Saturday, July 26, 2008

Confirmable but unfalsifiable?

In my encounters on the internet, I've found that people have all sorts of views on the relationship between science and religion. Here's one that I feel is just plain contradictory, as if someone had taken two very common views and stitched them together into a paradoxical Frankenstein monster.

View 1: God is unfalsifiable. Therefore, you can't prove that He doesn't exist. Those atheists are so irrationally dogmatic!

View 2: Religious experiences probably attest to some unknown. We call that unknown God.

Conclusion: It's a double-whammy! I can show that God most likely exists, and you can't disprove him. I win. Er... I mean, God wins.

See the contradiction? If you didn't see it, I'll eventually get to it.

There is a common theme in the reaction to the atheist movement. "Those atheists seem to have the same conception of God as do the fundamentalists! They probably think he's a bearded old guy in the sky in white robes. That's nothing at all like my religion. God is not something we need proof for." Sometimes, this complaint sounds very silly, as if people were saying, "Why are you giving all those B-movies bad reviews? You should be reviewing my movie." But I'll concede that there is some basis to the complaint. When it comes to fundamentalists, point by point refutations are common. When it comes to "liberal" Christianity, it seems like dismissiveness is the norm. I personally try to avoid this. As an atheist, I have little right to define what kind of God other people believe in. For all I care, you could define God as the ceaseless creativity of the natural universe. I can't really refute that kind of God. The best I can do is criticize your communication skills, and then be on the look out for the equivocation fallacy.

I want to focus on one particular part of the complaint. Most people will say that God doesn't need proof. Apologetics is not very important for them. God is not a scientific matter. God is unfalsifiable. Can they explain why they believe this? But never mind the reasons. The theist gets to define God, and I'll go with that definition at least for a while. Let us presume that we have all agreed that God is unfalsifiable, and therefore unscientific. Let us also ignore, for the moment, my misgivings about the definitions of science, the philosophy of falsification, and unprovable gods. So we agree that "God exists" is an unfalsifiable claim. This implies that "God does not exist" is also an unfalsifiable claim. For how can a claim be scientific if its negation is not?

So if God is unfalsifiable, that means it is also impossible to confirm God's existence with scientific evidence. You cannot refer to religious experiences as a confirmation of God's involvement with humans. You cannot refer to Big Bang Theory as a confirmation of God's creation. You cannot refer to quantum mechanics as a confirmation of God-given free will. If any of these scientific discoveries give you the slightest bit of "It's just like Christianity told us all along!" feeling, that means your god is confirmable, and therefore falsifiable.

So we're back to the top. The two views I presented, each of which I commonly encounter on the internet, are incompatible. One says God is unfalsifiable. The other says God is confirmable by religious experiences. But you have to pick one: confirmable or unfalsifiable. Otherwise, you've got a contradiction on your hands. And this is before I've even started talking about the argument from religious experience. Is it any wonder that atheists tend to be dismissive when people don't take seriously the meaning of "unfalsifiable"?


Yoo said...

I'm guilty of being dismissive of "God is unfalsifiable" claims myself, but I like to believe I have a good reason for being so.

There are lots of things that are just as unfalsifiable. Despite this, I doubt that religious people believe I'm God, even though this is one of those unfalsifiable claims. (Anything that can be used to rebut the claim could be countered by "it's because I want it that way".)

I just take the same stance with god claims as I do with the other stuff, while the religious treat their particular god claim specially.

Anonymous said...

For all I care, you could define God as the ceaseless creativity of the natural universe.

I'm busy writing a post that goes there... but more in the process of exploring "prime mover" ideas and pointing out they don't solve much, that the best you can do is pull "creativity", and possibly subjectively connect that to our experiences and meaning of "love"... (shoot me if you have to). Beyond that, I'm with Peter Rollins in saying the "God of faith" and the "God of the philosophers" cannot really be connected. The "God of faith" is a subjective experience, connecting that to "the creator of all" is, as you know, um... a "leap of faith"? :-P

The post I'm writing intends to try its best at connecting the "creator" and "faith's God" ideas, and hopes to fail as gracefully as possible, maybe leaving it a little unresolved, or otherwise emphasizing the subjective value/meaning behind it (though that might come in another post when I talk about the reason/context in which Genesis 1 was probably written or included in the tradition: exile in Babylon).

I can't really refute that kind of God. The best I can do is criticize your communication skills, and then be on the look out for the equivocation fallacy.

I will try my best to avoid equivocation, I hope I don't fail. Too often. I know I might cause equivocation to happen in other people's minds though, and that is what you probably criticise as "bad communication skills". I stand by my purpose/motivation though, and believe I'm communicating well in the context of what I'm actually trying to communicate.

Time will tell I suppose.

Now back to work with me... lots to do.

Yoo said...

Of course, some definitions of a god run up against a "so what?" response. Examples being "God is everything" or "God is love". Sure, I believe those exist, but they don't seem to be the way almost everyone else actually uses the word "god", and there's still the little issue of a lack of reason why we should worship it like a god.

People whose definition of a god that bear little resemblance to how it's usually used often annoy me for being needlessly obscure, but at least some of them aren't spouting something false or unsupported.

miller said...

I think Stuart Kauffman (who had the idea of God as the ceaseless creativity of the natural universe) is very guilty of equivocation. By defining God as the emergent principle, he is assuming something about the universe. He is assuming that the universe strives towards complexity. I consider this to be an unnecessary metaphysical principle that will needlessly color one's view of the world.

It's similar to the view that "Humans are fundamentally good/evil", "The universe is fundamentally good/evil", or "Life is too short, so live in the moment" etc. etc. Are these really divine truths, or are they just generalizations of a few human experiences?

By elevating one of these generalizations to God, to a metaphysical principle, Kauffman is attributing new properties to the universe. And what does he get in return? I got nothing.

Anonymous said...

The unfalsifiable God argument is just a little off when they come to the meaning of unfalsifiable. Of course, it means in essence that something can't be proved wrong. Nonetheless, atheists try calling God unfalsifiable because it becomes harder and harder for them to simply say that God doesn't exist. If they start finding more evidence (which there is some), they'll realize that God is falsifiable. Which undermines this argument unfortunately.
And God, the definition of God at least, is in nature unfalsifiable if you don't agree. God wouldn't be God if He wasn't. He needs to have all those attributes or there wouldn't be a God.