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Can science answer questions about God?

Philosophers of science contend that methodological naturalism is essential to the scientific method. That is, consideration of supernatural or non-material causes cannot be part of science. If this is so, how can science be used to support atheism?

Posted: June 30th 2011

Reed Braden www

It’s always a dangerous path to try and define or limit science based on philosophy. Philosophy asks questions and science gives answers, and the questioner should never frame what the answer should be.

Science has already answered, in a way, the question of any god’s existence. Science can’t prove a negative, such as, “There is no god.” However, science can, and has already answered questions about our universe that make god irrelevant.

Before the scientific method:
Where did we come from?: God
Where did Earth come from?: God
Where did the sky come from?: God
How can we be good?: Follow God

After the scientific method:
Where did we come from?: Ancestors stretching back billions of years to a complex soup of organic matter led to all life on this planet.
Where did Earth come from?: An accretion disk of matter that clumped together around a giant nuclear furnace created the planets.
Where did the sky come from?: All matter ~14 billion years ago exploded from a single point, creating all that we know of matter, energy, space, and time.
How can we be good?: Analyze which actions cause the least amount of suffering and do those.

So, no, you can’t put spirituality in an Erlenmeyer flask and declare it scientifically true or not, but you can definitely test every single claim religion has made about the natural universe… and after testing these claims for several centuries, not a single one has ever come back with the result, “Scientifically, God.”

I’d say that’s as direct an answer as anyone could ever hope for: Science has already proven the notion of gods wrong by providing better and well-evidenced explanations for every one of religion’s questions about the universe. Thanks to science, we no longer need that fairy tale to understand what’s going on.

Posted: July 6th 2011

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brian thomson www

You are right to conclude that “consideration of supernatural or non-material causes cannot be part of science” – and that would be the end of the story if beliefs remained fully in the domain of the supernatural. However; as soon as someone suggests any real-world effects resulting from their beliefs, they are bringing at least part of their beliefs in to the natural world. An example would be the claim that prayer heals the sick: a sick person getting better is very much a natural phenomenon. If you claim that prayer heals the sick, you are definitely making a claim about the natural world that is subject to scientific investigation.

It’s possible to scientifically study why people believe in gods, and many have. That’s about as far as it goes, since belief in a god or gods is still belief i.e. it has no reality outside the head of the believer. If a proposition is supported by evidence, we can stop calling it a belief; as things stand today, we can’t do that w.r.t. beliefs in gods. That’s atheism in a nutshell; the absence of belief. It’s not a “field”, or any kind of “thing” that needs support from science in the first place – so your question is a red herring. Science is as science does: it’s a method, not an agenda.

You don’t have to dress these concepts up in $10 words to make the point: they can be discussed just as readily in plain English. Don’t make the mistake that “sophisticated theologians” do: they’ve made their whole field so nebulous and jargon-packed that it’s incomprehensible to anyone but other “sophisticated theologians”. Their conceptions of belief are so far removed from those of actual believers that they have become pointless.

Posted: July 6th 2011

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Blaise www

Science does one thing, and one thing only. It enables you to learn about the rules of reality via observation and logic. Everything else is particulars.

If the supernatural is by definition outside those rules, then it can have no effect on reality. If it is not outside those rules, then it can. Anything that has no effect on reality cannot be investigated with science, but also is meaningless as a statement because there can be no evidence either way for it. Anything that has an effect on reality is no longer supernatural, just an as-yet poorly understood phenomenon.

Science does not directly support atheism, in the sense that it cannot make a positive or negative statement based on no evidence. However, the important point to remember is that science’s default position, the one which prevents people from just making things up, is that all hypotheses are considered conjecture until observable evidence is presented in support of them. Since gods are an hypothesis which by definition can produce no evidence for their existence, the scientific opinion must be: “There is no evidence for it, therefore I do not believe it. I will reconsider this position, should new evidence come to light.”

Posted: July 6th 2011

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SmartLX www

Science can potentially answer at least one type of question about God: whether He or something like Him is a necessary cause of any given phenomenon or state of affairs.

Take astronomy for example. People around the world used to think the sun was carried across the sky by a god. We now have a great deal of evidence that the earth rotates once a day and makes the sun look like it’s travelling around us. No god is required to cause this particular effect.

The more questions of this type are answered, the fewer things in our world appear to need a god to explain them. This is significant because the majority of arguments in favour of the existence of God attempt to establish that various things (life, beauty, order, morality, the universe itself) are impossible without Him. Every time we find a naturalistic explanation for one of these, God suddenly has one less raison d’etre. The “God of the gaps” shrinks a bit.

While it is possible to suppose that anything or everything has happened without God but He exists anyway, few people are willing to believe in such an entirely impotent being when they’re used to the idea of an omnipotent being. Thus, advances in scientific understanding of naturalistic processes support atheism by directly undermining theist apologetics.

Posted: July 6th 2011

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