A tribute to Charles Darwin on his 200th birth anniversary
Why science can talk about God
Some say that science should be absent from discussions about God is because while science concerns itself with the material, God concerns himself with the ‘spiritual’ ‘nonmaterial’ realm. But there are a number of theories of God that explicitly deal with the material realm. To that extent science has standing.
One prominent theory of the divine made with ungodly frequency is that God has a direct impact on the material well-being of humans. Here’s why the claim falls short:
Given systematic temporal and geographic variance exists in poverty, life-expectancy, etc. and given we have been able to attribute a majority of the causes for such to human action, it appears God plays only a peripheral part in the destiny of man, albeit a larger role in the destiny of women (mostly through the hands of believers). Mortality rates differ by geography. For example, US versus Africa, Northeast US versus Southern US (maybe god likes ‘godless NE liberals’). And morality rates vary by time — we live longer today than we did 200 years ago. The variance in mortality and life-expectancy also seems to respond to human intervention – discovering new technologies, medicines, to committing war. So unless we believe God systematically dislikes Africans, or liked people born 200 years ago less, when arguably people were more moral on some variables favored by the current fundamentalists, we have little reason to believe that God is a large force in determining life-expectancy, or mortality.
Let’s assume for devil’s sake that God is a confounding variable (which is true in at least one way – he is alleged to work in mysterious ways), i.e. God determines both temporal, geographic, racial and other kinds of variance in distribution of poverty, the human action to which it is causally attributed, and life-expectancy. But that version of God conflicts with our theories about human action (say greed) and our theories about God, who ought not to reward people motivated by such things as greed. But then punishment can come in the afterlife – via hell, where an ever larger number of people are being systematically tortured through great expense of energy, and in a manner that will leave the Bush administration officials chagrined. Even if we imagine that theories of after-life action are true, their impact on the material world is limited to the extent people believe in the threat of punishment. To that extent, God is an instrumental identity for achieving some version of morality.
Another challenge to the presence of God comes from the probabilistic nature of our causal models. Theories about God ought to be perfect (explain about 100% of the variance) while theories of social action can be probabilistic. To ascribe probabilistic thinking and action to God would significantly conflict with theories of God, though one can imagine that he sets the mean, and will causes the error term. A starker version of the same would be that God allows free will, and to that degree that he allows for it and the world is shaped by free will, and God is immaterial to bettering social condition. Another reason to discount challenge to God theory can be the following – we just don’t know the generating mechanism (or life/death) and probabilistic conditioning seems to come from fitting known world models onto data generated by God model, which is by the way synergestic enough with the world model (more poverty = earlier death) to be disturbing.
One way to look at the argument presented here is that God may exist, but s/he/it isn’t particularly strong. And if strength/omnipotence is taken to be a fundamental descriptive attitude of the object (God), it is likely that the object doesn’t exist as well. The counterargument to the above would perhaps need to factor in differing conceptions about the object and its power. For example, one may say that s/he/it is doing all it can to reduce evil to its lowest form – and that is indeed the present condition. Perhaps then more minimally – since he is already doing all he can and rest depends on us – we can argue that God isn’t a particularly useful intervention for changing one’s situation in the world.