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Can the existence of God be established by scientific experimentation? Is God a scientific hypothesis?

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017

The notion that the existence of God can be established by scientific experimentation and/or reasoning is a common staple of the creationism and intelligent design literature. For example, creationist Henry Morris has argued that highly ordered structures cannot arise from purely natural means, because this, according to Morris, would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics [Morris2000, pg. 38-46] (see Thermodynamics). Along the same line, intelligent design writer Michael Behe argues that certain biological systems are "irreducibly complex" -- they consist of multiple subsystems, the removal of any one of which would render the system nonfunctional -- and thus must have been created or at least designed by an intelligent Being [Behe1996; Behe 2007] (see Complexity). Indeed, much of the literature of both groups is devoted to exhibiting features of the natural world that they believe cannot possibly have been produced by natural processes, which thus require a supernatural creator or designer. This is one reason that creationists, in particular, question the conventional old-earth worldview of geology and paleontology -- such a notion undermines their argument that the creation must have occurred completely by supernatural action.

Ironically, the notion that the existence of God can and should be decided on the basis of scientific experimentation is also a staple of the writings of the "new atheists," a name given to the authors of four recent books by prominent scholars and scientists who argue that any belief in God or other supernatural entity is vain at best and even pernicious in this modern age of science [Dawkins2006; Dennett2006; Harris2006; Hitchens2007]. For example, in his book Daniel Dennett asks for a "forthright, scientific no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many" [Dennett2006, pg. 17], and biologist Richard Dawkins cites the inconclusive results of a British study that was done to assess whether praying assists patients in hospitals as a refutation of God [Dawkins2006, pg. 85-87].

However, the overwhelming majority of science-religion philosophers disagree with the premise that God is subject to scientific experimentation, or that a scientific examination of God is a worthwhile approach. As Catholic philosopher John Haught observes, "thinking of God as a hypothesis reduces the infinite divine mystery to a finite scientific cause, and to worship anything finite is idolatrous" [Haught2008, pg. 43]. Similarly, British philosopher-theologian Keith Ward notes that "the question of God is certainly a factual one, but certainly not a scientific one." Instead, "[i]t lies at the very deep level of ultimate metaphysical options" [Ward2008, pg. 30]. Historian Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God, points out that only in the modern era have theologians (or anyone else) begun to treat God as a scientific explanation [Armstrong2009, pg. 304]:

[Dawkins] is also wrong to claim that God is a scientific hypothesis, that is, a conceptual framework for bringing intelligibility to a series of experiments and observations. It was only in the modern period that theologians started to treat God as a scientific explanation and in the process produced an idolatrous God concept.

From a theological point of view, holding that God must be provable by scientific exploration is tantamount to saying that faith is not an essential feature of religion. It also leads directly to a "God of the gaps" theology, wherein a religious believer seeks refuge in the gaps that exist in present-day scientific knowledge. But the God of the gaps has left a legacy of disappointment and disillusionment as scientific research relentlessly presses forward, eliminating these gaps one by one.

What's more, the notion that God can be "proved" by scientific analysis, or in other words that if we search hard enough we will finally discover some aspect of nature that is indisputable proof of the hand of God, suggests that God was a sloppy creator. In other words, it suggests that while God took great pains to hide his hand behind a framework of natural laws, God was not completely thorough in this effort and left a few details in the open for humans to find. This sort of semi-blasphemous conclusion is also a blow against the intelligent design notion of irreducible complexity -- why, of all things, did the Creator-Designer leave a few curious features such as the bacterial flagellum and the mammalian blood clotting system as evidence of divine origin?

From a Biblical standpoint, faith is not derived purely or even principally from scientific reason. Instead, one far more frequently sees faith derived from a personal encounter, such as Paul's vision of Christ on the road to Damascus. British theologian-philosopher Keith Ward notes [Ward2008, pg. 223]:

The basis of faith is not inferential reason. It is personal encounter. God is the one who liberates us from evil (from slavery in Egypt) and who fills the heart with joy. To have faith is to entrust your life to God. But neither faith nor abstract argument establishes that God exists. Reason tries, often rather feebly, to make belief in God rational -- self-consistent, coherent with other knowledge, and fruitful for understanding. Faith tries, equally feebly to make the religious way of life a positive, personally and morally fulfilling relationship to God. But belief in the actuality of God, like belief in the actuality of anything real and vital, is rooted in encounter with a personal, moral, liberating, and transforming power and presence.

Ironically, the same philosophical premise that underlies the new atheists' criticisms of religion can be turned around and aimed at the philosophy of scientific materialism, with even more coherence [Haught2008, pg. 45]:

But if faith in God requires independent scientific confirmation, what about the colossal faith our new atheists place in science itself? Exactly what are the independent scientific experiments, we might ask, that could provide "evidence" for the hypothesis that all true knowledge must be based on the paradigm of scientific inquiry? If faith requires independent confirmation, what is the independent (nonfaith) method of demonstrating that their own faith in the all-encompassing cognitional scope of science is reasonable? If science itself is the only way to provide such independent assessment, then the quest for proper validation only moves the justification process in the direction of an infinite regress.

In summary, regarding God as a hypothesis, a scientific theory to be studied by the methods of empirical science (and rejected if no clear evidence is found) is neither a sensible nor a productive way to approach the Divine. Indeed, as several authors have observed, it is tantamount to blasphemy. It is truly ironic that this notion is embraced by the two opposite poles in the spectrum of science and religion. For additional discussion, see Atheists and Scientific materialism.

References

[See Bibliography].