Sunday, October 26, 2014

Is God Supernatural?

Christian apologists often criticize atheists for presupposing a naturalistic worldview, thereby making the supernatural (and specifically, God) a virtual impossibility. I disagree with this argument for one of two reasons: A) because God is not necessarily supernatural, or B) atheists do believe in the supernatural. Whether it's A or B depends on the meaning of "supernatural".

I'm not interested in semantic arguments, but I think Merriam-Webster's definitions of "supernatural" helpfully describe ways that people think about God. In reverse order, I'll apply them to the question: "Is God Supernatural?"

Definition #3: "of, relating to, or being God"

God certainly is supernatural by this definition, but I don't think it's a useful one. It says nothing about the key issue, which is the nature of God and his interactions with the world.

Definition #2: "being so extraordinary or abnormal as to suggest powers which violate the laws of nature"

I think this is what many people, especially atheists and fundamentalist Christians, think of when they hear "supernatural". God "miraculously" intervenes in the world such that the laws of nature are violated. After all, God is omnipotent, so he's not bound by such laws. Naturalistic explanations of miracles are seen as denying God's power or avoiding the "plain meaning" of the Bible.

It's problematic if not impossible to find any evidence that the laws of nature have ever been violated. Even if it existed, the prior probability would be so low that the evidence would have to be extraordinarily strong. We don't have such evidence. And if we did, we'd simply modify our understanding of the natural laws. Then the supernatural would still be impossible.

Furthermore, I don't see anything in the Bible that necessarily would've violated natural laws. Wherever God's means are mentioned, it's always something that can be explained within the bounds of natural laws. The flood? Genesis says it rained. Parting of the Red Sea? Exodus says strong east wind. God speaking to prophets? They say visions and dreams. Where the means aren't mentioned (as is usually the case), there's no reason to assume violation of natural laws. Rather, in the absence of very strong evidence to the contrary, we should assume that natural laws weren't violated. To not do so would be to commit the base rate fallacy.

Using Definition #2 and considering the available evidence, I conclude that God (as described in the Bible) probably isn't supernatural. Can't rule it out, but the base rate and evidence suggest a low probability.

Definition #1: "of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe"
I think this one is by far the most useful. According to this definition, God is indeed "supernatural". And so are other unobserved things like dark matter, strings (as in string theory), strangelets, preons, photinos, gravitons, life on other planets, other dimensions and universes, etc. These generally are not "gods of the gaps". They are reasonable hypotheses that explain what we can observe and aren't inconsistent with what we know about the laws of nature. I think the same is true of God.

Some things that once were "supernatural" (by Definition #1; e.g., viruses, atoms, distant planets) are no longer supernatural now that we have ways to observe them. Until we find a way to observe God or disprove the God hypothesis, we should carefully and scientifically consider the possibilities. We shouldn't allow our definition of "supernatural" to dictate our understanding of God or deny his existence. Rather, we should strive to have a view of God that best explains the data and is consistent with what we discover about the natural world.
“It is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed.”
- James Prescott Joule, father of thermodynamics

Monday, October 13, 2014

Why So Many Scientists Are Atheists

According to Pew Research, 17% of scientists identify as atheist, compared to only 2% of the general population. 41% of scientists say they don't believe in God or a higher power, compared to only 4% of the general population. Why are so many scientists atheists?

Some say it's because science disproves God or that science and religion are somehow incompatible. Others point out that most were atheists before they ever became scientists, suggesting they pursue science because of their atheism. Both explanations assume a false dichotomy. The true answer probably is very complex, but two factors might explain a lot of it: demographics and personality.

Atheists are predominantly white men. According to Pew, 70% of American atheists are men and 90% are white or Asian, compared to 48% and 74% of the general population, respectively. Scientists [according to NSF] are 72% male and 87% white or Asian, almost identical to atheists. Thus, any random sample of people with the racial and gender makeup of scientists, for that reason alone, should have a higher percentage of atheists than the general population. Among sciences, chemistry and biology employ a relatively high percentage of women -- and, perhaps consequently, a relatively low percentage of atheists.

Personality may explain even more. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is probably the most common measure of personality. Though it has several major flaws, it has been used and studied enough to provide useful statistics.

The MBTI type typically associated with scientists is INTJ, whose description closely resembles the stereotypical scientist. Hence, it often is called the "Scientist" type. INTJs generally are analytical, opinionated, and don't believe things without "cold hard facts" -- a common description of atheists as well. In a survey of 10,627 American atheists, 13.7% were classified as INTJ, compared to only 2.6% of the general population.

A few other personality types are typically associated with scientists. By far the most common of these is ISTJ, which tend to prefer more practical, applied science than their INTJ cousins. For example, ISTJ has been found to be the most common type among National Weather Service employees. It's also the most common type among atheists. 41.2% of atheists are ISTJ, but only 13.8% of the general population are ISTJ. Thus, a majority (54.9%) of atheists are either ISTJ or INTJ, compared to only 16.5% of the general population.

Personality type can explain the high male-to-female ratio among atheists [and perhaps scientists as well]. Male and female atheists have similar proportions of ISTJ and INTJ (40.8% and 11.7% for female atheists, 41.4% and 14.4% for male atheists). But in the general population these two types are approximately 70% male -- just like atheists and scientists!

Combining demographic and personality data, we can calculate the probability that a random person is an atheist, given basic demographics. For example, starting with a prior probability of 2.0% (the % of atheists in the general population), the probability that a random white male would be an atheist is 3.5%. If the random white male is an INTJ, that probability increases to 14.5%. If we consider random college graduates, it becomes 21.1%.

Extending the calculations to a random group of college graduates (and post-graduates, in parentheses) with the same race and gender makeup as scientists [72% male, 69% white, 18% Asian, etc.], the following percentages are expected to identify as atheist:

  • INTJ: 20.2% (23.7%)
  • ISTJ: 11.4% (13.7%)
  • INTP: 7.4% (9.0%)
  • ENTJ: 6.0% (7.3%)
  • INFJ: 5.5% (6.7%)
  • ISTP: 4.6% (5.6%)
  • ESTJ: 3.6% (4.4%)
  • ENTP: 2.8% (3.4%)
  • ESTP: 2.0% (2.5%)
  • INFP: 1.7% (2.1%)
  • ENFJ: 1.5% (1.9%)
  • ISFJ: 1.5% (1.8%)
  • ISFP: 0.6% (0.8%)
  • ENFP: 0.6% (0.7%)
  • ESFJ: 0.4% (0.5%)
  • ESFP: 0.3% (0.4%)

Thus, if scientists are predominantly INTJ and ISTJ, the 17% who are atheists is similar to that what would be expected from a random sample of people with those personality types and similar basic demographics.

Of course, there are much deeper factors than what these crude statistics represent. Scientists are quite diverse in ways that aren't accounted for here. Not all are INTJ or ISTJ, including myself (an INFJ), and I couldn't find any statistics about that. Correlation doesn't imply causation, and these variables probably aren't completely independent as the equations assume. However, unlike the "science and religion are incompatible" explanation, this one at least has some science to support it.