Is Theism Well-Defined Enough To Be Scientifically Testable?

by Luke Nix

In February 2014 philosopher William Lane Craig and theoretical physicist Sean Carroll debated the rationality of believing God exists given the evidence in cosmology (the video can be found here). On several occasions Carroll observed that “theism” is not well-defined, and thus does not lend itself to scientific testing by putting forth falsifiable predictions. William Lane Craig (both at the beginning of the debate at other times) affirmed that he was not putting forth God as an alternative to naturalistic models, but was scientifically defending the truth of premises in an argument with theological significance. Both debaters seemed to misunderstand one another regarding this. Craig did not give any indication of understanding the scientific concern of Carroll’s observation by dismissing the idea that God was even a feature of a competing model, while Carroll did not seem to understand the philosophical insignificance of his charge or the fact that Craig was defending a mere theism that only identified God as “Creator” and “Designer.”

I have heard Carroll’s challenge on several occasions from scientifically-minded people who are critical of cosmological and teleological arguments for God’s existence. Since they dismiss Christianity (and theism, in general) as an unscientific hypothesis, my intent with this post is to investigate the scientific perspective that is responsible for this complaint, the philosophical significance and insignificance of the complaint, and the proper response that theists (and Christians, specifically) should provide to remove the validity of the charge of being “unscientific.” I will conclude the post with a challenge to both naturalists and Christians, and I will revisit the debate in light of this discussion.

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What is the significance of the observation?
This complaint about theism often comes from the scientific community. In discussions about the origins of the universe their main concern is with the development and testing of highly specified models to explain such origins. A high level of specification allows predictions of future discoveries to be formed. These predictions can be used to test the models against observations and discard the models that do not accurately predict the observations. If a model just misses a few predictions here and there, then the model may simply be adjusted to compensate for the unexpected observation, but the change must not violate any other part of the model. Sometimes unexpected observations will spawn whole new families of models as they attempt to explain the phenomenon in different ways.

When a challenger to a naturalistic explanation of the beginning of the universe identifies the beginner as a “transcendent cause,” they are not giving much specification beyond the beginner’s existence being outside the universe. This is an extremely generalized claim that does not lend itself to much prediction and testing. If it cannot be tested, then a “transcendent cause” to the universe cannot be established via scientific means…


Faithful Thinkers: Is Theism Well-Defined Enough To Be Scientifically Testable?