Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

How Not to Frame a Question

May 7th, 2008 · 4 Comments

The Templeton Foundation has discovered that if you want to create the appearance of a lively exchange of divergent views, just ask a dozen people to answer a short question so insanely vaguely worded that you can be assured no two of them will actually be answering the same question. For instance: Does science make belief in God obsolete? With a dizzying array of potential values to plug into this function for the variables “science,” “God,” “obsolete,” and possibly also “belief,” you can generate countless hours of amusing pseudo disagreement!

Just to get a small flavor of the range of actual-questions that might be extracted from this sort of question-formula: Is the “God” in question here any type of “higher intelligence” or “higher power”; some sort of Einsteinian label for the underlying order of the universe; an entity defined by omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence; or the much more determinate sorts of deities the majority of the faithful purport to believe in, who are said to have acted in a variety of specfic ways over the course of history?  (I add the “purport to” here because quite a few people who are nominally members of some denomination or another seem centrally committed to one of the more abstract definitions and more ambivalent about how literally the various historical claims are to be taken.)

How about science, then? The specific findings of physics or biology? Or the broader enterprise of seeking naturalistic explanations for events? The tendency to demand hypotheses be formulated in testable ways? Or even the much broader disposition to question, and to insist on apportioning one’s belief to the strength of arguments and available evidence?

Finally, what about “make … obsolete”? Does this mean rule out entirely, or decisively disprove? (Of course not: An omnipotent deity could create the illusion of his own non-existence as a “test of faith” or some such thing.) Or is the imagined incompatibility here a sort of “crowding out,” insofar as science appears to make God an unnecessary hypothesis as it begins providing rough solutions to mysteries we once turned to religion to explain? Is this a logical or philosophical question about how one ought to respond to contemporary science, or a psychological and sociological one about the empirical effects of wider scientific education?

So which is it? Beats me! Just bask in the wonderous diversity of views, almost as numerous as the potential readings of this meaningless question!

Tags: Religion



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kevin B. O'Reilly // May 7, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    How would you have framed the question? Or, rather, since it’s not clear what question they are intending to ask, what would be a good framing of a question along these lines?

  • 2 RM // May 8, 2008 at 8:07 am

    But isn’t there ambiguity and vagueness lurking beneath ~every~ question? Even the more precise ones you unpack here? I mean, what the hell is omniscience? Ever tried to really break down that concept? If you define God as omniscient and omnipotent, and articulate that in the question, it’s still a reasonable response to call the question and disagreements about it meaningless. So the Templeton Foundation Q was vague; so what.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // May 8, 2008 at 9:17 am

    “But isn’t there ambiguity and vagueness lurking beneath ~every~ question?”


  • 4 Gene Callahan // May 19, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    “as it begins providing rough solutions to mysteries we once turned to religion to explain?”

    Sigh. No one who correctly understood religion ever saw it as explanations that could be substituted for by scientific explanations. For instance, the Greeks did not think of Zeus as the ’cause’ of thunder in anything like the way we think of electricity as its cause or we think of GWB as the cause of the Iraq War.

Leave a Comment