Is Belief in God Rational? Part IV
Another Look at the Principle of Sufficient Reason, or Causation
Before I continue, let me refer to a number of misunderstandings that have arisen regarding the principle of causation, or of sufficient reason. We saw that this is the basis upon which the physical-theological proof is built. I will refer here to only two arguments which appeared in the first thread of talkbacks to third columns. I answered them there, and here I will only bring a summary.
Assaf of Haifa argued: “The assumption (of the scientific rationale) is not that ‘physical phenomena must have a reason (they don’t happen by themselves) but rather: ‘natural systems work according to certain laws’…”
In my opinion, Assaf erred in that he mixed two different concepts: the law of gravity is a mathematical description of physical events. However, the gravitational force is that which brings these events about. Our physicist cousins do not merely assume the correctness of the law of gravity but also the existence of the force of gravity. They assume this even before observing it. This is another indication that this is an a priori assumption of rational thought.
Dan from Tel Aviv argued that science does not assume the existence of reasons but at most hypothesizes their existence and looks for them. However, in my opinion, Dan is factually wrong. I invite readers to conduct an experiment. Tell a man science who deals with the study of any phenomena, that he is wasting his time, since these phenomena happen by themselves, for no reason whatsoever.
In Dan’s opinion, the man of science should answer: “It is certainly possible that you are correct my dear friend, but let us check and see if maybe nevertheless, surprisingly, we’ll find a reason.” Against this, I argue that any average scientist will say something along the lines of: “Don’t bother me with your mystical delusions. Nothing happens in the world without a reason.”
It seems to me that this is how rational, scientific thought takes place. Lacking clear evidence to the contrary, we assume that things happen because something or someone made them happen. Aside from esoteric cases in quantum theory (and even in them it is unclear that they happen without a reason), the fact remains that we ascribe things and events to reasons or causes.
More than that – as I briefly mentioned in the previous column, we do not find reasons but rather automatically assume their existence (since any connection appears to us to be causal, can be interpreted, as suggested by Hume, as a temporary consistency and nothing more). We see in it a causal connection because of the a priori assumption of our rational thought that usually things do not happen without a reason. Let me remind once again that I am not speaking of certainty but of reasonableness.
An Interim Summary
During the course of our discussion until this point we were confronted with the similarity between belief in God as a conclusion of the physical-theological proof and a scientific law. In both cases they are statements of fact which were derived from based on the unknown, and therefore are not certain. In spite of the similarity, belief in God is not a scientific argument. Now I will try to explain why this is, and afterwards I will discuss the question of whether this is important.
Positivism: The Scientific Objection
A common objection to the physical-theological proof is that argues that the conclusion that there is a God that created and runs the world is not a scientific argument. In spite of the points of similarity drawn above, I agree entirely. But let us examine the reasons brought for it:
- First, argues the objector, this is not a result of empirical observation. But here of course the question arises – what would he consider an empirical observation? I already mentioned that Kant himself pointed out that the physical-theological is based upon observations of the world (which show its complexity and degree of coordination).
- Perhaps the objector means to ask how we go from observations of the world to our metaphysical conclusion? But here too there is no connection between the two contexts, since we already saw that the physical-theological proof is like any inference which discovers a new scientific theory by basing itself on the unknown. This is the only meaning known to me for arriving at conclusions from observations. Indeed, in the background the problem of induction is breathing down our necks, presented by David Hume: every collection of facts may have infinite possible generalizations (or perhaps no generalizations? See the discussion above regarding Dan’s argument). If so, what is our justification for thinking that the generalization which seems simplest to us is the correct one?
However, this question exists regarding any scientific generalization, and is therefore not an undermining of the physical-theological proof. As I said, the purpose is to show that in the framework of scientific and rational thought the conclusion that there is a God is a naturally logical outcome. Those who reject the rational framework are not of interest here.
- A different version of this objection is the positivist argument, which point to the fact that the conclusion of the physical-theological proof contains metaphysical terms which are not properly defined. This objection can be understood in one of two ways:
- This is a use of terms that are devoid of any real content. The dependence on God is nothing more than a confession that I have no explanation or understanding. We already dealt with this in the previous column, and therefore I will only remind here that the conclusion of the physical-theological proof is that there is some force which created the world and established the laws of nature which control it. The proof says nothing about this force other than it exists and that that is what it did.
This assertion certainly contains meaning, and I do not see any ambiguity in it. In any event, no more than the ambiguity of what is called in mathematics a “non-constructive existence statement”, in other words a statement which asserts that a particular equation has a solution (without specifying it). The conclusion of the physical-theological proof is also an existence assertion without an explicit focus. It is true that the field in which it deals is meta-physics, in other words that which is beyond physics. However anyone who is not stuck in the logical positivism and analytical philosophy of the previous century understand that metaphysics and ambiguity are not synonymous.
- The problem of falsifiability. The philosopher of science Karl Popper defined a criterion for the scientific nature of a theory, which in a very simplistic and inexact formulation (but sufficient for our purposes) says: a theory is scientific only if it provides predictions which can be put to the test through expiriments (I am not even demanding falsifying).
An argument which does not identify the forces whose existence it posits, makes any empirical testing thereof very difficult. An argument which deals with that which is beyond physics, is certainly not subject to empirical physical testing. I certainly agree with this argument, since I know of no (scientific – AIWAC) predictions which can be empirically tested.
We reached the conclusion that in spite of the similarity between the method of inference of the physical-theological proof and scientific induction, belief in God is not a scientific argument. We can now describe the picture we have thus far like so: the physical-theological proof is indeed a logic-based inference like a scientific generalization, and its conclusion is indeed a factual (uncertain) argument, but it has another clear deficiency which prevents it from being considered scientific: it does not present a prediction which can be empirically tested.
A Comment on the Celestial Teapot
It is only fair to briefly mention here an argument in favor of atheism, raised by Bertrand Russell. Many quote it, as it has a very convincing and rational flavor. Think of a case where a man appears before us, and informs us that there is a small, transparent teapot which orbits the planet Jupiter, which due to its size and transparency cannot be observed in any way. Would it be correct to say that because we know nothing of this teapot, our position about it would be doubtful (agnostic)? Russell argues, correctly, that a rational person is not supposed to think so.
There is no reason to even accept this possibility, and it is therefore reasonable to summarily reject it. If so, continues Russell, the argument that there is a God, which is not exposed to empirical-scientific tools because of its abstractness, is a similar argument. Towards such an argument it is also incorrect to hold even to an agnostic or skeptical position, but to reject it categorically, and hold to a position of complete atheism.
This is an argument at least some of whose uses are problematic. The reason for skepticism towards the teapot is that we have no indication (independent of our witness) for its existence, and to the best of our knowledge neither does our interlocutor have any better information. Regarding the teapot, I too would be an atheist.
However, regarding belief in God the situation is different. With regard to that there is the physical-theological proof, which establishes the hypothesis of His existence, or at least denies its absurdity. If someone will come and argue that God exists (for instance, he met Him at Mt. Sinai), we could not summarily reject this. This is a hint for the path ahead: from the philosophical God to the religious God, but this is for another time. We will not mix two levels of discussion.
Even if someone is not convinced by the physical-theological proof, at most he can use the celestial teapot as an extra: if you were not convinced, you should become an atheist and not suffice with agnosticism. However, the teapot is in no way an argument that stands up by itself. We saw that if the physical-theological proof is correct, then the teapot analogy is meaningless for our discussion. Therefore the teapot analogy does not undermine the physical-theological proof in any way. The relevant discussion revolves solely around the question of whether or not the physical-theological proof is reasonable. The teapot is no more than a meaningless nuance in the theological discussion.
The Significance of All This: Between Science and Scientism
Our conclusion, therefore, is that belief in God is indeed not a scientific argument, as it does not make predictions which are subject to empirical testing. Does this undermine its validity, or reasonableness? Is it correct to say that arguments that are not subject to empirical testing are meaningless? We already saw above that this is not the case. Is it correct that it is unreasonable to use them, or believe in them? To the best of my understanding, if the physical-theological inference is reasonable, the fact that its conclusion is not scientific is irrelevant to the discussion.
When I see tracks in the sand I assume that there was someone there that made them. This conclusion is not scientific, because I have no way to empirically test it (how could I repeat such an experiment?). Arguments regarding the past are generally arguments which are very hard to subject to empirical testing. Should I doubt the conclusion that someone left tracks in the sand because of this? Should I think that they were formed by themselves?
It’s important to understand that the alternative that says that there is no such person (which, of course, is also not subject to empirical testing), is far less reasonable. Why? Because of the principle of sufficient reason, or causation. Those tracks were caused by something, even if I cannot point to it or describe it, and even is I don’t know of any creature that makes such tracks.
The positivistic arguments brought above are based on an attitude which can be called ‘scientism’, in other words the viewing of science as the be all and end all, in other words as the sole criterion for truth. I am one of those who thinks that science is an excellent tool, and if it is used properly then it is right to rely on it. Yet nevertheless, if after a logical examination I arrive at the conclusion that a non-observation based argument is convincing for me (such as the argument about the tracks in the sand), I adopt it.
Those who hold a ‘scientist’ position tend to reject such arguments solely by virtue of the fact that they are not subject to empirical testing. However faith in science does not mean the rejection of all that is not scientific. I am certainly for science, but I object to the religion of ‘scientism’. I am almost repeating here the difference between the rational and the rationalistic from the previous column.
The Atheist Church
One of the expressions of ‘scientism’, is the transformation of science into a kind of church, in which there is a profound mystical spirit and a trembling of holiness. Its God is the flying spaghetti monster (and before that Vonnegut’s Bakunin from “Cat’s Cradle), its believers are graced with a fanaticism that would not embarrass the US Bible Belt (one can gain this impression by flipping through the hysterical talkbacks to these columns), and its priests spread their word over every forum.
These priests are a number of scientists, all of whose words are considered by true believers as holy writ. Quotes of their words are considered by believers to be a substitute for arguments, as though they were scripture. Every quote of Steven Hawking, or Richard Dawkins, both of whom are apparently rather talented scientists but pretty lousy philosophers, even if they contain nonsense, is considered a clinching argument. This is the case whether they express themselves in the scientific field in which they specialize, and whether they rely on philosophical considerations which only touch on scientific fields, if at all.
They themselves, and even more so their devout believers, usually do not notice their hasty transition from science to philosophy. An example of this phenomenon will be discussed in the next column, when I deal with the objection from evolution.
Let me conclude by saying that I do not intend to argue here against science, or against people of science. My words are aimed at a specific group of scientists and their (foolish) adherents, whose dominance in the public discourse far outweighs their true importance. These see science as a kind of religion, and those who believe in God as heretics. They see science as their private property, if a believer (in God) is caught traversing its paths, Heaven help him (“what’s he doing in ynet/science? Send him to ynet/Judaism immediately!”).
In the next column we will (God willing) get to the objection from evolution.