Of its nature, the question of God cannot be forcibly be made an object of scientific research in the strict sense of that term, and this means that the declaration of ‘scientific atheism’ is an absurd claim—yesterday, today, or tomorrow.
Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 85-6
Reflection – OK, so after wading into the thickets of genuinely difficult controversy two days ago, and ascending to the heights of spiritual contemplation yesterday, today I get to relax and bit and play around in my comfort zone. Today I get to do some philosophy.
The above statement of Ratzinger’s may seem a bit insulting to the atheist, depending on what kind of atheist he or she is. If ‘science’ is the only mode of knowledge one accepts than of course Ratzinger’s claim that scientific atheism is absurd is insulting. First, then, we have to be clear that those of us in the Catholic intellectual tradition do not accept the experimental sciences as the sole means of obtaining truth.
We also need to grant a proper and legitimate understanding of the role of atheism in science. This would be methodological atheism. In other words, the Church in its intellectual tradition has never favored the ‘god of the gaps’ approach to analyzing phenomena. For purposes of scientific method, we bracket God and his action out of the equation. Scientific research and experimentation must proceed ‘as if’ there were no God, strictly as a methodological necessity. Natural phenomena have natural causes, and those causes can be studied, discovered, and (perhaps) harnessed by the human intellect.
For this reason (and, oh darn, here comes controversy knocking at my door again!) theories of intelligent design are of limited value to us. Intelligent design (ID) argues that that living organisms show such a degree of irreducible complexity that they look like designed objects, not results of random processes. While the science of all this is a bit beyond me, the philosophy of it is not. Even if ID proponents are right, all this means is that we do not yet fully understand the processes whereby complex living systems emerge in the world. It is a scientific question still, not a theological one.
In other words, it is a ‘gap’ into which ID wants to put ‘a god’. Those of us committed to a Christian doctrine of God and creation should be wary of wedding ourselves to the ID position. An old saying goes that the religion that marries today’s science is tomorrow’s widow. In other words, some clever scientist may come up with a naturalistic ‘designer’ that meets the objections of ID, and where will our god (lower case intentional) be then?
The Christian doctrine of God and creation (which again is not to be confused with the literalist reading of Genesis 1 that has emerged only in the past century or so) is of a different order. Rather than a ‘god of the gaps’, theistic philosophy in the Christian intellectual tradition posits a God who holds the entire process in existence and who is the guarantor of its solidity, intelligibility, meaning and goodness.
I don’t want to go too far beyond Ratzinger’s point in the above passage. He is actually confining himself in this quote to a very modest observation, namely that science itself cannot prove or disprove God’s existence, and so ‘scientific’ atheism is absurd. At best, science should confine itself to agnosticism, at least insofar as its own scientific research and task goes. Of course, we have to remember that there is no such thing as ‘science’, actually – there are scientists, who are men and women with lives to live and the same existential questions to answer that we all have.
And in that light, scientists and the rest of us have to answer deep questions like – how do we know that our intellects are telling us the truth about reality? How does it come about the three pounds of meat behind our eyeballs are able to perform this miracle of consciousness and intellection? What are these realities that are as intimate to us as our own selves—love, freedom, justice, friendship—and where do they come from? If there is more to reality that materialism, then what is the nature of this ‘more’ and where did it come from?
All of these are not questions we can duck out of. Well we can, but only at the expense of any real depth of thought and engagement with the world. And all of these are questions that at least raise the possibility of God—not of the gaps, but of the whole picture.