Lessons for Keiran King
Ian Boyne, Contributor
Keiran King is the hottest thing on the commentary circuit, a terrific find for The Gleaner. A keen practitioner of kick-ass journalism, he has all the marks of a great crowd-puller: He is irreverent, feisty, iconoclastic, boundlessly courageous, fiercely independent, cantankerous and sacrilegious. To top it off, he is a fine stylist and a crisp writer.
His recent Bible-bashing column drew well over 200 responses, something others of us can only fantasise about, and his piece last week lashing religion topped all responses to columnists. If he continues to annoy people and provoke as much attention, he will have a long stay at The Gleaner. (If with my "verbosity" I can last for 30 years, I see a very long run for Keiran!)
I have some advice for him, though: Sensationalism is one thing. But scientism is even more treacherous. I had an engaging debate on Nationwide with Keiran, who is bright and articulate. In that debate, I urged epistemic humility. (Keiran called it "epistemological humility" in his column, but not being a philosophy major, that's forgivable and is close enough.) It was very evident in that debate, as well as in his recent column, that he is a devotee of scientism.
SCIENTISM VS SCIENCE
Scientism is different from science. Scientism is the metaphysical view that science is the only legitimate means of knowing and only things empirically testable are true. Scientism says if it is not empirically verifiable or falsifiable, then "commit it to the flames", to quote the renowned philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. This scientistic world view is the dominant philosophical world view. It is now our "common sense" and is unquestioned and unquestionable. Anything that goes against it is "ridiculous", as Keiran would say. Keiran is a True Believer in scientism.
So scientistic is Keiran that he delivered himself of this astonishing statement in his column: "If you're religious and you grapple with questions about where the world came from, why you're here and how to live well, congratulations, you are doing science." Keiran, don't embarrass your more learned atheistic comrades. It is elementary among atheistic scientists and philosophers that science cannot answer ultimate questions, that science explains what is - not metaphysical questions such as "why you're here".
Well-known atheistic scientists and philosophers like Steven Weinberg, Michael Ruse, Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins, Sean Carroll and others will tell you science says nothing about purpose. And many atheistic intellectuals don't even believe in objective moral values. These issues are beyond science, Keiran.
But because for Keiran, scientism is a world view, a prism outside of which he can't allow his mind to peer; because he is bound by that epistemologically, he can't image any reality outside of it. There were other embarrassing episodes in Keiran's piece. He writes that "even the religious prefer the epistemology of science (knowing by thinking) to that of faith (knowing by trust)". His example? "If we gathered hundreds of Jamaican pastors to discuss emigration, none of them would suggest asking God to open a land between MoBay and Miami."
That might be cute and draw comments from the herd, but it is juvenile. To accept that science explains the world and to accept the achievements of science says nothing about its ability to answer questions it is not equipped to answer. In other words, the fact that scientific discoveries show how the world actually works and how physics, chemistry, etc., work does not say that it can come up with a Theory of Everything. Science is just one domain of knowledge. What Keiran is proposing is intellectual imperialism.
The early scientists were Christians. They found science quite compatible with belief in God, for they believed that a God who created the world imbued it with order and regularity and equipped us with a mind capable of understanding it. Science is quite compatible with Christian theism. It is scientific naturalism that is not compatible with its own assumptions.
For example, why expect the world to be orderly and law-governed? The sceptical philosopher David Hume said we had no reason to be sure the sun would always come out tomorrow. But many atheistic scientists say that's nonsense. We can trust the regularity and consistency of physical laws. Why? Science is based on repeatability and replicability. That means there are objective laws in the universe. Science can't explain the origin of these laws. It can only explain its workings.
There is no contradiction, Keiran, between religious people's accepting the results and fruits of science while insisting that it morphs into scientism when it attempts to explain metaphysical issues. Science might explain how the Big Bang occurred, but can't discover any teleological meaning.
Scientism is based on unproven assumptions, and a keen consideration of certain issues would lead some atheists to be more humble and less triumphalistic. Why, for example, if we evolved simply through random mutation and natural selection did we need reason at a level of sophistication far beyond our survival needs? Reason is not just an adaptation. We could survive without having the capacity to understand the cosmos. That's not necessary for our survival. Why did we need such complex language, and why consciousness itself? Science has not solved the mystery of consciousness.
I again draw attention to the noted atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagel who, in his recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, says: "Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world. The evolutionary story leaves the authority of reason in a much weaker position. This is even more clearly true of your moral and other normative capacities - on which we rely to correct our instincts." This is a leading atheistic philosopher speaking.
Keiran could learn some humility from him. Some atheists make it seem that theism is comparable to belief in Zeus, Dionysus, Marduk, Bacchus, Aphrodite, the tooth fairy and Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot. But theism has an explanatory power far greater than it is given credit for. Big Bang cosmology, for example, is highly suggestive of theism. (Incidentally, I don't believe there are any knockout proofs for the existence of God. I think atheism is an intellectually respectable option. I have enough epistemic humility to admit that.)
WHAT CAME FIRST?
The exquisite fine-tuning of this universe for life on earth is such a major challenge to atheism that atheists have to resort to a multi-verse hypothesis - yet unproven scientifically - to explain away those amazingly fine-tuned constants. The values of the gravitational constant, the strong force constant, the fine structure constant, the cosmological constant all had to be right to produce biological life. Atheists admit that for the universe to come out of nothing, at least the laws of physics had to be there. Where did they come from? The question about where God comes from is a literally childish one.
For something had to be uncaused for us to be here. For if we ask who made God, then who made the being who made God, etc. - and you have an infinite regress of causes, which is a logical impossibility. Something had to eternally exist. We know the universe is not eternal. It had a beginning. Everything physical is contingent. It, therefore, needs a necessary being or source for its existence. These are complex matters to digest and are not amenable to a short column to titillate.