It really isn’t what you think!
Most of us do not like being told what to think in relation to our private beliefs about God. Whether you’re an Atheist, Hindu, Christian or Muslim, your worldview is something that belongs to you and something you are not likely to change once you reach adulthood. However in the practice of science, I would argue there is an issue that does require attention which unfortunately transects religion and so forces us to think about this somewhat unpopular subject.
The issue is not to do with religion per se but rather to do with where the boundaries of science are set in terms of its explanatory scope. Is science a tool that allows us to delineate the whole of reality or are there limits to the information that this tool can provide us with? The answer to this important question is intimately dependent on whether God exists or not. The simple binary options of theism and atheism can be framed in such a way that makes it consistent with the scientific paradigm by converting the options into two competing scientific hypotheses which can be formally stated as follows:
- Hypothesis 1 (atheism): The universe is a time-finite closed system which possesses the property of self-actualisation. Human consciousness and personhood are emergent entities of this self-actualising system; meaning that there is no intrinsic discontinuity between unconscious matter and personhood.
- Hypothesis 2 (theism): The universe is a time-finite open system which originates from the action of an eternal entity that is external to that system (at this point the statement is consistent with deism). Furthermore, that entity is conscious and possesses personhood which ne has succeeded at least once in reproducing within the universe ne has created.
The first thing to note about the second hypothesis is that if reality is a product of a being that, like us, possesses self awareness and personhood, then using the impersonal pronoun “it” is problematic. Likewise, using a gendered pronoun is also not appropriate because it is anthropomorphic. It may be that the creator at some point does choose to communicate with humanity and in doing so takes on one of the gendered pronouns of our language (for example the Judeo-Christian pronoun for God is masculine). Yet this is a theological proposition that should not be confused with a strictly scientific hypothesis. Therefore in order to resolve this language dilemma, I have chosen to use the newly fashioned non-gendered pronoun of “ne” to keep my scientific hypothesis strictly accurate.
The fact I have a paragraph above explaining why I have used the word “ne” and not “it”, “he”, or “she” demonstrates the difficulty that awaits us in keeping “the atheism/theism hypotheses” strictly separate from religious ideas. Yet whether we like it or not, these two competing hypotheses have a direct effect on how we calibrate the instrument of science itself in relation to the potential scope of knowledge (epistemology) it can provide. If the atheism hypothesis is correct then it could be argued (and indeed is by many modern atheists) that the scientific method has the potential to give an accurate and complete account of the reality in which we find ourselves. Alternatively, if theism is the correct hypothesis, then the existence of an entity that is distinct from the scientifically observable universe means that the tool of science itself, while able to provide vast quantities of information relating to the operation of our universe as it is currently configured, cannot ultimately provide information about every aspect of reality.
Assuming that the universe itself is finite (the question of the age of the universe is amenable to science investigation and has been determined to be about 13.8 billion years old), theism sets an important boundary at the point of ultimate origin and human personhood. If we and our universe really are the product of another being, then while science as a tool can be used to derive the details of how our universe operates, it cannot be used to determine how the universe came about in first place. Likewise, trying to reduce a conscious human personality back to non-conscious matter will always result in an infinite regress type scenario (“why does this particular configuration of brain neurons result in my experience of consciousness and not yours?”)
So let’s for the sake for argument assume that the scientific paradigm cannot be used to answer questions to do with ultimate origin because theism is the correct hypothesis. In this situation, what would the misapplication of the scientific tool look like in relation to using it to answer something which is outside its explanatory scope? The answer is what some have called scientism. So what is scientism? I suggest that it is the atheist’s equivalent of importing their worldview into the scientific paradigm in the same way as religious folk sometimes contaminate science with their own worldviews. For example, eccentric individuals who argue for a flat earth 4,000 year old universe are clearly contaminating the scientific paradigm with their particular interpretation of the religious book of Genesis. While such a mistake is easy to spot and address, scientism is much more accepted within mainstream science to the point where many individuals can no longer differentiate between the normal practice of science (in terms of standard scientific theories and models grounded on actual data) versus radical theoretical musings that have literally no supporting data but are based on the assumption that the scientific tool must be able to answer all questions including ones of ultimate origin.
Two videos should suffice to demonstrate the unhelpful phenomenon of scientism. The first is taken from a series that was first aired on the BBC back in 2014 and presented by the Manchester University science celebrity Brian Cox called The Human Universe. If you click on the link you will see I have selected an excerpt where Cox argues for infinite multiverses to explain how our universe could be so finely tuned for the complex entities of living things, including ourselves. While he at least admits that such a claim is extraordinary, and in his own words demands “extraordinary evidence”; the so-called extraordinary evidence he presents to his audience is a small image of our universe’s cosmic background radiation (CMB) where an area in the image appears to be a little “cooler” than the overall average intensity.
While this level of scientism is perhaps at the boundary of what will make it onto mainstream TV, one only has to go to Youtube to find just how deep the rabbit hole can go once you allow scientism to get a firm hold of the scientific paradigm. The second is a fascinating Youtube video entitled Emergence Theory presented by Marion Kerr explaining quantum gravity research. She ends the video with these rather telling lines:
Physics allows the possibility of all the energy in the universe to eventually convert into a single conscious system that is itself a network of other conscious systems. A massive technological based collective consciousness. Given enough time, anything that can happen will eventually happen. By this axiom, this system of universal consciousness has already emerged somewhere in the frames of spacetime ahead of us. Because it is possible, it is inevitable. In fact, according to the evidence of retro-causality time loops, that inevitable future is co-creating us right now, just as we are co-creating it.
The above quote should worry anyone who takes science seriously because it is a regression of the science back to a time before the enlightenment when the scientific method was dominated by theoretical dogma rather than theory grounded in experimental data. Before the enlightenment, this dogma was an import from theism; now it is an import from atheism. Either way it is problematic and I would argue needs to be addressed in order to protect the ontology of science itself. Chapter 11 of my book The Wormwood Deceptions deals with scientism. Likewise, I have created three rather long lectures which were first delivered to a group of Cameroonian theological students that critiques scientism from a Christian perspective. Admittedly, given it is from a Christian perspective, the lectures contain a mixture of scientific thinking and theology. There is nothing wrong with having a “toolbox”, which helps you make sense of reality, that contains more than one tool as long as you recognise that you have more than one tool in your toolbox and you don’t think your hammer and screwdriver are the same thing!
Given that these lectures are from a Christian perspective, for those of you who are interested in understanding the critique of scientism itself but don’t want it mixed with any particular religious viewpoint, I suggest you avoid looking at these lectures and wait until I release a new set of shorter 20 minute Youtube videos designed to critique scientism from a general theist not Christian perspective. Let’s face it, 20 minutes is much more digestible than 1 hr 10 minutes which is the length of my longest lecture. However, if you are a Christian and would like to understand more about how science and Christianity actually work well together, rather than being at odds as is commonly perceived, then feel free to take a look at the three lectures above.