Sunday, May 18, 2014

Amir D. Aczel. Why Science Does Not Disprove God (2014)

     Amir D. Aczel. Why Science Does Not Disprove God (2014) Aczel was annoyed by Dawkins “scientific atheism”, and decided to show that Dawkins failed to disprove the existence of God.
     This is a depressing book. The nonsense starts with the title, which is meaningless. You might as well say that science can’t disprove kittens. Of course not. Kittens just are; it’s what you want to say about kittens that can be proven. Or not, depending on what kind of thing you say.
     What Aczel is really trying to prove is that science cannot disprove that God exists. And that’s Aczel’s problem. If “God exists” is the same kind of claim as “Kittens exist”, then we want to know how he knows that. You can point to kittens, and say, “See, that’s what I mean by kittens”, and then you can spend some time agreeing or disagreeing that they’re kinda cute and all.
     But you can’t point to God. Any evidence for God is evidence if and only if you start with the assumption that God exists. In other words, “God exists” is an axiom. Aczel uses all the standard arguments to prove that God exists, but there is so much fuzzy thinking and slip-sliding from one definition or concept to another that it’s never quite clear what Aczel thinks he’s proving or disproving. His central point, that Science can’t disprove the existence of God is valid enough. But he doesn’t actually prove that claim, because he never states clearly what he means by “God exists”. Or what he means by “God”. He agrees that a “literal personal God”, such as the one in the Bible, doesn’t exist, but he doesn’t understand why that’s a valid theological stance. His theology is a muddled mess, and he shifts his grounds for disagreement with Dawkins from one chapter to the next, and often from one paragraph to the next. Worst of all, he doesn’t seem to realise that you can’t prove the existence of God either.
     He starts off by showing that much of the Bible narrative is corroborated by archeology. True. In fact it would be odd if that weren’t so, since all old historical texts are corroborated by archeology. But archeology also shows that much of the biblical narrative is at least exaggerated, and at worst simply wrong. In any case, the historicity of the Bible (or any other sacred text) proves nothing one way or the other about the existence of God.
     He spends a good deal of time arguing that Einstein, who explicitly rejected a personal god, really was religious. He makes the same claim about other scientists, and seems to believe that this supports the notion that a God of some kind exists. But the number of people who believe a proposition has nothing to do with its truth. The fact that other people agree with you doesn’t mean you’re right. And of course it's possible to be religious without holding a belief in a god.
     Much of the rest of the book is a mishmash of two arguments, the argument of the gaps, and the argument from ignorance. For example, he claims that “we” can’t account for the evolution of consciousness, art, symbolic languages, morality, and so on, so Something or Someone must have made it happen. We are different from all other animals. He doesn’t actually say so, but it seems he believes we humans have souls and other animals don’t.
     He accepts the Big Bang, but makes an elementary error: there must have been something before the Big Bang, he says. He even quotes St Augustine on the question, and misunderstands him utterly. Augustine’s point was that it’s meaningless to ask what there was “before” there was time. Aczel rejects the multiverse because the empirical implications appear to be untestable; but then he goes on to talk about those other universes as if they existed in our universe. I could go on, with his take on the improbability argument against the beginning of life; the inconceivability argument against the multiverse and string theory; and so on.
     Even at the end, Aczel still doesn’t explain what he means by “God”, even less what “God exists” might mean. He ends up with a vague pantheism, and pleads the inability of humans to understand everything about the universe as good grounds for accepting the “God hypothesis”. That phrase is itself telling. What Aczel really wants is scientific proof that God exists. He can’t have it, and if he did, he’d have to accept that God is just another phenomenon that can be studied scientifically. Is that really what he wants? I don’t know. He doesn’t seem to be aware that any proof of God’s existence makes that existence contingent. “God exists” would be a theorem, derived from some deeper axioms. What would these be? Or the proof is circular, such as the argument from design, which in effect says that design implies a designer, and therefore a designer implies a design.
     We humans have a strong urge to find or construct or impose meaning on our existence. This is I think a side effect of our ability to make sense of the world well enough that we can plan ahead and control our environment. We tell stories, because stories show cause and effect, and so both teach and comfort us. They teach us to devise actions that will make the story happen as we wish. And they comfort because they assure us that our lives have purpose. As in a story everything happens for a reason, so also in our lives. That’s what we want to believe, and most of us believe that without question.
     Does “God” exist? Tell me what you think “God” is, and I’ll tell you whether I think that god exists.
     This book will reinforce muddled thinking around the question and proves nothing one way or the other. Committed atheists will simple see just another badly reasoned attempt to refute their position. Muddled theists will take comfort that “science” can’t disprove their beliefs. *

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