Other Worldviews

Answering the New Atheists—Part 2

Author Greg Koukl Published on 07/01/2008

Read part 1 here.

Science: No Safe Haven

Infamous New Atheist Christopher Hitchens recently debated Privileged Planet author Jay Wesley Richards at Stanford on the existence of God. In the middle of Richards’s opening remarks, Hitchens cut him off with a pair of questions.

“Do you believe Jesus Christ was born of a virgin?” he interrupted. “Do you believe he was resurrected from the dead?” Richards assented to both. Hitchens shrugged. “I rest my case,” he said dismissively. “This is an honest guy, who has just made it very clear science has nothing to do with his world view.”

It was a remarkable non sequitur from a brilliant man. Precisely what “case” did Hitchens think was vindicated? Richards affirmed belief in supernatural events. But this should not be surprising—or in any way damning, for that matter—since it is part of the package of the theistic world view Richards was defending.

Apparently for Hitchens, anything not proven by science is contrary to science, and if contrary, then irrational. Supernatural events, by definition, cannot be countenanced by a scientific view grounded in naturalism. Therefore, belief in miracles borders on lunacy. QED, Richards is refuted.

I want you to notice two things about Hitchens’s dismissal of Richards. First, in spite of all this atheist’s sermonizing about reason, he was guilty of a sophomoric blunder in reasoning: His own appeal was circular. The very thing at issue in the debate is whether or not such a materialistic view of the universe is sound. By assuming as evidence against Richards’s view the very thing he is obliged to prove in the debate, atheistic materialism, Hitchens showed himself to be the irrational one, not Richards.

Second, notice the impulse to use science as a stick to beat up on theism. So-called “New Atheists” like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett are convinced that science is on their side. They presume that the deliverances of science have somehow inveighed with finality against belief in God. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We learned in the last Solid Ground1 that, on the contrary, careful observation of and thoughtful reflection on the natural realm indicate that a superior supra-natural intelligence is the best explanation for both the existence of the world and its finely ordered complexity on multiple levels (physics, biology, etc.).

There are three additional reasons why science is no safe harbor for the atheist. First, Hitchens’s implicit scientism is false. Second, the discipline of science in principle is not capable of refuting anything supernatural. Third, the science game, as currently construed, is rigged.

Scientism Commits Suicide

The modern slogan that only science gives us reliable truth about the world is called “scientism.” At first glance, this looks appealing. Many think knowledge begins and ends with the scientific method. Anything else is mere subjective opinion and unsubstantiated belief. However, those who hold this view will be surprised to know it self-destructs. Consider this dialogue:

“I don’t believe in religion.”

“Why not?”

“There is no scientific evidence for it.”

“Then you shouldn’t believe in science either.”

“Why not?”

“Because there is no scientific evidence for it.”

This was a terse exchange, so let me expand a bit. I noticed first that the slogan “Only science gives reliable truth” is a statement about truth that also purports to be true, so it includes itself in what it refers to (just like the statement “All English sentences are false” includes itself as an English sentence).

Next, I simply asked, “Can the statement satisfy its own requirement?” I quickly realized it could not. Since there is no scientific evidence proving that science is the only way to know truth, the view self-destructs.

The next time someone dismisses you with the “Only science gives reliable truth” canard, ask if he wants you to take his statement as fact or simply unsubstantiated opinion. If fact, ask what testable scientific evidence led him to his conclusion. As it turns out, this claim is not a fact of science. It is a philosophical assertion about science that itself cannot be proven by the scientific method and would therefore be unreliable, according to this approach.

It gets worse. Scientism commits suicide a second way, so this notion is doubly dead. Imagine you wanted to collect all knowledge in a box. Let’s call it the “Truth Box.” Before any alleged truth could go into the box, it must first pass the scientific truth test (this is the claim of scientism).

The problem is, your knowledge project could never get started because some truths need to be in the Truth Box first before science itself could begin its analysis. The truths of logic and mathematics must be in the box, for example, along with truth of the basic reliability of our senses. Certain moral truths—like “Report all data honestly”—must be in the box. In fact, the entire scientific method must be in the box before the method itself can be used to test the truthfulness of anything else.

None of these truths can be established by the methods of science because science cannot operate in a knowledge vacuum. Certain truths—known through means other than science—must be in place before science can begin its task. Since scientism is inconsistent with the presuppositions that make science possible, scientism as a comprehensive view of knowledge self-destructs a second time. When New Atheists implicitly invoke scientism against theism, they are leaning on a bent reed.

Weighing a Chicken with a Yardstick

Atheists face a second serious problem with science. Let me ask what might seem like an odd question. Can you weigh a chicken with a yardstick? Clearly not. Yardsticks measure length, not weight. Does it follow, then, that chickens weigh nothing? Again, clearly not. Tools meant to measure one attribute tell you nothing about other attributes they have no capability of assessing.

This notion is so elementary it is easy to miss its significance regarding the question of science and the supernatural, so let me state it bluntly. Strictly speaking, science is not capable of ruling out anything, even in principle, about the immaterial realm.

The scientific enterprise, presently construed, is designed to measure physical things, a function it fulfills reasonably well. It is not suited to directly measure nonphysical things. It is a mistake, however, to take this natural limitation of science as evidence against theism. Yet this kind of blunder is made frequently.

For example, a few years ago Time magazine made a stunning announcement. In an extensive article on the mind they wrote, “Despite our every instinct to the contrary, there is one thing that consciousness is not: some entity deep inside the brain that corresponds to the ‘self,’ some kernel of awareness that runs the show.”2

According to Time, everything about human consciousness—thoughts, desires, pains, pleasures, motives, emotions—can be explained in purely physical terms. A mother’s love for her children is reduced to c-fibers firing in her brain. The virtue of kindness is nothing more than genetic structure. Our hopes for the future are simply so much chemistry. Brain and body work together as a sophisticated, biological machine with no help from a ghostly, immaterial thing called a soul.

How do they come to this conclusion?

“After more than a century of looking for it, brain researchers have long since concluded that there is no conceivable place for such a self to be located in the physical brain, and that it simply doesn’t exist.”

In other words, scientists are convinced an immaterial soul cannot exist first because they can’t find it with scientific instruments, and second because there is no room for it to fit in the brain. That’s like saying you don’t believe in invisible men because you’ve never seen any. Clearly, you can’t measure an immaterial soul with instruments, so the inability of science to find one means nothing. This issue must be resolved by different means.

Though science can help us in many ways, it cannot foreclose on anything—souls, spirits, God(s), salvation, Heaven, Hell—outside its domain for a simple reason: It is not equipped to measure those things. It’s like trying to weigh a chicken with a yardstick. This approach to defeating theism is a dead end.

Science has never advanced empirical evidence to show that supernatural events cannot happen. Instead, it has assumed, prior to the evidence, that the material world is all there is. This illicit intrusion of naturalistic philosophy into the process is central to the third reason science provides no safe harbor for the atheist.

A Stacked Deck

Whenever you hear the complaint, “Creation or intelligent design (ID) is not science,” a subtle sleight of hand is in play. The ruse capitalizes on an ambiguity between two completely different definitions of science.3

The first definition is the most well known. Science is a methodology—observation, experimentation, testing, etc.—that allows researchers to discover facts about the world. Any view that does not follow the right methodology is not science. Presumably, this is why evolution succeeds and ID fails.

The second definition of science involves the philosophy of naturalistic materialism. All phenomena must be explained in terms of matter and energy governed by natural law. Any view that does not conform to this second definition is also not science.

There are two requirements, then, for an investigation of the natural world to qualify as “scientific.” First, one must use the right methods. Second, one must come up with the right kind of answers, those consistent with materialism. Usually, these two elements are not in conflict. Good methods produce answers completely consistent with matter in motion governed by natural law. But sometimes they are not compatible.

Evolution, arguably, is a case in point. At first blush, it seems like Darwinism is about scientific facts. But when facts suggest intelligent design, the second definition of science is surreptitiously invoked to label design as “unscientific” regardless of the integrity of the methods used to infer design. Take careful note here: When there is a conflict between methodology and materialism, the philosophy always trumps the facts.

Modern science does not conclude from the evidence that design is not tenable. It assumes it prior to the evidence. Any scientific methodology (first definition of science) that points to a designer of any aspect of the universe is summarily disqualified by scientific philosophy (second definition of science) as “religion disguised as science.”

Douglas Futuyma, author of one of the most widely used college evolutionary biology textbooks, says,

“Where science insists on material, mechanistic causes [i.e., materialistic philosophy] that can be understood by physics and chemistry, the literal believer in Genesis invokes unknowable supernatural forces4 [emphasis added].

Those who believe in intelligent design, however, claim that these forces are knowable, at least in principle. Consider this analogy. When a dead body is discovered, an impartial investigation might indicate foul play and not an accident. If the body is bullet-ridden, chances are the death was not a result of natural causes. In the same way, scientific evidence could, in principle, indicate an agent in creation rather than chance. This is not a leap of faith, but a conclusion based on evidence.

Clearly, though, the materialist paradigm is paramount, and everything must be done to save it. Harvard Genetics Professor Richard Lewontin is amazingly candid about this fact. In The New York Review of Books, he makes this stunning admission:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs...in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door5 [emphasis in the original].

Here, Richard Lewontin, distinguished Harvard Genetics Professor, admits that the apparatus of science is not geared to produce the truth, whatever it may be, but rather to produce philosophically acceptable answers. He openly admits the game has been rigged.

Most who hold this prejudice are not so candid. In fact, the majority—confident their convictions rest on scientific fact, not materialist philosophy—are not even aware of any problem. They show their hand, however, with telltale responses like “Creation is not science,” or “ID is religion disguised as science.”

These comments should always trigger questions. “What specifically disqualifies creation as science?” or “Why dismiss the idea of design in spite of the evidence?” Invariably, your probing will reveal the real reason behind the rejection: bias, not fact. Creation of any sort is not the right kind of answer. Whenever you hear the responses above, you know the philosophical ruse is in play.

Can theists be biased? Certainly. Whenever someone takes sides on an issue, it’s always possible she has not been even-handed in her analysis. Not all bias is equal, however. A Christian’s bias does not inform her conclusions the same way a materialist’s bias does.

The physicalist is forced to eliminate certain answers before the game gets started. A theist is not so encumbered. She believes in the laws of nature, but also is open to the possibility of supernatural agency. Both are consistent with her worldview. She can judge the evidence on its own merits, not hindered by a philosophy that automatically eliminates supernatural options before the evidence receives a hearing.

Ironically, the Christian’s bias broadens her categories making her more open-minded, not less. She has a greater chance of discovering truth, because she can follow the evidence wherever it leads.6

God of the Gaps?

Critics are quick to object at this point.

“This attempt to remove the philosophic restraints on science commits the ‘God of the gaps’ fallacy. Just because science hasn’t solved some of the problems doesn’t mean it never will. There is no need to punt to superstition. A rational (i.e., naturalistic) answer is always available. Using God to arbitrarily plug holes that science has yet to fill is a misguided strategy.”

Here’s my response. First, this is yet another circular tactic. The critic’s complete confidence in his own “science of the gaps” is dictated by the assumption that the universe runs on materialist principles, so every event must have a naturalistic explanation, whether science has discovered it yet or not. But the legitimacy of materialism is the very thing at stake in the discussion between theists and atheists, so implicitly invoking it against theists is not helpful.

Why assume there is a gap in our knowledge simply because there are no answers consistent with materialism? It’s possible that some breaches remain because we’ve been slavishly looking for answers in the wrong places.

Second, careful appeals to a supra-natural agent (God) are not based on what we don’t know, but on what we do know. They are not arbitrary leaps of faith fueled by ignorance. Design can be detected empirically. If the evidence is good, the gap has been filled with a real answer based on good reasons. Just because the solution is not the right kind of answer (a naturalistic one) doesn’t mean it’s not the right answer.

Third, sometimes the very nature of the problem makes a naturalistic explanation wildly counter-intuitive. It may be theoretically possible that a man with five bullet holes in his chest died from natural causes, but is it reasonable to hold out for a naturalistic solution when evidence for agency is so decisive? What really matters is the data on hand, not facts that might be forthcoming—existing evidence, not future fantasies.

In the final analysis, science provides no safe haven for the atheist. No legitimate deliverances of science in any way compromises theism. First, the idea that science is the only reliable discipline to give us knowledge about the world is false. Second, science cannot, even in principle, foreclose on the possibility of religious truth, supernatural events, or nonphysical persons like God. Third, the dirty little secret is that the game of science has been rigged to produce materialistic answers regardless of the evidence to the contrary.

In the next issue of Solid Ground, we will see if the New Atheists’ claim that morality is on their side has any substance.