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Scientific Methodology and Its Religious Parallels

Science and Religion

Charles M. Wynn Sr.

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 38.4, July/August 2014

If religious believers had a better understanding of scientific methodology and nonbelievers had a better understanding of its parallels with religion, they could have more meaningful discussions with each other.

A paradigm is a set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitute a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them. The scientific community shares a paradigm according to which its hypotheses about the realities of the universe are derived ultimately from the data of observations and experiments and from the manipulation and analysis of these data according to logical procedures (Wynn and Wiggins 2001, 1–47).

Paralleling the observations upon which scientific hypotheses are based, religious “observations” are mainly revelations believed to be conveyed from God through prophets such as Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, who speak from divine inspiration or as the interpreter through which God expresses his will. Separate beings known as angels are also believed to act as messengers. One such angel is Gabriel, who acts as the messenger of God in the Bible and the Qur’an (in which he is called Jibra’il). In the Bible, Gabriel is said to have appeared to Daniel (twice) (Daniel 8:15–26, 9:21–27)1, to Zacharias (Luke 1:11–20), and to the Virgin Mary in the annunciation to her of Jesus’s birth (Luke 1:26–38). In Islam, he is said to have revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad (Surah An-Najm 53:5)2. Personal revelation to individuals through prayer is also believed to be possible.

two depictions of the messenger angel GabrielThe messenger angel Gabriel appears in both the Bible and the Qur’an.

Revelations are believed to testify to the existence of an invisible, immaterial, and thus unobservable being called “God.” If God is unobservable, what sort of “observation” can be made to support belief in God’s existence? The answer: observation of the effects of such a being.

One such effect is said by religious believers to be the universe itself. They affirm that the universe must have been “caused” into existence by the first or uncaused cause: God the creator. According to them, the existence of a universe requires a preexisting supernatural intelligence. They present this cosmological argument as a conclusion deduced from two premises: Everything that had a beginning had a cause; the universe (cosmos) had a beginning; therefore, the universe had a cause.

A problem with this reasoning is that both premises are based on assumptions that there had to be a beginning; that the universe itself is not eternal (an eternal, self-sufficient universe would not require a preexisting supernatural intelligence). This makes them both probabilistic, which means that the conclusion is also probabilistic and the reasoning process inductive rather than deductive. In addition, the argument assumes that God is an uncaused cause: nothing began God. A similar argument could assume that the universe itself is an uncaused cause.

Furthermore, the argument assumes that the universe could not have emerged by naturalistic means, i.e., self-created ex nihilo (“out of nothing”). One such naturalistic scenario describes the sudden appearance of matter composed equally of positive and negative energy: positive energy in the instance of material objects and negative energy in the generation of accompanying gravitational fields (Hawking 1988, 129). Evidence for antigravitational swelling that allegedly began a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the cosmic clock started ticking has just been discovered by a team led by John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. When combined mathematically, both forms of energy precisely cancel out each other, resulting in a “zero state.”

Another argument for the reality of God is the teleological argument. Teleology is the study of design or purpose in nature. According to this argument, the reality of our structured universe suggests that its structural constraints had to have been deliberately imposed or designed by a designer, namely, God; that the basic physical constants of our universe were “fine-tuned” to allow us to exist and to observe the universe (the anthropic principle). The problem with this argument is that although the universe happens to be arranged in a certain way (happens to have an apparent design), this does not ipso facto require that this particular arrangement be the fulfillment of the intentions or actions of a designer. Like beauty, perception of design is created in the minds of beholders, i.e., it is subjective rather than objective. In addition, the particular arrangement of the universe can arguably be the result of purely naturalistic processes.

Religious Induction and Hypotheses

Science uses selected observations as premises to support a hypothesis, an attempted explanation of a set of observations made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences. The inductive reasoning involved in the formulation of a hypothesis uses those premises to support, but not to guarantee, the truth of the hypothesis. When the explanatory power of a scientific hypothesis is incomplete, i.e., when it does not adequately explain a set of observations, the assumption of science is that an adequate, superior naturalistic explanation will be forthcoming. Science chooses not to invoke supernatural explanations to fill gaps in naturalistic explanations. This of course does not rule out the possibility of supernatural intervention. Operational science takes no position about the existence or nonexistence of an omnipotent god.

Among the reasons that science restricts itself to materialistic explanations is its need to hold some variables constant in order to be able to test the role of others. If God is an omnipotent force that can choose when and how to intervene in the natural world, it would be impossible to hold such actions constant.

In the field of science, beliefs about reality are subjected to a rule of thumb known as Occam’s razor. This maxim requires that a preferred scientific hypothesis be the one having the fewest assumptions that is consistent with the observations: complexity should not be proposed without necessity.

Nonbelievers argue that Occam’s razor should also be applied to religious beliefs. They feel that including God in explanations of the universe adds an unnecessary element of complexity and that the universe can be explained entirely in naturalistic terms. While compelling, this argument in favor of simplicity cannot rule out complexity; a rule of thumb is not a rule of logic. On the other hand, religious fundamentalism applies Occam’s razor when it concludes that the simplest explanation is God and that introducing scientific theories adds unnecessary elements of complexity.

The inductive reasoning used in deriving scientific hypotheses involves drawing inferences from what are taken to be facts or patterns of behavior in natural phenomena. In the area of religion, induction is employed when religious ideologies are derived from what believers assert is reliable information about the god revealed in holy scriptures. These include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism; Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Baptist Christianity; and Shia, Sunni, and Sufi Islam. Wars continue to be fought over which of these is the one true religion.

Religious Deduction, Prediction, and Experimentation

Determining whether the predictions deduced from hypotheses are borne out by experimentation is the ultimate test of hypotheses. Each time a valid prediction is borne out, the hypothesis gains credibility. Each time a prediction is not borne out, the hypothesis loses credibility and must either be modified accordingly and retested or rejected entirely and replaced by a better one.

Testing religious hypotheses (beliefs) about God requires a description of the qualities or power to be tested. For example, an omnipotent god should be able to answer prayers asking for something a person wishes to be done. In this sense, God’s “yes” response to such petitions would be a miracle: a phenomenon in nature that transcends the capacity of natural causes and therefore must be attributed to the direct intervention of God.

Prayers are often made on behalf of people whose health is severely compromised. Many studies have been designed to evaluate whether or not such prayers result in measurable improvement in health. One such type of study focuses on the efficacy of “intercessory” or “distant” prayer, which involves people trying to heal others through prayers offered without the intended benefactors knowing it. Patients do not know whether anyone is praying on their behalf, so they are not subject to placebo effects in which belief in the efficacy of prayer influences the outcome of the experiment.

Most of these studies report no measurable difference in the improvement of the health of people who have been prayed for, versus those who have not been prayed for (Masters et al. 2006). Reports of studies indicating improvement in health through prayer are counterbalanced by reports that the health of people who had been prayed for actually worsened (Byrd 1998; Benson 2006)! In any event, the validity of such studies is doomed from the start because it can also be argued that God the Omnipotent responds to all prayer requests: When a request is granted, the answer is “Yes”; when it is not granted, God says “No” to the petitioner, i.e., denies the request.

Religious believers often cite fulfillment of biblical and Qur’anic prophecy as evidence for the validity of their scriptures. The sources of prophecy are people who are believed to have received revelations from God and subsequently recorded them in relevant writings. A well-known example of predictive prophecy is Isaiah 7:14, written between 701 and 681 bce and said to have accurately foreshadowed the virgin birth of Jesus. In Isaiah 7:14, the prophet Isaiah addresses the “house of David,” meaning the family and descendants of King David, and speaks of a virgin being pregnant with a child and giving birth to the child. Isaiah says this in the context of it being a sign from God. He also says that the child would be referred to as “Immanuel,” which means, “God with us.”

These believers assert that the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke offer evidence of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prediction. Matthew and Luke do record details involving the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:18–25; Luke 1:26–38), who was born about 700 years after the time of Isaiah, saying that he was born of the Virgin Mary and is the son of God; because he is the son of God, Jesus literally can be referred to as “God with us.” These citations, however, beg the question of whether Matthew and Luke’s assertions about a virgin birth are themselves valid.

Absent reliable evidence, religious beliefs are faith-based beliefs: firm belief in something for which evidence is not required. The challenge of persuading people to give up beliefs they hold dear when solid evidence clearly indicates that they should is far more difficult than the problem of presenting this evidence clearly and understandably. No one is immune from at least some reluctance to be wrong, to change one’s mind, to admit mistakes, and accept unwelcome findings. This reluctance is, naturally enough, all the more poignant when the stakes are possible loss of ultimate meaning or even eternal damnation. Thus, the subject should be approached with great care and sensitivity, understanding, and patience.


Notes

1. The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: Oxford Edition: 1769.

2. The Noble Qur’an. Translated by Khan, M.M., and M.T. Al-Hilali. London: Dar-us-Salam Publications: 1999.

References

Benson, H. 2006. Study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal 151(4): 934–42.

Byrd, R.C. 1998. Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. Southern Medical Journal 81: 826–29.

Hawking, S. 1988. A Brief History of Time. Toronto: Bantam.

Masters, K., J. Spielmans, and J. Goodson. 2006. Are there demonstrable effects of distant intercessory prayer? A meta-analytic review. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 32(1): 21–26.

Wynn, C.M., and A.W. Wiggins. 2001. Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends and Pseudoscience Begins. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry

Charles M. Wynn Sr.

Charles M. Wynn Sr.'s photo

Charles M. Wynn Sr. is professor of chemistry at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is coauthor of a science quartet:The Five Biggest Ideas in Science, Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends and Pseudoscience Begins,The Five Biggest Unsolved Problems in Science, and And God said, “Let there be evolution!”: Reconciling the Book of Genesis, the Qur’an, and the Theory of Evolution. He is a recipient of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Skeptic’s Toolbox “In the Trenches” award.