Monday, August 6, 2007

One More on God and Science

In earlier posts I have tried to articulate my sense of how science and God fit together. I have continued to struggle with this all summer, even and especially with my new experiences from the gatherings I attended. I will share some of that struggle here and where I find myself right now.

I have stated several times that whether or not my experiences of God can be explained by science is not important to me. As a scientist, however, I continue to find this statement alone a little too dismissive for comfort, leaving me with unaddressed doubt.

As a side note, in my struggles, I have observed that the times I experience the strongest doubt are the times when I have become too wrapped up in my thoughts and have forgotten my experiences, and have forgotten to listen. I have also found that when a scientific explanation for something sends me into a world of doubt, it reveals to me ways that I think about God – ways that may be either distractions from, or analogies for my true, real experiences. It challenges me to face those areas of doubt, and to maintain my integrity in the face of insecurity.

Here is my latest thought:

Science continues to progress into the realm of brain function. Say that one day science explains the human sense of God as a series of neurons firing in some particular area of the brain, and then goes as far as stating that this was an evolved adaptation – that the reason we have this sensation is because it was evolutionarily advantageous. Science has just given an explanation for my experiences of God. I say: So what? This explanation does not challenge the reality of my experiences – I still have them, they still have meaning – nor does it address the existence of God.

Along the same lines, some researchers are working on describing emotions as various neuron-firings in certain parts of the brain. This does not invalidate our emotions – they are still real experiences, and still have meaning.

A scientific explanation of something does not invalidate experience. My sense of God is an experiential one. Science cannot invalidate my experiences of God, and my experiences of God cannot invalidate science, and in this way science and God are not incompatible.

There are a great many ideas (my own and others) that I have encountered in the process of figuring this out, but I do not feel the need to dive into those ideas here right now, as fascinating as some of them are. Perhaps on another day, in another post, should they choose to arise.

Love and Light,


RichardM said...


Here are some current ideas from philosophy of religion that may help your thinking along a bit.

It may seem logical to first define "God" and then try to go out and prove or disprove the existence of the thing so defined. But that's not how science works. First you find the thing and name it and then you figure out bit by bit what it is. So names normally function like labels. So we have experiences of God, name the being we experience "God" and then try to learn more about what the thing is. That's the scientific way.

Second, suppose we find some sort of brain activity that correlates with the experiences we have when we say we are experiencing God. (Maybe this is impossible but let's just suppose we do it.) What does that prove? Nothing yet. When I see a squirrel there is a characteristic brain activity which correlates with the experience. Finding the brain activity alone does nothing to prove that squirrels are "all in your head." It's a question of what causes the brain activity. The squirrel plays a crucial role in causing the brain activity of "seeing a squirrel."

Now on to the cause of the brain activity in the God case. Suppose we could show that it was caused by chemicals which usually caused hallucinations, say by chemicals found only in the brains of schizophrenics. Then that would indeed be a bad sign for God. The experience would be real, but we'd have good reason to think that the experience was not a perception of God. On the other hand, suppose we can't pin down any such cause of the God experience. Suppose it appears random. Now "random" just means not caused by some finite list of definite causes. (A "random" throw of the dice isn't caused by weights in the dice or little strings pulling or tiny motors thumping the table at the crucual time in order to manipulate the result.) This would mean that the cause could very well be God.

Since I am quite convinced that God is real and does communicate with people I have no worries about what science is going to find. Surely there will be surprises but nothing that refutes the existence of God.

(End of mini philosophy lecture...)

Claire said...

Richard - Thanks for your response. It seems you have expressed almost exactly what I was trying to express, but more articulately than I managed. It did seem logical to first define "God" - which I've learned is nearly impossible, particularly given the fluid nature of what I tend to mean. You're also right about how how science works - I've been struggling in my scientific thought processes as I've been approaching everything backwards. Right now I'm in the process of correcting the order of my considerations, returning to my original experiences and trying to focus on them rather than focusing on what I call them. I've learned that my experiences continue on consistently regardless of what names and theoretical explanations I give them.

I like your squirrel analogy, however suggesting that science could eventually come to conclude God as possible a cause for neuron-firings makes me a little nervous. Any time I catch myself considering the possibility that evidence for God could lie in science's lack of other options I stop myself - it sounds too much like "God of the gaps" to me. That aside, what you suggest makes lots of sense to me and fits right in with where I am and what I was hoping to express.

Thank you again for this comment.

Much Love,

RichardM said...


I've been off for a few days visiting my mother, just got back tonight.

I'm not suggesting that a scientific analysis of religious experience would prove that God exists. Personally I'm fond of the "hidden God" hypothesis which says that God doesn't want us to have definite evidence of his existence or definite misleading evidence of his nonexistence. That seems just about right to me.

I find lots of intelligent people to be overly impressed by the "god of the gaps" argument. The god of the gaps argument runs something like this: science has succeeded in explaining lots of things religion used to explain so religion is wrong, or in a more moderate form of the argument, religion should make no claims about reality which science might challenge someday. Actually religion and science both change in tandem historically. By learning new things about the world science changes how we look at the world. But new science mostly refutes old science. It hardly ever touches upon religion at all. When it seems to it is because it is refuting old science that has been embedded in religion. This is a big difference from attacking the fundamental ideas of any religion.

The case for the authenticity of religious experience would have to include its not being provably delusional. Showing that it is not provably delusional would be insufficient to show that it was genuinely veridical. A negative result for brain science attempts to invalidate religious experience wouldn't validate them. To validate them you would have to show that they conveyed genuine information. I think that people who have evidence that does corroborate their experiences but that it is always anecdotal. That is to say the corroborating evidence of religious experience is never something that you could replicate. God will ultimately refuse to be pinned down in a lab but he will reveal himself to individuals as they are willing to be led.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Claire said...

Richard - Thank you for the clarification. I definitely agree that God cannot be pinned down in a lab. I feel like to try and apply science to prove God's existence or lack of existence is like trying to read a book with our feet (flat, printed words, not braille). It can't be done. We must instead use our eyes.

Most of what comes to mind in reply here right now I actually just posted in a new post, so I will avoid being redundant.

Thanks again! This is a great dialog to have.

Much love,