Thursday, 13 September 2007

Why yes, science can rule on whether your god exists...

Okay, this is going to be a bit of a rant. Bear with me.

Shut up already. Just shut up. Now. Seriously. I'm sick and tired of people saying "Science cannot prove or disprove God." Just shut up okay? You're talking rubbish. Actually, I should qualify myself here. If your conception of god is a rather pathetic, useless being who can't actually interact with his creation in any way - hey, maybe he set the whole thing up and then wandered off and left it alone to see how it went (yes, i'm looking at you, deists) - then I'm absolutely fine with that statement. Science has nothing to say about that whatsoever. There's still as much evidence for your god as there is for the proverbial teapot in an inner Mars orbit, but there's no evidence against him either. And let's face it, he's a pretty useless god anyway. But science is quiet on the subject.

However, as soon as you say one thing that your god can do to interact with creation - as soon as you define god in one way that say, a cheese sandwich couldn't fulfill - then you have formed a hypothesis. And the thing about hypotheses is - they can be tested. So, say you inform me that no, your god is not a cheese sandwich. He is very different from a cheese sandwich, and he is different in this way: he answers prayers. I will turn to you and say "Great! Let's look into it." We will go off and collect some data, and lo and behold, it turns out that hey, it doesn't look like prayer cuts the mustard. Sorry, but science has given your 'god who answers prayers' hypothesis the big thumbs down. And it's the same for anything you might care to think of that lets god interact with the universe - anything that actually makes him a meaningful god. If god interacts with the universe, we have a hypothesis. If we have a hypothesis we can test it. For any meaningful god, science can, and will, be able to rule on its existence. So go on believing in god if you want to. Or, alternatively, go on assuring your religious friends that their viewpoint is just as valid - just don't tell them that science can't have a say on a question. Because unless you fancy having a god who doesn't have one attribute that couldn't be replicated in a cheese sandwich, science will be able to have a say on whether that god is real. And you probably won't like the answer.

(This goes double for agnostics. Come off that fence and stop saying there's no evidence either way. Unless you're willing to take the position that you'll believe science when it tells you the ether is not real, but if it tries to test the god hypothesis then you're going to put your hands over your ears and shout "la la la" very loudly. And you know that's a ridiculous position.)


heather said...

Spot on. I can think of a good few experiments to test the existence of a personal god.
Here's a simple, non-invasive, ethically neutral & kind to animals one.
Switch off your cold water tap and pray to God to switch it back on.

Ben D said...

I think the problem in practice is the inevitable replies of "God would not stoop to showing off his powers for your petty experiment!". For example the Bishop of Durham: "This is like setting an exam for God to see if God will pass it or not." The question then is why their god is so deceitful he feels the need to hide himself whenever anyone looks to see if he is there. It's strange how many theists seem to be happy with a frankly evil god who would condemn people to hell for not believing in him, and yet will only manifest his presence when it cannot actually be tested...

Anonymous said...

A bit too easy. Sure, the prayer experiment is a nice idea, but not thought through. If we are talking about a personal god, then we are talking about a person... This god is not like a natural law, so maybe some more psychological methods would be appropriate, I guess. :-)

David said...

Ups, didn't want to be anonymous. Here's my contact.

badger3k said...

Actually, according to an Infidel Guy show I recently heard, there is some guy who put out a book saying that the ether exists, and can be proven to exist. Of course, all those big-bangists are preventing anyone with a competing "theory" from being heard....

(yeah, the big bang is wrong, light is a wave, and a bunch more completely weird ideas)

Ben D said...

David - I'm not sure which prayer experiment you're talking about (the one I quoted or heather's), but they're not about ruling out God per se, just about ruling out a God who works in that particular way. Heather's, for example, rules out the existence of a God who answers every prayer made of him. Looking at the stats from heart bypass patients rules out a God who if you pray to him heals the sick. As long as people are not willing to define what their God can do there is of course no way you can test his existence (although there is also no way they can complain when you insist that in that case he is a cheese sandwich). As soon as they indicate one way he behaves in however, you can test whether that particular God exists, and that's what these prayer experiments do - rule out a god who behaves in that particular way.

badger3k - Dammit, you wait 100 years to use a scientific result in a rhetorical point, then some nutter puts out a book proving you wrong straight away :)

olvlzl said...

So, what is your research protocol to show that God does or doesn't exist, if it's so doable? You must have one if you can make such a categorical statement that it can be done and that those who say it cannot, including the eminent physicist and atheist Lawrence Krauss, by the way,

“The Earth isn’t 6,000 years old,” he said. “The Kennewick man was not a Umatilla Indian.” But whether there really is some kind of supernatural being - Dr. Krauss said he was a nonbeliever* - is a question unanswerable by theology, philosophy or even science. “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God,” Dr. Krauss insisted. “We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.”

I can guarantee you, Ben that if you can come up with the experiment that can answer this question once and for all, you will have made your name for all time.

How can you disprove the existence of a God who is held to be "Invisible, unknowable, indescribable, without beginning and without end"? I'll throw in almighty, since that is generally part of the formula too? Almighty would include the ability to overcome any logical barrier we might imagine and the ability to overcome paradoxes. Or it wouldn't be "almighty". And, just to make it even more interesting, there are several schools of Jewish and Islamic mysticism that holds that "God doesn't exist", while believing in God.

I'm not going to bother with the problems those "prayer studies" have except to say, did God sign a consent form and promise to not cheat and cure people in the control group? Did they make absolutely certain that no one in the world was praying for the controls?

Vigorous assertion isn't the same thing as rigorous investigation or reasoning.

olvlzl said...

Sorry, left out the end of this

if you can make such a categorical statement that it can be done and that those who say it cannot, including the eminent physicist and atheist Lawrence Krauss, by the way, should just shut up.

Ben D said...

olvlzl - I started replying in the comments but my reply reached a silly length, so I've taken the liberty of posting it as a new post here. I hope that's alright.

Aquinas Dad said...

I notice that you don't mention the Leslie Francis meta-study that shows that prayer does, in fact, seem to have an effect. You also don't mention the Byrd study (prayer has a positive effect on cardiac patients), or the Harris study (the largest double-blind study into the effects of prayer in the US - which also showed a positive result for prayer).

Nope - you just mention this one study. Why is that?

Ben D said...

to aquinas dad - because those studies are thoroughly discredited, perhaps?

The Byrd study claimed that the prayer group did better than the control in 6 categories, including ventrilatory assistance, antibiotics and diuretics. However significant differences were not found in the other 20 categories studied, including - significantly - mortality. Furthermore, Byrd ignored that the 6 categories he did pick were not independent, (e.g. developing pneumonia automatically means the patient will be given antibiotics) leaving them as three categories at the
most. So Byrd simply cherry-picked the (very few) categories that supported his argument and ignored the rest.

The Harris study attempted to replicate Byrd's findings, and claimed that remote, intercessory prayer was associated with lower CCU course scores. However what they achieved was to replicate his negative data, finding no statistically significant differences in length of CCU stay, total days hospitalized, or number of deaths, whilst failing to replicate his positive data, with regard to congestive heart failure, pneumonia, cardiopulmonary arrest, diuretic
therapy, antibiotics, and intubation/ventilation. To quote the study, using Byrd's "Good/Intermediate/Bad" scoring system to evaluate the data, Harris found "no significant difference between [the] groups." They then made up their own scoring system, and spun their study as supporting "Byrd's conclusions despite the fact that we could not document an effect of prayer using his scoring method."

Both these studies are classic examples of bad science. They assume the conclusion and then either cherry-pick (Byrd), or change the test (Harris) until they can find a way to support it.

There's a fuller discussion of this over at Skeptico if you're interested.

The only thing I can find on Leslie Francis and prayer is this:

The Rev Leslie Francis, professor of practical theology at the University of Wales, said two major studies, in 1988 (Byrd) and 1999 (Harris), had found that prayer had a beneficial effect.

Quoting two discredited studies does not a meta-study make, but I'm willing to believe I
just can't find the study you are talking about. Do you have a link?

Incidentally, the only meta-study I'm aware of that claims prayer works is Hodge (2007), which is debunked here.

Anonymous said...

I believe people believe in a God because we are Gods and someone convinced us that we weren't God. We believed a lie and yes God is visable in everything. God is everything we look at seen and unseen. God is everything crystalized.

Anonymous said...

athiesm is pointless, sorry but it is.You have nothing to achieve at the end of your life. Ok noOne does but at least some people think they do, you can also annoy tons of christians (Jehovah's witnesses :@) by being athiest!
The best plan is to just be a religion (you don't nessecarily have to believe in it) just in case it does exist, then u get a nice place in heaven or watever.


Anonymous said...

God obviously doesn't answer every prayer made to him, thats pretty obvious, so that makes those experiments kinda pointless.

YOU can't pick and choose with religion Chris, you can't get the apradise without all the rest of it.

Anonymous said...

Your worong, if science can prove whether god is all powerful or not you fail to take ito account one thing, if god is all powerfull the he has power over the experiment does he not, so it really doesn't work very well.

Anonymous said...

well that sucks.
and hes not a very good god if he doenst every prayer right?

Chris =P

Anonymous said...

If he answered every prayer, then there would be no disease, everyone would be rich and famous and have whatever they want. Ever seen Bruce almighty?

Anonymous said...

No disease, everyone happy?
wats wrong wid that?Chris

toaster106 said...

OK imagine this, your neighbour has a new car you really want.
No problem, you can pray for one just like it, or better still you can pray that its you car. But why stop thier, why not pray you neighbour doesn't exist and just take his car.

Anonymous said...

Imagine Hitler with the power to pray for anything he wants.

toaster106 said...

The world would descend inro chaos if everyone instantly got exactly what they wanted.