[Avodah] "Atheism is Inconsistent with the Scientific Method"

Micha Berger micha at aishdas.org
Wed Mar 20 12:51:24 PDT 2019

What's interesting is not that there are physicists who believe in G-d.
Even among Templeton Prize winners, the population is big enough that any
depiction of groupthink outside their own field is unrealistic. The news
here is that SciAm would carry this interview, despite it having gone
well down the road philosophers call "scientism". (Which the interviewee
defines as "the notion that science can solve all problems." I would have
said it was the drift from "scientific method works", to "only scientific
method is reliable", to "only the kinds of claims scientific method can
verify are real truths".)

or <http://bit.ly/2FgKevl>


Scientific American

Atheism Is Inconsistent with the Scientific Method, Prize-Winning Physicist Says
By Lee Billings on March 20, 2019

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


Scientific American: You've written and spoken eloquently about nature
of reality and consciousness, the genesis of life, the possibility of
life beyond Earth, the origin and fate of the universe, and more. How do
all those disparate topics synergize into one, cohesive message for you?

[Marcelo Gleister:] To me, science is one way of connecting with the
mystery of existence. And if you think of it that way, the mystery of
existence is something that we have wondered about ever since people
began asking questions about who we are and where we come from. So while
those questions are now part of scientific research, they are much, much
older than science. I'm not talking about the science of materials, or
high-temperature superconductivity, which is awesome and super important,
but that's not the kind of science I'm doing. I'm talking about science
as part of a much grander and older sort of questioning about who we are
in the big picture of the universe. To me, as a theoretical physicist
and also someone who spends time out in the mountains, this sort of
questioning offers a deeply spiritual connection with the world, through
my mind and through my body. Einstein would have said the same thing,
I think, with his cosmic religious feeling.

[SA:] Right. So which aspect of your work do you think is most relevant
to the Templeton Foundation's spiritual aims?

[MG:] 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.

[SA:] Why are you against atheism?

[MG:] 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.

[SA:] 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?

[MG:] 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.

[SA:] 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?

[MG:] 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!

[SA:] You mentioned string theory, and your skepticism about the notion
of a final "theory of everything." Where does that skepticism come from?

[MG:] It is impossible for science to obtain a true theory of
everything. And the reason for that is epistemological. Basically, the
way we acquire information about the world is through measurement. It's
through instruments, right? And because of that, our measurements and
instruments are always going to tell us a lot of stuff, but they are
going to leave stuff out. And we cannot possibly ever think that we
could have a theory of everything, because we cannot ever think that
we know everything that there is to know about the universe. This
relates to a metaphor I developed that I used as the title of a book,
The Island of Knowledge. Knowledge advances, yes? But it's surrounded
by this ocean of the unknown. The paradox of knowledge is that as it
expands and the boundary between the known and the unknown changes,
you inevitably start to ask questions that you couldn't even ask before.

I don't want to discourage people from looking for unified explanations
of nature because yes, we need that. A lot of physics is based on this
drive to simplify and bring things together. But on the other hand, it is
the blank statement that there could ever be a theory of everything that
I think is fundamentally wrong from a philosophical perspective. This
whole notion of finality and final ideas is, to me, just an attempt to
turn science into a religious system, which is something I disagree with
profoundly. So then how do you go ahead and justify doing research if
you don't think you can get to the final answer? Well, because research
is not about the final answer, it's about the process of discovery. It's
what you find along the way that matters, and it is curiosity that moves
the human spirit forward.

[SA:] Speaking of curiosity... You once wrote, "Scientists, in a sense,
are people who keep curiosity burning, trying to find answers to some of
the questions they asked as children." As a child, was there a formative
question you asked, or an experience you had, that made you into the
scientist you are today? Are you still trying to answer it?

[MG:] I'm still completely fascinated with how much science can tell
about the origin and evolution of the universe. Modern cosmology and
astrobiology have most of the questions I look for-the idea of the
transition from nonlife, to life, to me, is absolutely fascinating. But
to be honest with you, the formative experience was that I lost my
mom. I was six years old, and that loss was absolutely devastating. It
put me in contact with the notion of time from a very early age. And
obviously religion was the thing that came immediately, because I'm
Jewish, but I became very disillusioned with the Old Testament when I
was a teenager, and then I found Einstein. That was when I realized,
you can actually ask questions about the nature of time and space and
nature itself using science. That just blew me away. And so I think it
was a very early sense of loss that made me curious about existence. And
if you are curious about existence, physics becomes a wonderful portal,
because it brings you close to the nature of the fundamental questions:
space, time, origins. And I've been happy ever since.

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