Today’s HuffPo features a column by Victor Stenger—”Scientists and religion“—that’s reprinted from “Science + religion today.” His point is to dispel the old canard that science can’t test God or the supernatural. (I once had a long argument with Genie Scott of the National Center for Science Education about this—she took the “can’t-test” side). And the reasons he’s right are bloody obvious, but can’t be said too often, especially since the “can’t-test” position appears in official statements by America’s two most prestigious science organizations: the AAAS and the National Academies:
The rationale usually given by those who reject any role for science on religious matters is that science concerns itself, “by definition,” solely with natural phenomena. Since the supernatural is unobservable, then, they assert, science has nothing to say about it.
However, while supernatural entities may not be directly observable, any effects these entities might have on the material world should manifest themselves as observable phenomena. Anything observable is subject to scientific inquiry. On the other hand, if the supernatural has no observable effects on the natural world, then why even worry about it?
In recent years, right under the nose of the NAS [National Academy of Sciences], reputable scientists from reputable institutions have vigorously pursued several areas of empirical study that bear directly on the question of God and the supernatural. Any one of these experiments was capable of providing evidence for at least some aspect of a world beyond the material world. I will mention just two.
Teams of scientists from three highly respected institutions — the Mayo Clinic and Harvard and Duke Universities — have performed carefully controlled experiments on the medical efficacy of blind, intercessory prayer and published their results in peer-reviewed journals. These experiments found no evidence that such prayers provide any health benefit. But, they could have.
For my second example, over a period of four decades extensive investigations have been made into the phenomenon of near-death experiences (NDEs) in which people resuscitated from the brink of death report a glimpse of “heaven.” Despite thousands of such reports, not a single subject has returned with new knowledge that could be tested by further investigations. No prediction has been made of some future catastrophe that later occurred on schedule, and not for lack of opportunity given the many natural disasters — earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, tornados — of recent years. Similarly, no divine revelation has provided an answer for any currently unanswered question in science, history, or theology; such as, where in the universe we will find extraterrestrial life or the location of Noah’s Ark.
Now it’s harder to test one-off interventions like the supposed resurrection of Jesus, but everything we know about nature suggests that dead people can’t come back to life, and there’s no independent evidence for this outside the Gospels. And if you show that the more frequent interventions of God are bogus, one naturally begins to suspect the one-off miracles as well. Even when one-off miracles are tested, like weeping Jesus statues or the Shroud of Turin, they, too, fail to pass the test of divinity.
I wasn’t able to make any headway with Genie, who was either deaf to my assertions or determined to defend a position that the NCSE has adopted to coddle believers; and I suspect Stenger won’t make headway with most HuffPo readers (watch the comments section). Nevertheless, he’s right. As I pointed out today, Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” brand of accommodationism works only with deistic religions that posit a hands-off God. And, in the West, that kind of religion is found only among well-fed theologians and extremely liberal believers.
Victor’s penultimate paragraph:
So, scientists and science organizations are being disingenuous when they say science can say nothing about the supernatural. They know better. Their policy of appeasing religion for presumably political reasons only empowers those who are muddling education and polluting public policy with anti-scientific magical thinking.
Can anybody really deny that? They do know better, or if they don’t, they’re dumb.
I hope they don’t bounce Stenger’s tuchus from HuffPo, since he violates Arianna’s mission of reconciling science and faith. But perhaps he gives them what they want most: traffic. And traffic = $$ (for HuffPo, not Stenger: columnists aren’t paid there).