Is the ‘God Hypothesis’ a Good One if We Can’t Observe It?
by Dr. Kevin Kinghorn
Sometimes the objection is made that religious hypotheses, unlike scientific hypotheses, aren’t open to verification through observation. The objection goes something like this: “There’s no way ever to show conclusively that Christianity is true or that it’s false. If we’re going to make progress in understanding the world, it would be helpful to stick with theories that can be tested by observation and either conclusively verified or conclusively shown to be false. Otherwise, why should anyone take a non-verifiable theory seriously? If someone wants to claim that God exists, that angels exist, or that any other kind of supernatural stuff exists, then fine. But if the claim could never be verified through observation and induction, why should anyone take it seriously?”
I think this is a common view of how many people see the difference between scientific theories and religious theories. Scientific theories are subject to evidence and observation, and they’re open to critical engagement by thoughtful people; and religious theories involve extravagant claims that could never be conclusively tested.
This objection strikes me as unfair because it fails to acknowledge that theists and scientists are often in the same boat. The objection supposes that a scientific theory only gains credence as it is empirically verified. But this is emphatically not the case. If it were the case, we’d have had a whole lot less scientific progress over the past centuries!
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Many times in science, a theory will gain credence not because it has somehow been observed. Rather, it gains credence because it explains what we do observe. For instance, in the 19th century the existence of the planet Neptune was affirmed by astronomers before it was observed and seen clearly by telescope as in fact a planet. Astronomers were charting the orbit of Uranus, which they were observing by telescope, and they noted that Uranus’s orbital path was not as was expected. What best explained this observable data of Uranus’s orbit? The best theory seemed to be that the gravitational pull of some further, as-yet-unobserved planet was pulling Uranus off its expected course. The theory itself of a further planet (i.e., Neptune) wasn’t observed. But if scientists concluded that the existence of this further planet was the best explanation—i.e., was the theory that best explained the data that was observed—were those scientists somehow being ‘unscientific’? Surely not. Scientists have often explained observed data in terms of unobserved phenomena. That is, they have often concluded that some hypothesis, while itself not observed, nevertheless serves as the most likely explanatory theory of some set of data we do observe.
Theists are in just this position. They start with the observed data of this physical universe. And they conclude that God (an unobserved hypothesis, if you will) is the best explanation for this observed data…
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