Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything” (2 of 2)

Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything” (2 of 2) January 18, 2017

Andy Bannister The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist bookThis is the conclusion of a response to Andy Bannister’s attack on the atheist argument, “Science can explain everything.” (Part 1 here.) You may be saying that atheists and in particular scientists don’t make that argument. I agree. Someone needs to tell Bannister that.

You know how authors sometimes put a slogan somewhere on their desk to focus their attention on the core idea of their project? If only Bannister had put up the subtitle of this book, “The dreadful consequences of bad arguments,” perhaps he would’ve caught a few of his stupid blunders.

The limitations of science

Bannister tells us that science is a great tool, but it’s only a tool. You can’t paint a portrait with a shovel—each tool has limitations. “We need more tools in our philosophical toolkit than just science if we’re going to answer all the wonderfully rich and varied questions that are out there to be explored.”

What do you have in mind? Of course I agree that physics, chemistry, and geology have limits, but show me a discipline that gives us reliable new information (say, philosophy recommending ethical standards for a new technology or economists understanding how people respond to incentives) that doesn’t use evidence and hypothesis testing—that is, scientific thinking.

Atheist scientists admit their bias?

To support his position, he quotes geneticist Richard Lewontin who states that scientists “have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. . . . Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Aha! Have the scientists finally admitted their biases? Not at all, if we read what comes next (which Bannister omitted):

. . . we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

Lewontin wasn’t saying that we must conclude beforehand that the supernatural isn’t possible but rather that using science with a God option is like blowing up a balloon with a hole in it. You can’t get anywhere since everything must have a God caveat. It’s “F = ma, God willing” or “PV = nRT, if it pleases God.” When you make a measurement in a world where God messes with reality (that is, you “allow a Divine Foot in the door”), what part of that measurement is the result of scientific laws and what part was added by some godly hanky panky?

Where does science fit in?

Bannister wants us to know that he’s a reasonable guy. He doesn’t hate science—far from it.

I’m simply arguing for “science and”—science and the humanities; science and philosophy; science and art; science and history; science and theology. . . . Why can’t we throw open the shutters, fling wide the doors, and embrace a world of knowledge that is vastly bigger and more glorious than just the physical sciences?

That sounds fine, but let’s stick with the scientific method. Andy “Mr. Reasonable” Bannister doesn’t look so reasonable when you notice that he slipped Theology in, hoping we weren’t paying attention.

Tell you what, Andy: when Theology can get its own story straight, get back to me and we can reconsider if this discipline actually has anything worth telling us. At the moment, it can’t even figure out how many gods there are or what their names are (more).

In one final attempt to show those smug scientists the limitations of science, he asks about the origin of the universe. He ticks off a few options—it came uncaused from nothing, there’s a multiverse, and the obligatory “God dun it.” What’s common about these, he says, is that “each one takes us outside science. . . . [Science] is entirely the wrong tool . . . to explain how we got stuff in the first place.” A hammer is good for hitting nails but bad for telling us where nails came from.

But what tool do we have to study this question besides science?? Bannister wants to drop science, the discipline that has actually told us uncountably many new things about reality, in favor of theology, the discipline that uses faith rather than evidence and has never taught us a single new thing that can be verified.

The obligatory Hypothetical God Fallacy

Bannister wraps up with an appeal to God.

[And if there is a god,] we need to ask the next question: is there more that can be discovered about God than simply what we can discern about him from his handiwork as revealed in the structure of the universe? Is it possible to learn about the artist himself, not just his works?

When I read, “If there is a god,” I might as well have read, “If unicorns exist.” Unicorns don’t exist, so what follows must be hypothetical. And gods don’t exist—certainly not as far as Bannister has convinced us—so what follows can only be speculation about a world that isn’t ours and is therefore completely irrelevant to me. (More on the Hypothetical God Fallacy here.)

I marvel that any Christian can casually drop in that phrase, oblivious to how bold a speculation it is. This progression might help: think of something incredible (a unicorn). Now, make it more incredible (a thousand unicorns). Now make it more incredible (a thousand unicorns that grant wishes and cure disease). Keep going with this, and you get to the Christian claim: a god created everything, knows everything, can do everything, is everywhere, cares about you, and will do what you ask him to. It’s the biggest possible claim. Don’t make it without evidence to back it up.

Continued to part 8.

Faith is a process substitute
the way margarine is a dairy product.
— commenter Greg G.

Image credit: Hey Paul, flickr, CC

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