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.