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What Is a “Scientific Fact”? Won’t Plain Ol’ Facts Do?

Nathan Jacobson » Reflections on Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion.

In the second chapter of The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that the “God Hypothesis” is a scientific question, susceptible to the weight of scientific evidence, both for and against. He strongly rejects the approach of those like Eugenie Scott and Stephen Jay Gould who would relegate the question of God to its own category, immune from the methods of scientific inquiry. Science and religion just aren’t talking about the same thing, they say. But in Dawkins’ view, “God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice.” (p. 73) Dawkins argues that, “the moment religion steps on science’s turf and starts to meddle in the real world” (p. 84, emphasis mine), any supposed demarcation between questions of science and questions of theology is erased. I agree, provided that we deal with Dawkins’ strong, implicit scientism. The Judeo-Christian religions are historical religions whose scriptures make countless claims about history in particular, but also to some extent about biology, cosmology, psychology, anthropology, and even God’s supposed interventions in the natural world. As such, this “God Hypothesis” is indeed open to critical inquiry, including scientific inquiry, and many Christian thinkers through the centuries have welcomed it and pursued it. The problem is Dawkins’ view that the answer to the God Hypothesis will be a “strictly scientific answer. The methods we should use to settle the matter […] would be purely and entirely scientific methods.” (pp. 82-83, emphasis mine) Here Dawkins is voicing a problematic epistemology that has been called “strong scientism”.

J.P. Moreland defines strong scientism as the view that

[T]he only thing we can know is what can be tested scientifically. Scientific knowledge exhausts what can be known and if some belief is not part of a well-established scientific theory, it is not an item of knowledge. Weak scientism allows some minimum, low-grade degree of rational justification for claims in fields outside of science like ethics. But scientific knowledge is taken to be so vastly superior to other forms of reasonable belief, that if a good scientific theory implies something that contradicts a belief in some other discipline, then the other field will simply have to adjust itself to be in line with science.

Dawkins manifests this view time and again.

“What expertise can theologians bring to deep cosmological questions that scientists cannot?” (p.79) “Theologians have nothing worthwhile to say about anything else; let’s throw them a sop and let them worry away at a couple of questions that nobody can answer and maybe never will… I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology is a subject at all… Does Gould really want to cede to religion the right to tell us what is good and bad? The fact that it has nothing else to contribute to human wisdom is no reason to hand religion a free licence to tell us what to do.” (p. 80)

So, clearly Dawkins doesn’t believe that theology has any cognitive value, but I wonder as well about philosophy, logic, ethics, and many of the “soft sciences”. For one, he refers to the well regarded philosopher, Richard Swinburne, as a theologian, presumably to lump him in with all the rest whom he has established have nothing worthwhile to add to the question of God’s existence.

As an aside… Dawkins is fond of making non-scientific, ethical judgments, casting aspersions on the Judeo-Christian God every few pages, calling him “fiercely unpleasant”, obsessed with charred flesh, a “monster”, and of course, in his most famous passage, “petty”, “misogynistic”, “racist”, “genocidal”, etc., etc. One of the principal projects of theology is to consider the biblical accounts of God in the context of culture, the full biblical narrative, and information from other sources. While I doubt their reflections would much temper Dawkins’ disgust, theologians could inform what is obviously the most simplistic of readings and — using the very same kind of mind (or brain, if you prefer) with which Dawkins is endowed — they do wrestle with how to reconcile the difficult passages Dawkins alludes to with those that describe God as he who “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.” And, who says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.” Perhaps, since we are considering the God Hypothesis, it may be helpful to have a well-formed concept of the entity we are putting to the test, and to be honest, I don’t take Dawkins to be as objective or informative in this regard as many of the theologians whom he disparages. Moreover, the most fundamental difference between the practice of science and of theology is not that of methodology, but of subject matter. Whereas scientists’ principal subject matter is the natural world, theologians’ is purported revelation. As for methodology, though far from identical, good scientists and theologians both bring the tools of reason, hermeneutics, comparative analysis, and peer review to bear.

What is most problematic, however, is Dawkins’ insistence that any relevant considerations of the God Hypothesis must be “strictly”, “purely”, and “entirely” scientific. Now, if you presuppose Naturalism, it might make sense that science would be the best toolset to decide the question since good science is obviously exceptional at studying matter and energy. Of course, the question at hand, whether God exists, is also a question of whether matter and energy is all there is or ever was, and we wouldn’t want to beg the question. But, the bigger problem is that, to infer anything from the scientific data will require that we draw upon the facts of math and logic, facts which are no less factual for not being “scientific” facts; not to mention the philosophical, especially epistemological, assumptions that undergird the practice of science in the first place. So, the scientists don’t get to sit at a table in the corner and decide the question of God’s existence all by themselves. Other cognitive fields of inquiry deserve a place at the table as well, however much Dawkins may think his chosen field of inquiry is the end all and be all.

If I may, allow me to rephrase Dawkin’s statement: “God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice…” through the collective efforts of human inquiry, including science, history, philosophy… and maybe even a smidge of theology. Science doesn’t get to have all the facts. The sum of 2+2 wasn’t discovered in a test tube, and the fundamental principle that something cannot be both A and not A governs scientific inquiry. It is not subservient to it. So here’s to good ol’, plain vanilla, facts.