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Friday, April 23, 2010

Can Science Disprove God?

With regard to the last post, someone raised the question, and it is a legitimate one: "Do I think that science can be used to disprove God?" My answer is: "No, I don't think it can." However, my point in the post is that Christians can no longer claim that their religious experience is proof that God really does exist. The same experience can be duplicated by drugs, electrodes on the brain, or by meditation in other religions. Their experience is not unique to Christianity. Of course, they could argue that their experience is really produced by the divine and the others are artificially induced. So, the point remains that science cannot disprove nor can it prove the presence of supernatural forces at work.

Why can't science prove or disprove the supernatural? Because by definition, science deals with the natural world. It does not have the tools nor the ability to deal with the supernatural world, assuming one really exists. David Eller explains:
However, when religious entities really are outside the scope of nature (supernatural or transnatural), they are also undetectable. But what can we possibly do with the undetectable? How can we study it? How can we know about it--or even know if it exists? We cannot. It is a null category as far as human knowledge is concerned. Science, therefore, limits itself to the detectable because that is the only thing we as humans have access to and can know (Atheism Advanced, p. 211).
This is why movements like the Intelligent Design movement are not really science. ID is a philosophical inference based on data drawn from science but it is not science. Eller continues:
But, a religionist can respond, gods or spirits or forces are detectable, in the design of nature, or the curing of illness, or the manifestation in oracles and divination, etc. The problem with such detections is that there are other possible interpretations of them. Some illnesses respond to medical treatment, and sometimes the body fights them off. In other words, there are natural explanations too. The "design" of nature can come about through natural processes, like natural selection--and few religionists detect in the organization of a hurricane a divine hand at work (and certainly not a benevolent divine hand) (pp. 211-12).
Furthermore, supernatural explanations are typically inserted where there is not yet a natural explanation ("god of the gaps"). Man is impatient. He wants an explanation and he wants it now. Religion provides a quick and easy answer for the unexplainable. The problem for religionists is that their supernatural explanations have been shown time and time again to be premature because a natural explanation later surfaced. What is a believer to do at that stage? Well, they retreat to the idea that their god is actually working through the "natural" means. For example, with regard to evolution, you have the theistic evolutionists who say that God uses natural processes to bring about the universe. How can one disprove that? He can't. Its a fool proof argument that provides the believer with a safe house for his faith. The question, of course becomes, as even the fundamentalist argues: "Why does anyone need a god if it all can be explained through natural processes"? This is why fundamentalists are so adamant in their rejection of evolution. If the ultimate mystery of how we got here can be explained without a god, then there is nothing left for a god to explain. They sense the cruciality of this issue and have drawn a line in the sand (see "Why We Fight About This" by Peter Enns).

The reason that science cannot employ supernatural explanations is because it would mean an end to science. The scientific method is based on observability and repeatability, neither of which can be said about supernatural forces. The essential element in all religions is that there is a non-human personal agency at work behind the scenes causing various phenomena in the physical world. Once again I turn to Eller for further elaboration:
Science rejects or dismisses the element of agency in nature because agency makes science impossible and paralyzes all human knowledge. It has this unavoidable effect for two critical reasons. First, the entire project of science depends on the regularity and predictability of nature, and agency makes events irregular and unpredictable. By definition, agency or will is not completely determined by pre-existing conditions; it establishes a certain zone of freedom for agents. They have their own desires or interests or wills independent of conditions. Therefore, we never know quite what they will do. The exact same situation can lead to completely opposite results if the agents so choose; there is no connection between cause and effects. This frustrates and precludes the possibility of ever knowing with any degree of confidence what will happen next (p. 214).

To summarize: Religion functions on the personal premise, that some or all natural events are the results of the reasons of agents. Science functions on the impersonal premise, that all natural events are the effects of antecedent and non-agentive causes (p. 215).

Christians will often argue that science is just biased against the supernatural and has ruled out God a priori . The truth is that science has to rule out supernatural explanations because it is based on observable phenomena and the supernatural cannot be detected or observed; and, furthermore, if personal agency is the cause of natural events, it is totally up to the will of that supernatural person as to when and where he will intervene, and there can be no repeatability or controlled conditions which is essential for science. Finally, if one accepts a supernatural explanation, then the research ends, science has no more work to do on that problem. It would mean the end of any advancement in knowledge.


  1. Oh, and BTW, science cannot disprove Allah, Zeus, Thor, the Hindu gods or any of the other 28,000 gods that humans have believed in.

  2. This is a point I find myself making, if not frequently, at least repeatedly. (It's a large part of why I sometimes classify myself as a "militant agnostic".) Science and religion are fundamentally different ways of looking at the world; trying to set them up as competing truths, or trying to use one to (dis)prove the other, generally indicates a profound misunderstanding of the nature of science, religion, or both.

    There's another very good post on Logical Positivism over at Fluffy Iguana Cookies which (I think) rounds out a lot of the points you've made here. It's basically coming at the same topic from another direction.

    And if anyone is just, y'know, sitting around at work and wondering what to do with all that extra time, I invite to you come read my thoughts on why creation "versus" evolution is a stupid argument (which also cover a lot of the same ground).

  3. Ken - I totally agree. The supernatural is pretty much unknowable by definition. However I also get tired of secularists saying they would believe in a supernatural God if they had the proper evidence. Evidence is natural, based on reliable, predictable patterns in nature - which the supernatural would not have to coincide with.

    What is more interesting is the idea of the "intangibly natural". The idea that there are wholly natural aspects of existence that are mostly outside our ability to apprehend - but that perhaps we can have glimpses of. I am very open to this, but it is certainly an area to navigate with care.

    Thanks for the explanation of why creationism is not science.

  4. While I agree with most of what Eller says, I think he is way off in saying that agency by definition implies free will. That would appear to be a stipulative definition of his own creation.

    There are several, well-established branches of science (neuroscience, behavioural science, artificial intelligence) that study and talk about agency in a way that does not imply free will.

    Question: Implications of a free god for the argument from reason? I would think it is fatal since God could simply freely change laws of logic and reason by will, and we would never know.

    Of course, on some theologies God need not be a free agent (goodness as a necessary constraint etc.). So it is possible to avoid this problem.

  5. However there are many claims about god or aspects of god that science can discredit.

    You mentioned god of the gaps. The problems for the religious is that the gaps are getting smaller. Many things that a hundred, 500 or 2000 years ago were explained by god are now clearly understood natural phenomena.

    Similarly such things as claims of the efficacy of intercessory prayer can be statistically analyzed and proven or disproven.

    At the end of the day I think this is why we're seeing a rise in fundamentalism and wholesale dismissal of science by fundamentalists -- they recognize that science undermines religion. It continually chips away a those things god supposedly does until eventually the gap god fills is so small as to not be worth the name god.

  6. John,

    The idea is that God of the Bible does not always do the same thing. His will varies. Sometimes he will answer prayer and sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he will intervene with a miracle sometimes he won't. On the other hand Impersonal forces do the same thing every time and thus can be studied by science.

  7. Derek,

    I agree that the gaps are much fewer now than they used to be. However, a theist could say that God is working solely through natural means as the theistic evolutionist says. Prayer cannot be subject to scientific testing because God is a personal agent and its not always his will to cure. That is why science can never disprove God but it can make him unnecessary.

  8. Ken, "if God is working soley through natural means" he is not a very powerful God -certainly not omnipotent, else he wuld have just snapped his fingers to make the universe instead of taking 13.5 billions years.
    Also science and the supernatural are not compatible. Supernatural means by definition "beyond nature" or "outside the known universe". To all intents and purposes "supernatural" is synonimous with "does not exist" (in this known universe)

  9. Soory I didnt spell check. "Solely" and "would"

  10. Clare,

    I agree with you and so do fundamentalists. Its the more liberal wing of Christianity that has retreated all the way to theistic evolution, i.e., God uses natural processes to accomplish his will. That kind of God would be indistinguishable from no God at all.

  11. I'm guessing you haven't read Victor Stenger?