Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Science vs God (and The Coffee Table).

I was involved in a recent exchange of ideas which seemed to me to have at its heart a gross misconception about Science. The issue was whether Science could prove that God doesn’t exist. At the same time my partner is reading a book which describes Catholic opposition to birth control as superstition (implying that support for birth control would be scientific by contrast). I thought its time to set the record straight about what “science” does and how it does it. Unfortunately there’s no “straight” record of science to go by.
Science is itself a subject of sociological study. If you take Levi Strauss perspective then Science extends back into the proverbial mists of time. “Primitive” [1] science is just trial and error with some memory of results. “Modern” science is not so different – the note taking systems are usually more regulated and the questions are less concrete  at times – but the principle is the same.
In fact Science and religion are not distinct in any way for much of human history. Religion (at least in ancient times) was also about trial and error. You made a sacrifice to one God instead of another or in one way instead of another in the same way that you cooked a joint of meat over coals instead of flame or attacked your enemy from a hill top or a valley and then suffered the results. If you were a prophet or sage (a proto-scientist) and your advice ruined dinner or lost a battle then your model of reality was brought into question. With some swift talking you might be able to account for the discrepancy but your claims about God, magic, divination and destiny just like your claims about cooking and tactics were likely to fall out of favour in relation to other peoples. Similarly success brought credibility.
Now in addition to this role of science/religion – the role of producing direct results – religion/science had another role. This can be understood as social cohesion. Basically you could make a very good case that the Gods wanted the smartest woman in the village to be ruler. This could even be tried with success. If your explanation led to social unrest or if the smartest woman had usurped the angriest man then there was a possibility that your theory could be “disproven” by a violent vote.
That’s an unflattering example of the politicisation of science/religion. A more positive example is that two peoples may have competing claims over a fishing cove. The model of reality worth having would have enabled the peoples to share the cove without abandoning the warrior attitudes necessary to protect their other borders. Other models of reality may have been leading to wasted resources and possibly no-body being able to use the cove safely.
Nowadays we would call this kind of science/religion, political science. To modern eyes this fishing cove example appears completely different to problems about how fire operates on meat - but why? In both cases models of reality are being tested on the basis of their benifits. In primitive cultures science/religion are both remembered through story telling. We would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the stories which explain the hygiene rules of primitive cultures and the stories which explain who is the king and why there is one. This is not to say that cultures can’t “believe” their stories (holding them to be absolutely correct without a metaphoric quality). This too is no different to modern western cultures. However we now seem to have two different ways of storytelling, Science and religion which are supposedly hostile to each other.
The source of the split between science and religion is hard to uncover. Bertolt Brecht in The Life of Galileo suggests the split is a consequence of religious persecution of claims of new knowledge based on direct observation; in reaction these claimants have to become purely interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake and abandon any goal of serving humanity to religion. This is what we call Science. Brecht is writing a commentary on his own atomic age however under the guise of history so this is not a reliable source. The play is compelling though and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
The split between science and religion may simply be a consequence of accelerated change and what Levi Strauss calls the shift from a cold to a hot culture. A hot culture celebrates winning whereas a “cold culture” tries to avoid anyone losing; celebrating in game terms “the draw”. Cold cultures are capable of mainintaining consistency for a lot longer than hot cultures which are far more adaptable. We can see this operating in regard to the conflict between generations. Cold cultures utilise traditions of elder respect and formalised rites of initiation to adulthood so that there are smooth transitions in leadership. Hot cultures are wilfully blind to generational tensions. Knowledge claims are meant to be evaluated regardless of their authors’ prestige and oppositional debate is highly valued. Knowledge production in a hot culture is akin to boxing with the expectation that one day some “young turk” will K.O. the previous champion, only to be K.O.d themselves one day.
It would be neat to say that Science has become a term to capture hot culture values while religion is the refuge of cold-culture values. Certainly there are associations which back up this claim; hypothesis vs. hypothesis to the death is the scientific approach while interpreting findings to fit in with previous revelation is religions game. However we enter a circular problem of definition. Basically we would have to conclude that religion in its hot states is being “sciencey” and science in its cold culture forms is becoming a “religion”. This is generally what occurs by advocates of science over religion. Their definition proves itself and is really just a championing of hot culture values. I think it is fairer to try and identify another distinction and then allow hot and cold culture values to explain how science in (mostly hot) forms and religion in its (less commonly hot) forms thrive or struggle.
Remembering that primitive science/religion is also sciences’ history, any distinction between science and religion to be found is not going to be a creed that begins and ends what is science. Instead we can see progressive (and contentious) clarifications of science that gradually distinguish it from religion until we have our current split. Three distinctions I can identify are the philosophies of Empiricism, Methodological Naturalism and Logical Positivism. Rather than viewing these as boundaries on science I see them as waypoints which indicate a direction. Scientists are never just those who completely adhere to these ideologies but the cluster of people who are close to them. To put it another way these philosophies are the flagships of the scientific enterprise of their times (and cultures).
 Here are my immensely crude summations of Empiricism, Methodological Naturalism and Logical Positivism. Firstly Empiricism states that the vehicle of knowledge is sense data alone. This does more than rule out other less fragmented pictures of what is known (ie. intuition). Empiricism resets the direction of knowledge creation as coming from the observer rather than from the observed object. It is observing that creates what we know of things not “being” by the thing itself. This means the natural awe generated by empiricism is really awe of one’s observational powers rather than of an external object; a big difference to a sense of being spoken to by nature.
An even bigger consequence of empiricism is a move away from the goal of knowing true reality. As all we can ever obtain is sense data generated by observation, then an underpinning reality represented by the sense data is only a possibility – it’s not a knowable thing. The strict empiricist would say this doesn’t matter. There may not really be a coffee table in the middle of the room, however the sense data of a coffee table like foreground image over the carpet, allows us to reasonably predict that running across the room will lead to some nasty sense data in our shins. Sense data is all we have and all we need. An underpinning reality is only a predictive model of future sense-data. This reduces the primacy of knowledge derived from core-to-core or soul-to-soul meetings between knower and subject. Such experiences (including religious ones) are rebadged as feelings/sensations. What was once a privelaged knowledge is, under empiricism, less than seeing.

That's some nasty sense data there.

This leads directly to methodological naturalism, the explicit practical assumption that the only types of explanations science should look for are ones which are predictable and which can be controlled for; essentially “natural” explanations. What this means is that the sense data of the coffee table image and the hurt shins should avoid explanations which wont obey laws that help us to avoid banging our shins or predict other sense data. This has proven to be a useful limitation for society as essentially rogue explanations which we can’t predict are unable to be applied by us to solve their own and other problems. If we assume that the coffee table is a physical object we can step around it and we can put a coffee cup on it for example. Methodological naturalism however makes a big assumption that all knowledge is supposed to be practically applicable and this assumption can portray not only God but free will as “useless” explanations.
Logical Positivism is the most controversial of our three philosophical waypoints for Science. In its strongest form this philosophy holds that a statement is meaningless unless its validity can be conclusively established by a finite process. Although this seems reasonable this principle soon came into difficulty. Can the validity of the statement “there is a coffee table in the room” be established? Most would say yes. Look there it is. But what about the statement, “there is no coffee table in the room”? We can imagine all sorts of tests that would prove this reasonably but conclusively? (What if the coffee table was magicked invisible?)
As the totalising philosophy its authors imagined it to be Logical Positivism hasn’t been a success. There are however legacies of Logical positivism that have defined Science. Statements for which no process for establishing any validity can be imagined have been recategorised as nonsense for the purposes of doing science. This extends to ethical judgements and much of metaphysics (including God). Related to this is the importance of falsibility. Falsibility, the ability to be proven false, is now a pre-requisite of any meaningful serious scientific hypothesis. Of course to the extent that the narrative of science is generally accepted as the means of producing knowledge then this nonsense description of metaphysics and the importance of falsibility is taken up by broader culture. If anything this seems to me to be provoking a backlash particularly in the areas of ethics where society wants to have more than personal preference as a guide.
So can Science prove there is a God or not? I hope that I have shown that Science just isn’t a discrete entity so saying what Science can or can’t do is only ever based on the Science of a particular culture and time. It’s possible that future philosophical pushes will create a Science that is deeply interested in supernatural explanations and metaphysics. If so that would be very different to what we have now. As it is now Science is disinterested in the supernatural and metaphysics precisely because they cannot be put to use by us. In the same way that primitive science/religion evaluated its own culture we are all in the process of evaluating whether that disinterest is a beneficial approach to reality.
Science as it stands now is also only interested in those hypotheses which can be disproven. Is God such a hypothesis? Can anyone (not just Scientists) prove God doesn’t exist? Or for that matter can anyone other than Scientists prove that God exists? If not wouldn’t that mean that believing in Gods existence is just a personal affair like aesthetics? Or even nonsensical? Before reaching that conclusion however we should ask whether believing something and being able to prove something are the same thing. I certainly don’t live my life as if they entirely are.
Lastly and most importantly science is not about the existence of things anyway. Science is about developing predictive models of reality. A scientist doesn’t think of their belief in the coffee table as the goal and conclusion of their research. The conclusion of their research is more likely to be a reduced incidence of shin injury and a place to put their coffee cup. If the coffee table is actually God or a chaotic ball of electrons or mostly emptiness but for all intents and purposes the label coffee table captures the sense data we obtain from observing it and are going to obtain from interacting with it... well who cares?
The real point at which Science encounters God is in the investigation of applications of a belief in God such as prayer and whether they are reliably supportive of Gods existence. This is how science investigates such phenomenon as  Tarot cards, Ouija Boards, Water Divining, Vitamin loading to prevent cancer, Drinking Milk to prevent Osteoporosis, nailing wood to hold it together and so on. “Does She work?” is the scientific question of God.
The original theological experiment; Elijah calls down fire from heaven.
So far any scientific study I have seen has failed to show outcomes from “using” God that support Gods reliability. When people (generally not scientists) suggest that science has proven God is nonexistent this failure to perform is the only reasonable thing they might be referring to. However aside from some faith healers, most modern theists don’t expect God to be “useable” in this way. As C.S. Lewis put it God is not a “tame lion” who answers our commands.
It’s something to note that if worshipping a God does not provide tangible benefits then modern religion has moved further from primitive science/religion than modern science has. It would be unrecognizable to ancient people (including the Hebrews for much of the Old Testament) that a God is not supposed to be evaluated on their efficacy. It may even be that acts of worship that don’t have any anticipated “pay-off” in terms of tribal and individual success are ultimately not sustainable. Time will tell.
Time will also tell if the real issue is not whether God exists at all. If we recall the other primitive purpose for models of reality is to produce social cohesion and minimise unnecessary conflicts. It may be that we will not miss God as a cure or cause of disease or as a bringer of military success or failure or as anything particular useful in themself. It may be that we will miss our belief in God and the social effects that has. That’s a political science question.     

[1] This post is already too long to consider making it more comprehensive or self-critical. Please treat it as a rough introduction and accept the somewhat circular definition of primitive as pertaining to cultures without a marked division between science and religion.


  1. Hi, I am from Melbourne.

    Please find a completely different Illuminated Understanding of this all important topic.






  2. Wonderful post here

  3. Your asking a very puzzling question. Science can answer questions about the natral world. Yes it can question specific claims made in religion, with one rider.
    We can test if killing a goat willmake it rain. Kill 1000 goats, see how many times it rains. We can also look at how rain occurs and if it has any pluasable interaction with goat killing.
    We can also test the table, many different ways. Sight, smell, gravity, noise, radiation. We can also use this to disprove the table.
    God or the concept of god is non scientific. Trying to use science to answer is there god is akin to does orange prove hippo. God is by very definition a supernatral being, out side of the natral world therefore outside of the scientific realm. Find me a scientis trying to prove or disprove god and ill show you someone not doing science.
    Now i added a rider earlier. This is often labled the gld falacy or shifting the goal posts. Simply no matter what answer is given to a question, just add "ah but god..."
    The universe is 14 billion yrs old, not the biblical 6 thousand" "ah but god created the universe to look 14 billion yrs old".

  4. Okay. Several hours later i have about 15 pages of notes and clarifications. And quite afew questions.
    I will not inflict this upon you.
    I think most of disagreement comes from a problem of language. When common usage has changed the meaning of scientific definitions.
    I think you have misused falsifiability many times. It is not the act of proving some thing wrong, and only using ideas that can be proven wrong. Falsifiable is a scientific definition, think testable or testability for a common language useage. Can an idea be tested, rather than disproved.
    This is remarkably common. Look a concepts like theory. A scientific theory is a concept that has been so thoughly tested that no other alternative has yet been found. In common usage a theory is a hunch, a guess or unproven idea.
    Its why philosophical ideas falldown so often. Even your example of logical positivism died off around 1930-50.

    1. Your very likely right there about an outdated ness to this post. In fact since this post I've read past the whole Wittgenstein time period a little bit. I've gotten excited by a guy called Michael Polyani although I wouldn't pretend to be an expert on him.
      Also now we have much more of an interest beyond just surface perception in the science of psychology. (Compare something like evolutionary psychology to strict Skinners behaviourism) So you could probably add a few more milestones and argue that a science which is adamantly only about sense-data and not true reality is very 1930-50.. Although I think there is a good argument for swinging the pendulum back a bit in some areas. (a whole other post there).

      I disagree if by your last comment about philosophy though you mean to suggest philosophy falling down is some kind of activity distinct from Science. Philosophy is just trying to articulate what science is assuming. It falls down regularly and possibly always will because those assumptions regularly change.

      I'm also not sure if we even disagree about falsifiability or if I'm right and you're wrong. (Surely the only two possibilities :) ) It may be that again I am a little stuck in a pre-ww2 era but I think for that era, when the term was coined, my definition stands. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falsifiability