Theism and science compatible?

In critical rationalism, plantinga on 09/02/2012 at 7:30 am

Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened. (1 Kings 18:27)

Yes, they are. But first, I should explain …

I see only the prima facie absurdness in religious dogmas. I’m a genial atheist, the kind that will listen to those with a religious bent and let them believe what they will — as long as their metaphysical system is not incoherent: their beliefs are coherent and consistent with our best available knowledge. I might be wrong; they might be right. But overall, in the social sphere, I find most religions to be obviously manmade, at their best boring or neutral, and pernicious at their worst.

Consider a physical system that at first blush appears to contradict a metaphysical system, say that the universe is guided by a deity that acts directly in the world, or initially designed so that its movements follow its aims. Further suppose that we know precisely the history of this physical system. By statically analyzing the data, we learn that the apparently random effects have an organization so that they appear to not be random, so it does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. If accepted, this would falsify the claim that there is a random source. Of course, this leaves open the possibility that the source, while not random, is not due to this hypothesized designer or guider (apophenia happens), but it would be a significant blow to any claim that the source is random and corroborate claims about the existence of a guider or designer.

On the contrary, if we find that the data is in fact random, then nothing follows. The data does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. Rather, it corroborates that the source is random, but it equally corroborates that the source is guided or designed, but the designer or guider could act in ways that we are unaware of; or with plans, aims, and whims with which we have no access.

So, given the physical system and initial conditions shortly after the big bang, what is the probability p that in this universe an intelligent species will evolve purely by unguided means? If p had a very low value, this would falsify unguided evolution, for unguided evolution would probably not produce an intelligent species. If p had a high value, this would not falsify guided evolution, for the religious individual could claim that their deity guided or designed the universe in such a way that intelligent beings would evolve. Thus, against our intuitions, any advancement in the natural sciences has the potential of falsifying unguided physical systems, but not guided or designed physical systems.

What is the moral of the story? Metaphysical claims about deities are unfalsifiable, and can be held on to come what may, as long as the claims do not logically contradict one another and in line with our best available knowledge (or our best available knowledge is explained away with ad hoc rationalizations for inconvenient facts), but — since we’re good Popperians — unfalsifiability does not support a position; rather, it detracts from it. If the metaphysical system is to satisfy these two requirements (coherence and consistence with best available knowledge), they need only be constructed in such a way that a central religious claim is not amendable to scientific inquiry. By happenstance, there are an infinite number of coherent metaphysical systems: the Prime Mover may be left-handed, or the Great Architect live in a shack on the back side of the moon, and so on. The very fact of the unfalsifiability of metaphysical claims about deities is enough for us to reject it due to our wish to keep our ontological baggage light and rule them all out, and not set question-begging standards that let in some but not all metaphysical beings that are unobservable/uncriticizable.

Addendum: Here I should give a rudimentary account of Popper’s argument according to virtue epistemology: one way to understand critical rationalism is that there are intellectual traits that are virtuous in so far as they help solve problems ranging from the concrete to the most abstract. We create solutions to these problems, but our solutions will often make some mistake, and not solve these problems. If we want to solve problems, the only way to eliminate error is through criticism of these solutions.

It is far too easy to find positive stories, surreptitiously save our theories from criticism (either by slight modification of the theories at the core or ad hoc adjustments to the periphery), or sit back knowing that our metaphysical beliefs are untouchable, and such intellectual traits can take place with different content. Therefore, to promote intellectual well-being, we ought to shy away from giving self-serving positive stories about why we believe things to be so, or attempt to inoculate our theories from criticism, or believe metaphysical claims that cannot be subject to criticism.

Searching for confirming evidence, gradually changing positions without acknowledgement, and adopting beliefs that are beyond the scope of critical discussion are not virtuous acts. Rather, it is virtuous to refrain from these activities, virtuous to actively listen to criticism from others, and even more virtuous to be actively critical of our own theories. If we cannot do so, we retire from solving problems as failures.


  1. I’m not sure if you’re criticizing metaphysics, and in some sense theism, because their unfalsifiable or not. On the one hand, you point out you have no real problem so long as their internally consistent (which is the first way of falsifability that Popper lists) and that they’re consistent with our observations (but you might take this as different from “consistent with our best available knowledge”, because this “knowledge” would seem to be based on falsifiable theories we currently hold).

    But Popper was notorious for saying something along the lines of, “I prefer to believe that the radiator is still there when I go upstairs”. This, while not based on a strict quotation, formed his response to idealism. So, he held to a metaphysics which wasn’t falsifiable, and thus metaphysical. He also strictly said that causality wasn’t falsifiable and so it was also metaphysical. So, I have no idea this detracts from anything, since it seems to be extremely important. Popper seemed to think it was important, and didn’t detract, that he couldn’t test that radiator is still there when he left. I mean, he also seemed to still believe in causality, even though he explicitly admitted that it was metaphysical.

    In other words, we might not be able to differentiate between which one is right or wrong through either a consistency check or a testable check, they are still important and meaningful. He even explicitly admitted that metaphysical positions like those are meaningful.

  2. Btw, I love the picture in your blog.

  3. allzermalmer,

    I’m of the opinion that since many versions of theism cannot be falsified, a priori criticism does not touch many other versions of theism … that appear to be devoid of content, and there seems to be no non-arbitrary way to choose between any two, they deserve suspicion. and should eventually be ruled out as failing to give good explanations.

    On the other hand, there are several good explanations that are at the heart of metaphysical research programs (or scientific research programs) that are equally unfalsifiable, but a priori criticism is possible.

    • This makes no sense. At one point, you say that metaphysical positions are devoid of content, but at another point you say that some have content, which you go on to say are scientific research programs. However, at the same time you say that some metaphysical positions have no a priori criticism, which is that of theism, but say that you can present a priori criticism of metaphysical systems of scientific reasarch programs. In short, this is just arbitrary. And, if we take this critical rationalism seriously that you supposedly expound, then you must admit that both scientific reasarch programs and theism, which are both metaphysics, are devoid of any good explanations. This is because there’s no way to test them, by the very definition that critical rationalism sets up for what is a good explantion (i.e. testable). However, metaphysics, under critical rationalism, are devoid of being testable. Thus, this idea of scientific research programs having some “good explanations”, deserves suspicion because they fail to give any good explanations, because they don’t explain anything!

      But, on the other hand, what is considered a “good explanation” is arbitrary, and what has content and what doesn’t have content is also arbitrary. These would be based on what criterion one holds for either to be either having content or being a good explanation. But this is just arbitrary on what one preferes, and this is very much questionable. And they also fall for the problem of criterion.

      • allzermaler,

        Don’t confuse testability with the possibility of criticism.

        At one far end of the spectrum, some theistic claims are testable, and have failed when subject to tests. I don’t think they’re interesting claims.

        Other theistic claims are testable and have survived testing (if they can be tested they can be criticized, since testability is a subset of criticizability). They are either compatible with the available results of tests (it either predicts or says nothing about the results of a test) or by making a surreptitious change to a definition, an adjustment to the periphery, or changing what would count as falsifiers. The ID crowd best exemplifies this second attitude towards the results of tests.

        Some theistic claims cannot be tested, but still can be criticized as being incompatible with other theories or as being incoherent. From what I can tell, the criticisms available to these theistic claims are fairly damning. This is a more nuanced theism.

        At the other far end of the spectrum, some theistic claims such a deism, since they have little to no content, cannot be criticized at all, and will forever be compatible with science.

        A metaphysical research program that leads to fruitful scientific theories (atomism, for instance) should, so I think, be favored over metaphysical research programs that do not lead to fruitful scientific theories. We can criticize a metaphysical research program if it does not lead to fruitful scientific theories: it doesn’t serve any useful function. At the far end of the spectrum, I do not see how testable theistic claims lead to fruitful scientific theories; at the other far end, I do not see how uncriticizable theistic claims lead to fruitful scientific theories.

        • I didn’t confuse testability with possible criticism. I even pointed out that Popper pointed out that first point of “testability” is by showing a contradiction within that system. That’s the very first criticism that one uses, which is to show that the idea is incoherent in that it is self-contradictory. In fact, that’s what you do with just about every metaphysical idea to begin with to get rid of it. If you can’t do that, then you can’t complain against the theory. It would be consistent with just about everything else. His other idea was that once it passes this test, see what predictions it makes, and see if the observation contradicts the idea.

          And there seems to be a problem with your idea of metaphysical research programs, which is that metaphysical research programs are strictly built up with them being central and incapable of being falsified by observation. This is because atomism itself has been falsified, but all that was done was modify the periphery theories. As Duhem pointed out, you have theory A and can only test it with other theories, which would be B, C, D, E, F, G. So, If A and B and C and D and E and F and G, then X. ~X. Therefore, Either ~A or ~B or ~C or ~D or ~E or ~F or ~G. Logic, and the experiments, themselves don’t tell us which theory is wrong. Is it the metaphysical theory or is it one of the periphery theories? Thus, the whole point is that the metaphysical theory is kept no matter what.

          Like atomism, it said there were particles. But eventually it was found that it made false predictions on what would happen, and the wave theory made the correct prediction. But did we get rid of particles, which was the foundation of atomism at the time? No. We adjusted the theory in order to keep it in the face of false predictions and falsifiaction.

          The comment of, “Some theistic claims cannot be tested, but still can be criticized as being incompatible with other theories or as being incoherent.”, is just about uninteilligible as one can get. It’s already admitted that theistic claims are metaphysical, and metaphysical theories aren’t testable themselves. But this in no way means they aren’t incompatible with other theories, just that they’re incompatible with other metaphysical theoreis. But so long as they aren’t self-contradictory, their not incompatible with any observations, which means with any experiments.

          And this talk of ” metaphysical research programs” makes no sense. Metaphysics, as Popper stated, was based on it not being testable. So something being untestable means it can’t be a fruitful scientific theory, because a scientific theory has to be testable. And I notice a hint of Lakatos in what you’re talking about. And Lakatos was explicit that metaphysical theories can never be refuted by any false experiements, since they can be saved at any time, and that all scientific theories are born still-born. They’re all born false, but become fruitful with ad hoc adjustments in the periphery of that metaphysical core.

  4. Popper eventually put metaphysics back into the heart of science, that was his fourth “turn” in addition to the conjectural (hermeneutic) turn, the objective turn and the conventional or “rules of the game” turn.

    He also had a very nuanced view on the relationship between science and religion.


  5. Please find a completely different Understanding of the relation between science and religion, and how we are all trapped (with NO exceptions) in the baneful iron cage of the now universal paradigm/ideology of scientism via these references.




    • John,

      Could you explain how we are ‘trapped (with NO exceptions)’? I don’t see how, even if assuming the claims made are true, your words follow.

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