Is Science Hard on God?

I had an long interchange with a recent visitor about climate change, and I have excerpted one part of that dialogue here (edited, enhanced, and slightly expanded for clarity). Science and math nerds: I’m taking liberties with the use of the word “proof” for accessibility reasons.

The Objection

The following basic objection was raised:

Science has spent years trying to prove the nonexistence of god. If god doesn’t exist, there is no need to try to prove he doesn’t…

My Response

There really isn’t a science journal out there dedicated to the field of disproving god. Nor does science in principle disprove the existence of anything. Science has the opposite bias. The positive claimant bears the burden of proof. If you claim the existence of a deity, the proof must come from you. Just to make sure this isn’t missed, and to underscore how baked in the burdens of proof are, consider this scenario…

You have lost your car keys. You think about where they could be. You conjure several possible explanations.

  1. They fell into the couch cushions.
  2. They are in your jacket pocket, hanging in the closet.
  3. They fell out in the parking lot and are on the ground by your car.
  4. Your neighbor took them from your counter top when he visited last.
  5. Aliens stole them.

Several of these explanations are plausible. But — and this is critical — most or all of these explanations are false. Even among the first three, which are quite reasonable explanations, most are false. Only one will correctly predict the location of your keys, at most. After all, you may have left them on the bathroom counter. We could invent 99 other possible explanations. Most of what we imagine as possible is not true. Only one explanation is true.

This is so contrary to human intuition that it bears restating. Even most of what we might imagine as being reasonable is false. In most human minds, when a reasonable explanation is heard, nothing further is asked. This sort of common sense failed to inform humanity about the nature of reality for millennia.

That is why the burden of proof in science is configured the way it is. Reasonable and plausible explanations are usually false. This is axiomatic. The gulf between “reasonable” explanations and the correct explanation is wide. This concept is formalized in the “null hypothesis.” In layman’s terms, this is the default assumption that your notions are probably wrong. In law, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. This is a similar default that establishes who bears the burden of proof.

If you are advancing a god — and a specific god — to either explain or excuse us from our climate predicament, you have a lot of work ahead of you. There is no evidence that we have a great “thermostat in the sky” who will save us from the consequences of our actions. Wholesale species extinction has occurred with past climate changes, per the best evidence we have marshalled. There is no evidence of a guiding hand. A guiding hand hypothesis is just another “possible” explanation, and most possible explanations that humans come up with are false. The burden of proof stands.

Science assumes the god explanation is wrong for the same reason it assumes other explanations are wrong — that is the default until an explanation has withstood rigorously testing. Religious folks take this personally. It isn’t personal, it’s policy. Until god can be demonstrated by experiment and evidence and predictive power, it must wait on the heap with all the other “reasonable” ideas of humanity. God remains a mere hypothesis, advanced by humans to explain things, and most hypotheses are wrong. Science requires that explanations and claims meet a much higher bar than religion does. Nobody is being picked on. The field of science lays the same heavy burden on its practicing members and their current hypotheses. Everyone must meet the same high bar; no exceptions.

On climate, humans divide at this key juncture: Either we work unflinchingly from evidence and reason, or we fall back on other narratives — religious, political, emotional, etc. Grown-ups have to work from our best evidence and reason together toward solutions. Everyone else will have to take up coloring books at the kids table.

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