Falsifiability and Science

A great piece (which I am still working through) from the John Templeton Foundation which collects the views of many thinkers on an important question: “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”

One such response comes from a physicist, Nobel laureate, and person of faith William Phillips:

As an experimental physicist, I require hard evidence, reproducible experiments, and rigorous logic to support any scientific hypothesis. How can such a person base belief on faith? In fact there are two questions: “How can I believe in God?” and “Why do I believe in God?”

On the first question: a scientist can believe in God because such belief is not a scientific matter. Scientific statements must be “falsifiable.” That is, there must be some outcome that at least in prin- ciple could show that the statement is false. I might say, “Einstein’s theory of relativity correctly describes the behavior of visible objects in our solar system.” So far, extremely careful measurements have failed to prove that statement false, but they could (and some people have invested careers in trying to see if they will). By contrast, religious statements are not necessarily falsifiable. I might say,“God loves us and wants us to love one another.” I cannot think of anything that could prove that statement false. Some might argue that if I were more explicit about what I mean by God and the other concepts in my statement, it would become falsifiable. But such an argument misses the point. It is an attempt to turn a religious statement into a scientific one. There is no requirement that every statement be a scientific statement. Nor are non-scientific statements worthless or irrational simply because they are not scientific. “She sings beautifully.” “He is a good man.” “I love you.” These are all non-scientific statements that can be of great value. Science is not the only useful way of looking at life.

What about the second question: why do I believe in God? As a physicist, I look at nature from a particular perspective. I see an orderly, beautiful universe in which nearly all physical phenomena can be understood from a few simple mathematical equations. I see a universe that, had it been construct- ed slightly differently, would never have given birth to stars and planets, let alone bacteria and people.And there is no good scientific reason for why the universe should not have been different. Many good scientists have concluded from these observations that an intelligent God must have chosen to create the universe with such beautiful, simple, and life-giving properties. Many other equally good scientists are nevertheless atheists. Both conclusions are positions of faith. Recently, the philosopher and long-time atheist Anthony Flew changed his mind and decided that, based on such evidence,he should believe in God. I find these arguments suggestive and supportive of belief in God, but not conclusive. I believe in God because I can feel God’s presence in my life, because I can see the evidence of God’s goodness in the world, because I believe in Love and because I believe that God is Love. [emphasis mine]

I agree with Phillips’ assessment of a scientific statement as one which is falsifiable (the existence of a testable null hypothesis). This is what supports the viewpoint that the statement “I believe in God” is non-scientific – it cannot be proven false, not because I cannot definitively demonstrate the absence from the universe of a supreme being, but because I cannot definitively demonstrate the absence from the universe of anything. This is in the same vein as if someone were to express to me their belief in Bigfoot, and demand that I prove Bigfoot doesn’t exist. Indeed, if I believe in the scientific method I cannot complete such a proof. How can I prove there is no Bigfoot anywhere in the world for sure? (See Russell’s Teapot for the standard philosophical example of such a stance.)

The “I believe in God” statement, therefore, is a faith-based position. Yet, the statement “God does not exist” is not, contrary to Phillips’ argument. To see why, consider Bigfoot again. If I consider the statement “Bigfoot exists,” as stated above, this cannot be proven false. But take the statement “Bigfoot does not exist.” Even if there has not been a scientific consensus as to the presence of evidence proving the existence of Bigfoot (I do not know the current state of Bigfoot research, nor do I particularly care), the statement “Bigfoot does not exist” could be scientifically disproven (if say, a Bigfoot were properly photographed or captured) much in the way Phillips suggests Einstein’s theory of relativity could, in theory, be disproven. “Bigfoot does not exist” is falsifiable, and hence, stands as a scientific statement by Phillips’ definition.

So, along these lines, by definition, the statement “God does not exist” is scientific, since it can be falsified if evidence of God’s existence is provided. Unlike the impossibility of providing evidence of the lack of existence of something in the universe (whether Bigfoot or God), it is within the realm of science to provide evidence of a being’s existence.

The residual criticism of what I have described is that science is not capable of providing proof of the existence of a supreme being. To which I pose two possibilities. If it is scientifically possible in some present or future world to provide proof of the existence of a supreme being, the result is a disclaimer: science is not yet capable of providing such proof. If instead, it is not and will never be possible to provide proof of the existence of a supreme being, then the lack of falsifiability of the statement “God does not exist” results solely from traits which depend on the existence of the supreme being, namely, that for some reason, his existence cannot be proven.

From a scientific perspective, this type of circular logic doesn’t go anywhere. What if I were to argue that I believed there was a dog running at lightning speed in circles around my house? The dog runs so quickly, faster than anything even remotely comprehensible, that not only can he not be seen with the naked eye, but he cannot be measured by any of the scientific tools we possess or will ever possess in the future. Scientists would make the statement “The dog does not exist” then attempt to falsify it and run into a road block. “Why can’t the dog’s speed be measured?” “What physical attributes allow the dog to run so quickly?” If the only response I can muster is “Because that’s just how he is,” then something is wrong, not from a faith-based belief standpoint, but from a falsifiability one. Science’s inability to falsify my statement “The dog does not exist” does not arise from some failure of science or reason, but rather, from my imagination of such a dog in the first place.

[Edit: This is the same convenient notion supported by another writer in the above, Keith Ward:

An important fact about God is that if God is a non-physical entity causally influencing the cosmos in non-physical ways, God’s mode of causal influence is most unlikely to be law-governed, measurable,predictable,or publicly observable.To the extent that the sciences describe regular,measurable, predictable, controllable, and repeatable behavior, acts of God will be outside the scientific remit. But that does not mean they cannot occur.]

That is, when Phillips claims “God does not exist” is a faith-based position, it is only so under the construct that the lack of falsifiability of the statement is rooted in the philosophy or faith (and subsequently assumed unobservability of a supreme being) of those who hold the opposing view – not in any type of faith employed by the maker of the statement. When faith and circular logic deny a statement of its falsifiability, this does not render the statement unscientific. Instead, it changes the rules of the game such that science cannot play. And scientists will always have a scientific question to ask, whether others want to hear it or not.

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One comment

  1. […] posted previously on the notion of falsifiability in science, as it related to a discussion of the existence of a supreme being. More generally, though, the concept of whether a statement can be falsified is central to making a […]

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