A Scientific Question? Part 2

Is the question “Does God exist?” a scientific question? I don’t know about you, but this topic is giving me déjà vu all over again. This is basically the question that was posed by Logical Positivists early in the twentieth century, and they in turn were following in the footsteps of David Hume, basically updating and clarifying “Hume’s Fork” from his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1772:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (ECHU, Section XII, Part III)

So the question of the day, focused on by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, goes back at least as far as Hume, from writings published well over two centuries ago.

Actually, the Logical Positivists (at least as represented by A.J. Ayer) asked somewhat broader questions: Are metaphysical questions factual questions? Are ethical questions factual questions? The Logical Positivist answer was “No” to both of these broad questions, and thus they discarded two major sub-disciplines of philosophy as worthless, considering such philosophical investigations to “contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” The question “Does God exist?” was tossed out as just one among many other unanswerable metaphysical questions.

My recent posts on the sentence “God exists” are concerned with another Richard, namely Richard Swinburne, a philosophical opponent of Richard Dawkins, and those posts have focused on Swinburne’s claim that “God exists” is a sentence that makes a coherent statement.

The first thing Swinburne does in support of his claim is to consider the viewpoint and arguments of Logical Positivism, especially the argument presented by Ayer in Language, Truth, and Logic. This is one area where both Richards are in agreement. Dawkins and Swinburne agree that the sentence “God exists” is a factual claim, contrary to the view of Ayer and other Logical Positivists. The question keeps coming up: Hume in 1772 (and Kant in 1781), Ayer in 1935, Swinburne in 1977, Dawkins in 2006.

So, what is a “scientific question”? Here are some possible answers to consider:

1. A scientific question is just a factual question.
2. A scientific question is a particular kind (species) of factual question.
3. A scientific question is just an empirical question.
4. A scientific question is a particular kind (species) of empirical question.