Is God scientifically testable?

I don’t like to debate the existence of God.  I have no wish to prove or convince.  But this thought just came to me on the tangential end of another thought, and I wanted some feedback from someone who has thought about this before.

In general, Christians say that God is not a scientifically testable hypothesis, while many atheists say otherwise.  I see it as a little of both.  God is supernatural, yes, but as a Christian I believed that Christianity was a fusion of both the natural and supernatural worlds.  Wheaton did a lot to hammer this point out in me, teaching me that body and soul are both important.  Christianity claims to be more than Gnosticism; that Jesus was both man and God; that the dead are bodily resurrected; that the body matters as well as the soul.  If Christianity claims that its domain includes natural materials and natural processes, then it must be subject to at least some measures of natural analysis.

In my view, the logic behind Christians saying that God cannot be scientifically proven or disproven is that God is more powerful than science, and has the ability to transcend scientific methods of detection.  In that case, if we rule out scientific arguments against God’s existence, wouldn’t we also have to rule out philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God, since God could also transcend all logic and reason?

Inconveniently for atheists, it seems that natural processes can only confirm, not falsify Christianity.  If something provides evidence to support the existence of God, it’s accepted by Christians.  If there is no evidence or evidence against God, it’s not because he’s not there, it’s because he’s being transcendent.

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17 thoughts on “Is God scientifically testable?

  1. tuffy

    My guess is that my answer is the sort of thing you wouldn’t want to hear. But that question just doesn’t seem to apply to God. It just seems to be the wrong question to ask.

    I actually think that major problems with Christianity have come because of trying to play by the rules of logic or science. That’s where we get vicious debates about the creation narrative, and completely miss the beauty of the narrative.

    I think God can’t be proven or disproved. I just don’t think we need to go down that road.

    I’m not sure I’m commenting well on what you have to say, but I thought I’d chime in because I have thought about these things.

    I dig the way you think, lily.

    Much love,

    tuf

    Reply
  2. Lily Post author

    Thanks, tuffy. I get what you’re saying, and it’s what I used to say when I was a Christian. It’s pretty much what I still say– that God isn’t provable or disprovable via science. My main question, which has just grazed my mind for the first time today, is whether you would also apply that to philosophical reasoning? i.e., would you also say that C.S. Lewis’ argument for God’s existence on the basis of moral law, or the ontological argument, are also moot?

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  3. tuffy

    OK, so I didn’t really clarify well. What I said goes for philosophical and for scientific reasoning. I really enjoy a lot of CS Lewis’ stuff, but at the same time, when it comes to logical arguments for God they aren’t much more than interesting to me.

    I really think that when we try and follow those sorts of arguments, be it Lewis, Descartes, or whatever, we miss out on the fullness of God, and end up placing our focus somewhere else.

    All of this comes from ways of thinking that are not inherent to the roots of Christianity.

    Reply
  4. Shad B.

    I hope I’m not intruding on your blog but I wanted to comment on at least a few aspects of the issues you have brought up.

    Being an atheist myself, I would say that the focus and attention should not be on disproving the existence of God. That would be entirely impossible. I think that it should take up the fight against religion. Religion is what’s detrimental to everyone. There hasn’t been on religion that I have sided with fully or met even a quarter of the way. Much of it is filled with violence, condemnation and judgement. Saying so will undoubtedly have me marked as “not reading the texts correctly.” But the fact remains that nearly every religious text has in it these things and undeniably encourage it at some level.

    Before I go off on that particular argument (which seems almost futile to do considering the breadth it covers), I’ll stop myself, and make one more point:

    God and Christianity; God and ANY Religion; God and Spirituality; and Religion and Spirituality; all need to be separated. None of them have anything to do with the other.

    Paulo Coelho (a follower of the Catholic church) states that religion is only the discipline he uses to practice his spirituality and never can they be considered one and the same. This is something that I have to agree with. It is the discipline that I am against as an atheist. Not the idea, or concept, of a God. To me, you cannot fight that belief in a supernatural being because it has almost become human nature to attribute the creation of the cosmos to that sort of being.

    My personal beliefs runs almost parallel to what Douglas Adams once said: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

    To make things easier for everyone reading this comment: one cannot argue against, or for, the existence of God using science, logic, or philosophical arguments. But they can argue against religion using those tools. The target should be refocused to religion.

    Reply
  5. Irritable

    One way of saying this is that God’s existence is not falsifiable — which is exactly why, as per your last post, ID is such wretched science. Scientific process works by setting forth falsifiable claims, which means that they can be tested. They can’t be “proven,” exactly (though the semantics on this varies), but as long they can be verified or confirmed they can be regarded as true. That they can be falsified means that they will need to be adjusted or abandoned as new data come in. If there’s no way to do this, it’s not science.

    If I insist that the real Lily has been abducted by aliens and replaced with a clone under their control, you would of course demur. I could then claim that’s exactly what an alien clone would say. I have constructed an unfalsifiable premise.

    Or try this classic: “Satan’s greatest trick is to get people not to believe in him.” It’s untouchable. Completely batty, but untouchable. (It can be debated, obviously, if you think it’s worth the time, but the debate falls outside the parameters of science proper.)

    This is why arguments of God’s existence generally tend toward the philosophical. Philosophy, especially metaphysics, deals in non-falsifiables as a stock in trade. Whitehead’s process philosophy is not falsifiable. Hegel’s phenomenology is not falsifiable. Debatable, certainly, but not the stuff of science.

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  6. vjack

    If you’d like to explore the question of whether science can prove or disprove god, I recommend God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist by Victor J. Stenger. It was a good read.

    Reply
  7. Mr Pants

    The problem I have with this non-commital thing about how God can’t be proved or disproved is that without that, how do we know what to accept? Using that logic, don’t I have just as good a justification to believe in FSM as a christian has to believe in Jesus? To me, if something cannot be verified, you are on very shaky ground if you dedicate your life to that proposition.

    Reply
  8. Irritable

    Mr. Pants — I think you just answered your own question. You used logic, rationality, and clear judgment, and came to a sensible conclusion.

    But that’s not the same thing as science.

    (Of course these qualities are crucial to the discipline of science, but they do not constitute it.)

    One might use the tools of social science to argue that belief in God is detrimental to human life, but that’s a somewhat different discussion that has no bearing on whether or not such an entity exists.

    Reply
  9. James at Next Reformation

    For me when I was a Christian, one the the strongest arguments for the existence of God was that there HAD to be an objective truth and morality that existed outside of humanity. Without God, there is no civilization because there is no right or wrong (one of Josh McDowell’s big arguments).

    Later, I came to see how humanity’s understanding of right and wrong, truth, and morality had evolved, just like our understanding of science or medicine or law & order has evolved. Just look at the Old Testament when it was acceptable to God for the Hebrews to wipe out entire cities, versus Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament. Another good example is how the Bible condones slavery, and churches found this acceptable up until less than two centuries ago. The Southern Baptist denomination was actually founded to support the rights of slave owners. Obviously, humanities understand of morality has evolved outside the Bible (non to mention the evolution of morality in non-Christian cultures such as Asia).

    And finally, atheists don’t need to try to disprove God. The burden of proof is on those who claim it exists. Some take the healing of, say, a child with cancer as proof God exists. If you understand large numbers, though, it isn’t all that unlikely that a person’s cancer would simple disappear in, I don’t know, maybe one-hundredth of one percent of patients. Heck, is likely that that many people’s immune systems could adapt to fight cancer. Now if an amputee was instantaneously healed, that might be some credible evidence. But as we all know, God doesn’t heal amputees. Which is a great website that argues the case against God: http://whywontgodhealamputees.com

    Reply
  10. Pingback: Is God Scientifically Testable? « globalizati

  11. Alice

    I don’t really enjoy debating about god, either. I have better things to do than study up all the arguments and rebuttals. It’s enough that I have an opinion, I don’t feel the need to share it or convince anyone… unless they ask, of course 🙂

    Reply
  12. Santiago

    I think that the existence of a god is a perfectly valid scientific hypothesis, it could be easily confirmed by having solid evidence of miracles. Since this evidence is utterly non-existent and other characteristics of the universe can be perfectly explained by other theories (evolution, Big Bang theory, etc.) what you could say is that maybe, kinda, sorta might be a non-intervening God who basically did nothing but kick off the Big Bang (or even something before that).
    But in this case, a god is irrelevant, he has no further influence in this world and his last intervention was billions of years ago, the life and decisions of a believer in such a god and an atheist are essentially the same.
    So, our problem with religious people is that they choose to ignore both the evidence and the logic that point towards, at most, a deity that is irrelevant to our life here on earth.
    There’s allot of other stuff as well, like there are only “natural” phenomena, that nothing can go “beyond” something as simple and universal as science, etc. but I think I’ll stop now.

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  13. Irritable

    Even solid evidence of “miracles” would not validate God as a hypothesis. Any given miracle would only be evidence that a particular extraordinary phenomenon, perhaps even one previously considered impossible, could be observed under certain conditions.

    If this phenomenon were consistently repeatable, we could form hypotheses about it and test them, eventually formulating new theories that adjust our views of the natural world according to new evidence in proper scientific fashion.

    This process would flounder as science, however, if it relied on something as slippery and polysemic as God for an explanation.

    The more we accept God as a putative hypothesis the more we encourage ID types to drum up “evidence” confirming it.

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  14. Shishberg

    I must admit to never understanding the “natural” and “supernatural” distinction that defines what science can deal with.

    If we’re going to conclude that something is true, then it has to have had an observable effect, doesn’t it? If it hasn’t, then we have no reason to believe it. If it has, then it’s scientifically testable (in the broad “scientific method” sense, not in the sense that it fits into any current branch of science), regardless of whether it’s labelled “natural” or “supernatural” or whatever.

    For example, the statement “Jesus was raised from the dead” is a scientific claim. It doesn’t matter whether it was a supernatural event; if the claim is that it literally happened then it has observable effects in the natural world, which means it’s testable. (Although it might be hard to test 2000 years afterwards.)

    I suppose pure philosophical logic bypasses this to some degree, but if there’s a logical argument for god (valid or otherwise) that concludes anything more abstract than, say, “a first cause exists” then I haven’t seen it. It might get you to deism, but to accept even a very liberal form of Christianity you’re going to have to make a statement about the real world at some point.

    (Paul Wright, thanks for that link. Clearest thing I’ve read in years.)

    Reply
  15. Devon

    In response to Shad B:

    “To make things easier for everyone reading this comment: one cannot argue against, or for, the existence of God using science, logic, or philosophical arguments. But they can argue against religion using those tools. The target should be refocused to religion.”

    I am a Christian and I understand your attack on religion. Because I agree that religion is not an ideal thing, and that it could be argued that it isn’t even good. Religion is a human creation, an interface between humans and God; nothing more.

    People seem intent on proving that belief in God is detrimental to society. Religion is often detrimental to society, and that can be mistaken as belief in God being detrimental. God is, by definition, perfect, or at least the God that I believe in. Therefore it is religion that is at fault, as religion is a human construct that God must squeeze himself into should he wish to have a relationship with any humans (which he does). For this reason I continue to believe in God, and accept my fractured, imperfect interface between me and my God called Christianity as a necessary carrier of the relationship.

    Reply

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