A Scientific Question? Part 1

The question “Does God exist?” has generally been considered to be a philosophical question. It has, in fact, generally been considered to be a paradigm case of a philosophical question.

However, some people believe that science has much to contribute towards answering this question, and many people believe that philosophy has not only failed to provide an answer to this question, but that there is little or no hope that philosophy will provide an answer to this question in the coming decades or centuries. Thus, the claim that science has much to offer us on this matter is of significant interest.

In his best-selling book The God Delusion (2006), Richard Dawkins argues that atheism is highly likely to be true, i.e. that it is highly improbable that God exists. But Dawkins is not a philosopher, and he believes that he has presented a scientific argument against the existence of God. Furthermore, Dawkins plainly asserts that “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis, like any other” and that “God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe…”(TGD, p.50)

About the alleged resurrection of Jesus, Dawkins asserts that the “methods we should use to settle the matter…would be purely and entirely scientific methods.” (TGD, p.59). He makes this claim in the context of a general discussion about the relevance of science to the evaluation of religious beliefs, so Dawkins would presumably be willing to make the same assertion about the question “Does God exist?” That is to say, he would hold that the “methods we should use to settle the matter” of the existence or non-existence of God would be “purely and entirely scientific methods”. If so, then it would appear that Dawkins holds the view that the question “Does God exist?” is strictly a scientific question and is not a philosophical question.

Is Dawkins correct here? Is the question “Does God exist?” a scientific question? Is it a question that we should attempt to resolve by the use of methods that are purely and entirely scientific methods? If so, does this mean that many have been mistaken in holding this question to be a philosophical question? Alternatively, is this a philosophical question that science can help to answer?

In order to evaluate Dawkins view of the nature of the question “Does God exist?” we need to first have a clear understanding of the key concepts:
- What is a “scientific question”?
- What are “scientific methods”?
- What is a “philosophical question”?
- Do some well-known questions fall into both categories?
- Is it possible for a question to fall into both categories?

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    "Scientific" and "philosophical" are vague terms. So the onus is on those who want to make this into a significant distinction to explain what they mean. If we want to evaluate Dawkins' view of the nature of the question, we need to know what Dawkins means.

    It seems a bit pointless to ask both:
    (a) is the question of God's existence scientific or philosophical; and
    (b) what do we mean by those terms?

    Why ask a question whose meaning you don't know?

    The issue at stake in these arguments seems to be one of authority. Who has greater authority on this question, scientists or philosophers? Well, if that's the issue people want to address, I suggest they put it in those words. Once we know what the question really is, we can start thinking about the answer. The argument over whether it's a "scientific question" or a "philosophical question" is just a distraction.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    It all depends on how you define "God." If that word is defined as "that which caused life to originate on earth," then the question of God's existence is a scientific one. But if "God" is defined as "that than which nothing greater can be conceived," then the question is a philosophical one. Admittedly, though, there are borderline definitions with regard to which it would be unclear whether the question is scientific or philosophical or perhaps a combination of the two.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    tmdrange said…
    It all depends on how you define "God."

    Comment:
    Good point.

    Dawkins opens TGD with a definition of "God" that includes a normative component, but later drops the normative component, presumably to make sure that the question "Does God exist?" can be treated as a scientific question.

    Page 13 of TGD: "Weinberg is surely right that , if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is 'appropriate for us to worship'."

    Many philosophers argue that "God" must be understood or defined as being "perfectly good" because otherwise it would not (or might not) be appropriate for us to worship God.

    Dawkins, however, eliminates "goodness" from his definition of "God".

    Page 108 of TGD:
    "…it is childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god…"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    RichnardW said…

    It seems a bit pointless to ask both:
    (a) is the question of God's existence scientific or philosophical; and
    (b) what do we mean by those terms?

    Why ask a question whose meaning you don't know?
    ===============
    Comment:
    In philosophy, concepts are often clarified in degrees and phases.
    I'm not completely ignorant about what is meant by "scientific" and by "philosophical". I have some notion or sense of what these words mean, even if I cannot, at this point in time, spit out a clear and plausible genus/species definition or a necc. & suff. conditions definition, or a criterial definition of either term.

    Also, I'm interested BOTH in what Dawkins had in mind when making his claim about the existence of God being a "scientific" question, and also interested in whether his use of the word "scientific" is appropriate and in keeping with the best understanding (that I can muster) of what science truly involves.

    For example, if Dawkins simply means that the claim "God exists" is a factual claim, and if he is just using the word "scientific" to mean "factual" then I might have no issue with the truth of Dawkins viewpoint, but I might want to take issue with his use of the word "scientific" (e.g. that it is misleading and confusing to use this word if all he means is "factual").

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Bradley,

    You write: “Dawkins plainly asserts that “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis, like any other” and that “God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe…

    I have read “The God Delusion”. In it Richard Dawkins defines the God hypothesis thus: “There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us”. How natural science can confirm or falsify such a hypothesis, is anybody’s guess. Dawkins really doesn’t tell, except by proposing a primitive argument grandly named “The Ultimate Boeing 474 gambit” which is a clearly philosophical one.

    If I were a knowledgeable atheist I would feel embarrassed by Dawkins’s book and its popularity among atheists. Of course there are many mediocre and popular books written by theists too.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Ted,

    You write: “If that word [“God”] is defined as "that which caused life to originate on earth," then the question of God's existence is a scientific one.

    In turn, the definition above depends on what one means by “cause”. Consider a much simpler physical phenomenon than the origin of life on earth, such as the falling of an apple. The proposition “An apple’s fall is caused by the earth’s gravitational forcefield (or because of the bending of spacetime, or whatever)” and the proposition “An apple’s fall is caused by God’s will” can both be true, as they both use a different concept of causality. The first proposition refers to physical/mechanical causality, which according to naturalism is ultimately all causality there is. The second proposition refers to agent causality, which according to theism is ultimately all causality there is. Coming back to the definition of God you suggest above, if you mean “cause” the way naturalists understand this concept, then you are suggesting a definition of God based on a naturalistic conception of causality, which can only lead to confusion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Dianelos said…

    If I were a knowledgeable atheist I would feel embarrassed by Dawkins’s book and its popularity among atheists.
    ===============

    Dawkins is a scientist who is trying to do philosophy of religion while mistakenly believing himself to be doing science. As a result, his philosophy of religion ain't so good.

    However, the book covers a lot of territory besides just the existence of God, and even though his ability in philosophical reasoning is poor, he manages to make some interesting points, and raises some significant issues.

    My hat is off to anyone who can write a book that opens with four chapters dealing with key issues in the philosophy of religion and yet sell millions of copies of the book.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Bradley,

    You write:

    Dawkins is a scientist who is trying to do philosophy of religion while mistakenly believing himself to be doing science. As a result, his philosophy of religion ain't so good. [snip] My hat is off to anyone who can write a book that opens with four chapters dealing with key issues in the philosophy of religion and yet sell millions of copies of the book.

    Why? What is deserving of respect in writing a book that opens with four chapters of not so good philosophy of religion, and yet sells millions of copies? If you could write a mediocre book that nevertheless sold millions, would that make you proud?

    The world is already full of mediocre theistic books that sell millions; is the fact that we now also have mediocre atheistic books that sell millions a positive development?


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