I’ve been following the debates between the atheists and the Christians (and I specify Christians, because I don’t think I saw anyone from another religion offering inputs) with some interest, and it’s left me somewhat...bemused. I think both sides are missing or failing to make some valid points I feel need to be considered. But let me summarise first what I got from either side of the debate.
First, the atheists. Their views are solidly based on quantifiable evidence via a series of hypotheses and evidence that support it. That’s the scientific method. You have a number of base assumptions, and observations on which is based a hypothesis, a methodology for gathering data, data analysis, and then finally an outcome that either supports the hypothesis, or doesn’t support it. A hypothesis is further tested by additional experiments, preferably using a different methodology. All in all, it’s a good way to piece together how the world and the universe works.
Now, based on the fact that there is no evidence for the existence of any kind of spiritual being, atheists say that therefore, he doesn’t exist. There’s nothing in the universe that requires a god, or gods.
Second, we get to the christians. Their idea of the universe is that god made it, and we’re all subject to him because the bible says so. Some also attempt to convince others of god’s existence by saying he touches their lives in some way.
Atheists usually have a field say with these claims, forever seeking proof; real, quantifiable evidence. It’s a big weakness in the theist world view, that there’s no evidence for god.
I do feel, however, that there are a couple of weaknesses in the atheist view as well.
You see...both views are a little fundamentalist because both views hold themselves to be the ultimate truth. I think this is a bit short sighted...especially from a scientific point of view. As a post-graduate in the sciences, I know a little something about science and its limitations.
Yes, science does have limitations, in that there are a number of things relevant to the human condition that it cannot answer. The attitude of some adherents of science (and I’m not speaking of professional scientists here, but people who use science to support views upon which science cannot give an answer) is that if science cannot give an answer, then the thing it can’t answer is irrelevant. They treat science as the be all and end all of reality. In many ways, this view is as limiting as simply basing your views on faith in god.
But getting back to the limitations of science. Science can only operate in a system where something is quantifiable. If something can’t be measured or observed directly or indirectly, then you can’t apply science to it. I’m sure you’re all familiar with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. If you know the location of any given particle, then you cannot know its speed, and visa versa. Likewise, we can never know what happens inside a singularity. Science can answer a lot of questions about the universe and how it works, but there will always be things that are unknown. These things are usually lumped in with philosophy, and science (or the adherents of science to justify their worldview) generally don’t deal with it very well.
All of that is really beside the point. Even if we could know everything, there are still things science cannot answer...and those things are fundamentally human things. Things about us as people. Can science tell me how much I love my partner? Only as a function of the level of dopamine in my brain. Knowing how much dopamine is released in my brain when he kisses me is a completely meaningless thing to know. Is knowing the amount of dopamine going to tell me anything meaningful about my relationship with him? No scientist could tell me, based on the level of dopamine, that the relationship will last, or whether it’ll keep my eye from roving. Although there’s a causal link between the emotion and the chemical, the behaviour it triggers isn’t predictable, repeatable or quantifiable. I may get a bigger dose of dopamine singing karaoke duets with one of my faghags than I get from feeding my partner strawberries and chocolate, but does that mean I enjoy singing karaoke more and would rather do that than receive a sensual massage from my partner? Of course it doesn’t.
Science cannot tell us what the best method of governance is, or whether it’s ethical to allow abortions. Those are intrinsically human things that can’t be quantified scientific ways. They rely on human opinions, and we know human opinions are subject to change, and are not at all immutable. A prime example is the recognition of gay rights. In the past, homosexuality was classified as a disorder and treated as such by psychologists. On what scientific evidence was it determined to be abnormal behaviour? By the accepted norms of society. On what scientific basis was it removed from the list of disorders? I know a lot of you will argue that there is research that prove it’s genetic, and that is true, but it wasn’t on the basis of evidence that it was removed from the disorder list. The research was done because a small number of people needed supportive evidence for a civil and human rights drive, and there were a couple of sociologists willing to do the research.
That’s another limitation of science. Science relies on having people willing to ask the right questions. Back in the 1950’s, the body of scientific evidence in psychology tended to reflect the norms of society at the time. A lot of scientific research went into things that were considered important at that time. Science is a lot less independent of human failures than it would like to believe and pretend it is. Among the scientific community, science is as much a search for truth as it is a weapon with which to hit other scientists. A good example of this is Einstein’s rejection of Quantum Theory. Einstein himself, probably the greatest scientific mind of his time, simply could not accept its validity, and laboured until the day he died on an alternative theory. Sometimes, we as humans simply refuse to accept the evidence we’re presented with, and scientists are no exception. No scientist alive is going to waste time on a theory he doesn’t feel is correct. Feel being the operative word here. What a lot of people don’t realise is that a lot of science depends not just on cold, hard logic, but also on great leaps of imagination and creativity. Some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of our time depended on this aspect of humanity: Sir Isaac Newton’s conception of the theory of gravity. Einstein’s theory of relativity. Watson and Crick’s deciphering of DNA. Darwin’s theory of evolution. All these things had a huge component of unquantifiable creativity involved in it.
Humans are simply not built to be coldly logical. It’s simply not human nature. As such, science by itself cannot be used as the sole basis for a world view. It denies the irrational, the creative, things without which science cannot operate, because we, as humans, cannot operate without it.
Atheists love to deny the existence of the spiritual because it cannot be studied scientifically. This is all good and well, but don’t lose sight of what science cannot tell us. Ultimately, we as humans have to muddle through things as best we can, making it up as we go along. The creative, the spiritual, the irrational, the emotional, the ethical and the moral...these are things we must simply figure out for ourselves. Science cannot help us there. Science isn’t the ultimate reality. It’s simply a tool of discovery. One tool among the many others we’re equipped with as humans.
Ultimately, we all believe what we feel is correct. We believe what our senses tell us is true. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell yourself that all you’re feeling is a milligram of dopamine rolling around in your brain...you’re going to make love to your partner, and miss him/her when they’re away from you. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell yourself that the moon sitting huge low in the sky is nothing more than an optical illusion created by the wiring in your brain...you’re still going to stop and stare, and admire its beauty. We create the reality we experience through a smorgasbord of sensory inputs, thoughts, feelings and intuitions, and the balance of these are different for everyone. For sensualists, the experience of the senses are most important. For the spiritualists, the intuitive part is most important. The humanist may prioritise emotions, and the rationalist will emphasise thought.
To the rationalists I ask: how will you prove to me scientifically that putting an emphasis on thought is superior to the humanist’s emphasis of emotion? Can you do so without referring to outcomes of its use, that can stand independently from interpretation?
I ask the same for the spiritualists: can you give me any reason beyond your intuitive feeling that it’s incorrect, for a sensualist to indulge himself? Can you do so without referencing your holy book?
Whatever aspect of how we experience reality you emphasis...ultimately, all humans have access to all these ways to experience reality. Everything we do is influenced by all these things at once. None can ultimately be said to be superior. Science gave us medicine and computers. It also gave us drug resistant bacteria and atom bombs. Science can give us antibiotics and nuclear power, but it cannot tell us how to use them correctly. For that, we need intuition, and emotion. Intuition gave us wonderful artwork and architectural design. It also gave us religious wars and fashion. The jury is still out about which are worse.
We need all these things to make sense of the universe and the people around us. The rationalists are not wrong in wanting proof in order for them to believe in god, but they are wrong for requiring scientific proof in order to allow christians to believe in god. That’s the funny thing about proof: it’s subjective. You accept it or you don’t. Just like Einstein couldn’t accept quantum physics. That was a failing of his rationality, but it does not make him a bad excuse for a human being. It’s not the end of the world that Einstein couldn’t accept quantum physics. Physics moved on beyond Einstein. One day, christianity will be replaced by some other religion, just as it once replaced paganism. Whether you accept any piece of evidence or any sensory input or perception as real is entirely subjective, based on your own make-up as a person. For some, ultimate proof is needed. For others, faith is enough. Others require feelings to make something real to them.
I like to think of it this way: we might none of us be real. We might all be the figments of someone’s imagination. We’re real to ourselves, but we cannot ultimately prove that anything else is. I might be insane and imagining all of you. Or I might be a figment of your insanity. Or we might all be figments of god’s imagination. There’s no way to prove it either way. So...let’s all keep an open mind here. Once you start to believe that your view of the world is the only correct view, you’ve closed your mind to other possibilities, and a closed mind thinks no new thoughts.