The Limits of Science in the Search for God part 2: Questions Science Can't answer (and Religion can)


The dispute between theists and atheists is, in large part, a squabble over epistemology. Atheists tend to be empiricists, as famous atheist blogger Austin Cline puts it:

Atheists tend to be either exclusively or primarily empiricists: they insist that truth-claims be accompanied by clear and convincing evidence which can be studied and tested. Theists tend to be much more wiling to accept rationalism, believing that "truth" can be attained through revelations, mysticism, faith, etc. This is consistent with how atheists tend to place primacy on the existence of matter and argue that the universe is material in nature whereas theists tend to place primacy on the existence of mind (specifically: the mind of God) and argue that existence is more basically spiritual and supernatural in nature.[i]

The allure of empirical evidence is apparent. The atheist lives in a socially constructed totality of mutually reinforcing doubt. Anything that is not surface and thing oriented, a material object that can be touched, must be doubted. The truncated world of mere surface nature, a world constructed entirely out of material objects, ‘things,’ and nothing more, is consistently being touted as the only valid form of existence because it’s so solid, so in front of one’s face, so “there.” All one need do is examine Cline’s speech to see the totalizing understanding at work. He says: “Theists tend to be much more wiling to accept rationalism, believing that "truth" can be attained through revelations, mysticism, faith, etc.(above).” One wonders what is in that “ect,” but he classes among the tools of RATIONALISM revelation, mysticism and faith! Sense when? Rationalism has never meant supernatural and spiritual aids, it means reason and logic. The philosophes in the enlightenment were rationalists. Atheists themselves pride themselves in their rational natures, yet Cline would have us believe that to be a rationalist is to be a mystic.
The reason for this is no great mystery. Atheism thrives on the notion that it is the rational choice. It clings to science and the value of scientific thinking because science has come to be understood as the umpire of reality. Religion really does involve a global use of knowledge, thus the atheist emphasizes the less scientific more “irrational” methods of religion and conveniently forgets that theology also uses logic, reason, scientific approaches, textual criticisms, archaeology and so forth. When atheists are confronted with God arguments based upon logic suddenly the use of logic becomes foolish, unimportant, inadequate unable to give us answers. Then the rationalist becomes not a logician but a mystic. Theistic rationalism is boiled down to the “spiritual” aspects and cut off from reason to make theism appear foolish. The truth of it is the atheist is truncating the world, cutting of everything below the surface. The atheist world is like a frozen sea where ice bergs end at the waterline. It’s true that religious thinking does employ these means that atheists seek to make appear foolish, revelation, mystical experience and so on. That’s part of being global. Global approach to knowledge means using everything we know. Those more pneumatic methods are related to and grounded in the use of reason and the validated of scientific testing. This is true even on the level of daily living where untrained laymen do not make clinical field trials but live their lives, they gravitate to that which works for them and that which doesn’t work they leave alone. The more academic theological thinker employs all the techniques known to modern humanity, including science. Yet the true ground of understanding for God is in the heart. The atheist seeks to cut off the heart by disparaging it as “subjective,” “superstitious,” “unscientific” but that’s because they have to do that to make their case. Their case is based upon truncating reality.
Is empirical evidence the best or only true form of knowledge? This is an apologetics question because it bears upon the arguments for the existence of God. Is lack of empirical evidence, if there is a lack, a draw back for God arguments?
I deny that there is a lack, but it has to be put in the proper context. That will come in future chapters, for this one I will bracket that answer and just assume there is no really good empirical evidence (even though I think there is). Empiricism is not the true source of knowledge by itself, logic is more important. What I’m really aiming at is not logic alone but a global approach to knowledge, using everything we have. It all has to work together. Part of that global approach must include the use of epistemology as a starting point; otherwise we are making unfounded assumptions about method without really considering our basic premises before we start. It seems that a fundamental aspect of getting started has to be to acquire an understanding of our tools and an understanding of what they are designed to do. Empiricism, though it is often approached as value and commitment by the atheist, is really just one of several tools. The tool of empiricism is designed to give us a basic understanding of the immediate nature not an exhaustive and final rendition of all reality. This is illustrated best by the nature of questions that empiricism can’t answer and can’t even begin to deal. These are epistemological questions. Epistemology is branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.[ii] Epistemology is on a more basic level of human inquirers than science; science grew out of an attempt to answer epistemological problems. Science basically deals with systemic observation of sense data, its aim is to understand the workings of the physical world. The empiricist transforms the design of a tool into a philosophy in itself trying to cause us to stay stuck at the level where all we ever consider is the physical world. The inability of science to answer basic epistemological questions demonstrates that it is unsuited to answer questions about the ultimate nature of reality.
Descartes the rationalist reached one of the seminal moments in western thought; his cogito is important to any modern scientific thinker because it helped to stem the damage of the intellectual crisis of Europe and provided a basis for relative certainty that allowed confidence in human ability to gather knowledge and to move forward with modern science.. Descartes wanted to find the basic level of certainty that he could not doubt. He asked questions such as “how do I know I exist?” “How do I know that I’m not being deceived by an evil genius?” The most basic thing he could not doubt was that he was thinking about how he knew he wasn’t being deceived. His answer is formulated thus, “I think, therefore, I am,” (Latin: cigito, ergo sum referred to as “the cogito”). Now the un-initiated non philosophy people who first encounter this in introductory classes mock and ridicule it saying “what a stupid thing to worry about, we know we exist because we are alive and looking at the world.” In so doing they are basically the same steps. Of course no one worries about this, Descartes didn’t worry about it. What they miss is the fact that Descartes wasn’t actually worried that he might not exist; he was trying to work up a method that would find the most indubitable thing and work out form there. This is all pabulum for a philosophy student, Philosophy 101, fall semester. The problem is there’s a basic fallacy that Descartes is often accused of committing, it used to be “the epistemologist fallacy” sometimes called “the empiricist dilemma.” The empiricists came along and said “but you can’t get outside of your experiences to check and see if they are true.” In other words, the cogito may be the one thing of which you can be certain but you can’t move on from it by pure reason to establish the world, you have to accept your sense data as the primary source of knowledge. Thus the basic school of the empiricists was born.
The nature of epistemological questions holds a greater problem for the adherent of scientism or the adherent of reductionism, the new atheist, the scientific empiricist than just a mere technicality in the history of philosophy. The fact that science can’t provide the answer, not that there aren’t good answers, but that science can’t provide them presents a very significant problem for those who believe that science is the only source of knowledge. For those who believe this, science is usually understood as holding an answer to everything, or everything worth knowing. Just collecting more data wont resolve questions of perception being illusory, any data collected would be suspect as part of the illusion.[iii] That science can’t provide the answers for questions of epistemology is crucial because epistemology of course is about how we know what we know, for one who believes that this one kind of knowledge is the only knowledge, to see that this source of all knowledge has no answer for this one kind of question, a question of knowledge itself, if it’s really taken to heart, has to be crushing. Of course they don’t take it to heart; they usually just rationalize it away. Be that as it may the reductionism, the champion of scientism usually comes back and says something like “I don’t have to worry about whether or not I exist because here I am, assuming I do seems to work rather well because it enables me to get through the day so I’m justified in assuming that I do exist.” Look at the nature of the answer; that is not science, its philosophy! They are essentially demonstrating my point in trying to answer because they have to resort to philosophy, having no scientific data to dispel the possibility of illusion cast over our perceptions. The nature of the answer is rather amusing because it allows one to then posit that religious experience is just as trust worthy as a huge body of scientific data demonstrates that religious experience enables one to navigate through life in certain respects.[iv] So when there actually is some data pertaining to the matter, it supports religious belief and not atheism. But the point is one must pull together a meaningful answer to this kind of question by use of means other than scientific. Thus there have to be other forms of knowledge and in dealing with the ultimate concerns of human being those other methods are crucial.
There are many such questions. One can easily come up with them, from the banal, “How do we know the sun will come up tomorrow?” To the profound “why is there something rather than nothing.”

How do we know the sun will come up tomorrow?
How do we know the future will be like the past?
How do we know we exist?
How do we know other minds exist external to our own?
How do we know our lives are not illusory
How do we know we are not butterflies dreaming we are humans?
How do we know we are not brains in vats, ect ect.

The trick always works the same way. They try to answer the question by departing form scientific data and making use of philosophy, however slight or undeveloped their understanding of philosophy. The question about the sun coming up is a good trick because many atheist confuse probability with science, they think they are giving a scientific answer when they say “because it always has before” as though just any reference to numbers is scientific. Yet, probably, while a major tool used in science, becomes something more like philosophy in this context, because it requires a philosophical understanding to argue that we should allow ourselves to trust the probability. This is still the childish level of fun with arguments and a more sophisticated scientific type who knows something about the philosophy of the Cartesian era would bash it out in a few minutes. We have a more complex problem when we being to ask questions about navigation in life and about meaning in life. It’s not that big a trick to figure out why we should trust the sun to come up, or why we should trust out senses when they are so regular and consistent.
The upshot is that not only do we have to bring in philosophy to offer these answers, but we have to make them or else just ignore the question. In other words, no scientific data will ever answer these questions; they have to be the result of a judgment. We have to make an epistemic judgment to answer to such questions. The skeptic thinks she’s triumphantly answering this argument when she resorts to this fact, but in reality she is giving the answer the apologist wants to hear. Of course we have to make a judgment, that the judgment is based upon empirical data from the senses doesn’t prove that science answers the question, no far from it, it proves that science can’t answer it and the inquirer has to be based upon a judgment call and the next best thing to actually answering it is going by empirical observation. Even at that level it’s not “science” per se that’s enabling us to make the judgment, but a philosophical turn of mind that is willing to extrapolate from the data (closer to philosophy because the skeptic always rails against extrapolation when it’s about faith). The decision to make a judgment requires a philosophical deliberation, and the subject matter is not scientific. The fact of this the necessity to make the judgment is the basis for my God argument I call “argument from epistemic judgment.”[v] If the perceptions we have are regular, consistent, inter-subjective and enable navigation (and the studies studies show the affirmative on all counts) then we have the same reason to trust them that we have to trust regular experiences of the world, even though these are religious experiences. Science can’t go near the question or any of these the above questions because it’s job is to tell us about the physical world not how we know what we know, not the ultimate nature of reality. One must make a leap of faith or beg the question to assume that there is nothing more to reality than just the physical fact of things existing. This is faith, not science. Science does not work by faith.
Not only do these epistemological questions of the empiricist dilemma highlight the need for philosophical thinking, the limited nature of science to answer such questions, but science itself shows us empirically (pardon the irony) that science is unable to provide the answer to epistemology. Andrew Newberg tells us:

The medieval German mystic Meister Echkart lived hundreds of years before the science of neurology was born. Yet it seems he had intuitively grasped one of the fundamental principles of the discipline: What we think of, as reality is only a rendition of reality that is created by the brain. Our modern understanding of the brain’s perceptual powers bears him out. Nothing enters consciousness whole. There is no direct, objective experience of reality. All the things the mind perceives—all thoughts, feelings, hunches, memories, insights, desires, and revelations—have been assembled piece by piece by the processing powers of the brain from the swirl of neural blimps. The idea that our experiences of reality—all our experiences, for that matter—are only “secondhand” depictions of what may or may not be objectively real, raises some profound questions about the most basic truths of human existence and the neurological nature of spiritual experience. For example our experiment with Tibetan mediators and Franciscan nuns showed that the events they considered spiritual were, in fact, associated with observable neurological activity. In a reductionist sense this could support the argument that religious experience is only imagined neurologically, that God is physically ‘all in your mind.’ But a full understanding of the way in which the brain and the mind assemble and experience reality suggests a very different view.[vi]

The brain re-writes reality for us as part of the cognitive features that make up our physical perceptions. That means not that our physical perceptions are giving us an accurate representation of the world but that they are re writing the world for us. Our perceptions are not what is actually there but what our brains have re-written to present to us as a simulacra of what is there. It’s not that we can establish reasonable probability that enables us to get by in life, of course we can. The fact that we do this all the time indicates that this is not a debilitating condition; the fact of it is, however, that our ability to do that depends upon philosophical thinking and making of metaphors, not upon empiricism or scientific data.
We have to put together all the sense data and the re-written version of reality our brains give us, but we have to apply philosophical thinking to come up with the answer “I can trust the sun will come up because it has always done so before.” We can’t really do this without thinking philosophically. The answer to questions about how we know what we take to be “reality” is “real,” involves a philosophical leap of faith. We can’t bridge the gap in knowledge by literally establishing the accuracy of the way the brain re-writes the world, we can only make an epistemic judgment; that’s what the answers people give, “the sun will come up again because it always does.” That answer is a judgment, it’s really guess based upon probability. That’s philosophical. In fact Newberg shows that the brain actually has a philosophical judgment function already “built-in” to our perceptions. He calls them “cognitive operators.” One such operator enables us to see the whole broken down into component parts and another allows us to group component parts and see the whole. It’s as though what we need to gather data and build a picture of the world is designed into our cognitive array. My purpose here, however, is not to make a design argument. Rather I am arguing that the only things that really make all of this work are counter intuitively not aspects that allow one to one accurate viewing of the world but instead enable the kinds of thinking that empiricists and atheist don’t like, thinking that’s more a part of the arts and humanities, and philosophy; the making of metaphor, without which language would be impossible, and extrapolation, requiring imagination.[vii] Without these kinds of thinking and the ability to employ them philosophically to questions of perception and to general questions about the meaning of life, we would not be able to operate in the world. This is not supplied by scientific data, nor could it be. This is not an issue that can be bridged by better gathering of data because any data we gather would be useless without the ability to extrapolate form it and think philosophically.
What we see at work in the reliance upon philosophy to bolster science in the epistemological realm, and then to criticize philosophy for not being science, is the tendency of scientism to bring philosophy in through the backdoor; that is a necessary move to bolster the atheist ideology because without that they could never even suggest anything about the nature of reality. Of course real scientific thought is much more sophisticated than anything I portray here, as is real philosophical thinking. Hopefully real major physicists don’t think that science is the only source of knowledge. I am inclined to pick on those who do think this and I refer to them as “sciensistic.” Atheists and skeptics tend to be scientistic. The scientism crowd must bring philosophy in the back door because without doing that they could not tout their ideology. Ideology touting is a philosophical move. Pronouncements such as “metaphysics is useless made up garbage” is a metaphysical statement. Thus one must do metaphysics in order to say “metaphysics sux.” Sometimes major physicists do talk rot and move too far into the realm of expropriating philosophy, especially when they want to sell books. Such an instance is seen now in the new publicity stunt Stephen Hawking, who, awaiting release of his new book declares that God did not create the universe. The book is not yet out, thus we have only pre-release reviews to go by. We do know one thing already; science has no business making pronouncements about God because God is not a scientific question. God is in the realm of questions that science can’t answer. The proof is to sit back (with popcorn) and watch the circus as scientist like Hawking sneak in philosophy disguised as science.
The shocking proclamation of the book is to be that God did not create the universe, science can accent for it all. Most reviewers have lost no time in pointing out the obvious; Hawking’s mechanism (gravity) is left unexplained.
God did not create the universe, world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking argues in a new book that aims to banish a divine creator from physics. Hawking says in his book The Grand Design that, given the existence of gravity, "the universe can and will create itself from nothing," according to an excerpt published Thursday in The Times of London. "Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist," he writes in the excerpt."It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper [fuse] and set the universe going," he writes.[viii]

Probably that is the hook when the book is released, the pretense that does explain. Prediction: the book will be sold on the premise that it disproves the need for God because it accounts scientifically for gravity, but the real trick is to what for what is surreptitiously lurking behind the veil. Not the idea that they can’t demonstrate the basis for gravity
The questions that science poses and the questions that religious belief pose are totally different sorts of questions. There are points of overlap. Most of these stem form the ages before science really had an systematic to it, the ancient world, pre historic world. These are the days when the most sophisticated scientific knowledge was smelting and sword making, and even that was not understood in a way that we would call "scientific." In that setting it was natural (meaning logical and practical) to use religion as the explanation for the natural world. From this era when people looked to religion to make it answer questions it can't answer, we have hold over ideas (such as Genesis creation myth--which we need to learn how to read as a myth--and that means we need to learn the value in myth) that we have these conflicts. Science doesn’t work by faith, but science’s task is to understanding the workings of the physical world. On the other hand, this is not the only thing that humans wonder about. The nature of human wonderment is bigger than just the physical world. We wonder about our very place in being. How are we going to understand the nature of being empirically when we can't get outside of being to study it? We can understand it from the standpoint of beings in being, but that's subjective. We can't get outside of being to understand what being is. This is why science is inadequate to deal with questions like the existence of God, thus the lack of empirical evidence for God cannot be understood as a reason to disbelieve the existence of God. Atheists reject “subjective” view points and evidence, but that’s the only of knowledge we have. Objectivity is a pretense. Humans are not objective and science is not an objective means of obtaining all possible truth. The reductionists will counter with the assertion that the only possible alternative is superstition or magic or some kind of primitive animism, but they ignore logic, philosophy and phenomenology.

Heidegger’s ultimate question, why is there something rather than nothing at all. This probably the most important question of ontology, and it's one science can't begin to answer. The basis of religious thinking, although Heidegger was an atheist, it need to entail a religious answer. To even begin to think about the issue one must depart the field of science, leave aside the workings of the physical world and embark upon contemplation of a concept foreign to scinece; the question of "why?" Science thrives on "how?" It doesn't contain "why?"

In addition to epistemological questions and ontological there are also moral questions. Much has been done to try and construct moral philosophy based upon scientific underpinnings, mainly though trying to establish a genetic basis for morality. This is not valid because it can’t tell us the “should.” Moral philosophy, ethics, morality all of these kinds of thinking require the word “should” be part of their formulations; one should or should not do X. Merely establishing a fact of nature lending itself to a predisposition toward a certain kind of behavior does not tell us that we should or should not do that behavior. To try and base morality upon genetics is a violation of Hume’s fork. One cannot establish and ought from an “is.” Suppose we dissected living humans to observe the workings of the human body. We could learn a great deal, science would be greatly served, but science can’t tell us we should or should not do that, and doing it because it serves science is no guarantee that it would be ethical. Now one might argue “that’s common sense, this is repugnant because it’s a violation of our human feeling, we feel in the gut that’s it is wrong and that’s all we need to ay it is wrong. The feeling is not science. Utilitarianism is not science. Enlightenment self interest is not science. None of the basic reasons atheists and physicalists will give for not doing so are science. The moral answers atheists take to the questions have to come from thinking other than scientific thought, and certainly scientific data can’t tell us where the “should” is. If we even care about the dimension of the moral in the first place, we have to move into the realm of philosophy and ask other kinds of questions than that science can answer. Questions of moral philosophy overlap with questions of God, much more so then they do with questions of science. Scientific empiricism is not prepared to answer such questions, nor to deal with epistemology, but also has inherent problems even for it’s own tasks.

[i] Austine Cline,, Atheism/Agnosticism (blog) URL: Visited 8/27/2010
[ii] Antony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy, revised second edition. New York: St. Martin’s press, 1979,109.
[iii] When I employ this game playing strategy in argument with atheist on the internet they usually become outraged at the point where they realize that more data won’t help. The start cursing and saying that I’m “attacking science, and saying things like “that’s crazy, no one would worry about existing or not.” But the reasons they give are always indicative of philosophical thinking, even the ones who say philosophy is just made up rubbish.
[iv] See my previous work The Trace of God, Grand Viaduct publishing. Chapter 3
[v] see J.L. Hinman. The Trace of God, Dallas and Colorodo Springs: Grand Viaduct Publishing, 2010 ,chapter 3, “Arguments”
[vi] Andrew Newberg, Why God Won’t God Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. (New York, Ballentine Books), 2001,35-36.
[vii] Ibid 52.
[viii] Richard Allen Green. “Stephen Hawking:God Didn’t Create the Universe” CNN World. (September 02, 2010).

see part 3