One way of understanding “science” is that it is concerned with the discovery and verification of facts. If God exists, then the existence of God is a fact. If there is no God, then the non-existence of God is a fact. Either way, there is a fact to be discovered and verified. So, it looks like under this conception of “science” the question “Does God exist?” would be properly categorized as a scientific question.
But, what is a “fact”? This is itself a problematic and ambiguous word. It might, on closer inspection, turn out to be as unclear and problematic as the word “science” and thus not provide much help or clarification about the nature of science.
The word “fact” has different meanings or shades of meaning, depending on what it is that we are contrasting with “fact”. Here are a few common contrasting concepts:
A. Fact vs. Fiction
B. Fact vs. Opinion
C. Fact vs. Value
D. Fact vs. Theory
A. Fact vs. Fiction
Sometimes “fact” is contrasted with “fiction”. In this sense of the word, it refers truth, and means something like a true claim. Agnostics do not assert that the claim “God exists” is false; rather, they believe that while it is possible that the sentence “God exists” is true, we human beings are in no position to determine or know that this sentence expresses a true claim or fact.
If “fact” is understood to mean true claim, and if some true claims are unknowable by humans, then some facts are unknowable by humans and thus some facts are beyond the reach of scientific investigation, at least scientific investigations conducted by humans. If agnocitism is correct, then the question “Does God exist?” would not be a scientific question, because any investigation or reasoning about this question would fail to discover or establish the existence or non-existence of God as a fact.
Another skeptical position, held by many philosophers in the 20th Century, is that the sentence “God exists” does not express a meaningful claim. If this view is correct, then the sentence “God exists” does not express a true claim or fact, and the sentence “There is no God” also fails to express a true claim or fact. If this skeptical viewpoint is correct, then the question “Does God exist?” is not a scientific question, because any investigation or reasoning about this question would fail to discover or establish the existence or non-existence of God as a fact.
However, if there is a God, or if there is no such being as God, and if human beings have the ability to determine or know that there is a God or that there is no God, then the question “Does God exist?” would be a scientific question, on the above interpretation of “fact” and “science”.
B. Fact vs. Opinion
In rhetoric there is a widely referenced distinction between “fact” and “opinion”. I think this distinction is so unclear as to be worthless. However, it does suggest a number of other distinctions, which are a bit more clear and also a bit more helpful. It suggests the distinction between “fact” and “value”, the distinction between “fact” and “theory”, the distinction betwen “fact” and “conjecture”, and it also suggests the distinction between “fact” and “reasoned judgement” (e.g. when diagnosed with a serious illness, one should seek a second “opinion”), as well as the distinction between “fact” and “probability”.
The unclear distinction between “fact” and “opinion” will not be useful for clarifying the words “fact” or “science”, but it does point us to other distinctions that are worth a closer look.
The distinction between “fact” and “value” seems relevant to the task of clarifying the word “fact” especially in the context of using this word to define what we mean by “science”. As I pointed out in Part 6 of this series of posts, Stephen Gould in his book Rocks of Ages, focuses heavily on the fact vs. value distinction in order to distinguish science from religion.
Stephen Gould and Richard Dawkins appear to be in agreement that questions about the acceptability of moral principles and judgements are not scientific questions. Gould bases this view on the fact vs. value distinction, and he points to the descriptive nature of scientific claims in support of his view that science does not deal with questions of value.
If “fact” is understood in contrast with “value”, then it refers to description, and means something like a descriptive claim, as opposed to an evaluative or normative claim. So, on this understanding of “fact” and on the assumption that science is concerned with the discovery and verification of facts, science would be concerned with the discovery and verification of descriptive claims, but not with evaluative claims.
On this understanding of “science”, the question “Does God exist?” would not be a scientific question, in my opinion, because the word “God” is not a purely descriptive term. Something is “God” only if it is a perfectly good person. If science does not deal with evaluative or normative claims, then science cannot determine whether there is a person who is perfectly good.
However, one can re-define the word “God” to eliminate any normative or evaluative criteria, and thus produce a purely descriptive concept of “God”. That is what Dawkins does in The God Delusion. Dawkins eliminates the normative criterion of “goodness” from his concept of “God” and puts forward a definition that appears to involve only descriptive criteria.
So, given that Dawkins’ has provided a purely descriptive definition of “God”, the question, “Does God exist?” would properly be considered a scienfitic question, based on the view that science is concerned with the discovery and verification of true descriptive claims. However, this is subject to the qualification that Dawkins definition of God makes it so that the claim “God exists” is not only a meaningful claim, but is one that human beings can potentially determine to be true.
D. Fact vs. Theory
Another distinction suggested by “fact” vs. “opinion” is the distinction between “fact” and “theory”. What I have in mind here is the idea that direct observations are where the rubber meets the road in science. Theories can be tweaked, revised, and even rejected, but “facts” or direct observations are not so easily adjusted or rejected. While it is true that a theory can be used to cast doubt on a specific observation, that is only the case when the theory has been well-established on the basis of a large number and variety of observations.
To be continued…