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Saturday, October 29, 2011

WDAD: What Do Atheists Do About Science?

Science is something all people share some experience with, regardless of beliefs about God. But atheists are typically associated more often with it, if only because of a somewhat natural association between the methodology of the discipline and the skepticism of the nonbeliever. While this is the case from what I know about statistics of scientists across the U.S., it may also reflect a tendency amongst people with progressively higher education, though, as I’ve observed before, there is at least one study that suggested some educated people tend to become more religious, though seemingly for social reasons as opposed to compelling evidence. There are scientists who believe in God and, remarkably enough, see little to no conflict between their belief in God and a deceptively selective idea of naturalism and appreciation of the natural processes they study. Many may think scientists are more likely to be atheists because of science education itself, though the very fact that there are God believers in their ranks suggests that it isn’t wholly the result of the education itself, but the practice of applying scientific rigor to other things in life, such as religion. Believers would object that this is comparing apples and oranges, but when you think about it, science is rooted in a particular philosophy, which would therefore be able to be considered in relation to beliefs of all sorts with some extension from our normal association of the term science with the natural/hard sciences, like biology, chemistry and physics, as well as the similar idea of the social/soft sciences, which include sociology, anthropology and economics. There are two things that I feel are most important with relation to atheism and science and these are the preconceptions people have about scientific practice and the famous scientists who are somewhat ambivalent in God belief, like Albert Einstein or vehemently not God believers, such as Richard Dawkins, and what they represent about scientists’ varying views on God.

One of the most telling issues of the connection, or lack thereof, between science and atheism, is people’s varying ideas of what science is. If one automatically thinks that every scientist must be an atheist or they are contradicting science, you’re as mistaken as those who would claim that all scientists must be theists and that atheists are hypocrites. The incidental statistics that lean one way or another about affirmations of God’s existence or the reverse amongst scientists don’t speak to whether science itself is innately atheistic or theistic. Its history has included both in varying numbers and there are probably more factors than merely your association with a particular discipline or even whether you’re in the hard or soft sciences, for instance. Some might say that you have more likelihood to be atheist in hard sciences, and some potential for theism in soft sciences, but the general numbers seem to be 50/50. When we say “believe in God,” there may be more vague deists, for instance, or even pantheists, which theologians tend to think is only a step away from atheism, like deism is two steps. In any case, the methods of science ultimately don’t preclude being theist or atheist, since the more difficult factor for many to discern is whether the scientist is actually being consistently scientific in their thinking. If you are a theist willing to accept the possibility that atheistic hypotheses and theories which don’t include God are true or can at least accept that evolutionary theory and such are true while weaseling God into the background, you are being more scientific than creationists or intelligent design advocates, for instance. To interpret the evidence towards your belief instead of accepting what science has found and take what many call the “God of the gaps” position, then you’re being only slightly more honest than those who believe in God on the basis of supposed scientific evidence that explicitly proves God (therefore removing the faith element technically). The real issue comes about when you are theist merely because you don’t think there are scientific explanations for certain things in other fields and either ignore or dismiss those arguments from experts. This sort of approach to things amounts to a nuanced form of argument from ignorance where you believe one position because the other position has no evidence for it or you can’t accept the present position because it is somewhat uncertain. The uncertainty of science shouldn’t be a reason to believe in God to have something to fill in the spaces of our knowledge, but to seek out the answers while holding God tentatively as a sort of philosophical hypothesis itself, which I myself am not unwilling to accept, albeit many may be insulted for me to liken their God to a hypothesis instead of a belief. Perhaps I work better in a technical sort of way as opposed to merely holding a belief tentatively, since that is more tenuous a position than simply saying that you accept that people posit something they call God and believe in it. Ultimately so much of this debate can be solved by just showing that being scientific doesn’t mean you have to abandon your beliefs, but that you also have to be scientific in every area to an extent. Not doing this can result in cognitive dissonance and doublethink that many people could see a mile away. It’s mostly willful ignorance about science that keeps this virus of suspicion about it around. Education is key to the whole project of maintaining that science and atheism are both beneficial, but in different aspects and for different reasons.

There are two scientists that come up in terms of the discussion of whether science is atheistic or theistic. On the side of atheism is Richard Dawkins, though another one that has passed on is Carl Sagan, famous for his TV series “Cosmos: A Personal Journey” and the novel “Contact” later adapted into a 1997 film of the same name. Dawkins and Sagan were similar at least in advocating science, though Dawkins has gotten much more fame for his accessibility and publishing of many books, including his recent one for children entitled “The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True” Not to mention Carl Sagan might be accused of being less atheistic in the strictest sense since he believed there was life on other planets (not to mention preferred the term agnostic) though it is more likely that aliens exist than that any supernatural concept of God reflects reality. Dawkins is commonly invoked as one of the so called “saints” of atheism as people perceive it to be a religion, which I ought to confront in future detail in this series. He’s very much the face of atheism and science intertwined as compared with the other famous scientist who is invoked more often than not for theism and science intertwined, Albert Einstein. The prominence of Dawkins is not only because of his many writings about atheism, but his generally good natured, but hard-nosed attitude. In that sense, he is one of the most honest scientists about his atheism in that he will not tolerate unscientific propositions that even implicate the scientific perspective as the source of one’s personal belief in God. For theists, Albert Einstein is one who has long since died, but is held up often by theists, though not uncommonly by atheists at times either. Francis Collins, a parallel to Richard Dawkins in that he’s alive, is a scientist and evangelical Christian who nonetheless holds that evolution is true and rejects the intelligent design movement. With Einstein there is more ambivalence, but the general consensus is that Einstein would agree with theists in saying that there is an intelligence behind the universe, but he would not agree that it is personal. This is where the impasse appears. Einstein has been quoted in a letter as saying that belief in a personal God is, to paraphrase, a fairy tale. In this sense, he is very much the nominal representative for theists and not in any way a method for Christians to make defense for their own theology, but merely use an example of a prominent scientist in history who believed in a creator in some form. This in no way validates that science is theistic in its foundation any more than throwing hundreds of quotes by believers that studying the natural world makes them see the likelihood of a creator would convince anyone with a rational mind. We all come with our own presuppositions and scientists we admire. I respect Albert Einstein and disagree with his notion that we need to have some intelligence behind the universe for it to be both consistent and awe inspiring to even atheists. And Richard Dawkins, along with Carl Sagan and many others have contributed a great deal of their own insights and study to the discipline that many theists, such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle have brought to the table as well. Theism and atheism are two parts of a similar whole in science, the only difference being where each of them starts in the equation.

There is much more I could speak on, such as the philosophy of science and whether atheism is aligned completely with it as some theists would contend, but my overall point is to establish that atheism and science are apples and oranges in one sense, but they are interconnected in some ways, so they share a basic quality, like the two fruits mentioned. Skepticism is the fundamental impulse behind both of these endeavors, along with an obvious amount of curiosity without being satisfied by one answer as the penultimate. Theism could be argued to contradict this with the idea of God as the creator and answer to any “What if?” that may come up. That aside, establishing that you can be atheist or theist and still be a scientist only starts us up the rung of a much more extensive discussion about whether there is a true scientist in the sense of being detached from the world or if scientists all have a similar sense of awe about the universe that many would compare to religious ecstasy. If this be the case, then we have to establish what separates science from the sacred. I’d venture that it’s skepticism; not regarding the supernatural answers as sufficient or even sensible by a law of parsimony. So if you’re an agnostic theist, you’re on the right track to being a scientist in my book, layperson as I am. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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