To Seek God Sensibly, Seek Him On His Own Terms
by Tom Gilson
Is there a God? How would we know?
Among atheists today there is a sizable subset who think that if God is real, he ought to be detectable through science. I can see the appeal in thinking that, since science tells us so much about the world. Even better, it has ways to adjudicate factual disputes, especially when it’s possible to employ very careful measurement and control of variables.
Ironically, those are exactly the factors that make science a poor way to detect the reality of God. If you wonder about God, it only makes sense to seek him on his terms. Or you might put it this way: if you want to know whether there is a God, you ought to ask the question in a way that you could tell the answer if the answer were yes. There are so many things science is good for, but for this task it’s not up to the job. Its competence is broad, but it’s in the kind of things that won’t discover God, if there is a God.
Scientists often make an informal distinction between “hard” and “soft” sciences, with specialists in the “hard” sciences often expressing doubt that the “soft” sciences are science at all. The two groups are distinguished by how finely they can measure the behavior of their subject matter, which happens to run almost exactly parallel with how much personal freedom their subject matter can express. People are harder to measure than rats, which are harder to measure than chemicals in test tubes.
If God is truly personal—and especially if his personal freedom exceeds that of humans—his activity is likely to be very difficult to measure with any precision.
True experimental science involves controls. In the classic format, an experiment involves two or more samples, specimen sets, etc. matched in every way possible, with one of them being subjected to some experimental manipulation or intervention, and the other not receiving that treatment. If the two groups’ outcomes after treatment/non-treatment are significantly different, researchers generally find it safe to conclude that the treatment was the cause of the difference. (There are complexities galore on top of that, but that’s the basic picture.) The great virtue of experimental research is its ability to isolate and control variables…