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March 21st, 2019

Atheism: Not What You Think It Is

A friend on Facebook shared this, from of all places Scientific American…

Atheism Is Inconsistent with the Scientific Method, Prizewinning Physicist Says

In conversation, the 2019 Templeton Prize winner does not pull punches on the limits of science, the value of humility and the irrationality of nonbelief

I had to do a double-take when I saw the direction this came from, but then again this man is a well respected physicist and the sciences are just as diverse as any other crowd. Marcelo Gleiser, a 60-year-old Brazil-born theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College and a science popularizer. The article’s headline is a tad sensationalistic…the body of the article is mostly about a need for humility in science, and his evolution as a physicist. But there is a passage about atheism where he says 

“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.”…”

But this gets it entirely wrong.

This is mischaracterizing atheism as a positive declaration that there is no god. That’s a pretty common mistake and I suppose a lot of folks who call themselves atheists make it too. But then you’re boxed into the position of proving a negative and that’s how believers like to tie atheists in knots and how he gets to where he can say it’s inconsistent with the scientific method. But atheism is simply unbelief. And if declaring there is no god is unscientific then so is declaring there is when the evidence simply isn’t there.

I’ve written previously that in his book Science and Human Values Jacob Bronowski makes an excellent case for the moral values the practice of science teaches…that scientific method Mr.Gleiser says is atheism is inconsistent with. And it begins and ends with respect for what a fact is…

Theory and experiment alike become meaningless unless the scientist brings to them, and his fellows can assume in him, the respect of a lucid honesty with himself. The mathematician and philosopher W. K. Clifford said this forcibly at the end of his short life, nearly a hundred years ago.

If I steal money from any person, there may be no harm done by the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the loss, or it may even prevent him from using the money badly. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest. What hurts society is not that it should loose it’s property, but that it should become a den of thieves; for then it must cease to be a society. This is why we ought not to do evil that good may come; for at any rate this great evil has come, that we have done evil and are made wicked thereby.

This is the scientist’s moral: that there is no distinction between ends and means. Clifford goes on to put this in terms of the scientist’s practice:

In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous.

And the passion in Clifford’s tone shows that to him the word credulous had the same emotional force as ‘a den of thieves’

The fulcrum of Clifford’s ethic here, and mine, is the phrase ‘it may be true after all.’ Others may allow this to justify their conduct; the practice of science wholly rejects it. It does not admit the word ‘true’ can have this meaning. The test of truth is the known factual evidence, and no glib expediency nor reason of state can justify the smallest self-deception in that. Our work is of a piece, in the large and in the detail; so that if we silence one scruple about our means, we infect ourselves and our ends together.

-Jacob Bronowski “Science and Human Values” 1956

But in the end Carl Sagan said it best:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Science, as Richard Feynman once said, is just a way we have of not fooling ourselves. Where is the evidence for the existence of god? Where is the science? My atheism isn’t a reaction against religion. It’s one day I finally had to admit to myself that belief had stopped making sense to me. But I can be convinced. Perhaps one day I’ll find myself walking on Newton’s beach and pick up one of those prettier sea shells he spoke of and find God inside (oh…well there you are!). But at this point in my life I just don’t believe. I am not asserting a negative, I’m saying I don’t see the evidence and even the concept makes no sense to me anymore.

That isn’t unscientific. And more than that, it’s respecting my human identity and that of my neighbors. We are a thinking animal, we’ve benefited greatly in the struggle for survival from having minds capable of rational thought, and Bronowski also said that the state of mind and of society is of a piece, and when we discard the testing and verifying of facts, we discard along with that what it is to be human.

Your mileage may vary on the question and the evidence and that’s fine. And it’s true that some questions put to us can be frustratingly subjective. Details matter. Science can demonstrate that Pluto exists, but some folks might disagree as to whether or not it’s a planet. I happen to think “planet” fits little Pluto just fine but I’ll listen to arguments to the contrary…or at any rate Much Better ones than I’ve heard previously. What is God? What do we mean when we say we believe or not in God? What would William Jennings Bryan say? What would Albert Einstein? Frank Lloyd Wright had this wonderful saying, I believe in God but I spell it Nature. For a long time that was me, but at some point even that became untenable. It had just stopped making sense to me.

Maybe as the concept of God evolves and changes so does the concept of atheism. Maybe as atheists listen more to why believers believe, and to their understanding of God, atheists better understand what it means to not believe. Maybe some decide they’re actually agnostics. Maybe others eventually figure out that it isn’t actually about proving a negative, proving that there is no God, and that they really and simply just don’t believe.

And if even an eminently respected physicist says my atheism is contrary to the scientific method I think I’m rightly allowed to object. He needs to understand atheists a little better.

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