Chasing Falsifiability down the Rabbit Hole to Transcendence
In my Philosophy of Religion class the other day, a student brought up Karl Popper’s principle of “falsifiability” as a criteria for whether a knowledge claim is valid. The way that my student put it: A claim that is empirically sensible is thus falsifiable (it can be refuted by empirical observation), and thus counts as real knowledge. But knowledge claims that are not empirically falsifiable— such as claims about God, ethical value, aesthetic value— do not count as the same kind of knowledge. Perhaps they are a lesser, derivative kind of knowledge. But they are not the kind of absolutely true knowledge one would want to build their world view upon, because they cannot be empirically falsified. And thus, while God, might be an optional or extra belief added onto a scientific worldview, God could never be essential to a worldview, or even a necessary explanatory hypothesis for the nature of Reality, because the idea of God cannot be falsified scientifically.
The Circularity of Falsifiability
As a method by which to guide empirical (or scientific) investigation, the principle of falsifiability is incredibly useful. Following the path laid out by Occam’s razor (that one should not needlessly multiply explanatory factors when less will suffice for a full explanation), the principle of falsifiability helps us bracket out all kinds of non-essential explanations, and focus on those factors that can be observed, and hence, controlled. It also allows us to “sift the wheat from the chaff” of bad explanations, because in words attributed to Albert Einstein: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” Thus, according to Popper “The criterion [for the judgment] of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.” (Popper cited in Klemke 1998)
Yet, however useful falsifiability may be for establishing knowledge in the empirical dimension of Reality, it simply cannot be used to make exhaustive claims about the Totality of Reality. This is because it clearly depends on rational and logical underpinnings that transcend the merely empirical. This is demonstrated by some of the logical and practical paradoxes one is enmeshed in when asking about the rational foundations of the principle of falsifiability itself.
I do not mean to be pedantic, but it is relevant to note the circular reasoning inherent in falsifiability: It is impossible to falsify the principle of falsifiability itself. By what evidence would one falsify it? Where does one find an empirical entity called a “principle”, much less a “falsification”, by which we could prove it wrong if we did not find it, or instead found its opposite? It is a pattern extrapolated from observing empirical phenomena, but it itself is not empirical. It is an explanation of the empirical.
By its own definition, falsifiability is not falsifiable. And thus by Popper’s criteria, it is “nonsense” (since it is not empirically sensible), and hence not meaningful. And yet, it is this “meaningless” principle, along with a handful of others, which makes science meaningful to humans. So, I am not trying to destroy falsifiability. On the contrary, we cannot live without it in space and time. What I am trying to do is point to the fact that the very nature of falsifiability transcends the empirical systems it is seeking to explain. The same can be said of the scientific method itself. You cannot use the scientific method to test the scientific method. After all, against what would one test it? And yet, the scientific method in all its various applications has been absolutely indispensable in making sense of our world and empowering us to live into the fullness of our potential.
Transcending Falsifiability through Axiomatic Facts
Once one breaks this mental dam, one realizes that there are a whole host of phenomena in the maths and sciences which transcend the principle of falsifiability, but which are necessary to make empirical phenomena explainable and meaningful. For instance, both math and logic are the very basis for analyzing empirical data, and then sorting those observations into meaningful theories. And yet, math and logic rest on fundamental axioms: Statements or propositions that are regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true. These axioms are so self-evidently true that most of them cannot be imagined to be falsified. Rather they are the criteria for truth and falsehood itself. For instance:
Take Euclid’s first axiom: “Things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.” There is no possible way to falsify this, and yet, from addition to geometry to differential calculus, this must be assumed to make sense out of maths. Or take the principle of identity in logic “X equals X” and thus “X does not equal non-X”. It would be impossible to empirically falsify this. And yet it is precisely this axiom that allows the principle of falsifiability to exist in the first place. Without identity, there could be no idea of correspondence between two observed phenomena. Without correspondence, there is no ability to “falsify” results by comparing one result to another result.
Thus, the ability for humans to make meaning out of their observations seems to rest on axioms which are beyond observation, which transcend observation in important way. These axioms cannot be empirically falsified, but rather provide the very structure within which we can falsify second-order empirical claims about how matter and energy relate in space and time.
Not only do we find clues to transcendence in mathematics through the idea of “axioms” listed above, but also in Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems (first written by Mathematician Kurt Gödel in 1931). To use Gödel’s own terminology, we may say “Any effectively generated theory... cannot be both consistent and complete. In particular, for any consistent, effectively generated formal theory that proves certain basic arithmetic truths, there is an arithmetical statement that is true, but not provable in the theory” (Theorem 1, cited by Kleene 1967, p. 250). In other words, there are always axiomatic mathematical truths which cannot be proven true— or falsified— by the very system they are used to establish truth within. In a simplified way we could say: "There are some truths that can never be proven to be true: They just are.”
Empirical Science points beyond itself to Transcendence
Once alerted to this idea, suddenly transcendent explanatory factors become apparent in many different disciplines of knowledge. For instance:
We find clues to transcendence in physics. For instance, in “Wave-Particle Duality” in Quantum Physics, we note that when photons (or other subatomic particles) are observed in a particle-like way, they behave as particles (cf. double-slit experiment), but when observed in a wave-like way, they behave as waves (cf. prisms). The observer, who transcends the system, determines how the system is observed and what result is being looked for. Moreover, in the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle we conclude that "The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in [that] instant, and vice versa.” (Werner Heisenberg, 1927). Again, observation influences outcome, and there are aspects of knowledge which transcend our grasp no matter how powerful our observational equipment is. Moreover, this holds true for any level of observation, no matter how precise. Thus, this uncertainty is not able to be overcome by technological advances, but is part of the fabric of the universe, and an epistemic limitation in any conceivable technology.
The idea that empirical knowledge itself transcends easy binaries of “true-false” is also illustrated by the fun thought experiment of Schrödinger's Cat: A cat, a flask of poison and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal Geiger counter detects radiation, the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. And yet, we cannot predict exactly when a radioactive particle will be released, because such particles are more like waves of probability, than packets of certainty. Thus, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. The epistemic state of the cat transcends life and death until observation. Yet, when the observer who transcends the box looks in the box, they see the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead.
We could go on and list many more examples if the self-transcending nature of Reality. We could talk about Quantum Entanglement (Verschränkung) in which seemingly unconnected quantum particles separated by large distances still have an effect on each other when observed by a conscious observer (i.e. so-called "spooky action at a distance”). Or we could talk about “String Theory” or “[Mem]brane Theory” in which is hypothesized that quantum “particles” are more like “fields of probability” folded into “strings” or “membranes” which exist in upwards of 11 dimensions. That is, they transcend the 4 dimensions of “empirical” space and time by a factor of 7. Now, I must quality that many of these facets of physical reality are open to observation and falsification. But not all of them. And yet they all point to the transcendent fact that “there are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. (Shakespeare, Hamlet I.5)
Falsifiability as a map rather than a reality
This leads us from math and science to the domain that questions the nature of knowledge itself: The discipline of philosophy. There are far more demonstrations of the “transcendent” nature of knowledge of Reality than I could possibly go over here. From Plato’s “realm of the forms”, to Kant’s “noumenal” level of metaphysical reality, to Wittgenstein’s admonition that “what we cannot speak of [empirically], we must pass over in silence”, we have a robust tradition in world philosophy which states that there is more we can know than what we can explain, and systematize, and test, and falsify.
But, I want to focus here on the philosophical distinction between a “map” and “reality”. All philosophical explanation systems assume a distinction between a "map" (i.e. a symbolic summary, description, explanation of reality) and the reality the map represents. The philosophical paradox (called "Bonini's Paradox") is that for a map to function and be useful, it must exclude data and bracket aspects of the reality to say anything meaningful (in the sense of saying more than "it is what it is").
All maps are thus FOR something: They are used to make sense of a reality, an event, a phenomena FOR a specific purpose. If we are looking for a totally exhaustive map that says everything that could be said about a reality, the map would have to be the reality itself. If I want to fully and exhaustively explain every aspect of the terrain, and all possible conditions, and every possible experience, for the drive from Texas to Canada then I would have to actually reproduce the entire universe including the terrain from here to Canada. But that is a useless map. I would be better served by truncating an infinite field of facts down to certain topographic data to get from Texas to Canada.
We all use different maps of the terrain of reality. We use them because we ask different questions, have different concerns, and wonder different things, as we wander through the world. Many of these maps overlap and share similar, but not exact, concerns. And there are as many maps of reality as there are map-makers (that is, as many worldviews as there are people to hold those worldviews). So, it is not inconceivable that maps which are empirical or spiritual, religious or secular, may diverge because of the concerns and questions that are being mapped by them. Yet, in a larger, more comprehensive view, they may actually overlap and share commonalities that are not seen at this time in history.
Thus, the principle of falsifiability is part of a certain kind of “map” of reality that was developed to do certain things: Notably, provide reliable empirical explanations of the way matter and energy interact in the four dimensions of space and time. This “map” does not necessarily transfer if we are asking other questions about a Reality which transcends the physical. In fact, if there is a metaphysical level of reality, it would almost certainly be a categorical blunder to apply an empirical scientific “map” to try and understand something (or Someone) who transcends the empirical realm altogether.
Falsification depends on the Kind of Being which is falsified
Or, to put it in slightly different terms, let us apply CS Lewis' Principal regarding the epistemic possibility of knowing Intelligent beings: The less sentient and intelligent an entity is, the more we can understand it without it's "consent". For instance, we can know much about so-called "inanimate" matter and vegetation (although even that knowledge is radically limited by the kind of factors described above). To know a semi-sentient, somewhat intelligent animal, it takes more skill in observation and capture (cf. the difference in observing ants, rats, and chimps). Humans are yet harder to observe in an "objective" way, and are not able to be "captured". If there are advanced aliens, or angelic beings, they could only be observed by watching for their "mistakes", or asking them to reveal themselves, because they would be able to understand and evade even our best technology. And, if we are talking about the omniscient Source of all Reality, we would have to wait for such a Person to reveal themselves to know anything personal about them, because there would be no way to “capture” or “trick” them into revealing themselves.
But even given all of these formidable limitations, it can be fun to ask the question: Is there any way that the Reality of God could be “falsified”, even if that “falsification” would look very different from empirical investigation?
Once this question is asked, we notice immediately that the opposite proposition— that God is NOT real— is also impossible to empirically falsify as well, and for the same kinds of reasons. Both the theist AND the atheist seem to be suspended in a web of profound agnosticism, unable to either “prove” or “disprove” whether such an entity as “God” actually exists.
So, if there is “Being” which is trans-personal, utterly transcendent, all-knowing, and infinitely powerful, it would not in principle be open to the kind of observation and falsification that applies to empirical and limited entities acting in space-time. To apply one kind of “map” to the other kind of “reality” is a category mistake. This does not mean that such a level of Ultimate Reality exists or doesn’t exist, nor does it mean that we can know or not know it. It just means that if it does exist and if we can know about it, it will almost certainly be in a way categorically different than how we might discover a quark or a virus or a planet.
And I am not here talking about limited ideas of “god”, such as those gods who are located on Mount Olympus in Greece, or Mount Meru in the Himalayas, and can be easily disproven by observation. This limited, quasi-empirical kind of “god” is not what the Great Religious traditions mean when they talk about “God”. And thus trite “proofs” against God’s existence— such as Bertrand Russell’s orbiting Tea Cup, or the Pastafarian’s “Flying Spaghetti Monster”— have as little to say about whether there is a “God” as the observation that Stop Signs tend to be red has to say about the axioms of geometry. It is a categorical mistake to confuse a limited, empirically observable “god” with an unlimited, infinite, transcendent “God”.
The Kind of God we are investigating
So, the KIND of God we seek to falsify will completely change the criteria we might use to falsify that God. Which raises the question: What KIND of God do we seek to falsify? We might be tempted to say “The kind of God worshipped by most people in most places through the most time”. But surely using this populist concept would be a mistake. It would be the same kind of mistake as judging science by how it conceived by most people through most of time. Or as judging real art by what most people through the most time think of as “art”. Surely this would result as a caricature which would not be recognized as “science” or “art” by the most experienced and talented practitioners of “science” and “art”.
Rather, we would want to draw on the kind of God which is taught by the most experienced and talented experts throughout time who have dealt with the concept of God philosophically and theologically. And, by drawing on resources such as Philosopher Keith Ward’s masterful five volume overview of comparative theology of Western and Eastern religious traditions, we would find startling similarities in how God— or rather “Ultimate Reality”— is conceived by theological “experts” across time and across cultures. These traditions are certainly NOT unanimous, but in the midst of their differences, there are structural parallels in how Ultimate Reality is conceived.
Based on a comparative theology, done by studying history’s greatest philosophical “experts”, we might sketch the idea of Ultimate Reality (which we will label as “God”) thus:
First, God is Being. And by this, we do not mean that God is just another Being among beings, nor even the most powerful and intelligent finite Being over all other finite beings. God is categorically different. God is the very Source of Being, the Ground of Infinite Potential that makes possible the being or non-being of finite beings. The “being” or “existence” of all finite beings is thus a participation in Infinite Being itself. When anything exists, it only exists because it shares in the Being who is God. To put it bluntly: God is Being itself.
Second, God is Rationality. Yet, God is not merely rational, or wise, or all knowing as an additional attribute of Godself. Rather, God is rationality itself: The very Pattern of uniformity and understandability which is reflected in the rational laws of the universe, from logic to maths to physics. It is this Divine Rationality which provides the basis for causality and thus possibility: Only events that have a rational causal pattern are possible, and every idea that is irrational and illogical is thus impossible. Therefore, all rationality and understandability are a participation in the Rational Divine Pattern.
Third, God is Good. Yet, God is not “good” as one attribute in an arbitrary set of attributes. God is Goodness itself: Pure value, the transcendent deontological “ought” that gives all finite beings their worth. Anything that is good, anything that is beautiful, is thus because it participates in the Goodness which is God. God is thus the “why” which satisfies the question of why we “should” exist, why persons “must” be treated as ends and not as means, and why there “ought” to be something rather than nothing.
And thus we have a three-fold way of understanding “God”: As the very Ground and Source of All Reality, who is Goodness, Rationality, and Being itself, and who transcends all finite goods, reasons, and beings.
To this minimal metaphysical understanding of God as Infinite and Transcendent Goodness, Rationality, and Being, we could also add an ethical and eschatological dimension of God which flows through the Great World Religions. In terms of ethics, since God is the Source of all Value and Being, anything that God causes to exist has value. Thus those creatures who embody the Divine or who are understood as God’s “children” are infinitely valued by God, and therefore worthy of honor, dignity, love, and compassion. This leads to an ethic of reciprocal altruism in all the Great Religious traditions which is phrased in various ways: “Love your neighbor as yourself”; “Do to others what you want them to do to you”; “Have compassion on all sentient beings”; “See yourself in all beings”; “The Divine in me bows to the Divine in you”. All of these point to the fact that sentient persons are universally and infinitely valuable as embodiments of God’s life, and thus they must be “always treated as ends and never as means” (to paraphrase Kant’s categorical imperative).
And finally, to this metaphysical and ethical description of God, we also find an eschatological dimension of God which is common to all the Great Religions. Beneath apparent diversity of “end times” scenarios which are taught by religions, there is a stunning commonality. Some religions teach reincarnation, others resurrection; Some teach the merging of self with a transcendent Reality, while others teach an embodied existence in a “heaven” or a “new creation”; Some speak of the experience of God in terms of Existence, Consciousness, and Bliss, while others speak of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, and others speak of Power, Wisdom, and Love. But beneath this lurks a common theme: The full and personal union of the individual self with Ultimate Reality at the end of History. At the end of all things, the Great Religions predict that we will experience pure, inseparable, and eternal union with God, as we are joined forever in Divine Goodness, Rationality, and Being.
So, if we sift what the greatest experts in theology and philosophy have to say about God, we get a rather robust understanding of God which connects across World Religious traditions. Rather than getting a vague and nebulous God which can be anything to anyone, we get the following:
1. Metaphysically: God is Infinite and Transcendent Goodness, Rationality, and Being.
2. Ethically: God is the Source of infinite value for sentient persons, who desires reciprocal altruism for our relationships.
3. Eschatologically: In the end, God will draw us into pure, inseparable, eternal union with God, as we are joined forever with Goodness, Rationality, and Being
The First Level of Falsification: Historical
There are three levels of falsification that might be used if we were trying to falsify this kind of God: Historical, Cosmological, and Eschatological. We will begin with the Historical falsification of God. To look at Historical falsification, we will rely on the criteria religion scholar Stephen Prothero uses for a “Great” Religion (which are also implicit in Keith Ward’s analysis above). Great religions are, roughly, those religious traditions which have endured the longest, grown the widest, influenced the most, and have shaped whole cultures and civilizations. This is in distinction to religions which have remained merely local, or which have died out, or which have not substantially influenced the course of any long lasting cultures or civilizations. Using this criteria, we may include Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam as the “Great” Religions of human history.
Among these Great Religions is the common claim that somehow Ultimate Reality has been “revealed” in History through some great text(s) or great exemplar(s). Islam reveals Allah through prophets, especially Muhammad, and the “perfect” book dictated to him, the Quran. Judaism has a similar story, except it is Moses (or a series of editors taking the name “Moses”) who reveals God’s Law, and prophets (such as Isaiah and Jeremiah) who apply it. In Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth is said to be the embodiment of God within the history of the Roman Empire, while in Hinduism God is said to be embodied by more mythic characters such as Rama or Krishna, or in modern gurus. Buddhism seems to be an outlier, since no “God” is said to reveal Godself to the Buddha. But even here, the Buddha becomes aware of an utterly transcendent Ultimate Reality called Nirvana, and then reveals it to others. Like Buddhism, the Chinese paths of Taoism and Confucianism claim to reveal a Divine Way of life and harmony with the Universe, even though they do not claim to reveal God as such.
Now, in one sense it would be easy to imagine falsifying any of these very specific historic claims. We could search historical and archaeological records to see if people such as Jesus or Buddha or Muhammad actually existed, or actually taught what they claimed to teach, or actually did what it is claimed that they did. If we were able to find a grave with Jesus’ body in it, it would falsify much of the Christian story of his Resurrection and Divinity. If we were able to find manuscripts of “rough drafts” of the Quran that dated back centuries before Muhammad, it would falsify his claim to have had the Quran dictated to him by an angel. If we could show that the Buddha never lived, it would falsify the claim that he was a unique exemplar of enlightenment.
But note that after centuries of hard fought research, nothing like this decisive empirical falsification has occurred. And this is not for lack of trying. Thousands of books, millions of hours, and billions of dollars have been poured into researching the historical basis of the Great World Religions over the last three centuries, especially the basis of Judaism and Christianity. Speaking as someone who is fairly well versed on New Testament scholarship, I will say that some details of the Bible’s picture of Jesus and the early Christian movement have problems of historical accuracy. But the broad outline of Jesus and his followers— his ministry to the outcast, his reputation for miracles, his work for social justice, his trial and crucifixion, the fact that he was reported as risen from the dead, and the spread of the early Christian movement among the urban poor of the Roman Empire— is established beyond credible scholarly doubt, unless new evidence is uncovered.
The same would hold true, to greater and lesser degrees, for modern investigation into the historical sources for many other Great Religions. Nothing like a complete historic falsification exists for the major founding events of the Great World Religions which occurred after roughly 500 BCE. For events before 500 BCE there is another story, but that story is tied into mythic and legendary literature, in which the “historicity” of events is not tied to the “truths” of doctrine. It is only after 500 BCE, and only in the case of figures such as Buddha, Jesus and the Apostles, and Muhammad, that the revelatory “truth” of their claims is tied to the historical actions that they reportedly undertook.
But let us suppose that we could falsify every major historic founder of the Great Religious traditions. Would that falsify the inner meaning of what they taught? We would still be faced with the startling commonality that in cultures separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles, this threefold common understanding of “God”— metaphysical, ethical, and eschatological— seems to have arisen independently in multiple historic instances.
Now granted, each of these Religious Traditions has its own cultural peculiarities. All of them have different law codes that are diverse in detail, even if they bear witness to common values of justice, compassion, and the sacredness of life. Some allow eating pork, others do not. Some allow making images of the Divine, others do not. Some mandate women wear veils, others do not. Some understand God as very personal, speaking their own languages, while others view Ultimate Reality as a Force which is beyond personhood. But beneath and undergirding all these cultural particulars is a universal Reality— metaphysical, ethical, and eschatological— which seems to animate and give shape to diverse cultural applications. Can falsifying one or even all historical founders for the Great Religions dissolve the fact that these common Values are found independently in all of them?
It seems that to historically falsify God, one would need to show that there were no common values or ideas found in World Religions at all: That ALL was diversity and cultural particularity, with NO common metaphysics, ethics, or eschatology. While it is possible that all “universalist” readings of the world religious traditions— such as Keith Ward’s and this essay— are in error, it is highly improbable. So, one is left with this historical dilemma: What is the Source of the metaphysical, ethical, and eschatological commonalities in the Great World Religions? Are they all signpost pointing to nothing, as delusions of wishful thinking? Do they point to some kind of biological or evolutionary drive which we cloak in the illusion of metaphysics? Or do they point to Something Real, which is the Source of all reality and the Ground of all morality?
The Second Level of Falsification: Cosmological
So, if it is possible, although highly improbable, to falsify God historically through the historical and archaeological data we have access to, is there another way to falsify God? Perhaps a way that is more immediate and does not rely on the contingencies of history. If there is— or is not— a God as described by the best of our Religious traditions, would that God— or lack thereof— have some kind of observable effect on the cosmos we inhabit?
I think that there is definitely a kind of universe that would exist if God is the kind of God thus defined. And if that kind of God was not real, the universe might be a very different kind of place. Thus, we can look at the universe and ask: Is this the kind of cosmos we might expect if God exists? And this, in turn, opens up the door for cosmological falsification of God.
If God is a threefold Reality of Goodness, Rationality, and Being, then we would expect to live in the kind of universe that reflects God in a threefold way: First, it would be the kind of cosmos where we would be able to sense ethical Value, and that some choices and events seem to actualize the Good (and thus are what we “ought” to do), while other choices and events draw us away from the Good (and thus are “evil”). Second, it would be the kind of cosmos that is rationally understandable, governed by predictable and knowable laws, constants, and patterns. The universe would the be fundamentally open to experimentation, understanding, and explanation. Third, it would be the kind of cosmos that actually exists. It would actualize the Infinite Potential of Being in the real existence of finite beings who somehow partake in, and grow into, the fullness of Being in God.
If this is the kind of cosmos which would be predicated by the existence of God— and most, but not all, of the Great Religious would affirm something similar here— then it should be relatively easy to look at our cosmos and falsify whether our particular universe fits with this idea of God.
So we could begin by falsifying the idea of Value: Is “should” or “ought”, or “good” or “evil”, or “beautiful” or “ugly”, an actual facet of our existence? Or, is it all cultural and personal relativism all the way down? This is an open question. Surely when we observe non-sentient beings and creatures, we get no hint of value. Subatomic particles, chemical substances, and single celled organisms seem to inhabit a world of physical laws, but not ethical laws. When you get into higher animals, you find instincts, but no sense of deliberation on ethical or aesthetic values. It is only in the highest animals, especially human persons, that you get anything like an awareness of some realm of Value, and a sustained deliberation on why some acts are good and others are evil.
This is precisely what would be predicated by most Religious traditions: It takes a sentient, rational person to grasp the Transcendent Value of the cosmos. In fact, the ability to discern ethical and aesthetic Value is a key indicator— along with abstract thought, grammatical language, tool making, and awareness of the future— that a creature is a sentient person. Creatures which have not attained full sentience are not able to do these things. But also, this opens us up to the charge that value is all relative, and that our sense of ethical value is just some evolutionary adaptation of herd instinct in very intelligent animals, just like grammatical language and abstract thought.
But if our moral awareness was merely an evolutionary survival strategy, it does beg the question of why this same moral sense of value leads us to do things that are not in the best interest of our individual or species survival. Why should we value “nonproductive” lives— such as the very handicapped, the very old, and the terminally ill— who clearly take resources away from those who are living “productive” lives? Why not eliminate them (humanely) to free up their resources to be used by those who are productive? Likewise, why do so many people pursue lives of aesthetic beauty— as artists, musicians, performers— when all that time and resources could be put into breeding and developing technologies that help humans survive and thrive more efficiently? Why should we produce art when there are starving people to feed, and wars to stop, unless by producing art we are tapping into some truly Transcendent Source of Value?
None of this proves that ethical or aesthetic value are real facets of our cosmos (as opposed to an evolutionary illusion). But it does prove that humans act AS IF value is a Reality, and we often act AS IF these ethical and aesthetic values are more important to us than the evolutionary drive to survive and thrive. If we could ever definitively show that ethical value was an illusion, we may have falsified God. But I am almost certain we would not enjoy, nor live long, in the society that came to exist in the wake of dismissing all ethical value as evolutionary illusion or personal preference. The fact is that it is ethical values such as universal love and compassion that makes society livable, and it is the aesthetic value of beauty that makes life worth living. A society whose only value was “survival of the fittest” would turn out being a society which neither thrived, nor even survived.
So, we turn from falsifying Goodness to falsifying Rationality. We could say that a cosmos which is not rational would be one which falsified the idea of God. If the universe functioned without any rhyme or reason, with no rationally discernible or explicable laws which governed its functioning, this would inherently falsify the idea of God as Rationality. A universe which was random chaos, where things popped in and out of existence without cause, and in which no empirical science could function, would be a universe where there was no “God”.
But, if we lived in such a universe, it would not only falsify God, but it would falsify every way of knowing, including science. The very kind of universe that accords with the Reality of God, is the very kind of universe where science can function. So, far from science “disproving” or “falsifying” God, science requires as an axiomatic assumption the kind of rational, rule governed universe that would be provided by a God who is Rationality. Without assuming that the Universe is a rational, rule-governed, inherently knowable entity, there could be no science, and there would be no God.
So, any kind of universally rational and explicable cosmos is the kind of cosmos we would expect if God exists. Again: Any rule-governed rational cosmos is the kind of cosmos that accords with a God who is Rationality. And it just so happens, this is the kind of cosmos we inhabit, to the best of our observations. So, while this does not mean that God has to exist because our cosmos is rational, it does mean that our rational universe is not the kind of universe which could falsify such a God.
And thus, we finally come to God as Being. If the kind of God we are investigating is Being itself, then the easiest way to falsify God is to cease existing. If the entire universe stops existing, and recedes back into the Abyss of nothingness, it would be as complete of a falsification of God as could be imagined. But, of course, this would not only falsify God. It would falsify everything, even falsification!
Thus, if complete futility and nihilism are the final destination of human life and the cosmos as a whole, then the kind of God we have laid out here would be a non-reality. And on a personal level, if we die and cease to exist, then we know God is a lie. But, the paradox is that there would be no “knower” left to know this. There would be precisely nothing.
And so, we see that there are at least three cosmological ways to falsify the existence of God. But the first way also falsifies any kind of ethical or aesthetic value. The second way also falsifies science and any other rational way of knowing anything at all. And the third way falsifies our own personal existence, as well as the existence of the universe, in falsifying God’s existence.
The Third Level of Falsification: Eschatological
The third route of cosmological falsification— the falsification of Being— dovetails into the final way to falsify the existence of God: That of eschatological verification. The idea of eschatological verification first came to me through the German Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg and American Theologian John Hick. The conception here, at least as I recall it, is that the entirety of life is something like a science experiment, to which we await the results at the end of the “test run”, which is at the point of death. When we get to the end of the experiment, we will find out if the “hypothesis” that there is a God is correct, or not.
John Hick expresses this in an allegory about traveling to a Celestial City. In this story, as summarized online in several places, a theist and an atheist are both walking down the same road. The theist believes there is a destination, the atheist believes there is not. If they reach the destination, the theist will have been proven right; however, if there is no destination on an endless road, this can never be verified. This is an attempt to explain how a theist expects some form of life or existence after death and an atheist does not. They both have separate belief systems and live life accordingly, but logically one is right and the other is not. If the theist is right, he will be proven so when he arrives in the afterlife. However, if the atheist is right, they will simply both be dead and nothing will be verified.
If the Great Religions of the world are correct in the eschatology of the God hypothesis, then each person individually, and all of the cosmos collectively, will eventually experience union with God in eternal Goodness, Rationality, and Being. This does not preclude negative experiences of discipline and even punishment to prepare us for that final union with God, any more than existing in this life precludes us from suffering and discipline here and now. Indeed, the Great Religions almost universally predict some kind of redemptive and healing discipline to turn us from evil and self-destruction, to embrace Goodness and Life. For Hinduism and Buddhism, hells are part of the great cycle of reincarnation. Judaism speaks of Sheol, the Greek traditions speak of Hades, and Islam speaks of the fiery Abyss. Jesus spoke of Gehenna in familiar terms of a judgment of fire and darkness. Catholic Christianity speaks of Purgatory to prepare us to encounter God, while the Orthodox Christian Tradition speaks of the refining fire of God’s Love that will purify us of sin, and prepare us for the universal restoration of all things with God through Christ.
And yet, in the most mature and reflective versions of each of these Religions, these experiences of discipline are temporary (they do not last forever), preparatory (they have a greater aim in mind), and redemptive (they aim not at our destruction, but our healing). They aim at making us into the kind of persons who are in harmony with Goodness, Rationality, and Being, so that we can embrace and enjoy God’s Love, God’s Wisdom, and God’s Life eternally. Thus, if the Great Religions are right, all suffering, discipline, and punishment will eventually be healed and transformed into an experience of full union and integration into God’s life. And, of course, if we reach the end of our lives or the end of history and we cease to exist, we will have falsified this eschatological hypothesis. But then again, we wouldn’t be there to know it.
So, I am not here defending a version of “Pascal’s Wager”, in which we will ourselves to believe because of the possibility of eternal suffering and damnation if we are “wrong” about God. As finite beings, I can’t help but think we are all at least a little bit wrong about an infinite God. And thus, God will have to correct us, and heal us, in large and small ways, to prepare us for union with Godself. And if God is the kind of Goodness described by the Great Religions, then God is NOT the kind of Being who would condemn finite beings to infinite pain and suffering for not fully understanding something that is beyond any finite being’s full ability to understand. So, if God described thus far does exist, God would want to draw all persons into union with Godself, whether believer or non-believer. In fact, if we judge by the ethical criteria taught by the Great Religions, some “non-believers” are clearly in greater harmony with Divine Goodness that some “believers”. So, if God exists, we will all meet God “face to face” to realize how wrong we all were! And of course, if God does not exist, we all ultimately succumb to the nothingness regardless of what we believe.
Many are rightly uncomfortable with this idea of eschatological verification. We want to know, with certainty, here and now, whether God exists. And for many, if we cannot know, here and now, then we reject that way of knowing as invalid. But note that this is not what we do with science. There are some science experiments that last 5 minutes, some that last 5 years, and some that last 5 generations. The Voyager Space craft and other interstellar probes will be giving us data long after their inventors have died. Certain observations about human genetics will take lifetimes and generations to see the results of. And qualitatively, there is no difference between running an experiment that takes 30 minutes and one that takes 30 billion years. The amount of time for the experiment depends on what is being observed.
And if what is being observed is whether absolutely everything that has ever existed will be united in the undying life of a transcendent God, then it only makes sense that the time frame of the experiment will be the entirety of space-time. And if such a Transcendent God exists, then time is only problematic for us who are finite and bound by dimensionality. From the eternal perspective of Transcendent Being, all past, present, and future are simply one present tense for God. And if God doesn’t exist, then time is not meaningful for us beyond our incredibly short lifetimes, because we will not be aware of anything beyond anyway.
Falsification, Verification, and Probability
So, we have provided three kinds of ways it might work to falsify belief in an infinite and transcendent God. For each kind of falsification, the costs are catastrophically high to falsify God, and would often result in the “collateral damage” of destroying the ethical values which give our lives meaning, undermining the way we rationally understand the world, or even ceasing to exist altogether. But, even at such great costs, it is possible to imagine falsifying the kind of God here discussed, in part or in whole.
The problem for falsification, of course, is that it would be almost infinitely improbable to interpret the facts historically or cosmologically to falsify God. In fact, it seems as if the opposite is true. The kind of God here described seems to be an overwhelmingly probable explanatory hypothesis for why the world is the way it is, and why the history of religion has unfolded the way it has.
When I look at the cosmos, I see a majestic and beautiful, rationally understandable, infinitely creative universe which unfolds the Goodness, Rationality, and Being of God into ever more creative and complex life forms. Furthermore, the physical laws of the universe seem to function in such a way as to maximize the potential for life evolve into ever more creative and conscious beings. Einstein once objected to aspects of quantum theory by saying “God does not play dice”. I disagree. God does play dice. And the dice seem to be “loaded”, so that the system is “rigged” in such a way that intelligent life can evolve, to know and love their Creator and Source of Being. This entire universe is a dance of rational, law governed systems, within which the indeterminate freedom of creativity exists, which issues forth in an awe inspiring diversity of phenomena and creatures. This is precisely the kind of creation which unfolds and displays the infinite potential of its transcendent Creator.
As a relevant side note, I fully expect for humans to one day find life, and even intelligent life, on other planets, because that is the kind of universe I expect to find, if God is the kind of God we have described. If God is the Goodness thus described, and desires that there should be awe inspiring diversity of life forms, I cannot imagine that God would be creatively satisfied by one species of sentient persons evolving on one planet. I would love to be alive when we make first contact with other kinds of persons who are also made in God’s image. When that happens we will enter into another possibility for growth into our understanding of God, as we compare our conceptions of Ultimate Reality with how non-human cultures have come to understand metaphysics, ethics, and eschatology.
Back to the main point: The Reality of God is also strongly hinted at by the fact that all systems of human knowledge point to axiomatic facts that transcend the system and cannot be falsified within the system. From Gödel's incompleteness theorem, to the twists and turns of quantum theory, to the distinction between the map and reality: There is always something that transcends the system and cannot be captured within the system. It seems that in every system we could postulate an observer who knows and explains the system. But then we would have a higher level of knowledge which would require a second observer who could know and explain the system plus the first observer. Which in turn would generate a third system whereby a third observer would know and explain the system plus the first two observers. This generates an infinitely transcending paradox of knowledge, as each layer of complete knowledge transcends the previous layer, on and on, into infinity. For me, it all seems to point to an Infinitely Transcendent Source which grounds all finite beings and all finite knowledge. To borrow Anselm's language— but not his “proof”— it all points me to a God who is "that than which a greater cannot be conceived".
Furthermore, when I look at human history on this planet, I see the imprint of the same God. If there is an infinite and transcendent God, who is Goodness, Rationality, and Being, and who values finite persons infinitely, and desires ultimately to be united to such persons in Love forever, then this seems to unlock the meaning of the universe we live in. Such a God would reveal Godself in ways appropriate to human developmental levels, gradually universalizing and clarifying our understanding of the Divine as our cultures develop. Thus we would find divergent and diverse religious traditions which approach the Divine from their own relative vantage points, but which over time follow a similar trajectory in understanding the metaphysics, ethics, and eschatology of God.
Even the fact that there is evil in the world points us to undeniable Reality of such Goodness. When we protest that death and suffering, cruelty and waste, are somehow “evil”— even though they are clearly part of the evolutionary process of life— we bear witness to the absolute Value of Goodness by which we measure “good” and “evil”. The fact that we so loudly and persistently protest against such waste and injustice-- regardless of whether we are religious or non-religious-- points us to the fact that there is a real Source of Goodness, beyond mere evolutionary utility, which tells us that these kinds of things "ought not" to happen.
If we lived in a cosmos without Real ethical value, we would probably have evolved to just stare blankly at injustice, to shrug at cruelty and oppression, to gaze cow-like at waste and death, and say "it is what it is". But we didn’t accept evil as “the way it is”. We dream of life as it could be, as it “should” be. We evolved in a universe in which the more intelligent and rational a creature is, the more it grasps that we are grasped by an absolute Value which says we ought to protect life, extend compassion, and establish justice for other sentient beings, regardless of their abilities or utility for us. And yet again we ask: From whence does this Transcendent Value arise?
Speaking as a Christian, I believe that all of this evidence puts us on a trajectory that runs right through the person of Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of God embodied in an historic human person. In the teaching of Jesus, we find one of the most powerful witnesses in human history to a Transcendent God— whom Jesus called “Father”— who loves us infinitely, and created us to partake in God’s life, and show forth God’s Love. In the person of Jesus, God takes our suffering and evil and death into Godself, and experiences it as we do, in solidarity with us. In the resurrection of Jesus, we are shown the undying power of God’s Love, and given an assurance that we will experience this Love in “eschatological verification”.
Thus, the fullness of God is seen in Jesus, but that in no way stops God’s Light from shining through the diverse lenses of other religions in complementary ways. All of the Great Religions bear witness to similar claims about God metaphysically, ethically, and eschatologically. It is just that in Jesus these themes are summed up into one person, and demonstrated in a particularly powerful manner. I have historical, experiential, and philosophical reasons for trusting in the particularity of Christ, but those would take us far afield of the subject of this essay, and distract us from discussing the kind of God all the Great Religions hold in common.
And again, as I said above, even if I was shown to be historically or philosophically in error in believing these things about the particular person of Jesus, it does not alter the fact that the Story of Jesus still points to the same metaphysical, ethical, and eschatological Reality shared by the best of our world religious traditions. So even though Jesus is the most direct source for me to access the Reality of God, he is by no means the only witness to God. The kind of God found across the Great Religions is inherently Christlike, regardless if Christ was fully historical, or literarily constructed over time, or somewhere in between.
For me, this turns all of our efforts at falsification into a verification: God is the best explanatory hypothesis I can think of which covers all the relevant data. It seems almost infinitely improbable that all of this points to nothing, and that the entirety of human religious thought is one monumental delusion. Slightly more probable is the idea that all religious phenomena are deeply rooted evolutionary survival strategies. Surely large swaths of human religious development have created social cohesion, and a sense of purpose, that makes it easier for human communities to survive and thrive. And yet, these evolutionary hypotheses do not seem to cover ALL of the data. As we have discussed, the reality of moral and aesthetic value, the rationality of the universe, and even existence itself, all seem to have an absolute and transcendent quality which far exceeds evolutionary utility. These seem to point to a Reality which is absolute, infinite, and transcendent.
At this point we may return to the question of whether atheism could be falsified. If something like what is laid out in this essay does not falsify atheism, we may ask: What evidence could be enlisted in space and time which COULD possibly falsify atheism? It seems fairly clear to me that the kind of world we live in is precisely the kind of world one would expect, if the kind of God here hypothesized is actually the case. But if this does not falsify atheism, then what in the world could possibly do so? Perhaps it is atheism, and not theism, that is the non-falsifiable belief system which is arbitrarily suspended alone in space, untouched by evidence, tethered only by wishful thinking, much like Bertrand Russell's famous teacup orbiting the sun. Now this is probably unfair. There probably is some way, within space and time, to falsify atheism. I just cannot think of it now. And as I said, we will all eventually face the eschatological verification of our explanations of Ultimate Reality.
But for now we cannot be certain in our knowledge of Ultimate Reality. In a real sense, we are all agnostics, devoid of absolute certainty at this stage of history. Until we reach the end, all we have are signposts and signals, which we have to explain using the best evidence we can obtain, sifting it to find what seems to be most probable explanation, while rejecting what seems improbable or even impossible. Are all these signposts “sound and fury signifying nothing”? Or do they point to something or someone who transcends all of Reality? We will only find out for sure in “The End”. Until then, we are on the journey together. So Vaya con Dios, my friends.
A Brief and Non-Exhaustive Bibliography
Stephen Prothero, “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World”
Keith Ward, Comparative Theology, in 5 volumes: Religion and Revelation (Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1994); Religion and Creation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996); Religion and Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998); Religion and Community (Oxford; Clarendon Press, 2000); Religion and Human Fulfilment (SCM Press, 2008)
Huston Smith, “The World’s Religions”
CS Lewis, “Mere Christianity”
Eric Reitan, “Is God A Delusion?: A Reply to Religion's Cultured Despisers”.
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.