Science and the God-Shaped Void

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A friend and I were talking recently about the uneasy role our respective religions play in our secular American lives. Religious folks watch crude and profane movies and laugh along with everyone else. Atheism is just different strokes for different folks—no big deal, really, they just opted not to tick the God box. Is there any danger to religious Americans to make room in the public sphere for atheistic perspectives and values? Perhaps we can just do what we’ve done with commercialized Christmas: leave it be, just have to remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Perhaps a more secular culture is ok, so long as we keep in mind what it really means to hold to a religious worldview.

Easier said than done. We are not in a worldview-neutral culture. There is currently not a lot of reason to think about worldviews because, when it comes to much of the important stuff, we happen to believe the same things: individual liberty; human dignity; love of country; etc. But as we are starting to see, in the debates on gay marriage and stem cells, for example, there is increasing pressure to abandon vestiges of our religious worldviews unless they are supported by the atheistic worldview. That is, the morality that comes from old books and stodgy preachers no longer passes muster. Insert some bar graphs and control group data and then we’ll talk. Until then, no one wants to hear about your peccadilloes.

The problem with that is, properly speaking, there is no such thing as an “atheistic worldview.” Instead, we have atheist worldviews, as many, in fact, as there are atheists. This is because science, which serves as atheists’ de facto “god,” is value neutral. It governs only process, not ends. If you want to talk about ends, about truth, about first principles, we’re talking about metaphysics, the branch of study antecedent to science on the human knowledge tree.

To even the religious among us these days, science is the gold standard of truth. Labcoats are preferred to armchairs. No one wants to hear about metaphysics—the physics part sounds good, but this “meta” must mean less good, no?—like “semi” or “pseudo”? To the contrary, the prefix means “more comprehensive; transcending,” as in, physics presupposes metaphysics. Without metaphysics, there can be no physics. Metaphysics gives us the tools we need to do science. Scientific method? Metaphysics. Induction? Metaphysics. Causation? Metaphysics. Unified theory of everything? You guessed it, metaphysics. Natural selection is a scientific theory, but the theory is so ingenious that it entices otherwise sober minded scientists to go further. It has answered so many questions and unlocked so many doors that we forget that it all comes from the same field of study that provides the foundation for both science and theology: metaphysics.

That is what the folks at the Discovery Institute have their alarm bells ringing about. Whatever you think about intelligent design (and I don’t think a whole lot of it), they are right to be bothered that science now thinks it can start injecting non-scientific fields, such as teleology, into classrooms. The notion that teachers could indoctrinate students about a “purposeless” universe is just as objectionable as if they were teaching it did have a purpose. They are two sides of the same coin, with intelligent design proponents on one side, and natural selection proponents on the other. The problem is the coin: either way, preference is given to one side or the other in a science classroom when science proper has nothing to say about it. Present both sides in a confined discussion about metaphysics, or, if that makes the scienceniks too nervous, forget the whole thing.

God should not be injected into science classrooms, but neither should science teachers extend the proper borders of their field. Science has moved beyond focusing on method and has traced its way back up to where it splits off from the rest of philosophy at the juncture of metaphysics and epistemology. Ironically, the intelligent design proponents who are holding ground at that crossroads defend not only metaphysics and religion, but science as well, refusing to let method- and certainty-oriented science trod upon the more nuanced and transcendental branches of the knowledge tree.

We all have a religion. For some, it is science. It is not yet clear whether science or the science-ists will suffer the graver effects.

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