Sunday, October 13, 2013

Oh. My. Science.

Um, no.

So this guy I went to high school with asked on Facebook tonight: "How do you know if you're an Atheist?  Just Curious!"

One of the answers he got came from my liberal law-professor friend, also an alum of my high school.
You don't believe in any god or "higher power." You accept that life began as a scientific event without divine intervention. Life similarly ends without divine intervention. How's that for a start?
Um, "life began as a scientific event"?  My friend has graduate degrees in both mathematics (statistics, to be exact) and law, so she knows the importance of using language with some exactness.  (In fact, she's been rather pissy about it in the past.)  But that statement makes no sense at all.

Sure, I can guess what she meant, kind of.  But science had nothing to do with the origin of life on this planet.  Science is a human invention, and there was no one around to do science before life existed, so science could not have played a role in its beginnings.  I suppose what she meant was that an atheist accepts a "scientific" account of the origin of life, one that would rely on "natural" or purely material processes without intervention or guidance by some kind of non-material consciousness or intelligence.

(P.S. October 20: I just overheard a student explain to someone on her cellphone that believing in evolution means "you think science played a role" in the origin of life.  Is this confusion about evolution more common among its partisans than I thought?)

The trouble there is that current scientific accounts are just-so stories.  They're "scientific" mainly in a negative sense: they eschew personalized agents ("gods") as factors in the origin of life. As far as I know science is still very far from having a positive account of how life originated, or what it is in the present.  Since the current view is that life began on earth about 3.5 billion years ago, and probably left behind no fossil traces, it's not surprising that there are several scientific models for life's origins.  A responsible atheist would probably be interested in naturalistic, materialist theories, but would also be aware that there is no scientific explanation of the origin of life, and that it's possible there never will be one.

For that matter, even if an event is regarded as an "act of god," it is still scientifically describable.  Science-oriented theists have tried to appropriate the Big Bang for theism, as a discrete beginning to the universe comparable to the creation myth of Genesis, and many scientists offer the Big Bang and Darwinian theory as substitutes for religious creation myths.  Atheists aren't always averse to seeing natural disasters as acts of a wrathful Nature or Mother Earth, punishing Man for his presumption and disobedience.  It isn't easy shaking off the tendency to personify the universe.

I didn't address my friend's statements directly on Facebook.  I did say that many atheists believe in "higher powers" like Nature, Science, Reason, Evolution.  My law professor friend appears to be one of these.  I would argue that the first sentence of her answer was sufficient as a description of an atheist.  The rest was at best optional.  Atheism really has very little content, just the absence of belief in gods.  It has no moral and no scientific content, as shown by the wide range of views held by atheists in those areas.