Friday, March 28, 2014

Ian Philbrick: Why Science and Atheism Are Incompatible

Ian Philbrick has a piece for the Georgetown Voice that tackles the controversy concerning Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and its host, a professed agnostic with tinges of religious antipathy.  He writes:
Tyson’s perspective is even more relevant to the increasingly antagonistic relationship between science and faith. Perhaps first popularized in American public discourse by the 1925 Scopes so-called “Monkey Trial,” modern “active atheists” (in Tyson’s words) have elevated acrimony to new levels. This activism has been spurred by the emergence of science intellectuals, including Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, whose vociferous atheism is inextricably wedded to their public personas.

While campaigns, petitions, and protests are certainly the prerogative of individuals, they become dangerous when applied wholesale to a discipline like science that derives its foundational credo and central legitimacy from objective inquiry. While dogma and impartiality can certainly exist as facets of an individual (as can religious belief and scientific rationality), the two are less easily reconciled on an institutional scale. Reconciling active atheism and science becomes a problem of participation and fundamentally conflicting ideology. Science, which must resist pigeonholing and generalization by its skeptical nature, is inherently incompatible with an activist movement that brands all faith practices invalid.
In their wonderful book, Science Held Hostage, Howard van Till, Davis Young and Clarence Menninga highlight the pitfalls of using science either in support of a belief position or an atheist position, instead arguing that science, practiced properly, cannot confer meaning in any sort of ultimate sense. It is simply a vehicle by which we understand the working of the universe.This is my general discomfort with the ID movement: using science, you can never show that God exists.  The movement's only recourse is to try to show that ID exists as a plausible notion, often at the expense of mainstream science.  This has resulted in an almost complete scientific sterility because there is no theoretical basis from which to work.  What sort of hypothetical question could you construct for which the null is "God doesn't exist."

by the same token, atheists, such as Richard Dawkins are out of their depth when dealing with religious subjects because atheism doesn't flow from the scientific enterprise.  Consequently, his book The God Delusion, was not well-received.  Dawkins, it was said, was a good scientist, but a rotten moralizer.

Science is best practiced as it is. It tells us how things work and, within its own confines, how they work, but it does not tell us what their ultimate purpose is. 

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