BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, chpt 2.
The thing I am going to pick out from this second chapter is Dawkins’s suggestion that whether or not God exists is a scientific question:
Either he exists or he doesn’t. It’s a scientific question; one day we may know the answer and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability. (p. 70)
Dawkins admits there may be questions science cannot answer. But clearly he thinks this is unlikely to be an example.
What I do like about this chapter is the way that Dawkins shows that, as most people understand “God” (e.g. a superhuman, supernatural intelligence responsible for creating the universe) whether or not God exists is scientifically assessable.
Indeed, Dawkins is surely right to point out that double standards are common here. Give an argument based on science for there being no God and you’ll be hit with, “But the existence of God is not scientifically assessable.” Religion and science are supposedly “non-overlapping magesteria” or NOMA for short.
But as Dawkins says:
You can bet your boots that the scientific evidence, if any were to turn up would be seized upon and trumpeted to the skies. Noma is popular only because there is no evidence to favour the God Hypothesis. The moment there was the smallest suggestion of evidence in favour of religious belief, religious apologists would lose no time in throwing NOMA out of the window.
I’m sure even many religious people would admit there’s some truth to this.
But now to a part I’m not so sure about. My view is that if the suggestion is that Dawkins’ God Hypothesis – that the universe was created by a superhuman, supernatural intelligence – is one that only science can decide, well, that would be too strong a claim. I’m not sure Dawkins is making that claim (is he?), at least not here. But, being a philosopher, I’d like to think philosophy has a role to play too.
Dawkins’s own central argument is:
Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion… (p. 52)
This is, indeed, a science-based argument. But other arguments are possible. The problem of evil, for example, is an empirically-based argument. But it’s not really a scientific argument. Rather, it’s just an appeal to an obvious, observable fact – the world contains immense amounts of pointless suffering – that appears straightforwardly to falsify the hypothesis that there’s a maximally powerful and good God*. Science can strengthen the argument by pointing out that this suffering has e.g. been going on for many millions of years. But it seems odd to call the basic argument “scientific”. It’s no more a “scientific” argument than is, say, objecting to the thesis that Bert is still alive by pointing to his corpse.
[POST SCRIPT: It sounds at least odd to me to class all empirical claims as scientific and all empirical confirmations/falsifications as scientific.
Science, I would think, is something quite specific, with its own specific approach. Sounds odd to say that, when prehistoric, and presumably prescientific, peoples observed that the sun rises everyday and birds fly south in the winter, they were “doing science”, or “scientifically confirming” these things. (I’m not even sure they could properly be thought of as scientific claims in this context – though they are clearly empirical).
But in any case I agree the God Hypothesis is empirically, and even scientifically, assessable. I agree with Dawkins about that.]
There are other arguments against the God Hypothesis that are clearly non-scientific. Here’s a simple example: the very concepts of design, agency and deliberate action only get a grip within a temporal setting. But God is outside of time. He is supposedly time’s creator. But then it makes no sense to talk about him designing and creating the universe.
This argument (whether or not a god argument) is not scientific at all – it’s a priori, and based on an unpacking of certain concepts – those of agency, etc. It’s a bit of conceptual analysis. If the very concept of a designer/creator God does not even make sense, then there’s no thesis here for science either to confirm or falsify. In which case, ironically, Dawkins can’t scientifically falsify it.
Dawkins, being a scientist, is running a scientific argument against the existence of God. Nothing wrong with that, per se. However, it might be that other, non-scientific arguments, might do the job more effectively.
Certainly, I would not want theists to think that, if the scientific arguments fail, then they are off the hook.
*Note Dawkins’ “God Hypothesis” does not add goodness as one of God’s attributes. The reason for that, of course, is that his argument will work (if it works) whether God is good or not. The problem of evil, on the other hand, requires that God be good. However, as the hypothesis monotheists actually go with invariably is the Good God Hypothesis, so it is, I’m suggesting, straightforwardly empirically falsified.