Today, I am reverting back to an old topic of personal interest. That is, exploring the dynamics of the many stances that encompass the secular non-belief structure. Or as I called it some 5 years ago, Atheism.
Today’s piece is unlike any other I have referenced in the past, however. It contains a claim which is controversial, to say the least (from the standpoint of an atheist). However, it’s a claim similar to a Carl Sagon quote that atheists have a tendency of overlooking.
Either way, let’s get cracking.
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
Oh boy . . .
We’re not even a paragraph in and the atheists are already hammering on the keyboards. I love it 🙂 .
Going forward, I only used parts of the article which are pertinent to the topic(s) at hand and disregarded everything else. If you want the rest, follow the link above.
Scientific American spoke with Gleiser about the award, how he plans to advance his message of consilience, the need for humility in science, why humans are special, and the fundamental source of his curiosity as a physicist.
S.A : Right. So which aspect of your work do you think is most relevant to the Templeton Foundation’s spiritual aims?
Marcelo Gleiser: Probably my belief in humility. I believe we should take a much humbler approach to knowledge, in the sense that if you look carefully at the way science works, you’ll see that yes, it is wonderful — magnificent! — but it has limits. And we have to understand and respect those limits. And by doing that, by understanding how science advances, science really becomes a deeply spiritual conversation with the mysterious, about all the things we don’t know. So that’s one answer to your question. And that has nothing to do with organized religion, obviously, but it does inform my position against atheism. I consider myself an agnostic.
S.A : Why are you against atheism?
Marcelo Gleiser: 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.” Period. It’s a declaration. But in science we don’t really do declarations. We say, “Okay, you can have a hypothesis, you have to have some evidence against or for that.” And so an agnostic would say, look, I have no evidence for God or any kind of god (What god, first of all? The Maori gods, or the Jewish or Christian or Muslim God? Which god is that?) But on the other hand, an agnostic would acknowledge no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn’t know about. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and all that. This positions me very much against all of the “New Atheist” guys—even though I want my message to be respectful of people’s beliefs and reasoning, which might be community-based, or dignity-based, and so on. And I think obviously the Templeton Foundation likes all of this, because this is part of an emerging conversation. It’s not just me; it’s also my colleague the astrophysicist Adam Frank, and a bunch of others, talking more and more about the relation between science and spirituality.
This is enough to work with, for now, Let’s take this piece by piece.
I believe we should take a much humbler approach to knowledge, in the sense that if you look carefully at the way science works, you’ll see that yes, it is wonderful — magnificent! — but it has limits. And we have to understand and respect those limits. And by doing that, by understanding how science advances, science really becomes a deeply spiritual conversation with the mysterious, about all the things we don’t know.
I can comprehend what he is telling us, here. But it’s not the pinnacle of what I personally, would be focused on. For me, the matters of morality and ethics (or more, lack thereof) in the typical pursuit of science is a far more important problem than science’s relation (whatever that entails) to spirituality.
This isn’t exactly a criticism, though. People approach this stuff in different ways and from all angles. Which is exactly how things should be, because this is how progress happens. The same group containing an infinite number of eyes can overlook an issue that a fresh set of eyes may spot immediately.
But as is my writing style, that is a tangent.
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.” Period. It’s a declaration. But in science we don’t really do declarations.
And now, we come to the fun stuff.
When it comes to the atheist conclusion, the first stop we have make is the definition of atheism as it stands today. This, because I suspect a big chunk of the criticism of this viewpoint will be incorrectly based around this evolved (and really, idiotic) terminology. Not unlike the term agnostic, the usage that is common today has not stuck to the definition as it was coined.
Common utilization of the term Agnostic is to describe a sort of middle of the road stance in between atheism and theism. This is not considered a valid stance in atheist circles due to this problem of not fitting up to the proper definition of the word.
The terms “agnostic” and “agnosticism” were famously coined in the late nineteenth century by the English biologist, T.H. Huxley. He said that he originally
invented the word “Agnostic” to denote people who, like [himself], confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and heterodox, dogmatise with the utmost confidence. (1884)
Some more food for thought from the same source:
Nowadays, the term “agnostic” is often used (when the issue is God’s existence) to refer to those who follow the recommendation expressed in the conclusion of Huxley’s argument: an agnostic is a person who has entertained the proposition that there is a God but believes neither that it is true nor that it is false.
Not surprisingly, then, the term “agnosticism” is often defined, both in and outside of philosophy, not as a principle or any other sort of proposition but instead as the psychological state of being an agnostic. Call this the “psychological” sense of the term. It is certainly useful to have a term to refer to people who are neither theists nor atheists, but philosophers might wish that some other term besides “agnostic” (“theological skeptic”, perhaps?) were used.
The problem is that it is also very useful for philosophical purposes to have a name for the epistemological position that follows from the premise of Huxley’s argument, the position that neither theism nor atheism is known, or most ambitiously, that neither the belief that God exists nor the belief that God does not exist has positive epistemic status of any sort. Just as the metaphysical question of God’s existence is central to philosophy of religion, so too is the epistemological question of whether or not theism or atheism is known or has some other sort of positive epistemic status. And given the etymology of “agnostic”, what better term could there be for a negative answer to that epistemological question than “agnosticism”?
It’s interesting that philosophy has seemingly come to the same crossroads that I have in the past 2 to 3 years. Rather than fighting nu-agnosticism (as is the typical move of the mainstream nu-atheist cohort), I accepted the criticism (incorrect use of the word as intended) and moved on, accepting the stance but leaving the name card blank. It’s not something difficult for me being that my status of not believing in God was without a name for around six months in my teen years. A friend introduced me to the term Atheism, and as it turned out, it was a good fit.
Of course, I did also believe in heaven at the time . . . but what can I say? My immature mind didn’t know how to handle the truly unjust nature of existence. This is an important reason why many adults cling to the dichotomies that are heaven and hell so passionately (even if many ignore the more inconvenient regulations of the said rulebook). And on the flip side of the coin, how many atheists believe in Karma?
Either way, anyone accusing the average agnostic (nu-agnostics?) of misusing the definition is not wrong. Where many run into a fault, however, is in proposing that a pivot to atheism or theism is necessary. But that is an argument that has been made by me countless times over the last few years. What is more pertinent, is getting to the evolved definition of atheism.
This too is something that I have written about before. Upon my realization that the commonly cited definition of atheism used these days is not only not the original definition but also idiotic. Since that critique is also in my backlog, ill keep things short.
The common definition (including when queried in a web search) cities lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. Aside from the minor detail of swapping out God/gods for deities, my issue with lack of belief is that it is ill-fitting to the context. You do not lack belief in supernatural phenomenon, you have made a decision on the matter. Though there is also spectrum to this conclusion (from the agnostic atheist to the gnostic atheist), the message is the same. Though the gnostic atheists are far more pronounced in their stance, both weak and strong atheists are citing the same root.
It is this root message that people like Carl Sagan take issue with, and I suspect that it is why a majority of those with a scientific background of any kind refer to themselves as agnostics instead of atheists.
A common assumption by atheists (when it comes to agnostic scientists) claims this weak stance is to soften the edges when it comes to their theistic fans/followers/pupils. Agnostic is more palatable than the very much misunderstood pejorative that is atheist.
Another assumption is that the people involved (even otherwise fondly respected people like Neil Degrasse Tyson) essentially don’t know what they are talking about. While it is a possibility (particularly given the caustic relationship most people of such a background have with anything involving philosophy), it’s still not necessary. After all, the field of science (particularly astronomy) is all about pushing the limits of possibility. So who better to recognize these limits than scientists themselves.
Of course, we again come back to the issue of the colloquial verses proper definition. If not agnostics, then what is/should this stance be?
Though I don’t have an answer to this question, now that I have coined it (well, at least in my brain), I am leaning towards Nu-Agnostics. Unlike theological skeptic as proposed earlier, there is a very small learning curve involved in taking the term mainstream. Both agnostic and nu-atheism are already in the common discourse, so the switch is not all that radical.
When it comes to those in the atheist cohort taking issue based on the misuse critique, I again cite the colloquial definition of atheism.
When it comes to the scholars and philosophers, my case isn’t as strong. What I will say to them, however, is it is a whole lot easier to meet people where they are than to try and force a new term upon them. It may not necessarily be up to snuff with the standards of academia, but it is this elitism that pushes people away, to begin with. What is the point of being correct when the only people privy to this wisdom is your peers?
I love philosophy. But more often than not, it’s tarnished by the very philosophers tasked with keeping it moving forward.
We now return to the Scientific American piece. Though the rest moves away from secular linguistics, I pursued it due to the interesting nature of the topics covered.
S.A – So, a message of humility, open-mindedness and tolerance. Other than in discussions of God, where else do you see the most urgent need for this ethos?
Marcelo Gleiser: You know, I’m a “Rare Earth” kind of guy. I think our situation may be rather special, on a planetary or even galactic scale. So when people talk about Copernicus and Copernicanism—the ‘principle of mediocrity’ that states we should expect to be average and typical, I say, “You know what? It’s time to get beyond that.” When you look out there at the other planets (and the exoplanets that we can make some sense of), when you look at the history of life on Earth, you will realize this place called Earth is absolutely amazing. And maybe, yes, there are others out there, possibly—who knows, we certainly expect so—but right now what we know is that we have this world, and we are these amazing molecular machines capable of self-awareness, and all that makes us very special indeed. And we know for a fact that there will be no other humans in the universe; there may be some humanoids somewhere out there, but we are unique products of our single, small planet’s long history.
The point is, to understand modern science within this framework is to put humanity back into kind of a moral center of the universe, in which we have the moral duty to preserve this planet and its life with everything that we’ve got, because we understand how rare this whole game is and that for all practical purposes we are alone. For now, anyways. We have to do this! This is a message that I hope will resonate with lots of people, because to me what we really need right now in this increasingly divisive world is a new unifying myth. I mean “myth” as a story that defines a culture. So, what is the myth that will define the culture of the 21st century? It has to be a myth of our species, not about any particular belief system or political party. How can we possibly do that? Well, we can do that using astronomy, using what we have learned from other worlds, to position ourselves and say, “Look, folks, this is not about tribal allegiance, this is about us as a species on a very specific planet that will go on with us—or without us.” I think you know this message well.
S.A: I do. But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment, only because earlier you referred to the value of humility in science. Some would say now is not the time to be humble, given the rising tide of active, open hostility to science and objectivity around the globe. How would you respond to that?
Marcelo Gleiser: This is of course something people have already told me: “Are you really sure you want to be saying these things?” And my answer is yes, absolutely. There is a difference between “science” and what we can call “scientism,” which is the notion that science can solve all problems. To a large extent, it is not science but rather how humanity has used science that has put us in our present difficulties. Because most people, in general, have no awareness of what science can and cannot do. So they misuse it, and they do not think about science in a more pluralistic way. So, okay, you’re going to develop a self-driving car? Good! But how will that car handle hard choices, like whether to prioritize the lives of its occupants or the lives of pedestrian bystanders? Is it going to just be the technologist from Google who decides? Let us hope not! You have to talk to philosophers, you have to talk to ethicists. And to not understand that, to say that science has all the answers, to me is just nonsense. We cannot presume that we are going to solve all the problems of the world using a strict scientific approach. It will not be the case, and it hasn’t ever been the case, because the world is too complex, and science has methodological powers as well as methodological limitations.
And so, what do I say? I say be honest. There is a quote from the physicist Frank Oppenheimer that fits here: “The worst thing a son of a bitch can do is turn you into a son of a bitch.” Which is profane but brilliant. I’m not going to lie about what science can and cannot do because politicians are misusing science and trying to politicize the scientific discourse. I’m going to be honest about the powers of science so that people can actually believe me for my honesty and transparency. If you don’t want to be honest and transparent, you’re just going to become a liar like everybody else. Which is why I get upset by misstatements, like when you have scientists—Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss among them—claiming we have solved the problem of the origin of the universe, or that string theory is correct and that the final “theory of everything” is at hand. Such statements are bogus. So, I feel as if I am a guardian for the integrity of science right now; someone you can trust because this person is open and honest enough to admit that the scientific enterprise has limitations—which doesn’t mean it’s weak!
1.) Maybe it’s just a pet peeve, but it seems rather narrow-minded to use humanoids as the standard of intelligent lifeforms in the context of an abyss that we know basically NOTHING about.
Of course, I don’t know what intelligent life may or may not be out there. I don’t know what they may look like. No one does. That said, though humanoid was how the deck was dealt in out kneck of the woods, who knows what transpired (or may have transpired) elsewhere.
Time plays a vital role here, too. Intelligent life that died out a billion years before us or came up a billion years after us, missed us. There is a possibility that the mass of radioactivity (aka the jumble of radio signals) created by our world may serve as a marker of our once prosperous existence. But it’s still a roll of the dice in the grand scheme.
At one point, I also pondered the potential of extraterrestrial artificial intelligence getting a jump from and/or giving a lift to, some other external intelligent life forms. Based on a conversation that Sam Harris had with Dave Rubin in which touched on the subject of AI (this was before the recent IDW nonsense soured my perception of both men), my mind pondered the possible relationship between extraterrestrial AI to unidentified flying object sightings worldwide.
There is a whole lot that I will never know in my lifetime. How much human knowledge will grow, depends on many factors (with the forecast looking very gloomy at present). Either way though, best not to restrain our imagination based on Hollywood trope.
There is a difference between “science” and what we can call “scientism,” which is the notion that science can solve all problems. To a large extent, it is not science but rather how humanity has used science that has put us in our present difficulties. Because most people, in general, have no awareness of what science can and cannot do. So they misuse it, and they do not think about science in a more pluralistic way. So, okay, you’re going to develop a self-driving car? Good! But how will that car handle hard choices, like whether to prioritize the lives of its occupants or the lives of pedestrian bystanders? Is it going to just be the technologist from Google who decides? Let us hope not! You have to talk to philosophers, you have to talk to ethicists. And to not understand that, to say that science has all the answers, to me is just nonsense. We cannot presume that we are going to solve all the problems of the world using a strict scientific approach. It will not be the case, and it hasn’t ever been the case, because the world is too complex, and science has methodological powers as well as methodological limitations.
I can’t really add anything to that. Much to my surprise.
I will end my commentary here. Though Marcelo has a further quote with the potential for a swipe at 2 other names that have come to annoy me (Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss), there is enough controversy in this piece already.