Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything”

Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything” August 3, 2021

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 look up the results of someone else’s analysis? Because he’s a scientist and insists on doing his own research.

Bannister clumsily connects this to reality by quoting Harry Kroto, winner of a Nobel Prize for chemistry: “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. You’re right—that’s not even close to what the scientist said.

This continues our review of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister (part 1), which critiques a number of atheist arguments.

In previous chapter critiques, I’ve defended the atheist argument against Bannister’s attacks. But I don’t defend this one because no one makes it. No one makes it, that is, except theists. They’re 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, great—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?” He insists that something outside science dictates this evaluation.

OK, atheists, how would you 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 discover. Bannister tries to horrify with the idea that science would dictate this computation rather than love or God. Or something.

How do we compute the value of a human life?

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

Bannister probably wants a more intangible or intuitive approach. For example, 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.

Consider some other comparisons. 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 way to explore this is challenge of assigning a value on a life is through 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 get your clothes filthy. Let’s say that the financial cost to you would be $500. Would that stop you? Of course not—anyone would sacrifice their clothes for a child’s life. But that means that saving a life is worth $500 or more 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 at least one life. Most people would discard this appeal after a few seconds’ consideration.

Using science to uncover and explain moral conclusions

That was a detour, but I think it was relevant to Bannister’s challenge that the value of human life is never found by science. My point is first that we can indeed put a crass monetary value on human life. We do it all the time.

In addition, 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. This is a product of our evolutionary path, which is explained by science. Or consider legislators evaluating a proposed improvement to a dangerous road 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 as he fishes for something beyond science that only God can explain. 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.

Back to Bannister’s original challenge, can science answer all questions? We don’t know yet. But the problem of weighing the value of human life is one to which the scientific method is essential.

Continue with the conclusion.

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


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/16/17.)

Image from Wikimedia, public domain

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