Is Science a Tool for the Promotion of Atheism?

Science is driven by naturalism. It’s a tool for discovering material causes for material events. You can’t use the tool for any other purpose. But here’s why science is not, therefore, a tool for atheism:

  • Both the atheist scientist and the theist scientist who might look to science for hints on the existence of God (or God’s non-existence) are necessarily sharing the same project: to push material explanation to its limit.

Let me say that again: If you want to know how reasonable God belief is, then push material explanation to its limit and see what you’ve got left. Science is the tool for doing that.

Example: 150 years ago scientists thought the first cell was simple and could be generated rather easily. But by having a close, rigorously sustained, and systematic look, and pressing reductive material questions against the cell, now we know otherwise. The simplest cell is perhaps more complex, informationally, than a stealth bomber. By pushing material explanation to its limit, scientists discover the impasses of material explanation. The cell is, presently, one of those impasses. In the future, it may not be. The contemporary theist scientist and the atheist scientist must, necessarily, have the same project with regard to the cell: keep pushing material explanation ad infinitum. The cell’s material “origin safe” may never crack. But the project is the same (try to crack it).

Atheism and theism will always be competing INFERENCES derived from looking, in the present, at the universe as a whole (as science currently discloses it to us). Science tries to narrow the range of inference, but neither serves atheism nor theism. Science will probably always discover new perplexities for both.

Like lawyers say, “Don’t ask a question of a witness if you don’t know exactly how she’ll answer.” Science is the opposite. Scientists don’t know what pushing material explanation to its limits will lead to. So how, if science doesn’t know in advance the answers that will be returned, can it be in the service of atheism?

If science is atheism’s prosecuting attorney, it is doing a really shitty job. It keeps asking questions of the universe that return difficulties and new perplexities for materialist explanation. Likewise, if science is theism’s defense attorney, it’s doing an equally crap job, for it likewise asks questions of the universe that return difficulties and new perplexities for theists. Science is like the grass. It just is, and it is up to us to make ultimate sense of the answers it returns. As the poet Carl Sandberg said:

I am the grass / let me do my work.

Harvard biologist George Wald died in 1997, but I can’t help but wonder what he would have made of the vanguard biologists (Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and PZ Myers) who make up the post 9-11 new “confidence atheists” or “faitheists.”

Dr. Wald had a very particular way of speaking and listening to nature, and in his 1967 Nobel Prize lecture he said:

I have often had cause to feel that my hands are cleverer than my head. That is a crude way of characterizing the dialectics of experimentation. When it is going well, it is like a quiet conversation with Nature. One asks a question and gets an answer, then one asks the next question and gets the next answer. An experiment is a device to make Nature speak intelligibly. After that, one only has to listen.

One only has to listen. And what did Dr. Wald believe that nature had told him over a lifetime of study? In 1984, at the age of 78, and thirteen years prior to his death (he died at the age of 91), Wald made an extraordinary confession before a meeting of the Quantum Biology Symposium:

It has occurred to me lately—I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities—that both questions [the origin of mind and the origin of life from nonliving matter] might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality—the stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create: science-, art-, and technology-making animals. In them the universe begins to know itself.

Dr. Wald was a lifelong skeptic who, late in life, came to infer the existence of mind prior to nature. Science, for Dr. Wald, was not in the service of atheism, nor of theism. Science just returned answers from nature, and he thought about those answers and drew inferences.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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