A Scientific Question? Part 2

Is the question “Does God exist?” a scientific question? I don’t know about you, but this topic is giving me déjà vu all over again. This is basically the question that was posed by Logical Positivists early in the twentieth century, and they in turn were following in the footsteps of David Hume, basically updating and clarifying “Hume’s Fork” from his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1772:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (ECHU, Section XII, Part III)

So the question of the day, focused on by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, goes back at least as far as Hume, from writings published well over two centuries ago.

Actually, the Logical Positivists (at least as represented by A.J. Ayer) asked somewhat broader questions: Are metaphysical questions factual questions? Are ethical questions factual questions? The Logical Positivist answer was “No” to both of these broad questions, and thus they discarded two major sub-disciplines of philosophy as worthless, considering such philosophical investigations to “contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” The question “Does God exist?” was tossed out as just one among many other unanswerable metaphysical questions.

My recent posts on the sentence “God exists” are concerned with another Richard, namely Richard Swinburne, a philosophical opponent of Richard Dawkins, and those posts have focused on Swinburne’s claim that “God exists” is a sentence that makes a coherent statement.

The first thing Swinburne does in support of his claim is to consider the viewpoint and arguments of Logical Positivism, especially the argument presented by Ayer in Language, Truth, and Logic. This is one area where both Richards are in agreement. Dawkins and Swinburne agree that the sentence “God exists” is a factual claim, contrary to the view of Ayer and other Logical Positivists. The question keeps coming up: Hume in 1772 (and Kant in 1781), Ayer in 1935, Swinburne in 1977, Dawkins in 2006.

So, what is a “scientific question”? Here are some possible answers to consider:

1. A scientific question is just a factual question.
2. A scientific question is a particular kind (species) of factual question.
3. A scientific question is just an empirical question.
4. A scientific question is a particular kind (species) of empirical question.

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

    Swinburne and Dawkins agree that "God exists" is a factual claim, but they appear to disagree as to whether this is a scientific claim.

    The apparent disagreement might be semantic. Dawkins sometimes seems to use "scientific" to mean "factual", in which case there is no disagreement.

    However, Dawkins also talks about how religious claims should be investigated by the use of methods that are "purely and entirely scientific methods" (TGD, p.59), implying something more specific about how we should deal with such issues.

    Swinburne distinguishes between personal explanation and scientific explanation, and categorizes theism, the belief that "God exists", as being based on a personal explanation.

    Swinburne also argues that personal explanation cannot be reduced to scientific explanation. Thus, Swinburne holds the view that theism is NOT based on scientific explanation.

    To resolve the question "Does God exist?" would require, on Swinburne's view, an evaluation of the truth of a personal explanation, and thus this question would presumably not be a scientific question.

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


    I'd say that the questions of the natural sciences are questions about the physical phenomena we observe and about the order present in them. Questions about reality are metaphysical questions, and as such pertain to philosophy. Scientific realism, namely the idea that natural science does not only describe phenomena but also the objective reality which produces them, is a metaphysical assumption. Scientific realism, not withstanding the fact that virtually all naturalistic scientists and also most theistic scientists believe in it, is neither entailed nor implied by science. The fact that most scientists agree about a metaphysical assumption does not render it scientific.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05713099591321368658 James

    I think Dianelos is being naïve when he says, “questions about reality are metaphysical questions, and as such pertain to philosophy”. Besides their value in metaphysics, questions about reality are the raison d’etre of science, so I wouldn’t expect scientists to meekly stay away for very long. And it’s irrelevant if scientific realism is a metaphysical assumption. It is a working hypothesis, and some assumptions are necessary at the beginning of the scientific enterprise until you learn more about the universe, at which point you may need to cast aside some of your original ideas. Whether science is even a route to knowledge is a hypothesis which has been tested daily for the last 400 years, and with fits and starts it has done very well, although every day brings a new test.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00650303551498294154 Ste

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