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Is God As Real As Gravity?

Guest Post by Lifewish (for winning the JanieBarf Office Pool)

In several threads on this blog, we’ve had considerable discussion of what makes a good scientific hypothesis. There are a couple of primary criteria – falsifiability and parsimony. Then there are a bunch of useful guidelines – “gremlins probably didn’t do it”, “anyone who claims to be better than Einstein is a crank”, and so on. What we haven’t really looked at is why this should be the case. The answer raises some interesting questions about our other, more philosophical beliefs.

In short, we apply these criteria because they’re useful to us. Following these rules efficiently produces a body of knowledge that’s as large and accurate as it can be, which we can then use to create computers or clothing or chocolate. And when we see a datum or an hypothesis or a model that is useful for increasing our knowledge, and hence our standard of living, we say it’s a fact. Gravity, in this sense, is a fact.

God is not a fact. In countless studies, no-one has ever shown the slightest positive response to double-blind-tested prayer. We can find no direct evidence for the present or past existence of this apparently elusive entity. God accumulates anecdotal evidence and hearsay like a hiker accumulates goosegrass, but none of it holds up under scrutiny. God is not a useful addition to our models.

Or is He?

Certainly people get use out of belief in God. Conmen, televangelists and politicians all get very rich taking advantage of the unearned trust of the faithful… More seriously, believing in God can be directly useful to an individual, providing drive, reassurance and hope.

I was recently watching a documentary focused on Patrick Henry College, an institution full of very scary evangelicals with a penchant for messing with politics. On this show, the students were using their faith in God and the sense of community it gave them to motivate their pre-election door-knocking. They were using their trust in Him to remove mental blocks – they genuinely believed that He would not confront them with any problem they weren’t up to handling. To quote Carmine Falcone from Batman Begins: that’s the sort of power you can’t buy.

So is God a useful assumption? I’d argue that, at least in certain circumstances, belief in God can be an extremely powerful mental tool. And thus, if our approach to science is purely utilitarian, it’s hard to argue that God should be kept out regardless.

But does that mean that God is as real as Gravity? That’s a question I’ll leave to you.

Filed under: Corporal Kate, Friends, Guest Post, Humor, Religion, Science

22 Responses

  1. Completely unedited as promised.

    Enjoy.

    Kate

  2. Zachriel says:

    Lifewish: “So is God a useful assumption? I’d argue that, at least in certain circumstances, belief in God can be an extremely powerful mental tool. And thus, if our approach to science is purely utilitarian, it’s hard to argue that God should be kept out regardless.

    Just keep your science separate from your religion and your conundrum disappears. There is no valid scientific evidence of God’s existence. But there is no valid scientific evidence that God does not exist. It is not generally a valid scientific issue. (However, the study of religion, the manifestation of a belief in God in human culture, can be a valid scientific endeavor.)

  3. Lifewish says:

    Just keep your science separate from your religion and your conundrum disappears.

    But that’s the entire point – if we take a purely utilitarian approach to science, the distinction becomes completely artificial. I agree completely with your conclusion, but I’ve been having trouble figuring out a way in which that position is philosophically valid.

    I do have a few ideas on that front, enough that I’m not gonna run out and join a megachurch, but I figured it’d be more fun to put the cat among the pigeons >:)

  4. Zachriel says:

    Lifewish: “But that’s the entire point – if we take a purely utilitarian approach to science, the distinction becomes completely artificial.

    Utilitarian, of course. We use the tool appropriate to the task. But no more artificial than using aesthetics to judge art, ethics to judge modes of conduct, plumbing (we know which way it flows) to fix sinks, or natural philosophy (science) to develop workable theories about the natural world.

    In order to be a valid scientific hypothesis, it must make predictions of empirical phenomena. But all scientific conclusions are considered tentative and subject to revision in the light of new evidence.

    The philosophical question is easy then. Just attach “scientific” (explicitly or implicitly) to assertions. “The Earth moves” is a scientific assertion. It is a tentative conclusion based on empirical observations. As with all scientific assertions, new observations might cause us to change our conclusions.

    But there are many valid statements that are outside the purview of science.

    Beauty is Truth

  5. DaveScot says:

    Conmen, televangelists and politicians all get very rich taking advantage of the unearned trust of the faithful…

    Far more people get far richer hitting, kicking, throwing, and catching small round objects for no practical reason whatsoever except that people pay to watch them do it. If the peddlers of religion at least give hope and inspiration in return for the rube’s sheckles I fail to see why they should be seen as something less savory than pro ball players.

  6. DaveScot says:

    Gravity is only real as our perception. What if our perception is flawed?

    Here’s another “fact” as good as gravity. Everything has a cause. What caused the universe?

  7. JanieBelle says:

    an orgasm… “and it was good”.

    😉

    Ok, I’ll go back to working on the blog now…

  8. Anonymous says:

    What caused the universe?

    The Intelligent Designer. Case closed, everyone can go home now. Lock the door to thread. Nothing to see here.

    signed,

    #6

  9. keiths says:

    While it’s true that a belief in God has benefits, it also has costs which are usually underestimated. For most of the gods on the market, the price of believing includes lowering your standards for truth, making you vulnerable to a host of dubious ideas. I would argue that the costs outweigh the benefits.

    As a former Christian, I’m well acquainted with the comfort that a belief in God provides. When I learned enough to realize that the comfort was bogus, I abandoned it. I could no more go back to believing now, simply for the sake of comfort, than I could go back to believing in the Easter Bunny.

    DaveScot wrote: “Far more people get far richer hitting, kicking, throwing, and catching small round objects for no practical reason whatsoever except that people pay to watch them do it. If the peddlers of religion at least give hope and inspiration in return for the rube’s sheckles I fail to see why they should be seen as something less savory than pro ball players.”

    The difference is that the ball players are paid to play ball, and they deliver. The televangelists are paid to intercede with God, or to heal, and they fail.

    DaveScot again: “Gravity is only real as our perception. What if our perception is flawed?”

    Our perception is flawed. We’re subject to optical, auditory, tactile, and even cognitive illusions. These fool us only temporarily because we are able to cross-check against other senses and faculties in order to determine what is “real”.

    The larger question is whether all of our senses can be systematically fooled over time to create a permanent illusory sense of reality. Descartes’ “evil demon” was invented for this very reason. The “brain in a vat” is the modern version.

    Regarding gravity, Juan Maldacena’s recent work suggests that our perceived three-dimensional world containing gravity is mathematically equivalent to a two-dimensional world (in a particular kind of space) in which gravity is entirely absent. If true, then gravity is in some sense an illusion, but an essential illusion given that our brains have already “chosen” to model space as three-dimensional.

  10. Lifewish says:

    Here’s another “fact” as good as gravity. Everything has a cause. What caused the universe?

    This is, of course, why science spends so much time trying to find exceptions to rules like this. Because if everything has a cause, then the cause of everything must have a cause, so there must be an infinite chain thereof (excluding odd time travel situations). Saying “Goddidit” just puts the problem at one remove.

    In which case, as Terry Pratchett pointed out, we’re faced with the question of whether “it’s causes all the way back” is any better than primitive superstitions like “it’s turtles all the way down”.

    The same problem arises with claims that God is the source of things like morality, intelligence and life (for a sufficiently broad definition of life).

    The difference is that the ball players are paid to play ball, and they deliver.

    Dude, have you been watching baseball at all lately??? 🙂

  11. DaveScot says:

    You misunderstand perception. Everything comes to us through our senses. Reality is only as real, and only as much, as our senses tell us. Of course science is based on objectivism but that’s a philosophy not a fact. The fact is we could be living in The Matrix with our senses being fed data from a model. Actually we don’t even perceive reality. We experience a model of reality that we hold in our minds. The model is created and continually informed by our senses. There is of trite expression about this:

    If a tree falls in the forest and on one hears it, did it really make a sound?

    Philosophy of Objectivism says yes what that of subjectivism says no.

    Then there’s old Schroedinger’s Cat that illustrates the quantum mechanical concept that reality is just probability waves until an observer comes along to collapse the wave into a definitive outcome. Some religious types say that God observes everthing and thus creates reality everywhere.

    The televangelists are paid to intercede with God, or to heal, and they fail.

    You’re just making stuff up and you made up something that is false. First of all, I don’t recall anyone restricting this to televangelists and there are very few of them that are “rich”. Even so, they don’t fail to deliver in the eyes of the sheep. Any reasonable prayer can be fulfilled by serendipity. We can pray that a loved one recovers from an illness or injury and many times they will indeed recover. Subjective perception is everything. I’d also point out that the placebo effect is real so if the rube really believes he’s getting help with his illness then he is indeed more likely to recover.

    Pro ball players deliver? I wouldn’t give you a plugged nickel for most of what they deliver. The Dog Whisperer is more entertaining than pro ball games, he’s doing something practical, and he doesn’t take drugs or have sex with underage groupies off camera. Again, perception is everything.

  12. JanieBelle says:

    I’ve pretty much avoided commenting in this thread, it’s Lifewish’s and it didn’t seem right for me to interject my two cents.

    However, This PZ Meyers rant seems appropriate to the topic.

    Does the “PZ” stand for “Phreakin’ Zealot”, by any chance?

  13. Anonymous says:

    DaveScot says:

    Pro ball players deliver? I wouldn’t give you a plugged nickel for most of what they deliver. The Dog Whisperer is more entertaining than pro ball games, he’s doing something practical, and he doesn’t take drugs or have sex with underage groupies off camera. Again, perception is everything.

    Wow. Talk about making things up. Correct me if I’m wrong, but did you just claim that ALL ball players are pedophiliacs? And drug-addicts? I think you did.

    Reality is only as real, and only as much, as our senses tell us.

    Stop it. You’re putting us on, right? Isn’t it supposed to be the evilutionist, leftist, liberals who deal in subjectivism? Tell me this isn’t the same lame argument along the lines of “God just made the world look like it was 3 billion years old, but really it’s 6,000 years old.”

    Either way, which assumption gives us the results? If you have a grand new scheme of practical science based completely on the principles of subjectivism, let me know. Until then, I think I’ll stick with objective truths.

    Thanks though, for looking out for my well-being. That is, if you’re in shouting distance, otherwise I guess I’m on my own.

    signed,

    #6

  14. Lifewish says:

    Janie: please do comment as much as you like on this thread. I’m too busy playing both sides against the middle here to generate the requisite amount of sass – that’s your job 🙂

    Dave said: Some religious types say that God observes everthing and thus creates reality everywhere.

    I studied quantum mechanics as part of my degree, so I feel the urge to pontificate: in my opinion, quantum theory is a strong argument against an omniscient God.

    See, when two quantum objects (such as a human being and a photon) pass through the same space, there’s a chance they’ll interact and “collapse” each other. From the perspective of each object, the other briefly coalesces as a point particle before slowly fuzzing out again into a more wavelike form. It’s been “detected” or “observed”, and in the process has been squished into the location at which it was observed.

    Now, imagine there was some entity (God, for example) who was able to continually observe the objects. That would mean that, every infinitesimal fraction of a second, they were collapsed back into particles. And that in turn would mean that they didn’t behave like waves. Which would mean that classic quantum experiments, such as the twin-slit arrangement, wouldn’t actually work.

    Given that they do exist, then, God can’t be continually observing the particles. Hence God cannot be omniscient. He may watch a sparrow’s fall, but He’s evidently leaving the electrons and quarks of which it’s composed to their own devices.

    Discuss.

  15. Lifewish says:

    Janie: regards the Myers post, I think PZ just has a very low tolerance for what he sees as people turning their brains off. Which I can understand. When discussing religion and what’s colloquially termed woo, people seem very inclined to massively lower their standards of evidence, and I can see why folks like PZ find that very frustrating and rather disturbing.

    I’ve had people seriously tell me that the universe is composed of trinities and hence there must be a triune God, and I too am rather disturbed to see a major scientist parroting something so obviously daft. PZ’s line about Zoroastrianism is a wonderful response to that kind of woolly thinking.

  16. Anonymous says:

    ooooohhh, a culture war thread. I can’t wait to get home and watch my ‘puter do ‘nuthin.

    vino of wil

  17. JanieBelle says:

    Lifewish:

    regards the Myers post, I think PZ just has a very low tolerance for what he sees as people turning their brains off.

    Well that may be, but he seems like someone who’s main goal in life is to trash religion and evangelize for atheism.

    Sometimes he gives the impression that if you just go through what he writes and swap “atheist” and “theist” you’d have a Dembski post.

    His blog, his rules, but rather unappetizing to me, and I’m thinking he does his cause of “Science over ID” a disservice.

    I certainly don’t care what he has to say about science anymore, accurate or not, given his attitude these days. It doesn’t seem like he’s always been this way. A quick surf through his archives would seem to indicate his rhetoric was much more muted in the past, and took a back seat to the science.

  18. JanieBelle says:

    Hi vino!

    Lifewish started it. I’m blaming him.

  19. Zachriel says:

    janiebelle: “I certainly don’t care what he has to say about science anymore, accurate or not, given his attitude these days.

    Your position is understandable. But, in fact, if you want to know anything about the embryology of Dario rerio (zebrafish), then he is the one to talk to. Which just goes to show that someone’s metaphysical beliefs and general personality are irrelevant to their abililty to make scientific contributions.

  20. JanieBelle says:

    I get your point, Zachriel.

    However, I’m kind of thinking of his screaming rants on theism are a lot like my Big Green Marker.

    Notice the efficacy of the Big Green Marker. Even Javison eventually decided he didn’t want what he had to say defaced with graffiti.

    Seems to me that PZ’s science is being defaced by his ravings against theism. It’s hard to see the science through the Big Green Atheism.

  21. Zachriel says:

    JanieBelle: “ It’s hard to see the science through the Big Green Atheism.

    Nevertheless, if you were interested in the embryology of Dario rerio, he would still be the person to talk to. On the other hand, if you are interested in conversation with an educational bent, then PZ may not be your cup of tea. We do try to keep PZ a productive member of society despite his lack of social skills.

  22. Lifewish says:

    Seems to me that PZ’s science is being defaced by his ravings against theism.

    Now this is an interesting point. See, my understanding of life is generally fairly similar to PZ’s. The difference is that I try not to act like an arrogant asshole – I attempt to persuade people with reason rather than ridicule. PZ’s approach always strikes me as silly.

    However, I know for a fact that, with all my discussion, with all my diligent research and fact-collection, with all my careful reasoning, I’ve never convinced anyone. Not a single person. There are nice, reasonable people I’ve been discussiong this stuff with for years who haven’t moved an inch from their initial position.

    PZ, on the other hand, has success stories. He has testimonies. There’s apparently a personality type out there that can actually be broken of their dafter beliefs by judicious application of sarcasm. So I guess the question is: out of me and PZ, who’s the silly one?

    Discuss 🙂

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