Diving the Iceberg

This is the fifth post in the series “An Anal MBA Believer responds to the Atheists Authors”.  In these first few posts I have been focusing on the relationship between science and faith (but I will soon be moving on to some of other areas outlined in the first post in the series). Those who have read some of the theological responses to the New Atheists (i.e., books by John Haught or Tim Keller) are probably wondering when I will address the debate about Scientific Naturalism. Well, this is the post where I will be doing that, although my views, I think, fall somewhere between the traditional religious and atheist positions.

So – for those of you who aren’t familiar with this subject, here is a quick summary of the issue. At the root of all the scientific critiques of religion lies the core problem that, as Victor Stenger put it, there is simply no scientific evidence to support the ‘God Hypothesis’.  Or, as John Haught says “Since God does not fall within the realm of ‘evidence’ that science deals with, any reasonable, scientifically educated person must therefore repudiate belief in God” (God and the New Atheism).  This view is called ‘Scientific Naturalism’ or ‘Scientism’ – and most of the New Atheists subscribe to this worldview.

The biggest theological critique of Scientism is that it can not be defended on its own terms.  Again, per Haught “There is no way, without circular thinking, to set up a scientific experiment to demonstrate that every true proposition must be based in empirical evidence rather than faith”.

On a purely logical basis, this critique of Scientism is correct. However, as a former business professional whose job was to gather evidence to support strategic decision-making, I have to say that I sympathize with the atheist response to this critique: all of us base most of our lives on some form of evidence, and it is reasonable to be skeptical about claims that seem to have no basis in reality.  Thus, I personally find Scientism problematic for different reasons:

  1. It lays out too narrow a definition of what constitutes evidence (particularly when we are dealing with the realms of human emotion and behavior where it seems unlikely that science will ever be able to fully account for our complexity).
  2. It is based on an unfounded confidence that we will be able to (or already have) gathered sufficient evidence that we can draw reasonably firm conclusions about such things.

Ironically enough, this second point hit me when I recently went to the Museum of Natural History with my kids. One of my sons- Andrew, age 6 – is fascinated by space, and since I am a typical mother who is  convinced that all of my children are geniuses, I felt that it was important that we go to the astronomy section of the museum to get him started on his career as an astrophysicist.

While Andrew ended up spending most of his time figuring out how much he would weigh on Mars, I found myself enthralled by everything I read in the space center – which outlined the rapidly increasing pace of discoveries over the last century. One fact in particular blew me away: that we didn’t even realize that there was more than one galaxy in the universe until Edwin Hubble made this discovery in the 1920s. Since that time scientists have had their hands full learning all that they can about the billions of galaxies in the universe.

At the time I visited the space center, I was also reading Francis Collins’ The Language of God, where he reviews the development of the new field of Genomics that has developed out of the mapping of human (and other) genomes. What struck me about both of these scientific discoveries is that in each case the initial  scientific breakthrough – while answering some crucial questions – also generated a whole new set of new questions.

So here’s my question: doesn’t it seem likely that this type of pattern will occur with each new major scientific discovery? To put it more bluntly: isn’t it possible that the more we know, the more we will know how much we don’t know?

This way of thinking about science is quite different from the one that is often presented in discussions about the relationship between science and faith – where science is presented as a force that is leading to inexorable progress and a clear understanding of all aspects of reality.  Take for example this quote from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s new book The Grand Design:

Ignorance of nature’s ways led people in ancient times to invent gods to lord it over every aspect of human life……but with Thales of Miletus…about 2,600 years ago, that began to change.  The idea arose that nature follows consistent principles that could be deciphered.  And so began the long process of replacing the notion of the reign of gods with the concept of a universe that is governed by laws of nature, and created according to a blueprint we could someday learn to read.(p. 17)

I’ll leave for another post why I disagree with this view of religion (although in every other regard I think this book is amazing), but regardless the idea is clear: scientific discovery is like a mountain where we are climbing continuously closer to the peak where we will be able to see all truth clearly and where there will be no mystery left in the universe.

However – I am not at all sure that scientific progress – or human knowledge overall –  actually works that way. What if, instead of a mountain, it turns out that human knowledge is more like an iceberg that extends infinitely into the depths? 

Let’s just think for a moment about all the possible knowledge in the universe (or multiverse, which we’ll discuss soon). That means not just all natural laws, but every possible thought, feeling and intention, past, present and future, of every sentient creature on every planet in the entire universe. Now imagine all of that knowledge as an iceberg where just the very tip is above water and the bottom of the iceberg extends downward indefinitely.  Well, it seems to me that humanity started its existence at the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps with the discoveries we’ve made – especially over the past century – you could argue that we are for the first time dipping our heads into the freezing water and catching small glimpses of the enormous iceberg stretching out below us – and like Keanu Reeves in his most eloquent moment in The Matrix we exclaim “Whoa“.

Now – how can any honest scientist look anyone in the face and say “Yes, I’m sure that everything in that infinite iceberg can be known and understood by the scientific method and human reasoning capacity.” 

Interestingly, scientists acknowledge these sorts of limitations. For example, Hawking and Mlodinow, in discussing how humans are ultimately ‘biological machines’, say

While conceding that human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of nature, it also seems reasonable to conclude that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible in practice to predict. (p. 32)

Sam Harris also makes this distinction between ‘no answers in practice’ and ‘no answers in principle’ (see the introduction to The Moral Landscape).

That’s fine – so perhaps we could say that in principle everything in the universe could be known, but that in practice humanity (or any species in the universe) simply lacks the time and means to know it all.

However, aren’t all of us living in the world of ‘in practice’?  Therefore, in practice, or rather, in the life of the human race, we are unlikely to ever know everything there is to know. Really, we are unlikely to get anywhere close. The most we can expect is to dive a bit further down the iceberg.

Given how much we most likely will never know – isn’t it somewhat reasonable to include in that ‘unknown’ category some of the things that we would normally attribute to God? For example, perhaps one of those things that we will never know, but that in principle might exist, is a reason for our existence.  Or an explanation for why, when I went to have a second child, I got identical twins (identical twins are a fluke- currently no one knows why it happens). Or the answer to why a bunch of crazy Jews started risking their necks 2,000 years ago proclaiming that their dead leader had come back to life.

Now this does NOT mean that theologians somehow magically have the answers to these questions. That would make no logical sense at all (especially given how infrequently theologians seem to agree on things). However, what I am saying is that given how much we will never know,  it seems reasonable to keep an open mind about what might lie beneath the surface of that freezing water. We should not be threatened by those brave scientists who continually make new and amazing discoveries further in the depths. But we should also not be dismissive of those who develop their own theories about those parts of the iceberg we will never get to visit.

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