Will science be able to prove God’s ex­is­tence?

To­day there are re­searchers look­ing for ev­i­dence of su­per­nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena, but what does that mean for faith, asks Rabbi Dr­moshe Freed­man

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism - ‘Faith is be­lief in spite of the lack of ev­i­dence’ Dr Freed­man is rabbi of Northwood United Synagogue

IT WAS early Fe­bru­ary 1971. The three-man Apollo 14 crew had just com­pleted their mis­sion and were re­turn­ing home. Edgar D. Mitchell, the lu­nar mod­ule pilot, gazed out of the win­dow of the com­mand mod­ule Kitty Hawk as it hur­tled to­wards its land­ing tar­get in the Pa­cific Ocean. As he stared at the earth sus­pended in the im­mense cos­mos, Mitchell ex­pe­ri­enced an ex­tra­or­di­nary epiphany. On his re­turn he said, “When I went to the moon, I was a prag­matic test pilot. But when I saw the planet earth float­ing in the vast­ness of space, the pres­ence of di­vin­ity be­came al­most pal­pa­ble and I knew that life in the uni­verse was not just an ac­ci­dent based on ran­dom pro­cesses.”

This inspiration con­vinced him that re­al­ity is more com­plex and mys­te­ri­ous than con­ven­tional science had led him to be­lieve. The 19th-cen­tury psy­chol­o­gist and philoso­pher Wil­liam James de­scribed this type of mys­ti­cal state as hav­ing a “noetic” qual­ity, from the Greek noe­sis, mean­ing in­ner wis­dom.

Rather than view­ing his sci­en­tific back­ground as a threat to this en­counter, Mitchell hoped to rec­on­cile con­ven­tional science with his new-found spir­i­tu­al­ity and es­tab­lished the field of noetic sci­ences. To­day its re­searchers aim to sci­en­tif­i­cally sub­stan­ti­ate a wide range of su­per­nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena, such as ex­trasen­sory per­cep­tion, pre­cog­ni­tion and mind-mat­ter in­ter­ac­tions.

The noetic sci­ences were re­cently pop­u­larised in Dan Brown’s 2009 novel, The Lost Sym­bol, in which one of the lead­ing char­ac­ters, Dr Kather­ine Solomon, claims to have used noetic science to cat­e­gor­i­cally prove that “hu­man thought, if prop­erly fo­cused, had the abil­ity to af­fect and change phys­i­cal mass”.

If it is in­deed pos­si­ble to ap­ply sci­en­tific meth­ods to ver­ify or fal­sify su­per­nat­u­ral claims such as the power of prayer, then per­haps these stud­ies could re­move the need for faith, which from a sci­en­tific per­spec­tive is an anath­ema to ra­tio­nal thought. “Faith,” as Pro­fes­sor Richard Dawkins put it, “is the great cop-out, the great ex­cuse to evade the need to think and eval­u­ate ev­i­dence. Faith is be­lief in spite of, even per­haps be­cause of, the lack of ev­i­dence.”

Since the late 19th cen­tury, sci­en­tists have made a num­ber of at­tempts to test the ef­fi­cacy of in­ter­ces­sory prayer by as­sess­ing whether pray­ing for the re­cov­ery of an ill pa­tient has a mea­sur­able ef­fect. In 2003 the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion con­cluded that while there was some sta­tis­ti­cal ev­i­dence to sup­port the suc­cess of in­ter­ces­sory prayer, given the ab­sence of a plau­si­ble phys­i­o­log­i­cal mech­a­nism which could have been in­flu­enced, cou­pled with con­tra­dic­tory stud­ies, the re­searchers re­mained pre­dictably scep­ti­cal of their re­sults.

This should not be sur­pris­ing. The To­rah re­lates that af­ter leav­ing Egypt and ar­riv­ing in Mas­sah, the Jewish peo­ple com­plained of thirst and dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the manna that God had pro­vided. They claimed that if God could not pro­vide wa­ter in the desert, it would prove that He was not with them. Later the To­rah re­calls this episode and ex­plic­itly pro­hibits this sort of be­hav­iour: “You shall not test God as you tested Him at Mas­sah.”

Many com­men­ta­tors ex­plain that the prob­lem is less to do with test­ing God, and more about the er­ro­neous pre­sump­tions that will in­evitably be made. Whereas a treat­ment or med­i­ca­tion is both sci­en­tif­i­cally ex­pli­ca­ble and can be as­sumed to act through a mech­a­nism of cause and ef­fect, prayer sim­ply does not work that way. Since the ve­rac­ity of sci­en­tific re­search is only as re­li­able as the pre­ex­per­i­men­tal as­sump­tions, when those as­sump­tions are mis­taken, then no mat­ter what the re­sults, the in­fer­ences drawn will be wrong. Does this mean that we must rely sim­ply on faith? Are we left to bam­boo­zle our­selves into “be­liev­ing” in God, no mat­ter what?

While science can­not en­gen­der faith, it is wrong to sug­gest that it must there­fore have no ra­tio­nal source. Many draw on the unique rev­e­la­tion at Si­nai as a foun­da­tion of their be­lief in God. For gen­er­a­tions of Jews to as­sert that the en­tire Is­raelite nation wit­nessed God first hand is such a unique and al­len­com­pass­ing claim, it would ef­fec­tively be im­pos­si­ble to fab­ri­cate. While in­di­vid­ual claims of per­sonal rev­e­la­tion found in other re­li­gions are nei­ther fal­si­fi­able nor ver­i­fi­able, it is un­re­al­is­tic to sug­gest that Moses was able to con­vince the en­tire nation that they had col­lec­tively ex­pe­ri­enced rev­e­la­tion when they had not. Al­though it is im­pos­si­ble to au­then­ti­cate such a claim sci­en­tif­i­cally, it is at the very least ra­tio­nal and per­haps even rea­son­able to be­lieve that God ex­ists and re­vealed the To­rah to our an­ces­tors at Si­nai over 3,000 years ago.

Jewish faith does not re­quire the sort of epiphany de­scribed by Mitchell to com­pre­hend God, nor can the su­per­nat­u­ral be de­tected through sci­en­tific re­search. For the Jewish peo­ple the real test of faith can­not be re­solved in the lab­o­ra­tory, but must be played out within the con­fines of our hearts and minds.

As­tro­naut Ed Mitchell, who sensed the pres­ence of di­vin­ity dur­ing a space flight


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