Many God beliefs are empirically confirmable and refutable

December 7, 2015


The theologian John Milbank will be responding to this in a sort of back-and-forth over at the IAI website in January. This is a preview of my first post. We engaged in a heated dialogue that you can see here.

Hegel said ‘God does not offer himself up for observation’. Many of us seem to think that claims about gods, and other supernatural phenomena, are claims about what lie behind a sort of cosmic curtain or veil. On this side of the veil lies the empirically observable realm: the realm, we are told, that is the proper province of the empirical sciences. But some suppose there is a further realm beyond the veil – a realm of non-natural or supernatural beings and forces. This realm, many suppose, is off limits to science. Science cannot adjudicate on what, if anything, lies behind this cosmic divide. Scientists should show some humility, and acknowledge there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in their naturalist philosophies. They should certainly cease claiming, as Richard Dawkins does, that science constitutes a significant threat to reasonable belief in God.

So how can we establish what if anything is behind the veil? Some of us suppose we have the ability to see through the veil, if only dimly, and catch glimpses of what lies beyond. TV’s psychic Sally believes she can sense the presence of and communicate with your dead loved ones who have ‘passed over’ to the other side. Many gurus and religious folk also claim to be able to discern this mysterious reality and provide us with tantalizing glimpses of the beyond.

Of course, quite how some of us are able to know what ‘lies beyond’ is somewhat mysterious. George Bush famously thought his ‘gut’ functioned a sort of sensus divinitatis or god-sense. and it was by means of his gut that he knew God wanted him to invade Iraq, which he did, despite the protestations of experts who warned him it would be a grave mistake. Others think their sense of the supernatural resides in their heart, and say, when asked how reason might support their belief, that, as Pascal put it, ‘the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing’.

As a philosopher, you won’t be surprised to hear me say I acknowledge there are questions that empirical science can’t answer, at least not by itself.

Moral questions appear to be one example. Morality concerns what ought to be the case. Science appears directly to reveal only what is the case, not what ought to be the case. But if, as Hume thought, we can’t rationally squeeze on ‘ought’ out of an ‘is’, then science, by itself, cannot justify moral conclusions.

There are also conceptual and questions puzzles for which empirical methods of investigation seem to be neither required nor even appropriate. If someone claims there’s a round square in the Brazilian jungle, mathematicians won’t fund an expedition to find out. We can know, from the comfort of our armchairs, that there’s no such thing out there, just by reflecting on the concepts circle and square.

Here’s another conceptual puzzle: at a family gathering, a mother, father, son, daughter, niece, nephew, aunt, uncle, and cousin are present. Could there be just four people present? Intuitively you might think the answer is obvious: no. There just have to be more people than that. Yet a little armchair unpacking of the concepts mother, father, etc. reveals that what might seem impossible is possible. On my view, philosophy issimilarly  conceptual in nature, which is why it can be done in armchairs.

However, to acknowledge there are questions science can’t answer – including big questions about value, many philosophical, conceptual questions, etc. – is not to acknowledge that beliefs about the supernatural aren’t scientifically refutable or confirmable. Many are. In fact, many god beliefs are empirically refutable, and have even been empirically refuted. How?

Claims about the unobservable are empirically confirmed, disconfirmed, and refuted all the time. Take claims about subatomic particles for example. No one will ever observe an electron. But still, their existence is empirically well confirmed. The hypothesis that electrons exist may concern something that is unobservable, but it is still a hypothesis with empirical consequences. There are certain experimental results we should expect to observe if electrons exist, and not otherwise. Over time, considerable evidence for the existence of electrons has been gathered, to the point where their existence is now a fairly well-confirmed empirical hypothesis.

The distant past of this planet is another tract of the unobservable that is nevertheless open to empirical investigation. We cannot travel back in term and observe the dinosaurs that once roamed the Earth. But we can observe good evidence for their existence nevertheless. We can also establish beyond any reasonable doubt that the Earth is older than 10,000 years, despite the impossibility of our ever observing its past. The evidence is all around us.

So the unobservable – including the distant past and the subatomic – is not off limits to science. The same goes for the supernatural. Supernatural claims may concern unobservables but many are testable, and indeed many have been tested.

Take the claim that God, or some other being, supernaturally answers our petitionary prayers. Many people believe God does miraculous intervene in response to prayer, to heal the sick, say. However, they believe on the basis of anecdotal evidence, which is notoriously unreliable. There have been two huge, multi-million dollar double-blind investigations into whether prayer has any medical benefit for heart patients and both studies found no effect. This was not merely an absence of evidence; it was evidence of absence: observational evidence against the existence of a God that answers such prayers.

True enough, if I use ‘God’ as a label for an ineffable cosmic doodah about which nothing can be said, then the claim ‘God exists’ is a hard one empirically to confirm or refute, as it’s unclear what the observable consequences of such a claim are. However, as we add more to our god hypothesis, empirical methods can become appropriate. We can empirically rule out, beyond reasonable doubt, a God that answers certain sorts of prayer or a God that created the world less than 10,000 years ago.

Surely we can also rule out a God that is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-evil, and on much the same basis? Surely the world contains far too much love laughter, ice-cream, rainbows, and other goods for this to be creation of such a malevolent and powerful being. The world would surely look much more like a torture chamber if evil God existed. So we can, and do, all rule out an evil God, and on the basis of observation of the world around us. Yes there’s plenty of suffering in the world. But there’s much good – far too much for this to be creation of such an evil being.

But if we can reasonably rule out an evil God on the basis of observation, why can’t we rule out a good God on the same basis? Surely we can. Surely the world contains far too much suffering for it to be creation of such a benevolent and powerful being.

I want to show some humility here. I don’t know why the universe exists. I don’t know why it has the goldilocks property of being fine-tuned for life. I don’t know whether there is a cosmic doodah. But still, I can quite reasonably rule out two gods: an evil God – which you do sensibly rule out too – and a good God – which you should sensibly rule out too.

In response, some theologians say, ‘Oh how unsophisticated of you. That’s not what sophisticated believers like my self believe.’ They go ‘Wittgensteinian’ on us, insisting ‘God exists’ is not used to make a claim at all, let alone one an atheist might contradict or refute. Or they insist atheists fail to grasp that sophisticated theologians use ‘God’ in an ‘apophatic’ way: believers can talk about God, but only by saying what he is not, (e.g. he is not a ‘thing’ that exists in addition to all the o
ther existent things), not what he is.

In my view, these sorts of move are usually little more than pompous self-deception accompanied by flights of rhetoric and obscurantism. But let’s all at least agree that we can say what God is not: he is not all-powerful and all-evil. And he is not all-powerful and all-good

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