I recently read this post by Neil Carter over at Godless in Dixie about Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth. In it, Mr. Carter covers Dr. Gleiser’s comments regarding the limits of scientific knowledge and atheism. Central to these statements was the idea that, “…[A]theism is inconsistent with the scientific method.” Mr. Carter characterized it more clearly in the article title, “Award-Winning Physicist: Science Doesn’t Support Atheism.” If anything would qualify as secular heresy, I’m pretty sure that would be it.
Don’t get the torches and kindling just yet.
If you haven’t read the article or the interview, the main point Dr. Gleiser makes is correct. He’s talking about the scientific method specifically. Science is a philosophy which deals with nature and natural phenomena. It uses inductive reasoning in the form of the scientific method to get at truths about nature. If the method cannot be applied to an hypothesis, it cannot be tested. And if it can’t be tested, science can’t say anything about it one way or the other. There can be no scientific knowledge of it.*
It’s the equivalent of saying the sky is blue because of how blue is defined. This shouldn’t be remarkable in any way. Dr. Gleiser didn’t have to redefine science to get his result. While he might have played questionable games with some terminology, I don’t think it should be the main criticism of what he had to say. In other words, nothing has actually changed.
But it does raise a bit of a problem. Science is the reason why people know they can’t walk on water, magically create food, or come back from the dead. Does this mean that science can’t justify anything?
The problem, I think, lies in confidence.
If the scientific method was a legal standard, it would be “beyond all doubt.” This is part of the reason why it’s so reliable as a method of acquiring knowledge. Anything not proven 100% by testing is treated with skepticism.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. I have no clue how my car engine works. This doesn’t stop me from driving my car. Likewise, if people could only be confident in things when it was at 100%, nobody would accomplish anything. What I’m getting at here is the practical limitation of philosophy and argument in the real world.
When people get into discussions about this stuff, there’s a tendency to race towards the morbidly absurd notions of “reliable knowledge.” My experience with religion is mostly rooted in Christianity; Christian versions of this include relying on the Bible for advice on everything. Atheists will sometimes do the equivalent. One comment on Neil’s post included the statement, “…[T]here is real hard evidence that gods do not in fact exist.” Play with certain definitions, she might be right. Just like Christians could be right about the Bible if certain terms and conditions are met.
All of this tends to get around the notion that people who don’t believe in deities can have valid reasons for doing so. I don’t believe in deities because all the evidence for them is testimonial, no religious claim has been verified independent of testimony, and human understanding has debunked many of the hard claims religions have made. On top of that, human understanding is finally starting to get to a point where it can describe a universe without deities.
If I’m being fair, the room for doubt exists only where deities exist which don’t behave like any religion says they do. But this can be hard to admit at times. Especially when some people treat it like it’s a weakness instead of an offer of conversation.
And yeah, it’s a big deal because of double standards and abuse.
Ever since coming out as an atheist on this blog, I’ve been confronted with people who insist I can’t be sure about what I believe. It’s called gaslighting, and it’s a popular thing to do in American Christianity. Also, there are issues of people doubting what science does actually say in favor of something in the Bible. And if that’s not bad enough, I’m constantly getting told to respect the beliefs of others while remaining quiet about my own.
Unfortunately, there are people who aren’t having a good time in their faith. They might have questions their religious peers can’t answer. Or maybe they’re kids who have no one to turn to because their religion controls their social life. These people need welcoming out from where they are to a place where they can be the best versions of themselves. I don’t think everyone needs to be an atheist to achieve that; I do think people need to be able to inquire without ridicule or censure.
Where should the line get drawn between confidence and overconfidence?
Overconfidence in science does play a part in keeping some people from examining their religious beliefs. It was one of the excuses I used to use when I was religious to just shut down thought on the matter. My assumption was that they overstated their case for the reasons I wanted to avoid overstating mine. I didn’t recognize that it was just an excuse.
Still, I think that Dr. Gleiser’s criticism is fair. I don’t see science as a panacea for everything. It simply pursues knowledge. We as a species are not absolved of figuring out what to do with that knowledge. That last part is difficult, and it’s where we need to evolve.
*This could also have gotten applied to some of the other stuff Dr. Gleiser was saying in his interview. If we’re going to split hairs, then belief in rare Earth, spirituality, and humanity as a moral center of the universe also have to get tossed out. They sound great in an interview, but it’s hard to excuse them when you’re trying to convince people to get back to the fundamental boundaries of scientific inquiry.