A Scientific Question? Part 3

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts some interesting and controversial claims about the epistemology of religious belief, especially the belief that God exists. He asserts that this belief is a scientific hypothesis, that the question at issue is a scientific question, and that the correct answer to the question is a scientific fact.

A Scientific Hypothesis

…’the God Hypothesis’ is a scientific hypothesis about the universe…
(TGD, p.2, emphasis added)

…the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other.
(TGD, p. 50, emphasis added)

A Scientific Question

Either he [God] exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question
(TGD, p.48, emphasis added)

A Scientific Fact

…God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe…
(TGD, p.50, emphasis added)

Because Dawkins has been the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford since 1995, it is no surprise that his chapter on “Scientific Investigation” provides a clear and plausible explanation of what he means by a “scientific hypothesis”. Actually, there is no such chapter in The God Delusion, but in the Chapter subsection (there are more than 50 subsections in the book) on the nature of science, Dawkins does give a solid explanation of what is involved in scientific inquiry; except that, there is no such subsection. But he spells out a good analysis of the concept of a “scientific hypothesis” in a few paragraphs in Chapter Two….wait; no he doesn’t.

To be honest, there is not a single sentence, at least in the first four chapters of The God Delusion (the Chapters where Dawkins deals with the question of the existence of God), in which Dawkins defines or attempts to clarify what the phrase “scientific hypothesis” means, or any other related phrase (“scientific question” or “scientific fact”). So, the interesting claim that Dawkins makes in the area of epistemology of religious belief, is left as clear as mud.

Any philosopher who attempted to publish an article defending the claim that the question of the existence of God was “a scientific question” while providing no definition or clarification of the term “scientific question” would not only fail to get published, but would likely be advised to return to school to learn some basic skills in philosophical reasoning. That is the advantage of publishing a popular book about the existence of God: one need not worry about getting past peer reviews by people who can reason well.

Before I attempt to clarify either what Dawkins had in mind, or to do my own analysis of the concept of a “scientific question”, I will argue that when Dawkins makes a similar claim about belief in miracles, his own example reveals this claim to be false.

In discussion about NOMA (Stephen Gould’s presentation of the idea that science and religion/theology deal with very different sorts of questions and thus science has no relevance for determining the truth of religious/theological beliefs), Dawkins asserts that miracle claims should be investigated scientifically and only scientifically:

The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice – or not yet – a decided one. So also is the truth or falsehood of every one of the miracle stories that religions rely upon to impress multitudes of the faithful. (TGD, p.58-59, emphasis added)

Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth?…Did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? Did he himself come alive again, three days after being crucified? There is an answer to every such question, whether or not we can discover it in practice, and it is a strictly scientific answer. The methods we should use to settle the matter, in the unlikely event that relevant evidence ever became available, would be purely and entirely scientific methods. (TGD, p.59, emphasis added)

On the face of it, Dawkins’ epistemological claim about miracles has a better chance of being correct than his epistemological claim about God, because miracle claims concern observable events in the physical world, whereas the belief in God is a belief about the existence of an invisible, intangible, non-physical person or mind.

Scientific investigation seems more likely to have something to say about observable events in the physical world than about invisible, intangible, non-physical persons. So, if Dawkins’ claim about epistemology of miracles is wrong, then we should be very skeptical about his epistemological claim on the question of the existence of God.

Here is an example from Dawkins of how scientific investigation could resolve the status of a miracle claim:

…imagine, by some remarkable set of circumstances, that forensic archaeologists unearthed DNA evidence to show that Jesus really did lack a biological father. Can you imagine religious apologists shrugging their shoulders and saying anything remotely like the following? Who cares? Scientific evidence is completely irrelevant to theological questions. …Neither DNA nor any other scientific evidence could ever have any bearing on the matter, one way or the other.
The very idea is a joke. You can bet your boots that the scientific evidence, if any were to turn up, would be seized upon and trumpeted to the skies.
(TGD, p.59)

While this example does indeed cast serious doubt on NOMA, especially the idea that science can have nothing to say about religious/theological questions, it also shows that miracle claims cannot be evaluated “purely and entirely” by means of “scientific methods”. Miracle claims are often historical claims, and any miracle claim about an alleged event in the life of Jesus is necessarily an historical claim, so unless historical investigation can be reduced to scientific investigation, then Dawkins’ strong claim looks very dubious.

A bit of reflection about the example that Dawkins gives will show this to be a very serious difficulty for his epistemological claim about miracles. Finding a bit of human DNA that has indications that the person from whom the DNA came had no father does not settle the question “Did Jesus have a human father?” nor does it answer the question “Was Jesus born to a mother who was a virgin at the time of his birth?” In order to answer those questions, we need DNA from Jesus, not just from any random person.

How might we come across DNA from Jesus? Suppose that dried drops of human blood were found on the Shroud of Turin, and the DNA in that blood showed evidence that the person from whom the blood came had no biological father. We still need to ask the question, “Were these drops of blood from Jesus?” otherwise, the DNA evidence has no relevance to our theological questions, which are questions about Jesus.

One way of trying to connect the Shroud of Turin to Jesus, is to argue that the particular wounds indicated by the image on the Shroud are strikingly similar to the wounds that Jesus received when he was beaten, scourged, and crucified. I’m not impressed by this argument, but I can imagine the evidence for these correspondences being stronger and clearer. It is, at least in principle, possible to find such evidence plausibly linking a shroud to Jesus of Nazareth.

However, we are making some important assumptions here. Was Jesus of Nazareth an actual historical person? If so, when and where did Jesus live? If so, was Jesus in fact crucified by the Romans? If so, what sort of beatings and wounds were inflicted upon Jesus as part of the crucifixion? Was Jesus nailed to the cross, as most depictions of the crucifixion show, or was he tied to the cross, as many other victims of crucifixion were? These are clearly historical questions. The main evidence comes from the Gospels, but there is also some archeological evidence, and some other historical sources that must be taken into consideration.

It seems fairly obvious that these historical questions require historical investigation, that is, the use of historical evidence and historical methods for dealing with that evidence. Biochemistry and physics simply will not answer these historical questions.

So, yes, DNA evidence could conceivably become relevant to the “theological” question, “Was Jesus born to a mother who was a virgin at the time of his birth?” So, NOMA is false. But, no, the use of methods that are “purely and entirely” scientific methods will never yield an answer to this question, because in order for DNA evidence, for example, to be relevant, the DNA sample must first be connected to Jesus, and the job of doing that connection belongs to historians and requires the application of historical methods to historical evidence.

Dawkins own example refutes both NOMA and his own strong epistemological claim about how we should investigate alleged miracles, especially the traditional historical miracles used to promote religious belief. Thus, we should be very skeptical about Dawkins epistemological claim concerning the power of science to settle the question “Does God exist?”

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