Hello Intuition, Meet Empiricism: My Response To “A Different Way Of Knowing”

Posted in Blogosphere, Logic, Religion, Responses, Thinking Critically on  | 7 minutes | 2 Comments →

In A Different Way Of Knowing, the author begins with slamming insights about the value of the intuitive-creative processes, arguing persuasively that irrational decision-making processes can be valuable. Love, art and music all reject empiricism and involve listening subjectively to our hearts, feelings and intuitions, and nobody would argue that they lack value just because they aren’t arrived at through empiricism. Conceding that some aspects of life are better left to the intuitive method of gathering information, the author proceeds to argue that "the God hypothesis" is not one of them, and is better evaluated via empiricism and the scientific method. I object to the piece on several grounds, five of which follow.

1. Primarily, I feel this entire argument is flawed because it rests on the false premise that the God hypothesis is falsifiable. The author’s main supporting argument seems based off the following observations:

A belief in God is a hypothesis about the world. The real, external world… The question of whether God does or does not exist is not a question of opinion. It is not a question of subjective experience. It is not a question that can be answered, ‘Well, maybe that’s not true for you, but it’s true for me.’

Although God can reasonably be called a hypothesis about how the external world came to be, the God hypothesis is not scientifically testable. This should nip her entire argument in the bud, IMO. Why? The author’s argument is that the scientific method is the best way to evaluate the God hypothesis, but in order for the scientific method to begin we need a certain type of phenomenon.

I was a bit thrown off by this argument because I’ve been reading the author’s blog regularly for a year, and on several occasions I have heard her claim that no evidence for God exists. In her defense, she has stated that her blog is to be read as "thinking out loud" and not her "final word on the subject," and my initial confusion centered around why somebody who claims that no evidence for God exists would suggest testing the God hypothesis empirically, which requires evidence.

Hyman’s Categorical Imperative advises against trying to explain something until one is sure that there is something to be explained. Since testable phenomena are prerequisites of science, how can science proceed in their absence? The author mentions quarks on this point, but quarks were not discovered in a vacuum and it is beyond dispute that testable phenomena led to the development of quantum mechanics.

Her argument is summarized here:

If God acts on the physical world, we should be able to see and document that effect.

Fair enough, but can we see and document that cause? Is our proposed cause amenable to empiricism? Many believers claim God intervenes directly in their lives through one of several possible means including miraculous healings, supernatural protection or other anomalous acts. If this is true, these things represent empirical phenomena, but that does not mean our proposed mechanism is falsifiable in any way. Miraculous healings and anecdotes of supernatural protection describe markers not mechanisms, and any theory that posits God as cause seems to invoke an unfalsifiable mechanism.

2. I also have issues with the liberty the author takes in her definition and scope of religious belief:

..a religious belief is a hypothesis about the workings of the real, external, non-subjective world that we all live in.

Really? I thought religious beliefs had to do with things believers take on faith, such as the notion that obedience yields rewards or that forgiveness pleases the Lord their God? To me, those are religious beliefs. Religious beliefs aren’t about the workings of the so-called “natural” world. Religious beliefs typically concern what may have been before this world, or what might be after it, or what is right and wrong. Although a religious belief might be set historically or make an historical claim about the real, external world, that doesn’t make it a hypotheis. Now, some religious beliefs do center on non-contingent propositions such as the existence of the afterlife or the atonement of Christ, but it’s misleading to frame a religious belief as necessarily empirically deducible. Religious claims cannot be verified empirically, and if a claim can be verified empirically, we are no longer discussing a religious claim, but some other statement about some other condition that is true regardless of one’s metaphysic.

3. Although it’s something all writers do, I object to this particular presentation of personal opinion as fact. In the context of attacking the intuitive method’s success in discovering truth about the world, the author writes from the perspective of religion that,

We are not moving towards general agreement and consensus on certain basic issues, the way science is. When it comes to religious beliefs, we are every bit as divided now as we have ever been in all of human history.

It is true that the squabbling and bickering over which religion is the truest has been raging ad nauseum and is generally bereft of positive accord. I would also agree that Middle East tension is as bad or worse as it has ever been. I reject the implication that convergence in science is representative of methodological superiority and that religion lacks such convergence. I think this statement is inaccurate of religion as a whole and greatly overlooks emerging religio-cultural phenomena such as the ecumenical movement and the United Religions Initiative. Modern man is clearly at the threshold of an unprecedented paradigm shift in religion, and never in the history of civilization have more people been consciously moving towards the unification of a majority of the world’s faiths via ecumenism.

4. More a confounding methodological peeve than an actual point of contention, I object to the ambiguous use of pronouns and all-inclusive terms that occasionally characterize these arguments. For example:

The reality is that we do not see the effects of God on the physical world, in any way that we can recognize and document and agree on.

In the above statement, who is the author referring to when she uses the broad pronoun ‘we’? Herself? Herself and most of the people she associates with or has talked to? A body of researchers or scientists? A control group of believers and non-believers? In fact, the generic ‘we’ is used often in this piece: "And we don’t. And we can’t." Really, who is ‘we’ here? Who is it that can’t see the effects of God in the real world? A significant amount of people believe they can. Others significantly believe this is not possible. How can you discern which group is correct in the absence of evidence or study? How can we claim these things do or do not exist without testing? How might testing begin in the absence of empirically accessible phenomena? And if new evidence or studies were consulted in the formulation of this argument, why aren’t they cited? Not that all mine have value, but to me the above statement is logically worthless.

5. In the interest of brevity and as a final note, I wanted to add the following. Again in the context of casting doubt on the intuitive method of gathering information, the author writes,

"Think of all the people in history who ‘intuitively’ knew that black people were mentally inferior to white people."

I agree that people have made this intellectual error historically, but I object to using this narrative to cast doubt on the intuitive method of gathering information. Unless we want to employ special pleading, from IQ testing to eugenics to A Civic Biology it’s also alarming to think of all the people who bastardized science to proclaim Caucasian superiority. Gould wrote a whole book on the subject, but that’s neither here nor there and isn’t a point of disagreement. Just a note.

In conclusion, in the absence of empirically accessible phenomena I disagree with the claim that the scientific method is the best means we have for evaluating the God hypothesis, which I think is an inherently unfalsifiable proposition. Furthermore, I think people who subscribe to this idea of a scientifically acceptable "God hypothesis" commit the very same error as advocates of intelligent design and creationism as falsifiable science.


  1. JonS


    I’ll begin by agreeing with you that the scientific method is not the best means we have for evaluating the God hypothesis. I’ve always maintained that no one can prove God’s existence. It’s possible to provide evidence of God’s existence, but it can’t be proven. What it comes down to is that only God can convince anyone of his existence. In other words a true belief in God is a personal experience.
    One point I’d like to expand on is your comment, “Gathering knowledge about the world is not the domain of religion, nor is speaking on how the world works.” While this is true, it’s also true that religion certainly has a right to gather knowledge about the world and speak on how the world works. For example, many of the founders of science were either Christian or religious, and they maintained that they were gathering information about the world because of their belief in God. In other words they wanted to understand God’s creation and how it worked. The Bible also touches on how the world works in various passages, such as Job 26:7 “He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.”
    I’ll also comment on the author who wrote “The reality is that we do not see the effects of God on the physical world, in any way that we can recognize and document and agree on.”
    The Bible also argues against this view in Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities- his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Therefore it can be argued that God clearly expects man to know of his existence by his very creation, and this can be evidenced at the molecular level, especially when we examine just how complicated the most basic life forms are and how they work.
    Another point of criticism is when you said “Furthermore, I think people who subscribe to this idea of a scientifically acceptable “God hypothesis” commit the very same error as advocates of intelligent design and creationism as falsifiable science.” You left out evolution. I would argue that evolution is not falsifiable; in fact any evidence against evolution seems to be a strength of evolution. For example evolutionists have an elastic definition of evolution so that any change in an organism is considered to be evolution, and therefore is proof of evolution (such as a change in beak size). Of course this is a totally different kind of change that would allow a single celled organism to change into a human over time. An evolutionist would contend that with enough time such minor changes will produce major changes, but this has never been observed.
    Further, Creationism should be considered just as scientific as evolution because they both make certain claims, such as the age of the earth and the universe. These claims can be tested, but there’s no way to verify the accuracy of the results.

  2. cl


    @ JonS,
    Some good points, also a few I need to think about.
    Although I have no problem with those who argue the existence of God from common sense or intuition, and I agree that God cannot be proven, in a strictly scientific sense I’m not sure if I can even accept that any “evidence of God” exists. To have evidence of something in science, we need to be able to reliably predict what our proposed something is going to do next should it exist, right? Personality is a complication in any scientific study; imagine how the problem compounds when our proposed personality of study is an omnipotent, omniscient God? In science, to say evidence for God exists is to concede we can predict what God will do next. The argument exists that God reveals at least some will in scripture, but this is anecdotal and worthless in science.
    Now, I think you’re absolutely correct except for one word when you say,

    “..religion certainly has a right to gather knowledge about the world and speak on how the world works. For example, many of the founders of science were either Christian or religious, and they maintained that they were gathering information about the world because of their belief in God.”

    I agree with all of these points but object to the very first word quoted above. Religious people doing science are doing science, not religion. To me it seems like you’re arguing that because Isaac Newton was a theist, this somehow counts as religion gathering information about the world. True, Newton was inspired by faith, but science is science whether inspired by faith, unbelief, or whether even inspired at all. Natural human observational processes notwithstanding, gathering information about the world is the domain of science.
    I tend to share at least some of your fascination with scientific facts contained in scripture, for example the first three words of Genesis, or the book of Isaiah and the phrase, “circle of the earth.” I believe religion has every right to reference and understand science, but I do not believe religion has the right to misuse texts or anecdotal accounts as scientific evidence. Of course, we can test various conditions described in religious texts to see how they hold up to known scientific standards, but that’s different.
    I think you’re spot-on here:

    “What it comes down to is that only God can convince anyone of his existence.”

    It says this in John chapter 6 and more skeptics should use this verse to respond to proselytizers that overstep their bounds and/or misunderstand their own motives (not implying that is you by any means).
    Now, as far as evolution and falsifiability, we’ve started on the wrong foot already. Conformance to mutual definition is paramount in debate, and I don’t know exactly what you mean when you use the term “evolution,” but I’ll speculate freely anyhow. It’s important to note that “evolution” refers simply to change and evolution in this sense is most certainly falsifiable. Evolution used as an origin theory or as an explanation for how things got here is a different theory altogether, but even this has a priori difficulties because falsifiable evolution applies primarily to pre-existing biological life (I’m interested in hearing a cosmologist’s response to the latter).
    I’ve read convincing arguments in both directions and am reviewing falsification intensely to shed light on exactly these types of questions. I currently tend to think that only zero or all origin theories can be falsifiable. And please don’t anyone point me to TalkOrigins because that article is a primary one included in my studies.
    As to your last paragraph, I agree that we can’t verify the accuracy of age studies, at least until someone can explain to me exactly how long Sergei Krikalev orbited Mir, and how they know. I don’t think creationism is as scientific as evolution, though. According to Genesis, God refrained from creative work, no? Is it not true that no new galaxies are being formed anywhere in the universe? In science, existence is predicate; we can’t study scientifically that which is not occurring. If God is resting from creation as the Bible contends, how might one embark on any scientific study of creation-ism?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *