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Can Science Decide the God Question?

"...belief in an omnipotent omniscient creator of the world does not in itself have any moral implications—it's still up to you to decide whether it is right to obey his commands." --Steven Weinberg

"...if human beings are anything special, we are the creatures that must ponder and talk." --Stephen Jay Gould

1

In Stephen Jay Gould's 1997 essay "Nonoverlapping Magisteria," he innocently wrote:

The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains—for a great book tells us that the truth can make us free and that we will live in optimal harmony with our fellows when we learn to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

Then, all hell broke loose.

Part of the vehement reaction to Gould's essay was probably due to many readers ignoring the remaining 80% of his words. Some of the negative reaction was due to his belief that religion's experts are analogous to science's experts. Beyond the fact that both areas have people they call leaders or experts, the similarity fades into oblivion. Theologians and religious philosophers may have their champions in the quest to understand values and "spiritual meaning" (whatever that may mean!), but they will never have any champions who displace former champions because they have no way of falsifying each other's claims. Scientific theories and beliefs about the empirical constitution of the universe can be tested and the false ones removed from contention. Theological or philosophical theories about values and "spiritual meaning" can't be tested (beyond the obvious tests of being free from conceptual contradiction and being consistent with known facts).

Another part of the angry reaction to Gould was due to his respect for religion in general and the Bible in particular (the "great book" he refers to that can "make us free"). Sure, religion deserves respect as long as you ignore all the aspects of it that don't deserve respect, and the Bible is a great book as long as you edit out all the not-so-great parts. Gould wasn't advocating a live-and-let live policy, but a policy of mutual respect for science and religion, something that those who dwell on the harmful aspects of religion or science will not abide.

The main howls against Gould, however, came because of his claim that there's a lack of conflict between science and religion. Gould's dismissal of the oxymoronic "scientific creationists" as "a local and parochial movement" that "makes little sense" to most Catholics, Jews, and Protestants may have been intended to show that we don't need to take them seriously, but the implication of his conciliatory policy seems to require that even the lunatic fringe be given their due respect. Gould saw the creationists as no threat to science, and they aren't. They have nothing of value to challenge science with. Their lame attempt to bring down evolution with intelligent design should be proof enough of their being nothing more than an annoyance. He called creationism a "splinter group" that had become a "beam" in the United States. Well, this beam is now an ark and it is worldwide. It is still no threat to science, but it is a threat to science education and the public perception of science. (We might compare the creationists to the anti-vaxxers. They're not a threat to the science of vaccination, but they are a threat to public health.) Sure, religion and science don't conflict, as long as you ignore the parts where they do.

In defense of Gould, however, I would argue that while being a theologian or a philosopher doesn't in itself give one special status as one who knows the truth about values and "spiritual meaning," there are thinkers who do have something important and wise to say about values. Some of those thinkers are religious. Some are professional philosophers. Some are scientists. But being a scientist doesn't give one special status as knowing the truth about the empirical world, either. There are many scientists who make false and absurd claims about the empirical world, just as there are many philosophers who make inane claims about values. Most scientists have little background in the history of philosophy, and most scientists are probably no better at discussing values than any other group of citizens. Some scientists are very adept at metaphysics and ethics. This, however, does not make sciences out of metaphysics or ethics. This point, made forcefully by Gould, has been challenged by Richard Dawkins and other scientists. I think Gould was right.

For those who aren't familiar with Gould's essay, here's a little background. In early 1984, he spent several nights at the Vatican in a hotel with some priests. He was there for a meeting on nuclear winter sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Despite Dawkins's insistence that science and religion are irreconcilable, there are priests and other religious folks who are scientists. Anyway, while at the hotel Gould met some priests who engaged him in a conversation about "creation science," which they considered to be an oxymoron. Yes, the priests accepted evolution as a fact and accepted the notion that God infuses souls1 into human bodies. They were as bewildered by Christians who deny evolution as Dawkins is by Christians who accept evolution.

Gould didn't find the priests' ability to accept both evolution and divine intervention the least bit controversial. His essay on nonoverlapping magisteria explained their position in terms of papal history going back to Pope Pius XII's 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, which said that "Catholics could believe whatever science determined about the evolution of the human body, so long as they accepted that, at some time of his choosing, God had infused the soul into such a creature." Gould noted that he had "no problem with this statement, for whatever my private beliefs about souls, science cannot touch such a subject and therefore cannot be threatened by any theological position on such a legitimately and intrinsically religious issue. Pope Pius XII, in other words, had properly acknowledged and respected the separate domains of science and theology." I think Gould was wrong to say that science cannot touch such subjects as God or souls, and I think he was wrong to identify religion and theology as privileged. I think he was right, however, to suggest that science cannot prove that God doesn't infuse souls into human bodies.

2

Nothing is as unbecoming as a philosopher who is ignorant of a science claiming that a fundamental concept of that science is wrong, except perhaps a scientist who is ignorant of an area of philosophy claiming that a fundamental concept of philosophy is wrong. Jerry Fodor and Richard Dawkins are poster children for these two follies. Fodor, a philosopher, claims that natural selection is a fundamental error. Dawkins, a scientist, claims that questions regarding supernatural claims are scientific questions. When an evolutionary biologist reads Fodor, he shakes his head at the ignorance of the man. When a philosopher reads Dawkins on the relationship of religion to science, he too shakes his head at the ignorance of the man. Fodor really doesn't have a clue about some important developments in evolutionary biology and Dawkins doesn't have a clue about a fundamental distinction in philosophy between an empirical and a conceptual issue, or between something informing an issue and something entailing all issues related to the issue being informed.

I use Dawkins as a representative for a number of scientists who agree with him that the existence of gods and spirits is a scientific question, e.g., PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Bob Park, Sam Harris, and Vic Stenger. He thinks that the existence of god is a scientific question since the empirical evidence makes it highly improbable that the Abrahamic god (or the gods of any other religion, for that matter) exists. He seems to think that the entire pantheon of philosophers from Thales to Daniel Dennett doesn't understand that since there are strong empirical arguments against the existence of this god that therefore the issue of this god's existence is a scientific question. How dim philosophers must be to have missed such an obvious point. Not only have philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Hume and Kant not understood that metaphysics is a science, they must have missed the class where it was explained that everything is either science or superstition. Ethics? A science. Epistemology? A science. Political philosophy? A science. Philosophy of religion? A science. Philosophy of science? A science.

Dawkins may be right, of course. Jed C. Macosko, a scientist representing the Discovery Institute and an advocate of teaching intelligent design as an alternative to natural selection, has argued that science should be defined as looking for evidence and following that evidence wherever it leads, including into non-naturalistic (i.e., supernatural) explanations. A few years after I heard Macosko make his claim that science should include supernatural explanations for the physical, chemical, and biological universe, I heard PZ Myers claim (in the same room on the UC Davis campus, for what it's worth) that science uses evidence, logic, and reason to provide naturalistic explanations only. He contrasted his claims about science to a list of supernatural claims (gods, souls, transubstantiation, etc.). One might take his division as indicating that science doesn't concern itself with the supernatural. Or, he might have meant to indicate that since the supernatural is not natural it is meaningless or nonexistent.

Gary Schwartz, a Harvard-trained scientist (as he frequently notes), does scientific investigations into the existence of an afterlife by "consciousness." He even claims to have conducted scientific research with the spirit of William James and other dead people, whom he refers to as a "departed hypothesized (hyp) co-investigators."* Others who have done scientific investigations of supernatural claims are Ian Stevenson on reincarnation and several others on past-life regression, as well as the many scientists involved with psychical research societies who have investigated everything from haunted houses to ectoplasm. Mary Roach wrote a book about the spirit scientists. She called it Spook. So, Dawkins et al. are in good company. There are many scientists who agree with them that study of the supernatural is properly within the domain of science. One must wonder, though, why Dawkins et al. think the evidence supports the improbability of anything supernatural, while many other scientists think the evidence supports the probability of a designer of the universe and the survival of consciousness. The different positions, however, don't seem like the different positions scientists had, say, in the 19th century when the nature of electricity was in dispute. Those differences could be settled by experiments and the gathering of evidence. Dawkins et al., including Macosko and Schwartz, think the god issue can be settled by experiments and evidence. The latter think the evidence supports the supernatural hypothesis. Dawkins et al. don't. Rather, they seem to see the defenders of the science-proves-the-supernatural school as akin to believers in a flat Earth or geocentric view of planetary motion.

Could it be that the rift between these two schools of scientists is a philosophical rift that can't be answered by further scientific investigation? There seems to be a similar rift among scientists regarding medicine. One group of scientists even calls itself "science-based medicine" (SBM) to distinguish itself from other scientists who defend acupuncture, chiropractic,  homeopathy, and an array of "energy" medicines. These other scientists often refer to their medicine as "complementary" or "alternative" (CAM). The SBM group considers the CAM group to be doing junk science, pseudoscience, or quack science, but not real science. In a similar fashion, a number of scientists refer to the intelligent design folks as "monkeys or creationists in lab coats." In other words, they may talk like scientists and try to look like they're doing science, but they're really doing religion.

Is intelligent design religion? When Spinoza attacked teleological metaphysics in the 17th century, he thought he was doing philosophy. Although he did seem to think, after his hero Descartes, that philosophy could be a rigorous deductive science. His Ethics is written after the method of Euclid's geometry. I don't know whether mathematicians consider math a science. I don't know why they wouldn't. Anyway, Spinoza used his geometric method to prove that God exists, is one with Nature, and has infinite attributes of which we know only two, mind and body. He also thought he proved that everything is determined and happens mechanistically according to laws of cause and effect. Was it science? I don't think so. When Paley argued for intelligent design in the 18th century and Hume demolished his arguments, what they did was called philosophy, but maybe it should have been called science.

At one time, even physics was considered part of philosophy, so I suppose it's only fair that we now consider philosophy as part of physics. Isn't that the implication of the work of Frank J. Tipler? He's a physicist who claims to have proven that the concepts of 'immortality,' 'miracle,' and 'resurrection of the dead' are consistent with the laws of physics or some such thing. If Dawkins et al. are right, then perhaps creationism and intelligent design should be part of every science curriculum. If questions regarding the existence of spirits and gods are scientific questions, perhaps they should be discussed in science classes, not philosophy or religion classes. If the spirit scientists like Gary Schwartz are right, then maybe testing mediums should be part of our science curriculum. If the CAM scientists are right, maybe CAM treatments ought to be part of the curriculum of every science-based medical school. In fact, if all these folks are right, we can reduce our schools to just one department. If any subject that is informed by science logically implies that any subject in the related area is science, then there is only science. All the rest is superstition or some such thing. Philosophers have traditionally called this view scientism and maintain that it is a philosophical issue that can't be resolved by science: the claim that only scientific statements are meaningful isn't a scientific statement.

On the other hand, maybe not everything is science. Science may overlap with everything, but that doesn't make everything science. It does seem that science can inform journalism or law, for example, but it doesn't seem true to say either that journalism or law is a part of science or that every question in journalism or law is a scientific question. The same goes for many questions in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and other areas traditionally staked out by philosophers.

Many philosophers have traditionally maintained that science, reason, and logic should be brought to bear on any issue of belief. They've never thought, however, that doing so makes every philosophical issue a scientific matter. The existence of leprechauns may be a matter that science can inform, but to say that these are scientific questions is a bit of a stretch. (What science studies leprechauns? Cryptozoology?)

Most philosophers would maintain that questions regarding the existence of spirits or gods are not scientific questions despite the fact that any intelligent study of those questions should bring to bear all relevant scientific knowledge. Of course it is relevant to bring in all the knowledge of anatomy and physiology, for example, that indicates inefficient or awkward design when arguing against someone who claims an omnipotent, omniscient deity designed the human body. There is no empirical test that can falsify the claim "an omnipotent, omniscient being exists."  The claim is untestable. All you are able to do by marshalling forth a list of things that show the design of the human body is unintelligent, stupid, poor, incompetent, etc. is show that one concept of god is incompatible with one set of empirical data, and that that concept of god is pretty lame and most probably false. Using scientific knowledge to beat down the ridiculous beliefs about god that have made their way into popular culture in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions does not make the question of the existence of spirits or gods a scientific question.

What scientific knowledge or empirical test could falsify the concept of an eternal non-physical consciousness with the power to create things out of nothing? Consider that this being may manifest itself in exactly the same way the universe manifests itself. You can argue that such a being would be superfluous, but its existence is not a matter that science can determine. One might make many claims about this being and some of those claims might be rendered improbable or false by their being inconsistent with current scientific knowledge or by their being internally inconsistent (i.e., logically contradictory or logically inconsistent2). For example, if you claim your god is perfect and you claim that your god demands that you worship him, then you are making apparently inconsistent statements. Perfection implies that nothing outside of the perfect being could change that being, but worship implies the being lacks something or wants something and is affected if he gets it or doesn't get it. To claim the perfect being created anything might be taken to indicate imperfection. A perfect being would never change because change has to be for better or worse. These are conceptual issues. They're not empirical issues. We call them metaphysical issues. They can be informed by science, but they cannot be falsified by empirical evidence. For example, you could use this imperfect world to falsify the notion that it was created  by a perfect being, but all you could accomplish is to show that if this world was created, the being who created it wasn't perfect.

These are philosophical issues and scientists would be wasting precious time considering these kinds of things when they could be doing science. Wondering whether gods exist, or whether they're perfect or imperfect, finite or infinite, is perhaps not something we want our scientists wasting their time on any more than we want ignorant philosophers trying to tell scientists how to go about their business.

3

So, yes, of course science has a lot to say about religion. Most concepts of most religions fly in the face of what we've learned about the world through science. The idea of gods dying and being resurrected, of virgin births and angels, of visions and heroic deeds, creation myths, of howlers like transubstantiation or the Trinity, and all the other superstitions that religions have introduced into their various cultures are rightly directed to the dustbin by science. But, having a lot to say about religious matters does not make those religious matters matters of scientific inquiry. Transubstantiation is not a scientific issue. Any scientist who wastes his students' time by showing how science renders the idea improbable is not teaching his students science. He's teaching them philosophy and they should go down the hallway to another classroom for that pointless discussion. Of course you can bring science to bear on the issue of virgin births or creation myths, but that doesn't make belief in either a scientific belief.

I may be able to prove that spaghetti can't fly, but that doesn't make the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster a scientific question. Whether an omnipotent god could deceive us into thinking that 2 + 2 = 5 is not a mathematical question, but a philosophical one, even though logic and mathematics might be brought to bear on the question.

I understand that some think that if the existence of spirits and gods aren't scientific questions, then religion is being given a free pass. I don't think so. Nobody is censored by the fact that some issues can't be falsified by any meaningful scientific test. Claiming that the existence of gods and spirits are scientific matters opens the door and invites every variety of superstition into the science arena. They don't belong in the arena. They belong in the parking lot. Science can explain why a stain on a urinal looks like a picture of a parakeet, but science can't explain (and it would be wasting its time if it tried) whether some spirit invaded someone's urine and displayed itself for others to worship. The fact that science informs us about pareidolia or mass hallucinations doesn't make the existence of spirits a scientific question. The fact that religion or specific religious groups can be studied scientifically doesn't make all their beliefs scientific issues.

In the end, science can't decide the god question any more than philosophical concepts can determine what's real or not in biology or theology. Science and philosophy are overlapping domains that should bring us together, not divide us. They should fill us with wonder and awe, and be a center around which we attempt to understand all aspects of human existence. They should fill us with love instead of hate, humility instead of arrogance.

Fat chance.

Robert T. Carroll
24 March 2010

__________

1 The concept of 'soul' in Catholic theology is of the mind plus some sort of vitalizing principle, both existing independently of the brain and the body. The soul is said to be incorporeal and simple, i.e., it has no parts and does not occupy any space. It has been pointed out by many before me that there would be no way to tell the difference between a man with a soul and a man without one. The soul is a hypothetical entity that can continue to exist as a thinking being after a person has died and his body has no life left in it. One could, I suppose, read one of the New Atheists on this subject, but if you're pressed for time I recommend "An Unfortunate Dualist" from This Book Needs No Title: A Budget of Living Paradoxes by Raymond M. Smullyan.

2 Statements are contradictory if both can't be true and both can't be false, i.e., one of them must be true and one of them must be false. Statements are logically inconsistent with one another if both can't be true. Logically inconsistent statements can both be false, however. Joe was in Chicago on Tuesday is contradicted by Joe was not in Chicago on Tuesday. Joe was in Chicago on Tuesday at 1200 Greenwich mean time and Joe was in San Diego on Tuesday at 1200 Greenwich mean time are inconsistent statements.

further reading

Without God by Steven Weinberg compare this view, which I believe is spot on, with the view of Sam Harris, who thinks that science can find moral laws just as it has found physical laws, a view I consider to be nonsensical. Physical laws state what is, approximately. Moral laws assert what should be, absolutely.

Sam Harris is Back, Arguing Science Can Answer Moral Questions

Podcast Teaser: The Great Atheist Debate over the limits of science Massimo Pigliucci's Rationally Speaking

Nonoverlapping Magisteria by Stephen Jay Gould


Last updated 12/09/10

 

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