Testing the God Hypothesis

The Muslim Times’ Editor’s comments: In this article agnostic or atheist writer , has suggested nine possible observations, which if true will destroy his case.  I would like theists to respond to those in comment section and I, Zia H Shah, am responding to three of those.

Prof. Victor Stenger

My source: The Huffington Post

This article was originally published in Fair Observer.

By : Physicist, PhD, bestselling author

In my 2007 book God: The Failed Hypothesis; How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, I applied the scientific process of hypothesis testing to the question of God. The common objection I heard was that the existence of God is not a scientific hypothesis. Let me explain why I say it is.

The scientific method is not limited to what professional scientists do but can be applied to any question that relates to observations. The brain does not have the capacity to save the time, direction, and energy of each photon that hits the eyes. Instead it operates on a simplified picture of objects, be they rocks, trees, or people, assigning them general properties that do not encompass every detail.

That is, we make models. Science merely rationalizes the procedure, communicating by precise speech and writing among individuals who then attempt to reach an agreement on what they all have seen and how best to represent their collective observations. What are called scientific theories are just models.

The God Model

Religion carries out a similar process, although one in which agreement is generally asserted by authority rather than by a consensus of objective, unbiased observations. From humanity’s earliest days, gods have been imagined who possessed attributes that people could understand and to which they could relate.

Gods and spirits took the form of the objects of experience: the sun, Earth, moon, animals, and humans. The gods of the ancient Egyptians had the form of animals. The gods of the ancient Greeks had the form of imperfect but immortal humans. The God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam took the form of a powerful, autocratic, male king enthroned high above his subjects.

Each of these god models developed from the culture of the day. If the process continued to today, everyone would worship the shopping mall. In fact, many of the megachurches in America today are located in shopping malls.

By dealing in terms of models of gods that are based on human conceptions, we avoid the objection that the “true” God may lay beyond our limited cognitive capabilities. When we demonstrate that a particular god is rejected by the evidence, we are not proving that all gods, conceivable or inconceivable, do not exist. We are simply showing beyond a reasonable doubt that a god with explicit hypothesized attributes described by the model does not exist. Belief aside, at the very minimum the fact that a specific god model may be inconsistent with the evidence is cause enough to disregard that model in the practices of everyday life.

The exact relationship between the elements of scientific models and whatever true reality lies out there is not of major concern to most scientists, or should not be anyway. When scientists have a model that describes their measurements, is consistent with other established models, makes successful predictions, and can be put to practical use, what else do they need?

The model works fine in not only describing observations but in enabling practical applications. It makes absolutely no difference whether or not an electron is “real” when we apply the model of electrons flowing in an electronic circuit to design some high-tech device. Whatever the intrinsic reality, the model describes what we observe, and those observations are real enough.

Similarly, it does not matter from a practical standpoint whether the “real” God resembles any of the gods whose empirical consequences we have examined and modeled. People do not worship abstractions. They worship a God with qualities they can comprehend. The most common example of a god model is a personal God who answers prayers. This god model has not has not been confirmed in numerous controlled experiments on the efficacy of prayer. It follows that a religious person is wasting her time praying for some favor of such a God.

If praying worked, the effects would be objectively observed. They are not. Let me then summarize the god models that are inconsistent with scientific observations.

Inconsistent Gods

  • A personal God who has given humans immortal souls fails to agree with the empirical facts that human thoughts, memories, and personalities are governed by physical processes in the brain, which dissolves upon death. No nonphysical or extra-physical powers of “mind” can be found and no evidence exists for an afterlife. 
  • A personal God whose interactions with humans include miraculous interventions such as those reported in scriptures is contradicted by the lack of independent evidence for the alleged miraculous events. 
  • A cosmic God who fine-tuned the laws and constants of physics for life, in particular human life, fails to agree with the fact that the universe is not congenial to human life, being tremendously wasteful of time, space, and matter from the human perspective. It also fails to agree with the fact that the universe is mostly composed of particles in random motion, with complex structures such as galaxies forming less than four percent of the total mass of the universe. 
  • A personal God who communicates directly with humans by means of revelation fails to agree with the fact that no scientifically verifiable new information has ever been transmitted while many wrong and harmful doctrines have been asserted by this means. No claimed revelation contains information that could not have been already in the head of the person making the claim. Furthermore, physical evidence now conclusively demonstrates that some of the most important biblical narratives, such as the Exodus, never took place. 
  • A personal God who is the source of morality and human values does not exist since the evidence shows that humans define morals and values for themselves. This is not “relative morality.” Believers and nonbelievers alike agree on a common set of morals and values. Even the most devout decide for themselves what is good and what is bad and even judge much of what is approved in scriptures as immoral, such as genocide, slavery, and the oppression of women. Nonbelievers behave no less morally than believers. 
  • A personal God who is omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent does not exist because it is logically inconsistent with the existence of evil, in particular, gratuitous suffering (standard problem of evil). 

What If?

The existence of the God worshiped by most Jews, Christians, and Muslims not only lacks supporting empirical evidence but is even contradicted by such evidence. However, it need not have turned out that way. Things might have been different, and this is important to understand as it justifies the use of science to address the God question and refutes the frequently heard statement that science can say nothing about God. If scientific observations had confirmed at least one model god, those believers who make that statement would quickly change their tune. Even the most skeptical atheists would have to come around and admit that there might be some chance that God exists. This has not happened.

Consider the following hypothetical events that, had they occurred, would have favored the God hypothesis. Readers are invited to think of their own similar “might have been” scenarios. While not necessarily proving the existence of God, they would at least lend some credence to traditional beliefs that currently does not exist.

Hypothetical Observations

  • Evidence was found that falsified evolution. Fossils might have been discovered that were inexplicably out of sequence. Life forms might not have all been based on the same genetic scheme. Transitional species might not have been observed. As actually thought at the time of Darwin, the age of the sun could have proved too short for evolution. The discovery of nuclear energy changed that, showing that, fueled by nuclear fusion, the sun will last ten billion years–ample time for life to evolve. 
  • Human memories and thoughts might have provided evidence that cannot be plausibly accounted for by known physical processes. Science might have confirmed exceptional powers of the mind that it could not be plausibly explained physically. 
  • Science might have uncovered convincing evidence for an afterlife. For example, a person who had been declared dead by every means known to science might return to life with detailed stories of an afterlife that were later verified. For example, she might meet Jimmy Hoffa who tells her where to find his body. 
  • Similarly, any claim of a revelation obtained during a mystical trance could contain scientifically verifiable information that the subject could not possibly have known. 
  • Physical and historical evidence might have been found for the miraculous events and the important narratives of the scriptures. For example, Roman records might have been found for an earthquake in Judea at the time of a certain crucifixion ordered by Pontius Pilate. Noah’s Ark might have been discovered. The Shroud of Turin might have contained genetic material with no Y-chromosomes. Since the image is that of a man with a beard, this would confirm he was born of a virgin. Or, the genetic material might contain a novel form of coding molecule not found in any other living organism. This would have proven an alien (if not divine) origin of the enshrouded being. 
  • The universe might have been found to be so congenial to human life that it must have been created with human life in mind. Humans might have been able to move from planet to planet, just as easily as they now move from continent to continent, and be able to survive on every planet – even in space – without life support. 
  • Natural events might follow some moral law, rather than morally neutral mathematical laws. For example, lightning might strike only the wicked; people who behave badly might fall sick more often; nuns would always survive plane crashes. 
  • Believers might have had a higher moral sense than nonbelievers and other measurably superior qualities. For example, the jails might be filled with atheists while all believers live happy, prosperous, contented lives surrounded by loving families and pets.
  • Miracles are observed. For example, prayers are answered; an arm or a leg is regenerated through faith healing.

But none of this has happened. Indeed, the opposite is true in some cases, such as an abnormally low number of atheists in jail. Every claim of a supernatural event has proved false. The hypothesis of God is not confirmed by the evidence. Indeed, that hypothesis is strongly contradicted by the observations of our senses and the instruments of science.

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31 replies

  1. “The universe might have been found to be so congenial to human life …”

    This comment is response to one of the suggested hypotheses by Victor Stenger to refute atheism or agnosticism:

    A challenge for Dawkins: Where did carbon come from?

    Plain Water will Tell you the Story

    Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe by Martin Rees

    The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life? by Paul Davies

    Antony Flew who used to be formally a well known champion of atheism, has presented an interesting metaphor to look at the biophylic universe. He writes:

    Imagine entering a hotel room on your next vacation. The CD player on the bedside table is softly playing a track from your favorite recording. The framed print over the bed is identical to the image that hangs over the fireplace at home. The room is scented with your favorite fragrance. You shake your head in amazement and drop your bags on the floor.
    You’re suddenly very alert. You step over to the minibar, open the door, and stare in wonder at the contents. Your favorite beverages. Your favorite cookies and candy. Even the brand of bottled water you prefer.
    You turn from the mini bar, then, and gaze around the room. You notice the book on the desk: it’s the latest volume by your favorite author. You glance into the bathroom, where personal care and grooming products are lined up on the counter, each one as if it was chosen specifically for you. You switch on the television; it is tuned to your favorite channel.
    Chances are, with each new discovery about your hospitable new environment, you would be less inclined to think it was all a mere coincidence, right? You might wonder how the hotel managers acquired such detailed information about you. You might marvel at their meticulous preparation. You might even double-check what all this is going to cost you. But you would certainly be inclined to believe that someone knew you were coming.
    Let’s take the most basic laws of physics. It has been calculated that if the value of even one of the fundamental constants-the speed of light or the mass of an electron, for instance-had been to the slightest degree different, then no planet capable of permitting the evolution of human life could have formed.
    This fine tuning has been explained in two ways. Some scientists have said the fine tuning is evidence for divine design; many others have speculated that our universe is one of multiple others-a ‘multiverse’-with the difference that ours happened to have the right conditions for life. Virtually no major scientist today claims that the fine tuning was purely a result of chance factors at work in a single universe.
    That vacation scenario is a clumsy, limited parallel to the so-called fine-tuning argument. The recent popularity of this argument has highlighted a new dimension of the laws of nature. ‘The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture,’ writes physicist Freeman Dyson, ‘the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense knew we were coming.’ In other words, the laws of nature seem to have been crafted so as to move the universe toward the emergence and sustenance of life. This is the anthropic principle, popularized by such thinkers as Martin Rees, John Barrow, and John Leslie.
    In his book Infinite Minds, John Leslie, a leading anthropic theorist, argues that fine tuning is best explained by divine design. He says that he is impressed not by particular arguments for instances of fine tuning, but by the fact that these arguments exist in such profusion. ‘If, then, there were aspects of nature’s workings that appeared very fortunate and also entirely fundamental,’ he writes, ‘then these might well be seen as evidence specially favoring belief in God.’

    (Antony Flew. There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. Harper One, 2007. Page 113-115.)

  2. “Similarly, any claim of a revelation obtained during a mystical trance could contain scientifically verifiable information that the subject could not possibly have known …”

    This comment is response to one of the suggested hypotheses by Victor Stenger to refute atheism or agnosticism:

    Revelation, Rationality Knowledge and Truth by Mirza Tahir Ahmad

    The Bible, the Quran and Science by Maurice Bucaille

    Alislam-eGazette, May 2008: Revelation and Reason

  3. May be a simple way to understand what is a ‘soul’ versus ‘our body’ is the ‘out-of-body-experience’. May be we should study that a bit deeper. If ordinary persons can see their body detached from themselves it is easier to understand for instance the spiritual journey of the Prophet (peace be on him) to Jerusalem and to Heaven (and back). Let’s look into this …

  4. The atheists are studying the laws of nature. But they deny the source of nature. They are studying gravity. But they do not know who gave that gravity.
    The primary question is that of soul. Is there something other than body in mankind and life. There is a big question about the things which are seen (visible) and invisible. Many unseen (unknown)things are being turned into known things. Ghaib is turning into Haazir. Many things that were not known yesterday (in the past) have been discovered today (at present).

    Electron and proton was not known 500 years ago. It has been discovered today by expriments. Soul which is not visible today may come to be known in the future. It is useless to deny its existence.

    There are well known abstract things. Will the atheists deny them? I say, there is pain and happiness, mercy, love and hatred, enmity. All will have to be denied.

    In the universe, many new bodies are being discovered. Our knowledge is progressing. Things which were not known, not discovered and could not be believed to exist, have been discovered. It is useless to deny the existence of the Creator.

    We know the logic of cause and effect. Atheists also believe in cause and effect (I hope). The Creator (God) is the ultimate cause of everything.

    What about feelings? Are they a reality or nonsense? Can we see them, any of them? It is useless to say that we will not believe in unseen things. Everyday, we are observing that many unseen things are becoming visible, through naked eye or telescopes or other instruments.

    Shall we admit our ignorance in the past about newly discovered things? Similar may be the case about the God Almighty. The denial of the God is in a way, a desire to discover Him.

    In years 1890 A.D. There was man of God who invited every one to come to him and he had promised to show them the proof of God. But the senior members of todays atheists did not dare go to him. Such persons (Men of God) are not always present(available) in the world.

    Those who deny God and the after life, what code they follow? What proof they have for any code of life? It will be their own self made code. Why should any one believe in that code? When there is no creator, there is no purpose of life and there is no accountability, so why do good things and why to save anything for the future? Why not enjoy this life by any means? The denial of God is the denial of all good things of this life too.

    The atheists may deny God. But they cannot deny whatever is described in the Quran about historical events of past and present nations. Afterall, history is an important subject being taught in the schools of learning.

    I would like to know if atheists have any feelings. If they do they cannot deny the spirit and God. In mathemtics, there is a subject of imagination. Something which cannot be shown and it cannot be denied (imaginary). It is a major subject and seriously applies to electrical and electronics.

    There are properties (reactance) which cannot be seen but they are very much there. Nobody denies those even though they are purely imaginary. But their effect is real and a proof that they are there.

    My above statement should knock out the atheists at least. But it may leave some ground for the agnostics only. Atheists have no stand.

  5. W H O is an A T H E I S T in R E A L I T Y

    An experiment can be designed, about a person who does not truly realize that God exists. This person might be called a Believer or Theist or Non-Believer or Atheist or Whatever. The certainty of knowledge would dictate that the person does not truly realize that God exists, a basis of the proposed experiment, observation, and inference model.

    To start with, here’s an observation of the Messiah Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian (alaihissalaam):

    “Our everyday experience shows that we are at once drawn towards things that are useful, and shun those we are afraid of. For instance, if you do not know that the thing you are holding in your hand is arsenic, and you imagine that it is only bamboo sugar or some other useful medicine, you will not hesitate to consume ten or even twenty grams of it; but if you know it to be a deadly poison which will kill you instantly, you will never dare to take even a gram of it. Similarly, when man truly realizes that God exists and that every sin is punishable in His eyes, he refrains from every sin, whether it is theft, bloodshed, fornication, cruelty, breach of trust, associating partners with Allah, falsehood, bearing false witness, arrogance, ostentation, acquiring wealth by illegal means, treachery, cursing, fraud, unfaithfulness, leading a life of carelessness, not being grateful to God, not fearing Him, not being compassionate towards His creatures, not remembering Him with fear and humility, being lost in pursuit of worldly comfort and pleasures, forgetting the true Benefactor, being heedless about prayer and humility, selling adulterated goods, not giving in full measure, underselling, not caring for one’s parents, not treating one’s wife with civility, not being obedient to one’s husband, casting evil glances at other men or women, being heedless about the needs of orphans, the weak and helpless, being unmindful of the rights of neighbours, deriding others in order to prove one’s own superiority, mocking at people with words that are meant to hurt them, pointing out someone’s bodily defects in order to humiliate him, calling people by foul names or slandering them, imputing falsehood to God or, God forbid, falsely claiming to be a Prophet or Messenger, denying God’s existence, rebelling against a just ruler, and mischievously creating disorder in the land.”

    [Reference: ‘How to be free From Sin’, pdf pages 30 and 31 of 43]

  6. W H O is an A T H E I S T in R E A L I T Y

    In ‘Testing the God Hypothesis’, along with other corrections, the words ‘For example, the jails might be filled with atheists’ should be replaced with ‘For example, the jails might be filled with persons who do not truly realize that God exists.’

  7. Victor Stenger, Physicist, PhD says: Furthermore, physical evidence now conclusively demonstrates that some of the most important biblical narratives, such as the Exodus, never took place.

    Could we get more information?:

    Q1. Where is the ‘physical evidence’ that the Exodus never took place?

    Q2. Who inferred that the ‘physical evidence’ is conclusive?

    Q3. Who duplicated, repeated, and verified the objects of ‘conclusively demonstrates’ words?

    Q4. Where is the qualifying statement that the observers were neutral unbiased scientists?

  8. Victor Stenger says: For example, Roman records might have been found for an earthquake in Judea at the time of a certain crucifixion ordered by Pontius Pilate.

    Q1: Did Romans keep records of earthquakes in Judea at the time of acts of Pontius Pilate?
    Q2: Did neutral unbiased scientists thoroughly checked all the related records of earthquakes?
    Q3: Do the sediment layers of the Dead Sea not get deformed by the earthquakes in Judea?

    A representative model should propose to check out the sediment layers of the Dead Sea.

  9. If exodus did not take place then may be the children of Israel did never go to Egypt. They never lived there and the children of Israel were not persecuted by the Egyptian King pharaoh.

    Whoever is spreading these strange news may be out of his mind.

  10. Some time ago, there was news that Church has absolved (acquitted) the Jews from the murder of Jesus on the Cross.

    That news is alright from the point of view of Ahmadi Muslims that Jesus was not killed. But then who was responsible?

  11. Atheists will not believe what they (in their minds) or experience cannot see or prove. All the arguments to the contrary will not move them.

    Please read my article in Al-Nahl: A Rainy Day Story by Abu Bakr Ladd

    http://www.alislam.org/alnahl/Al-Nahl-2012-Q1.pdf

    Seeing is believing. But….the disbeliever, no matter what Sign you show him, he will not believe.

  12. It is an interesting debate. Believers always want to prove the existence of God and non believers dispute it. It is hard to prove the non existence of something. On the other hand the believers are told to believe in the unseen or “Ghaib”. What God has described as “Ghaib” (Himself, can we make it obvious or prove it beyond doubt? If not, then we are struggling with a question that has no answer.

  13. The heavens and the earth are in harmony with laws of nature thus its impossible for the universe to exist by mere chance. The creation itself proves the existance of the Creator.

    But God cannot be given an image as similar to His creation neither can He have progeny.

    Quran is very clear that nobody can see God in this life and God has no son (whether literal or metaphorical).

    • Parvez: I like your statement that ‘the heavens and the earth are in harmony with laws of nature’. We all agree. And that is why we do not think that Jesus is in a 2000 year-old body.

  14. Chance has a much more prominent place in the affairs of the world than believers generally accept. People win lottery regularly even as the chance of winning is infinitely small. So from an individual’s perspective it may be nearly impossible but in the context of the population as a whole, chance happens quiet regularly.
    We know evolution to be a fact. The basis of evolution is chance mutations and then selection. In fact chance is a tool nature uses regularly and frequently.
    Promised Messiah says that by looking at the creation (nature), one feels the need for a creator but there is only one way to know about God with certainty; direct converse with God (Ilham). There is no other way to prove existence of God beyond doubt.
    Many pious people in Muslims including Promised Messiah have claimed to have met with God in their dreams in some metaphorical form.
    In the Bible Prophets were referred to as sons of God. (Metaphorically).

  15. Parvez, it seems that you are obsessed with the idea that God can’t be seen as a human in a dream.

    You must have learnt this from some verse of the Holy Quran that it has become your fundamental belief.

    Can we ask, where is this mentioned in the Holy Quran?

  16. “No vision can grasp Him, but His Grasp is over all vision. He is the Most Subtle and Courteous, Well-Acquainted with all things.” [Quran 6:103]

    “It is not given to any human being that Allah should speak to him unless (it be) by Inspiration, or from behind a veil, or (that) He sends a Messenger to reveal what He wills by His Leave.” [Quran 42:51]

  17. Dreams are a sort of inspiration on the one hand and a result of idle gossip of the brain to itself on the other. So if we have some form of impression of God in our minds it could show up in dreams. If this dream has a clear impression and and a message it may well be inspired. But whatever it is that one saw in one’s dream was an image of God, the image that one’s mind conjured up, and not God Himself. So, people who have reported seeing God in their dreams saw an image of God and not God Himself.

  18. Parvez, when will you grow up?

    Of course I believe:

    Say, ‘He is Allah, the One;
    ‘Allah, the Independent and Besought of all.
    ‘He begets not, nor is He begotten;
    ‘And there is none like unto Him.’

    (Al Quran 112:2-5)

  19. [The Holy Quran : Chapter 6: Al-An`am الاٴنعَام, Verse 104]
    [6:104] لَّا تُدْرِكُهُ الْأَبْصَارُ وَهُوَ يُدْرِكُ الْأَبْصَارَ وَهُوَ اللَّطِيفُ الْخَبِيرُ

    “Eyes cannot reach Him but He reaches the eyes. And He is the Incomprehensible, the All-Aware.”

    The Holy Quran, Chapter 6, Verse 104, mentions الْأَبْصَار, the physical eyes, eyesights, and visions. But your question is about the dream.

    The question, “Can we ask, where is this mentioned in the Holy Quran?”, is still to be answered.

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