The 2014 annual Edge question was “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”. That’s an interesting question, but as usual, there are a few answers that are complete bullshit. This year’s big dumb answer comes from Douglas Rushkoff, a media consultant, who suggests that science needs to get rid of The Atheism Prerequisite. It’s entirely a whine about a false premise.
We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality. Most of us living in it feel invested with a sense of purpose. Whether this directionality is a genuine, pre-existing condition of the universe, an illusion perpetrated by DNA, or something that will one day emerge from social interaction, has yet to be determined. At the very least, this means our experience and expectations of life can no longer be dismissed as impediments to proper observation and analysis.
But science’s unearned commitment to materialism has led us into convoluted assumptions about the origins of space-time, in which time itself simply must be accepted as a byproduct of the big bang, and consciousness (if it even exists) as a byproduct of matter. Such narratives follow information on its continuing evolution toward complexity, the singularity, and robot consciousness—a saga no less apocalyptic than the most literal interpretations of Biblical prophecy.
It’s entirely more rational—and less steeped in storybook logic—to work with the possibility that time predates matter, and that consciousness is less the consequence of a physical, cause-and-effect reality than a precursor.
By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific reasoning, we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the possibility that it has purpose.
Let’s make this perfectly clear: there is no atheism prerequisite in science. We don’t ask job candidates whether they are atheists or not (and in fact, asking such a question would get us into tremendous trouble with HR), there are plenty of successful scientists who are believers in their private — and sometimes public — life, and even many of us atheists are open to hearing evidence for a god.
And that’s the problem. We don’t have an atheism prerequisite, but we do have an evidence prerequisite.
Science has an epistemological foundation. You believe a cosmic consciousness started the Big Bang? OK, tell us how you know that. Run us through the evidence you have that has led you to that conclusion. We’ll evaluate your evidence, and let’s just say that
I read it in ancient Holy Book is lousy evidence, as is
I have a feeling of universal purpose.
Another instance of poor reasoning is to argue from the undesirability of a result. You don’t like the singularity? I don’t either, I think it’s a silly idea built on cherry-picked evidence and crappy arguments. I’m not really at all worried about the Robot Apocalypse. I don’t think such conclusions are at all necessary extrapolations of our current understanding…but if they were, so what? It wouldn’t be a virtue to hide from the truth, and it wouldn’t save you to close your eyes and deny the possibility of robot consciousness as the claws clamp down on you and the machines throw you into the disintegrator.
I’m pretty sure that I’m going to die someday. That I don’t like the idea is insufficient impetus to make me immortal.
Saying that something is a “possibility” is not enough for good science. OK, it’s a possibility that consciousness preceded the existence of the universe — and it’s also possible that the cosmos was raked into existence from a fabric of amorphous chaos by the twitching claws of a giant immortal tardigrade. Show us why you should think that. And I’m afraid that the best example of “story-book logic” would be to simply assert that once upon a time, before time, there was a supreme being who decided that the universe should exist.
That explains nothing, least of all why you should conclude that.
As for the idea that I have a cosmic purpose…I am a tiny, fragile speck of organic compounds reacting within a thin film of gases and fluids on one small planet in an immense universe, most of which is utterly inimical to my existence. I was produced by a random shuffle of genetic elements by two other specks of organic compounds; approximately 250 million other male gametes tried to fertilize that one female gamete, and it was pure chance that my particular combination happened to fuse and develop and survive childhood.
I have found purpose in the very narrow domain of my existence, but to claim that this purpose somehow traces back to some kind of intent that predates the Big Bang is absurd and arrogant and contrary to reason.
Rushkoff can be satisfied that his request has already been met: there is no scientific prerequisite for atheism. But he’s going to have to be frustrated by the fact that the only respectable conclusion from the scientific evidence is that there is no god-thing, whatever that is, given the usually awful definitions believers give for it, and that his own attempts to rationalize a faith in the origin of the universe in a cosmic consciousness are absurd, pathetic, and laughable.
And that won’t change.