The new atheism-3: What the new atheists are saying


(See part 1 and part 2.)

The peaceful coexistence model that has long been used to maintain peace between elite science and elite religion was reinforced by the National Academy of Sciences when the science-religion issue became heated during the heyday of the intelligent design creationism movement. In a 1998 statement titled Teaching about Evolution and Science, the NAS said: “At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. . .Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”

The new atheists make the claim that we should not uncritically accept the NAS statement’s implication that god could exist in an undetectable supernatural world about which science can say nothing. For god to have any meaning at all, a universe in which god exists has to be observably different from one in which he or she or it does not exist. Thus Richard Dawkins, for instance, argues that if god exists, then that is an empirically testable proposition. He argues that it is the obligation of believers in a god to provide evidence, in the form of testable propositions, for this difference, and have those predictions confirmed by experiment or observation. Otherwise, god is merely a name and an idea conjured up out of nothing and that can do nothing. As it stands, no such evidence of the kind he seeks has ever been provided.

Dawkins also argues that the god that most people envisage has to be a complex being, since it is capable of doing complex things. If so, he argues, how could god have existed in that form at the beginning of time, since everything else in the universe (both matter and life) started from very simple forms and evolved into complexity slowly? How could god come into being as a complex entity right from the start?

It is clear that these kinds of arguments have struck a nerve. They have not only caused a split between elite religion and elite science, they have also caused a split within elite science, between those (like the late Stephen Jay Gould) who want to continue to maintain the political alliance between the two groups, and other scientists who say that a political alliance is too high a price to pay for not speaking out against what they truly believe, that belief in a god not only has no evidentiary basis, it does not even make coherent sense as a philosophical construct. Again, it is Dawkins who states this position most forcefully, stating that the ‘two worlds’ model is a “cowardly cop out. I think it’s an attempt to woo the sophisticated theological lobby and to get them into our camp and put the creationists into another camp. It’s good politics. But it’s intellectually disreputable.” (quoted by Larson and Witham, Nature, vol. 386, April 3, 1997, p. 435-436)

What is happening now is that atheist scientists are no longer silent or discreet about their atheism. More and more secular scientists are not shying away from the explicit implications of how the science in their fields is steadily eroding the remaining niches in which belief in god has taken refuge. Physicists like Victor Stenger in his God: The Failed Hypothesis takes on religion from the physics perspective, while cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works examines how and why natural selection might have worked to create an advantage for modules to exist in the brain that have a propensity to believe in god and the afterlife, thus making people think it is natural. Neuroscientist Marc Hauser in his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong does the same thing for morality, seeking to understand how natural selection may have worked to select for the moral values that we see in people. And Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained takes on the task of seeing how consciousness can arise without any need for any supernatural explanation.

All these works are somewhat speculative since the kinds of investigations being done are quite new. I am not claiming that these major problems have been solved or that these particular authors have even got it right. In fact, although I am broadly familiar with the thrusts of the books mentioned in the previous paragraph, I have not read them all as yet but will report on them in more detail when I do read them, which should be fairly soon. (A good general review of what these books and others in the same vein say can be found in the essay The DNA of Religious Faith by David P. Barash in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 53, Issue 33, Page B6, April 20, 2007.)

The suggestion that there is nothing metaphysical and non-material about the mind and morality and consciousness has been advanced in the past. The significant new feature is that while in the past questions of mind and morality and consciousness were largely the province of philosophers and theologians and social scientists, it is now scientists, armed with the latest research tools, who are taking direct aim at these areas of knowledge that were once set aside as part of the ‘spiritual world’ and thus outside the real of scientific investigation.

What has made this shift possible is that scientific knowledge and technology have advanced to the point that we have the ability to construct and test theories and collect actual data that can shed light on these questions. As a parallel, ideas of evolution and common descent existed even before Darwin and Wallace but it was their collection of huge amounts of data in support of those ideas that put the theory of natural selection on a solid empirical footing. The same kind of progression is now happening for the areas of mind, morality, religion and consciousness. And when scientists start to make concerted efforts to solve problems, advances in knowledge tend to occur. If history is any guide, the net result is usually a retreat for religious explanations.

These new atheist scientist authors are in the vanguard of presenting to the general public new scientific research into these areas of knowledge and religious people need to brace themselves for fresh challenges to their beliefs. The theoretical paradigms that emerge from this research will change and improve with time but like previous advances in science that have undermined the credibility of miracles and similar obvious interventions by god in the physical world, it seems inevitable that these new areas of research will proceed in the direction of making religious explanations unnecessary.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Ricky Gervais tackles the book of Genesis

Comments

  1. says

    Why is it that you use “scientist” & “atheist” interchangeably? One can be a scientist & still be religious, correct? similarly, can’t one be an atheist & not be a scientist?

  2. says

    V,

    What you say is correct. I was not using the words interchangeably. Instead I was saying that these are scientists who are also atheists.

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