Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is God a testable hypothesis?

Victor Stenger
Is God a testable hypothesis? Victor Stenger says that the supernatural is indeed testable, and shows that science speaks to this issue on a regular basis as well it should. In Science and Religion Today, Stenger says:

The rationale usually given by those who reject any role for science on religious matters is that science concerns itself, “by definition,” solely with natural phenomena. Since the supernatural is unobservable, then, they assert, science has nothing to say about it.

However, while supernatural entities may not be directly observable, any effects these entities might have on the material world should manifest themselves as observable phenomena. Anything observable is subject to scientific inquiry. On the other hand, if the supernatural has no observable effects on the natural world, then why even worry about it?

In recent years, right under the nose of the NAS, reputable scientists from reputable institutions have vigorously pursued several areas of empirical study that bear directly on the question of God and the supernatural. Any one of these experiments was capable of providing evidence for at least some aspect of a world beyond the material world. I will mention just two.

Teams of scientists from three highly respected institutions—The Mayo Clinic and Harvard and Duke universities—have performed carefully controlled experiments on the medical efficacy of blind, intercessory prayer and published their results in peer-reviewed journals. These experiments found no evidence that such prayers provide any health benefit. But, they could have.

For my second example, over a period of four decades extensive investigations have been made into the phenomenon of near-death experiences in which people resuscitated from the brink of death report a glimpse of “heaven.” Despite thousands of such reports, not a single subject has returned with new knowledge that could be tested by further investigations. No prediction has been made of some future catastrophe that later occurred on schedule, and not for lack of opportunity given the many natural disasters—earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, tornados—of recent years. Similarly, no divine revelation has provided an answer for any currently unanswered question in science, history, or theology, such as the where in the universe we will find extraterrestrial life or the location of Noah’s Ark.

Jerry Coyne references Stenger’s piece and he notes:

Jerry Coyne

Now it’s harder to test one-off interventions like the supposed resurrection of Jesus, but everything we know about nature suggests that dead people can’t come back to life, and there’s no independent evidence for this outside the Gospels. And if you show that the more frequent interventions of God are bogus, one naturally begins to suspect the one-off miracles as well.  Even when one-off miracles are tested, like weeping Jesus statues or the Shroud of Turin, they, too, fail to pass the test of divinity.

... [Stephen Jay] Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” brand of accommodationism works only with deistic religions that posit a hands-off God.  And, in the West, that kind of religion is found only among well-fed theologians and extremely liberal believers.

Of course, Stenger and Coyne are correct. I would add that every observation supports the lack of supernatural interaction in our physical world. Whether the children actually saw Virgin Mary at Fatima quickly becomes a matter of faith, but our immense history of observable phenomena tells us that more mundane explanations are much more likely.

Holy books have such a marked resemblance to fictional literature, and such literature is so pervasive in human experience that it’s hard to countenance any other explanation but fiction for the existence of the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, et al. We have no problem concluding that the Odyssey was manufactured in Homer’s brain, and the X-Files was borne out of imagination, yet so many accept similar stories as factual with no reliable evidence.

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