Dawkins: God is a scientific hypothesis

Jonathan Miller, the noted British humorist, opera director and atheist, interviewed Richard Dawkins on evolution and related issues for a series he was doing for the BBC. In this segment (part 3 of 3 available on YouTube), Dawkins explains his belief that the question of the existence of God is a scientific issue:


It is my understanding that this was shown as part of Miller’s 2004 BBC shows, The Atheism Tapes. Parts 1 and 2 of this interview are also available on YouTube here and here. So, this is nothing new or groundbreaking, but as has been said before, it does provide support for including Intelligent Design and/or Creationism in science classes, regardless of the Dover decision. Dawkins, in taking this position, does appear somewhat braver than those who would rather silence any challenge to naturalism. Of course, I believe his logic is off, in his assumption that any God who involves himself in creation would necessarily be subject to a cause-and-effect analysis.

I also realize that in taking the position that I do – that God is not necessarily “testable” through the scientific method – that I sound as if I could end up siding with those wanting to keep Creationism out of the public schools. However, I’ve held all along that science and philosophy are (or should be) “joined at the hip.” Science without some “big picture” thinking (even allowing for the possibility that something exists outside of what we can touch and see), is dreadfully dangerous. The moral implications of “pure” science are horrifying – just take a look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Dawkins, here, is at least thinking outside the box – or, rather, rethinking what should be in the box.

14 thoughts on “Dawkins: God is a scientific hypothesis”

  1. You’re being inexact; there is evidence that God exists, just not of the type acknowledged by materialists. But I think we do agree that science limits itself to that which is material, and that God, as Theists believe, is not material. However, that does not mean that science cannot point to possibilities which it cannot comment (such as the possible existence of an Intelligent Creator/Designer. As Michael Behe has stated,

    “I myself do believe in a benevolent God, and I recognize that philosophy and theology may be able to extend the argument. But a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far. Thus while I argue for design, the question of the identity of the designer is left open….

  2. “then science can only “prove” the existence of God if God decides to play along”

    I agree. And since there is no evidence that any supernatural being ever does anything, the hypothesis that there exists such a being seems to be unnecessary for science.

  3. If I may speak in philosophical terms for a moment, you are making the error of treating God as object rather than subject. Science only works if the object under scrutiny repeatedly reacts to stimuli in the same way; and, you must be able to control the experiment, and so on. If God is the supreme Subject (as Christians, Jews and others claim He is), whose will is supreme and who cannot be “moved,” then science can only “prove” the existence of God if God decides to play along; and in that scenario, science has still proved nothing.

  4. The fundamental point is that IF god “intervenes” in the real world, then science could potentially detect that intervention and that would allow such a god to be a scientific hyposthesis. So they tried a scientific experiment with prayer. If the “true believers” “prayed properly” and a god “answered those prayers”, then the experiment should be able to detect this “effect”. Of course the experiment failed to detect any effect.

    So the point is: if there is a way in which this supposedly supernatural entity actually affects the real world, then the entity can be detected. The “scientific hypothesis” is “the supernatural entity can affect the real world”. Dawkins finds this to be an interesting hypothesis. But there is no evidence to support it.

    “If ethics are merely a human agreement, then ethics are not binding beyond the individual or collective in question.”

    And you find that horrifying? Well, we do have jails and people have been executed. I suspect criminals are much more afraid of going to jail than they are of going to hell. And we have the example of “sharia” to show us what religious laws can entail. What authority will interpret the “holy writings” to determine right and wrong?

  5. I sometimes wonder if we are talking past each other.

    Perhaps. I am trying to stick with the point that materialists believe in a more limited scope of reality than non-materialists (which I think you would agree with). This is due to the presupposition that there is nothing outside of the material world (hence, “materialists”). Materialists, then, in the graph the book talks about, would choose to be found at point 0,0: the conscious, asymetrical logic corner of the graph.

    Moran states “Evidence has to count for something in the real world, if it doesn’t then we might as well be living in a dreamworld.” That is probably true- for that matter, even with all the evidence in the world, there’s still the possibility that we are still living in a dreamworld. How would we know? It is, it would seem, a choice, a “leap” to faith either in a purely material reality or in some other reality. For those of us who believe we are “in touch” with God, that brings us outside of the material set of possibilities and provides some evidence – albeit non-material – for what is real.

    But, I’m too tired to think too hard, so I’ll have to stop here for the night, aside from tossing in this quote from Jesus:

    I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? John 3:11,12

  6. I sometimes wonder if we are talking past each other. From that blog post (and I had been hoping there would be a more complete description of the book at Amazon, or at least a review) I first want to say that atheists are being mischaracterized in the premise of the graph. It’s hard to accept the rest, and especially the description of point 10,10. Here is a response Larry Moran;

    Is the existence of a soul and a life after death compatible with science. No. If you argue that it is then “science” loses all meaning as a way of knowing. It can be overthrown by any imaginary belief. It would mean that astrology and faith healing are also compatible with science just because some people want them to be. Evidence has to count for something in the real world, if it doesn’t then we might as well be living in a dreamworld.

    Francis Collins argues that the Moral Law is proof of the existence of God. Is this proof compatible with what we would recognize as good scientific practice? No, it isn’t. I don’t think even a philosopher would defend this as good logic. This is not a situation where there is a middle ground to stand on. Either Collins is right and God has been proven, or he is wrong and the Moral Law is not a proof of God. There may not even be a Moral Law–that’s surely something that rational people can investigate.

    What I have been trying to say is that it does not affect the scientific product what its practitioner believes outside of what the practitioner is presenting as evidence. The problem is saying that belief = evidence.

    And atheists like Van Morrison, and poetry, and art but we don’t need to think that God created it in order to enjoy it.

  7. I plan to deal with some of Mike’s comments in a separate post (the comments font is simply too small to take seriously…), but I’ll pass along this article that I ran across this morning from “Gagdad Bob” (Robert Godwin, a clinical psychologist), who is discussing the book The Symmetry of God, which uses a 2-axis graph to plot thinking styles, with one axis representing consciousness (unconsciousness to full consciousness) and the other representing asymmetrical to symmetrical logic (the post explains it better…):

    Consider point 0, 0, which would be at the lower left hand side of the graph. It corresponds with absolute consciousness and completely asymmetric logic. … But if there were someone who more or less lives at 0, 0 (or at least fantasizes that he does, an interesting paradox) it would be the naive atheist or materialist, who imagines that his puny conscious mind exhausts the real, or that the human ego somehow maps reality in a transparent, unambiguous way.

    Thus, what the atheist is really doing is superimposing his own cramped little 0, 0 onto every other point on the graph, which is absurd.

    The point Godwin is making is similar to what I have been attempting to say about the materialists limiting the field of possible knowledge to the rather small area they can see through their microscope, and their attempts to force all other knowledge into that small space. As a wise man once put it, “He who has ears to hear [that which is outside his current experience], let him hear.”

    Bob’s book also looks quite interesting as he attempts to “synthesize material from a number of diverse domains, including cosmology, theoretical biology, quantum physics, developmental psychoanalysis, attachment theory, anthropology, history, mysticism and theology, into a coherent, self-consistent, non-reductionistic whole.” If nothing else, he has a very amusing way of inventing words to express his ideas.

  8. Quixote; thanks for the link, but did you read the article?

    What we are suggesting is that being stuck in a doctrinal belief system which is intolerant of one’s own or another’s personal interpretation, or one which dispels science and foments intolerance of others while setting its followers apart as elite and uniquely special, is a move away from our full potential and from the kind of reasoning that has brought humanity its marvelous advances: that it is good to question the status quo, to remain open to creative new ideas, and to apply wisdom to their use. Moreover, when someone is stuck in a belief, we are suggesting that they might try to explore their capability to question and consider their own personal interpretations—to practice our evolved capacity for divergent thinking.

    I am not really sure why you thought this might support your case, and I am not sure what you mean by “Material theories of ethical development are laughably self-contradictory and porous,” if by implication you expect the can rely on a biblical basis for ethics. C’mon, it’s okay to trick the Amelikites by offering them food? Sounds pretty ethical to me.

    Ethics have a long history of being based on human reason and agreement, and I really don’t see how you expect to reliably determine a “true ethics” from an external source.

    I am not afraid of walking into what you call a graveyard; as non-material ethical concepts are ethereal.

  9. Introducing ethics sans transhuman ethical authority is deeply problematic. If ethics are merely a human agreement, then ethics are not binding beyond the individual or collective in question. Material theories of ethical development are laughably self-contradictory and porous. (On this issue, at least, I’m somewhat well read.) A materialist can certainly appeal to ethics, but if he were to apply his own scientific rigor to examine them, he would end up with nothing more than opinion. If that’s good enough for said materialist, it shows how selective his scientific “method” really is and, to be frank, how shallow is his ethical perspective.

    Mike may wax comprehensively about what is or is not science; but he may want to leave the ethics thing be, unless he dares tread the graveyard of all true materialists

  10. Science and philosophy are interdependent, but they are not interchangeable. How would you teach the “non-testable” designer in biology class? I certainly hope that you don’t mean to interject demonstrably false claims that high probabilities necessitate a Designer (as yet unnamed) because then you violate Aquinas’ warning about not witnessing using proofs that are known by us infidels to be false.

    Dawkins does not in fact lend support to teaching Intelligent Design/Creationism in schools, because he is saying the same thing that Stenger said. If there is a way, as ID claims to test the existence of the Designer then do it. When Stenger applied the proofs provided, he discovered that they were lacking. It can’t be taught as proved science until better proofs are shown, and this is where I always have a hard time following your logic (because perhaps my logic isn’t guided by the Holy Spirit as yours is:)

    1. God as you understand him is not testable.
    2. Science works with what can or can not be testable.
    3. Intelligent Design proposes a means for God to be testable, even if it has not done so as of yet.
    4. We should include Intelligent Design anyway.

    Mary Shelley was an atheist, btw, and you are making a mistake here on what pure science is. Pure science is the exploration of the natural world, and it is what people do when they want to know how things work. Dr. Frankenstein engaged in an egregious “applied science,” he wanted to be like the gods (“or, The Modern Prometheus) and create life. He didn’t consider the moral implications of creating something he didn’t fully understand.

    I took an ethics in business course at Concordia University, and the materials included a discussion of the do’s and don’t’s in societal interactions. One of the “don’t’s” was that we shouldn’t practice “science without ethics.” The professor was talking about not necessarily doing something just because we can, which I understood, but I hated the way that the term “science without ethics” was used in the materials; just because it was stated inaccurately. It should have been stated as “technology without ethics” because that is where things can do more damage than they are intended to fix.

    Dawkins is discussing the theme of “Un-weaving the Rainbow” – Newton, by describing how gravity works to control the motions of the planets, didn’t take away any of the awe that we feel when we look at the stars and contemplate the majesty of the universe. A materialistic understanding of the minutiae of how a cell works to maintain life doesn’t take away any sense of awe, either. It is beautiful. It is fantastic. Whether a scientist believes that there is anything beyond what we can touch or see, or find indirect traces of in a shale or the shape of a galaxy shouldn’t affect the way that they practice their craft.

    The reason that I feature Thomas Robey so often in my posts is that he doesn’t make the insistence that his faith should interfere with the way he practices science. He finds great satisfaction in his faith without demanding that it be proven, and I can understand his position far better than yours. Yours to me is very muddled, and your rebuttal on these pages to Dawkins is similarly muddled.

    This is where I see your block, and you can correct me if I am wrong, but if so do it clearly. I will go back to your declaration that you accept micro-evolution but not macro-evolution, despite what biologists have discovered.

    You insist that there has to be a material creator that creates life into separate species, which will remain static even if minor adaptations occur to provide survivability options. Yet you do not allow that new species can arise in the same manner. You won’t allow the implication that there would then be a testable limit to what natural, and by this I mean “blind,” processes can do. No limits have been found nor demonstrated; and in fact they are counter-demonstrated by such observed interactions as “ring species.” It is naturalistic philosophy that you argue against, and because naturalistic philosophy works well with what we actually observe you won’t allow yourself to move beyond the wall, mentally, of microevolution.

    You have created a roadblock because of the way that you want your faith to be demonstrated materially, which is the one thing that all “Creationisms” share, even if they disagree about time-lines and such.

    Genes are messy. They contain strands of both coding and non-coding DNA. They look as if Microsoft created them; bits and pieces here and there that have a purpose somewhere but not in this release (you or me, or sharks with genes for fingers but not for hands.) The complaint about Dawkins’ position is that he overemphasizes the role natural selection has in shaping DNA, when there are other forces clearly at play, although each of them as blind (except for sexual selection) as the other.

    Species are messy, there is no longer a reliance on Linnaeus because his classification no longer fits what can be observed. Cladistics work better now. And the idea that there can be micro- without macro- evolution is based in 19th century thinking. But this is what you want, because it fits more closely with your pre-suppositions. I can’t force you to go back and study biology, as I have done since I became aware a few years ago of the “Teach the Controversy” position.

    I do urge you to read John Wilkins, as he is stubbornly agnostic. His work on species concepts will explain to you why the idea of a barrier to macro-evolution is illogical; and he is with you on the “God can’t be ruled out” position. And he teaches philosophy of science, which should suit to a “t” your desire to see science and philosophy joined at the hip. You will find, though, that he believes that philosophy which is based on flawed applications of scientific observations has very little value; and should not be taught in schools. Evolving Thoughts is a link from my blog.

    (and if I might crow, see what PZ said about my observations on the “Science Framing 2.0 event at the Bell Museum.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *