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Can Science Test for the Supernatural?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Christians believe that a supernatural being can be reasoned to by working backward from effect to cause.  We observe ourselves and we observe the world around us (those are the effects) and we reason that a supernatural cause is the best explanation for the things we observe.  This is how almost all arguments for God’s existence work.

Science can shed additional light on what we observe in the world around us, so in that sense science can be employed in arguments for God’s existence.  For example, science seems to have shown that the universe had a beginning and that the physical laws and constants that govern the universe are fine tuned for advanced life.  Both of these scientific finds are often used in arguments for God’s existence.

Those who hold a naturalistic worldview (the natural world is all that exists) seem to be divided on this subject.  Some naturalists deny that science can ever be used to test the existence of God and others affirm that science can test for the supernatural and that those tests have all turned out negative.  Still others, like evolutionary scientist Donald Prothero, appear to hold both views at the same time.  Consider the quotes below from Prothero’s book Evolution.

Prothero first suggests that scientists “cannot consider supernatural events in their hypotheses.”  Why? Because “once you introduce the supernatural to a scientific hypothesis, there is no way to falsify or test it.”  He adds that scientists are not allowed to consider God or miracles (i.e., the supernatural) because they are “completely untestable and outside the realm of science.”  All right, it seems that Prothero is firmly in the camp of those who say that science cannot say anything about the supernatural.

But in the very next paragraph in his book, he completely reverses course.  Prothero explains, “In fact, there have been many scientific tests of supernatural and paranormal explanations of things, including parapsychology, ESP, divination, prophecy, and astrology.  All of these non-scientific ideas have been falsified when subjected to the scrutiny of scientific investigation. . . . Every time the supernatural has been investigated by scientific methods, it has failed the test.”

Huh??  Is your head spinning like mine?  Prothero first claims that science cannot test the supernatural and then he says that science has tested the supernatural.  Which is it?  It can’t be both.

I am not pointing this out to poke fun at Prothero, but because I see some skeptics making this mistake over and over again.  They want to desperately cling to the claim that science can say nothing about the existence of God (so that they can remove science as a tool in the Christian’s evidential toolbox), but they also desperately want to tell people how science has shown that God doesn’t exist (they retain science as a tool for skeptics to nullify the supernatural).  Unfortunately, holding both of these positions at the same time is flatly contradictory.  The skeptic must choose one or the other. Either science can test for the supernatural or it cannot.

I have seen this same mistake made in the intelligent design/evolution debate.  Evolutionists will claim that Michael Behe’s idea of irreducible complexity is non-scientific or scientifically untestable, but these same evolutionists will then produce scientific research they claim scientifically disproves irreducible complexity!  If it’s not scientifically testable, then how are they producing research which scientifically disproves it?

If you’re a Christian talking to a scientific skeptic, watch out for this skeptical two-step.  If you’re a scientific skeptic or naturalist, make up your mind which it is, because you are really confusing me.

 Can Science Test for the Supernatural?

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Comments

  • http://www.rericsawyer.wordpress.com R. Eric Sawyer

    It seems that Prothero, whether he sees it or not, is making a distinction between two types of non-material issues but confusing the point by following common practice and using the lable “supernatural” for both.
    In the second quote,

    .“…In fact, there have been many scientific tests of supernatural and paranormal explanations of things, including parapsychology, ESP, divination, prophecy, and astrology. All of these non-scientific ideas have been falsified when subjected to the scrutiny of scientific investigation. . . . Every time the supernatural has been investigated by scientific methods, it has failed the test.”

    the claims he mentions are indeed open to investigation, at least by statistical means. They are testable. But I would claim that these things are not SUPERnatural. They are neither ‘superior to’ nature, in that nature is derived from them, nor are they ‘beyond’ nature. They are rather, (or so they are presented by their devotees) as being perfectly natural phenomenon, although non-material, or ‘spiritual’. But they make no claim at all that there is some extra-natural entity which may interfere with nature at its own discresion. They are forces that we simply do not have “eyes to see”, and which are either static (like astrology) or are subject to OUR intervention (like divination). As such, they make predictions, which can then be verified or falsified statisticaly.

    In the first quote,

    Prothero first suggests that scientists “cannot consider supernatural events in their hypotheses.” Why? Because “once you introduce the supernatural to a scientific hypothesis, there is no way to falsify or test it.” He adds that scientists are not allowed to consider God or miracles (i.e., the supernatural) because they are “completely untestable and outside the realm of science.”

    he, I think correctly, says that science describes what happens when nature is “left to itself.” Intervention into the workings such a thof nature are inherently neither static nor under our control, and are thus non ameinable to scientific tests. They may not be random, but there is no experamental methods that will yield predictable, testable results. Even prayer, which I regard as effective, does not produce results. It rather petions one who has the power to produce them, but does not compel Him in any way.

    But in co-mingling the two ideas, the negative results from the simply non-material are wrongly imposed on the truly supernatural. This is a serious error.

    By the way, this does not mean that scientific evidence has no place in the evidence that God exists. As you mention, the evidence that time is a one-way vector, and that the universe had a beginning that cannot be explained from within itself is very telling. Of course, the thourough materialist will add the words “as of yet” to that phrase. I am no physicist, but if I understand correctly, the idea that the universe could proceed from a “big bang” to maximum inflation, and return to a “big crunch” (from which presumably a new “big bang” could arise –Newton not withstanding!) is pretty much discredited.

    If that was the character of the universe, then a claim could be made for eternal self-existance. It could also be claimed that the “improbability of fine-tuning” argument for Divine creation could be repelled by the idea that, in an infinite number of bang-to-crunch cycles, all possible variables would have been realized. We simply inhabit one of the ones that “worked” for us.

    Both of these arguments are defeated by a detection of a universe with a finite beginning, precipitated by some event external to itself, and a finite end.

  • http://www.rericsawyer.wordpress.com R. Eric Sawyer

    In describing science as having a role to play in the evidence for God, I should avoid any apperance of doing my own two-step. I agree with Prothero if he is saying that science must procede as if in the absence of God, or at least of His intervention. I also agree that the things beyond nature cannot themselves by understood by natural investigations.

    But what science CAN do is point to the place where the tracks go “through the wall.” It knows that it cannot follow, but that somethingis on the other side. Reason points to the limits of reason.

  • Boz

    Bill Pratt said: “Either science can test for the supernatural or it cannot.”

    It depends on the specific claim.

    For example, the existence of the deist god cannot currently be tested, but the efficacy of prayer-healing can.

    “Science cannot test any supernatural claim” is false; and
    “Science can test every supernatural claim” is also false.

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  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com DagoodS

    Science cannot test the supernatural, because (by definition) it is unobservable and non-verifiable. Science can test claims about supernatural affecting the natural.

    For example, if a person claimed there was a God who created our universe so that the sun revolved around the earth—science can test that claim and arguably claim there is no such god, because the sun does not revolve around the earth.

    Various theists utilize science to counter claims of other theists. E.g. Christians use archeology to counter Mormon claims. Or use historical documents to counter claims regarding Jesus existence, etc.

    All science can do is eliminate supernatural possibilities and limit supernatural probabilities. It cannot prove one way or another anything happening on the supernatural plane. It cannot see it.

  • Bill Pratt

    Dagoods,
    Well put. As I said in the post, theists generally argue from the effects of the supernatural in nature back to God. Science can be used to study the effects of the supernatural. As you said, if a particular religious group claims that their God did something in nature, and we test that part of nature, and it turns out to be false, then we have some negative evidence for that particular God. The converse is also true.

    As you said, science cannot ultimately prove the existence of God one way or another, but it can help out in the probabilistic arguments for and against the existence of God.

  • Walt Tucker

    I think some of these comments are good in showing the categorical mixing in the original blog. I understand where Donald Prothero is coming from given my own physics training (even if I disagree with him on the existence of the supernatural realm and how we can know that it does indeed exist). There were two different categories of investigation mentioned and Prothero is not talking out of both sides of his mouth. He actually is looking for natural causes in everything – hence the tests of the paranormal falsify the claims of the supernatural and support his belief that the supernatural is an irrelevant cause in the world. Indeed, testing supernatural phenomenon (or at least what is claimed to be) is one thing that science can do when it comes to proving natural causes. Such testing is intended to get to the root of the cause. If the cause is spiritual, there is a limit to how much can be concluded from physical testing and as Bill Pratt agreed to in his comment, it is a probabilistic conclusion. There could always be an unknown physical cause that did not get uncovered during the investigation.
    However, there is a fundamental problem that has to be dealt with when a supernatural cause is postulated for a physical phenomenon. If science postulates apriori God as the cause, the motivation for further natural understanding is stalled. The dilemma comes when science goes down a rabbit trail because God is the cause and the possibility of God being the direct cause is thrown out apriori. I think in the case of evolution in particular, we should not fabricate naturalistic theories that are improbable just because we have to have a natural theory. There is sufficient evidence against evolution, despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence for it, to warrant at least the possibility that God is the direct cause of life and its forms on this planet. Saying there is a possibility does not thwart further research, but it also says that evolution is not the end all that proves God was not needed or does not exist since the theory has its own problems.
    All that said, there is plenty of evidence philosophically, historically, and experientially to say that God exists and no person should be so hard nosed to say that the natural world is all there is. That is just a matter of not wanting to remove the blinders to see the wonder and glory of the Creator.

  • Skale777

    Nice article. Here is a nice short science film.

  • Bill Pratt

    Skale777,
    Thanks for the link. I’ll give it a look.

  • Walt Tucker

    Skale777, I watched the video. I’m not sure if there was a reversal at the end or a cover-up. Was the one guy covering for the other at the end or had he been testing him along along?

    What it does show relative to this blog is that there are rational reasons to believe in intelligent design and that Darwinian evolution is definitely suspect from a logical perspective. But, it didn’t demonstrate a test for the existence of God, even if it points in that direction. As a matter of fact, the guy in the video made the point that he was not a bible believing creationist, but was simply questioning Darwinism. He wasn’t willing to make the jump from intelligent design to the God of the Bible. I know several people who will admit design in the world, but will not think it worth their time or their eternity to turn to Jesus.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Luke-Nix/1257270198 Luke Nix

    Bill, I see that this post is over a year old, but I thought I’d let you know that I found it thanks to Greg West at thepoachedegg.net. I appreciate that you too see the double-speak coming from skeptics regarding the issue of science testing for the supernatural. I actually posted what might be considered a follow-up to your article a couple months ago. Here is the link to it if you’re interested. “Can Religion Be Tested For Truth?” http://goo.gl/WMHtn

    Thanks for the great article.
    Luke

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jera-Wolfe/1811037430 Jera Wolfe

    The first and second paragraph show a deep misinterpretation of the scientific model. You state the universe is fine tuned for ‘advanced life’. Science explores how life, as it is observed today, could have arrived in the universe as it is observed today, based on the evidence both current and extrapolated from historical physical evidence.

    You’re arguments all go backwards. You make a huge leap where you go from “We observe ourselves and we observe the world around us” to “we reason that a supernatural cause is the best explanation for the things we observe.”

    Confirmation bias threads the rest of your document.

    You misrepresent science and its claims early on. You should go to wikipedia and search for Karl Popper.
    The reason you are confused is that you do not have a complete understanding of the scientific method or a clear understanding of the stance of science.

    While some skeptics or anti-religious may use arguments of science, and use it badly, and this even goes so far as some articles on modern research for consumption by non-technical audiences (us lay persons) misrepresenting or presenting both the conclusions of experiments and the methods of science, that isn’t a reflection of the process itself or the benefits we reap from continuing to pursue understanding the universe using the scientific method.

    Here is the stance Science has, for the most part, on God. “It doesn’t know.”

    It may be able to test it someday, but it can’t today. And part of the problem is the definition of god. It’s not well defined. Science does need to be able to define a problem to really test it. It’s part of the challenge of constructing experiments or working out proofs.

    I hope I’m not wasting this, by that, I mean, please read my words carefully, because in the next part, I’m going to agree with you.

    Be wary of people who use science to support things that are unscientific. I can give you a two hints for example, there are others if you google ‘logical fallacies’ or ‘scientific method’.

    First: “It’s been proven beyond a doubt” or “Proven 100%”. There is no such thing in science.

    Second: Correlation doesn’t mean the same thing as ’caused by’. A correlation just means scientists have noticed the two happen in what appears to be a connection (usually the same time, or one right after the other). But its not a cause. I’ve read more than one article that points out a correlation in a study, and jumps to it being a cause of this or that.

    Science, at best, can tell us what is definitely not true. It can’t tell us what is true. This is important. It’s for discovering new ideas through observation of what exists (physical evidence) or through the testing of things that are imagined, thought of.

    It is an excellent tool, a creation of man, and it serves us well. But it is horribly misrepresented. This serves no one, neither those who believe in god, those who doubt, and those are just as certain there is no such thing. Because science is trusted and does produce results. But it takes a lot of time and effort to do it, and its not easy to communicate the understandings without losing a lot of the accuracy and even sometimes the very concepts you’re trying to convey.

    It’s taken generations of effort and people devoting entire lives to the understanding of a small fraction of what we take for granted today. I was raised in the faith you’re talking of. I was denied the chance to learn these things. Before you so casually group all of it together, my friend, take it from someone who has sacrificed much to LEARN about science from people who misused your faith’s teachings.

    Please respect the effort and lifetimes of men who sought truth, and hold it as dear as you or I, to realize that waving the name science in an argument, or pointing to a study and using it to support an opinion, does not make you a member of the scientific community.

    It takes a lot more, a lot of time, effort, and enduring and weathering the crucible of peer review, before your ‘discovery’ is really considered ‘yeah, maybe.’

    Warn against skeptics, but do not dishonor those who have sacrificed much in the name of truth, and many a man of science has sought truth in the physical world, while holding hope and faith in a greater good and a God, even, that supported it.

    Thank you for reading this, sir.

    Jera Wolfe

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