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Sunday, September 05, 2010

God and the scientist

Recently I observed that Stephen Hawking* had introduced God into his book “The Grand Design” as a way of gaining sales. Last weeks story on Hawking and God irritated me for two reasons. Firstly, the idea that a new idea that Stephen Hawking has introduced in his forthcoming book either proves or disproves the existence of God is fatuous nonsense. Secondly, revealing some intellectual snobbery on my part, this is a popular science book – such an important idea would have been published in peer-reviewed literature first – most likely Nature! On the first point Mary Warnock covers the philosophical side of this well in a short article in The Observer this week, in summary: proof / not proof of the existence of God is a hoary old chestnut.

As an atheist and scientist, I’m quite clear that my demand for evidence for the existence of God is what makes me an atheist. You don’t need evidence if you have faith. Although many scientists are atheists, this is by no means a pre-requisite. Many scientists in the past have been professed strong religious beliefs, no doubt in large part because of the spirit of the time they lived in. It’s only for particular variants of theism and particular topics that the two things are in direct collision: Creationism and the study of evolutionary biology are not happy bedfellows. The degree of cognitive dissonance required to accommodate a religious view of the world and a scientific view is really rather minor. Many scientists in the past have seen their scientific work as revealing the mechanism that God has created.

A further element to this is the degree to which modern cosmology requires a degree of faith. As an experimental soft condensed matter physicist the world of cosmologists is very far away. The things I study are essentially testable in the lab, you can put your hands on them, prod and poke them. Modern cosmology has a large degree of internal logical consistency and mathematical beauty, but it has close to zero contact with observations. At times it feels like any experimental test is wilfully pushed into timescales, or size scales that are simply impossible to observe (and not just impossible in practice, but impossible in principle). This is not to say they are wrong, but simply that their correctness must be taken on faith.

*Pointless name dropping/anecdotage: I had dinner with Stephen Hawking at Gonville and Caius College, he’s not very dynamic.


lifeandphysics said...

I share your irritation.

However, I don't think that provisional acceptance of a theory (e.g. a cosmology) as a working hypothesis in the absence (or anticipation) of evidence is really "faith" in the sense of religion, where experimental evidence is not really relevant.

But I would say that if a theory has not even the prospect of experimental validation/falsification, it's not really science.

SomeBeans said...

@lifeandphysics my comparison was a little glib.

I suppose the key is that some science (evolutionary biology, structure of the earth) you cannot make direct experiments but you can experiment around the topic quite heavily. Not sure the same can be said of string / m theory

Bill said...

As an atheist and scientist, I’m quite clear that my demand for evidence for the existence of God is what makes me an atheist. You don’t need evidence if you have faith.

Here's another old chestnut: it depends how you define God.

I might view God as an old man with a beard who lives on a cloud, is good, and intervenes in daily life. If so, I have no convincing evidence for his existence and must rely on blind faith.

But what if (for example) I'm a pantheist who believes God is identical with the universe? In that case, unless I adopt an extreme Idealist position, I have plenty of evidence that my God exists.

There are more possible positions on the existence of God that those of the atheist, the agnostic and the mindless believer in personal God.

billynojob said...

It's very odd that a scientist has to drag God into his book to secure sales in this supposedly post-religious, secular, and rational world.

At least I rarely feel the need to cite Dawkins as a prop to my understanding of faith! :)

beyondthedepths said...

Science, History, Religion all have different methodologies of finding truth. Both scientific evidence and historical documents, testimony, and archeology have been used to back up or deny religious theology.

Although the information is out there, you won't find it unless you have a passion for truth in this area. Dr Frank Harbor was an athiest who set out to prove scientifically that Christianity was a false religion and ended up converting. The only reason he looked at Christianity at all was to dismiss it as a theory.

I wrote on it recently - It's in the Fine Print:

I'm not a scientist but I have enjoyed the Archeologist's Bible and Dr. Harbor as well as many others as I search for truth within Religion. I'm grateful for the scientists that have taken on theology, it helps us to make informed decisions.

I enjoyed your post. Thanks for taking on this topic...and I'm pretty impressed at the name dropping...


SomeBeans said...

@bill I guess this post was more oriented to the monotheists. I must admit to rather liking the Greek "Gods by Committee".

@billygottajob the cosomologists in particular seem keen on introducing God. I suspect it is successful in selling books, this blogpost received more hits than most of my science posts.

@gentlemanadmn said on twitter "I think the 'evidence' aspect of atheism has become too prominent. What of philosophical reasons?" I don't think scientists hold philosphers in high regard. The founding of the Royal Society marked the culmination of a parting of ways from the old Greek philosphers. Since then scientists have largely got on with their own thing. For example, Kuhn and Popper are not taught to undergrads in science and it's fair to say they're largely irrelevant to the practice of science. I suppose the closest we've been to philosphising has been over the meaning of quantum mechanics (the famous Einstein/Bohr discussions).

The Gentleman Administrator said...

That's a fair point, but I wasn't necessarily referring to any academic Philosophical model, but rather the idea of people coming to a personal, philosophical decision on the existence of god. Perhaps Philosophy is the wrong term.

What I mean is that I doubt that even scientists who are atheists all have a lack of belief in god built purely on scientific or evidential reasons. I'm sure for most people it is a complicated mix of philosophical understanding, science, cultural background and experience.

For me scientific evidence is only a part of my position, more important is that I don't need god to exist, I don't see the benefit and nothing in my reading of history has ever changed that position. I call that a philosophical position.

SomeBeans said...

@gentlemanadmn I think I'd sign up to your "small p" philosophical position.

billynojob said...

And I wouldn't mind scientists pontificating on matters of faith or philosophy if they weren't usually so bad at it. Hawking's sudden "revelation" is that the universe was created purely "as a consequence of the laws of physics". So now the laws of physics stand outside the universe of which they are a part? This is more than just "bootstrapping"; it's logical nonsense.

Bill said...

Part of the problem with this whole debate is that many monotheists over the last couple of centuries did not and do not share the old-man-on-a-cloud view of a personal, interventionist God.

Go back fifty years and look at educated European Christians, and you could probably make that "many" a "most".

The old interventionist God was knocked into a cocked hat by Voltaire, Hume et al. towards the end of the eighteenth century. In consequence, nineteenth and twentieth century monotheistic thought moved dramatically away from Him.

Unfortunately, the old bugger has recently popped up again in the imaginations of fundamentalists, evangelists and other assorted whackoes.

The arguments advanced by you, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and all the others make perfect sense - to the point of being blindingly obvious - when applied to these people and their medieval view of God.

But evangelical anti-personal-Godders should bear in mind that not every view of God resembles the one they contrive to attack, and that they are partially re-enacting a battle that's been fought and won before - largely by those philosophers they hold in such low regard ;)

SomeBeans said...

@Bill - I was going to let this lie but Hawking seems to have gone for round 2!

I think the issue that scientists have had with philosophy is in it's application to the physical world and science itself. Philosophy clearly has a role in defining what questions are scientifically answerable (and what an answer might be), and beyond that science really doesn't have much to say about morality (which is a philosophical question).

It seems to me the statements about m-theory made this morning are largely philosophical, it may be that the fact that physical constants in our universe appear to be tuned because there are many other universes with different physical constants where live cannot evolve to ponder this. However, those other universes are experimentally inaccessible, their existence cannot be demonstrated so belief in their existence is largely a matter of faith or philosophy.

Bill said...


Yep, and I'd say that was a pretty sensible view of the situation - it's all less a question of whether something called "God" does or does not exist in some way, and much more about demarcation across intellectual spheres. I think most of the problems of the last week have been a result of shrill hacks oversimplifying the issues (again).

Incidentally, in case you haven't seen it, New Scientist has come up with a nicely balanced overview of the whole kerfuffle - a good summary of what Hawking (and indeed Einstein) seem to mean when they talk about God.

amro said...

I should also be noted there are plenty of eminent scientists (well, my only experience is with fellow physicists) who are religious.

You can accept all that science has shown as still believe in God.

My immediate superior is a committed Christian and a very brilliant and eminent physicist.

The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion may be of interest to your readers: