Tuesday, November 13, 2012

God: A Hypothesis Worth Testing (Book Review)

Two Pew Research Center surveys in 2006 and 2009 showed 83% of Amerians and 33% of American  scientists believe in a traditional God. If you include a "universal spirit or higher power" this becomes 95% and 51%.

Victor Stenger's 2007 book God: The Failed Hypothesis is probably best suited for the 33 or 51% of scientists, assuming they're real scientists.  That is, that they base their beliefs on evidence and understand the necessary protocol. Scientists who don't believe have probably already thought these issues through and don't need the book, and most of the general public may find Stenger's approach either tedious or offensive. For a more conversational treatment of the same issues they should pick up Sam Harris' The End of Faith or the slightly more confrontational The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

The hypothesis that God exists is purposefully written in the positive. It's an extraordinary claim which normally would require extraordinary evidence; but the the author looks for any evidence, setting the threshold or for failure very very low.  But it's not at 0 probability, because it would not be possible to disprove God that way (for example, God may exist but has never revealed himself).  The hypothesis, the author claims, can be confidently dismissed by an overwhelming lack of evidence, like that used in a court of law. This would be analogous to concluding that your elderly neighbor on Estes Ave. Chicago is not also, say, the masked gunman terrorizing Toronto. You don't know that she's not a killer, but there is absolutely no evidence to suggest it and so you can confidently consider the hypothesis falsified. The same type of standard can be directed to the hypothesis that God exists.  Let's look for any reason to believe the Canadian killer might be the old woman next door.

The first step is to nail down the definitions.  This was actually my exact lament in a previous post.  Here, the author distinguishes between lowercase god and uppercased God with the former including the hands-off sort of deist  God, the odd assortment of deities, spiritualist beliefs, animism, and all creative manner of supernatural forces -- probably the sort referred to by the 12% and 18% in the graph above. The author is not arguing for or against these deities -- he just doesn't include them in his analysis.  His hypothesis refers only to the capital-G God, the interventionist Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, the sort which would be recognizable to the vast majority of believers. It does not include abstracted, esoteric, interpretations of God which often result from erudite theological gymnastics, even within these three big religions. The God he hypothesizes is the God most Americans (and many many others) actually believe in.

And the hypothesis and method must be carefully drawn up.  He describes the parameters: 1. protocols must be impeccable, 2. the HO must be established before the data are collected, 3. the work must be done without prejudice, 4. the HO must be falsifiable, and 5. results must be independently replicable.  Sounds like a plan.

Although devout believers will not read this book because of the title, they should actually feel comfortable with the inquiry. If there's a reasonable chance that God exists, it may strengthen their faith and thereby curry His favor. If there is no evidence to support the hypothesis, well maybe they have been wasting their time.  That's good to know, too.  And it wouldn't be all bad news; I'm reminded of a t-shirt: "Smile, there is no Hell."  If there is no evidence for one, clinging to the idea that God might be true anyway would be analogous to living in fear of the elderly neighbor because she might be the frequent-flier killer of Canadians. Why would anyone choose to do live with that fear?

There are plenty of ways the hypothesis of God would be supported. If lightning were to only strike wicked people, for example, it would be evidence.  Or if revelation actually predicted future events, or if prayer did improve the health of the prayed-for ... any of these would support the hypothesis. The author relies on reliable studies to test each one and more.  The hypothesis is rejected, which doesn't come as a surprise to me, as I've seen enough these studies studies -- with an open mind -- to lose my own misconceptions.  The God hypothesis, when you test it seriously, does not survive.

The book considers many angles: the illusion of design, evidence from the cosmos, failures of revelation, question of values and morality, the argument from Evil.  Scientists will be pleased with the rigor and (judging from the survey) perhaps surprised by the results.  There's no evidence for God existing.  At all.  Mercifully, for those who might be surprised, he asks whether beauty, hope, morality, kindness, generosity, love, forgiveness, and all those good things can exist, if there is no God. The evidence shows clearly, strongly, thankfully: yes.  They do exist.  There're biological reasons for altruism (I've explored this carefully in previous posts); and athiests actually behave as well or better than believers.

Anyone who seriously wonders, and is influenced by evidence and reason, will appreciate the careful treatment of this important question.  There are extensive end-notes and references, and citations, as one would expect.  To believers, it could be jarring, and many will likely be curious whether the author chose his studies with bias.  If there are good studies or solid evidence for God which the author overlooked, by all means, bring them forward.  But it is -- how could anyone not agree -- a hypothesis worth testing and a question worth looking into, in the glorious years you still have left.

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