Monday 24 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!”


David W. Congdon said...

Superb! Concluding with R. S. Thomas is a beautiful touch. A quote or two from Bonhoeffer's "Letters and Papers from Prison" (especially now that they have been published in the collected works) against the "deus ex machina" and "god of the gaps" would have been a nice addition. In any case, an excellent Wittgensteinian reply to the "God hypothesis."

Lee said...

Good points here, there anything that would count as evidence against God's existence? Or is God's existence compatible with any world whatsoever? I tend to agree with William Jame's dictum that "A difference that makes no difference is no difference." So, does God make a difference to how things go in the world?

Jeremy said...

I really want to get this, I do. But I just don't. God clearly is an explanation for things, in a way that's at least analogous to the way I am an explanation of things (e.g., the existence of this comment). And though I realize my faith is weak, it is a faith definitely based on the fact that the Christian story seems to me to make the most sense of the totality of my human experience. Because of that, I live in a certain way, seeking God as revealed in Christ. I am not certain about my faith. But I would like to think I would still stand, in my uncertainty, and face death or whatever if need be. Do you conclude such faith is merely counterfeit or confused?

Nine said...

Lovely propositions Kim =)

I do wonder though about the duality you seem to set up between faithful confidence being provisional and knowing God in the practices of praise, prayer and love. Of course, your target is the 'God hypothesis' as applied to physics and evolution, but what do you think of Charles Taylor's, for example, description of faith as 'anticipatory confidence'in 'A Secular Age'?

Taylor is at pains to disrupt epistemological language game of science to make room for the reality of religious experience - such as the love and guidance of God he knows in through prayer. Yet, for him, deconstructing the reductive rules of materialism is not enough to lift his seemingly irreducible encounters with God from the fray of competing explanations. He takes a stand, perhaps quite confidently, in whatever paradigm seems most hermeneutically adequate to his experiences. With God this includes a strengthening of trust and certainty through relationship, but structurally, there is always a possibility that another paradigm might supercede his own. Yet this is no reason for a paranoid anxiety but an aspect of our creaturely finitude we must come to accept.

"Can we have faith in a god the evidence for whom we must ever be checking and rechecking?"

I think this is a good existential question. But where does your confidence to not keep checking come from? Is it a fideistic assertion of your creed and methods for engaging with reality, the superiority you see in your paradigm over others, or another view altogether?

These are genuine questions that I'd appreciate your and others reflections on.


Anonymous said...

@ Lee
Herbert McCabe, in his essay on creation in the wonderful volume God Matters, does indeed point out that:

". . . it is clear that God cannot interfere in the universe, not because he has not the power but because, so to speak, he has too much; too interfere you have to be alternative too, or alongside, what you are interfering with. If God is the cause of everything, there is nothing he is alongside. Obviously, God makes no difference to the universe; I mean that we do not appeal specifically to God to explain why the universe is this way rather than that, for this we need only to appeal to explanations within the universe. . . . (6)

Kim, as usual, excellent stuff.

Paul Tyson said...

Hi Nine

I’ll have a go at part of your question (hoping that Kim and others will weigh in as I flounder). I cannot comment on Charles Taylor (whom I admire, but I have not yet read his secular Age) but I think the stance Kim puts forward is correct. The nub is do we judge God or does He judge us? Does the creature put the Creator in the dock and ask Him to prove or justify His existence in the endlessly provisional court of hypothetical scientific rationality (I think Chesterton said something about the ‘hypothesis of Man’, certainly Lewis laughed about whether Man was a myth or not), or is there a Day when we are judged – and finally judged – by God to see if we have lived true to reality, in the one and only Life that he has offered to us, or not. This is not an argument for stupid unquestioning credulity (certainly Job was a great believer) but it is an observation about how the Scriptures describe the only valid process of knowing truth. Epistemologically, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. That is, true knowledge only comes to us as a gift from God (a gift of Himself, who is Truth) when we are in the receptive mode of humble worship. We cannot grasp or build truth (this is no Truth, but only a delusional construct) but Truth can grasp us, even though Truth is always beyond our intellectual capture and can never reduce to the tiny categories of humanities powers of ratio-empirical closure. Poetically, we give praise back to God in constructed and feeble human truth terms, as a response and fruit of what He has given us – but that is not ultimate truth, and that is a derivative process not a process where we in some Cartesian sense, are the central epistemological node of our existence. For this reason, the essence of the hypothesis of God idea (both in its ‘scientific’ acceptance and rejection as inadequate or superfluous) is hubris. We presume to stand over (or ignore) God rather than understand (stand under) God and allow Him to reveal Himself to us. The Scriptures have a great deal to say about epistemology – and always in the context of worship and the knowledge of love (which alone illuminates all knowledge in the light of truth) – but, as much as I admire Charles Taylor, it seems to me that the way to knowledge is not available to the secular age, characterised as it is by the anthro-epistocentric worship of Man. Well… there, possibly, is a start. Please come back, as I think your question is very important Nine.

Jeremy Wales said...

Isn't there a false dichotomy running through these propositions? That EITHER we are committed to God inherently OR we demonstrate that God is currently the best explanation of the evidence?

Why can't it be both? Why can't I be inherently committed to God knowing it's only because he's sent the Spirit of his Son into my heart AND ALSO point out to those who reject God on the basis of 'only following the evidence' that this evidence is best explained by the 'God hypothesis'?

Am I missing something? (Probably :-)

Ben Myers said...

Oops, my apologies to Kim: I accidentally posted an earlier draft of this piece instead of the final version. I've fixed it now — please especially see the excellent new version of #5.

Bacho said...

Excellent post. Very well articulated and thought provoking. Reading it I was reminded of the following words by Nicolas Lash,

"I have often quoted a remark that I heard Gerald O’Collins, the Australian Jesuit, make 40 years ago: "A theologian is someone who watches their language in the presence of God." The church becomes an academy of word care to the extent that people learn that even the most academically demanding and technical theology has to be done, at least metaphorically, on one’s knees, with one’s shoes off."

How might this add to this discussion on the God hypothesis?

Lee said...

@solaintellectum: I think I get what McCabe's saying, but suppose that there are features of the universe that can't be explained by anything within the universe? For instance, why are the basic laws of the universe such that they give rise to creatures capable of thinking about and praising God? Why those laws and not some other possible set?

Moreover, I can't help but think that the language of "interference" loads the dice a bit. Why not speak (with, say, Arthur Peacocke) about God's interaction with the universe?

Unknown said...

Good point about the Lennox book, Kim. But to be fair, mindful "God-hypothesis" folk are not attempting to prove the existence of Yahweh, they're simply showing that faith can be inductive. It only goes so far, and insofar as proponents (and their devotees) get that, it's not completely useless—i.e., in its potential ability to "stop the mouths of the obstreperous" (so Calvin).

Anonymous said...

Great post Kim. There is still an important distinction we should draw though.

There are significant differences between teleological and ontological arguments. Your critique does apply to the former; proving that there is 'design' in nature is a far cry from proving the existence of the biblical God.

But the ontological argument (which, although a prayer, is certainly also an argument) purports to prove that there is a being than which none greater can be conceived. Since the word 'conceived' often misleads those who haven’t studied the argument into thinking that the argument falls prey to Feuerbachian-style critiques—when of course it doesn’t—we should follow Plantinga's reformulation of the argument as an argument for a maximally great being. Whether one thinks the argument is valid or sound (perhaps the great atheist philosopher David Lewis was right and it is either one or the other, not both), if it succeeds, it proves the existence of exactly what it claims to: a maximally great being. Now IF there is such a maximally great being, it clearly is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who freely took on flesh, Jesus Christ. The only way to deny this would be to say something like ‘I believe in the biblical God, but I also believe there is a being greater than God,’ which is clearly absurd. Let me repeat that I am not claiming the argument certainly does work; I am simply claiming that if it does work, it is God’s existence that it proves.

Still, I fully agree regarding teleological arguments and the ‘intelligent design’ movement.


Paul Tyson said...

It seems to me that the guts of what Kim has put forward here has been missed somewhat. Surely the greatest difficulty with the hypothetical treatment of ‘God’ as the causal object that starts nature is its impiety, and this impiety is embedded in an assumed nominalistic heresy where God is an object amongst objects, and nature also is merely natural. The root of these impious and heretical impossibilities to the Pascalean rejection of the God of the philosophers is the assumption that my knowledge is the stance from which judgement not only can be made, but must be made. I stand over both God and nature in this stance. The tricky thing here is that superficially an appreciation of creation as revealing the glory of God and the joy of delight in observing and thinking about nature hazes the line between right devotion with its doxological response to the marvel of God and His creation, and gross impiety. It is not that Aristotle and Bacon had no true piety – but their devotion is mixed with the profound impiety natural to the fallen estate.

Paul Tyson said...

Sorry one and all, but this is argumentative void is churning me over... It is not irrational to believe in the existence of God. I do not believe that God exists and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him because such a belief is impossible (apologies to Tertullian here – I understand and agree with what he means). To the contrary, because it is a prerequisite of faith, such vital belief in the existence and interestedness of God is given to me by divine grace. That is, truth is always given and never taken. This is the case for all truth. Certainly all truth accessible to humanity is belief and word dependent rather than “God’s eye” rationally objective (see Hamann on Kant). If we will not listen to the witness of the Spirit at the very core of our derivative being, what external “evidence” will we accept? Any pursuit of truth, so the stance of faith maintains, is a pursuit of divine grace (see Bonaventure). If the Christian faith is true, then God is closer to me than my very self and my total dependence on Him in every way makes the very idea of His non-existence literally inconceivable, and the idea of proving what is inconceivably and foundationally the case simply makes no sense at all. Our evangelism is not one of “proof”, but one of witness demonstrated by the strength of the redemptive work of Christ in our own lives. And it is the Spirit who does all the heavy internal lifting in the process of evangelism anyway. To think that God might not exist – or that His uncertain existence might be “proved” – is an act of hubristic self delusion of the first order for the person of faith. Thus the witness of the transcendentalia – truth, goodness, beauty – are available to all who have eyes to see, who have the eyes of faith. That everything around about me is consistent with the giftedness, goodness and creativity of the Creator – even the presence of death, corruption and evil – cannot other than be maintained by the believer. For, with Hauerwas and Augustine, I think the problem of theodicy is as false as the hypothesis of God. If these two are right then any proof or disproof of God that rests on the presence of evil (and I have heard plenty “sovereignty of God” arguments seeking to divinely justify evil) is an exercise in delusion too.

Anonymous said...

So well put Kim. This is doxology, not merely theology! (I often think of Antony Flew leaving his atheism, and following the trail only to arrive at mere deism. Still waiting for the bus to arrive).

Kim's last point, of knowing being only in practice, not theory, reminds me of this gem, by Leslie Newbigin, in 'Proper Confidence':

'Because the ultimate reality in the Bible is personal, we are brought into conformity with this reality not by the two-step process of theory and practice, vision and action, but by a single action comprised of hearing, believing, and obeying. The operative contrast is not between theory and practice; it is between believing and obeying on the one hand and the refusal of belief and obedience on the other. Believing and obeying are not two separate moves. When Jesus says to Simon, “Follow me,” the response is a single act of faith and obedience; there is no gap between a mental action of believing and a bodily action of following. The human person is not a mind attached to a body but a single psychosomatic being.'

Jonathan Keith said...

For scientists, as for Christians, the great theories (or doctrines if you prefer) are not easily overturned by a single observation. They are robust in the sense that they can accommodate a wide variety of experience. Rather than being subject to proof or disproof, they function as theoretical frameworks within which experiences can be organised and understood. They provide a satisfying synthesis of old data, and a lens through which to regard new data. The similarities between Dobzhansky's "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" and CS Lewis's "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else" are not accidental. In both cases, the compelling nature of the belief derives not so much from any specific argument, as from the power of the belief to illuminate.

roger flyer said...

Praise Kim from whom these blessings flow.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure I'll not be referring to God as a hypothesis when I meet Him. Good luck with that.

Highanddry said...

Great post Kim!

All I will say is that the God hypothesis mistakenly assumes that the Truth of God is the same as all other truth we know and experience. Hence, God becomes the subject of our limited inquiry as if humanity has within its grasp the ability to know, hold and reduce God. Is our God so small so as to be contained by words?

Post a Comment


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.