I read When Breath Becomes Air, the dying memoir of Paul Kalanithi. He was a brilliant, promising neurosurgeon who found out – at the age of 36, just as his medical career was getting started – that he had terminal lung cancer.
Anyone could be forgiven for raging at the cosmic unfairness of it all, but this book doesn’t do that. Throughout the ordeal, Kalanithi maintained an attitude of good humor and patience. Most of his struggles revolved around the question of what to do with his dwindling time: how long he could continue to be a doctor and operate on others, even while dying himself; whether he should try to start a family with his wife Lucy, knowing he wouldn’t be there to see his child grow up. The process of writing itself took up a significant number of his final days.
Kalanithi was raised in a Christian family, but he became an atheist by his own telling – a common result for neuroscientists who see firsthand how the mind arises from the brain, although his book doesn’t spend much time on this aspect of his job.
But later in his life, he became religious again. There’s an excerpt from the book explaining his thinking, and I wanted to respond to it:
During my sojourn in ironclad atheism, the primary arsenal leveled against Christianity had been its failure on empirical grounds. Surely enlightened reason offered a more coherent cosmos. Surely Occam’s razor cut the faithful free from blind faith. There is no proof of God; therefore, it is unreasonable to believe in God.
…The problem, however, eventually became evident: to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning — to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in. That’s not to say that if you believe in meaning, you must also believe in God. It is to say, though, that if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any. In other words, existential claims have no weight; all knowledge is scientific knowledge.
To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone the beliefs they depend on for comfort in the face of mortality. It would be spiteful and cruel to take that away from someone facing the imminent end of their life. But Paul Kalanithi has passed away now, and his beliefs can be examined like anyone else’s.
Although God’s existence isn’t really what the book is about, when I read this part, I was surprised that this was the best argument Kalanithi had to offer. It seems uncharitable to speculate, but I can’t help but wonder if there was some motivated reasoning at play.
Despite the intelligence and erudition of the author, this is a basic category mistake. Love and hate and meaning are real because we create them. Those words are the names we give to patterns of human belief and the actions we take because of those beliefs. As I said in “Life of Wonder“, we are the reason that these intangible qualities exist.
Nor is it true that science provides no basis for love or hate or meaning. They’re as empirically verifiable as anything could be. If for some reason you were skeptical about their existence, you could convince yourself using ordinary psychological research methods: ask people whether they’re experiencing those emotions and how intensely, and then evaluate how those reports correlate with behavior. To dismiss this as beside the point is, essentially, to claim that the human mind is off-limits to science – which would be an unusual position for a neuroscientist to take!
Religious apologists seem to believe that these emotions are disproved unless science can find a basis for them that’s independent of human minds, but that’s silly. They exist by virtue of the fact that they exist in human minds. Where else could they be?
The only reason to adopt this tactic is recognition that every effort to find empirical evidence of God’s existence have failed. This gives apologists an obvious motive to deny that scientific testing is the right approach. But as I’ve written before, the scientific method isn’t some esoteric or specialized method of problem-solving. It’s just “a more sophisticated, more careful way of asking and answering questions about what is true, with extra safeguards built in to counteract the ways that human beings often fool or mislead ourselves.”
To say that God’s existence is beyond scientific inquiry is the same as saying that God’s existence makes no difference to the world. But if that’s the case, what reason could you have for coming to believe in God in the first place? If it’s out of pure fideism, for reassurance in the face of suffering and grief, I can respect that – as long as you acknowledge this honestly, and don’t maintain a pretense that faith is supported by evidence or that it’s the rational conclusion.