The Department of Experimental and Applied TheologyFebruary 23, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
Commenter cl brings up an interesting point:
I was rereading through the thread here, and this caught my attention:
“The Inescapable Consequence is that we have no basis for our conclusions regarding God, other than to put our trust in the words, speculations, and feelings of men. This is a serious consequence, because it means so-called faith in God is really just trust in fallible men (who happen to contradict themselves, each other, and observable reality).”
I disagree and feel you’ve presented an either/or fallacy. Reasonable believers engage in a form of testing that is systematic and analogous to empiricism. When I was a kid, I performed such experiments, for example here. Mind you, this particular experiment yielded negative results. Point is, your statement claims that epistemologically, the only thing believers can do is trust the words of fallible men (and women) when at least one other option clearly exists. Such is incorrect.
I stand by my original claim, but now that cl has brought this up, I can see that I need to clarify it somewhat. I’m not saying you can’t try to obtain information about God using methods that lend some sort of empirical verifiability to the results. I’m just pointing out that such attempts will not be successful in God’s absence, and will end up reverting to whatever significance well-intentioned men inadvertently project onto them.
Theology is the most purely theoretical of all the disciplines men call “sciences.” There is no such thing as experimental or applied theology, because there’s no object in the real world to apply your experimental methods to. Cl does have a point in that it is possible to draw negative conclusions about God using an objective and unbiased observational and experimental technique. So long as God does not show up in real life, however, we cannot put our faith in Him, because He doesn’t show up to give us anything to believe in. If we do believe, the content and basis for our belief must be found in the things men say and think and feel about God. It is, and can only ever be, faith in men.
This is true even if we suppose that it might be possible to observe actual supernatural phenomena. The supernatural is defined by its violation of the normal and natural laws of cause and effect. It is effectively indistinguishable from magic, and is thus immune to the sort of investigation that discovers actual causes by tracing the natural chain of cause and effect backwards to its source. We don’t and can’t know how supernatural causes are related to observed effects, because the supernatural, by definition, lies outside the domain of scientific laws and theories.
In the quote above, cl links to a test he tried in which he asked God to fix a broken watch. The test result was that the watch was not miraculously repaired, but suppose it had been? Would this have told us anything about God? No, that would be jumping to a conclusion, because we don’t know anything about what might cause a watch to magically self-repair. We might speculate that some god or other magical spirit was the cause, but it could also be a Spontaneous Magical Entropy Reversal Field, or perhaps cl himself possesses suppressed and unsuspected magical powers. Or it might be some magical phenomenon that was entirely unknown. We do not know, and there is no objective and reliable means by which we can ever find out. By definition, that’s how the supernatural works.
People invoke “the supernatural” as a means of explaining away the lack of scientific verification for the things they want to believe. The reason science could not confirm their beliefs, they say, is because the agency they propose is “supernatural,” and the supernatural is impervious to scientific exploration. That works ok as a rationalization, but the downside is that it means that “supernatural” phenomena can never reveal any more to us than the actual, observable effects they produce. Everything behind the observable effect is just so much “magic.”
Thus, the only way we can learn anything about God, or at least anything that we could put our faith in, is if God were to show up in real life, so as to be directly observable. Ordinary scientific inferences cannot work as a source of new, reliable information about causes that do not obey fundamental naturalistic principles. We can devise tests that work negatively, so as to rule out the possibility of superstitious beliefs (or that at least demonstrate the lack of valid reasons for drawing such superstitious conclusions). But we cannot trace backwards along the chain of cause and effect if the cause supernaturally skips the chain and proceeds directly to the effect via magic.