No search for the meaning of God would be valid without a discussion of the opinions of my three primary antagonists: the scientists, the religious, and the skeptics. They have intelligent members with pure intentions, but seem to derive diametrical opposing conclusions. In the latest survey of the members of National Academy of Science only 7.5% of the physicists and astronomers professed a believe in God, while in a recent Gallup poll of Americans over 90% professed a belief in God. Surveys of skeptics reported by Michael Shermer in his book How We Believe, published in 2000, show only a 40% belief in God. So I wondered are physicists naturally atheistic or do they know something the general population doesn’t? Why do so many comparably intelligent people start with what seems to be the same facts but end up with such demonstratively different conclusions?
In my opinion only a fool does not acknowledge overwhelming success of science and the endless list of gifts it has brought into our lives, such as miracles of medicine, communications, computers, plastics, transportation. Yes, I am also aware of the criticism of some that it caused a few horrors, such as weapons of war. But science is only a methodology, inherently, neither good nor evil. Those who attempt to negate the value of the method, based of the folly of its benefactors are certainly uniformed.
Similarly, religion has its list of impressive accomplishments, such as miracles of the human spirit, altruism, love of thy neighbor, hope, charity, and, at the same time, a few failures, such as “ethnic cleansing”, sub-humanization of minorities and females, intolerance. But, it is also just a methodology, neither good nor evil.
Considering both science and religion are very successful, why do those practicing either one conclude so differently on something as significant as the existence of God? My experience teaches that “truth” is “truth.” Whether my derivation uses geometric, algebraic, or syllogistic methods, the same facts should give the same answer.
To help me figure out this conundrum, I studied during the last several years a new methodology - skepticism. I learned, when conclusions differ from common sense, there usually was an undocumented systemic error either in the factual record or in the analysis method. Almost always, some critical detail got excluded, either accidentally due to poor training or intentionally due to an unapparent agenda.
I have performed many experiments where some of my data looked weird and lied out of range of the others. I labeled them statistical aberrations. But, before I excluded any, I carefully repeated the conditions that gave them birth, studying the peculiarity and documenting my arguments for disposition. The last thing I wanted to do was to anticipate my conclusion. Biasing data to achieve desired results happens so often, that most skeptical reviews automatically reject any experiment not performed using “double blind” techniques. In order to understand how two successful persuasions obtained nearly opposite answers meant I had to investigate carefully and systematically, while remaining alert to biases and agendas, how each got its answer.
In the scientific method, the first step is the design of the experiment, making sure I performed the necessary tests and my equipment was sufficient to measure the effect. Necessity also required that if I wanted to claim a cause and effect relationship, I needed to prove unequivocally I eliminated all other potential for cause other than my measurement and it would give rise to the effect.
An example of a poorly designed experiment which received wide attention was the so-called “bible codes.” The objective was to find evidence that the Bible must be inspired by the hand of God by demonstrating He left his signature in the text. Using a numerical filter, such as pulling every nineteenth letter (the number nineteen is significant to some religions such a Bahai, Islam) from the Torah researchers find words which seem to suggest events in history, such the word HITLER in nearby proximity to the word WAR.
However, for this cause and effect claim to be valid, they must also show the Bible is the only instance of this occurrence and that the symbols HTLR (Hebrew has no vowels) is unequivocally intended to mean Adolf Hitler. Skeptics have used similar filters on randomly selected literary works, such as War and Peace by Tolstoy and achieved comparable results.
(A good discussion on Bible Codes can be found in Matt Young’s 2000 book, No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe, pp 103-107.)
Proper use of the scientific method requires extensive training. Often I read where a trusting general public is misled by people, often with advanced university degrees (typically an M.D., Ph.D. in a non-scientific discipline, or just plain fake), claiming to be scientists. So my skeptical review must verify the researcher’s expertise and look for possible hidden agendas. I recognize the responsibility to develop this skill belongs with our best universities. I look for certificates of competence from quality institutions - a Ph.D. in Science. I am automatically suspect of anyone on a mission. I would expect to find them to engage in experiments not of discovery, but of vindication, which frequently have little credibility.
The second step in the scientific method is to gather the facts, i.e. the evidence. When I am engaged in this work I carefully qualify my instruments, knowing all measurements have errors. I do my best to eliminate systemic error and minimize random error. What I can’t; I carefully quantify. I also confirm my instrument does measure the effect for which I am examining. Normally, a competent analysis of errors would confirm that, but not all researchers bother.
Pseudo science abounds in worthless instruments. Some are obvious fakes, such as Tarot cards, divining rods, tea-leaves, séances, automatic writing, chiromancy, dactylomancy, etc., but others have an element of science in their configuration and can be more difficult to debunk, such as astrology, chiropractics, phrenology, lie-detectors, numerology, psycho-analysis, hypnosis, e-meter, biometrics, and so forth.
The most direct way I have for validating these experiments is to look for the analysis of instrumental error. If it doesn’t exist, I know I should not accept the results.
The third step the scientific method is analysis. I look for patterns and non-random occurrences, while comparing apparent images against known standards. I risk seeing non-existing effects and must be careful with my statistics. Sample size can influence the results. False-patterns frequently appear in small localized samples. Seeing shapes of animals in clouds or icons of the “blessed virgin” in tree limbs, windows, etc are classic examples of illusions created by too limited samples. However, when I stand back and look at the entire sky, these images disappear. Knowing how big a sample I need to take is not always obvious, as I found out in a recent discussion with a friend.
I claimed the existence of the laws of physics necessitated an omniscient intelligence. Her argument was “Can you prove rules don’t occur spontaneously and randomly?” If I could limit my scope to just our universe, the answer was simple. I have evidence the laws of physics are consistent and time invariant through out, thereby not random. However, I don’t know how to prove multi-verses do not exist. My sample may be too small. In the broader infinite scope of our existence, my patterns may disappear.
So how do I conclude I have an adequate sample size? If my results are quantifiable, the answer is relatively simple. I know how to calculate levels of statistical confidence. I just make my sample large enough to achieve high confidence factors. However, when my experiment is meta-physical, I must validate the scope of my observation is significantly greater than the domain of my measurement, which may not always be possible.
The fourth step in the scientific method is hypothesis. Through a combination of deductive and inductive reasoning I propose a cause for the effect I measured. A good hypothesis must be falsifiable, which means I must propose in a manner that allows others easily to test. For example, a proper hypothesis might be “all blondes are dumb.” A poor version is “no blonde is smart.” They sound the same, but they are not. In the first case if anyone finds just one smart blond and she has falsified my hypothesis. My second statement is almost impossible to falsify, because I require every blonde that ever lived be tested to prove that none are smart.
Consider now the hypothesis, “God exists?” Validation requires only one conclusive incidence. What can I conclude if I fail to find any? Normally nothing, but there is a peculiar twist in this conjecture! Can I prove the alternative hypothesis, “God does not exist?” I think this one is a lot like “no blonde is smart,” but it isn’t. The difference arises when I ascribe the omniscient attribute to God, which most believers do. By definition omniscient God must be evident. If my instrumentation is capable of finding God and I do not see evidence than that is conclusive proof. This focus of my search must be validating my instrument.
The last step is peer review. At this time I present my theories and wait for the challenges. The act of defending my theory is what validates it. I also hope somebody repeats my experiment. Good theories also include formulae to predict effects when a cause is known. However, unless a theory is inherently falsifiable it may never be validated.
Newton’s theory of gravity has never been proven, but I can use its formula to falsify it. I can use it to predict the motions of stars and planets. If what I find concurs, I have justification, albeit not proof. But if my results do not match, I have falsified his theory. I have to repeat my tests countless numbers of times without failure, before I can trust its validity. It’s kind of like after testing billions of blondes and not finding a smart one. I begin to accept the hypothesis that “no blonde is smart.” Because it has survived peer review for nearly four centuries, we now call it Newton’s Law of Gravity.
The nature of science is that its hypotheses are under continual review and criticism. That is how it progresses – measuring, proposing, testing, keeping and building upon what is good, and discarding what is bad. Often I hear people complain that science is constantly making mistakes. As an example they may quote the finding reported not too long ago with salt. They will say, “Science once told me salt was bad for me. Now it is telling me salt is good. Obviously, I can’t believe science.”
In actuality that was not how the findings on salt were reported. What science reported was that with certain groups of people the incidence of hypertension was found to increase by “x” % within “y” % margin of error. It was the non-science community that translated that report to say, “salt was bad for most people.” As a true scientist I recognize the limitations of my experiment. I would almost sound like a lawyer when I report it. I would state my measurement technique, my controls, my hypothesis reasoning, and level of confidence. I would define my measurements as precisely as possible encouraging other scientists to repeat it. Any attempt to hide anything should be a warning.
Unfortunately, the type of reporting is our salt example has become commonplace. Members of the non-science (similar to nonsense) and pseudo science community, with the encouragement of general media, frequently get away with exaggerations and absurdities. It was so predominant in the last quarter century that a new group of science police emerged to help the general public distinguish between true science and pseudo science. They call themselves “skeptics” and have formed such groups as the “Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal,” “The Bay Area Skeptics,” “The Rocky Mountain Skeptics,” etc.
Science has its limitations. As a scientist, I always seem able to ask more questions than I can answer. I suspect my list of whys is infinite. During the last century physicists have been unsuccessful developing a theory of everything - a rule I could use to define anything in my universe mathematically. Although it would be a spectacular achievement for humankind, it still would not answer: “why does the universe bother to exist?”, “are there other universes?”, or “why does the theory of everything exist?”
With this concern in mind, I state as my law of agnosticism, “humankind is no more competent to answer all the whys than it is competent to fathom the concept of infinity.” I know of no person who comprehends a space and time without a beginning or end. Even our major western philosophers Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Spinoza base their theses on their inability to understanding infinity. Since I need to know, I must be willing to accept hypotheses using methods not available to science.
Religion is an alternative since it deals in those regimens where evidence is just not available. It tries to answer questions like, “Why do I exist?” “From where did the universe come?” “What is expected from me?” “Is my life all that there is?” But, I can’t test the answers religion provides. I have to accept without proof, on faith alone, which unfortunately is its weakness.
Religion has the same mission as science, to provide answers to humanity. As in the case of science, religion has its true and pseudo practitioners, who can be identified by their deeds and motivations. Just as I must be careful not to judge science by those who abuse the practice, I must not to judge religion comparably.
I have found science fails when charlatans attempt to interjected faith and not indisputable evidence into their measurements and hypothesis. Similarly, religion fails when its ministers attempt to inject science and not disputable faith into its answers. In either case skepticism can protect me against bad science regardless of its source or warn me of trespass when one attempts to act outside its domain.
Since religion works where evidence does not exist, it commences with a statement of hypotheses or beliefs. Peer review is invalid. Either I accept or I reject. A religious hypothesis is born as law not theory, such as the Torah being Hebrew law. Religion is falsified only when its followers stop believing or when evidence is found.
By its very nature, a collection of beliefs for which there are no facts, religion must be strictly personal. Conjuncture with others is not exigent. However, I can join with others who think like I. I enjoy the company. But, I have no authority to force my beliefs on others. My beliefs are born in the absence of absolute truths and thereby are no more logical than another’s. But my experience notes most religious groups pervert this consideration. They try to create facts to substantiate preference of their beliefs and in the process negate a methodology that exists only when evidence is absent. When I have facts, I prefer science over religion, because it allows me to validate.
True religion knows it can’t falsify the faith of others. “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other Gods before me” is not the same as “I am God, thou shalt not permit other Gods.” Nevertheless, desire for political power has subverted religion, using it to claim an absolute authority to define laws and to sub-humanize races, genders, or other religions. Arguing manifest destiny, the two dominant pseudo religious organizations in the world, Christianity and Islam, have abysmal records. Intentionally, they have eradicated numerous cultures by burning books, destroying temples, and murdering heathens. Their majority exists not from the quality of their message, but from their “convert or die” manifesto.
Often I am told religion and science conflict. Apparently, I am confused. I don’t understand how this battle is possible. Science and religion don’t have common ground. It is like saying whales are fighting lions. Science works where I have facts; religion works where I do not. “Ne’r the twain shall meet.” I guess we can’t agree that I really have facts.
The theory of electron motion in semi-conductors has not been proven. Nevertheless, its application has been spectacularly successful leading to the computer, cell telephones, and missions to Mars. Almost everyone accepts facts exist. Likewise, Darwin’s theory of evolution has also not been proven, but everyday it is verified from the behavior of micro-organism, to fossil records and to the social structures of man. As a theory it has been remarkably successful. Facts almost certainly exist, yet there are many that refuse to accept it to the point we are still facing attempts to teach creationism in our twenty-first century schools. Why? My conclusion is that we have put someone’s personal or organizational agenda at risk and through obfuscation, sophism, and elitism will selfishly do whatever is necessary to protect their turf.
I just received the book Skeptical Odysseys edited by Paul Kurtz for Prometheus Books and published in 2001. It was a gift from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal and documents the personal journeys of thirty-seven leading skeptics of the world - a combination of philosophers, scientists, illusionists, and humanists, sharing a common concern for the rising tide of people choosing to accept superstition in lieu of facts. I found the following comment by the editor appropriate
“It is often difficult in society to adopt the life stance of the skeptic. The social principle seems to be against it. There are demands for conformity, acceptance of sacred cows, and any effort by a skeptic to dig at the foundation of belief is often met with derision or opposition. To apply skeptical inquiry not only to a specific field, but throughout life, constitutes a moral judgment that often requires consider-able courage – as is the determination to withstand the barbs of rejection by people offended by skeptical criticisms.”
I was educated in Roman Catholic parochial schools. I received a Ph.D. in Physics from Purdue University. Neither background has provided me with answers that I seek. Whereas, I currently feel religion may provide the only solutions to my questions, my conventional religious training has failed me miserably. It ostensibly discouraged and denied me the right to seek truths while promoting self-serving myths. Nevertheless, it is less fundamental and has in recent years become more tolerant of other faiths, thereby enabling me to accept it over most other versions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Science has not helped because it is quite content to be apolitical and maintain focus on understanding nature where facts are evident.
Skepticism has probably helped the most. It provides a mixture of both science and religion and clearly recognizes the boundaries of each, assuring neither trespass. In that manner it has opened my conscious with an unobstructed path for unbiased search.