Who is guilty of misusing science?

By Ken Perrott 17/01/2013 10

I know someone is going to accuse me of “scientism” for this. But I guess that goes with the science blogger’s job – and it’s a diversion anyway. It will hardly be the first time.

What I want to dispute here is the claim that “science cannot prove or disprove the existence of a god!”

Now, I have no problem with private belief. And many people no doubt retain this “limits of science” argument as part of their private belief. We all have beliefs or quirks which we don’t feel the need, or wish, to expose to critical investigation. That’s fine by me.

But I do object to those religious apologists who make this “limits of science” claim, but at the same time resort to arguments from scientific knowledge, or even just from reasoning, to claim their god belief is completely justifiable, and that my god disbelief is not. You, know – those who prattle on about “fine-tuning” of physical and cosmological constants, of evidence for an origin of the universe as “proof” of the existence of their god! Even those who claim the facts of “moral truths” prove their god! And then go on to rule “out of order” scientific arguments used by those who don’t believe.

Don’t these people realise they are claiming one rule for themselves (use of “scientific proof” argument) and denying the same to others by claiming “limits of science”? You would think the contradiction was obvious but there seem to be just as many (probably more) books, newspaper opinion pieces, etc., out there claiming science has proved the existence of a god as there are claims that such subjects are “outside the limits of science.”

I think both claims are unjustified – they are just emotionally motivated “logic” arguing for, and protecting, a preconceived belief.

The “Scientific proof” of the theologian

The scientific proof of the religious apologist amounts to nothing more than weak claims that “the evidence of an Intelligent Designer is all around us.” Or that scientific explanations of life and the universe have huge gaps. That somehow when a scientist says “I don’t know” this “proves” the religionist’s myth-based belief must be true – bugger the need for evidence or validation of ideas.

That’s not scientific proof! You need to do a lot more than just badmouth scientific theories. In science you actually need to advance a structured hypothesis. One based on evidence that makes predictions which can be tested against reality. Hypotheses and ideas that stand up to scrutiny, are open to modification, even outright abandonment, in the light of evidence.

You know, the sort of science which leads to publications and conference presentations.


That sort of hypothesis would surely show a serious attempt to approach the questions scientifically – even if we were forced to acknowledge that we did not have the technology or mental capacity to provide a good answer. Whereas at the moment such talk of scientific proofs for gods is

The “limits of science”

As for the “limits of science” argument – this is never properly justified. If their god is part of objectively existing reality then surely the scientific approach is an acceptable way of investigating the claim. Of course science may not be up to that job. There are certainly areas which it finds difficult to investigate now – and there are potentially areas we may never be able to investigate because of limits in our technology and our intelligence. But at the moment the scientific approach is the best one we have to investigate difficult aspects of reality. And if science cannot sort things out then no-one has yet been able to produce an alternative, a specific “other way of knowing,” which could do the job – have they?

Yes, I know, these Sophisticated TheologiansTM have some clever arguments. Their god is outside space and time. Outside the universe. Therefore we have no way of investigating it. No way of detecting it even.

The obvious question that comes to my mind is “How do you know that? You seems to be so certain – what evidence do you have.” And isn’t this another one rule for me, another for you argument? After all –  you claim that god is answering your prayers, influencing events in the world, helping believers win races and overcome illness. Even causing a few hurricanes or earthquakes to discipline us for sinning! Going in for a bit of smiting! If that is the case your god is leaving an evidential trail which science can investigate.

But if you god is truly outside time and space, outside the universe, not only would we not be able to detect it, it would not have any influence here – would it? Haven’t you gone overboard in your attempt to protect your god from scientific investigation. You have ended up in defining your god out of any practical existence!

So before you start chanting “scientism” – ask yourself who is guilty of scientism? Of using science inappropriately?

Surely it is the religious apologist who claims “scientific proof” which is not at all scientific. Or who claims they know things about reality which they cannot possibly know. That they have an alternative “way of knowing” which can produce Truth with a capital T – but which they cannot even describe.

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10 Responses to “Who is guilty of misusing science?”

  • Science can not prove the non-existence of anything. I think this is the same as saying it can not disprove the existence of anything. So I would have to agree with half of “science cannot prove or disprove the existence of a god!”

    This leave us with “Can science prove the existence of a god?” Apart from my own dislike of the word “prove” when related to science, I would think that depends entirely on the nature of the god one is trying to prove. If it is a capricious god like many of the ancient gods of the Greeks then one could imagine any experiments that set out to prove existence being manipulated for the particular God’s own end. If one is talking of the God of Judaism, for example, then the issue is that God is the sustainer of the universe within which the experiment is being conducted. There is obvious potential for bias here :). Having said that any experiment requiring God to cooperate in a specific way is asking for trouble. Eg the “prayer for the sick” experiments are flawed in this way (indeed I would say they are also blasphemous). So, I am not convinced that science could prove the existence of a god.

    As for an accusation of Scientism. I think that would be a faulty accusation unless you were making the claim that there is nothing that science cannot prove (a flawed concept in that it is a statement that science can not prove). Remaining open to evidence – including the possibility of limits for science, which I think you are doing, is not scientism.

  • Just loose thoughts (haven’t time to really join in and haven’t actually read the blog post (sorry, Ken!)):

    ‘Science can not prove the non-existence of anything.’

    I believe this expression really is meant to be limited to logical argument rather than experimental observation – ?

    Also, with respect to experimental observations, consider: In an open system, you may have trouble (for obvious reasons!) but in a closed system, you might well be able to do this, depending on the scope and accuracy of your measuring/detecting tool and what you intend to determine is present/absent.

    • John, I share your dislike of the word “prove” in science – it shows a basic unawareness of the nature of scientific knowledge. However, it gets used in book and article titles (“Science Proves God”) and blog comments. The commenter Morgan precipitated my post with his declaration “it is scientifically impossible to conclusively prove that God does or doesn’t exist” – a colloquial use of the word “prove.” Mind you some theologians and philosophers of religion demonstrate a similar ignorance of the nature of scientific knowledge – as, for example, WL Craig’s little video arguing that it’s impossible to scientifically prove the truth of scientific knowledge!

      But I think it’s hypocritical to on the one had attempt to prove one’s god by cherry picking things like fine tuning, Goldilocks zones, etc., and then make such a claim ruling out a genuine scientific investigation. Having your cake and eating it too.

      Regarding “the nature of the god ones trying to prove” – my point was that no one seems to be able to propose a structured god hypothesis which would be the precondition of any such investigation. Everyone’s god seems to be personal, and personally imagined. And I don’t think descriptions like “the God of Judaism . . . is the sustainer of the universe” fulfill the requirements either. It’s pretty meaningless to me.

      The “requiring God to cooperate” argument also comes across as another cop out. Enabling any evidence to be rejected when the emotionally satisfying answer isn’t obtained. As for for describing any proposed experiment as “blasphemous” – surely that is the ultimate cop out. Anyone making that argument is surely ruling the whole issue out of intelligent inquiry.

      The word “scientism” gets bandied about very loosely. It’s used a lot against me by ecologically inclined commenters and I take it as a meaningless term of abuse. Interestingly very few credible philosophers of science bother with the term – and I noticed that Massimo Pigluicci, who does use it a lot (and despite this is someone I find sensible), was basically ignored when he used it in a recent workshop of philosophers and scientists.

      Considering the direction from which this charge usually comes I sometimes think there is actually more need for a word like “religionism” – using religion inappropriately.

      Grant, words like “proof” should be limited to logical considerations – I agree. That’s why I find it interesting when theological philosophers make claims about science not being able to prove things. They are correct of course – but ignore the fact that no one makes that claim for science. They seem to not really understand the real nature of knowledge – it’s relative and provisional nature. Or that the “proof of the pudding is in the eating” actually amounts to an important epistemological principle. I think this is because while they have not learned about how science is really done and what the nature of scientific knowledge is, they have certainly spent time dealing with logic in philosophy.

      I don’t understand your differentiation between open and closed systems – surely open or closed, if something (internal or external), has an influence it leaves an evidence trail? We may not actually be able to always detect that evidence or understand it but that doesn’t mean there is no evidence. And that evidence is a starting point for our hypotheses and eventually theories.

  • I was writing specifically about detecting the presence or not of a thing, following John’s words ‘Science can not prove the non-existence of anything.’ In closed systems you can in principle identify every component in them (and hence determine a given thing is not there).

  • Hilarious post from NZ’s key anti-science blogger Ken Perrott who spends most of his time droning about “deniers”

    Is this garbage sponsored by my tax dollars?

    Who exactly pays for this weapon-grade bollocks to be syndicated via the SciBlogs.co.nz domain?

    Does anyone actually care about Ken’s opinions?

    • Well, Andy, your comment here shows you at least seem to care about my ideas. Some would go so far as to say you have an unhealthy obsession with them!

  • I was perplexed by the Bethlehem College Pastor on the radio this morning mourning the death of the three people in Kenya. On the one hand he was saddened by their deaths but promptly praised his god for the survival of the others! Eh?

    God keepeth, God taketh away.

    Who tossed the coin?

  • Since the NZ chief scientist Sir Petsr Glickman is also used to using the word Denier I presume that NZ science is officially dead and that anyone working in this so called industry is just a cock sucking government whore.

    This is the advice I give to all young people these days.
    Science in Nz is dead and we can thank SciBlogs I part, at least, for their part.

  • I think we have to accept that ‘prove’ has colloquial (and other meanings) outside the sense of a formal, logical proof, then move on.

    In terms of the actual claim “science cannot prove or disprove the existence of a god!”, it does seem to really be a weasel word strategy. Science has disproven the existence of all kinds of gods. Nobody, least of all sophisticated theologians, argues the god that carried the sun in orbit around a chariot (Apollo) hasn’t been disproven. The Bronze-Age god that drowned the world in a global flood has been pretty well debunked.

    The “science cannot prove or disprove the existence of a god!” resembles more a strategy to avoid providing definitions and criteria for their god that could survive scrutiny.

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