Las razones del ateísmo “científico”

The reasons for "scientific" atheism

Author: Javier Sánchez Cañizares
Published in: Revista "Palabra", pp. 56-59.
Date of publication: June 2012

On 23 February, a unique meeting took place at Oxford University. The biologist Richard Dawkins and the Anglican Primate Rowan Williams talked for an hour and average about the nature and origin of human beings. The event was covered by numerous speech media. It also happened to be on the same stage that, more than 150 years ago, a discussion between Thomas Huxley and Archbishop Wilberforce had taken place, which ended in a disagreement: member of the clergy asked Huxley whether he was descended from a monkey on his mother's or father's side.

Thankfully, the discussion between Dawkins and Williams was an example of good manners. Both were able to express their points of view in a peaceful manner, to question each other for clarification and even to show their agreement on certain points. The discussion had a huge audience, which sample shows the interest in discussion between science and religion in the contemporary world. But what are the points of conflict today, have the arguments evolved in recent years, and are we facing a dialogue of the deaf that will never be understood?

The image of God at stake

Today it can be said that the relationship between science and religion is not at all in conflict. But it is also true that in certain fundamentalist religious circles science is rejected as the enemy of divine revelation, and that some scientists regularly harangue in favour of atheism, supposedly on the basis of their intellectual prestige. What are the reasons given by the latter?

In order to understand the reasons for the "scientific" atheism of personalities such as Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking, it is useful to bear in mind the image of God that they attack with their arguments: the so-called "God of the holes".

Scientific atheism considers that, throughout history, believers turn to God whenever they are faced with a phenomenon that they cannot explain or control. Thus, they pray to God to deliver them from the black plague, to give good weather to the crops or to heal an incurably ill person. On the contrary, advances in scientific knowledge would show that the true causes of these phenomena are exclusively natural, without any need to invoke a supernatural being: instead of praying for sunshine for tomorrow's excursion, it would be better to consult the weather forecast of the experts.

The expression "God of the holes" emphasises that God would only be a resource to fill in those gaps in the scientific knowledge that still exist. Scientific atheism is convinced that science is ultimately written request capable of discovering the natural causes that explain all phenomena. Certainly, after facing the gnoseological changes brought about by quantum mechanics and chaos theory, science today no longer boasts the naïve determinism of the 19th century, but the substance of the positions of scientific atheism remains unchanged: progress in scientific knowledge will eventually lead to the disappearance of all epistemological holes and, with them, the disappearance of God from human thought.

The generic argument of scientific atheism has concentrated in recent years on two fundamental questions: the origin of the universe and the origin of man.

One of the questions that most astonishes cosmologists is the "fine-tuning" of the fundamental constants of the universe. If the value of these constants had been slightly different, the cosmos would be radically different from the way we observe it today (it would probably be a vast void with no galaxies or a huge black hole). The fine-tuning is something that many have seen as an argument for the existence of a higher being, who would set the constants to the right values before setting the universe in motion.

The book "The Grand Design" by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow rejects this view by proposing an alternative scientific scenario. In reality, our universe would be but one of many possible universes within the grand multiverse (the set of all potential universes in a unified superstring theory). Universes would be born out of quantum fluctuations, and ours would be nothing special; it would simply come from a fluctuation that amplifies into a universe capable of hosting conscious human beings.

A similar perspective is given to the problem of the origin of man. The general theory of evolution offers an explanation for the appearance of species on earth based on mutations in the genetic code of living beings and the natural selection of those that are best adapted to the environment. This theory is supported by the majority of scientists and is the best explanation for the enormous amount of palaeontological, morphological and genetic data that we have today.

However, some biologists such as Dawkins and neuro-philosophers such as Patricia Churchland defend, within this framework, that man would be just another species, originating from complicated phenomena of self-organisation of the subject and interaction with the environment. In this sense, what we call the higher capacities of the human being: self-awareness, intelligence or freedom would be nothing more than complex brain dynamics. In other words, mere illusions similar to believing that the sun revolves around the earth.

Levels of reality

What can we say about all this? We have to recognise the persuasiveness of certain views of scientific atheism Degree . Of course, there has been no shortage of occasions throughout history when science has purified religious belief from mere superstition and - at specific moments, as in the case of Galileo - from erroneous interpretations of Sacred Scripture. This is not surprising because, while faith purifies reason, there is also a "purifying and structuring role of reason with respect to religion. It is a two-way process" (Benedict XVI, speech in Westminster Hall, 17 September 2010).

The scientific knowledge progresses and science has its own mechanisms for discarding false theories. But does science encompass all levels of reality? Science gives a very fundamental explanation of the reality we perceive, but can everything be reduced to science? A clear example can be found in artistic creation. We can break down a performance of Mozart's Requiem into acoustic waves, determine the composition Chemistry of the painting Las Meninas and calculate the distribution of loads in St. Peter's Basilica; but do each of these descriptions offer a complete explanation of the reality we are confronted with?

The image of the "God of holes" presented by scientific atheism has its share of truth. However, it considers all holes to be the same: simple vacuums of knowledge that will eventually fill the scientific understanding. However, they are not all the same. Scientific atheism starts from an initial reductionist understanding: thinking that only science is capable of giving a rational and complete explanation of the world.

From a strictly scientific point of view, attempts to provide a natural explanation of the origin of the universe based on the multiverse theory or the appearance of human consciousness from the self-organisation of subject are, at present, pure science fiction, as all scientists (including Hawking and Dawkins) acknowledge. But even if they were to provide a scientific explanation of these phenomena, would they be providing a complete explanation of reality, explaining the reason for the existence of the world or the human search for meaning? One cannot explain what one rejects a priori. And yet - to paraphrase Galileo - it exists.

Scientific atheism asks more of science than it can give. Science is neither theistic nor atheistic. It should not be used for theism or atheism. Philosophy and theology are the modes of human rationality that can inquire into the ultimate whys and wherefores of existence. Ultimately, scientific atheism contradicts itself because, if it were true, it would not have to take the work trouble to disprove an illusion. Paradoxically, man is the only animal that does science and seeks to convince those he recognises the capacity to rectify: to be free, no more, no less.