The Varieties Of Scientific Experience

There are currently a lot of books on the market which deal with the question of God.  Most of them are either polemical, apologetic, or philosophically dense.  One that often gets overlooked is Carl Sagan’s book, The Variety of Scientific Experience.  This book is a transcript of Sagan’s Gifford lectures in the 80s, edited by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan.  If you’re trying to figure out what science says about God, and are looking for a source that gives respect to the major viewpoints, I highly recommend it.

Goldstein: The Vindication of Spinoza

Rebecca Goldstein has an interesting post on BigThink about Baruch Spinoza and how prescient many of his ideas were.  Spinoza’s conception of God was the one believed in by Einstein.  This conception, often summarized as being equivalent to the laws of nature, is an example of the wide diversity of notions that the word ‘God’ can mean, and only goes to show that everyone is an atheist toward someone’s conception of God.  (Well everyone except perhaps many polytheists who accept every god that is presented to them.)


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.