Is belief in God unscientific?
No matter who you are, you’ve heard it before, or maybe you have even said it yourself:
“Belief in God is not scientific. I don’t believe in God because I prefer a scientific view of the world.”
When I hear this assertion, sometimes I respond by doing my best impression of the character Lumbergh (played by Gary Cole) from the classic comedy film Office Space:
“Ooh…Yeah. I’m going to have to go ahead and sort of disagree with you there.”
If you choose to disbelieve in God, at least do not try to rationalize your disbelief with the stance that belief in God is “unscientific.” Unbeknownst to our culture, and atheists who declare their belief system to be “scientific,” there is a very big problem with declaring theism to be “unscientific”:
Nobody has been able to logically define just what constitutes science, as opposed to non-science or pseudo-science. This is what is known as “the demarcation problem in science.” Philosopher of science Larry Laudan explains that philosophers of science have been completely unable to find a logically sound way to distinguish (or demarcate) science from non-science, in his influential essay about the demarcation problem in science titled The Demise of the Demarcation Problem .
“We live in a society which sets great store by science. Scientific ‘experts’ play a privileged role in many of our institutions, ranging from the courts of law to the corridors of power. At a more fundamental level, most of us strive to shape our beliefs about the natural world in the ‘scientific’ image. If scientists say that continents move or that the universe is billions of years old, we generally believe them, however counter-intuitive and implausible their claims might appear to be. Equally, we tend to acquiesce in what scientists tell us not to believe. If, for instance, scientists say that Velikovsky was a crank, that the biblical creation story is hokum, that UFOs do not exist, or that acupuncture is ineffective, then we generally make the scientist’s contempt for these things our own, reserving for them those social sanctions and disapprobations which are the just deserts of quacks, charlatans and con-men. In sum, much of our intellectual life, and increasingly large portions of our social and political life, rest on the assumption that we (or, if not we ourselves, then someone whom we trust in these matters) can tell the difference between science and its counterfeit.”
But, despite the immense prestige and respect which our culture accords to science, there is no way to logically discern science from pseudo-science. This is a very big problem for atheists who try to promote their worldview as “scientific,” whereas belief in God is “unscientific.” As Laudan notes, drawing a logical line of demarcation between science and non-science has, for millennia, proven to be an unachievable task for philosophers of science:
“For a variety of historical and logical reasons, some going back more than two millennia, that ‘someone’ to whom we turn to find out the difference usually happens to be the philosopher. Indeed, it would not be going too far to say that, for a very long time, philosophers have been regarded as the gatekeepers to the scientific estate. They are the ones who are supposed to be able to tell the difference between real science and pseudo-science. In the familiar academic scheme of things, it is specifically the theorists of knowledge and the philosophers of science who are charged with arbitrating and legitimating the claims of any sect to ‘scientific’ status. It is small wonder, under the circumstances, that the question of the nature of science has loomed so large in Western philosophy. From Plato to Popper, philosophers have sought to identify those epistemic features which mark off science from other sorts of belief and activity.”
“Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear that philosophy has largely failed to deliver the relevant goods. Whatever the specific strengths and deficiencies of the numerous well-known efforts at demarcation, it is probably fair to say that there is no demarcation line between science and non-science, or between science and pseudo-science, which would win assent from a majority of philosophers. Nor is there one which should win acceptance from philosophers or anyone else…”
Similarly, in his essay The Methodological Equivalence of Design and Descent, Stephen Meyer cites the philosopher of science Martin Eger:
“Demarcation arguments have collapsed. Philosophers of science don’t hold them anymore. They may still enjoy acceptance in the popular world, but that’s a different world.”
As a side note, Eger’s above comments call to attention a frequently recurring issue: Many atheistic arguments which persist at the popular level (in atheist blog posts, in books by science popularizers, in Wikipedia posts, etc.) have long since been dismissed by scholars who specialize in the respective field of study. Demarcation arguments which try to define belief in God as “unscientific” are a virtually omnipresent component of atheist propaganda. But demarcation arguments have long since been abandoned by philosophers of science, because the demarcation problem has proven insurmountable.
But rather than just taking someone else’s word for it, why not examine some of the various demarcation criteria which have been proposed to demarcate between science and non-science? Those who have spent any time debating atheists who perceive their worldview to be “scientific,” and theism to be “unscientific,” will recognize many of these criteria:
Observability: “Belief in God is not scientific because God is not observable.”
Observability fails as a criterion to demarcate between science and pseudo-science because, as elite physicists Paul Davies and John Gribbin note in their book The Matter Myth, much of what is regarded as science involves unobservable phenomena:
“At the heart of the scientific method is the construction of theories. Scientific theories are essentially models of the real world (or parts thereof), and a lot of the vocabulary of science concerns the models rather than reality. For example, scientists often use the word ‘discovery’ to refer to some purely theoretical advance. Thus one often hears it said that Stephen Hawking ‘discovered’ that black holes are not black, but emit heat radiation. That statement refers solely to a mathematical investigation. Nobody has yet seen a black hole, much less detected any heat radiation from one.”
“…So long as scientific models stick closely to direct experience, where common sense remains a reliable guide, we feel confident that we can distinguish between the model and the reality. But in certain branches of physics it is not always so easy. The concept of energy, for example, is a familiar one today, yet it was originally introduced as a purely theoretical quantity in order to simplify the physicists’ description of mechanical and thermodynamical processes. We cannot see or touch energy, yet we accept that it really exists because we are so used to discussing it.”
“The situation is even worse in the new physics, where the distinction between the model and reality sometimes becomes hopelessly blurred. In quantum field theory, for instance, theorists often refer to abstract entities called ‘virtual’ particles. These ephemeral objects come into existence out of nothing, and almost immediately fade away again. Although a faint trace of their fleeting passage can appear in ordinary matter, the virtual particles themselves can never be directly observed. So to what extent can they be said to really exist?”
Stephen Meyer reflects physicists Davies’ and Gribbin’s above comments by noting that, because many scientific theories are not supported by actual observation, observability cannot be cited as a logically sound criterion to demarcate between science and non-science:
“Many entities and events cannot be directly observed or studied in practice or in principle. The postulation of such entities is no less the product of scientific inquiry for that. Many sciences are in fact directly charged with the job of inferring the unobservable from the observable. Forces, fields, atoms, quarks, past events, mental states, subsurface geological features, molecular biological structures all are unobservables inferred from observable phenomena. Nevertheless, most are unambiguously the result of scientific inquiry.”
“During the race to elucidate the structure of the genetic molecule, both a double helix and a triple helix were considered, since both could explain the photographic images produced via x-ray crystallography. While neither structure could be observed (even indirectly through a microscope), the double helix of Watson and Crick eventually won out because it could explain other observations that the triple helix could not. The inference to one unobservable structure the double helix was accepted because it was judged to possess a greater explanatory power than its competitors with respect to a variety of relevant observations. Such attempts to infer to the best explanation, where the explanation presupposes the reality of an unobservable entity, occur frequently in many fields already regarded as scientific, including physics, geology, geophysics, molecular biology, genetics, physical chemistry, cosmology, psychology and, of course, evolutionary biology.”
Cosmology presents another perfect example of a theory which cannot be supported by observation, but which is nevertheless regarded by many as “scientific”: The multiverse (or multiple universe) theory is, in fact, frequently cited by atheists as an alternative to God, but cannot be supported by observation, because universes other than our own are fundamentally unobservable.
An exacting knife edge level of precision (referred to as “anthropic fine tuning”) is necessary for life to exist on Earth. Theists cite creation by God as an explanation for this exquisite precision, whereas many atheists cite the multiverse or multiple universe theory. Harvard educated NASA astrophysicist John A. O’Keefe comments:
“If the universe had not been made with the most exacting precision we could never have come into existence. It is my view that these circumstances indicate the universe was created for man to live in.”
There are many values which must be exactly correct for life to exist on Earth. These values are referred to as “anthropic constants.” A few examples of these anthropic constants from the article in the preceding hyperlink:
Oxygen comprises 21% of the atmosphere, if the level moved to 25%, fires would erupt spontaneously. If it were 15%, human beings would suffocate.
If the atmosphere were less transparent, not enough solar radiation would reach the earth’s surface. If it were more transparent, we would be bombarded with far too much solar radiation. (In addition to atmospheric transparency, the atmospheric composition of precise levels of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and ozone are in themselves anthropic constants)
Moon-Earth Gravitational Interaction
If the interaction were greater than it currently is, tidal effects on the oceans, atmosphere, and rotational period would be too severe. If it were less, orbital changes would cause climatic instabilities. In either event, life on earth would be impossible,
If the gravitational force were altered by 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000001 (37 0’s) percent, our sun would not exist, and, therefore, neither would we.
According to the multiverse theory, so many universes exist that it is not surprising that one of these universes happened to randomly have the very extremely precise fine tuning necessary for the existence of life. In fact, some theorists have pointed out that as many as 10 to the 500th power (10 with 500 zeros after it) universes are necessary. Cambridge University astrophysicist John Polkinghorne notes:
“Answering an argument by a suggestion is hardly conclusive. One problem is that we don’t just need a hundred other universes, or even a billion, but an utterly immense number—some string theorists suggest that there are up to 10 to the 500th power other universes. If you are allowed to posit 10 to the 500th power other universes to explain away otherwise inconvenient observations, you can “explain away” anything, and science becomes impossible.”
Regarding Polkinghorne’s above comments, how many of these 10 to the 500th power universes do you suppose have actually been observed by anyone? The answer is zero, since other universes cannot be observed.
Another problem with observability is that many theories or beliefs which are regarded as unscientific nonsense can cite observations as scientific support. For example, an observation out of one’s window could be cited as evidence in favor or the flat-Earth theory. If observability is the demarcation criterion which distinguishes science from non-science, then the flat-Earth theory must be deemed “science.”
Testability: “Belief in God is not scientific because God is not a testable hypothesis.”
Stephen Meyer explains how citing testability as the demarcation criterion separating science and non-science would render Darwinian evolution non-science, because it cannot be tested:
Origins theories generally must make assertions about what happened in the past to cause present features of the universe (or the universe itself) to arise. They must reconstruct unobservable causal events from present clues or evidences. Positivistic methods of testing, therefore, that depend upon direct verification or repeated observation of cause-effect relationships have little relevance to origins theories, as Darwin himself understood. Though he complained repeatedly about the creationist failure to meet the vera causa criterion a nineteenth-century methodological principle that favored theories postulating observed causes he chafed at the application of rigid positivistic standards to his own theory.
As he complained to Joseph Hooker: “I am actually weary of telling people that I do not pretend to adduce direct evidence of one species changing into another, but that I believe that this view in the main is correct because so many phenomena can be thus grouped and explained” (emphasis added).
Evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Henry Gee (Senior Editor of the science journal Nature) eloquently commented on how Darwinian evolution is not testable, in 1999:
“No fossil is buried with its birth certificate. That, and the scarcity of fossils, means that it is effectively impossible to link fossils into chains of cause and effect in any valid way…To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story—amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.”
Additionally, how would one administer a test to see if the most popular atheistic explanation for the anthropic fine tuning of the universe (the multiverse theory cited above) is correct? Would it involve a laboratory test involving a bunsen burner and test tubes? A test involving a microscope and a petri dish?
Falsifiability: “Belief in God is not scientific because God cannot be falsified.”
Proponents of falsifiability as a demarcation criterion argue that science must always first try to prove a theory to be false before accepting it. It is only after passing such a rigorous trial by fire that a theory or belief can be accepted as scientifically true. But any theory or belief which cannot even be exposed to such a trial is not falsifiable, and therefore should not be considered scientific. Falsifiability was first introduced as a demarcation criterion by the philosopher of science Karl Popper.
Because there is no way to expose belief in God to such scrutiny (attempts to falsify), argue atheistic proponents of falsifiability, belief in God cannot be considered scientific. Much like belief in ghosts, there is no way to expose belief in God to attempts to falsify.
The easiest way see that falsifiability fails as a demarcation criterion is to recognize that theories which have been falsified (or proven false) meet Popper’s criterion for what constitutes science. If a theory has been proven false, it must be falsifiable. Therefore scientific theories which have been proven false must be considered “scientific,” if falsifiability is the demarcation criterion that distinguishes science from pseudo-science. There is simply no way around this.
For example, the flat-Earth theory was, most recently, proven false by satellite observations of the Earth. But, by Karl Popper’s logic, the flat-Earth theory must be considered “scientific” because it was proven false (falsified).
Further, how could Darwin’s theory of evolution be deemed falsifiable? Philosopher Robert C. Koons comments on the un-falsifiability of Darwinian evolution:
Any evidence that is found can be made to accord with schematic Darwinism, and so can be counted as evidence “for” the theory. Only by replacing the schema with a specific sequence of possible mutations and selective pressures can we find something that is both falsifiable and confirmable by collateral evidence. But this is exactly what has never happened, no doubt because of the problems of intractability, the inability to manage or control the reconstruction of the genotypes of extinct and even unattested hypothetical ancestors. Whatever the reason, the burden of proof was never met, and the presumption of design never rebutted.
The history of science makes it virtually impossible to separate science from non-science.
And finally, the history of science presents an insurmountable obstacle for discerning science from non-science. Regarding this point are some relevant excerpts from my essay titled A History Lesson for Darwinists:
Biologist Lynn Margulis, winner of the U.S. Presidential Medal for Science, put it best in her book What Is Life?:
…Science is asymptotic. [“asymptote” is derived from a Greek word meaning “not falling together.”] It never arrives at but only approaches the tantalizing goal of final knowledge. Astrology gives way to astronomy; alchemy evolves into chemistry. The science of one age becomes the mythology of the next.
Those with a short-sighted view of the history of science are prone to overlook the fact that alchemy (which believed that metals such as lead could be turned into gold) and astrology were once considered scientifically respectable. In fact, as Margulis alludes to above, the scientific consensus of one age usually becomes the myth or superstition of the next age.
Atheist mythology suggests that, as scientific knowledge grows, the need for theistic belief diminishes. However, in his pivotal work on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, physicist Thomas Kuhn describes how the history of science makes it difficult to justify the characterization of science as “an ever growing stockpile [of] knowledge” or a “process of accretion”. In part, this is because most scientific theories (or models) which were accepted by the scientific communities of the past are now perceived as pseudo-science or myth.
Kuhn cites the examples of Aristotelian dynamics (which was superseded by Newtonian physics), phlogistic chemistry (which said that a fire-like element called phlogiston is contained within combustible bodies and released during combustion), and caloric thermodynamics (which said that heat is really a self-repellent fluid called caloric that flows from hotter bodies to colder bodies). (Click here for dozens more examples). If these theories were regarded as “science” in their day, but as “error” and “superstition” today, then why should we not assume that the scientific theories of today will become the error and superstition of tomorrow? Kuhn writes:
Historians confront growing difficulties in distinguishing the “scientific” component of past observation and belief from what their predecessors had readily labeled “error” and “superstition.” The more carefully they study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. Given these alternatives, the historian must choose the latter. Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded. That choice, however, makes it difficult to see scientific development as a process of accretion.
So with no logically sound way to separate science from non-science, atheists can only define belief in God as “unscientific” by first defining science in ways that rule out God. But this is the logical fallacy known as circular logic, the Latin term for which is circulus in probando.