Response to: The Idea of God Has One Major Flaw
I recently read Ella Alderson’s article entitled “The Idea of God Has One Major Flaw.”
What I found in Ella’s article was genuine thoughtfulness, and what I’ll call ‘unarguability.’ While her specific points can be argued (just see the comments), she makes her statements for what she authentically believes, thinks, and feels. Such expressions of personal conviction cannot be argued.
This type of expression allows for open thought and dialogue. She is not immediately criticizing or condemning a whole group of people. She is explaining things as she knows them.
In this reply, I will share some thoughts which you may or may not agree with. However, I also hope to share ‘unarguably’ what I truly think and believe.
Scientist and Religionist
By training, I am a PhD chemist.
By upbringing and by choice, I am a dedicated member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As a scientist, I have been trained in the pursuit of rational, logical thought.
As a person of faith, I feel I have learned at least a little about the divine.
After reading Ms. Alderson’s article, I felt I should share some of my thoughts related to God, science, and the search for truth.
The article helped me consider deeply the importance of falsifiability in the rational search for truth. It also brought to mind my personal search for God, and the experiments I have done to learn of his existence.
Ms. Alderson’s main point was that for those who believe in God, it becomes impossible to disprove his existence. Once you believe in an all-powerful being, it becomes hard to explain him away with a simple observation. This becomes the religious “maze whose only entries and exits close once someone has entered inside.” This is the ‘one flaw’ that makes the idea of God unacceptable.
I cannot refute that for a believer in an all-powerful divine, there is always a way to keep God intact. With an omnipotent, omniscient being, there’s always a viable hypothesis to support faith. In this sense, falsifying God with mortal, fallible observations becomes nearly impossible.
As a result, inquiry into God and his nature has long been separated from scientific inquiry. Admittedly, there are aspects of modern scientific interrogation that are less useful in understanding God. However, I firmly believe that the existence and nature of God can be discerned using the basic principles that help us understand all truth, scientific or otherwise.
But first, a re-visit to falsifiability.
Falsifiability is considered by many as a mainstay in scientific inquiry. While the philosophical need for falsifiability has been debated in modern times, it nevertheless has a strong hold in scientific philosophy.
The beauty of a falsifiable statement in scientific inquiry is that it is based on finding solid, empirical evidence to support or disprove a hypothesis.
However, there are several nuances to the concept of falsifiability. One of them is that you have to be sure to ask the right question.
“There are no purple cats,” is a falsifiable statement. We have to find only one example of a purple cat to disprove the statement.
“There has been a purple cat on earth,” is a related statement. However, it is not falsifiable since it would take an exhaustive search of all cats past and present to falsify this statement. There may have been a single mutant purple cat in the wilds of Borneo in the 1600s, but it cannot be found now.
For those who hypothesize in the existence of purple cats, it only takes one demonstrable instance of a purple cat to prove that they exist. Absent an example, it is nearly impossible to rule out the hypothesis.
For the believers in the purple cat hypothesis, it can be a life-long quest to find the theoretical framework upon which to build the hypothesis and then to search for how to make it happen.
Could a search for a purple cat become a lifelong maze? Perhaps so. But let’s consider some related scientific searches.
The Quest for Life on Mars
The quest to find life on Mars is based on the evidence that Mars has, or has had in the past, some of the basic elements essential to life on earth — chiefly liquid water and carbon-based compounds.
The hypothesis “There is no life on Mars” can be deliberately falsified by finding one example of life on Mars. It could also be satisfied by finding a preponderance of evidence that life had existed at one time on Mars.
The hypothesis “There has been life on Mars at some point,” could be considered non-falsifiable. Given our current understanding, it would be hard to rule out the existence of life at some point in Mars’ history. Even if evidence of life is never found by our Mars rovers, hypothetical questions will still remain.
What if we dug deeper in the soil?
What if we explored another location?
What if we sent better equipment?
What if we sent human explorers to Mars?
Perhaps to some, this is another multi-lifetime maze of inquiry. While it may not be quite the same as the religious maze, it nevertheless could be considered a scientific trap.
So why would most of us classify this endeavor of non-falsifiable discovery as a scientific pursuit?
It helps that the overall process does not depend on one main experiment that can prove or disprove the existence of life on Mars. Instead, the search is broken down into specific, answerable sub-questions that can provide increasing evidence for or against life on Mars.
For example, we can ask and find evidence for:
Did liquid water once exist and create features in Mars’ landscape? (We can test and falsify the statement that there are no water-carved features on Mars)
Does water exist on the surface of Mars? (We can test and falsify the statement that no water exists on Mars)
Are there changes in carbon-based chemical levels in the atmosphere? (We can test and falsify the statement that methane levels remain static in the atmosphere)
Each of these are questions that can be tested and answered. As each answer is affirmed, the existence of life on Mars is not proven, but the conditions that would suggest there is life on Mars become more convincing.
And so the search continues.
A Bayesian Approach
This approach of gathering increasing evidence leading to prove a point makes sense intuitively. From a scientific sense, it is referred to as Bayesian Confirmation Theory. In recent years, this philosophy has gained traction over falsifiability as the leading philosophy in scientific endeavor.
As Massimo Fuggetta explains:
…certainty does not need conclusive evidence. The accumulation of inconclusive, albeit consistently confirmative…or disconfirmative…evidence can lead posterior probabilities to converge towards one of the two boundaries of the probability spectrum. Convergence is in the limit: we cannot be absolutely sure that the sun will rise tomorrow, but our accumulated experience is a de facto Smoking Gun — that’s why we don’t worry about sunrise.
In other words, while we can prove that the sun rose today, it is hard to generate conclusive evidence that the sun will rise tomorrow. However, after millions of observations of sunrise, we can feel fairly comfortable with expecting a morning sunrise.
In general, the search for conclusive evidence of the existence of a proposed idea whether it be purple cats, life on Mars, supersymmetry, or string theory relies on the accumulation of evidence that encourages continued investigation.
With convincing evidence in tow, we can began to feel more certain about a conclusion. With enough evidence, we can say we are certain — even state that we ‘know.’
Does this methodology apply to God?
The Search for Evidence
Before we return to a search for God and the divine, let me divert for a moment to consider a few different ways we can conduct scientific inquiry. For our purposes here, I will divide scientific evidence into 3 categories. Each category has its own unique way of testing falsifiable hypotheses.
Category 1: Physical, demonstrable evidence.
This is the most familiar evidence that scientists seek. It is the ‘hard knowledge’ of the ‘hard sciences.’ We can take pictures of the evidence and repeat the experiments on demand. Data tables are compiled and re-compiled. Calculations are made and re-made. Each falsifiable statement can be tested.
As scientists, we love this kind of evidence because you can capture it, document it, and repeat it again and again.
You may need special skills, equipment, and conditions to reproduce a particular experiment, but if you put in the right effort, you’ll get the same result.
- The apple falls perpendicularly from the tree.
- Metal sodium and liquid water react.
- The wavelength of light coming from galaxy GN-z11 is red-shifted.
- The frequency of radiation in the transition between the hyperfine states of cesium is 9192631770 Hz.
These are repeatable, demonstrable, consistent results. Each conclusion is falsifiable by someone else.
Category 2: Probabilities and population surveys
This type of investigation is more familiar to the medical, biological, and what is sometime referred to as the ‘softer’ sciences. This is the type of investigation where an individual data point is not reproducible, but a summary or survey of many data points leads to the same conclusion.
For example, when inquiring whether a vaccine is effective at preventing disease, a single injection into a single person would generate a demonstrable result. However, after executing the experiment once, it is impossible to repeat the same experiment again. The same person cannot be un-vaccinated and then re-vaccinated. If you try to repeat in a different person, you may get a different result.
Instead, a sub-population of people must be vaccinated and then the sub-population results can be statistically averaged to generate a probabilistic result for the entire population. Recommendations can then be made based on the population probabilities.
Other examples of this type of investigation include:
- Clinical trials for drug efficacy
- Psychological studies on attitude and personal performance
- Analyses of the impact of diet on cardiovascular health
While each individual data point in these studies cannot be replicated, the sum of probabilistic and statistical evidence can be repeated. The results can be falsified, although it usually takes careful accounting of experimental conditions (and usually a larger number of subjects) to either repeat or falsify a result.
Interestingly, most people unwittingly use this type of science in their own lives, if in a somewhat informal and non-quantitative manner.
Do you want to know whether someone loves you or not? One individual action usually does not define a relationship accurately. It is often impossible to repeat the conditions of a single social experiment. Instead, it takes multiple interactions, or ‘experiments,’ over time.
Thus, if I want to falsify the statement “My wife hates me” I cannot pick just one example of how my wife is acting on a bad day. I need a continuous statistical assortment of examples to show that she spends time with me, speaks caring words, and acts in a caring way.
With such evidence, I can conclude (albeit non-mathematically) that she does indeed love me.
Category 3: The personal experiment
This category of experiment is fairly easy to execute, but difficult to share with others. It is personal experimentation generating results of individual perception.
Examples of this category include:
- When I get less than 6 hours of sleep, I get a headache.
- Tensing my muscles this way gives me pain.
- Cilantro tastes good.
- Classical music helps me relax.
Sometimes these experiments are more like the Category 1 variety — we always get the same result. Some are of the Category 2 variety — we get a statistical probability of a result happening. Either way, we’re the only one that can perceive the results.
While we can communicate and explain the results of our experiments to others, others cannot repeat the experiment on their own and get my result.
I can eat cilantro and love the taste. My kids can eat it and hate it. Other than my verbal explanations, I cannot replicate to them how good cilantro tastes to me.
While I can falsify my own hypotheses to myself, others cannot falsify them for me. Perhaps in one sense, this may not be considered truly scientific, since I cannot use my personal perceptions to increase the body of knowledge in the world.
However, as an individual, this is an imperative path of knowledge. It is the only way that I can learn about my own happiness and well being.
The Expert and Trust
An important point to mention with each of these types of experiments, is that even when experiments are repeatable or verifiable (Category 1 or 2), most of us don’t have the time, experience, or ability to repeat or verify all of the findings.
Although not frequently mentioned, our modern scientific system of inquiry relies on a key ingredient — trust.
Imagine each generation having to repeat every physics, chemistry, and biology experiment before they would trust previously generated results.
While I won’t dive into a dissertation on trust, I will suggest that some level of trust is required in any scientific or knowledge-based pursuit. We derive this trust from consistent trustworthy behavior, some limited verification, and a measure of goodwill that most human beings are not out to deceive us.
Trust also comes from observing that the experts we trust are using the same tools and techniques that we have personally tested and verified. There are few physicists who would accept an authority who eschewed mathematics and instead relied on his own imagination to generate physical results.
Thus, our trust in others comes as we execute experiments in Categories 1, 2, and 3, and learn which experts we think we should believe in and trust.
My Approach to God and Truth
How does this apply to the search for God? I’ll explain from my own personal point of few.
My search to understand God came from initial exposure to thoughts and ideas from experts. For my younger self, these experts were my parents, my religious leaders, and the writings of past thinkers and believers.
As a younger person, I trusted what was close to me — typically who my parents trusted and what those around me said. As I grew older, I learned that I had to understand and verify my sources for myself. I had to conduct my own experiments.
I ultimately learned that I could come up with my own falsifiable hypotheses. I could run my own experiments and observe the results.
In true Bayesian fashion, I have assembled these results, experiment upon experiment, into a line of evidence that points me to God.
What are these experiments? As you might already suspect, these experiments are primarily in the realm of Category 3 — personal experimentation and personal experience.
Interestingly, God has left the exploration of the divine as primarily a personal concern (a great topic to explore in depth some more, but that will have to be in another article). Despite being in Category 3, I have found that each of the experiments I have run are repeatable and falsifiable for me.
In a quiet, subdued setting, ask God — out loud, or in your mind — if there is a God. And if he is there, will he tell you something you need to know or something you should be doing to be a better person?
This type of experiment has to be done with a true openness and humility. Not expecting a certain outcome, but a willingness to listen to an outcome if it should come.
Ask God, if there is a God, to let you know that you are loved.
This also requires an openness and humility. No need to expect a certain outcome — but be willing to accept the outcome that comes.
Ask God, if there is a God, if there is someone that needs your help today or what you might do to help someone. With a stilled mind, listen for particular answers. Then do them. Repeat.
This experiment cannot be conducted accurately without a willingness to do what you feel prompted to do.
Once you feel there is a God, ask about a particular truth you want to know about. Ask if a certain text, teaching, or philosophy is correct. You may want to inquire about this text, for instance. Ask for increased understanding, light, and wisdom.
As before, this experiment requires openness and humility. No need to expect a certain outcome — but be willing to accept the outcome that comes.
Each of these experiments is set up to falsify the idea “There is no God” or “God does not listen to my prayers” or “There is no guiding force or wisdom in the universe.”
For me the consistent, repetitive answers are the small assurances that have led me to believe in God, believe that he is, that is the creator of the universe, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
The experiments above, as well as others like them, have led me to trust in experts who have learned truths on their own and wish to share them with me.
The consistency of the answers, and the consistency of the way the answers add light, love, and truth to my life, keep me pursuing additional light and knowledge. My Bayesian priors increase my probability of certainty.
This has led me to be comfortable saying “I know there is a God.”
You, my dear reader, may not share my same sentiments. Perhaps you have no interest in these experiments. They may not seem worthwhile. Or perhaps you’ve tried them and have had failing results.
Unfortunately, I cannot get in your head to tell you whether you set up your experimental apparatus correctly, or have the correct parameters tuned in. I can only hope that as I best describe how I have set up my experiments, and how I have seen others set up their experiments, you might see how to best set up your own.
Ultimately, whatever experiments you decide to conduct — or not conduct — I hope we can give each other grace and understanding as we continue to search for purpose, meaning, and understanding in life.
However, whether you’re a converted disciple, a doubting believer, a wondering agnostic, or a convinced atheist, I hope you’ll give these experiments a try. Your efforts just might lift you out of life’s maze to see a greater, grander view of yourself, the universe, and God.