Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Limits Of Science When Discussing God

There are a few blogs I try to read whenever something new is posted on them. One such blog is Rationally Speaking, an excellent if not a little too infrequent source of stimulating commentary. One recent post was asking for comments on the limits of science when discussing God. I made a comment on the thread, but I wish to expand it here. My position, science has plenty to say on phenomena associated with God so take away the phenomena and there's nothing left to explain.

A homoeopathic counter
I also happen to listen to quite a few podcasts, one of them being The Skeptic Zone. One a recent episode, they had an except of a "debate" between a sceptic and a homoeopath in New Zealand. In response to a claim there's no active ingredient in homoeopathic solutions, the homoeopath claimed the sceptic was a materialist and thus couldn't appreciate that homoeopathic medicine works but just not through natural means.

Homoeopathic medicine does work - just as good as a placebo. Studies have shown that there's no increased effect from taking homoeopathic solutions over placebos in double-blind trials. So in my mind it is reasonably fair to say that homoeopathic medicine doesn't have any discernible effects, so regardless of whether it's a natural or supernatural mechanism there's nothing to explain.

A potential homoeopath counter would be similar to the Last Thursdayism, that there is an external force at bay that just happens to have the same efficacy of a placebo. It's just a matter of philosophical distinction; because the sceptic won't recognised supernatural causes, they can't appreciate that there's a difference between a placebo and a homoeopathic solution. In other words, because of the limitations of science I'm dismissing what is an issue of philosophy.

Just what am I needing to explain?
In this case I would say there's nothing actually to explain, yet philosophically it would seem that I'm pinned. So when they make claims such as "like cures like", or "dilution increases potency" I can't say that it's bunk because it's only bunk in my material understanding of causation.

I wonder, though, what good this actually does. If there's no real effect to point to, what exactly am I being asked to explain? And this is where my concern lies with those who say God is outside scientific inquiry: it's being posited that there is an interventionist deity acting in our reality - surely this claim itself is a scientific claim.

When people say they heard God's revelation, surely this is a scientific claim. Somehow they are positing that their natural forms had somehow interacted with the supernatural. To explain this position further, people may call ghosts supernatural but the alleged evidence for ghosts always involves being able to sense them - usually by vision or touch. Likewise when someone hears God's voice, surely that involves some form of physical interaction that should be present in the real world.

When people try to turn it into a philosophical issue, I can't help but feel that they are trying to have their metaphysical cake and eat it too. Can science comment on the veracity of homoeopathic medicine any more than it can on the question of God? If there are no measurable phenomena to explain, then are we engaging in anything more than sophistry?

Science-informed atheism
I agree it would be fallacious to presume that atheism is a scientific position, but at the same time it would be fallacious not to think that science influences our thinking on God. What is the problem of evil, if not taking observation (suffering exists) and then placing that up against the notion of a benevolent deity?

What does it mean to attribute anything to God? Can one say that God is benevolent, let alone omnibenevolent? Can one say that God knows, let alone is all-knowing? To say "God loves you" is utterly meaningless without understanding what love is, and the more that is learnt about love through scientific inquiry changes what it means to attribute it to God.

It's impossible to shy away from grounding one's world-view in the reality we reside in. The thought experiments made are grounded in our own understanding of how things work, for example the brain in a vat conjecture. We simply cannot discuss reality beyond our experience in it.

Using the word science in the most broad sense is critical to our understanding. While the God question might strictly be a philosophical issue, it simply cannot be addressed without appealing to our knowledge and our experiences. Science as a discipline can't help but have a say on the notion of gods because claims about god stem from and / or involve reality.

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