Thursday, July 05, 2007

Discussion: Religion as Bad Science

I was following an interesting email exchange at Impressions Bioblogiques regarding creationism vs. evolution. The discussion spans several posts that can be read here, here and here (anglophones be warned, the discussion and commentary are exclusively in french). As is usually the case, this turned into a debate-by-proxy about the existance of God. That got me thinking about whether the right questions were being applied (The proper argument for an atheist should be: 'God does not exist', not 'Evolution happened'. Using the latter to argue the former is a straw man argument.)

Of course, Science has a duty to interact with Religion when Religion makes scientific claims, and even more of a duty to take them on when those claims are false (Young earth creationism, for example). But the question of religion, or more specifically the existance of God, is not a scientific question. It is not a testable hypothesis, makes no predictions from that hypothesis, and is not falsifable. I had concocted a post asking whether religion can and should be held up to scientific scrutiny (beyond actual scientific claims it makes, as my example above) when I came across this discussion between Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss in Scientific American which covers much of the ground I was going to attempt to, but far more eloquently. At the very least, it's an interesting read.


14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why is it not falsifiable? I think that's just a stigma associated with "God". Take Santa Claus for example. You can make predictions from his existence such as if he exists he lives in the north pole, he travels with flying reindeer and covers all of earth in one night to give presents. You can test these predictions, satellite images of the north pole show no elfin factory, radars do not detect his sled on christmas. But you have to stay within the confines of science and say that Santa needs to abey the laws of thermodynamics, special relativity, aerodynamics. Saying that God is outside of that system proves nothing, since it leaves Him incapable of interacting inside our universe.

Dominic B. said...

Maybe the right questions were not asked..I agree. But, to be honest, I expected a longer discussion and email exachanges. That did not happen. Since I am not an atheist, I am agnostic, I did not want to look at the discussion from an atheist point of view but from a skeptic one.
I had other exchanges with another creationist but the story remained excatly the same. I really think the gap between us (evolutionists) and them (creationists) will never be bridged (can I say that?)

Anyways, thanks for linking to my blog!

Sincerly,

Dominic

kamel said...

Dawkins himself acknowledges that the hypothesis "God exists" is not falsifiable, and this fact is the basis for some of his arguments. Proving that something does NOT exist (i.e. falsifing the hypothesis that it does) is notoriously impossible. The atheist hypothesis 'God does not exist' IS falsifiable. His appearance (or, to use the example from the SciAm article I linked to "if the stars were to realign in the sky to read 'I am here'") would be pretty clear proof. However, while it has the virtue of being falsifiable, it lacks testability or predictive power.

I don't think the Santa Claus example is a particularly appropriate one. For one thing, it hypothesizes a physical entity, living on Earth. God, by definition, is an omnipotent, supernatural being and as such is not bound by the laws of science yet can still interact with our world. Unfortunately, this is a very inconvenient definition for a scientist.

If we ARE to accept the Santa analogy as an apt one, the Santa Claus-ists would probably respond to you by saying that he employs sophisticated stealth technology to avoid satellite/radar detection. You would probably then say that we could physically go to the North Pole to verify which would garner a response of either "Oh, that part of the hypothesis is wrong, he's somewhere else but still exists" or invoke some supernatural explanation why he and his factory are undectable. This kind of ad hoc maneuvering would continue until Santa essentially took on the properties of God. It's in this sense that I mean it's not falsifiable

Anyhow, my point is not to argue for or against the existence of something (clearly Santa DOES exist - where else to the presents come from?), but rather a philosophical one about the nature of the question.

Bertrand Russells said...

Dawkins also says that a world with a god would be vastly different than a world without. There is just not enough evidence for a god, and it is therefore an improbable explanation for the world around us. If god interacts with our physical world then we can detect it, if he is outside our physical world, than it is irrelevant, just as asking what it was like before the Big Bang, or what is outside of our universe.

Bayman said...

I think that Dawkins goes too far. He's a scientific extremist - there's more to human existence than science and its derivative, technology, and just because a particular realm of thinking is not compatible with science does not mean it should be discarded. There are crucial areas of human thought - mainly, philosophy, metaphysics, ethics and morality - that exist outside of science - because they are constructs of the human consciousness. This does not mean they are not important concepts - on the contrary, they are central to human existence. Coincidently, the physical basis human consciousness itself remains unexplained by today's science. So we should not be too surprised that consciousness gives rise to phenomena that also fall outside the reaches of science.

So there are important components of human existence that, at least for the time being, that are separate from, but complementary to science. Religion, kept in its proper context is one of these. I tend to side with Krauss in thinking that what is wrong with religion is when writings or teachings are applied in a literal, rather than figurative sense. The bible for example, is useful when applied as a collection of fables that teach offer insight into human existence, much like any work of literature. It is damaging when religious texts are exploited as a literal explanation for the physical world, or an absolute world-view that is incompatible with all others.

Anonymous Coward said...

I think you are wrong to portray the existence of a god as a science vs religion debate. Science is a method, not an absolute truth, and it doesn't deal with morality. Religion on the other hand is pure morality but it does not seek truth thus it lacks a method. Really the existence of god is a matter of philosophy. Philosophy can use both morality and logical deductions to construct our beliefs.

Now consciousness on the other hand, is well within the realms of science, and perhaps the hardest question left to face in biology.

Bayman said...

I see to reason to believe that science is within the realm of science, although were it possible, an explanation of consciousness would indeed be the greatest accomplishment of science to date. What evidence is there that there will one day be useful theory of consciousness? Until we actually have one, I see no reason to believe in favor of one outcome or another...other than FAITH in the infallibility of the scientific process.

Bayman said...

Correction to above -" I see NO reason..."

Anonymous Coward said...

There are actually a few different theories of conciousness. Maybe we should get Bjoern to talk about them on the podcast.

Bayman said...

and then "CONSCIOUSNESS is within the realm of science".

My typing skills are very rusty.

Anonymous Coward said...

The brain and all the illusions it can create including consciousness, morality, sense of continuity, time, personality, piousness, etc. has a basis in physics and biochemestry. I do not believe the brain is irreducibly complex. It is a self containing finite system, and thus with enough information we should be able to create a deterministic model of its workings.

Dominic B. said...

I totally agree with AC on the fact that counsciousness has a biochemical component (I think it's ALL biochemistry)...hence the title for my blog: Nous sommes un creuset de réactions chimiques, nos émotions une manifestation de ces réactions.

Bayman said...

Biochemistry as the foundation for consciousness is certainly of the possibilities. Another possibility, as Roger Penrose puts forth, is that new physics are required to describe consciousness. I have no clue one way or another, but Roger Penrose seems to have directed a lot of his considerable intellect to this question, and so far, no biochemist among us has been able to recreate conscious thought in an eppendorf...

Penrose said...

Shut up bitches. Stephen Hawking has corrupted your minds. All I said was that consciousness may be deterministic without being computable. And that quantum uncertainty is probably not the basis of consciousness. Now if I could only find the G-spot.