Award-Winning Physicist: Science Doesn’t Support Atheism

Award-Winning Physicist: Science Doesn’t Support Atheism March 30, 2019

Marcelo GleiserLast week, Scientific American published an interview with Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physics professor at Dartmouth and this year’s winner of the Templeton Prize, in which he said some things about the interplay between science and faith that ruffled some feathers.

Gleiser, who identifies as an agnostic, said a number of things I would disagree with, mostly because of the way he seems to be defining his terms. But semantics aside, I have to admit that he makes a legitimate point about the limits of knowledge.

I’ll address his main point in a second, but first I want to suggest that he overly conflates science and philosophy when he makes statements like this:

“I’m not talking about the science of materials, or high-temperature superconductivity, which is awesome and super important, but that’s not the kind of science I’m doing. I’m talking about science as part of a much grander and older sort of questioning about who we are in the big picture of the universe.” (emphasis mine)

The way I see it, once you start discussing “who we are in the big picture,” you are moving beyond science per se and dipping your toes into philosophy. Perhaps he sees those as opposite wings on the same bird, so to speak. But if he does, then I feel like that undermines what he says next about his antipathy toward atheism.

Atheism or Agnosticism?

He takes issue with atheism and says he considers himself an agnostic because he isn’t authorized to claim the knowledge that there are no gods of any kind. This is where a number of people will push back because, in case you didn’t know, nothing spikes non-theist’s blood pressure faster than pushing a different definition of the word “atheist.”

Most atheists I know insist that atheism merely indicates “a lack of belief in gods.” From one point of view, that’s an accurate definition. But let’s be honest, few of us really stop there. Most of us take a step further and, if we are being honest, would have to admit that we also believe all gods are imaginary—made up by humans.

Do you see the difference? The first position merely disclaims any belief in supernatural deities while the second claims a positive belief that gods do not and cannot exist. We’re getting into semantic games here, but how we define our terms is the crux of the matter at hand.

The way most atheists define the word atheism, at least on paper, Gleiser is the same thing they are—they’re on the same team. But he defines atheism a little differently, saying:

I honestly think atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. What I mean by that is, what is atheism? It’s a statement, a categorical statement that expresses belief in nonbelief. ‘I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.’ Period. It’s a declaration.” (emphasis mine)

It’s hard to make an accurate generalization on this, but I think most who take issue with this usage of the term would argue that he just described something else, possibly “anti-theism.” Honestly, I’m not keen on fighting that particular battle because it comes down to how you use either word, and to what your purpose is in doing so. As my Greek professor used to say, “Words have usage, not meaning.”

Where Faith and Science Intersect

With that in mind, rather than quibbling over the definitions themselves, I’d like to see where he is going with this and then decide if I agree with what he is trying to say.

“[In] science we don’t really do declarations. We say, ‘Okay, you can have a hypothesis, you have to have some evidence against or for that.’ And so an agnostic would say, look, I have no evidence for God or any kind of god…But on the other hand, an agnostic would acknowledge no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn’t know about.” (emphasis mine)

I see what he’s trying to say, and for the most part I agree with him. None of what he just said prevents us from ruling out the vast majority of religious claims people throw at us. Sometimes the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, like when a religion makes grandiose claims about things which should leave evidence all over the place.

Related: “None of This Really Happened

Many of the claims of the Christian faith can be tested and falsified through empirical observation. For example it does not in fact increase the likelihood that someone will heal faster from a cardiac event if they are prayed for, and we can say this with some confidence because a relatively large, controlled study was done several years ago by none other than the Templeton Foundation, the very same organization which honored Gleiser with this award.

Religions like Christianity make a number of other testable claims as well, and that creates an undeniable intersection between faith and science. For another example, if your version of your religion claims special knowledge about the biological origins of the human race, science gets to determine whether or not its claims about that are true.

Scientific thinking also authorizes us to reject any religious claims which are internally incoherent, i.e. logical inconsistent with themselves. Just as rationality disqualifies incompatible concepts like a perfectly square circle, so it also demands that we disregard other categorically impossible combinations of properties. If a religion champions an interventionist sort of deity in theory but then in practice keeps pivoting to one that never shows up in any discernible way, rationality demands that we should reject its claims.

Related: “Changing Gods In Midstream

But that’s not the same as claiming to know that no kinds of gods can exist. Frankly, we’d have a hard enough time settling on what the term “god” even means. To repurpose Arthur C. Clarke, a sufficiently advanced alien visitor would be indistinguishable from a god to us.

Epistemological Humility

To my mind, the most important point Gleiser makes isn’t about the definition of terms (about which atheist are famously contentious), it’s about the importance of epistemological humility—taking ownership of the limitations of our knowledge.

I believe we should take a much humbler approach to knowledge, in the sense that if you look carefully at the way science works, you’ll see that yes, it is wonderful — magnificent! — but it has limits. And we have to understand and respect those limits.” (emphasis mine)

Good science is parsimonious, taking pains never to make claims beyond what the data itself supports. Note how studies published in professional journals always end by spelling out the limits of the conclusions, suggesting areas of further study without making any definitive pronouncements about what those future investigations will find. Wouldn’t it be nice if we did that with everything else?

Formerly religious people like me know better than anyone how easily we can fool ourselves, how long we can labor under the illusion that we know how the world works. We know too well that we can be wrong, and it impacts the way we hold to the things believe about the nature of reality, or at least it should. It’s an awareness we take along with us into everything we do.

Related: “The ‘Nones’ vs. the ‘Dones‘”

Gleiser puts his finger on a larger malady of which he feels the popular approach to atheism is a symptom:

“There is a difference between ‘science’ and what we can call ‘scientism,’ which is the notion that science can solve all problems. To a large extent, it is not science but rather how humanity has used science that has put us in our present difficulties.”

I wholeheartedly agree with him here. One whiffs the unmistakeable odor of overconfidence in the dogmatic proclamations coming out of some corners of the atheosphere, and I think it’s the natural consequence of knowing just enough to be dangerous but not enough to realize how much we don’t really understand.

I can’t help but roll my eyes whenever I read “Science says…” because whatever follows is most likely a hasty generalization on the part of someone who doesn’t understand that science doesn’t speak univocally about much of anything. There are often multiple angles from which to view whatever is being studied, and today’s scientific consensus may very well be tomorrow’s punchline.

It’s best to hold everything we think with a loose enough grip to let it go when something more accurate comes along.

Where Are We Headed?

It’s unfortunate how exclusively people will focus on debating terms with this world-renowned physicist, who is himself an agnostic and isn’t pushing religion at all. He sounds like a humanist to me, and it appears he is looking for a wider, more globally inclusive way to frame who we are and where we are headed as a species.

[W]hat we really need right now in this increasingly divisive world is a new unifying myth. I mean ‘myth’ as a story that defines a culture. So, what is the myth that will define the culture of the 21st century? It has to be a myth of our species, not about any particular belief system or political party. How can we possibly do that? Well, we can do that using astronomy, using what we have learned from other worlds, to position ourselves and say, ‘Look, folks, this is not about tribal allegiance, this is about us as a species on a very specific planet that will go on with us—or without us.'”

I couldn’t agree more. Lately here I’ve found myself in search of a non-theistic eschatology, a less religious and more mature projection about what we should expect for the future of our species. Will we survive what Carl Sagan termed our own “technological adolescence,” avoiding self-destruction along the journey toward evolutionary advancement? Do we feel the cosmos guarantees us anything at all?

Personally, I don’t have that confidence, and it seems to me our future success depends at least in part on our ability to stop claiming to know things we don’t really know, as Peter Boghossian often defines the word “faith.” We talk as if we’re all wiser than religious people, but that remains to be seen, doesn’t it? We should take care not to repeat their mistakes by stepping beyond what we know in order to make claims about things we’ve barely begun to understand.

[Image Source: aCriatura]


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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.
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