January 4, 2008

God, Science and Logic

Can science prove that God Does not exist? is the title of a magazine article posted on the Council for Secular Humanism web site. The article is one of those articles you might read out of curiosity but soon regret that you did. The odd thing is the author, Theodore Schick, Jr., argues his points solely by the use of logical fallacies. Schick’s schtik employs the age-old trick of the ‘straw man’ fallacy. He sets up a position that misrepresent what we mean by the name “God’; he attributes that position to others, and then attacks the contrived position.

Schick begins with the following argument:

“"No one can prove an unrestricted negative" is the reply usually given to those who claim that science can prove that God does not exist. An unrestricted negative is a claim to the effect that something doesn't exist anywhere. Since no one can exhaustively examine every place in the universe, the reply goes, no one can conclusively establish the non-existence of anything.”

Contrary to what Schick asserts, the reply, “No one can prove an unrestricted negative" is atypical. It would be difficult to find a single person who holds to the position Schick is criticizing. The position assumes a false conception of God: “Since no one can exhaustively examine every place in the universe [for God]…” The statement is irrelevant to the question of God’s existence because God is an incorporeal being. And an incorporeal being cannot be in a place. Nor can we see a non-physical entity with the eyes of the body.

To summarize here, Schick misrepresents God as a corporeal being. He then attacks the “unrestricted negative” response, which is dependent on this false concept of God. None of this addresses whether science can disprove the existence of what is commonly understood by the name "God".

Supreme error…
Schick now presents a second argument:

“To prove that God does not exist, then, one only has to demonstrate that the concept of God is inconsistent. Traditional theism defines God as a supreme being—a being than which none greater can be conceived, as St. Anselm would have it. We know, however, that there is no supreme number because such a notion involves a logical contradiction. Every number is such that the number 1 can be added to it. If there were a supreme number, it would be such that the number 1 can and cannot be added to it, and that's impossible. Many believe that the notion of a supreme being is just as incoherent as the notion of a supreme number.”

There are multiple problems with this argument. For one, Schick misrepresents what we mean by the term “supreme being”. An infinite series of numbers does not contain a supreme or highest point because we can always add one more number to the series. We do not mean that God is a supreme being in this sense of highest being, but that he is that being which has no limits. For example, we say that God’s knowledge is infinite; His knowledge is limitless; His knowledge cannot diminish, and nothing can be added to it. God’s knowledge is always and forever without limit. This supreme being is greater than that which Schick can conceive.

The notion of a supreme being, one whose attributes are infinite, is “a being than which none greater can be conceived.” However, Schick equivocates on “supreme” and misrepresents what St. Anselm means by the name “God”.

Perfect justice, perfect mercy, perfectly fallacious…
Schick’s next trick is to present flawed definitions of God’s “perfect justice” and “perfect mercy”; attribute these meanings to others, and then attack the attributed notion of supreme being as internally inconsistent. He says,

“Consider, for example, the claim that god is all-good and thus both perfectly merciful and perfectly just. If he is perfectly just, he makes sure that everyone gets exactly what's coming to them. If he is perfectly merciful, he let's everyone off. But he can't do both. So the notion of a supreme being may be internally inconsistent.”

The absurdity of this argument needs no further comment.

No need for God…or Logic…
Schick continues:

“By demonstrating that God is not needed to explain anything, science has proven that there is no more reason to believe in the existence of God than to believe in the existence of phlogiston, the luminiferous ether, or Vulcan.”

This statement and the balance of the article suffer from Schick’s failure to understand and distinguish between the nature of scientific and theological knowledge. A scientific explanation cannot answer a theological question any more than a theological answer satisfies a scientific question. Natural science and theology are two distinct orders of knowledge.

The existence of God remains outside the scope and province of natural science. Science is not competent to prove or disprove God’s existence. Demonstrating the existence of God is the business of philosophy, not science. In addition, Schick’s assertion that science has demonstrated “that God is not needed to explain anything” is absolutely false. It is within the scope of the natural sciences to attempt to describe all natural phenomena. And we do not use God or theology to answer scientific questions. Neither should we use science to answer theological questions. Questions concerning the ultimate origin of the universe are not questions for the scientist to answer as a scientist.

Some cosmologists, though, e.g. Hawking and Sagan, believe their version of the Bing Bang leaves no room for God. However, this is mere speculation. Whether their speculation is ultimately intelligible is another matter. But Schick confuses speculation with demonstration, which surprises me not.

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