“I don’t believe in an interventionist God” *

October 28th, 2013 in clues. Tags: , , , , , , , ,

God does science

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.

Using statistics

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.

Read more

Does God intervene on earth these days?

* Blog title take from Into My Arms by Nick Cave. Picture: Wikipedia, with a little adjustment to Michelangelo’s original.

27 Comments

  1. Thanks for that link, I’d never seen that website before. I enjoyed many of his cartoons. The one on Nick Cave was obviously relevant, but did you see a point or humour in it as a cartoon on its own?

    I’m going to use one on my other blog. Thanks.

  2. It’s pretty surreal and I didn’t get the meaning of it initially, but it is still a memorable one. The author has stated that it was intended to start a discussion about an intervening God.

  3. According to the Bible, God intervened many times. As an example when King David impregnated Bathsheba, God’s Law for adultery was to kill the two of them . But instead God intervened and caused the innocent baby to die instead. In addition God intervened and selected someone close to King David to have sex with his wives in public to punish him for what he did in private.
    2 Samuel 12:11-15

    As a Deist, I’m not sure whether he intervenes or steps back with arms folded in today’s world.

    I think it all depends on who you ask. For every 24,000 people who believe God has intervened in a positive way in their lives, what do you say to the parents of 24,000 children dying of starvation on this planet every day. Or when Priests are destroying children’s lives with their sexual desires. Or when Ministers take advantage of young women whom they are counseling.

    I see athletes on TV giving God the glory when they win the World Series or the Superbowl. What about the sometimes equal amount of Christians on the opposing team praying for the same ?

    Yes there are plenty of articles and studies to support God’s intervention in today’s world. But they seem to leave out examples like the ones I gave here.

  4. Hi Ken, thanks for your comment.

    I think it is certainly true that if God intervenes, then he does it, or not, in ways we humans find hard to predict.

    I also think the Old Testament writers saw God’s hand in all sorts of things that we would find problematic (to say the least) today. We each have to decide how to interpret these.

  5. I was admitted to the emergency room of a local hospital last Friday with chest pains. Saturday they performed a Heart Cathe procedure where they found 90% blockage in one of my arteries. They were able to install a stent to open the blockage. Just a few hours later they had me walking the hallways where the nurse and I came upon a room where another patient had cardiac arrest and died. I see no logic in whom God would choose to spare or let die. I think the better scripture is ,”It rains on the just and unjust alike” . I will let others decide if I was the just or unjust. 🙂

  6. Ken, I’m glad it worked out for you!

    The fact that you or I can “see no logic” in some things God does (or is assumed to have done) should not be too surprising! 🙂

  7. Or maybe this lends support to the idea that God does not intervene . Maybe he receives credit or blame for things that “just happen”

  8. Yes unkleE, we already discussed the Lourdes examples . As I pointed out before , “CMIL is not entitled to pronounce a cure “miraculous”; this can only be done by the Church. The bureau may only pronounce that a cure is “medically inexplicable”. A full investigation takes a minimum of five years (in order to ensure that the cure is permanent), and may take as long as ten or twelve years. It is recognised that, in rare cases, even advanced malignant disease or severe infection may spontaneously resolve.
    The CMIL board votes on each case presented. A two-thirds vote is required for CMIL to pronounce a cure “inexplicable”.
    If CMIL decides a cure is medically inexplicable, the case is referred to the Bishop of the diocese where the cured subject lives. It is he who, in consultation with his own experts and with the Vatican, makes the decision about whether a cure is “miraculous”. He may, for whatever reason, refute the claim.”

    Why would only a two-thirds vote be required ? If it were truly a miracle, I would think this would be apparent to 100% of those on the committee.

    HBO filmed a documentary called, “A Question of Miracles” back in 2000 (I think). If you haven’t watched this, here is the link. http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/question-of-miracles-faith-healing/

    I think they were very fair but as you will see , ALL miracles in the documentary were proven false.

    People in general want to believe in miracles just like we all wanted to believe in Santa Claus when we were young children. Since I was active in the Christian Religion for a very long time, I heard and witnessed numerous claims of miracles. Non were ever verified to be true. I personally knew several terminally ill people who were convinced God had healed them only to die weeks or months later.

    Miracles are what we call events which can’t be explained and God gets the credit. When miracles don’t happen we simply say it wasn’t “God’s will”.

    I do think that believing in miracles can be a good placebo. I don’t think medical help should be replaced by this belief however.

  9. My former pastor used to caution visiting missionaries about telling miracle stories in his church. Being a former missionary himself, he knew these stories were used to inspire the congregation when it was time to pass the offering plate. He admitted that too many of these stories were fabricated just for this reason.

  10. 5 of these 10 miracles were people who went to a very questionable faith healer. All 10 were reviewed by a Doctor who was a follower of this faith healer.

    Let’s assume they are all verifiable miracles. All this shows me is that there is a sick deity who likes to play games with his creation. To heal 1 person for every 1 million who die is not the sign of a loving and caring God.

    What good comes from these supposed miracles ? I don’t see miracles having a lasting effect on the multitudes who hear about them. What type of miracles would have a profound effect on the masses ? 1.) Eliminating starvation in 3rd world countries.
    2.) Eliminating life threatening diseases

    Either one of these would get my attention.

  11. It seems as though Christians in general want to believe in miracles in order to prove there is a God. Creation proves to me there is a Creator. I have created things over my lifetime. I don’t try to tinker with my creations however nor do I believe a Deity does either.

  12. Hi Ken, it seems we have very different views on this. I wonder if you could clarify a couple of things please?

    “5 of these 10 miracles were people who went to a very questionable faith healer. All 10 were reviewed by a Doctor who was a follower of this faith healer.”
    Does this mean you disbelieve the accounts, and/or disbelieve it when the doctor says these are generally conditions in which spontaneous remissions don’t occur?

    “To heal 1 person for every 1 million who die is not the sign of a loving and caring God.”
    So would you say that a deistic God (who doesn’t heal anyone) is even more “sick” than the christian God (who at least heals some)?

    Yes I have seen that study – I wrote about it, and about 20 other such studies, in Can prayer assist healing? and Intercessory prayer and healing.

  13. I would (and do) have more respect for a God who set the wheels in motion and left the rest up to us. Then everything makes a lot more sense.

    Why on earth would we want to respect (and according to the Christian Bible, worship) a God who plays “Hide and Seek” with the people he supposedly created in his image ? The Christian God also plays favorites and he chooses who to heal. These are characteristics that most people try not to emulate . I tried my best to raise my 2 daughters with the thought I loved them equally. I also made sure they knew I was always available for them. If I am created in “God’s Image” , why is he so different than me, in a bad way ???? Everything I try to be in a human being , a friend, a father, etc., is just the polar opposite of the many stories of the God of the Bible.

    Again, if miracles really do exist, I think they do more harm than good.
    You have yet to tell me why I should believe in miracles ? Tell me how miracles effect 7 billion people on this planet in a positive way ? I can think of a lot of people who feel God has left them out of the miracle process and that they must have done something bad because they didn’t get theirs.

    Ben Franklin used to draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper. He would write the positive attributes of something on one side and the negatives on the other. In this case, I would think the negatives would win.

  14. Hi Ken,

    I can understand that you might feel disappointed with some aspects of the world, and might expect God to behave differently. I sometimes feel the same.

    But I can’t see how it helps us understand truth to write off evidence of God’s intervention because you don’t think he intervenes enough. I think it is best to consider all the evidence, for and against.

    “You have yet to tell me why I should believe in miracles ?”
    I don’t think you “should” believe in miracles or disbelieve in them. I think you “should” apportion belief to the evidence. And there is good evidence of a number of unusual recoveries from sickness – sufficient to suggest that God may have miraculously healed. “May” is all I would hope any fair-minded person would conclude. And if you hang around, I’ll be posting some more evidence in a few weeks.

    “Tell me how miracles effect 7 billion people on this planet in a positive way ?”
    An estimated 300 million people claim to have seen or experienced a miracle. That’s quite a lot of positive effect!

    Thanks for your interest and comments.

  15. “An estimated 300 million people claim to have seen or experienced a miracle. That’s quite a lot of positive effect!”

    I thought the “Christian God” was God for all 7 billion ? According to your statistics He hasn’t even effected 5% !! Pretty low numbers if you ask me.

    I acknowledge there are physical recoveries we can’t explain. 100 years ago there were many more. 100 years from now there will be less.

    I think my idea makes more sense that we are here to make it on our own than to believe a highly selective God does nice things when he feels like it and folds his arms and watches when he doesn’t.

    Looking at the evidence I think you would have to admit man seems to be a lot more compassionate than the Christian God. God may have provided miracles or evidence of to 300,000,000 people , but man consistently heals through medical science many times more each year.

    I’m not doubting the medically unexplained. What I am saying is like science has consistently done over the years , it will eventually be able to explain the 10 miracles you have provided here.

    As science discovered the female egg along with the man’s sperm created an embryo (the Catholic Church didn’t like that) science will continue to explain “miracles”

    Thank you for letting me share my thoughts.

  16. I was seriously sick 2 weeks ago. I had 90% blockage of an artery. No, I did not pray. I was quite at peace with myself. I knew everything medically possible was being done to bring me back to good health. So you see, as I have stated before, I believe we all possess a “Divine Spark” . It’s up to us to use it or lose it. I did everything I could and the hospital staff did everything they could.
    That’s all I could expect or hope for. Of course this was quite the opposite of the way I used to think. During my Christian walk, I would have had ministers , church members, and believing family members to pray for me. And after the procedure, we would all have to formulate our stories depending on the outcome. Either God intervened and healed me or it wasn’t God’s will for me to survive. Today, I don’t have to worry about what story to tell. My outcome is what it is and I am OK either way. It’s quite refreshing actually.

  17. I guess then one reason why only a small percentage ever receive divine healing is because many people are like you and wouldn’t ask. Of course not all who ask for healing get it, but the evidence suggests many do.

    I fee sorry that you would cut yourself off from considering that evidence, but my “job” isn’t to argue about it but to point to the evidence and let people decide for themselves.

  18. Please don’t feel sorry for me. I would much rather put my life in the hands of medical professionals whose sole purpose is to say my life than to “roll the dice” with a christian God who plays hide and seek, remains mysterious, and picks and chooses who he wants to heal.

    In closing, I envision a God / creator who set the universe in motion, placing a divine spark in all of us, looking down on situations like my medical problem of 2 weeks ago and saying to me and the medical staff who saved me, “Well done thy good and faithful servants, you used all the tools available to you and made your own miracle”

  19. You must admit unkleE, you have to do a lot of mind bending and twisting to believe what you believe. I don’t 🙂

  20. “You must admit unkleE, you have to do a lot of mind bending and twisting to believe what you believe. I don’t “

    No Ken, I just accept the evidence for what it is. It seems that would require “a lot of mind bending and twisting” for you but it doesn’t for me. Thanks for the discussion.

  21. It’s interesting how what you consider evidence billions of others do not.

    But then again your religion tells you , you are special and chosen. And it teaches you how to rationalize everything. Hmmm.

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