Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Does science prove God doesn't exist?

That's what they're talking about in this roundtable discussion by Christopher Hitchens, Steven Pinker, and other notables. Naturally, the answers are all over the map.

Since I'm on quasi-hiatus, I don't have time to delve into this. I want to return to the topic in depth later.

For now, I just want to highlight a couple responses that seem right to me:

Keith Ward says:

It is almost commonplace in physics to speak of many space-times, or of this space-time as a 10- or 11-dimensional reality that dissolves into topological foam below the Planck length. This is a long way from the sensationalism of Hume and Comte, and from the older materialism that insists on locating every possible being within this space-time. Some modern physicists routinely speak of realities beyond space-time (e.g., quantum fluctuations in a vacuum from which this space-time originates). And some physicists, such as Henry Stapp, Eugene Wigner, and John von Neumann, speak of consciousness as an ultimate and irreducible element of reality, the basis of the physical as we know it, not its unanticipated by-product.

It is simply untrue that modern physics rules out the possibility of non-physical entities. And it is untrue that science has established a set of inflexible laws so tightly constraining and universally dominating that they exclude the possibility of other forms, including perhaps non-physical forms, of causal influence that we may not be able to measure or predict. It is more accurate to say that fundamental laws of nature are seen by many physicists as approximations to an open, holistic and flexible reality, as we encounter it in relatively isolated and controlled conditions. ...

It is not science that renders belief in God obsolete. It is a strictly materialist interpretation of the world that renders belief in God obsolete, and which science is taken by some people to support. But science is more ambiguous than that, and modern scientific belief in the intelligibility and mathematical beauty of nature, and in the ultimately "veiled" nature of objective reality, can reasonably be taken as suggestive of an underlying cosmic intelligence. To that extent, science may make a certain sort of belief in God highly plausible.
And Mary Midgley says:
What is now seen as a universal cold war between science and religion is, I think, really a more local clash between a particular scientistic worldview, much favored recently in the West, and most other people's worldviews at most other times.

Of course, those other views differ hugely among themselves. Some center on Godhead; some, such as Buddhism and Taoism, don't use that idea at all. But what they all do is to set human life in a context. They don't see our species as sealed in a private box that contains everything of value, but as playing its part in a much wider theatre of spiritual activity—activity that gives meaning to our own. Scientism by contrast (following suggestions from the Enlightenment), cuts that context off altogether and looks for the meaning of life in Science itself. It is this claim to a monopoly of meaning, rather than any special scientific doctrine, that makes science and religion look like competitors today. ...

Scientism ... emerged not as the conclusion of scientific argument but as a chosen element in a worldview -- a vision that attracted people by its contrast with what went before -- which is, of course, how people very often do make such decisions, even ones that they afterwards call scientific.
The point about scientific imperialism has applications beyond theology, particularly the problem of free will, which I'll get back to. If I feel like it.

Needless to say, I'd be happy to see any counterarguments to the above quotes -- feel free to suggest some in the comments.


UPDATE: I was expecting this post to be controversial, but I'm surprised that some of the commenters are taking issue with the very premise that this is a real debate. For example:
You say that a lot of people think that science is incompatible with God. I'm not so sure about that; it depends on what you mean by incompatible. I am an atheist, and all the atheists I know are very careful not to say that "science disproves God." (Again, the title of your post.)
Well, I'd have to do some more searching through the books of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and John Allen Paulos to see if they have explicitly made that specific assertion.

But here's one: there's a book by Victor Stenger, a philosophy and physics professor, called God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.

Another example, though not as explicit: Richard Dawkins's recent best-seller The God Delusion has a chapter entitled, "Why God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist." Directly under that chapter heading is a quote from Thomas Jefferson beginning, "The priests of the different religious sects dread the advance of science as witches do the advance of daylight...." Now, aside from the qualifier "almost certainly," I think it's pretty clear what he's getting at.

I've also been in numerous classroom discussions and everyday conversations in which people have expressed this view.

More broadly, there's been a recent spate of popular books attacking religious views and the belief in God. These books tend to pit God against science. I haven't sorted through all the details of which authors positively state that science entails that God does not exist, rather than coming close to saying so but hedging it a little. But the idea that science is incompatible with the existence of God is clearly out there, and it's taken seriously by a lot of people. Whatever your position is on whether God exists, I don't see the point in denying that this debate exists!

20 comments:

LemmusLemmus said...

This may sound almost like I'm copying and pasting my own comments, but, again, you've dug up some interesting stuff from the Internet; again, I seem to completely disagree with you; and again, it will take a little bit of time to write down an answer. (I haven't even read all of the essays yet.)

Just in direct response to your title: It is rather hard to prove the nonexistence of something.

LemmusLemmus said...

I forgot: My very short take on the free will debate.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Just in direct response to your title: It is rather hard to prove the nonexistence of something.

It's not really that hard. For instance, I can easily prove that the last letter of the alphabet does not exist in this sentence. I can prove that there's no elephant in my apartment. I can prove there's no Queen of the United States. I can prove there's no prime number in between 7 and 11. And on and on.

"You can't prove a negative" is certainly a cliche, but not all cliches are true.

John Althouse Cohen said...

And in response to your free will post: arguing that something can't be true because if you believe it then "you might as well believe in God" is a bad argument, since many people actually do believe in God. I mean, I know you don't, but that's not going to convince anyone else.

Paul said...

You can prove a negative when enumeration and inventory of all possibilities can be performed. Other than that, no.

Depending on the definition of God, philosophy can prove God doesn't exist. The argument turns upon Aristotle's noncontradiction principle. Everything that exists, exists in a particular way. It has a specific form, location, set of attributes. To be is to be bounded, delimited, finite. If the idea of God being debated is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent then God can be ruled because these are versions of infinities.

John Althouse Cohen said...

You can prove a negative when enumeration and inventory of all possibilities can be performed. Other than that, no.

Well, that's a pretty broad loophole, even assuming that you've stated a clear and accurate rule (which isn't obvious to me).


If the idea of God being debated is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent then God can be ruled because these are versions of infinities.

That's your specific definition of God that you're deriving from a specific cultural context. Disproving the existence of that thing doesn't amount to disproving the existence of God. I don't even know that most Christians believe God is "omnipotent," if you really look at all their views about things happening beyond God's control (the devil, human free will, etc.).

Paul said...

But God is always omniscient if he can judge you truly.

Certainly people have a variety of different ideas of God and ideals of the divine. But to me, if God isn't different in kind from natural beings (some kind of infinity) he is no God.

Various version of lower case gods can be dismissed as assertions of the arbitrary. Since neither the truth nor falsehood of the arbitrary can be proved, I never argue about God. At least not beyond what I've done here in pointing out problems with infinities and the arbitrary.

LemmusLemmus said...

As for the flippant "...you might as well believe in god" remark, a few explanations:

1. That's a phrase a friend of mine and I use to say: "That's a really foolish thing to believe."

2. In the context of the post, it does some more, however, namely drawing a parallel between believing in a mind not based on physical processes and a belief in god. Both are based on what you could call "magical thinking" (belief in entities independent of the physical realm).

3. In the context of the post, it was a way of saying, "I'm not even going to discuss this".

4. I was fully aware that it is not a good argument to convince a theist. (In fact, you could imagine people saying: "That's like believing in god? Count me in!")

The background of the post, apart from what I already said there, was the argument from neuroscientists, which I've heard time and time again, that thinking is based on physical processes (agreed), hence there is no free will (wait a minute!).

Boy, these explanations were longer than the original post. Maybe I shouldn't write fourty-word posts about age-old questions.

As for the "hard to prove the nonexistence of something" phrase, Paul put it much more precisely in his first paragraph. I thought it was clear that was what's meant.

The idea that there is a god - some god, in some form - is not falsifiable. (On the contrary, the idea that the earth is about 6000 years old is falsifiable - and falsified.) So, to rephrase the answer: "Of course not. How could it?"

LemmusLemmus said...

O.k., now I'm going to take a stab at the stuff you quoted. Although I've read the whole essays, I'm going to restrict myself to your quotes.

Keith Ward:

I wish I knew more physics to be able to comment in some more detail, but I don't see how a model of 11-dimensional space makes the existence of god more plausible.

"It is simply untrue that modern physics rules out the possibility of non-physical entities."

The oldest rhethorical trick in the book - one cannot rule out any hypothesis about the outside world (including the existence of god). That is part of the scientific mindset.

"...modern scientific belief in the intelligibility and mathematical beauty of nature, and in the ultimately 'veiled' nature of objective reality, can reasonably be taken as suggestive of an underlying cosmic intelligence. To that extent, science may make a certain sort of belief in God highly plausible."

I don't know what he means by "ultimately 'veiled'"

Apart from that, another rhethorical trick. Statements of the form "X can be taken as a sign of Y" are always true: My nosebleed can be taken as a sign of my winning the lottery on Saturday. And "reasonably" is highly subjective. I wouldn't call it reasonable. Then he goes on from "can reasonably be taken" to "highly plausible". But I don't see how being able to describe the world in mathematical terms makes the existence of god any more plausible.

Mary Midgley:

She notes that religion "puts human life in a context", which, as an empirical hypothesis, is correct, if we're talking about humans' subjective feelings and cognitions. It says nothing, however, about whether god exists.

"Scientism (...) cuts that context off altogether and looks for the meaning of life in Science itself."

No. "Scientism" is the belief that scientific methods are the best methods for finding the truth. Science has nothing to say about what "the meaning of life" is because that is at worst a meaningless question (my opinion) and at best a question scientific methods cannot answer.

"...a vision that attracted people by its contrast with what went before..."

I have not done surveys around the globe for the last three centuries, but I would argue that what makes science attractive is not its contrast to religion, but rather that it helps understanding things, thus can make predictions, and, on the basis of that, come up with stuff that's useful (e.g., electrical light, cures for many illnesses).

In fairness, one should say that Mrs. Midgley answered the original question rather than the one in your title.

John Althouse Cohen said...

LemmusLemmus: a few points in response:

- Midgley means something different by "scientism" than what you're talking about. You seem to be using it to mean simply a respect for science as something that can reveal truths about the world. She's using it to mean an imperialistic worldview that says science is the only valid way to seek the truth. I don't think she'd disagree with your comments about science.

- Calling something a rhetorical trick is a rhetorical trick.

- As for Ward's point that science doesn't "rule out" the existence of God, you might find this trivially obvious, but I don't think everyone does. Some people really believe that believing in science is incompatible with believing in God. I think that's a widespread enough belief that it's worth pointing out that it's not necessarily true.

- I don't see the substantive difference between the question being discussed on that website and the question in my title. Yes, I phrased it differently -- the website refers to "belief in God," while I refer to "existence of God" -- but that seems like a distinction without a difference, since one should believe in God if and only if God actually exists.

- I do think the existence of weird, invisible dimensions makes the existence of a supernatural being more plausible. The more science shows that there's weird stuff in the world that we never would have expected to exist based on ordinary experience, the less convincing it is for atheists to argue that God clearly doesn't exist because we can't perceive God.

Titan said...

I agree with the commentators that think the title of your post changed the issue. "Does science prove that God does not exist?" is a very different question from whether it makes God "obsolete" - which was the Templeton question. You say that a lot of people think that science is incompatible with God. I'm not so sure about that; it depends on what you mean by incompatible. I am an atheist, and all the atheists I know are very careful not to say that "science disproves God". (Again, the title of your post.)

Take an an example "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. One of his very first points is that science does not disprove the existence of God. Science does not disprove the existence of anything.

Lemmus thinks that science disproves the existence of a 6,000 year old earth, but he is clearly making the unwarranted assumption that the evidence hasn't been falsified. You can't rule out that possibility, so you can't disprove a young earth. :-)

You can only say "I reject the idea of a young earth because I reject the other possible explanations."

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I think y'all would be interested in the special feature "Seven Reasons Why People Hate Reason," in the New Scientist, July 26, pp. 41-53. Articles by Roger Penrose, Chris Frith, Tom Shakespeare, Mary Midgley, and others, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Also online at newscientist.com/reason, with videos by Noam Chomsky (talking about the brain and evolution, not politics), Penrose, and T. Shakespeare, and some online-only articles. Oddly, the online versions of the print articles are subscription-only,but much of the exclusively online stuff isn't.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Science does not disprove the existence of anything.

This is just not true. There are all sorts of things we know don't exist based on science. See above examples of how you can disprove the existence of things. "You can't prove a negative" may be a useful debating trick for atheists, but it's not true and it ducks the fundamental issues.

Also, I maintain that the distinction between "disproves the existence of" and "renders a belief in obsolete" is kind of a red herring. Yes, there's a difference in shades of meaning. I see that. But we all know there are some secularists who feel that science casts doubt on the existence of God, disproves the existence of God, renders belief in God anachronistic etc. Sure, that's not merely one precise belief -- it's a cluster of related beliefs. My heading just happened to emphasize the objective side ("existence"), while the Templeton heading emphasized the subjective side ("belief"). It's an interesting issue whether this cluster of beliefs is basically right or basically misguided. Focusing on the heading I happened to use for my blog post may be relevant to my skill in crafting blog headings, but it doesn't get to the real issue.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Dad: Thanks for the tip. The URL you gave just goes to the homepage, but this link works.

John Althouse Cohen said...

BTW, I'm hardly the first person to take issue with "you can't prove a negative" -- other articles/blog posts debunking it can easily be found with a Google search.

John Althouse Cohen said...

You say that a lot of people think that science is incompatible with God. I'm not so sure about that; it depends on what you mean by incompatible. I am an atheist, and all the atheists I know are very careful not to say that "science disproves God". (Again, the title of your post.)

FYI, I just updated the post itself to respond to this.

Titan said...

Let me first correct a mistake I made, I said that science does not disprove anything but I meant to say "science does not prove anything." It can disprove (very specific) things.
--
As to whether atheists really think science shows God does not exist, I'll admit that you can find someone who believes anything. I still argue that it is not a popular belief among atheists. I pointed out Dawkins' caveat and you just took at as evidence of insincerity on his part. No, he is very forceful on the point when debating the topic. Google Russell's Teapot.

BTW, this may be why Victor Stenger's book is not nearly as popular. The title turns me off, and I'm an atheist.
---
Let me turn to the actual point.

I think there is always a lot of equivocation in these arguments. You have competing conceptions of God that people switch between. You have the creator "deist" God, and then you have the personal gavehisonlybegottenson, bornofvirgin, hearsyourprayers, interventionist God.

Most of the debate on the "compatibility" between God and science turns on this. There is a much bigger clash between science and religion in the second area. "Virgins give birth" contradicts my anatomy textbook pretty clearly, but "An intelligent being created the laws of physics" doesn't contradict any science textbook I can find.

Look at that first comment by Keith Ward. Which God is he talking about?

The question was "Does science make God obsolete?" and all the answers respond "Science cannot disprove the deist creator God." Quite a switch, in my opinion. It shows the weakness of the case when sticking with the concept of a personal God.

We don't have miracles anymore because we know better. If a current day person claimed to be virgin-born we would clear it up with a quick paternity test. If a Catholic claimed that the Eucharist was really the flesh of Jesus we would use microscopes to prove otherwise. (Catholics used to claim there really was blood in the wine and flesh in the bread. Now they have to retreat to a vague "There is the essence of Christ in there."

In that sense, religion has retreated mightily. It tells you nothing that doesn't have an alternate and better explanation. The only question left is whether it makes you feel good. Atheists, who feel fine thank you, say no and consider God obsolete.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Titan:

Based on your comments and my extremely cursory glance at Dawkins's book, it seems like he gives a 99% "yes" answer to "Does science prove God doesn't exist?" The other 1% is wiggle room -- essentially saying, "I might be wrong!" -- which is consistent with a skeptical, scientific approach. He thinks the existence of God is extremely unlikely, but I assume he roughly follows Karl Popper's view that science can "falsify" theories -- it doesn't "verify" theories. You get closer and closer to the truth by attempting to falsify hypotheses, but you never literally "know" that something is true.

That's all totally fine with me.

The thing is, I wrote the heading of this post the way I did because I wanted to give a rough sense of what the post is about, while being snappy and drawing people in.

Admittedly, I could have instead titled it "Does science prove God doesn't exist, well, not really 'prove,' because science never definitively proves anything, but approach some state of knowledge that's as close to certainty as one can realistically get?"

I could have titled it that ... and then no one would have read the post.

Remember, I never claimed that the question posed in the heading represented the exact view of Dawkins or Hitchens or anyone else in particular. It's just a shorthand to frame the issue. Along the same lines, I think that solipsism and the Platonic forms are really interesting philosophical concepts that I wouldn't hesitate to mention in a blog post heading -- and yet, practically no one actually believes them.

I don't think you and I really disagree about any of this.

LemmusLemmus said...

JAC, a few answers:

1. "Scientism": She doesn't define the term, so I'll just give you my view very briefly. To me, a scientific mindset (the term I prefer) means believing things when there's a good reason to do so, but always be mindful that the conclusions we've reached may be overturned by stuff we learn in the future. We use truth-finding techniques in our everyday lives all of the time: When I want to know whether there's still beer in the fridge, I'll have a look. Science is nothing but a more systematic way of doing this. It does not offer anything about what's morally right or wrong - there's just nothing in the toolbox for that one. (It can, however, inform thinking about those questions by providing information.)

2. Oh dear, I misspelled "rhetorical" twice in a row; a mistake I keep making. But calling something a rhetorical trick is not a rhetorical trick if you point out what's wrong with the argument, as I hope to have done in both cases.

3. 'As for Ward's point that science doesn't "rule out" the existence of God, you might find this trivially obvious, but I don't think everyone does. Some people really believe that believing in science is incompatible with believing in God.'

Your second sentence is problematic. I would say that, at present, a scinetific mindset, coupled with the available information, is incompatible with believing in god. However, ruling out the existence of supernatural beings is also incompatible with a scientific mindset.

4. The substantial difference between the titles does not lie in the words "prove" and "belief". The original title is much more vague and asks whether science renders a belief in god obsolete. Some commenters answer this question more along the lines of "does religion provide meaning", "does it give moral guidance", etc. - which is fair enough given the question. Another way to put this is that one might argue religion is a good thing even if one knew there is no god.

5. Your point about eleven-dimensional spaces is well taken.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Midgley is not using "scientism" to mean "the scientific method." She means the imperialistic view that science reveals the whole truth of the world. That's not the same thing as the scientific method.

As with the issue of how I define the word grunge for the purpose of my list of grunge songs, most of the criticisms in this comments section seem to boil down to the fact that I chose to blog about one thing, and some people think I should have blogged about something else.

Well, those who want to blog about other issues are free to write their own blog posts. You can write about whether religion is necessary to provide meaning to people's lives, and Titan can write about whether certain religious doctrines are scientifically valid. But I didn't write about those things (partly because i think the answer to those questions are pretty obvious!). I decided to write about whether the existence of God is compatible with science. The fact that this caused my blog post's heading to be worded differently than the other website's heading is not a reason not to use that heading or blog about that topic.