The science and faith discussion floats around a number of different issues. They intertwine with each other and can’t be separated completely. Yet one thread runs through and holds together the whole – ontological naturalism, the idea that it is irrational to believe in anything beyond the material world. This issue came up again in a number of comments over my last several posts.
One commenter asked:
How would you respond to an atheist who says, “these scientists who believe in God and science just choose not to apply empiricism to that aspect of their lives. It is like how Newton believed in fairies.”
This is a very common question – after all, there is no empirical proof for God, or for anything beyond the material world.
Another commenter noted:
I remember reading an author a few years ago who said something to this effect, when confronted with Naturalistic Evolution that Christians tend to try to refute Evolution, when the problem isn’t Evolution it’s Naturalism. Whatever one may think of biological evolution, it’s Naturalism that is at odds with Christianity.
I was listening to an interview with a scientist who happens to also be a Naturalist a few weeks ago. He was explaining his theory (or perhaps hypothesis is a better word) as to why the universe was able to exist without a god to create it. In his interview he made an interesting admission, that if his theory/hypothesis is true that human beings are unimportant and insignificant. That’s not the result of a belief in evolution, but of a belief in naturalism.
I don’t know which scientist this commenter was listening to, but the video below gives a rather clear example of the kind of thinking involved.
Krauss’s view is rather harsh – from a cosmic perspective, we’re irrelevant. It is up to us to give our lives meaning. He casts, or tries to cast, this in a positive light – but it is hard to get much meaning from his view: Science teaches us two things – were insignificant and the future is bleak. This may be true, and many believe that it is true … but we have the brain, consciousness, and self-awareness to realize that such “meaning” isn’t ultimately worth much.
Coming to terms with materiality and spirituality. Another somewhat softer version of the same sentiment was expressed by Alan Lightman in his opening comments during a Veritas Forum on Worldviews at MIT in 2011. The forum featured four MIT professors, two Christian and two non-Christian. Lightman opened the proceedings, so you can hear his comments in the first 10 minutes of the video below.
I’ve transcribed just a bit to help facilitate discussion.
(0:27 – 3:05) I’m 62 years old. Over the last decade I’ve had more and more evidence of my mortality. … And I am reminded that all of us, and I, are material beings. Our consciousness and our self-awareness create an illusion that we are made out of some special substance, that we have some kind of special ego power, some I-ness, some unique existence. But in fact we are nothing but bones, tissues, gelatinous membranes, neurons, electrical impulses, and chemicals. We are material, we are stuff. … Coming to terms with our materiality is the most difficult challenge we have in our existence.
Spirituality to Lightman, and to many others, means something very different from Christian faith and hope.
(4:17) Although I believe that we are material beings, purely material. And I believe that our consciousness vanishes entirely when I die. And I see no evidence for a super being who created and guides the universe, I still consider myself to be a spiritual person. Different people have different meanings for the concept of spirituality. For me, spirituality is the belief in something larger than myself. Spirituality is the belief in principles and values for living. Spirituality is the recognition of beauty and meaning in myself and in other people, and in the world. Spirituality is connection to other people. Spirituality is also an attempt to answer the great questions of existence, such as how did the universe come into being, and what is its future? what is the purpose of my individual life? how can I live a life with meaning? I am an atheist, but a spiritual atheist
Lightman’s perspective gives a different take on the current claim of many to be “spiritual but not religious.”
And this brings me to yet another commenter on a recent post – a commenter who took exception with what I had to say, or at least with his interpretation of what I had to say. This commenter reflected on his personal experience wrestling with the arrogance of scientific pronouncement and the possibility of Christian faith.
I was brought up as a scientist, and I remember when I was young, I had strong views about what was possible and what was not. I was a scientist, science was right – and I hated it! But I couldn’t deny the obvious success of science, so I set about finding out what scientists really know. My conclusion is that some things they do really ‘know’ and others are belief and speculation – a heady mixture, indeed! This was very important for me, to give myself the breathing space. Now I have enough room to choose my beliefs (more or less!), knowing that I am not ‘flying in the face of reason’.
Although he may not realize it, I agree with this commenter. It can be very hard to separate the metaphysical from the science in the writings and proclamations of many scientists. A careful contemplation of what we really know is a worthwhile pursuit. Lightman is seems aware of the distinction between the metaphysical and the purely scientific, but Krauss and many others simply proclaim materiality as the ultimate truth and tell people to “grow up” or to “get with the program”. Often the pressure of ontological naturalism and materialism isn’t so transparent, but the influence is subtle, persistent, and hard to resist.
We have to confront the problem. Evolution isn’t the problem. The energy that goes into refuting evolution is a colossal waste of time, energy, and resource. Evolutionary biology will stand or fall under the weight of the evidence … in the same way that quantum mechanics and theories of gravitation stand or fall under the weight of the evidence.
Is naturalism true? If not, then what is true?
What does the Christian story have to offer and why should we believe it?
Make Your Own Meaning. Alan Lightman highlights the Golden Rule as he searches for his own meaning in life. Meaning comes through relationship and through contributing to the betterment of others.
(3:05-3:50) All that said, we can still find meaning during our brief flicker of existence. I believe that a cosmic meaning does not exist. Instead each of us must find his or her personal meaning for the universe and personal meaning for our individual lives. We are exquisitely built machines. Machines that can define their own activities and purposes. We have the power to search for meaning, to search for our individual principles and purposes and to live by those principles.
(8:44 -9:57) So what is essential? What is real? What is it that we can not do without? For me it is my values and principles. The way that I treat other people and the way that I want to be treated. My desire to make a difference in the world. My obligation to find out what I do well and to nourish that gift. All of these things one might call my humanity. I am a single link in the long chain of human beings who have lived through the millenia. Even though individual lives come and go, their atoms of hydrogen and oxygen and carbon recirculated in air and soil the chain of humanity remains. Through the things that I do I effect other people who live beyond me and they in turn affect others who live beyond them, and on and on, so there is a small trace of my existence that continues. I am part of the great chain of existence, and that’s my view of the world.
Lightman roots his understanding of meaning in the golden rule, and in making a difference for others. And yet, as Krauss made quite clear, from a cosmic perspective not only do we each have a brief flicker of existence, but humanity as well has a but a brief flicker of existence. It is hard to get much meaning from those who live beyond us when the end is certain and final oblivion (according to science).
Christianity roots its understanding of meaning in the great commandments. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength and Love your neighbor as yourself. God is the creator, and his creation is good. There is a meaning and a purpose that extends beyond our present existence. What we do, then, will matter for the next generation and for eternity. This understanding is key to a Christian understanding of work (see for example Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor and the posts on the book Every Good Endeavor and Connecting Gospel and Work).
Of course a more permanent story of meaning in Christian faith is not necessarily an argument for the reality of Christian faith. Perhaps the personal meaning found by Lightman is, in fact, all there is. But N. T. Wright in Simply Christian argues that this desire for meaning, the sense of justice and fairness, the urge for spirituality, the power and pain of human relationships, and the sense of real beauty is an echo of a voice that points us toward God. The Christian story (although perhaps not some of the caricatures of the Christian story floating around) provides meaning because it is the story of the World. These voices are not simply, as the naturalist will argue, an artifact of evolution.
What do you think? Is Naturalism the problem?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.