The Other I

March 31, 2009

Why the existence of God isn’t a scientific question

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 2:56 pm

An earlier comment suggested the possibility that if a god “turned up,”- i.e., appeared in some form that we humans could recognize, then it would be possible to determine using the scientific method to prove that he existed.  But it wouldn’t.  Because there are no forms under which a god could appear that we could be scientifically certain was divine.  Think about it:  how would God have to appear to convince scientists that it was a god and not a natural form?

In fact, millions of people believe that God has indeed already become manifest in several different ways.  The most obvious manifestation is creation itself.  Believers argue that everything has a cause, and if you keep going back, you ultimately have to reach a First Cause.  This First Cause, for many people, is God.  Many also believe that this God didn’t just create the universe, but continues to be involved in it, punishing and rewarding those who obey or disobey his commands.  Others  think that, having set the process of creation in motion, God now lets it proceed without further divine interference.  

The claim that there must be a first cause sounds like a rational argument.  Why isn’t it considered scientific? At the risk of doing violence to philosophical thought, one simple reason is that it is not based on empirical evidence.  Faced with our universe, the scientist does indeed ask “how did it get here?” and has provided one possible answer in the form of the Big Bang.  Some religious thinkers have argued that learning about the Big Bang is like seeing “the face of God.”

But the scientist doesn’t say it is God that has been found.  He and she instead asks questions like  “What caused the Big Bang?”,, “have Big Bangs happened before?  will they happen again?”   “what is the history before the Big Bang?”.  Scientists themselves may personally believe in a Creator God, but they do not use the scientific method to find him.  They use the scientific method to find causes which reflect the natural laws of the universe.  They are not looking for a divine First Cause outside the natural world.

Another significant manifestation of God for many is Jesus who they believe was indeed truly God in human form.  Throughout the last two millennia, millions of people have lived and died in the firm belief that this is so.  The problem, from the scientific point of view, is that there is no empirical way to determine whether or not Jesus was God’s son in a way that other humans are not.  Again, there are many scientists who are committed Christians.  But there are no scientists who can say that they believe in Christ because they have proved this to themselves through an application of the scientific method.

Fundamentally, the problem is that the scientific method doesn’t actually look for proof that something is true, but that it isn’t true.  It’s the principle of falsifiability that is based on what is called “the rejection of the null hypothesis.”  What this means in less fancy language is that science looks for evidence that proves that something can’t be true.  The conclusion that something must be true is based on the evidence that the opposite possibility has been proved to be wrong.

For example, a drug company wants to know if a particular medicine it wants to market will have undesirable side effects.  To test whether headache might be a side effect, the null hypothesis is “this medicine will not result in headaches.”  It gives the medicine to a selection of volunteers, and if it is followed by headaches, the company rejects the null hypothesis, and agrees to publish a warning that a side effect of the medicine may be headache.  If nobody gets headaches, the company can only say “we have found no evidence that it causes headaches.”  As we know, once a medicine is on the market, it is quite possible for evidence to emerge which does indeed result in the rejection of the null hypothesis which was that the drug has no known side effects

The problem with testing the hypothesis “There is no God” is that there are no conditions which we might observe which would prove that either that there must be a God, or alternatively there cannot be a God. Some people say that evil and suffering in the world is why they say there isn’t a God.  But other people look at the same evil and suffering and say that it is God’s punishment for our sinfulness, or that a greater good will come from the suffering, even if we don’t understand how.

In other words, there is nothing that might happen that would prove scientifically that God does or does not exist. 

And that is why the question of God is not a question that can be ever be answered by applying the scientific method.

It is a question of faith, not one for science.



  1. I don’t disagree with any of your explanation here – and in particular with what you say about falsifiability versus verifiability. What intrigues me are some of the implications.

    To follow an absurd thought experiment – imagine an over-the-top Hollywood disaster movie called something like End Time. A bunch of privileged survivors witness the end of the world in all its technicolor glory. Nothing remains – apart from themselves, somehow, as disembodied souls. They next witness the creation of another world, from nothing. All the while an impeccable American English voice on the soundtrack tells the survivors what is happening, and that he is what is making it happen.

    Now imagine this not as a movie but as really happening. For at least one of those survivors, that might count as ‘verification’, in a straightforward meaning of the word, of what he or she believed prior to the event. If however it later turned out that these poor privileged survivors had in fact been duped by a virtual reality extravaganza involving sophisticated technology and psychedelic drugs, that would constitute ‘falsification’.

    Or to take a slightly less far-fetched example: a charismatic martyr is executed somewhere in the world and is pronounced dead. A few days later some of her former colleagues meet her and are convinced it is she, restored to life. Forty days later, in the presence of witnesses, she is lifted up into the sky and a cloud takes her out of their sight. Again the events themselves would be some sort of verification of the claims the charismatic martyr might have been making before her execution. And any subsequent discovery that the whole thing was an escapologist’s stunt would count as falsification.

    My point is that there was a significant historically continuous population who, for whatever combination of reasons, actually believed that phenomena like this were possible and had actually happened; and also were unaware of any reason to think any subsequent exposure had happened to falsify their picture. And that if this significantly populated and institutionally powerful tradition had never happened, there would not have been an army of theologians from Thomas Aquinas onwards to deconstruct and/or reconstruct the concept of god into something more philosophically defensible.

    What I think is important is the light the history of belief might shed on what ‘faith’ is all about. I have a suspicion that ‘faith’ might in the end boil down to ‘wonder’ plus a nostalgic remnant of unreconstructed belief.

    Questions like ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ and ‘why do the fundamental constants appear fine-tuned so as to allow a coherent universe?’ and ‘why is reality regular enough for the scientific method to be even possible?’ are legitimate and profound questions. Anyone who wants to define ‘god’ as the answer to these questions is free to do so, as long as no other content (eg any nostalgic remnant) gets smuggled in along with that word.

    What concerns me in particular is the link with ethics. In a parallel sort of way, questions like ‘what is goodness?’ and ‘why do we feel moral imperatives the way we do?’ are also both legitimate and profound. And again, anyone who wants to define ‘god’ as the answer to these questions is free to do so, as long as nothing else (eg no nostalgic remnant) gets smuggled in.

    Another thing I think should absolutely not be smuggled in is the previous definition of ‘god’ as the answer to cosmological questions. For that, I think, is a very dangerous fallacy. There is no reason to equate ‘god’ as ‘cosmological/metaphysical answer’ with ‘god’ as ‘ethical answer’, and every reason why not. The temptation to do so might well be another nostalgic remnant.

    Thanks again,
    thinking makes it so


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — April 4, 2009 @ 9:47 am | Reply

    • Chris – I think there is one great mantra on which we agree: we oppose the right of people to impose their certainty on others who do not share it (except when action of some kind must be taken and either choice involves doubt.) Yet there is an awful lot of that around in human society. Despite the lessons of history, despite the separation of church and state in modern democracies, despite the lip service paid to free choice, the modern world is rife with attempts to impose religious rules universally.

      However, I think we may differ in our emphasis on two things. Your examples are almost all examples of certainty rooted in “faith,” and it seems to be the dogmatic certainty of religious fundamentalists that you find most objectionable. I am not a believer in a set of beliefs laid out by any institutionalized religion, or even of any other individual. I do know, though, that there are religiously committed people who live quite courageous lives according to their principles, but who have no need to impose their beliefs on others. And as I have mentioned before, I have more than enough personal acquaintance of intolerant scientists determined to impose their certainties on others.

      And so as I said before, I tend to think now that the problem isn’t so much unverifiable religious belief vs. verified scientific facts as the capacity to live with the possibility of doubt in both the religious and secular spheres. Perhaps it is because I am a psychologist, but I ask myself if there is a critical psychological dimension which determines the difference? For myself, I have learned to ask what vulnerability has been hit in myself when I am unable to tolerate dissent from one of my firmly held values.

      Which is not to say that I don’t have firmly held values. I do. I think people need firmly held principles. But I think we need always to be able to consider that there may be another way of looking at things. And this applies to scientific conclusions every bit as much as it does to religious ones. Not only that, but there is as much room for doubt in science as there is in religion. I only wish that all the economists and mathematicians who so confidently led the world into our current economic crisis had considered a little sooner how completely, absolutely, and devastatingly wrong they might have been.

      I also think we may differ in our assessment of just how many of life’s questions can be addressed through the scientific method. Much as I enjoy and value it, it seems to me there are huge swathes of human endeavour which are either practically or intrinsically impossible to subject to scientific study. Should I marry this person? What career choice should I make? Should I take this trip to India? How should I invest my money in the current economic climate? What will happen to me when I die? What should I cook for dinner tonight? What is the best escape from this fire surrounding me and my family?are all questions whose answers don’t seem to me to be verifiable scientifically in real life. Yet they and a thousand more like them are important in human lives. Sometimes reasoned analysis (which is not necessarily scientifically based), or past experience, or professional advice or yes sometimes religion can help make a better or worse choice. But none of them are strictly scientific. And none of them eliminate doubt. I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on this.

      What I like best about this conversation, by the way, is that we both agree and disagree, and that you know as much – probably more – about the subject than I do, but there is not a 100% overlap in what we each know.

      Now I think I must retire and figure out how to “ping” this onto ThinkingMakesItSo the way you are pinging your comments onto this blog. In the meantime, I will cheat and simply paste this as a comment onto your blog. Thank you again for writing.


      Comment by theotheri — April 4, 2009 @ 8:27 pm | Reply

  2. […] Below is a response I wrote to one of the posts on The Other I: Why the existence of God isn’t a scientific question: […]


    Pingback by A god question « thinking makes it so — April 4, 2009 @ 10:29 am | Reply

  3. Thanks! Very quickly – I also cheated & copied it. That was comment 3 above. Comment 2 (the pingback) just happened – maybe by my putting the link in my blog? So there’s a 100% overlap in what we don’t know!



    Comment by Chris Lawrence — April 4, 2009 @ 9:02 pm | Reply

  4. Sorry – getting confused. My cheat/copy was comment 1 above!


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — April 4, 2009 @ 9:04 pm | Reply

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