Is God Either Irrelevant or Non-Existant?

I was reading the comment stream at the facebook page for the “Magis Centre for Reason and Faith” about how science and religion are compatible because science can’t prove or disprove the existence of God.

There are a whole bunch of things wrong with the comments, including the standard category errors, and moving referent errors, and the lack of understanding that science doesn’t prove anything.

But it got me thinking.

Science is a way to tell which explanation is better. You compare the possible explanations, and you figure out their consequences (because all explanations have consequences). You keep going until the consequences differ: explanation one would have consequence A, but explanation two would not. Then you go and look to see which is right. That explanation is better. You then repeat, again and again, until one explanation dominates its peers.

So the problem with the Magis approach, that God’s existence cannot be accessed via science is this: it is an admission that the God explanation for the way the world works has no unique consequences.

To say theology and science are non-overlapping concerns is to say that God has no consequence in the entire universe: the whole universe is exactly as it would be if there were no God. Because if that weren’t true – if there were some place where the existence of God mattered – well, there would be a consequence, then we could go check.

This is a singly modern idea of God, and it is born out of the fact that for millenia, religious folks have thought that there were observable consequences of God. And they were pretty cocky about them. But it has turned out, time and again, they were wrong. So the fashion in theology is to retreat – to say we don’t want to play that game (after all, Creationism is a dirty word among most Christians I know too), so we’ll partition God from science finally – the two can never meet.

Well, okay, that’s fine as a theology I guess, but if you do that, how have you not just made God totally irrelevant?

And if you can name a point at which God is relevant to the universe, how can that not be testable?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Is God Either Irrelevant or Non-Existant?

  1. Perfect ! I have said that many times but never clearly, succinctly and persuasively. Thanx.

  2. Boz

    eliezer yudkowsky talks abous this idea in this article:

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/i3/making_beliefs_pay_rent_in_anticipated_experiences/

    summary:

    The rationalist virtue of empiricism consists of constantly asking which experiences our beliefs predict – or better yet, prohibit. Do you believe that phlogiston is the cause of fire? Then what do you expect to see happen, because of that? Do you believe that Wulky Wilkinsen is a post-utopian? Then what do you expect to see because of that? No, not “colonial alienation”; what experience will happen to you? Do you believe that if a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, it still makes a sound? Then what experience must therefore befall you?

    It is even better to ask: what experience must not happen to you? Do you believe that elan vital explains the mysterious aliveness of living beings? Then what does this belief not allow to happen – what would definitely falsify this belief? A null answer means that your belief does not constrain experience; it permits anything to happen to you. It floats.

    When you argue a seemingly factual question, always keep in mind which difference of anticipation you are arguing about. If you can’t find the difference of anticipation, you’re probably arguing about labels in your belief network – or even worse, floating beliefs, barnacles on your network. If you don’t know what experiences are implied by Wulky Wilkinsen being a post-utopian, you can go on arguing forever. (You can also publish papers forever.)

    Above all, don’t ask what to believe – ask what to anticipate. Every question of belief should flow from a question of anticipation, and that question of anticipation should be the center of the inquiry. Every guess of belief should begin by flowing to a specific guess of anticipation, and should continue to pay rent in future anticipations. If a belief turns deadbeat, evict it.

  3. @ Boz,
    Thank you for the link. But I must say, I had a hard time following your “summary” and will have to go look at the link. And that is why I was complimenting Ian — plain language, easy to understand.

  4. Hey Ian,
    It’s good to see there is some flexibility in what is meant by “mothballing”. I missed your posts and was sorry to see your site in stasis.

    “So the fashion in theology is to retreat”

    This is the real crux of their mistake, in my opinion. Retreat is the only move available if they are unwilling to change the definition and make-up of their god. If they were willing to honestly face the errors of the past (and present) they wouldn’t have to back themselves into so many corners.

    One neat turn-around I’ve read recently on this point is to start by looking at ‘god’ from the completely opposite direction. If a deity is something whose existence (or explanation) has implications for behavior, or something that must be served (something that at least generates motivational significance), then it cannot be irrelevant, and it can certainly be pointed at and tested, by way of the actions generated in people.

    This has some pretty serious consequences to the theologians’ definitions of their god, I think. In a sense, we can measure the consequences of someone’s ‘god’, and remove many supernatural explanations along the way.

  5. Ian

    Thanks Andrew – its purely a time thing at the moment. I will post as often as I can, but it might be a few weeks at a time.

    I agree. I’d like to look at God that way. There’s a fear among folks I’ve talked to that God would evaporate if you exposed it to those kinds of questions. And a certain kind of God does, I think. But I also think that not everything that believers find valuable about their God would. It might be that one would not want to call what’s left ‘God’ (it might be called a communal mythology, a religious culture, a traditional moral framework, a set of rituals, a sense of transcendence, and so on). But it would be something that would be honest.

  6. I like this whittling down of God, which is part of where my post, “Your Modular God“, was going. But a religion resulting from distilling down to rituals, culture, mythology and emotions after the resultant stripping of such questions may go extinct quickly due to the challenges below. Thus, the reflex to protect gods makes sense — I think they intuitively get this threat:

    Challenges of such a religion:
    (1) As Ian stated, many sorts of Gods would evaporate – the exclusive ones.
    (2) Many followers would drop out due to lack of the placebo effect
    (3) Over-time and interaction there would be no clear reason to keep distinct religions of this sort and more would disappear.

  7. TheLinguist

    Ah, wonderful :) I’d like to add that, as far as explanations go, the flaw in the God Hypothesis is that, as everyone familiar with the most basic theory of science should know, a hypothesis which can explain anything explains nothing – it’s like saying, “Basically, anything can happen. There are no rules.” I don’t pretend to understand the details of modern scientific theories of the origins of the universe, but I’m pretty sure there are things they don’t allow – like, say, a universe made out of muffins and ice cream. God, on the other hand, could presumably perfectly well make a universe out of muffins and ice cream, should he choose to do so. “Yes, but he didn’t” does nothing to explain why our universe looks the way it does.

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