Here’s an excerpt:
“Do you believe in God?”
“Do you believe aspirin helps your headaches go away?”
“Why do you believe what you believe?”
In a recent New Yorker article, Jonah Lehrer shakes up this last question and stirs it well with an engaging discussion of some intriguing and troubling limitations of the scientific method. I knew Lehrer had hit a chord when within just a few hours, an ethicist, a geneticist, and a philosopher each collared me and told me to read Lehrer’s article.
Lehrer’s startling conclusion?: “When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.”
Whatever your answers to the questions above, they most likely involve experience—yours or someone else’s. You somehow experienced God or hope to, or read about or know someone who did. You experienced aspirin helping a headache, or your mom told you it would, or physicians told her.
But for all intents and purposes, the similarities end there, right? Because scientific experiences, what we call experiments, are replicable and controllable, and God-experiences and the like aren’t.
Nothing against God-experiences, and maybe this even speaks to their power, but the point is: while I might have some kind of God-experience, unlike testing aspirin, I can’t easily carry out my God-experience simultaneously on statistically significant large numbers of people, write up the experience, repeat it, compare the same number of people at the same time who don’t believe in God, but are otherwise similar, see if they have the same experience, and then have someone in Australia and China repeat my experiment and see if they get the same results. This method is what science is supposed to be about; this is scientific proof, this is what scientists believe in…