A Guide to Reality, Part 2

A couple days ago, I stated my intention (you might even say I promised) to work through Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without IIlusions right here at WOCS. That was in part 1. Believe it or not, this is part 2.

In his preface, Professor Rosenberg explains that he wrote the book for people who are ready to face reality. By that he means people who believe there is no God (atheists) or have serious doubts (agnostics) and who want to know what science has to say about a few perennial questions that keep some of us awake at night. He thinks the scientific view of reality has certain consequences:

The book is about those consequences. It provides an uncompromising, hard-boiled, no-nonsense, unsentimental view of the nature of reality, the purpose of things, the meaning of life, the trajectory of human history, morality and mortality, the will, the mind and the self (ix).

Rosenberg scoffs at attempts to reconcile science and religion. He holds that “an unblinking scientific worldview requires atheism” (viii), which explains why most of America’s leading scientists are atheists and those who aren’t atheists are mostly agnostics.

I don’t think it makes any difference to Rosenberg whether science leads us to atheism or atheism leads us to science. He started out in physics, ended up in philosophy, branched out to biology and economics, and somewhere along the way became an atheist. But someone might proceed in the other direction: doubting God’s existence and then looking to science to explain why the world is the way it is. His contention is that science and atheism are compatible, while science and religion (or theism) aren’t.

In my opinion, however, he exaggerates the conflict. You don’t have to deny God’s existence in order to be an excellent scientist. Instead, what you need to do is put thoughts of God aside when you’re doing science. Science is the search for natural explanations, not supernatural ones. Invoking God as the explanation for the existence of the human eye, for example, amounts to throwing up your hands and choosing a different subject. If you want to speculate about some god or other creating the universe and initializing the fundamental constants (like the mass of an electron) to values supportive of life, you’re not doing science. In this methodological sense, a scientist has to be an atheist.

But despite what Rosenberg says, nobody knows why or how the universe came into existence; or if it’s always existed in some form or other; or whether our universe is one of many. Even if scientists eventually figure out the answers to those questions, we’ll never be able to rule out the possibility that some creator or creative force beyond our universe got the cosmic ball rolling. Nor will we ever be able to prove that God, Zeus or Santa Claus isn’t watching right now to see if we’ve been naughty or nice. What evidence could there be to prove that kind of negative?

What we can say is that, historically speaking, science has shown a vast number of previously mysterious phenomena to be natural processes. There is no reason to think we need an entity outside space and time to explain why there are stars and galaxies, or why there are birds and bees, or why the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth. As fewer phenomena have seemed to require a supernatural explanation, it has seemed less and less likely that there is Anyone Up There. As we’ve learned more about our world, ancient stories have become much less plausible. So far as science is concerned, God is a dead letter.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean God is dead, however implausible that he, she, it or they either are or ever were “alive”.

Next time: stories and scientism.

4 thoughts on “A Guide to Reality, Part 2

  1. You mention that one can be a great scientist and still believe in god: I don’t agree. I think that a scientist can recognize a notion of god, a tic, in his consciousness, but I feel that he has to not only ignore it but eliminate it from his professed study. The slope of scientific discovery is too slippery to allow it. The scientific method consists of ‘systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.’ It is this pragmatic: measuring and testing that cannot be applied to god. The path to god is faith-based and with faith, everything (rational or irrational) is possible. I believe this introduces an unnecessary variable into any scientific investigation. Even without the influence of faith, the atheist/scientist is challenged by a sensory apparatus that catagorizes, abbreviates, and even transforms his notions. These are automatic functions of the man-machine. Scientists must be vigilant. The discipline needed to maintain vigilance is overturned by the impulse of religious thought.

    I don’t see how a scientist who believes in god can not stray into ‘scientific’ heresy. He must sublimate the religious impulse as it can only mislead.

    • I think a scientist can put aside or sublimate his or her religious beliefs when doing science. In fact, I don’t think religious concerns are relevant to most scientific pursuits, so being religious shouldn’t be much of a problem for most scientists. Could there be some unconscious influence? I guess so, but there are lots of other, non-religious influences, conscious or otherwise. The more I think about it, the less I agree with Rosenberg’s claim that a scientist can’t be religious, especially when we consider that there are different kinds of religion, not all of which involve thinking there’s a person-like God who created the universe and is still active in some way or other. Fortunately, God and religion don’t play a big role in the rest of the book. Rosenberg’s main concern is what he thinks science can tell us about those perennial questions, like “why are we here?” and “what does it all mean?” It shouldn’t be too surprising that his answers to those particular questions are: “we aren’t here for any reason at all” and “it doesn’t mean anything”.

  2. I disagree with your assertion that Alex claims that a scientist can’t be religious, As I read Alex, he makes an important distinction between science and scientism and is careful to observe that not all scientists are scientismists. (We badly need a noun for that term..)

    Your very interesting post raises a few questions for me if you should care to discuss further.

    You remark that “nobody knows why” the universe came into existence. Aren’t you begging the question whether or not there is a “why?”

    Do you agree that to ask “why” is equivalent to asking for a purpose?

    Do you disagree that if we are to take science’s findings seriously, we must conclude that there are no purposes to or in nature?

    How is it more than trivially true to assert that something, like the existence of god, is possible?



  3. Unfortunately, I don’t have my copy of The Atheist’s Guide tonight, but I’m going to review what Alex Rosenberg wrote regarding being a scientist and being religious. I’m sure you’re right, however, since he did mention some scientists who are religious, while emphasizing that most scientists and often the most accomplished aren’t. He also certainly argues that a scientist must put aside religion when doing science (at least that’s my strong recollection).

    Your questions deserve more of a response than I can deliver at this hour (it’s been a very long day), but for now:

    (1) I didn’t mean to suggest that there must be a reason why the universe exists; I should have been more clear and said that nobody knows why the universe exists or whether there is any explanation for it to exist at all;

    (2) I don’t think asking “why” about the universe implies a purpose any more than asking why the water on the stove is boiling implies a purpose — the answer could be that someone wants to make dinner, or that the flame has caused the water to reach 212 degrees. “Why” is ambiguous that way;

    (3) It’s a good question whether science implies there are no purposes. But whereas Rosenberg thinks there are no purposes since quarks, etc. don’t have them, I think purpose is something that emerges as different kinds of organisms evolve. From the physics perspective, we can say, for example, that there is no music in the world, yet from another perspective (our personal perspectives?) there clearly is (I heard some tonight). Philosophers argue about what “really” exists, and Rosenberg seems to be one of the philosophers who focuses on the most fundamental aspects of existence that physics (and chemistry) describe. I don’t think that purpose or music are fundamental features of the universe, but it seems wrong to say there are no such phenomena at all because they aren’t fundamental. Equating what is fundamental with what exists seems to leave some important things out.

    (4) I don’t think I’m up to distinguishing between trivial truth and non-trivial truth tonight, but I guess there is a sense in which it’s trivially true that there might be a god, e.g. it’s logically possible, just like it’s logically possible that Santa Claus is flying around tonight. I might even agree that we know there is no Santa Claus, because people made up stories about him not too long ago and there’s no evidence that he delivers any toys (at least he never brought any to my kids) and there’s no way he could physically perform his duties according to what we know about physics. Still, it’s a factual question whether Santa exists, and if he popped up one day, showing how he’s able to pass through walls and ceilings, and how he delivers toys to children while making their parents falsely believe they bought them with their own credit cards, well, I wouldn’t want to persist in saying — wait a minute, we know you don’t exist! So we’re clearly hallucinating. That would be a reasonable early reaction, but eventually we’d probably admit that there are more things in the universe (or outside it) than are dreamt of in our philosophy. At any rate, to say some Supreme Power or First Mover didn’t create the universe and doesn’t monitor its activities seems like something we can’t categorically rule out, however unlikely it may be (especially since we don’t know why the universe exists (!), i.e. whether it has always existed, whether someone made it; whether it came into being because something else happened, or whether it just happened to pop into existence.

    Thanks for your comment and questions and now it’s definitely time for me to go to bed. I don’t want to be awake when Santa arrives.

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