Evaluating God scientifically

Victor Stenger has a post up at Huffington Post on how science disproves God.  He goes through many of the attributes of the popular conceptions of God and shows how scientific evidence contradicts them.  And he’s right, to a degree.  But he then concludes with:

The hypothesis of God is not confirmed by the evidence. Indeed, that hypothesis is strongly contradicted by the observations of our senses and the instruments of science.

Well, not entirely.  Science does indeed disprove fundamentalist conceptions of God.  We know that the earth is more than 6000 years old (for any reasonable definition of the word ‘know’).  We know that many of the events of described in the Bible never happened, either because they are outright contradicted by archaeological evidence, or they are not corroborated by it when they should be if the events in any way resembled the ones described (i.e. the exodus, Joshua’s conquests, the wide ranging kingdom of David, etc).

But what about more sophisticated conceptions of God?  What about believers who don’t regard scripture as inerrant, but only as human insights into trying to understand God?  For example, a deistic god, who created the universe but never interferes in its operation, but who will provide an afterlife where everything is eventually made right, might seem like obvious wishful thinking to many atheists, but it is not an empirically testable hypothesis.

Now, personally, I think a notion needs some positive empirical evidence for its existence, but that’s a philosophical conclusion on my part.  The idea of a deistic god may violate Occam’s razor, but that’s not the same as being empirically tested.

And then there are religious people who use the word ‘God’ to refer to the universe, the laws of nature, or some other non-controversial subject.  While I don’t see the appeal of these notions of God, there are people who worship them.

So, while some conceptions of God can be tested scientifically, many others can’t, and we have to fall back to general philosophy to decide to what degree to accept or reject them.   And, like all philosophical conclusions, we should keep in mind that philosophical logic is only as good as its premises, which history has shown that we often don’t understand as well as we think we do.

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17 Responses to Evaluating God scientifically

  1. We are born into a world of good, which we did not create. Not just material things, but ideals, like justice, liberty, and equality. And spiritual values, like courage, joy, and compassion.

    We benefit from what others, in good faith, have left for us. In return, we sacrifice selfish interest when necessary to preserve this good for others. For the sake of our children, and our children’s children, we seek to understand, to serve, to protect, and perhaps, humbly, to enhance this greater good.

    It is an act of faith to live by moral principle when the greedy prosper by dishonest means. It is an act of faith to stand up for right when the crowd is headed the wrong way. It is an act of faith to return good for evil.

    We have seen Hell. We have seen gang cultures whose rite of passage is an act of mayhem or murder. We have seen racial slavery, persecution, and genocide. We have seen revenge spread violence through whole communities.

    We envision Heaven, where people live in peace and every person is valued. It can only be reached when each person seeks good for himself only through means that are consistent with achieving good for all.

    If God exists, then that is His command. If God does not exist, then that is what we must command of ourselves and of each other. Either way, whether we achieve Heaven or Hell is up to us.

    The point of God is to make good sacred. We trust that, each time we put the best good for all above our own selfish interest, the world becomes a better place, for all of us, and our children, and their children.

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  2. Where Did ‘God’ Come From?

    A newborn child, cold and hungry, cries out to the universe for food and warmth. He is gathered up in his mother’s arms, and is comforted, and fed.

    We don’t remember this experience, but it is one we’ve all shared. I believe it leaves us with a sense that we might implore a greater being to come to our aid in time of trouble, and that it is likely the seed of the idea of ‘God’.

    On a cold day, I walked out of the apartment ready to shiver. Stepping out of the shadow and into the sunlight, I felt a warmth and comfort, as if I were loved by the Sun. And I understood how easy it was for our ancestors to view the Sun as a god.

    In early history people worshipped multiple gods, prayed to them for favors and offered them gifts so that the rains would water their crops, and the river would not flood their homes. By coincidence, this sometimes appeared to work. Psychologists have since discovered that behavior that was intermittently rewarded was more difficult to extinguish than behavior that was consistently rewarded. And so superstition flourished.

    But then something new was added. Monotheism took the strong position that there was only one God.

    And not only was this the God to pray to and worship, but this God also expected you to follow rules. If you followed the commandments, you would prosper, if not in this life, then in the next.

    I remember the preachers from my youth, Oral Roberts and Norman Vincent Peale, teaching that God is a Good God, and that following Him brings both blessings and expectations. I remember the prayer at dinner, “God is Great, God is Good …”.

    God became a way to make being good and doing good both valuable and sacred. And that is why the idea is still useful today, even by those of us who use the term in a literary rather than a literal sense.

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    • I appreciate your thoughts on this. I’m somewhat agnostic on God as a social construct. I do see value in it, but I’m also aware of the Scandinavian societies that seem to be doing well while leaving it behind. You might be interested in Ara Norenzayan’s work in this area. I read his book, ‘Big Gods‘, and found it fascinating. Although it was undercut a bit by an article by Baumard and Boyer.

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  3. amanimal says:

    “… and we have to fall back to general philosophy …”

    No doubt why I prefer the question of why supernatural agent concepts are so prevalent and the psychology and cognitive science behind it 🙂

    … and now that I can, this is in regards to a conversation we didn’t(couldn’t) have last month at HP about comments and moderation:

    http://www.sciencerocks.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=huffpost&action=display&thread=87

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  4. SAP,

    The principle of causality has nothing to do with history. Science cannot prove the existence of God because God is outside the realm of science. Science can only study causes and effects of material things and God is not matter.

    dwelling on your post, I wrote my own

    http://ricksonmenezes.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/can-we-evaluate-god-scientifically/

    You will find a good article by Richard Bastein here who refutes Dawkins by the principle of causality.
    http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/whats_wrong_with_richard_dawkins

    Cheers!

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    • I don’t think I’d agree that “the principle of causality has nothing to do with history”. But, as I say in my post, I do agree that some conceptions of God are not testable. Of course, that cuts both ways. A God that is not testable, also isn’t provable. If you can’t use principles within the universe to prove or disprove those conceptions of God, you also can’t use those same principles to prove what caused the universe. It’s not even clear that the principle of ‘causality’ even has meaning outside of, or before the existence of, the universe, since causality may simple be a property of this universe and possibly might not exist outside of it.

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      • erudaskill says:

        A God that is not testable cannot be proven is the most awkward statement I have ever heard in my whole life. How do You intend to test the concept of God existence, probably you would say science but before the advent of Science enlightement in the world , God has always existed. Do we need scientific evidence to prove the laws of nature? Do we also need any theory whatsoever to prove that the perfect construction of the earth is not by coincidence? Do we also need evidence that the most perfect design ever conceived and actualised is the human body?
        Having stated all these, it would be so gullible of an individual regardless of his exposure, knowledge , acquired degree not to attest the fact God doesn’t exist.

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        • Well, as I said in my post, there are many conceptions of God you can’t test. Science can’t disprove all conceptions of God, and many conceptions are uncontroversial (such as the one equating him with the universe).

          The laws of nature have actually been deduced through scientific observation and experimentation. As has the formation of the earth around 4.5 billion years ago, from stardust leftover from the formation of the sun. Due to gravity, both collapsed into their present form from an interstellar cloud of gas. The human body is well adapted to its environment, but “perfect” may be a bit of a stretch, since it’s prone to a variety of health problems, particularly in old age.

          Does a God of some type exist? Well, if by ‘God’ you mean the laws of nature, then yes since, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, it’s madness to deny gravity. If by ‘God’ you mean the ancient image of a large male who sits in the clouds and strikes sinners down with lightening bolts, then no, that God has been disproven by science. There are many conceptions in between these two with varying levels of plausibility.

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      • SAP,

        thanks for your reply. You say:

        “If you can’t use principles within the universe to prove or disprove those conceptions of God, you also can’t use those same principles to prove what caused the universe”

        But we never claimed God is part of the natural order, perhaps the Hindu does and then he gets into all kinds of philosophical problems But for the Judeo-Christian God, He transcends the natural order, which He created from nothing. The universe you talk about is part of that natural order.

        And it is precisely because He is not a part of the natural universe that there can be no empirical, ie, scientific, evidence for or against His existence.

        SAP, science itself understand that each things must have a cause and every effect has an underlying cause, this is what science is based on. Without this principle of causality, Science loses its foundation if things can just have efffects without causes. that would be magic, really.

        Apply this principle of causality to the natural order and you would realize that unless the first cause of everything itself is uncaused you would have an infinite regress of causes. This uncaused first cause, we say is God. Nothing is created out of nothing. for the first matter: whether dark matter, black hole, blue matter, grey matter, Higgs Bosom whatever, had to have a cause which itself must not infinitely depend on previous causes.

        I don’t see historical or religious bias here, this principle is purely based on logic

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        • Logically, if something, such as God, can exist without a cause, then so can everything. I think that science assumes that “stuff” was always here, and that “total nothingness” never actually existed.

          Specific stuff comes and goes, not randomly, but by cause and effect. So the second assumption of science is that “stuff in motion” or “energy” also always existed as well.

          The idea that we must start from “nothingness” may actually be a product of our human imagination. Our brains evolved to obtain the necessities of live from our environment. And, like the people of Flatland, who can only experience a globe as a circle, we will have limits.

          But back to your earlier point, I believe you are correct that science cannot disprove your theory of a God, outside of nature, that created the stuff in the first place. And neither can it be proved.

          So basically it’s a question of what beliefs are most likely to produce the most reliable results in the long run.

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  5. Maybe the underlying question is, “What difference does it make whether God exists or not?” and “Would we do anything differently with or without God?”

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    • That’s a good question. I think it depends if any one tradition’s conception of God were verified. If it were, I know I would be paying a lot more attention to that religion’s precepts. In the absence of that, this internet quote (often misattributed to Marcus Aurelius) comes to mind:

      Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

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      • I like the quote. It implies the actuality of God is irrelevant. But the problem for me is that I was brought up in a religion which taught morality and ethical behavior to us in a fairly organized way. Church is useful that way. And I worry about how virtue and morality are passed on to children without that organization. It’s like home schooling, it can be hit or miss depending upon the materials and the parent’s expertise. Easy enough for the trained ethicists, but not so much for the trained plumber.

        Any thoughts?

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        • I know what you mean. I was brought up Catholic, and it left an indelible imprint on my personality. Concern about what happens with morality if religions decline is a common apprehension. However, there isn’t much empirical evidence for it. Secular countries appear to be doing well in terms of crime rates and happiness indices.

          Of course, religion declining is an unprecedented event in human history, the long range effects of which no one can really know. I’m not entirely sure that the current religions won’t eventually be replaced by one or more new ones, which may not consider themselves religion.

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  6. Pingback: God, the Meaningless Topic | The BitterSweet End

  7. Pingback: On atheism and agnosticism | SelfAwarePatterns

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