Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything”

Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything” January 16, 2017

Andy Bannister The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist bookThis is part 7 of a critique of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments (2015) by Andy Bannister (part 1). The book promises to critique a number of atheist arguments.

Chapter 7. The Lunatic in the Louvre

In today’s opening episode, Fred takes our hero to the Louvre but then drugs him in the cafeteria. When he awakes that night, he first thinks that Fred plans to steal the Mona Lisa, but no, he just wants a paint sample to test. Why can’t Fred just find what he wants on Wikipedia? Because he’s a scientist and insists on doing his own research.

To attempt to tie this to reality, Bannister quotes Nobel Prize winner Harry Kroto, “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.” But just two sentences later, Bannister bungles that into, “Science can answer any and all questions.” Yes, that is quoted accurately. And no, that’s not even close to what the scientist said.

In previous chapter critiques, I’ve defended the atheist argument against Bannister’s attacks. But I don’t defend this argument because no one makes it. No one makes it, that is, except theists who seem to be drawn to strawman arguments like flies to garbage.

Can science answer ethical questions?

Back to Bannister. “If the scientist in question is opining . . . that Science Can Explain Everything, well we need to point a few things out.”

Oh, good. We’re about to get schooled by a guy who can’t correctly paraphrase a simple idea.

Bannister challenges us: “What is the value of a human life?” How would atheists answer this with science alone? A chemist might tally the value of the salvageable chemicals inside a human body. An economist could look at the net contribution to the economy of each person. But surely humans have an intrinsic value that science can’t tell you.

How do we compute the value a human life?

We all know how a human life can be given a financial value when you look at how life insurance works. Or we can weigh the cost of an improvement in food or road safety, for example, against the number of lives it will save. This computation isn’t horrifying; it’s something we’re familiar with.

But Bannister probably wants a more intangible or intuitive approach. He’d probably say that we all feel that one human life is worth more than one animal life. Or do we? When Harambe, a lowland gorilla (which, as a species, is critically endangered), was killed in 2016 to protect a four-year-old boy who had fallen into his zoo enclosure, many criticized the zoo for its actions, and the boy’s mother received torrents of online outrage for her supposed negligence.

Your life is more valuable than the life of a slug or a rat, but would it be more valuable than the last breeding pair of bald eagles? What’s more valuable—the life of a random stranger you will never meet or your beloved pet? Is a human life so precious that capital punishment is immoral?

Another example is Peter Singer’s drowning child experiment: you pass a pond with a child drowning. There are no difficulties stopping you from wading out and rescuing the child except that you would ruin your $500 shoes. Would that stop you? Of course not—anyone would sacrifice an expensive pair of shoes to save a child’s life. But that means that saving a life is worth $500 to you. Now suppose a nonprofit organization that provides bed nets to protect children from malaria-carrying mosquitoes (or some similar project) shows you how a $500 donation would save one life or more. Most people would discard this appeal after a few seconds’ consideration, including those who would have sacrificed their shoes.

Using science to uncover and explain moral conclusions

That was a detour, but I think it was relevant to Bannister’s challenge that we find the value of human life without appealing to something outside science. My point is first that we can indeed put a crass monetary value on human life. We do it all the time. And second, Bannister’s unstated supernatural valuation of human life is probably a cheery declaration that God made Man the pinnacle of his creation, QED, and yet it’s more complicated than that.

Let me now directly respond to his challenge. Our moral programming tells us (in general) to value human life over other kinds of life. Why is this? It’s a product of our evolutionary path, which is explained by science. When legislators evaluate a proposed improvement to a dangerous intersection, they uncover and follow evidence and test hypotheses to make their decisions—and that’s the scientific method. What’s unexplained?

Bannister reminds me of the child who mindlessly asks “Why?” in response to every statement. He asks, “Why is the pursuit of knowledge a good thing?” and “Why is it wrong [for a scientist] to lie about [experimental] results?”

Well, little Andy, lying slows down knowledge finding, and knowledge is good because sometimes we can use it to improve life—eliminate a disease or improve food production, for example. Why is that good, you ask? Because we seek happier, healthier lives—that’s just how we’re programmed. “Good” in this case is defined by our programming, put there by evolution. There’s no need to appeal to the supernatural to explain this.

Continue to part 7b.

If science can’t detect your God,
your priests can’t either.
— commenter Pofarmer

Image credit: Wikimedia

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