Update September 2012 – This was one of the sample posts chosen for the podcasting experiment; click below to listen, if you like (it is identical to the text):
Walkabout podcast – Does science lead to atheism?
The title question is actually an interesting one; it is hard for me to say how many people ask it, or assume to already know the answer. It bears some examination because of the nature of science, and the way we humans tend to structure our thinking. It can be answered multiple ways, if you assign different properties to the question rather than taking it literally.
Science, as I’ve said before, is simply a methodical process of learning. The entire goal is to puzzle out nature and reality as untainted as possible by human preconceptions, emotions, desires, or “common sense.” Part of the method is to accept that humans are imperfect and prone to mistakes, and therefore attempt to overcome these barriers by testing all conclusions against empirical evidence. What this means is that science leads only to knowledge, via the best method that we’ve ever used, so if atheism is an end result, it is because nature itself demonstrates a lack of godly influence.
This is not, however, what many people mean, or at least think, when asking that question. Instead, they are asking if the scientific method, or even the “dogma” of physical laws and textbook information, only proposes a godless universe – in other words, is “god” either disallowed as an explanation, or specifically proscribed against? Bluntly, the answer is “no,” since scientific laws are only of things that we have demonstrated over and over again, things that hold true no matter what and are thus trustworthy, just as we trust gravity to bring things to the ground when we let go of them. Sure, there is a scientific theory of gravity, but one need not know this to remain tethered to the planet, and denying the theory still requires someone to explain why we do not float through the air.
But does science proceed on the assumption that a god is not acting in measurable ways? And to that, the answer is “yes” – but this isn’t as damning (I should do stand-up) as it seems. First off, the definitions of gods aren’t rigid enough to provide a useful hypothesis for explaining anything we observe, and even the general definitions of gods provide for capriciousness and, in essence, “free will.” In other words, the gods are not beholden to doing the same thing every time, and so their actions might be widely variable. These make it hard to use any gods as a working hypothesis; to test if a certain antibiotic actually inhibits bacterial growth, we must assume that nobody is screwing with the bacteria in ways that we cannot detect. If this didn’t work consistently, even rudimentary tests would be pointless. Still, there are two ways that such interference could be tested for. The first is to rule out the presence of any regularity, patterns, or cause-and-effect scenarios – what we typically consider physical laws. Nothing, for instance, has ever been observed to fall slower than something else within the same conditions – this is so rigidly within a pattern, so dependable, that everyone around the world can use it, and even measure it to very fine decimal places. We can catch thrown objects precisely because of this. Such consistency allows us to determine many other things on top of the immediate physical laws; we can design aircraft and parachutes and such because we can calculate gravity against air resistance and compressibility, and they only work dependably because no such capriciousness is ever visible in their effect.
The second way of testing this is to assume, for the time being, a posit of intention, and then to see if such a posit bears out. This is exactly the process behind testing to see if prayer works for healing, where we already know what typical recovery rates are, so we can see if intercessory prayer provides for a significant difference in recovery. There are mixed results when such studies have been tried; does this indicate the presence of a god? We have to be very careful with such a conclusion because, as noted above, we are human and may want to see certain results. So such studies have to be done in a way that interpretation cannot be open to wishes, what is often called “double-blind” testing, where neither the test subjects nor the physicians measuring results know who is being prayed for and who is not. In this way, no bias towards certain patients doing “better” can be applied, intentionally or subconsciously. When such controls are used (which aren’t as often as they should be,) the mixed results vanish, and the trends towards prayer working are no longer present. The same thing can be said for the “miracle cures” from Lourdes and in the presence of various religious icons, where the recoveries that are attested to are always things that are either not firmly diagnosed, or possible to enter remission on their own. No one is ever cured of an inoperable brain tumor, or regrows missing limbs, and the recovery rates (when the bias for self-reporting is removed) are no different from average.
No matter how faithful we might be, we do this every day ourselves. When our keys go missing, we don’t believe they were spirited away, we simply look in all the places we might have left or dropped them. When we try criminal cases, “god” is never the verdict nor the responsible party. When our cars stop working, we look for mechanical issues. All of these betray that very same “assumption of no god” that science does.
The concept of law, as another example, is as “atheistic” as science, since it denies the idea of divine judgment, moral guidance, and faith in omnipotence. Sports, despite the praises of many athletes, relies on things being extremely predictable and consistent, so that the ball arcs exactly as we’d expect and wind resistance does not abruptly change. A soccer ball that changed direction in midair or lilted outside the goal might actually be worthy of thanking god for the assistance, but all we ever see are plain ol’ laws of physics at work, and that’s all that athletes train for as well (it might actually be amusing to see, not tackling dummies or batting practices, but intensive prayer sessions, but no one seems to buy the concept that faithfully, do they?) Even churches pass around collection plates, rather than expecting their new buildings to magically pop into existence, even while insisting to the congregations that miracles will indeed take place if one has faith.
We can (and frequently do) assign theistic influence to events that seem mysterious to us, but this is actually a dead-end when seeking knowledge, serving to halt progress that could be made otherwise. We practiced this for centuries: lightning, floods, illnesses, privileges, and countless other phenomena and behaviors were all attributed, at one time or another, to supernatural intervention. The very word “supernatural” denotes something that cannot be demonstrated through natural means, and is thus out of our grasp. Making this assumption precludes any further progress – it serves as a stopping point for inquiry. We have no issues now with the idea that viruses are communicable and undirected, but at one point even proposing that illnesses were something other than god’s will was considered blasphemy, and investigating such could even earn the retribution of the churches. Thank, no not god, but science that investigating and demonstrating properties eventually took hold and became accepted, because an ounce of vaccination is worth many millions of prayers.
Science itself, or more specifically the scientific method and the various laws discovered through its application, does not have anything to say about gods – as noted, supernatural things are supposed to fall outside of such domains. But one thing science actually does do is remove the reliance on default explanations. Among non-scientists, gods have been invoked, as seen above, when we have not discovered a natural explanation for some observed phenomenon. But such an attitude fails to take into account that we may simply not have looked in the right place, nor had the necessary ability to see the explanation (such as microscopes and cultures to see bacteria.) Science does not accept assumptions, and there is no “default” explanation – if we do not have an answer, we keep looking. Additionally, in order for something to be a useful explanation, it must be consistent, not beholden to preconceived notions that do not carry across cultural lines, or debated fiercely among factions.
Invoking the supernatural also provides no real answer, nothing of any use to scientific inquiry or our body of knowledge. If we cannot obtain a consistent response from some set of inputs, then how can we put this to use? Even quantum mechanics, with its wildly variable effects and indeterminacy, ends up producing distinct average responses given enough time and samples, to the point that we can use it to determine ages of organic materials and many minerals, through radiometric dating (such as the well-known Carbon-14 method.)
To continue the dogpile on the concept of “supernatural,” there’s also the contradiction in definition whenever it is invoked. If, as claimed, it involves things outside of what we can experience, sample, or observe naturally, then it has no measurable effect and can safely be ignored. However, if it impinges on the physical world in ways that we experience, such as miracle cures and personal revelation, then it becomes fair game to scientific inquiry and testing. Attempting to have it both ways is simply hypocrisy, and a shallow attempt to create an explanatory concept that’s exempt from establishing its own value.
Frequently, the statistical significance of the number of non-religious scientists is brought up as evidence that science must be influencing this. At the same time, the number of scientists holding some religious belief is used to establish that science does indeed coexist with religion. Neither one of these has any actual value, since “science” and “scientists” are not interchangeable, and in fact, there is no distinct definition of “scientist.” Science is not defined by scientists; instead, scientists are defined by the science that they perform. There is not only the factor, pointed out above, that science does not and cannot involve supernatural explanations, but also the distinctive trait of it functioning extraordinarily well without them. If there is any influence on those deeply involved in science, it is the simple fact that the more one finds out about how everything works, the fewer things there are for a god to do.
Both of these common claims about scientists’ religiosity reflect a reliance on authority, the belief that someone could be infallible, or produce the final word on anything. This is the underlying principle behind religious leaders, but also reflected in the concept of “expert” authorities as well, as in court testimony. The nature of inquiry, however, doesn’t support any such thing – in its place we have simply the weight of the evidence. Scientists do not gain esteem by title, but by their accomplishments, and even those are subject to careful scrutiny. In order for something to achieve the status of scientific “law,” the evidence must be overwhelming and unvarying, but such laws reflect only what we have experienced and demonstrated – should we find a violation of, for instance, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it would cease to be used thereafter. No one is considered a mouthpiece for natural evidence, nor does science accept pronouncements, even from “distinguished” scientists.
Contrast this with religion, where pronouncements override evidence and experience to varying degrees. Religious leaders are provided authority only on their title, with no demonstration of any value or accuracy. But in order to maintain this, churches require weekly reinforcement of the ideas, immersion in a culture and the use of peer pressure, as well as the early indoctrination of children (knowing full well that implanting ideas in the formative years tends to stick longer than trying to instill it in adults with experience.) Yet, even in the face of this, we still find countless examples of religious signs, as people somehow find the face of jesus or mary (that have never had their likenesses recorded in any way) appearing in a grilled cheese sandwich or on the side of a soy oil storage tank. People pray for guidance, and amazingly, receive it in a vague way that only they can experience (that somehow never provides something that they didn’t already know.) Explorers mount expeditions into mountains in Turkey looking for an ancient animal transport vessel. What these tell us is, despite the avowals that all we have to have is faith, we’re still desperate for something real, tangible, provable: evidence. No matter the devotion, we use science constantly.
And in fact, science is only a name for the process, and knowledge gained thereof, of establishing a firm trail of evidence – in other words, demonstrating reality. We use it from the moment we can first control our actions, learning how to walk and talk by trial and error. Almost everything that we consider “thinking” is built upon the input of our external sampling system, our senses. Our entire existence as human beings is built upon empirical evidence. Sure, we engage in philosophy, theoretical science, speculation, and “spirituality” (one of those words that is defined by its context and little else,) but none of these provide anything other than emotional reaction – until they can be demonstrated.
We can ponder the mysteries and intricacies of god’s retribution, demonic conflict, unbalanced chi, foul humors, and germ theory, all for the exact same set of symptoms… but we rely on what germ theory has provided for us when it consistently and undeniably works. In fact, we found germs solely because we recognized the patterns of infection, and tried to see what was causing them. Lo and behold, critters too small for us to see and never mentioned in any religious scripture in any culture turned out to be the most ubiquitous life on earth. Danish astronomer Ole RĂ¸mer, assistant to Giovanni Cassini (we name our satellites and probes as we do for good reason) confirmed that the periodic movements of Jupiter’s moon Io occurred at different times when the earth was closer to or farther from Jupiter, and calculated the first figures for the speed of light – in 1676. He did not pray for this information, nor receive it from revelation, nor interpret it from genesis (which, it must be noted, refers to the “vault” of the heavens, not implying but saying directly that the sky is a ceiling, which couldn’t be further from the truth and cannot even charitably be called a euphemism.) Progress awaits us if we don’t assume such scripture (or anything else) is accurate, but test for accuracy instead.
In developing methods to derive knowledge, we came across some useful tools, so useful that they are now used throughout scientific investigation. Among them sits the examination of alternatives. Once an initial conclusion or hypothesis is proposed, alternatives are considered and tested, to be sure that the right conclusion is being made – if an alternative fits better, the original conclusion is obviously thrown into doubt. With scripture, of course, we find that much of what is related regarding the shape and composition of the earth, the size and makeup of the universe, the history of mankind itself and the events that have occurred in the past, all range from remarkably inconsistent to flat-out wrong. One alternative that presents itself is that most scripture is simply fiction, which doesn’t run into any serious flaws in the slightest. Another is that a god presented scripture (or the communication related therein) as accurate, but modeled the entire universe in contradiction to this. Such a posit, which incredibly is seriously considered by far too many people, raises the important questions of what purpose it serves, and how to determine that this is more accurate and explanatory than, for instance, scripture as fable. One must also note that, in accepting the two posits that a) there is a creator, and b) that scripture represents such creator’s communications, then it automatically follows that either the scripture or the universe presents intentional deceit.
But, since these all offer not only nothing to be tested, but nothing of any value, while the laws within this “modeled universe” work consistently and thoroughly, there is no function that is actually served by following any posit of scriptural fact. It can be argued that faith itself has an emotional value – someone may prefer to believe in an active and beneficial god – but if they cannot believe that such is true, the emotional value vanishes. In ancient times, people may have preferred to believe that the bright thing in the sky was a chariot driven by the sun god, but this had no effect on their lives then, and we miss absolutely nothing from not believing it now.
It becomes easy to see that it isn’t practicing science that leads away from religion, but nature itself. What anyone might perceive as godly influence can be seen as both the desire to scientifically establish their belief system, as well as actually being valueless in terms of function – we cannot use, predict, or build upon “miracles.” We must begin considering that the tendencies towards atheism in those that seek knowledge are not because science leads to atheism, but instead that religion leads nowhere.