Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Ten propositions on the God hypothesis

by Kim Fabricius

1. The story, possibly apocryphal, is both famous and paradigmatic. Summoned by Napoleon to give an account of his recently published Mécanique Céleste, the mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) was asked by the emperor why, unlike Isaac Newton, he had not mentioned God in his treatise on the gravitational forces of the solar system. “Sire,” replied Laplace, unmoved by Newton’s divine designer, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

2. Apparently, however, many contemporary scientists and philosophers do. After a century or more, the “God hypothesis” is making a comeback – and not just by the champions of ID – as an apologetic response to the “God delusion” of Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists. But what if the God hypothesis is itself a delusion? I think that it is. Picturing them as dark, frozen stars, Laplace was one of the first physicists to postulate the existence of black holes. A collapse into intellectual oblivion would be a fitting destiny for the God hypothesis.

3. Of course proponents of the God hypothesis do not offer it as a demonstration or proof of the existence of God. However, rejecting not only the conflict model (Dawkins) but also the neutrality model (Gould) of the relationship between science and religion, they argue that the empirical evidence of both physics and biology actually points to the existence of God, and therefore that in the “war of the worldviews” (Francis Collins), theism is more rational than naturalism.

4. I share with these thinkers their rejection of both the conflict model (based, pathologically, on a metaphysical prejudice) and the neutrality model (based, epistemologically, on the fact/value dichotomy). I also applaud some of the philosophical and historical points they make: e.g., that science no less than religion presumes a fiduciary framework, and that belief in a rational God who creates an orderly universe looks to be a foundation stone in the edifice of modern science. But after the curtain falls, and before they can take their bows, I head towards to exit.

5. To put it simply: the God hypothesis cannot be the God hypothesis – at least if this God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ. In fact, apart from the gloating of the godly laity at the scientific episcopate beating up Dawkins in his own cathedral, the thing I find most objectionable in “modern attempts to relate the observed cosmos to traditional religion,” as Professor Roger Lambert puts it to the precocious evangelical and computer scientist Dale Kohler in John Updike’s Roger’s Version, is “the sheer, sickening extravagance of it.” The God hypothesis – it is “churning the void in the hope of making butter.”

6. A hypothesis is an explanation – but God is not an explanation. Nicholas Lash proposes a declension narrative: “During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the word ‘God’ came to be used, for the first time, to name the ultimate explanation of the world. And, when it was in due time realized that the system of the world was such as not to require any such single, overarching, independent explanatory principle, the word ‘god’ was dispensed with, and modern atheism was born.” Ironic, or what? Christianity is, in the title of an early book by D. Z. Phillips, Religion without Explanation (1976).

7. A hypothesis is either probable or improbable – but the existence of God is neither probable nor improbable; indeed the non-existence of God is inconceivable. A deity who might not exist is contingent and therefore not worth the name of Yahweh (Exodus 3:14). Kierkegaard drives the point home: “God does not exist, he is eternal.” That is the truth behind the unfortunately named ontological argument (Anselm’s “proof” is, in fact, a prayer). At least it is for believers, who, if they engage atheists on the field of probabilities, are acting in bad faith, i.e., in either a fraudulent or downright idolatrous manner. The Creed does not begin “On balance, we believe …”

8. Or again, a hypothesis is provisional: it always concludes with the words “Until Further Notice”. A hypothesis issues from the facts as they are known. But quite apart from the fact that God is not a fact, new facts may always be discovered that suggest that a hypothesis is mistaken, and has to be discarded or reframed. Can we have faith in a god the evidence for whom we must ever be checking and rechecking? There I am, perusing the science section in Waterstones, when suddenly I cry, “O shit!” and, faith shattered, run screaming from the shop. The tentative do not say, “Here I stand.”

9. In short, advocates of the God hypothesis mistake the nature of God and the grammar of faith. At best you get a designer god who is not the Creator, let alone the Trinity. And while the argument for a designer god is buoyant when it directs us to the wonder, beauty, and intricacy of the world, it sinks without trace before the inexplicable and intractable reality of evil. It is telling, revealing that John Lennox, the author of God’s Undertaker (2007), who while burying Dawkins builds the most persuasive case I know for the God hypothesis, is completely silent on the problem of theodicy. Come to think of it, I would direct those who sincerely seek God to suffering, not science; and finally to the cross, not the computer.

10. As for the grammar of faith, one can know God only in practice, not in theory, with commitment, not disinterestedly. One can only know God by confessing, praising, and loving God. Science can only stand at the bus stop, checking Paley’s watch (now digital), and telescopically peering at the corner which Godot never turns. R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet of the Deus absconditus, who grappled with science and the philosophy of science – and jotted ratty comments in his copy of Paul Davies’ God and the New Physics (1983) – knew better:

    I have waited for him
    under the tree of science,
    and he has not come.

One can only wait for God under the tree of prayer: “Veni, Creator Spiritus!”

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