Paul P. Mealing

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Thursday, 4 December 2008

The God hypothesis (not)

Normally, I leave my arguments on other blogs, on other blogs, but, on this occasion, I feel that this is such a widespread, fundamentally misunderstood philosophical issue, that I should address it here, on my own blog.

The argument took place on Dr. William Lane Craig's so-called 'Reasonable Faith' blog, and the original dialogue can be found here.

Larry Niven wrote his own commentary on it here, which is arguably more entertaining than the original (he didn't know the 'Paul' he was referring to was me).

Dr. Craig is careful about what he publishes, and he has his blog set up as a Q & A, which allows him to not only choose what he publishes, but to portray himself as an authority on whatever he cares to pontificate about. Naturally, he only publishes arguments that he believes make him look good, for which, the following submission didn't qualify.

Just so you appreciate the context: Dr.Craig laments the fact that the discipline of science only allows for 'naturalistic' explanations, so that, if there are 'non-naturalistic' explanations, we will never know the truth. In his own words, this is a 'methodological constraint' on science, imposed 'philosophically'. If you visit the above link, you will see that I specifically challenged him that he 'won't conjecture' where God may have intervened, and he evades the issue at first, but eventually says it depends on the gaps in the evidence (specifically fossil evidence).

Below is my third submission (following his response), which, not surprisingly, he didn't respond to; neither did he respond to the previous two. (I've edited out the intro which refers to the previous 2 submissions.)

(Addressed to Dr. Craig.)
Thinking about this some more, I realised that you haven’t thought this through at all.

Basically, you are saying that science restrains itself, philosophically, by only allowing for natural explanations. It could be far more (potentially) successful if it allowed for supernatural explanations – the so-called ‘God hypothesis’ (my terminology, not yours, but I’m sure you’ll agree that it fits your suggested philosophical approach to science).

My question is why isn’t the God hypothesis already applied? Quantum mechanics is an obvious area. No one understands quantum mechanics, as Richard Feynman famously said, and he should know: he won a Nobel Prize for giving us the best exposition we have so far. So it’s a perfect candidate for the God hypothesis: all quantum phenomena can now be explained as evidence of God’s intervention, including quantum tunneling, quantum effects at a distance and even Schrodinger’s cat; especially Schrodinger’s cat, I would suggest.

Extreme weather events are another perfect candidate for the God hypothesis, supported by evidence from the Bible as well, so it has to get a guernsey (an Aussie metaphor).

Four hundred years ago, the God hypothesis would have worked for planetary orbits – actually, I think it was the hypothesis at the time - then Newton came along, proposed the universal theory of gravity, and it went out of favour.

And now we have evolutionary theory as another possibility, especially as it involves complexity at many levels, from DNA to entire ecosystems, so it’s the perfect candidate. But what if in the future, someone discovers more about complexity – I mean totally unexpectedly, like the way Einstein discovered relativity - then I guess the God hypothesis would have to be dismissed; but, then, at least, we could still use it in the mean time.

The point is, as you explicated yourself, we don’t know where to apply it. And, guess what? We never will.

Regards, Paul.

15 comments:

Kyle said...

If you believe that there are non-naturalist explains of things that doesn't mean you have to employ them anywhere that where we currently have no explanations.

Imagine that a new star appears in the sky, and it flashes. After a while someone realises that it is flashing in morse code. They start to write it down and says says things like "hello, this is God" and it explains that he is the creator and it also makes predictions about what will happen tomorrow (all of which come true). You can easily add more and more empirical evidence to this example.

It seems obvious that in such a situation you should conclude that God exists, but methodological naturalism doesn't permit this.

Methodological naturalism is only in the truth business if ontological naturalism is correct, and so it begs the question against the theist.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Kyle, for your response.

The hypothetical you have given here is even more spurious than the so-called evidence from the Bible of God's existence. So I'm not sure it's relevant, as it's highly unlikely ever to happen - I'm sure you will agree.

I think you've missed the point: science has to be an atheistic pursuit, whether your a theist or not, because bringing God into science stops science. Once you give God as an explanation for a natural phenomenon you are effectively saying we can't explain this and we never will.

I haven't included the other 2 arguments I made against Dr. Craig, as this specific argument deals the death blow to the 'God hypothesis' (because you simply can't apply it). But in my previous arguments, I explained that God is an experience. The only evidence of God is in our minds, not out there, so it's a completely subjective experience that is unique to the person who has it, and therefore, open to diverse interpretations.

I call myself a theist by the way, but I define science as the study of natural phenomena, which doesn't include God by definition.

I hope this clarifies my position.

Regards, Paul.

Kyle said...

science has to be an atheistic pursuit, whether your a theist or not, because bringing God into science stops science.

I don't see why that has to be the case. Maybe it does for lazy theists, but there no reason why the theist couldn't ask, how did God do it, or why did God do it? Or even revise their previous understanding.

Also, Isaac Newton claimed that the orbits of the planets were corrected by God, but this didn't stop science.

I agree with you the example that I give is far fetched, but that doesn't matter. The question is should we be methodological naturalists with regard to science. My example is an attempt to show that there could be a case where methodological naturalism failed us.

I agree that science is the study of the natural, but that doesn't mean that the explanations that it gives have to be natural, for example, in the flashing star story it would seem impossible to find a natural explanation, but clearly there is a very good explanation.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Kyle,

The existence or non-existence of God is a philosophical question, not a scientific question. There are some questions that science can’t answer and that is one of them. Many people don’t seem to appreciate that fundamental point, which is why I wrote the post, and why I originally wrote on Dr. Craig’s blog. In other words, there is a distinction between philosophy and science that many people, including Dr. Craig, either don’t appreciate or simply ignore.

Einstein famously referred to a hypothetical God quite often, but it was metaphorical, as he was not a theist. (I believe he was agnostic, and he certainly didn’t agree with the Bible). But Einstein referred to a hypothetical, metaphorical God to try and understand the universe and to explicate his own particular biases (‘God does not play dice’ was his most famous quote). But that didn’t make Einstein a theist and it didn’t bring God into science – it was a metaphor he used to explain his own prejudices.

There are a number of scientists who are theists: Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies, Stephen J. Gould are amongst those that I know of, but it doesn’t mean they are necessarily Christians, and none of them would support creationism or any so-called scientific theory that included God as part of its rationale. God in science is not science. If you can’t understand that then I don’t believe I can help you. To me, it is both obvious and fundamental. It’s a philosophical question and whilst people on both sides use science to support their particular beliefs, they obviously may have opposite beliefs, so that doesn’t make philosophy become science, and in this specific case, there is no scientific evidence of God. As I’ve said many times, the only evidence of God is inside our minds, nowhere else.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that people use the same evidence to support opposite philosophical points of view, like mathematical reductionists and Platonists both use Godel’s incompleteness theorem to support their opposite points of view. Likewise, theists and atheists can support their opposing philosophical beliefs with the same scientific evidence, so science and philosophy are not the same thing.

Scientists working on the same problem can have opposing philosophical views without it interfering with their science. Examples: Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman both worked on QED (quantum electrodynamics), yet one was a theist and the other an atheist. Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose both worked on cosmology and relativity theory, yet one is a (mathematical) reductionist and the other is a (mathematical) Platonist. So you see, science and philosophy are not the same thing, they are distinct. Few people outside science seem to appreciate that, yet many arguments would disappear if they did.

As for your hypothetical, well, I write science fiction, which deals with hypotheticals all the time, and if yours occurred then the first explanation would be that it’s a hoax. How come God knows morse code? If God knows these things why aren’t they in the Bible? In other words, I can’t take your hypothetical seriously, because it doesn’t make sense in light of what we already know, and therefore, as far as I’m concerned, it’s irrelevant to the argument. A hypothetical makes more sense, and has more relevance, when it’s believable, or even possible.

I wrote another, related post on this last year, ‘Is evolution fact? Is creationism myth?’ (Nov. 07) I’m not sure if it will enlighten you, as I don’t think you understand the fundamental point I’m making. Below is the link if you’re interested.

http://journeymanphilosopher.blogspot.com/2007/11/is-evolution-fact-is-creationism-myth.html

Regards, Paul.

Kyle said...

Paul,

your claim that the existence of God is a question for philosophy not science seems to be arbitrary.

I still don't understand why you think that God could never ever be an explanation posited by science. You say in the flashing star example that you would think that it was a hoax, well, we can always add more evidence.

As for your hypothetical, well, I write science fiction, which deals with hypotheticals all the time, and if yours occurred then the first explanation would be that it’s a hoax. How come God knows morse code? If God knows these things why aren’t they in the Bible? In other words, I can’t take your hypothetical seriously, because it doesn’t make sense in light of what we already know, and therefore, as far as I’m concerned, it’s irrelevant to the argument. A hypothetical makes more sense, and has more relevance, when it’s believable, or even possible.

Imagine that the star started falshing out morse code and said "Hey Paul, listen up! Here are the answers to all your questions [followed by very convincing reponses to the issues you raise]". I don't think this is very likely to happen, but it is certainly possible.

The problem with methodoloigcal naturalism is that it claims that even in this situation science could not posit the existence of God.

Btw, I don't think that there is much scientific evidence for God's existence but I don't see why you want to rule it out as being impossible or unscientific.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Kyle,

"your claim that the existence of God is a question for philosophy not science seems to be arbitrary."

It's not arbitrary Kyle, you just haven't been following the argument. God is supernatural by definition; science is the study of natural phenomena by definition; so it's not arbitrary at all.

You can obviously use scientific evidence to support a philosophical position, so both atheists and theists use science to support their respective points of view.

I suggest you read the following post:

http://journeymanphilosopher.blogspot.com/2008/03/what-is-philosophy.html

where I explain what I mean by philosophy and how it differs from science. If you don't understand this then I fail to see how you can study philosophy.

If your 'hypothetical' actually happened then it would be direct 'evidence' of God's existence or of God's intervention, so it's independent of any 'naturalist' explanation. Because there never has been any direct evidence of God's existence, EVER, it makes this a pointless hypothetical, even as the basis of an argument. If it actually happened there would be no argument. Your hypothetical is the exact, direct opposite of what actually exists, so it's completely and utterly irrelevant to the argument. How many ways do I have to say this?

What you're really arguing about is whether the universe has a purpose or not, which is a philosophical question not a scientific one. I discuss this in my Oct.07 post: Does the universe have a purpose?
Refer:

http://journeymanphilosopher.blogspot.com/2007/10/does-universe-have-purpose.html

The question of 'God' assumes the universe has a purpose, so it is philosophical. Science can tell us about the mechanics and dynamics of the universe, but not whether it has a metaphysical purpose.

You can use science to support your philosophical point of view but that doesn't make your view scientific. This is such an important distinction, and, if you don't understand it, you can't understand science or philosophy in my view.

If you want to study God scientifically then the closest we get is with brain-imaging studies, done by Andrew Newberg at University of Pennsylvania, whilst people think about God (refer New Scientist, 1 Sep. 2007, p.36). Because that is the only direct evidence of God we have.

Regards, Paul.

Kyle said...

Paul,

I'm not trying to discuss purpose or the distinction between philosophy and science or whether there is evidence for God. I'm also not trying to claim that belief in God is scientific.

I'm merely talking about whether methodological naturalism is necessarilly part of science. I take methodogical naturalism to be the claim that one should perform science as if the naturalistic worldview were true.

You say that this is obviously so because science is the study of the natural. But what if there is interaction between the natural and the supernatural? A full account of the natural world could then not be given unless you brought in the supernatural.

If science is in the truth business then methodological naturalism will only be acceptable if naturalism is true.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Kyle,

I take your point, I think. I've never come across the term, 'methodological naturalism', and it's not one I'd use, to be honest.

We don't know if there is a connection between a supernatural and natural world - it's the realm of myth and mysticism.

For example, some people believe in ghosts, for which there is no scientific evidence to date, but, certainly, people have experiences that can't always be explained.

I'm not a complete sceptic, on this score, but I think scepticism is healthy. I've had experiences that I can't explain, but it's not proof of anything. Maybe, in the future, we will have explanations that we don't have now, but maybe we never will.

When it comes to mystic experiences, how much is in the mind of the subject? We don't know.

Science can't answer all questions and the only truths I know are mathematical truths. I wrote another post last January: Is mathematics evidence of a transcendental realm? In other words, is there a Platonic realm of mathematics that only humans can explore, albeit, in an intellectual capacity only. As far as I'm concerned this is the only evidence we have of something beyond us, but it's not scientific, it's still a philosophical interpretation.

I believe that science will never uncover all the mysteries of the universe, but it still tells us more than any other form of investigation. If you read my other posts you will realise that I'm not a complete sceptic, or even an atheist, and that I believe science has limits. But I make a distinction between what I know, which is mostly what science tells us, and what I speculate about, which I call philosophy.

The reason I write this blog is to make people think about things, as I state at the top. By implication, I don't know all the answers, and I don't believe anyone else has them either.

Regards, Paul.

larryniven said...

"Imagine that the star started falshing out morse code and said 'Hey Paul, listen up! Here are the answers to all your questions [followed by very convincing reponses to the issues you raise]'. I don't think this is very likely to happen, but it is certainly possible." [emphasis added]

?!

"Possible" in what sense? I guess I have to grant you that this is epistemologically possible, because in fact, it already happened: an algorithm can always be constructed to fit given values, no matter how many or how complex. So, while we might not be able to use Morse code, a star (probably every star) has already done this for some translation algorithm or other. But so what? What does that prove? It doesn't prove that a message was sent, it doesn't prove who would have sent that message, and it certainly doesn't prove that there is no natural explanation for the event. I simply do not see how this example is supposed to apply in this case.

More generally, though, you seem to be missing the point, Kyle. "God did it" is not a scientific explanation unless you can reliably predict that God will do next. That is, after all, the scientific game: formulate an objectively testable hypothesis, run experiments, see whether the results match the hypothesis, refine the hypothesis, and repeat. What predictions would you propose, in the case above? I think you could only say, "This star's Morse-encoded predictions will be correct," because that can be verified. "God exists," on the other hand, is not a testable hypothesis and thus not a valid scientific conclusion, even in the case you give!

This is why we say that God stops science. Obviously the mere notion of God doesn't stop all scientific progress, but invoking God as the cause for an event kills the scientific process because no testing (and thus no refinement of hypotheses) can take place. Only when God is cast aside can science resume, as in the case of the planets' orbits.

Kyle said...

Let's not discuss whether or not 'God did it' could be a scientific explanation. Let's discuss whther it could be the true explanation of something empirical.

It is possible that a star starts flashing in morse code and that God was using that to communicate. Imagine that the star gave us a cast iron proof of God's existence. It also answered all the remaining scientific questions and told us what experiments to do to verify them. It also provides refutations to every theory that someone comes up with to explain it away.

The best explanation of this would be that God really did exist. Of course we can define science in such a way that it still doesn't count as a scientific explanation, that that would just mean that science is not in the truth business.

larryniven said...

"Let's not discuss whether or not 'God did it' could be a scientific explanation. Let's discuss whther it could be the true explanation of something empirical."

WHOA WHOA WHOA. Stop right there. This is now an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT CONVERSATION, Kyle. If you didn't want to talk about God being scientific, why did you even bring this up? Sure, in some sense, God could be the best explanation for any number of things, but neither Paul's point nor my point nor even William Craig's point was about that: we all were interested in whether God could be used as a scientific explanation for a phenomenon. If you are now saying that this is not the case, then our conversation need not continue.

Kyle said...

Larry,

my point is that discussing whether God could be a scientific explanation first would confuse matters.

I don't deny that you can define science in a such a way that God couldn't be an explanation, but what my example has shown is that there would still be a situation where God would be the best explanation.

That would result in a situation where there was no scientific explanation but the explanation is obvious. You seem to be admitting that your definition of science means that science is not about finding the truth.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Kyle,

I can't answer for Larry, I'll let him do that if he wants to. But what you are saying is that if we got a direct message from God, be it a star flashing or a booming voice out of the sky, there would still be no scientific explanation. You are right in my view.

But your hypothetical is a bit like saying that Santa Claus is going to come down your chimney on Christmas night, which will prove Santa Claus exists but we won't have a scientific explanation, because Santa going down everyone's chimney in one night, including people who don't have chimneys, defies science.

Somehow this provides an argument against science finding 'truth'. Well maybe the truth is that Santa doesn't actually exist, and maybe God doesn't exist either in the manifestation that you conjecture in your hypothetical.

So maybe your hypothetical is just meaningless.

What do you call truth by the way? The only truth in science is that we will learn more tomorrow than we know today. If that's not good enough, then I'm sorry - that's the nature of the universe, and our ability to comprehend it. In other words, there are limits to what we currently know, and, in all probability, limits to what we can ultimately know.

Regards, Paul.

larryniven said...

See, Kyle, this is different from what you said earlier, which was:

"[Paul:]science has to be an atheistic pursuit, whether your a theist or not, because bringing God into science stops science.

[Kyle:]I don't see why that has to be the case."

Now you want to give up the idea that you can successfully bring God into science, because "you can define science in a such a way that God couldn't be an explanation." This, as usual for you, says too much and too little at the same time. Yes, you can define science that way, but more importantly, science is defined that way. Or, almost: science is defined such that God can't be a scientific explanation. Science, you see, does not ever say that God cannot be some other kind of explanation. So, while we could define "science" to mean anything - like, for instance, "gingerbread cookies" - the question here is what science actually means, and, as you now seem happy to admit, it means something that necessarily excludes God.

Now: is science "in the truth business"? That depends, again, on what you mean by that. Do you mean that scientists don't care about finding truths? That's not correct. Do you mean that science is incapable of finding any truths? That's also wrong. Do you mean that science alone cannot reveal every truth? If so, fine: I think we can all agree to that. But neither can religion, or anything else! So either this "in the truth business" phrase of yours applies equally to everything or it's simply false in this case.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Kyle,

Larry makes a very good point.

If you go back to my original post, you will see I give lots of examples where you could give God as an explanation for natural phenomena, which I called the 'God hypothesis'.

The problem, as Larry expounded in detail, is that it explains nothing. In other words, you can't go anywhere with it: God made it that way - end of story.

In science, hypotheses need to be tested so that they can be falsified, otherwise you can give anything as an explanation - which is exactly what Larry explained a couple of comments back. This is how science works and why it is, not just successful, but the most successful human enterprise ever. In other words, we find 'truths' in science by testing them over and over again - in fact, it never stops.

Your hypothetical is a complete red herring, because what you are suggesting is: what if we got a message from God that science couldn't explain? Well, why not have a hypothetical that we get a message from Santa that science can't explain. In other words, myth and science don't mix - why are you surprised?

Regards, Paul.