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Science, Confirmation, and the Theistic Hypothesis: Conclusion


Works highly critical of theism sometimes end on a note of hesitancy. After carefully criticizing theism, skeptics sometimes feel an onus to offer alternative forms of spirituality or at least to argue that life in a godless universe need not be meaningless. Such doubt and hesitancy are hardly surprising. Although the tide of secularism has risen continually since the end of the Middle Ages, it has not washed away all the fears that contemplation of a thorough and consistent naturalism can engender.

Roger Scruton has recently given eloquent expression to such fears.[1] To Scruton it appears that the naturalistic view of humanity has brought a new kind of evil into the world–the cold, impersonal, and bureaucratic evil of Auschwitz and the Gulag:

It seems to me that the morally defective feature of the death camp–and of the totalitarian system which engenders it–is its impersonal, cynical and scientific approach to the victims. Systematic torture and murder become a bureaucratic task, for which no one is liable, and for which no one is particularly to blame…I do not offer to prove, what nevertheless has been vividly impresssed on me by my own study and experience, that this impersonal (and therefore ungovernable) evil is the true legacy of the naturalistic view of man. Those very philosophies which enjoin us to place man upon the throne from which God was taken away for burial, have been most influential in creating a new image of man as an accident of nature, to whom nothing is either forbidden or permitted by any power beyond himself. God is an illusion; so too is the divine spark in man.[2]

The secular humanist’s response must be as simple and direct as Scruton’s challenge: We are indeed an accident of nature and nothing is forbidden or permitted us by any power beyond ourselves. As Richard Rorty put it “… there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves…”[3] For the secular humanist, these conclusions are inescapable, but the inferences Scruton draws from them are not. There is no reason to see humanity as diminished by the absence of God. God is needed only if humanity is inadequate, that is, only if we are incapable of discovering and creating purpose and meaning although no Purpose or Meaning is bestowed on us from above.

Further, respect for other persons arises from an experience or shared humanity, not from the detection of some divine spark. In fact, the impersonal, reductive view of persons that characterizes totalitarianism is more reasonably viewed as a pathological outgrowth of a religious rather than a humanistic worldview. The distinctive feature of totalitarianism is the exaltation of ideology over persons, the relegation of human life to the service of a system of beliefs. This subordination of the human to the doctrinal did not enter the world with the rise of science and naturalism. It is the legacy of the belief in one God, one Creed, one Church, and one Law.

Perhaps another and equally deep reason for hesitancy at the abandonment of theism is the fear that without God there will be no object commensurate with the human capacity for awe and wonder. This doubt can also be confidently addressed: The mysteries and glories of theology pale beside those that science reveals within the cosmos itself. No one has expressed this better than Carl Sagan:

We inhabit a universe where atoms are made in the centers of stars; where each second a thousand suns are born; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightning in the airs and waters of youthful planets; where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the explosion of a star halfway across the Milky Way; where a thing as beautiful as a galaxy is formed a hundred billion times–a Cosmos of quasars and quarks, snowflakes and fireflies, where there may be black holes and other universes and extraterrestrial civilizations whose radio messages are at this moment reaching the Earth. How pallid by comparison are the pretensions of superstition and pseudoscience; how important it is for us to pursue and understand science, that characteristically human endeavor.[4]

In conclusion, if the arguments presented in this thesis are sound, they do not need to be qualified or circumscribed at the end, though undoubtedly the philosophical defense of theism will continue for the forseeable future. Some issues in philosophy never seem to be exhausted.

However, certain projects and programs do become exhausted and, even if they are never entirely abandoned, they are pushed ever further towards the periphery of philosophical discourse. This thesis has endeavoured to show that the attempt to employ scientific modes of argument in the defense of traditional theism is just such an exhausted and fruitless project. It has been argued that those who construe theism as a straightforwardly scientific hypothesis will inevitably fail into psuedoscience. Further, the canons and methods of confirmation theory cannot be fruitfully employed in the reformulation of traditional theistic arguments. In addition, a consistent naturalism cannot be disproved by demonstrating the occurrence of miracles. Finally, to treat theism as an explanatory hypothesis leads to its disconfirmation by the facts of evil.

The theistic hypothesis therefore should be laid to rest at last, two centuries after it received its first great blow from Hume. If it is ever again to merit replacement at the forefront of discussion in the philosophy of religion, both theism and science will have to change in profound ways that I cannot foresee.


[1] Roger Scruton, “The Philosopher on Dover Beach,” The Times Literary Supplement, May 23, 1986, pp. 565-566.

[2] Ibid., p. 565.

[3] Richard Rorty, The Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), p. xiii.

[4] Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980), p. 275.

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