Monday Book: Wanted: omniscient being for scientific tests

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

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most