Archive for June, 2010

Magesteria

June 7, 2010

One of the main points that Richard Dawkins tries to make in the second chapter of ‘The God Delusion’ is that science has something to say on the question of whether God exists or not. He states that

Either he (God) exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability

He spends a fair amount of time criticising the concept of NOMA, or ‘non-overlapping magesteria’ as put forth by other atheists /agnostics such as Stephen Jay Gould or Thomas Huxley which suggests that science and religion look at different realms or magesteria – science covers the empirical realm of what the universe is made of and why it works that way, whereas religion extends over questions of meaning and moral value. As these two magisteria do not overlap science cannot comment on religious questions.

Dawkins, as I said, objects violently to this view – he considers God’s existence a scientific question which should be assessed using our scientific knowledge. As often, he makes some fair points. If God has and does intervene in supernatural ways in this physical world, as the Bible says and I believe, then this intervention is not outside the ability of our scientific instruments to measure and comment on. In one sense, I am not that bothered by Dawkins’ view as I do not think that the ‘evidence’ points in the same way that Dawkins does.

However Dawkins does overstate his position and ignores two significant things:

1) When God works supernaturally / miraculously in the world it is a ‘one-off’ occurrence whereas science is essentially a study of the repeatable. Few scientific studies or discoveries are accepted until they have been repeated at least once by other researchers. The basis of science relies on the world working in a consistent way so that we can repeatedly study that consistent behaviour. The normal everyday way things work which science describes are (I believe) the way they are because that’s how God has made them, but they are not what we would call miraculous or supernatural. When God however causes the world to behave differently to the normal rules that he has created it is not ‘repeatable’ behaviour – and so science will (and does) ignore it as an unexplained ‘blip’.

2) If God (as I believe) is responsible for the world we see around us coming into being, God is not part of that creation. The created world is therefore not ‘all that there is’ to know about. To suggest that it is necessarily rules out the existence of a creator God. A study of that world cannot by definition study the God who is beyond, outside, greater than that created world – this is not a convenient fudge to move God outside of the realm of scientific study but an unavoidable implication of who we mean by God. While God may and does impinge on that physical world, the study of the world alone will always have significant limitations in what it can say about God (including about his existence).

The upshot of these two facts is that I think that science will only ever be able to say a very limited amount about God’s existence or non-existence. There is evidence, although it is perhaps more in the historical / experiential / personal realm than in the scientific one, but belief in God will always be, ultimately, a matter of faith. We will never scientifically prove God’s existence or non-existence, and I think there may be good reasons why God has made it that way – more about that, perhaps, in a later post.


%d bloggers like this: