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.