Friday, January 30, 2015

Is Goddidit unfalsifiable?

i) We're living at a time when Christians are under increasing pressure to accommodate the Bible to the scientific establishment. The scientific arguments are complex and often highly technical. And the ground keeps shifting in light of new developments. Here's one way to simplify the debate. 

Unbelievers frequently raise two contradictory objections to creationism. I'm using "creationism" loosely, because unbelievers use "creationism" loosely to designate YEC, OEC, intelligent design, and/or the historicity of Gen 1-9. 

A. Science falsifies creationism

Take human evolution. Many books and websites say there's overwhelming evidence for human evolution. Creationism has been falsified by multiple lines of evidence from comparative anatomy, comparative genomics, and the fossil record. 

Obviously, this triumphalist claim hasn't gone unchallenged by creationists. Indeed, sometimes you have skeptics of the standard evolutionary paradigm within secular scientific establihsment itself. 

However, that's well-trodden ground. What is more striking is to compare this objection with the next objection:

B. Creationism is unfalsifiable

Let's quote a few representative examples:

Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen. 
The appeal to supernatural forces, whether divine or occult, is always available because we can cite no necessary constraints upon the powers of supernatural agents. This is just the picture of God that Johnson presents. He says that God could create out of nothing or use evolution if He wanted (JDT p. 14, 113); God is "omnipotent" (JDT p. 113). He says God creates in the "furtherance of a purpose" (JDT p. 4), but that God's purposes are "inscrutable" (JDT p. 71) and "mysterious" (JDT p. 67). A god that is all-powerful and whose will is inscrutable may be called upon to explain any event in any situation, and this is one reason for the methodological prohibition against such appeals in science. Because of this feature, supernatural hypotheses remain immune from disconfirmation.  
It is not that supernatural agents and powers could not explain in principle, it is rather that they can explain all too easily. As such we may think of them as the explanation of last resort, since, like the Greek god in the machine, they can always be hauled down to "save the day" if every other explanation fails. 
Nye’s position relies upon the scientific method, summarized by the phrase “evidential evaluation of falsifiable hypotheses.” In other words, science aims to disconfirm its hypotheses and uses evidence to do so. This falsification process is a powerful way to eliminate bad ideas, and nothing proves an idea false better than its disagreement with reality…By contrast, faith—and theology more broadly—does not possess or employ a mechanism for falsification and appears only incidentally interested in observation.
The basic contention here is that science requires an unbroken chain of physical cause and effect. But once you make allowance for an omnipotent, interventionist God, a God who can instantly bypass natural processes to produce a physical effect apart from antecedent condition, then creationism is unfalsifiable–for anything in nature, anything pattern of evidence is explicable by appeal to this Deus ex machina. It severs the links in the chain of cause and effect, past and present. 
ii) Now, what's interesting about B is that it cancels A. These two objections can't both be true. 
Moreover, these are asymmetrical objections. B can rule out A in a way that A is impotent to rule out B. For if B is true, then nothing counts as evidence for A. 
Ironically, this is a secular objection to creationism. But if we take the secular objection seriously, it destroys secular science. In their effort to shoot down creationism, the bullet ricochets on their own position. 
Of course, they regard this as an unacceptable consequence of theism. But to claim that theism has this consequence in no way invalidates or undercuts the unwelcome consequence. 
In this respect, Christians don't need to produce any evidence to refute A. We don't need to mount our own independent argument to refute A. We can simply redeploy an argument that secular scientists keep repeating. If, according to secular scientists, methodological naturalism is a necessary presupposition of science, then by their own admission, the existence of an omnipotent interventionist God nullifies all their evidentiary objections to creationism. 
That's not some ad hoc argument that Christians concoct to deflect the scientific evidence. Rather, that's a tacit concession which the secular scientists are making. All we need to do is agree with them, thank them for pointing that out, and kindly showing them that their objection backfires. 
iii) From a theological standpoint, B is fairly overstated. According to Biblical theism, God hasn't made an Alice in Wonderland world where effects routinely materialize out of the blue. Every possibility is not a plausibility.To the contrary, Biblical theism has a doctrine of ordinary providence. 
However, that observation does nothing to support A or undermine creationism, for that's a theological restriction. It presumes a theological framework. 
iv) Finally, if creationism is unfalsifiable, that doesn't make it unverifiable. And that doesn't mean naturalistic evolution is unfalsifiable. Once again, these are asymmetrical positions. Naturalistic evolution can still be falsifiable on its own terms. 
By contrast, creationism isn't falsifiable on its own terms–given the limitless explanatory power of an omnipotently resourceful God. Conversely, if some biological events are inexplicable apart from superhuman intelligence, then the evidence selects for theism rather than naturalism.

1 comment:

  1. Evidence for design falsifies (or at least calls into question) naturalism. One secular answer is that the multiverse generator can account for any seeming appearance of design. But then an appeal to the multiverse generator makes naturalism unfalsifiable. And it does so UNscientifically, since there's no possible scientific way to ever prove that other universes exist. Presumably, there's no way to prove the existence of a generator either. If Godditit is unfalsifiable and therefore to be rejected, then MultiverseDidIt should be rejected because it's also unfalsifiable and unverifiable.

    “[The multiverse theory] can explain anything . . . If a theory allows anything to be possible, it explains nothing; a theory of anything is not the same as a theory of everything.”- John Polkinghorne

    "…it is the height of irrationality to postulate an infinite number of universes never causally connected with each other, merely to avoid the hypothesis of theism. Given that simplicity makes for prior probability, and a theory is simpler the fewer entities it postulates, it is far simpler to postulate one God than an infinite number of universes, each differing from each other in accord with a regular formula, uncaused by anything else."
    - Richard Swinburne on the multiverse theory in his book The Existence of God