Science and the Meaning of Life:
Responding to Evangelical Atheism
Department of Philosophy
Saint Anselm College
All Joy wants eternity.
Is it irrational to commit oneself to a system of beliefs that goes beyond the bounds of science? Far from its being irrational, it may be the only way to lead a rational life. Science does not exhaust the true and the real. It works by setting limits to what it attempts to know and by investigating only those phenomena amenable to its methods. Not only does it not provide an account of the ultimate source of the order it investigates, it does not provide a basis for leading a rational life. There is a logic of caring. The human commitment to values has a rational structure. An examination of the human condition through the eyes of reason reveals insuperable problems that must be faced to live rationally. The aim of Religion is to address those problems. While we may debate the success of a particular religion’s solutions, Science fails to face the problems. The failure to face the truth of a situation and to respond in accordance with the logic of our commitments is the definition of irrationality.
I. Two Kinds of People: (with apologies to William James)
A. Tender Hearted: The tender heart aims at doing justice to the values of the world, and will leave no good-unhonored, no beauty un-appreciated, no harm unfelt. It will suffer no veil to be drawn over its heart and will not allow its soul to wither. It will gladly make the leap to believe in the unknown rather than ignore a present good.
B. Tough Minded; The tough mind will not suffer the wool to be drawn over its eyes. It will pursue the truth, no matter how painful; will look reality in the face and not turn away. It will gladly restrain its feelings to live within what is real rather than taking flight into illusion.
II. Evangelical Atheism: Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion. Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. Steven Weinberg: Facing Up: Science and its Cultural Adversaries. Paul Geisert’s movement: The Brights.
A. Uses some of the same rhetorical devices and persuasive techniques that religion uses.
B. All religious belief is irrational. Religion is necessary neither to explain the universe, to provide a foundation for morality, to appreciate the beauty of nature, nor to provide a basis for a meaningful human life.
C. Atheism suffers from an unfair prejudice in its exclusion from public life.
III. The Limits of Science: Science is the attempt to understand nature in terms of the necessary formal relations of its parts. Science is committed to Mechanistic Reductionism. (Plato’s Way of Necessity. Timaeus, 48e-56c )
A. Reductionism: The qualities of complex objects, such as squirrels, persons, or countries, can be explained completely by an examination of their parts, the basic forms of those parts, and the laws that govern them. There is no need for recourse to an occult nature or form for the entire whole. Mechanism: The parts have no significant properties of their own apart from their mathematical forms and relations. All of a thing’s properties arise from the formal relations of its parts.
B. Newton’s Methodological Move: Since we cannot perceive the hidden source of the regularities that science deals with, we shall frame no hypotheses about the nature of the causes that give rise to the regularities codified in the laws of nature that science reveals.
C. The Limits of Reductionism: By committing itself to the explanation of appearances only in terms of the formal, mathematical relationships between its parts, Science guarantees that it will be unable to answer certain types of questions. This becomes most clear when we use the computer as a metaphor for the universe.
1. Where did it all come from? The universe as a system of laws cannot itself explain where these laws came from.
2. What is it all made of? The properties of the smallest parts cannot be explained mechanically. If we take them to be bits of information, we still must ask about the medium in which the information is encoded and the source of the laws that govern their transition.
3. What makes it go? The laws of nature do not implement their own execution, any more than the program on a hard drive executes itself. If Science reveals the regularities exhibited by the appearances on the computer screen we call the natural world, it cannot reveal the hardware that implements those regularities.
IV. Reason and the Meaning of Life: We like things. We care about things. Reason extends those commitments in systematic ways, in ways that overstep the boundaries of our life, our power, and our imagination. Our values have a rational structure, and a rational life must conform itself to that structure, just as a rational belief system must conform itself to the necessities of the laws of nature as revealed by Science. The problem of the meaning of life is the problem of ordering one’s life rationally in accordance with these constraints.
A. Time: The Problem of Death. Reason projects our values over time. The meaning and integrity of our actions comes from the will’s ordering of events over time in accordance with values. The will is the operation of reason to project our valuations into the future by ordering events in accordance with them and endowing them with meaning.
1. We want the things we care about to continue. Caring about things means ordering our actions and feelings into the future, and their meaning lies in the relationships we establish between past, present, and future.
2. Death is the limitation of our future.
robs life of its meaning.
B. Space and Persons: Life’s paradox: Reason projects our values over space and across persons. To care about something means to care about it wherever and in whomever it occurs.
In general, I should care about things. Caring about things means adopting the values present in them as mine, as a principle for my will to use in the ordering of my feelings and actions. It means ordering one’s will rationally. Hence,
1. I should feel good about good
2. I should feel bad about bad things.
3. Objectively, there is no distinction between my goods and evils and another’s or between those distant and those present to me.
4. I cannot care about all goods and evils. (They are too many, and I too small.)
cannot care about the world. I cannot order my will rationally with respect to
C. Some Objections:
1. These things are unpleasant to think about.
2. Values are not a matter of reason.
3. There is no rational requirement to feel
anything, only to act in certain ways.
4. It is irrational to worry about what we cannot control.
V. The following pairs of beliefs are equally irrational:
The world is flat.
Death is no big deal. It presents no serious problems for the rational ordering of life.
Life on Earth began with an act of special creation by a supernatural creature about 6000 years ago.
The existence of more goods and evils in the world than I can ever do justice to presents no obstacle to human happiness or a rational ordering of values.
The world is magic. Some things have properties that cannot be accounted for by science.
The problems that Science cannot solve are not real problems and can be rationally ignored.
The existence of order and apparent design in living things could not have occurred through natural processes, but requires the supernatural intervention of a Divine Being.
Living a rational life requires no commitment to truths that cannot be supplied by Science. The commitment to a religious world view is irrational and unnecessary.
There is no incompatibility between Reason’s search for truth and its search for meaning. There is one world. The world of values and the world of truths occupy the same space. There is nowhere else for them to be, and the servants of each serve the same God.