Atheism again?

October 17, 2010

Four of my last eight posts have related to the topic. Sorry! This will be my last one for a while (fingers crossed).

Today I wrote the following in response to an atheist commenter way back over here. This is my last comment on that particular thread. The commenter kept making a mistake that’s very common for proponents of scientism. Be on the lookout for it the next time you see that friendly celebrity atheist on TV telling you why there’s no God. It is this: If science can identify a naturalistic cause for something, then God is not also involved.

He argues, for example, that since love is “grounded in biochemical processes,” love has no objectively real or deeper meaning. That simply doesn’t follow unless your metaphysical belief rules out anything other than that knowledge at which the scientific method can arrive. It is reductionist thinking in the extreme.

The physiological “ground” of love may be “biochemical processes,” but this says nothing at all about other possible grounds for love. It’s all so simplistic.

John Cleese tackles this very subject in a funny video I linked to at the end.

You say, “morality is completely based in evolution.” I say, “Prove it scientifically.” And you can’t. The evidence you offer—disregarding the fact that your glib explanations are probably highly contested in their respective fields of biology and are still speculative at best—isn’t scientific evidence of the claim, “morality is completely based in evolution.”

Do you see what I mean? Probably not.

You’re making a category mistake: using physical phenomenon to make a metaphysical claim. It’s impossible to prove the proposition that “morality is completely based in evolution.”

And that would be true even if scientific knowledge weren’t hopelessly provisional, and what we think we know today wouldn’t be overturned by some new knowledge decades or centuries hence. I’m happy to concede that EVERYTHING that happens in this realm of physics, on this plane of cause-and-effect, in this physical universe or multiverse (or whatever we call it) is completely explainable by science [ed. note: I should have said “potentially explainable.”]. At no point—even with perfect knowledge of physics—will I ever be able to say, “See! There’s that miracle I was looking for… right there in that particular gap!” It’s not going to happen. I’m well aware that many well-meaning creationists or ID believers are looking for that. But I’m conceding in advance that that will never happen—not within the realm of science.

As I said earlier, God is not one agent among others on the plane of cause-and-effect, such that the more science can explain, the less God “does.” (Dawkins makes this argument because he knows almost nothing about theology—and probably not a lot about philosophy or logic, but whatever…) It is not either science or God. “Science <> NOT God.” As I tried to say, this gets at the meaning of God’s transcendence. Like it or not, this has been a feature of Christian theology from the beginning of church history. It’s not some innovation that the church made in the 17th century in response to the Enlightenment.

I remember listening to an interview on the radio with some Nobel-contending physicist who is Indian and a practicing Hindu. He was challenged by the interviewer to justify how a man of science can also be a person of great faith. He used an analogy of a Shakespearean sonnet. We can fully understand the structure of a such a poem in an objective sort of way. We can say, “This is iambic pentameter and Shakespeare chose these words precisely because they fit this pattern. And see how nicely everything fits together within that structure?” And even if we understand all of this, we still have barely touched the poem’s meaning. This is, he said, how science works. Science has an important contribution to make, but it can’t begin to get at the full meaning of reality.

You’re saying that science can, but you are unable to argue that from science. You are making a metaphysical proposition (i.e., a statement of faith) with no supporting evidence. That’s fine. Just be clear that you’re accepting on faith that “morality is completely based in evolution.” You could use a little epistemic humility.

At least we completely agree that in your religion, there is no “ought.”

Your final words about free will and god are beyond silly. But you don’t know theology beyond a caricature from Christopher Hitchens, so I’m not holding that against you.

It’s been fun going back and forth. Your words remind me of this funny video from Prof. John Cleese. “And this ‘God gene’ is just here—between the gene which we scientists now know makes us eat coconut ice cream after fish dinner—and this gene here—which causes people with weak egos to grasp around desperately for simple explanations.”


4 Responses to “Atheism again?”

  1. “If science can identify a naturalistic cause for something, then God is not also involved.”

    Actually it’s closer to this:

    If science can identify a naturalistic cause for something, why posit the assistance of a supernatural force? Especially a supernatural force for which you have no good scientific evidence?

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Because I believe that naturalistic causes are only one level of explanation. John Haught, on why a book that he wrote exists: “One explanation for the page you are reading is that a printing press has stamped ink onto white paper. Another is that the author intends to put certain ideas across. Still another explanation is that the publisher asked the author to write a critical response to the new atheism.” These are, as he argues, mutually compatible, non-competitive explanations.

    Why should the “explanation” for the universe be any different? Doesn’t life, love, relationships, justice, and beauty seem to be charged with meaning? Why discount that when you don’t have to? Besides, naturalistic causes don’t explain existence itself. Why something and not nothing? You can’t answer that question any more scientifically than I can.

    • “Doesn’t life, love, relationships, justice, and beauty seem to be charged with meaning? Why discount that when you don’t have to?”

      Because it seems like the sun circles the earth once a day. Just because something seems or feels a certain way in no way implies that it is factual.

      “You can’t answer that question any more scientifically than I can.”

      So your argument for god is an argument from ignorance? Because we don’t know the answer yet, your claim that has no good evidence supporting it must be true? Sorry, doesn’t work for me.

  3. brentwhite Says:

    Not ignorance, faith. You may scoff at that, but you have a kind of faith, too. On the basis of principles you cannot prove, you have to daily, hourly, moment-by-moment(?) fight that impulse within you that calls this life and your relationships and this beautiful world “good,” knowing in your heart that there is no such thing as good (or beauty or love). See what I mean?

    Also, if you followed my argument at all, I hope you understand that in terms of science we will always be ignorant of existence. “We don’t have the answer yet.” We will never have an answer that will satisfy us, scientifically. Again, that will ever be beyond physics. This isn’t even a controversial statement, philosophically. It’s objectively true.

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