Can we test theology experimentally? On the nature of theological vs scientific theories

It is difficult to precisely define science and demarcate it from non-science and pseudoscience.

Figs in Winter
Apr 15 · 7 min read
[image: Thales of Miletus, the first scientist (Wikipedia); this is essay #290 in the Figs in Winter series]

Natural philosophy — what we nowadays call science — was born when the Presocratic philosopher Thales of Miletus, back in the 6th century BCE, made the radical move to abandon supernatural “explanations” for the world’s phenomena, and inaugurated instead an understanding based on natural laws. Aristotle explains:

That from which is everything that exists and from which it first becomes and into which it is rendered at last, its substance remaining under it, but transforming in qualities, that they say is the element and principle of things that are. … For it is necessary that there be some nature, either one or more than one, from which become the other things of the object being save d…. Thales the founder of this type of philosophy says that it is water. (Metaphysics 983 b6 8–11, 17–21)

Granted, Thales got the “details” wrong: water, turns out, is not the most fundamental substance in the universe. Indeed, we still don’t know what is, as physicists are still working on it. But the very idea that there must be fundamental substances, and that we can think about this stuff without invoking Zeus and Apollo was revolutionary.

Throughout the Middle Ages, however, natural philosophy was reduced to the role of handmaid of theology, on penalty of incurring into the kind of nasty consequences that Giordano Bruno had to experience. Then came Galileo Galilei, and we can say that modern science was pretty much born. (He too had trouble with the religious authorities, but not as dramatic as those of Bruno’s.)

Things have changed so much that these days some misguided scientists (Richard Dawkins, for instance) think that they can turn the tools of their trade against theology and “scientifically” undermine supernatural “hypotheses.” Which brings me to a recent Scientific American article by astronomer Avi Loeb, entitled “Experimental Tests of Theology.”

Loeb claims that “good” theological hypotheses should be just as amenable as scientific ones to the “guillotine of experiments.” He uses the above mentioned Bruno as an example. The latest scholarship on the famous Inquisition case is that Bruno was burnt at the stake because he proposed that there could be life in star systems different from the solar one. Why would that be a problem? Because it would imply that multiple Christs should have appeared to all those races of aliens, a notion the Church at the time considered a heresy.

Loeb concludes that Bruno’s heresy might one day be tested. Astronomers now know of a number of solar-like systems with planets that could be inhabitable. The test of the hypothesis will be when we’ll contact the extraterrestrials in question and asked them if they ever heard of Jesus.

Let’s set aside the obvious objection that there is no way we’ll actually be able to carry out the proposed test any time soon. Or, more likely than not, ever. A charitable interpretation of Loeb’s suggestion is that the Bruno-extrasolar planets case can be taken to be a proof concept that theological claims could be tested.

But this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of theology. And, by implication, the nature of science. We don’t have to wait to talk to extraterrestrials. Tests of this kind have been carried out many, many times. And theology has always failed. And yet, unlike the analogous case of a scientific theory, it’s still with us, as strong as ever.

Consider, for instance, “flood geology,” a misguided attempt, back in the ’60s and ’70s, to articulate a creation “science” that would refute the claims of evolutionary biologists. The theories of flood geologists have been empirically tested and soundly rejected. But I doubt that has convinced many creationists.

Not to mention that plenty of Christians don’t even accept flood geology because they have been able to reconcile their religion with the findings of modern science in other ways. Such reconciliation is made possible by the fact that theological positions — unlike scientific theories — are infinitely pliable and can always be reinterpreted in order to be shielded from any kind of apparently damning empirical evidence.

Or take more recent research into intercessory prayer. The results, as expected, do not support the efficacy of such practice. But few if any Christian has looked at the statistical analyses and concluded that his theologically beliefs were therefore wrong. The Pope prays every day, and he’s a smart guy. What are the chances he’s gonna come out to his pulpit on St. Peter’s square and announce that he was wrong, because science has shown that prayer doesn’t work, and that by implication God doesn’t exist?

The reason that Pope isn’t going to do any such thing is because he is a good theologian. And he knows perfectly well that empirical evidence is utterly irrelevant in theology. The reason for that, in turn, is because theological statements are nothing like scientific hypotheses. To demonstrate, let us see how someone might easily retain their prior belief even after the demise of flood geology and the embarrassing lack of evidence for intercessory prayer.

Easy. Fundamentalist creationists have a number of options. They can claim (and have claimed!) that the entire scientific edifice — including the physics and chemistry that makes it possible for us to estimate the age of rocks — is flawed. Or perhaps he could invoke the notion of Last Thursdaysm: of course it appears like the Grand Canyon is millions of years old. But that’s just because God wishes to test our faith. In reality the universe was created last Thursday, with fossils, canyons, and all the rest.

Prayer doesn’t work? Of course it does. God always answers prayers, but sometimes, maybe most of the times, the answer is no. And we are never privy to which case is which. Or maybe God just had a laugh at the scientists who had the hubris of attempting to test his power and temporarily suspended his prayer business for the duration of the experiment. See how easy it is to rescue theological claims?

But Loeb writes: “There is no doubt that Abraham was convinced he heard the voice of God. With a modern recording device on a cell phone, he could have convinced all of humanity that God spoke to him.” No, he most definitely couldn’t have. It is very easy to fake that sort of proof nowadays, so that skeptics would have pretty reasonable ground to doubt Abraham’s claim. Loeb comes close to being as naive as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — the creator of Sherlock Holmes — who accepted the existence of fairies because he saw photographic evidence of them. His friend Harry Houdini could not disabuse him of such an untenable notion.

Loeb asks himself which theology is most compatible with modern science. Fair question. His answer, with which I agree, is Spinoza’s, because he identified God with Nature. So did Einstein. And so did the Stoics. But this isn’t really theology, is it? It’s a metaphysics read directly from the available science. In the times of the Stoics, for instance, it was reasonable to infer that the Cosmos is a living organism endowed with the Logos (i.e., rationality). Today that inference is unsustainable, and modern Stoics replace it with whatever picture of the universe comes out of fundamental physics and cosmology. Theology, at best, has become the handmaiden of science.

Bizarrely, Loeb — perhaps betraying a distaste for philosophy not unheard of among scientists — claims that “the Earth continued to revolve around the sun even after philosophers refused to look through Galileo Galilei’s telescope and he was put in house arrest.” The philosophers?? You mean, the theologians. Galileo himself was a philosopher. The concept and term of “scientist” date from much later, when (philosopher) William Whewell coined the term in 1834.

Theological hypotheses are, to use a phrase introduced by theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, not even wrong. They can’t be, because they are sufficiently vague and amorphous that they can be reshaped to accommodate pretty much any empirical evidence. That is what distinguishes theology from good science.

But Loeb does have a point when he brings up the issue of what is sometimes referred to as post-empirical science, such as the multiverse and simulation hypotheses, though he might as well have included string theory. What all these theories have in common is that they are not really scientific, despite the fact that they are put forth or endorsed by physicists (the simulation hypothesis has been advanced by a philosopher, but it has encountered the favor of well known scientists).

Simulation, strings, and multiverse have something fundamental in common with theology: they make no contact at all with the empirical. Nor does it seem to be the case that such contact is even theoretically possible in the distant future.

That is why I refer particularly to the multiverse and string theories are scientifically-inspired metaphysics. Which could be taken to be a compliment (if you are a metaphysician) or an insult (if you are a scientist). I mean it in an entirely descriptive fashion.

It is difficult to precisely define science and demarcate it from non-science and pseudoscience. But the history of science teaches us without a doubt that good scientific theories are both full of content (unlike theological statements) and empirically verifiable (unlike science-inspired metaphysics). Let’s keep it that way and resist the temptation to turn back physics into a branch of theology, as it was before Galileo.

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Figs in Winter

Written by

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

Socrates Café

Socrates Café on Medium is all about making ours, on local and global scales, an inclusive, thoughtful and participatory society where regular exchanges of ideas and ideals among diverse people take place.

Figs in Winter

Written by

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

Socrates Café

Socrates Café on Medium is all about making ours, on local and global scales, an inclusive, thoughtful and participatory society where regular exchanges of ideas and ideals among diverse people take place.

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