David Sloane Wilson has long been a critic of Richard Dawkins for having unscientific views about religion (and other things). He criticised him again in When Richard Dawkins Is Not An Evolutionist, but it is another of his comments I am more interested in.
One of the things Wilson says he and Dawkins agree on is this:
The concept of an actively intervening agent is a testable hypothesis that has been rejected again and again
Is this a reasonable statement?
Science and testing hypotheses
Science generally deals in the repeatable. “Reproducibility …. is one of the main principles of the scientific method ….” (Wikipedia). Experiments which repeatedly give the same, or similar, results can be used to verify the predictions of hypotheses within certain statistical limits.
The scientific method isn’t so good at analysing one-off events, because the event is not repeatable. Personal choices are also difficult to predict because each one is in a sense unique to that person and that situation. But there are ways around this problem:
Observing the effects of events
The effects of the event may continue on afterwards, and they may be repeatably observed and measured. Thus the early stages of the big bang and of the evolution of life occurred only once and cannot be observed. But each series of events has outcomes that can be measured today and used to test the predictions made by hypotheses.
While personal choices cannot be easily predicted individually, the choices of large groups of people can be more easily predicted statistically. Thus opinion polling can estimate voting patterns reasonably reliably.
Scientific hypotheses and God
If God exists, he is an individual whose behaviour is difficult for us to predict or observe, and his actions are unlikely to be repeatable in the same way that gravity is. It is therefore doubtful that the behaviour of an interventionist God (an actively intervening agent) can be tested by repeatable observations.
So when Wilson claims the intervention of God in the world is a hypothesis that can be tested, I would be interested to know the experimental design he thinks allows this testing. It seems this cannot be done by the classical scientific method of repeated observations.
Science is not the only way of knowing
There are many things that are known by means other than science, for example:
- Science can tell us what parts of our brain are active when we taste chocolate, fall in love, see the colour green or have a toothache, but it cannot say how it feels to have those experiences. Computers don’t know how those things feel, but we know them by experience.
- Criminal trials are often decided by personal testimony, often what the witness saw or heard. Generally this testimony cannot be scientifically verified.
- While sciences like archaeology and anthropology are useful in the study of history, historical knowledge is also generally based on personal testimony of eye witnesses, reporters or biographers in documents some time after the event.
Can the existence of an interventionist God be tested?
It seems to me that if we want to test whether God intervenes in the world, it will have to be done using approaches outlined already:
- testimony based on personal experience,
- observing the effects of events, and
- using statistics.
Is there evidence that God intervenes?
There certainly are many reports or testimonies, based on personal experience or observation, that God has intervened. For example, I have gathered a few typical cases in Does God intervene on earth these days? These reports, and many others like them, meet the criteria I have just suggested:
- They include testimony of those who claim to have experienced God directly and the reports of eye witnesses, and doctors who noted before and after medical evidence of apparent miracles. (It has been estimated that 300 million people worldwide claim to have experienced or observed a miracle after prayer to the christian God.)
- The action of God cannot be directly observed, but may be inferred from the observed outcomes.
- The evidence can be assessed statistically, to show that (arguably) the hypothesis that God intervened in some of these cases is more probable than that every case has a natural explanation.
Evaluating the evidence
This is a more personal matter. Those who believe it is impossible that God exists will bring that conclusion to the evaluation of the evidence, and presumably conclude that every one of the reports has a natural explanation. Some christian believers may tend to accept all of the reports as genuine, regardless of the quality of the evidence.
But there will be some who are open-minded about the possibility of God intervening, and for these, the evidence may be convincing.
Note that this evidence isn’t testable by repeated observation. God, as a personal agent, may to may not choose to intervene – the evidence suggests that observable intervention is a relatively rare occurrence. But the evidence (arguably) also suggests that God occasionally intervenes in dramatic ways.
* Blog title take from Into My Arms by Nick Cave. Picture: Wikipedia, with a little adjustment to Michelangelo’s original.