By Mathew Goldstein
The following argument directed against atheism (“they” refers to atheists) appears in commentary recently published by the Daily News of Galveston Texas titled Atheists Can’t Answer Deepest Question With Science: “The problem they have is the following. Even perfected scientific reasoning fails to deliver a complete understanding of the most important features in our lives. Love, for instance. “ This is a common argument and I think it merits a response.
There is a tendency of religious believers to mis-sequence the steps for how we go about determining what is true about how the universe works The correct starting point is to evaluate logically what the universe itself empirically tells us about how it works. This method entails several constraints. It places limits not only on what we know, but also on what we can know. It is a method that tells us that since evidence is not always immediately and freely available therefore neither is knowledge. Instead it can be time consuming and costly to obtain. It tells us that knowledge is provisional, not absolute and permanently fixed. Our current state of knowledge sometimes can change based on new evidence or new logic derived understandings of what the available evidence implies. Over time our collective accumulation of knowledge increases.
As exemplified by the aforementioned commentary, religious believers sometime defend religious belief by arguing against the limits placed on knowledge due to the aforementioned practical epistemological constraints. They prefer to start instead with conclusions about how the universe should work to justify morality and on that basis conclude that the universe actually works that way. Or they start with whatever questions they prefer to answer and conclude the universe actually works the way that religious traditions, old books, and current day religious clerics claim provides the answers to those questions.
By that standard science appears to fall short. Science supposedly “says nothing about love, one of the most important features of our lives”. Science supposedly “doesn’t tell us the source of reasoning”. We do not yet know in detail exactly how life originated. Yet when we take empirical evidence seriously and try to stay informed about modern, empirically derived, knowledge, we find that it actually can, and does, tell us something about our experience of love, about our reasoning, about the origin of life, etc., in the form of biochemical correlates. Empirical evidence tells us that one of the underlying sources of biological structures, activities, and outcomes, including love and reasoning, is evolution by natural selection acting within biochemistry. The origin of life is also to be found in chemistry. Chemistry in turn operates within physics (it is not necessarily the case that there is always a single, monolithic, source). Whether this explanation qualifies as a “full understanding” in some ultimate sense is a philosophical question and is not as essential as some religious believers appear to claim. We are not all present and all knowing, no one is, so instant and absolute knowledge is impractical. It is unnecessary, unreasonable, and counter-productive to elevate the immediate current possession of absolute and complete knowledge, an impossibility, into a requirement.
The problem here for religious beliefs is that on closer inspection religious beliefs actually provide us with *nothing* that qualifies as reliable knowledge about how the universe functions. This is true even with the more limited religious beliefs that attempt to confine themselves to filling in the gaps in our knowledge and on that basis self-claim to be compatible and consistent with science. For atheists who conclude that modern knowledge favors ontological naturalism over ontological supernaturalism, relying on the latter to fill in the knowledge gaps is already a counter-evidenced mistake. Religion provides believers with an illusory feeling of providing instant, complete, absolute, total, comprehensive, and final answers in place of the substance of providing answers.
Religious believers who argue against the restrictions and limitations of adopting a disciplined epistemology do not recognize that their less disciplined method of determining what is true about how the universe works is so unconstrained and arbitrary that it could be utilized to simultaneously reach many different and mutually exclusive conclusions about how the universe works. Their undisciplined epistemology is too promiscuous to reliably get us to conclusions that are not fictions. This is a substantial problem, a bigger problem than some religious believers appear to be willing to acknowledge. It is a bigger problem than the problem of facing up to the reality, however uncomfortable this reality may be, that our knowledge about how the universe functions is, and probably always will be, provisional, non-absolute and incomplete, and is sometimes unavoidable slow, time consuming, and costly to obtain.