Saturday, June 9, 2012

On Scientific Atheism

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.


  1. Richard Dawkins in his book "The God Delusion" freely admits he's an agnostic. He sets out a 7 point scale where 1 is total belief to 7 being total disbelief and figures he is a 6.7 to 6.9 depending upon the day. Science cannot prove the non existence of God, but then neither can it disprove astrology, homeopathy or crystal healing. Science always maintains the onus of proof is on those making the claim.

    Is science the only way of knowing? Perhaps not. But it is by far the best. And the reason is, paradoxically, is that it wrong and most importantly it admits it. Science thrives on errors, seeks to overturn its teaching and gives its highest award to those who do just that. Does it mean that it know the truth? No. There's no guarantee of that is science, all it can guarantee is that you will not knowingly be deceiving yourself.

    Scientific atheism (whatever that is) may be an absurd claim to some, but not basing one's beliefs upon evidence and not seeking to constantly test and disprove one's beliefs is a way to claim certainty without foundation.

    For as Richard Feynmann says in "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" : "I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong."

    1. Science is the best way of knowing... the things science can know about, which is that portion of reality we can measure, test, put under a microscope, etc. It is utterly useless at knowing about God, the soul, human freedom, good and evil, friendship, love, or indeed the basis for its own validity.
      I would argue that science can indeed disprove astrology, crystal healing, and homeopathy, since all of these are claims made about physical objects and their properties, and so fall under the province of science.
      A book you may consider checking out is Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get it Wrong ( by Conor Cunningham - it's a really erudite scientific, and philosophical assessment of the whole debate, in which the author basically takes on everybody and argues that both Darwin and the most up-to-date biology supports, if anything, the traditional Christian doctrine of creation, not to be confused with the modern heresy of creationism...
      We all have beliefs not based upon evidence in the scientific sense of that word - there is no laboratory test that can prove... well, dozens of things we all live by. See the above list in the first paragraph of this comment. Yes, we are left in a measure of uncertainty and unknowing - of course! But when it comes to God the choice is either to live as if he does exist, or as if he doesn't. Agnosticism is an intellectual position, but the lived choice is one or the other.
      I've blogged so much about that I won't go any further (the agnosticism label contains my thoughts on the matter...)
      peace to you!

    2. The philosophical basis for science's validity is no different from the validity of any other field of human inquiry. A wise man once said (albeit in another context) "You shall know them by their fruits". I would argue that that is the case with human endeavours, science being one of them.

      In the last few hundred years, science with it self critical methodology has amassed a huge body of universally accepted knowledge about the universe we find ourselves in. Other human endeavours have attempted to replicate the success of science to varying degrees but most fail as they neglect the self critical aspect of the scientific methodology.

      To say God is not measurable by science is reminiscent of the 19th century concept of aether, a medium postulated to allow for the transmission of electromagnetic waves in space. As time past and experiments were done more and more negative attributes were ascribed to it, no mass, no viscosity, no size to its constituent particles... As more and more non measurables piled up, eventually the concept of aether disappeared like Alice's Cheshire cat and relativity showed the world simpler without the notion.

    3. Sorry for my slow responses - life is busy the last couple days. Well, I would argue (cheekily!) that among the fruits of the Christian religion is, well, science! In that the Christian doctrine of creation makes for a coherent, consistent universe with regular laws and structures that can be investigated. The Church has been the biggest sponsor of scientific research since the 13th century.
      God doesn't compare to aether - aether was seen as a being among beings, a postulated entity that served a theoretical scientific purpose. God is not like that, in our Christian sense, but is the Being who holds all being in being. Standing outside of all existent being, God is the ultimate explanation, both in terms of efficient and final causality, for the existnece of all that is. Lacking 'God' (in some sense) we must say there is no ultimate explanation, but it seems to me that comes with a heavy price in terms of the coherence of much else we say.

    4. While the Catholic Church was one of the big sponsors of science, especially in the formation of the universities, science has moved on since that. In the same way that chemistry has its roots in alchemy, astronomy in astrology and physics in works of the ancient Greeks (I'm in the middle of reading Copely's translation of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and finding it wonderful) with science (as with people) ancestry does not define what (or who we) are in the present. Science has moved on from its religious roots.

      A study in 1998 of the American Academy of Science found 93% of its members do not believe in a God or Gods. A similar study in 2008 (?) showed less than 3% of the British Royal Society were believers. Modern scientists like Laplace when asked by Napoleon where was God in his opus on celestial mechanics said "I had no need of that hypothesis"

      As to the comparison to the aether, aether was seen as necessary in order for light to propagate in space, just as God is seen the way to provide meaning to life. Just like the need for the aether disappeared between the times of Maxwell and Einstein when scientists realized that physics can hold together without an all pervading substrate, so modern society is learning that a meaning for life can still exist without a God or Gods providing it.

    5. Yes, but nonetheless the church's role, both financial and in providing a theoretical foundation for the physical sciences, shows that Christiainity is not sub- or anti-rational.
      The post that started this whole thread talks explicitly about the methodological atheism Laplace etc rely on, which I have no problem with. As to whether scientists believe in God or not, I don't see how this is of any relevance to anything, since I think I have established that the God-question is outside the expertise and methodologies of the physical sciences.
      In relation to aether/medium, God/meaning... well, it seems to me that atheistic materialism must allow that there is no ultimate meaning to the universe. It's not a quesiton of you or me finding some personal meaning to our lives - it is a question of does the whole thing mean anything. I don't think atheistic materialism can even entertain that question... and I think it is highly debateable as to whether your or my life has any great meaning if the whole ball of wax is meaningless.
      Peace to you

  2. Fr. Denis - Science cannot disprove astrology as there always might be a way in which astrology wasn't tested that would prove its validity. It's not a limitation of science, it's a limitation of logic. Not just an academic question, in the run up to the 2nd Gulf War I was infuriated when the Bush administration kept demand that Saddam prove he had no weapons of mass destruction. No one in the press called them on this absurdity and we know what happened.

    Don't think of science, but rather of the scientific method, a critical, evidence based system of potentially changing hypothesis and examine for instance love.

    If you asked how do know my wife loves me I would like the sacrifices she has made for me, the times she has forgiven me, the kindness she has shown me, etc. All specific actual actions.

    If you asked me how do I know Angelina Jolie loves me I couldn't give you any actual examples but I could say I feel it in my heart, it gives my life purpose and that non evidence of love does not mean that it doesn't exist as there are other ways of knowing she loves me. (From thus reasoning comes restraining orders).

    I'll take a look at the book but I would find it hard to see how evolution would support the traditional notion of Christianity. Even discarding a traditional Adam and Eve belief at some point human ensoulment needs to occur and original sin needs to occur at some time in the natural evolution of homo sapiens. Or did is happen before our split with homo neaderthalis and did they possess souls? It seems difficult to reconcile with Christianity.

    1. I won't try to summarize Cunningham's book - but would say that our reading of Scripture in the Catholic tradition has never held for a necessary literal reading of Adam and Eve, etc. Here's a blog post taht attempts in a (humorous?) narrative form to show how our theology and modern science are not in any opposition:
      Meanwhile, regarding your wife... well, if I was an SOB I could argue that your belief in your wife's love is ill-founded, since every action you mention could be explained differently. I won't do that since I'm quite sure your wife loves you, but I could, and I think you would be hard put to show me how I'm wrong.
      You know, I have reasons to think Catholic Christianity is true! It's not a blind leap of faith into total nothingness. My reasons are not conclusive, but they are persuasive at the very least (I will spare you them, unless you're interested, as they are a bit lengthy...). And the philosophical proofs of God's existence, while again not conclusive, are at least persuasive - they move 'God' out of the crystals and astrology column, I think.
      Anyhow, long winded, and enough for now. I commend you on your willingness to debate, and your ability to debate in a polite, courteous way. Rare, and valuable!


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