Friday, September 29, 2006

To Be or Not To Be (On God)

Dawkins needs to show some doubt

Scientists work in a field full of uncertainties. So how can some be so sure God doesn't exist? asks Stephen Unwin

Friday September 29, 2006
The Guardian

I greatly enjoyed Joan Bakewell's review of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion (Judgment day, September 23). "He takes on all comers," she says. "Aquinas's five 'proofs', Pascal's wager (meant as a joke, surely), even Stephen Unwin's probability of God, whose use of Bayes' theorem to demonstrate the probability of God Dawkins scathingly dismisses as 'quite agreeably funny'."

During my unhurried descent from the elation of being targeted in such company, I realised that, as the only one of the three still alive, it fell upon me to respond. It is clear that on the question of God's existence Dawkins comes down firmly on the side of certainty. His dismissal of Pascal's wager (which is that, given the uncertainty, one has everything to gain and nothing to lose by belief in God) is a stark indication of his commitment to certainty.
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Below is my own take on this matter, previously posted as a comment to a blogpost on Darwinism:

It's a typical misunderstanding that the scientific method somehow amounts to a faith or a belief system when in fact it's quite the opposite.

Science is built on a few central axioms, such as the existence of reality outside the observer's mind (typically a human mind), the validity of logic, the principle of causality (cause comes before effect) and such like. These are axioms that are universally accepted by people, whether they are religious or not because without them any attempt at reasoning can only fail.

Religious faith however does posit a number of doctrinal points (centrally the existence of God) which cannot be proven but must be accepted as true by the believer, without doubt or question. One cannot be a religious doubting Thomas (at least not in fundamental matters of Faith).

Science operates almost in exactly the opposite way. Whilst accepting the same axioms as the basis for all reason, it builds theories ("models of the world" if you like) based on empirical evidence (empiricism, rationalism and historicism). These theories cannot ultimately be proven, although a strong body of evidence can be built that goes quite a long way towards "absolute proof". The quest for absolute proof is nonetheless asymptotic and its goal can never be achieved.

It is though constant internal examination, scepticism and self-doubt that scientific models gradually edge forward in (what we hope to be) the right direction, without however ever arriving at destination (final stop: "absolute proof"? No). In essence scientists never believe in their own theories because of the absence of absolute, unequivocal proof.

Even the most successful theories like quantum mechanics or relativity remain troubled. Whilst clearly having tremendous predictive power in most circumstances, there exist in the Universe many conditions in which neither theory works all that well. Clearly either or both are partially incorrect or at least incomplete. More work to be done!

I do understand that religious people do sometimes feel offended by the scepticism of the non-believer. Sometimes that scepticism is justified (you could build a forest from all the relics of the Cross, clearly they can't all be relics in the true sense of the word), sometimes it isn't (trying to prove God doesn't exist is futile, but questioning His Existence is within anyone's right).

Faith and science are hardly mutually incompatible though: there is no shortage of influential religious scientists.


At 8:48 PM, Blogger American Crusader said...

"Faith and science are hardly mutually incompatible though: there is no shortage of influential religious scientists."

Unless stated, one can only guess as to one's belief or disbelieve in God. Most scientists who have expressed their opinion usually come down on the side of God. Of course this proves nothing.

I personally feel that God and science are compatible. I believe in the "out of Africa" evolution of man while taking Genesis as allegorial. My priest firmly disagrees and fears for my soul.

Interesting essay, I saw your comments at beaks and found them to be well thought out even if I disagree. Palestinians in my opinion are terrorist who has been badly misled by their own people. I don't even believe that there are "Palestinian" people but I'll leave it at that for now.


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