Letters to an Atheist

3. Science can't prove science

Isaac Newton, one of history's greatest scientists

Dear Edward,

I’m sorry if in my last email I didn’t make myself as clear as I had hoped to.

I wasn’t actually attacking 'science' as such. I was objecting to 'science' in the sense it is used by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and other 'New Atheists', who talk of 'science' as though it were some omnipotent entity with the capacity to answer all questions relating to reality and meaning.

I believe in science, of course, but I don’t have faith in science. For writers such as Harris, Dawkins and Dennett, ‘science’ has become a kind of ersatz deity.

What we call 'modern science' was the creation of men who subscribed to a biblical worldview; scientists who believed that because the cosmos was the product of a Mind, it could be investigated and understood. For scientists like Isaac Newton, science was essentially ‘thinking the thoughts of God after him.’ Newton and others like him believed that through scientific investigation they could understand the way the universe worked, whereas morality and ethics were beyond the scope of scientific enquiry.

The self-styled ‘Enlightenment’, with its insistence that man is the measure of all things, hijacked science and claimed for the discipline infinitely more than it was capable of delivering. Science thus became less a useful servant and more a tyrannical master.

Four hundred years on, science is no longer the discipline of ‘Natural Philosophy’ it used to be. Science has morphed into ‘Scientism’, a pseudo religion that regards science as a kind of omnipotent, omniscient deity and scientists as its infallible priesthood. Alain de Botton and a growing number of atheist philosophers actually advocate the establishment of atheist churches with pseudo-religious rituals borrowed from Roman Catholicism. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say, therefore, that ‘science’, as defined by the New Atheists, is now a bona-fide religious system.

In 1799, a group of scientists, all of them ‘Christian’ in the generally accepted sense of the term, set up an Institute for ‘diffusing knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life.’

Those founders of The Royal Institute would be horrified to see the way science has since been exalted far beyond its true functions and limits. No one, I think, sums up the modern faith in scientific materialism quite so eloquently as Edward R. Harrison in his succinctly sanguite statement of faith, found in Cosmology: The Science of the Universe: ‘Hydrogen is an odourless, colourless gas which, given enough time, turns into people.’

What Harris and Dawkins and their pals call ‘science’ is something entirely different from what the founders of the Royal Institute considered it to be. Science is now a self-justifying faith system, which its followers believe with perfect faith, can not only of explaining all mysteries but can also teach us how we ought to live.

The problem, of course, is that people like Sam Harris can’t prove from ‘science alone’ that 'science alone' is capable of explaining all things. If ‘science’ can’t prove its own absolute claims on the basis of science, then faith in science is blind faith.

Harris appears to be aware of the problem, so he attempts to demonstrate his assumption with an analogy from the rules of Poker.

We know that Poker existed as a card game in America in the early nineteenth century and that it is still played more or less according to the original well-defined rules. But if a group of people decided that they wanted to play Poker according to the rules of, say, Bridge or Happy Families, they wouldn't be playing Poker; they would be playing another game entirely. The principles of Poker, like the principles of morals, are absolute. You can't just decide to establish morality on the basis of science or anything else. Poker was devised by a person who determined the rules that make Poker the game it is. If you want to play Poker, then play Poker. The rules of the creator of the game transcend the personal preferences of the players. There may be variations of the game, such as online versions; also the stakes may differ – money, matchsticks or items of clothing – but the rules remain absolute.

Likewise, science operates according well established rules, which we call the 'Scientific Method'. The Scientific Method remains the same for theists and atheist alike. Simply explained, it goes something like this:

Observation: Someone observes, for example, that when a tennis ball is suspended in the air, the ball falls vertically to the ground. But does that phenomenon apply equally in every every case?

Hypothesis: A hypothesis is formulated, which suggests that whenever a tennis ball is placed in suspension above the ground, if left to itself it will fall vertically to the ground.

Experiment: A series of controlled experiments take place in which tennis balls of all sizes are tested under various conditions to see what happens when they are placed in suspension in a free space.

Theory: If, after a certain number of tennis balls (say, ten thousand) are tested and all ten thousand fall to the ground after release, a theory is formulated, which states that a tennis ball in suspension in a free space will fall vertically to the ground.

Modification: Should it be discovered that under certain conditions, some types of tennis balls fall not vertically but at a thirty degree angle to the south-west, the theory must be modified to take note of the fact that under certain conditions, certain types of ball will fall to the south-west.

Should it then be proved that any solid object will fall vertically to the ground if left to itself, a natural law – in this case, the law of gravity – is established.

That is how science works – by prediction, experimentation and discovery. So why does Samut Harris not play ‘science’ by the scientific method? The Moral Landscape is Harris’ hypothesis to explain ethics and morality without recourse to a transcendent source. But it is impossible for Harris to test his hypothesis experimentally, therefore his hypothesis can never be more than that: a hypothesis. More than that, his is trying to play Poker by the rules of Snakes and Ladders. 

Indeed, Harris constructs his hypothesis on a foundation of other hypotheses. What I mean is that his materialistic concept of the world is an unproven hypothesis, as is his belief in evolution. And Harris has to concede that although he doesn't believe in God, he is not a materialist!

Richard Dawkins is a perfect example of this doublethink. He claims to be a thoroughgoing materialist and says humans are nothing but ‘survival machines,’ 'living robots’ blindly programmed by their genes. It makes no sense therefore, says Dawkins, to hold humans responsible for what they do. However, in Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey recounts a question-and-answer session fielded by Dawkins at a bookshop in Washington, DC.

‘When a computer malfunctions,’ said Dawkins in answer to a question from a student, ‘we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it.’

When the student pressed Dawkins on the issue, Dawkins admitted that people are responsible for their actions.

The student then asked, ‘Don’t you see that as an inconsistency in your views?’

‘I sort of do,' Dawins confessed, 'but it is an inconsistency we sort of have to live with, otherwise life would be intolerable.’

As a Christian, I have been mercifully freed from the cognitive dissonance that afflicts Dawkins and Harris and their ilk, because the Bible begins by revealing that we live in a universe created by an infinitely wise and loving Creator who made us in his image. Human beings are not mere machines; they possess dignity because they are made in the image of God, and God holds us all responsible for our actions. The Bible is true to what is there; it is true to the universe in which we find ourselves. 

The atheist worldview is reductionist. Atheism reduces the world to ‘nothing but’ the chance product of the collision of atoms, while at the same time borrowing the Bible’s high view of creation in order to strengthen their argument. This is the philosophical equivalent of doping the horse in order to win the race.


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