Monday Book: Wanted: omniscient being for scientific tests

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The Independent Culture
The God Experiment

by Russell Stannard

(Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99)

SCIENTIFICALLY EDUCATED, philosophically sophisticated Christians at the end of the 20th century are not to be envied. The deity in whom they believe is so different from both the deity in whom most Christians have believed and the one in whom most atheists disbelieve, that they must fight on two fronts at all times. Perhaps it is possible to establish that both these opponents are wrong. To get from there to the position that Professor Stannard adopts is a feat that requires divine assistance.

The weaknesses in his style of argument are laid out clearly enough in the first three chapters. The "God experiment" itself is an attempt to reverse the notorious finding of Francis Galton in the 19th century: that the crowned heads of Europe, for whose health prayers were said every day, lived shorter lives than their comparably prosperous subjects. Now 1,200 heart patients in the US are to be the subject of an elaborate double- blind experiment. Half will be prayed for, half will not; but no one will know which group they are in, or even that they are part of the experiment. In a delightful twist, a further 600 patients will be told that they are being prayed for. Symmetry would seem to demand that still another 600 are told that they are prayed for, without anyone putting in any special effort. But this doesn't seem to have been done.

In any case, the experiment has other flaws, all conscientiously pointed out by Stannard. They are summed up in the observation that God may "choose not to co-operate" with the investigators. Now, in any other sort of scientific experiment it is not considered a decent explanation of failure to say that the material refused to co-operate. You don't hear of physicists emerging from their particle accelerators to explain, "I'm sorry, but e had had a bad night and just didn't feel up to being mc2."

If you want a proper experiment, you eliminate as far as possible the possibility of non-co-operation. Look at the precautions that have had to be taken with the humans in the prayer experiment. But God, by definition, is omniscient as well as omnipotent. He knows exactly what the experimenters want, and is entirely at liberty to withhold it. This shows the futility of purely scientific approaches to God. The most that an attempt to unify science and religion can hope to do is to show that belief in God is compatible with the philosophical positions that a conscientious scientist may adopt.

In this, I think, Stannard succeeds. By the time we reach chapter three, however, all the other reasons for disbelief have made themselves clear. The second chapter gives much of the evidence for supposing that the miracle stories of the New Testament were not meant to be taken literally, as an account of stuff that happened clearly enough to be videotaped. But, Stannard concludes, there is nothing impossible, by the rules of quantum physics, in miracles - even if they didn't really happen.

In chapter three, he goes on to consider the Resurrection, which he does believe happened, even though the evidence for it comes from accounts written 30 years after the event. But if I am going to be lectured about historical evidence, it had better not be by a man who can refer to "a sermon by the former Bishop Jenkins of Durham when he spoke on an Easter Sunday of a conjuring trick with bones". As a matter of videotaped evidence, it wasn't a sermon but a television programme; it wasn't on Easter Sunday but six weeks beforehand; and what Dr Jenkins (not, then, a bishop) in fact said was "not just a conjuring trick with bones". If a respectable professor can get wrong such easily checkable facts, why on earth should we believe the testimony of peasants 30 years after the event?

The treatment of the problem of suffering is even worse. One can believe that all the horror of the world is somehow justified - some people clearly do - but this is an apprehension of some ineffable truth. To pretend that anyone could reach it by a solemn calculus of profit and loss seems to me grotesque. All theodicies are justifications after the unjustifiable fact; and all they make clear is that the best arguments against God are theological, or perhaps merely logical.

The reviewer's book `The Darwin Wars' is published by Simon & Schuster