June 29, 2014
Does God exist? If so, can we prove it? If not, can we prove it?
Victor Stenger thinks we can. Like a creationist – or like a modern intelligent design advocate – he believes that we can scientifically prove – or disprove – the existence of God. He describes his beliefs in God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, published in 2007 shortly after Richard Dawkins‘ best-selling The God Delusion on the same topic. It made it to the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.
Below, I briefly introduce Stenger’s hypothesis about the existence – or nonexistence – of God. Before I do so, let me briefly explain why I believe in God and give an introduction to some of the logical reasons behind such belief. Then, I will touch on typical strategies – usually invoking metaphysical monism – that try to undermine such beliefs. The main part of the analysis of God: The Failed Hypothesis will be in blog #6, the next blog in this series.
Why People Believe that God Exists
Personally, my belief in God is due mainly to my trust in Baha’u’llah, founder of the Baha’i Faith, and because he teaches that God exists. (I understand Baha’u’llah to speak with same authority enjoyed by the Buddha, by Christ, or by Mohammed. If I judge correctly, Baha’u’llah’s teachings are the foundations of a world-embracing religion for the future, one that will precipitate a peaceful and prosperous world civilization.)
But I also believe in the existence of God on the basis of what I see. When I look at the world around me, I see both mind and matter. Clearly, reality is both mental and material (and, as I argue below, the mental part comes first). So any realistic description of ourselves and the world that we live in has to deal with the mental part as well as the material part. Religion and modern science are two of the responses to this.
Think about it. Whatever you know about the world around you, either sensibly or intellectually, is through your mind. Whatever you learn about the universe and its laws is through your mind. It may happen consciously or unconsciously, but everything you feel – or that you sense or logically calculate – is through your mind. In fact, everything that anybody knows, senses, feels, or learns is through the agency of their mind.
And this is what the biological, physiological, psychological, and medical sciences tells us as well. So science and experience – both of them – tell us that reality at its primary stage is mental and non-material. It is only at a secondary stage – after internal processing of the information from our senses and either innate or acquired conceptions snap mentally into place – that the material world looms into existence.
The best way to understand why people logically believe in the existence of God is to recognize that it is a generalization from – an abstraction from – the reality of the mind that we experience in all aspects of our lives. It is a rational and reasoned inference from the existence of our minds and consciousnesses – and from the existence of everybody’s mind and everybody’s consciousnesses.
We arrive intellectually at the concept of existence of God in the same way that we arrive scientifically at the idea of the laws of gravity – we abstract it intellectually from our experience. That experience is extraordinarily vast – ranging from the time we are born when our parents start to care for us to when we die – so our conceptions of God are accordingly vast and diverse. It ranges from viewpoints that see nature, the mountains, the trees, the sun, the moon and all of reality as imbued with consciousness to modern monotheisms that see all that is as created by one supreme God. And as is the case for scientific abstractions like the laws of gravity, our intellectual conceptions of God can reflect the actuality of reality.
The material world – atoms, things, the cold expanses of interstellar space? I’m sure they exist, but I believe in their existence because I have mental pictures of them inside my mind, and because I have innate conceptions of the world around us hardwired into place (which, conveniently, allow me to navigate, eat, interact with the world, etc.). Note: I’m not denying the reality of the world that these mental pictures of material reality portray – I’m not claiming that the material world doesn’t exist. Rather, I’m pointing out the essential role that the mind has in creating it and presenting it to us.
How Do We Prove – or Disprove – That God Exists?
Given that we know that the idea of God can be considered as an abstraction – a mental generalization – from what we know about the mind, and given that everything we know – or think we know – about reality is through the mind, how do we prove that God doesn’t exist?
Basically, it comes down to proving that any and all generalizations from the ubiquity of the mind to the existence of God are wrong. This is a tall order and extremely difficult to do, given that the concept of God is basically the concept of the mind and of consciousness generalized to universal applicability. And, to make things more difficult, there is a widespread view that God is unknowable (consider, for example, sophisticated Buddhist circles, which reject the existence of God or gods while keeping the generalization from the ubiquity of the mind).
One of the most usual ways to proceed for those who want to disprove the existence of God, consequently, is to invoke metaphysics (the philosophical explanation of “the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it”.) This invocation typically proceeds by defining what is allowed or not allowed in thinking about or describing the world, existence, and related phenomena, essentially attempting to undermine all generalizations from the existence of the mind to the existence of God. For example, one might deny that the mind exists, or insist that everything is material, or insist that the only true knowledge we have of the world is scientific. These points of view are examples of monism (the philosophical view that holds there is only one correct way to look at reality) and of materialism or scientism.
An alternative approach is to argue from conceptions of historical necessity or progressive development. This was the approach of scientific positivism, the extraordinarily influential approach to science promoted by the 19th century French thinker Auguste Comte (see, for example, his law of the three stages), and the approach of Marxist historical materialism. (There is a slight problem with these approaches. They tend to morph into ideologies, and some of them start identifying those who think differently as the other, and some of them, unfortunately, even provoke mass slaughter.)
Victor Stenger’s Argument that God Doesn’t Exist
In God: The Failed Hypothesis, Stenger’s approach to the question of the existence – or lack thereof – of God is to assume that the question can be answered by science. Here is how he describes his approach:
The process I will follow is the scientific method of hypothesis testing. The existence of a God will be taken as a scientific hypothesis and the consequences of that hypothesis searched for in objective observations of the world around us. Various models will be assumed in which God has specific attributes that can be tested empirically. That is, if a God with such attributes exists, certain phenomena should be observable. Any failure to pass a specific test will be regarded as a failure of that particular model. (Stenger, Victor. God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, Prometheus, 2007, p.17.)
If we go through this exercise and don’t find the evidence we are looking for, he believes, then we can conclude that God doesn’t exist (he briefly acknowledges that the failure of his tests doesn’t automatically rule out the existence of God):
Generally speaking, when we have no evidence of other reasons for believing in some entity, then we can be pretty sure that entity doesn’t exist. … If we have no evidence or other reason for believing in God, then we can be pretty sure that God does not exist. (Stenger, Victor. ibid, p.18.)
His hypothesis – what he calls the “The Generic Argument” – goes as follows:
- Hypothesize a God who plays and important role in the universe.
- Assume that God has specific attributes that should provide objective evidence for his existence.
- Look for such evidence with an open mind.
- If such evidence is found, conclude that God may exist.
- If such objective evidence is not found, conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that a God with these properties does not exist.
This means, he writes, that:
… just as we should not use a failed physical model that does not work, it would be unwise for us to guide our lives by religions that worship any gods that fail to agree with the data.
What he understands this to mean and how he analyzes the existence of God “scientifically” will be explored in the next blog in this series.
The next blog explores Victor Stenger’s proof that the “God hypothesis” shows that God doesn’t exist. It also critiques those claims and describes Massimo Pigliucci‘s view that Stenger’s (and Dawkins’ and Harris’s) approach to arguing that God doesn’t exist is scientistic and anti-intellectual.
This is the 5th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.