply pointing out the irrationality of it.
        That is what I think Dawkins is trying to do by insisting that the existence of God be brought under scientific scrutiny – he is attempting to force believers out of their comfort zone of religious fantasyland, because otherwise they will remain in denial, just like an alcoholic, convinced that they are perfectly normal and that the rational people are the ones with “an irrational, inhumane, roaring opposition to men of faith”, and are persecuting them unjustly.