Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Playing The Mystery Card

Here's chpt one - very early draft. This chapter is long 12K words, so be warned. The others are much shorter. For your comments, feedback...

PS I know I spell McGrath wrong - for some reason I really struggle with his name...


“But it’s beyond science /reason to decide”

Oh dear, your belief system looks pretty irrational. Critics point out that only do you have little in the way of argument for what you believe, there also seems to be powerful evidence against it. If you want, nevertheless, to convince both yourself and others that your beliefs are not nearly as ridiculous as your critics suggest, what can you do?

Play the mystery card. By far the most popular version of this strategy is to say, “Ah, but of course this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide. We must acknowledge that science and reason have their limits. It is sheer arrogance to suppose they can explain everything.”


The view that science can ultimately explain everything – can answer every legitimate question - is called scientism. Actually, even most scientists consider scientism at best a pretty dubious doctrine. Very many of them accept that there are questions that science has not, and perhaps cannot, answer.

Take moral questions, for example. Is killing always wrong? Is it morally acceptable to design a baby? Science can make new technologies possible, including weapons of mass destruction and genetic engineering. But even most scientists agree that science cannot tell us whether it is ever morally permissible ever to use such technologies. It seems, as the philosopher David Hume famously noted, that science ultimately reveals only what is the case; it cannot tell us what we ought or ought not to do.

Nor, it would seem, can science explain why the universe itself exists – why there is anything at all. Scientific explanations involve appealing to natural causes or laws. For example, if you ask why the water froze in the pipes last night, a scientist explain by pointing out that the temperature of the water fell below zero, and that it is a law of nature that water freezes below zero. That would explain why the water froze. But what explains why there are any natural laws or causes in the first place? What explains why there is a natural world at all? Why there is something rather than nothing? Here’s it would seem, science cannot provide answers.

So, scientism certainly does appear to be false. There do appear to be questions science cannot answer, that extend beyond its proper domain. So, if the credibility of what you believe is under scientific threat, why not protect it by suggesting that it, too, is something that science is not well-placed rationally to assess. Indeed, accuse your critics of scientism! This strategy works best when what you believe has some sort of supernatural dimension. Beliefs in fairies, angelic presences, gods, a spirit realm wherein the deceased dwell, and of course various supernatural abilities and powers, can all be immunized against scientific threats to their credibility by pointing out that they all lie beyond the proper scope of science.

The veil analogy

This kind of appeal to mystery is particularly effective if combined with a veil analogy. Suggest that observable, scientifically investigable world is not all there is – there is also some sort of further reality hidden from us, as if behind a veil. Maintain that some of us – those lucky enough to be equipped with the right sort of transcendent faculty or insight – may perhaps obtain glimpses of the mystical reality that lies beyond the veil (and of course it’s terribly important that we listen to these “experts” – psychics, say, or “spiritual” people). Perhaps, even if we are not fortunate enough to be equipped with such a transcendental sense ourselves, we may nevertheless find at least some suggestive clues as to what lies on the other side (at this point, you might wish to reach for a generous helping of supporting anecdotes to bolster your conviction that, say, angels or psychic powers, exist – see chapter XX). But science, as a discipline, with its overly rigid and restrictive conception of what counts as “evidence”, is pretty useless when it comes to establishing anything about what lies behind the veil. Yes, we should acknowledge that science is a remarkably powerful tool when it comes to establishing how things on this side of the veil. The natural, physical world is its proper domain. Insist that anyone who suggests that, by means of science and/or reason, they might be able fairly conclusively to establish certain claims about what, if anything, lies beyond the natural, physical realm is clearly a fool.

So what does lie beyond the veil? Many would begin with their dead relatives. Spiritualists often use the veil analogy, describing the deceased as having “passed over to the other side”. While science may not be able to penetrate the cosmic partition dividing us from them, the spiritualist, luckily, has the ability to glimpse, if only dimly, through the veil. If the spiritualist’s abilities fail to show up when subjected to some rigorous scientific testing, well, you wouldn’t expect them to – such gifts are just not the kind of thing science is equipped to investigate.

Of course, it’s not just our dead loved ones who are supposed to reside on the far side of the fence. So do angels, fairies, demonic beings, and trans-dimensional aliens. Supernatural powers or energies are also at work behind the veil, such as those that account for the miraculous abilities of psychics, spoon benders, and dowsers, for example. And of course God, the ultimate agent, also resides in large measure behind the veil. It seems that, as Hegel once put it: “God does not offer himself for observation.” GWF Hegel, Lectures on The Philosophy of Religion, 1: Introduction and Concept of Religion, ed. Peter C Hodgson (Berkeley, University of California Press, 194), p.258.
Because such phenomena lie beyond the cosmic divide, it’s supposed, belief in such things cannot be discredited by rational or scientific means.

Character assassination

This kind of immunizing strategy can be particularly effective when combined with an implicit, or not so implicit, attack on the character of your critic. Quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be used to lend your ad hominem attacks a little gravitas:

There are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

See? Your philosophy is foolish. It fails to acknowledge that reality is far richer than your narrow, naturalistic, scientistic world-view can appreciate. You are also an arrogant know-it-all who thinks that you – or at least science – can supply all the answers. Show a little humility!

Nowadays, the accusation that one is unfairly discriminating against others is one of the most potent you can make. No one likes to think of themselves as a bigot, or to be associated with bigots. So dressing up your charge of scientism as an accusation of unjust discrimination against people such as yourself is likely to be doubly effective. If someone persists in presenting what looks like a credible scientific threat against what you believe, assert, or at least imply, that they are an intellectual bigot – that their scientistic world-view manifests nothing more than a nasty, unimaginative and irrational bias against people who hold beliefs such as your own. Just like women, or aboriginal people, you are being bullied and victimized.

You, by contrast, will now appear wonderfully humble, modest and open to new ideas and perspectives. Clearly, you are also far wiser and more “spiritual” than your narrow-minded critics, for you appreciate that the world extends far beyond your own, or even science’s, limited horizon. Who would want to side with such arrogant, scientistic oppressors against the humble, spiritual and wise?

The suggestion that supernatural claims - and in particular, religious claims such as that God exists - are beyond the ability of science and/or reason to settle is, as I say, widespread. That view about gods has certainly been around for a very long time. The Ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras commented:

Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life.

Seventeenth Century philosopher Blaise Pascal said about god:

Let us say: 'Either God is or he is not.' But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question.

And of course much the same view concerning god is commonly expressed today. In 2009, Christian activist Stephen Green complained to the U.K.’s Advertizing Standards Authority (ASA) about advertising posters, pasted on to the sides of buses, that read, “There’s probably no God.” Green said,

If you’re going to put out what appears to be a factual statement then you have to be able to back it up. They’ve got to substantiate this proposition that in all probability, God doesn't exist.

However, the ASA decided the adverts were allowed because the claims such as “There is a God” and “There is no God” were not capable of “objective substantiation” – that’s to say, they lay beyond the ability of science and reason to settle.

Non-scientific refutations

Is it true that beliefs about God, or about other sorts of supernatural agents, powers of other phenomena, are essentially immune to scientific refutation? Might they be immune to any sort of rational refutation?

Before we look at the specific question of whether science might settle certain supernatural claims - including the claim that God does, or does not exist - I want first to make two important preliminary points. It is often assumed that if certain supernatural claims are to be refuted, they would have to be refuted by science. Only science has this sort of capability. So, if it could be shown that science cannot refute such claims, it would then follow that they cannot be refuted at all.

Actually, even if science cannot refute certain supernatural claims, it would follow that they cannot be refuted. The two preliminary points I’ll now explain are:

(i) not all effective rational refutations are scientific, and
(ii) not all effective empirical refutations are scientific.

In which case, some supernatural claims, and perhaps even some god claims, may be refutable - may even be empirically refutable - even if they are not, properly speaking, scientifically refutable.

The scientific method

Science, as the term is most commonly understood today, refers to a certain sort of activity involving, and/or body of knowledge produced by, the application of something called the scientific method – a comparatively recent human invention not much more than four hundred years old, the emergence of which owes much to thinkers such as the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561 -1626). Scientists collect data by observation and experiment. They also formulate hypotheses – and broader theories – to explain what they observe, and subject their hypotheses to tests. From their theories and hypotheses, scientists derive, with a much precision as they can muster, predictions – predictions that can then be checked. For example, an astronomical theory that predicts the planet Mars will be in a certain place at a certain time can be checked by means of astronomical instruments. Tests can also take the form of controlled experiments carefully designed to be repeatable (other scientists should be able to repeat the experiment and obtain the same result). A scientific approach to testing theories emphasizes the importance of formulating hypotheses and predictions with clarity and precision, preferably focussing on mathematically quantifiable phenomena that can be reliably measured, e.g. by using a calibrated instrument. Through the application of the scientific method, various hypotheses and theories can be, and have been, refuted (I will have rather more to say about this later, in “But it Fits!”, where we will look at examples). The point I want to stress here, however, is that people have of course been producing powerful refutations of beliefs for much longer than four hundred years or so that the scientific method has existed, and, even today, many beliefs are refuted other than by application of the scientific method. Here are two examples.

1. Conceptual refutation

Suppose an explorer claims, on her travels, to have discovered a four-sided triangle. We ask her what she means. “It’s really a triangle?” we ask. “You are using the word with its normal meaning?” “Oh yes” she replies. “Only the one I discovered has got four sides.” It’s clear that, with just a bit of elementary reasoning, we can show that our explorer has discovered no such thing. A triangle, by definition, has exactly three sides. So a triangle with four sides involves a straightforward logical contradiction – it would have to have exactly three sides, but not have three sides. This is something reason alone can establish. We don’t have to bother mounting our own expedition to trace our explorer’s footsteps and check whether there is a four-sided triangle where he claims. We can know, just by thinking about it, that there’s no such thing. This refutation of the explorer’s can hardly be classed “scientific”. It’s certainly not an exercise in empirical science. No observation was required. Some straightforward reflection on certain concepts – those of triangularity and four-sidedness – is sufficient to refute her claim.

This raises the possibility that various claims about the supernatural might also be refuted without any appeal to science. Indeed, my introduction provided a possible example. If we understand God to be, literally, an agent – a person who acts in a rational way on the basis of his beliefs and desires, but God is also (or was?) a non-temporal being, capable of existing outside of a temporal setting, then we run into similar conceptual obstacles. The concepts of agency, action, belief, desire, and so on, are, it seems, essentially temporal concepts. Talk about a non-temporal agent or person seems, on closer inspection, to make little more sense than talk of a four-sided triangle. But if that is true, then we can refute the claim that the time is itself the creation of such an agent without any appeal to empirical science. A simple conceptual argument does the trick. These are, of course, the kind of arguments in which philosophers specialize.

So here is one way in which a rational refutation of a claim need not be a scientific refutation.

2. Empirical but non-“scientific” refutation

It seems to me that even an empirically-based refutation – that’s to say, a refutation based at least in part on observation of the world around us – need not be a “scientific” refutation. Suppose Jim claims to have a cat stuffed inside his shirt. We carefully go round him, both visually inspecting and patting every part of Jim’s shirt. We hear now “Meeiows”, and find no out of place bumps that might be a cat. So we conclude, very reasonably, despite not having actually looked inside Jim’s shirt, that there’s no cat there. We have pretty clearly refuted Jim’s claim, and have done so on the basis of empirical observation. Were there really a cat up Jim’s shirt, we would surely expect to detect some signs if its presence. If, even after careful checking, we find no such signs, we are justified in supposing there’s no cat there.

There are two morals I went to extract from this example. The first is that, while this refutation is based on empirical evidence, it would surely be odd to class it as a scientific refutation. Were we really doing science when we noted the absence of bumps and “meeiows” and concluded there was no cat present? Surely, this is an example of the common-or-garden variety of empirical refutation people have been conducting for millennia, long before the development of the scientific method. Concluding that it’s not raining because the ground outside is not wet, or that the chicken is not cooked because the juices are not running clear, or that it can’t be eight pm yet because the sun is still up, are perfectly acceptable empirically-based inferences to draw, despite the fact that they would not ordinarily be described as “scientific”. Indeed, such common-or-garden, everyday refutations can be just as devastatingly effective as, say, their laboratory-based counterparts. Call them “scientific” if you like, but, given such refutations aren’t typically performed by scientists and don’t employ anything approaching the scientific method, it seems to me rather less misleading to say they are empirical but not scientific.

The second moral is the effectiveness of such everyday refutations is not threatened by the fact that we could yet turn out to be mistaken about the there being a cat up Jim’s shirt. Yes, this refutation, like any empirical refutation (even the properly scientific variety), is open to the possibility of error. It is possible, for example, that Jim has secretly been breading mute micro-cats. Perhaps, by a programme of selective breeding, he has managed to get them down to just an inch or two in size, and he has one of these micro-cats hidden under his left armpit, where we have failed to detect it. This is a possibility. But the mere fact that we might be mistaken doesn’t entail that we do not, on the basis of the available evidence, have excellent grounds that there’s no cat there.

Might such an empirical, if not properly “scientific”, refutation of certain supernatural claims be possible?

I don’t see why not. Suppose Mary claims she has a supernatural ability to predict the toss of a coin. An angel whispers into her ear whether the next toss will be heads or tails. Because Mary’s claim concerns the supernatural – concerns what is behind the veil dividing the natural from the supernatural realm – does that entail that the claim is not amenable to empirical investigation and refutation? Of course not. Mary’s supposed angel may be the other side of the veil. But its activities, if real, have consequences that can be observed on this side. If there really is an angel whispering into Mary’s ear, Mary will able to predict correctly the next ten tosses of the coin. If she fails to predict all ten tosses correctly, it’s reasonable for us to conclude that Mary is either lying about that angel, or deluded. While not terribly “scientific”, this would constitute a very straightforward and highly effective refutation of a supernatural claim.

What about belief in God? Might that also be open to a highly effective empirical, if not properly “scientific”, refutation? Again, I see no reason why not. In fact, as we saw in the introduction, the evidential problem of evil does appear to constitute just such a refutation. If there the universe really is the creation of a maximally benevolent and powerful being, then surely, while it might contain some pain and suffering and moral evil, it would not contain anything like the amounts we actually observe. It certainly wouldn’t contain any gratuitous suffering. But surely there is so much suffering, including non-human suffering, that it is implausible that it can all be explained as the unavoidable price paid for certain greater goods.

Again, this argument is empirically-based – it relies on our observation of the world and the vast quantities of suffering it contains. Science can make a contribution towards the argument’s effectiveness, of course, by revealing, for example, that the suffering we observe going on in the world has actually been going on for hundreds of millions of years (that’s a properly scientific discovery). But the evidential problem of evil would not ordinarily be classed as “scientific” argument, despite being based on empirical evidence. It is a common-or-garden type refutation. Which is not, of course, to belittle it, or to admit that it is not, in fact, devastatingly effective.

That the evidential problem of evil is, in fact, a very powerful argument against belief in God is illustrated by the fact that the evidential problem of good surely does provide a devastatingly effective empirical refutation of belief in an evil god. It should be perfectly obvious, to anyone with eyes to see, that the world is not the creation of a supremely powerful and evil deity.

So, even if we cannot, strictly speaking, provide a scientific refutation of belief in God, it would not follow that we could not refute belief in God. A conceptual argument might be able to establish beyond reasonable doubt that there is no God. Moreover, even if no scientific refutation were possible, it would not follow that a devastatingly effective, empirically-based objection to belief in God could not be constructed.

Science and the supernatural

Let’s now turn to the suggestion that a scientific refutation of supernatural claims and/or the claim that there is a God is impossible. In fact, I see no reason to accept this. While we certainly should acknowledge that both science has its limitations, and that there well be questions science cannot answer, it does not follow that such scientific refutations are impossible.

Samantha’s supernaturally-empowered spit

Let’s consider a hypothetical case. Suppose Samantha claims her saliva has miraculous healing powers. If she rubs her saliva over wounds, skin complaints, diseased organs, and so on, this has a miraculous curative effect. Samantha’s friends and relatives swear to the amazing curative powers of her spit. Samantha doesn’t know exactly how it works, but she does claim to know that it has something to do with the spirit realm. By some mysterious, supernatural means, people are cured.

Does that fact that Samantha’s claims her spit has some sort of supernatural power – that the cures it produces are of a supernatural origin - mean that her claims are not scientifically refutable?

It’s pretty obvious that they do not. It is not difficult to imagine some properly scientific tests. For example, suppose we provide Samantha with three vials, one of her own saliva, one of a strangers, and one of something that is not saliva at all, but just looks and feels like it. We have Samantha rub her miraculous spit on a number of subjects with various medical conditions: cuts, skin complaints, and so on. This trial is “double blind” neither the subjects to whom the substances applied nor Samantha know who are getting Samantha’s saliva and who are getting something else. We then monitor the subjects to see if those with a certain sort of skin condition, or cut, etc. recover more effectively than those who do not. If Samantha’s spit really does have the miraculous powers that she claims, we should expect those who receive it to get better quicker than those who don’t.

Such a test could provide strong evidence that Samantha’s spit does, indeed, have some extraordinary powers. However, suppose those who receive Samantha’s saliva fail to get better any quicker than those who don’t. This would provide us with a strong piece of scientific evidence that Samantha claim to have supernaturally-gifted saliva is false. Suppose a variety of further tests are conducted, all of which produce a negative. And suppose that we have (which, of course, we do) credible scientific evidence that power are very prone to the power of suggestion – merely telling people that something will make them better can be surprisingly effective. Surely the reasonable conclusion to draw would be that Samantha is, indeed, mistaken, and that the testimony of her friends and relatives concerning the miraculous powers of her saliva are in large part accounted for by the power of suggestion.

It’s worth emphasizing that in the above example, science would not just have failed to find evidence that supernatural power does exist, it would have established pretty conclusively that it doesn’t. We would have, not just an absence of evidence, but evidence of absence. When supernatural claims are tested, and we get a negative result, true believers will often insist that this “proves nothing” – we may not have found evidence for what they believe, but that doesn’t “prove” that what they believe is not true. In some cases, that’s true. But “prove” is a slippery word (as we’ll see in chapter XX), and it may be that the tests have indeed established beyond reasonable doubt that what they believe is false.

So science can pretty conclusively refute claims of a supernatural nature. This is because such claims, if true, often have empirically-observable consequences. They are, in this respect, no different to claims about other “hidden” phenomena, such as claims about tiny, unobservable particles, or the distant past. Such claims may be about phenomena to which we don’t have direct access. But that’s not to say that they cannot be pretty conclusively refuted by the methods of science. Samantha’s claims her spit has the supernatural ability to cure people. This claim, if true, entails that people exposed to her spit will be more likely to get better than those who aren’t. This observable consequence can be checked. A negative result is thus a powerful piece of evidence against what Samantha believes. Of course, it’s possible that Samantha was having a bad day, or something about the experimental set up neutralized the supernatural effectiveness of her spit, or whatever (I can imagine someone saying “Ah, contact with the plastic vials in which her spit was briefly stored must have removed its supernatural power”). But if a number of different experiments, varying the conditions under which the experiment is conducted (changing the material of vials in which the saliva is stored, varying the temperature, etc.), all produce a negative result, surely we do have overwhelming evidence that Samantha’s claim to have supernatural gifted spit is false.

Of course it will always remain possible that Samantha’s spit does, sometimes, have amazing restorative abilities. We could be mistaken. But that’s not to say we’re not justified in supposing Samantha’s claim is false. To say it’s still possible that something is true – in the sense that it has not been proved beyond all possible doubt to be false – is not to say that it has not been shown to be highly unlikely. Many defenders of supernatural beliefs appear to assume that if they can merely show it’s possible their belief in angels, psychic powers, etc. is true, then that belief in such things is, after all, reasonable. But of course it’s also possible that that my attic is inhabited by invisible space gerbils, that George Bush was a robot, and that the French are Martian imposters and the Eiffel tower is a transmitter for secretly sending reports back to Mars. Any nutty belief about the world can always claim to be possibly true, because we can never prove beyond all possible doubt that it’s false (I’ll have more to say about this in the next chapter). That’s not to say we can’t prove beyond reasonable doubt that it’s false.

Samantha and her miraculous spit was a hypothetical example. However, many claims of a supernatural nature have actually been scientifically investigated in some depth. Scientists have tested the claims of remote viewers, psychics, crystal healers, etc. and others claiming to have some sort of supernatural ability. Such investigations have failed to provide good evidence that any of these abilities actually exist, and, in many cases, they have supplied overwhelming evidence that they don’t.

Let’s now look at an actual example of such an investigation – an investigation that prompted a believer in the amazing powers of crystals to play the mystery card in defence of their belief.

Professor Christopher French and colleagues Lyn Williams and Hayley O’Donnell at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London conducted a study into the claim that crystals have unusual powers that can be detected when they are held. The resulting paper was presented to the British Psychological Society Centenary Annual Conference in Glasgow in 2001. The study compared the reactions of a group of volunteers who were told to meditate while clutching real crystals bought from “new Age” shops with a control group given fake crystals. Those given real crystals reported higher concentration powers, heightened energy levels and better spiritual well-being. However, exactly the same feelings were reported by those holding fake crystals. This experiment repeated an earlier one in which the experimenter, Williams, knew which crystals were real and fake, and so was not “double blind”. This second study was double blind. The result? Neither experiment found any difference in the effects reported between real and fake crystals.

Richard Wiseman, a colleague of French’s commented on the results:

The suggestion is that the power of crystals is in the mind rather than in the crystals themselves.

Let’s suppose you believe in the miraculous powers of crystals and, in particular, in the ability of people to sense the power of crystals that they physically handle. But you are now presented with these experimental results which strongly suggest, as Wiseman notes, that the experiences people have as a result of handling crystals are a product of the power of suggestion, rather than anything in the crystals themselves. Oh dear. What do you do? One commentator on a blog reporting the experiments responded like so:

There is much that exists beyond the visible spectrum of light, and beyond the five senses. Not being able to prove the existence of something does not disprove its existence. Much is yet to be discovered. You would do better to discover it by looking outside your narrow frame of reference.

This is a curious collection of sentences . The first three are, of course, all true – indeed they are truisms. There is indeed much that exists beyond the visible spectrum of light, and beyond the five senses. X-rays, for example. It is undeniable that not proving the existence of something does not disprove its existence. And of course, it’s also undeniable that “much is yet to be discovered”.

However, while the first three sentences are truisms, they fail to engage with the experimental results. What experiment produced is some rather compelling evidence that some of the effects people typically report on handling crystals – increased concentration, spiritual well-being, heightened energy levels – are not a result of some special feature of the crystals themselves, but rather e.g. the power of suggestion. It is important to stress what we are looking at here is not a mere absence of evidence for the claim that crystals have such effects, but rather some positive evidence of the absence of any such effects. Yet notice how, in response to this experimental evidence, our commentator says “not being able to prove the existence of something is not to disprove its existence”, thus misrepresenting the results of this investigation as a mere absence of evidence rather than what they actually are: positive evidence of absence.

What of the suggestion that there’s much that is “beyond the senses” (whether it’s a supernatural realm or merely more of the natural world is left open) that the methods of science are not well-suited to discover (being too “narrow”). The thought seems to be that if we want to discover more about this undiscovered realm, we need to open ourselves up to other ways of knowing. But what other ways of knowing? A survey of the crystal healing literature and websites suggests a combination of gut-feeling, intuition, and heavy reliance on various anecdotes about the effects of crystals, such as people being supposedly cured, etc.

This is a fairly typical example of how people play the mystery card in order to deal with compelling scientific evidence against their beliefs in miraculous or supernatural phenomena. The scientific method has a fantastic track record when it comes to revealing what lies beyond the visible spectrum of light and is hidden from our ordinary five senses. As I say, scientists have discovered not only X-rays, but also subatomic particles, distant galaxies emitting radio , and so on. We are given no reason to think scientific method is not suitable when it comes to investigating the powers of crystal. Indeed, many of the claims made about crystals clearly are scientifically investigable, because they have observable, empirically-testable consequences. Moreover, science has revealed rather good evidence that some of these claims are false.

Still, our commentator sweepingly dismisses such scientific findings, misrepresenting them as a mere “absence of evidence”. On no grounds whatsoever, and in the teeth of good evidence to the contrary, they insist scientific methods are far too “narrow” to refute the various claims made about crystals. And of course, their dismissal of such scientific evidence is delivered with an air of humility and superior wisdom in contrast to the implied know-it-all attitude of the scientific critics.

This is a classic example of playing the mystery card in order to try to immunize a belief against scientific evidence to the contrary.

The skeptic damping effect

A particular version of the “it’s beyond science to decide” move that sometimes crops up in defence of supernatural claims is the appeal to the skeptic damping effect. When those claiming to have extra-sensory perception (ESP) – e.g. a supernatural ability psychically to read minds, view things remotely – have their abilities tested under rigorous, experimental conditions, their claimed abilities tend mysteriously to vanish. Why is this? Some of those who insist ESP is real claim that the presence of sceptical observers has a damping effect on ESP, as Geoffrey Munroe, a psychologist working in this field, notes in his paper “The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts”.

…proponents of extrasensory perception (ESP) sometimes discount failed attempts to support the existence of ESP by claiming that the phenomenon disappears when placed “under the microscope”, especially the cold microscope of ESP non-believers. That is, there is a kind of observer effect where ESP is changed or eliminated when attempts to observe and measure it are taken. Thus, scientific methods, including careful observation and measurement, are impotent to reveal answers to the question of whether or not ESP exists [Geoffrey D Munroe, Journal of Applied Psychology vol 40, issue 3, p579-600. Published Online at XXX]

The skeptic damping effect provides a convenient excuse for the failure of experimental studies to produce convincing evidence of such abilities. But does the suggestion that the presence of skeptical observers somehow suppresses ESP really succeed in immunizing the claim that it exists against scientific refutation? Not necessarily. In fact, if it is merely the presence of sceptical observers that supposedly has the damping effect, then, interestingly, a controlled scientific experiment could be conducted to establish this. Those claiming ESP could be tested, sometimes with a hidden skeptic observing them, and sometimes not, to see if their ability varied in the way they claim. If on the other hand, it is the involvement of controlled, laboratory conditions designed to minimize the chances of trickery, etc. (whether or not a skeptic happens to be present), that supposedly produces the damping effect, well that excuse would then place ESP beyond the ability of such laboratory-based studies to either confirm or refute. However, we could still have good empirical grounds for being highly skeptical about the reality of ESP if, for example, we know that (i) all the claimed effects can be faked by trained magicians, (ii) several of those claiming such powers have actually been caught faking them, (iii) all the supposed evidence for the existence of such powers is anecdotal (see “APPRA” for more on this), (iv) there are many known mechanisms by which individuals might become convinced that people have ESP when in truth they don’t, (v) there is no known mechanism that would account for ESP, and so on.
Scientific refutation of god claims?

Let’s now turn to the claim that God exists. Might this claim be scientifically confirmed or refuted? We have already seen that the belief that there exists an all-powerful, supremely benevolent creator God faces a very serious empirical challenge - that raised by the evidential problem of evil. However, I suggested it would be odd to describe the evidential problem of evil as a scientific argument against the existence of God.

Still, why shouldn’t a scientific refutation of a god claim at least be possible? The extent to which god claims are refutable depends largely on which particular god is under consideration. If, by “god”, I mean nothing more than a mysterious transcendent something-or-other, then the claim that “god exists” is certainly difficult to refute scientifically. That’s because, in order for science to have a chance at refuting it, a hypothesis must have observable consequences, and it’s not clear what observable consequences, if any, this particular god claim has.

However, as we begin to add more to our concept of god, so there is potentially more for critics – including scientific critics – to get their teeth into. We have seen, for example, that if you claim god is a non-temporal person or agent, then you run up against certain conceptual objections. If you claim there’s a God-with-a-capital-G: an all-powerful, all-good creator god, then you run up against empirical evidence – such as that involved in the evidential problem of evil. Go further still and claim, as very many do, that your god created the entire universe around about six thousand years ago, and science can establish beyond reasonable doubt that no god of that sort exists.

The claim science can indeed establish beyond reasonable doubt that “there is no god” is a view currently most closely associated with Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. Let’s take a closer look at his central argument.

The God Delusion

The God Delusion is a world-wide best-seller that provoked a huge storm of criticism from the religious, who accused Dawkins of all sorts of confusions, muddles and bad arguments. One of the book’s central contentions is that what Dawkins calls the god hypothesis – the hypothesis that there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe, and everything in it, including us – is almost certainly not true.

Dawkins notes how some theists attempt to bolster their belief in the god hypothesis by insisting that it neatly explains features of the universe that, they suggest, would otherwise be deeply and puzzlingly improbable. For example, it seems the laws of nature and starting conditions of the universe have the Goldilocks property of being “just right” to produce life. Had those starting conditions been only slightly different, life would have been impossible. That the universe does appear to have such “fine-tuned” properties has been noted by many eminent scientists, including for example the astronomer Royal Martin Rees, who says:

a degree of fine tuning – in the expansion speed, the material content of the universe, and the strengths of the basic forces – seems to have been a prerequisite for the emergence of the hospitable cosmic habitat in which we live’ (p. 212). ‘Other Universes: a Scientific Perspective’, in Neil A. Manson (ed.), God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science (London: Routledge, 2003) p.p. 211–20.

Some theists, noting the universe has such fine-tuned properties, then argue like so. Surely the probability of the universe having such Goldilocks features by chance must be extraordinarily low. So low, in fact, that it is rather more likely that some sort of intelligence deliberately designed the universe this way. That intelligence, they suggest, is God. This kind of fine-tuning argument is typically not supposed to constitute a conclusive proof of God’s existence, but it is supposed to be, in the words of John Polkinghorne, “strongly suggestive” (p 45 Questions of Truth).

Actually, before we proceed, it’s worth noting that the fine-tuning argument, by itself, is no more “strongly suggestive” that John Polkinghorne’s God exists than it is “strongly suggestive” that there is, say, an evil god. The argument is entirely neutral so far as the moral properties of the designing intelligence is concerned. The fine-tuning argument faces all sorts of serious objections (including, for example, the conceptual objection raised in my introduction: that the very idea of a non-temporal intelligent agent that desiged the universe makes no more sense than a non-spatial mountain), but perhaps the most obvious objection is that even if the universe does show signs of having been produced by some sort of intelligence, it is a huge and, as it stands, unwarranted further leap to the conclusion that this intelligence is even a god, let alone the very specific god of love that Christians like Polkinghorne believe in. As the physicist Paul Davies notes at the end of his book The Goldilocks Enigma:

The other main problem with intelligent design is that the identity of the designer need bear no relation at all to the God of traditional monotheism. The “designing agency” can be a committee of gods, for example. The designer can be a natural being or beings, such as an evolved super-mind or super-civilization existing in a previous universe, or in another section of our universe, which made our universe using super-technology. The designer can also be some sort of superdupercomputer simulating this universe. (REF XX)

However, let’s set this problem to one side and get back to the issue at hand, which is Dawkins’ criticism of such arguments, which is rather different. Dawkins argues that, when theists appeal to god to explain such otherwise supposedly improbable features of the universe, they overlook the fact that the god to which they appeal to must be at least as complex, and thus at least as improbable, as that which he is invoked to explain:

A designer god cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any god capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us escape. P136.

If the existence of universe having such organized complexity is highly improbable, then, says Dawkins, the existence of a god having the kind of complexity to account for it must be even more improbable. So God doesn’t solve the problem of the complexity of the universe. Rather, with god, we merely postpone the problem of accounting for such complexity. But then the complexity we observe in the universe provides no justification for introducing god. Worse still, if the theist is right and the probability of such complexity just happening to exist is very low, then surely the probability of God existing must be even lower.

Dawkins argument is intriguing, and worthy of closer study. However, I don’t intend to assess its cogency here. My focus is not on whether Dawkins’ argument is any good – perhaps it isn’t – but on some of the dubious moves some theists have made in response to it. While some theists have responded to Dawkins’ argument in a fairly honest and straightforward way , others have instead reached for the usual bag of immunizing tricks. Chief among these is, “Ah, but this is beyond the ability of reason and/or science to decide!”

Alister McGrath’s response to The God Delusion

Which brings me to the theologian Alister McGrath, a long-standing critic of Dawkins. In his article, “The questions science cannot answer - The ideological fanaticism of Richard Dawkins’s attack on belief is unreasonable to religion - and science” , McGrath attempts to defend religion against Dawkins’ attack. He begins by pointing out there are questions science cannot answer:

In The Limits of Science, Medawar reflected on how science, despite being “the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon”, had limits to its scope. Science is superb when it comes to showing that the chemical formula for water is H2O. Or, more significantly, that DNA has a double helix. But what of that greater question: what’s life all about? This, and others like it, Medawar insisted, were “questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer”. They could not be dismissed as “nonquestions or pseudoquestions such as only simpletons ask and only charlatans profess to be able to answer”. This is not to criticise science, but simply to calibrate its capacities. [From The Times, February 10, 2007]

McGrath then goes on to do several things. First of all, he accuses Dawkins of being ideologically wedded to scientism. Dawkins, claims McGrath, simply assumes that “science has all the answers” But of course, scientists need to show a little humility. There are questions science cannot answer.

This first line of attack on Dawkins, though very popular among theists, entirely misses its mark. In fact, within the pages of the very book McGrath is attacking, Dawkins quite unambiguously acknowledges that, “Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science.” (p XX) Indeed, Dawkins seems happy to concede that moral questions may well fall into this category. Dawkins says: “we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least”. (p80).

So McGrath is attacking a position Dawkins does not hold. In fact McGrath is presenting a rather crude caricature of Dawkins’ position. The charge of scientism is unwarranted. It is also irrelevant. For suppose we can show that scientism is false – that there are certain questions science cannot answer. These may include certain questions about meaning and value, for example. Would it then follow that science cannot show there is no Judeo-Christian God? Would it follow that Dawkins’ argument must fail. Of course not. Science might still be able to show that there’s no god. Perhaps Dawkins has.

McGrath then proceeds to rubbish Dawkins’ argument against the god hypothesis, not by identifying any flaw in it, but by simply insisting that we cannot “prove there is no god”.

Now, interestingly, Dawkins remarks in The God Delusion itself that in his earlier attacks on Dawkins, McGrath’s defence of theism seems to boil down to “the undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence of God” (p XX). Dawkins says he agrees with McGrath that we cannot conclusively prove the non-existence of God, but points out, correctly, that this doesn’t entail belief in God is therefore immune to scientific skepticism. For, Dawkins suggests, the God hypothesis has observable consequences: “a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?” p80 Dawkins maintains that, in response to this question, McGrath had previously offered no real answer. It is particularly ironic, then, that in his Times article attacking Dawkins, McGrath simply repeats the charge, yet still offers no real answer to Dawkins question.

So McGrath’s point about Dawkins not having a “conclusive proof” is another red herring. Dawkins claims no such proof. Dawkins merely argues that God’s existence is highly improbable.

In short, McGrath entirely fails to engage with Dawkins’ argument. McGrath merely levels at Dawkins the inaccurate and irrelevant charge of scientism, and makes the inaccurate claim that Dawkins is trying conclusively to prove there’s no God, which he’s not.

Still, it’s worth spending a moment to consider why McGrath supposes there can be no conclusive proof or disproof of the existence of God. In his book The Dawkins Delusion – Atheist Fundamentalism and The Denial of The Divine, McGrath explains as follows:

Any given set of observations can be explained by a number of theories. To use the jargon of the philosophy of science: theories are under-determined by the evidence. The question then arises: What criterion be used to decide between them, especially when they are ‘empirically equivalent’. Simplicity? Beauty? The debate rages, unresolved. And its outcome is entirely to be expected: the great questions remain unanswered. There can be no “scientific ‘proof’ of ultimate questions. Either we cannot answer them, or we must answer them on grounds other than the sciences. (p14)

McGrath’s point seems to be that, when it comes to such world-views as “god exists” and “god does not exist” we find both theories fit the available observational evidence. They are, indeed, “empirically equivalent”. But then neither theory can be proved or disproved by appeal to that evidence.

But is it true that both theories fit the observational evidence equally well? As we’ll see later in “But it fits!” any theory, no matter how nuts, can be made to “fit” – be consistent with – the evidence, given sufficient ingenuity. It doesn’t follow that all theories are equally reasonable, or that we cannot fairly conclusively settle the question of whether certain theories are true on the basis of observational evidence. After all, the evil god hypothesis is, surely, pretty conclusively ruled out on the basis of the available empirical evidence. But then why couldn’t the good God hypothesis be ruled out in much the same way? And why couldn’t Dawkins have succeeded in showing, on the basis of the observational evidence, that the “god hypothesis” he addresses is false?

McGrath doesn’t say. In effect, he just asserts that the god question cannot be fairly conclusively settled on the basis of observational evidence. As this is precisely what Dawkins is denying, McGrath has no argument against Dawkins. McGrath’s defence of the reasonableness of theism boils down to the wholly unjustified assertion that Dawkins is mistaken.

As I say, whether or not Dawkins’s arguments against the God hypothesis are good arguments is not my concern here. By all means argue that they are poor. That would be an intellectually respectable strategy for a theist to adopt.

However, McGrath fails to offer any cogent justification for his oft-repeated claim that the existence or non-existence of god is not something that observation, or indeed science, might establish. He makes the unjustified, false, and irrelevant accusation that Dawkins is guilty of scientism. McGrath also peppers his responses to Dawkins with numerous ad hominem attacks on Dawkins’ character, whose approach he dismisses as “superficial”, “brash”, “glossy”, “aggressive “ p. xi “embittered”, and “fanatical”.

I cite McGrath to illustrate a more general trend. When people offer rational, or even scientifically-based arguments, against theistic claims, one of the most popular strategies theists adopt to immunize their beliefs is to assert, without providing any justification, “Ah, but of course this is beyond the ability science and/or reason to decide”, and then imply their opponent must be an arrogant, unsophisticated twit fanatically wedded to scientism if they suppose otherwise. But we can reject, or remain unconvinced by, scientism while nevertheless maintaining that certain God claims are rationally, perhaps even scientifically, adjudicatable. To suppose otherwise is not, as McGrath implies, to commit yourself to scientism.

Say, “Ah, but of course this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide” often enough, like a mantra, and there’s a good chance people will start to accept it without even thinking about it. It will become an immunizing “factoid” that can be conveniently wheeled out whenever a rational threat to the credibility of your belief crops up. Perhaps this is why, rather than respond to Dawkins arguments, McGrath just starts chanting the “Ah but of course this beyond the ability of reason/science to decide” mantra, realizing that it is now so heavily woven into the contemporary zeitgeist that many readers, even if momentarily stung by Dawkins into entertaining a serious doubt, can quickly by lulled back to sleep: “Oh yes, I remember, it’s beyond the ability of science/reason… scientism…zzzzz.”

Shorn of its theological and intellectual trappings, McGrath’s response to Dawkins is essentially no more sophisticated or effective than that of the commentator who attempted to defend belief in the amazing powers of crystals against a scientific criticism by insisting, without any justification at all, that scientific methods are far too “narrow” to refute such beliefs.

“You can’t prove a negative”
One reason why some suppose that science and reason are incapable of establishing beyond reasonable doubt that certain supernatural claims – such as that there exist fairies or angels or spirit beings or even gods – are false, is that they assume you can’t prove a negative. Indeed this is widely supposed to be some sort of “law of logic”.

For example, the Georgia minister Dr. Nelson L. Price asserts on his website that:

…one of the laws of logic is that you can’t prove a negative.

If Price is correct and this is indeed a law of logic, then of course it immediately follows that we cannot prove that there are no angels, or, indeed, that there is no god. We will have established that the non-existence of God is indeed beyond the ability of reason and/or science to establish.

The fact is, however, that this supposed “law of logic” is no such thing. As Steven D. Hales points in his paper ”You Can Prove A Negative” (REF XX), “You can’t prove a negative” is a principle of folk logic, not actual logic.

Notice, for a start, that “You cannot prove a negative” is itself a negative. So, if it were true, it would itself be unprovable. Moreover, any claim can transformed into a negative by a little rephrasing – most obviously, by negating the claim and then negating it again. I exist is equivalent to I do not not exist, which is a negative. Yet here is a negative it seems I can prove in the style of Descartes – I think, therefore I do not not exist!

Of course, those who say, “You can’t prove a negative” will probably insist that I have misunderstood their point. As Hales notes, when people say, “You can’t prove a negative”, what they really mean is that you cannot prove that something does not exist. If this point were correct, it would apply, not just to supernatural beings lying behind the cosmic veil, but also things that might be supposed to exist on this side of the veil, such as unicorns, Martians, rabbits with twenty heads, and so on. We would not be able to prove the non-existence of any of these things either.

But is the point correct? Is it true that we cannot prove that something does not exist? Again, it depends. If John claims there’s a unicorn in the tool shed, I can quickly establish he is mistaken by going and taking a look. We could similarly establish there’s no Loch Ness monster by draining the Loch. But what of the claim that unicorns once existed? We cannot go back in time and directly observe all of the past as we can every corner of the tool shed or the Loch. Does it follow that we cannot prove unicorns never existed?

It depends in part on what you mean by “prove”. The word has a variety of meanings. By saying something is “proved”, I might, for example, mean that it is established beyond all possible doubt. Or I might mean it has been established beyond reasonable doubt (this is the kind of proof required in a court of law). Can we establish beyond reasonable doubt that unicorns have never inhabited the Earth? True, the past has been and gone, so we can longer directly inspect it. But surely, if unicorns did roam the Earth, we would expect to find some evidence of their presence, such as fossils of unicorns or at least of closely related animals from which unicorns might have evolved. There is none. We also have plenty of evidence that unicorns are a fictional creation. In which case, it’s surely very reasonable for us to conclude that there never were any unicorns. Indeed, I’d suggest we can establish this beyond reasonable doubt.

In response, it might be said “But you cannot prove conclusively, beyond all possible doubt, that unicorns have never roamed the earth” This is undeniably true. However, this point is not peculiar to negatives. It can be made about any claim about the unobserved, and thus any scientific theory at all, including scientific theories about what does exist. We can prove beyond reasonable doubt that dinosaurs existed. But not beyond all possible doubt. Despite the mountain of evidence that dinosaurs roamed the earth, it’s still possible that, say, all those dinosaur fossils are fakes placed by alien pranksters long ago.

Let’s sum up. If “you can’t prove a negative” means you can’t prove beyond reasonable doubt that certain things don’t exist, then the claim is just false. We prove the non-existence of things on a regular basis. If on the other hand, “you can’t prove a negative” means you cannot prove beyond all possible doubt that something does not exist, that may, arguably, be true. But so what? That point is entirely irrelevant when it comes to defending beliefs in supernatural entities against the charge that science and/or reason have established beyond reasonable doubt that they don’t exist.

Playing the mystery card in response to the problem of evil
As we have seen, the evidential problem of evil constitutes one of the best-known and most powerful-looking threats to the rationality of theism. Theists respond in a variety of ways, by, for example, constructing theodicies – explanations for why a good God would, in fact, allow such quantities of moral and natural evil to exist. However, plenty of theists acknowledge that, while many such theodicies have been developed, the evidential problem of evil does still appear to constitute a very significant problem. So how else might they try to deal with it?
One very popular response is to appeal to mystery. In some mysterious way, the suffering that we and other creatures experience is all for the best. In some incomprehensible way, this actually is the kind of world a good God would create, despite the fact that it is plagued by enormous quantities of horrendous suffering.
Of course, as it stands, this is not terribly convincing. After all, we could deal with evidence against any belief by making a similar move. Suppose that as a juror you are presented in court with abundant evidence that the accused is a serial killer who tortured his victims to death – including independent eye-witness testimony, excellent forensic evidence, and so on. It appears to be an open and shut case. In response to all this evidence, the defence simply says, “In some mysterious way we can’t understand, all this evidence was concocted. The accused is, in fact, innocent.” If that’s the best the defence can come up with, it’s clearly reasonable for you to find the accused guilty. In effect, the defence is admitting defeat – acknowledging that the evidence against the accused really is compelling. They are right that there’s the possibility of error – of some sort of elaborate conspiracy to frame the accused – but that possibility exists in every legal case. It doesn’t prevent prosecutions establishing guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
The philosopher Quentin Smith expresses his frustration at this kind of appeal to mystery to deal with the problem of evil:
So how do theists respond to arguments like this? They say there is a reason for evil, but it is a mystery. Well, let me tell you this: I'm actually one hundred feet tall even though I only appear to be six feet tall. You ask me for proof of this. I have a simple answer: it's a mystery. Just accept my word for it on faith. And that's just the logic theists use in their discussions of evil. Quentin Smith, Two Ways to Defend Atheism
Smith is right to condemn this sort of crude appeal to mystery in order to try to immunize theism – or indeed other any other kinds of belief – against rational threats. However, there are more sophisticated versions of the appeal to mystery which we need to consider. For example, theists sometimes say something like this:

“God, let’s not forget, is not only limitlessly benevolent and powerful, but also infinitely intelligent and wise. Just as a toddler cannot be expected to grasp the good reasons why its loving parents sometimes do things that cause the toddler to suffer (e.g. give them immunizing injections) so we should not expect to understand everything a loving God does. God’s reasons for allowing suffering are often likely to be beyond our grasp. Yes, we cannot understand why such a being would produce hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering, or bury thousands of children alive, but that does not mean such suffering provides us with good evidence that there is no such God.”

The philosopher Stephen Wykstra, for example, suggests that

if we think carefully about the sort of being theism proposes for our belief, it is entirely expectable – given what we know of our cognitive limits – that the goods by virtue of which this Being allows known suffering should very often be beyond our ken. (1984: 91).

Notice that Wykstra is not making an entirely gratuitous and unjustified appeal to mystery, as in Quentin Smith’s example. Wykstra’s suggestion is that, if there is a God, well then we should expect there to be many things we cannot understand. In particular, we should expect there to exist many evils for which God’s reasons remain mysterious. In which case, the fact that there exist such evils is not good evidence that there’s no such God.

This sort of appeal to mystery in order to deal with the evidential problem of evil may be more sophisticated, but I cannot see that it ultimately fares much better in dealing with the evidential problem of evil.

First, notice that when a parent inflicts suffering on their child for that child’s good, the parent will do their very best to explain to their child that they do care for them, that this is suffering is for their own good, and will even make some sort of attempt to explain why they are causing this suffering, even if only in the kind of over-simplified terms a child might understand. A parent that did not do these things would rightly be considered callous and uncaring. Yet our cosmic parent figure, if he exists, fails to make himself clearly known, fails to provide any such reassurance to those he makes suffer appallingly, and fails to provide any kind of explanation at all for the horror he unleashes. Surely we do then have excellent evidence that even if there is a god, he is not particularly caring or benevolent being. In reply, you may insist God does in fact provide these kinds of reassurance and explanation – they are all to be found in the Bible. But it’s hardly clear to me, or indeed the majority of humans currently suffering on this planet, that such explanations and reassurances are to be found there – why didn’t God make them much clearer to the rest of us? In any case, what about the countless generations of humans that suffered before the Bible was written? Why did God unleash millions of years of horror before finally getting round to providing us with some reassurance that, actually, it’s all, in some mysterious way we cannot grasp, for the best?

Second, notice that whether or not one accepts the above criticism, there presumably are at least limits to how much evil can be put down to God’s mysterious reasons. Suppose the world contained even more evil, and hardly any good at all. Indeed, suppose it resembled a vast Hieronymus-Bosch-like vision of hell: a landscape of endless torture and despair with not a jot of beauty or happiness to be seen. Would it still be reasonable to say, “There’s no good evidence here that the world was not created by a supremely powerful and benevolent creator. It’s still entirely reasonable to believe in an all-powerful, all-good God!” Surely, as the level of evil increases, there does come a point where we can justifiably say “There may be a creator god, but it’s not that one.”

Third, and most significantly, notice that precisely the same immunizing strategy can be employed to defend belief in an evil god against the evidential problem of good. A believer in an evil god can say: “Evil god’s fiendish intelligence is infinite. So we should expected there to be many goods his evil reasons for which lie beyond our ken. In which case, the amount of good that exists is not good evidence that there is no evil god!”

Clearly, this won’t wash. We know we are justified in supposing there is no evil god on the basis of observation evidence. There are limits to the amount of good that can be put down to an evil god’s mysterious ways, and those limits are clearly exceeded by what we observe. There are vast amounts of good in the world, far too much for this to be the creation of an evil god. But then there are also vast quantities of evil – far too much for this to be creation of a good God.

The moral of the unsolved case

An example of one last dodgy “appeal to mystery” worth nailing before we end this chapter runs as follows.

“Why does the universe exist? You cannot answer this question. You must admit that it is a mystery that has not been solved. But if you do not know what the answer to the question is, you cannot know that my answer – that it was created by God - is incorrect. You must admit that, for all you know – I’m right! “

This is a bad argument. Suppose Sherlock Holmes is having a bad day. He just cannot figure out who dunnit. Does it follow that he cannot reasonably rule certain suspects out?

Of course not. Holmes may not know who did it, but he might still know who didn’t. He might be able pretty conclusively to rule certain suspects out (the butler, for example, who has a cast iron alibi). Similarly, someone unable to explain why the universe exists may nevertheless be able to use their powers of reason to rule certain answers out. Even a religious person will typically admit that there is overwhelming evidence the world was not created by an evil God. But then they must admit there could be overwhelming evidence that it was not created by a good God either. In fact it seems there is.

This point is by no means restricted to religious beliefs, of course. Wacky belief systems often start with a mystery – they offer to explain what might otherwise seem rather baffling. Those who believe there’s a family of plesiosaurs (sinuously-necked dinosaurs that went extinct 65 million years ago) living in Loch Ness, that the world was once ruled by aliens who still visit occasionally, that there’s a ghost in their attic, will point to peculiar shapes on the surface of the Loch, or the extraordinary ancient Nazca drawings in Peru (huge images only visible from high in the sky – some say they were created for the benefit of passing aliens), or exquisitely constructed crop circles, or the weird rattling sound coming from the attic, and say, “Explain that!” They challenge us to explain how such things were formed, or how or why they were made. When we can’t, they conclude their beliefs, which we may be forced to concede do actually explain these things, can’t be so unreasonable after all. But of course, whether or not we can explain such things, we may still have excellent evidence that there is no family of plesiosaurs in living in Loch Ness (for a start, the Loch has been frozen solid top to bottom many times over during the ice ages that separate us from the age of the plesiosaurs).

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