Most of the atheist have a kind of scientific world view,but of course not necessarily all. This is related to their rejection of religion, because of its irrationality, and their acceptance of science for its rationality. I, myself am also for science, and I think it is important to explain, why, and also what exactly this means. The reason why this is important is because this adds to the completeness of an atheistic world view. It is also important, because some atheist are scientist, and by this I mean, they have a kind of exaggerated faith in science, and I would like to avoid such an impression about me. My thesis about science is that it is competent to answer all questions, that is a meaningful question about truth. As Rudolf Carnap puts it: „conceptual knowledge does not meet any limitations in its own field”2. And by “conceptual knowledge” Carnap meant science just a few pages above.
But what is the field, the dimension of science? If we ignore mathematics, the epirical sciences deal with reality, that is, they are competent in all the questions about reality, where there may be a true answer. This thesis does not state that science knows to all such questions the answer in the present, I am only stating that I cannot see, why the method of science was not able to decide such a question. And since there is no better method than the scientific method, nay, there is no other competing method, therefore I always expect the answer from science, if the question is about truth. Now the existence of anything, also the existence of god is such a question.
Science is of course outside its filed not the only suitable method, moreover, generally not even a good method. For example science is a possible way to earn money, but not the only one, and not even a very effective one. In my opinion is science an excellent way of amusement, but for most of the people it is not, and there is a vast sortiment of possible entertainments. Science is in my opinion a great hobby, but there are plenty of others. And science is not really suitable as a sport, unless training our mind counts as a sport, or you have to catch your flight to a conference. Ergo science has a very limited competency outside of its dimension, but this is not a problem. In its on area however, science is a unique method, without any serious competitor. Religion for example does not even have an established method.
Now, this does not mean that I believed blindly what science states us. There are areas of science which are not well established, and there are frontiers of the research, where scientist often contradict each other. When we see this, we have to realize that we do not yet know what the truth is in the respective question. In such cases I usually do not proclaim one of the rival theories as the truth, because usually I am less an expert in the research area. Sometimes I can see that a scientist tries to sell something as the truth, that cannot be the truth and this can be seen even to a laymen, because it is logically contradictory. Unfortunately quite often I also can see that celebrity scientists declare their strong opinion in questions, in which they are not an expert.3 In such a case I know that this does not matter. It is not the celebrity scientists opinion that matter, it is the consensus of the experts of the field. If there is a consensus.
There are questions that science is obviously capable to answer, but we do not have this answer yet. For example, when I write this, one big “mystery” that science does not know the answer for is if there is an extraterrestrial life. Although if there is, then it may happen any time that for example a telescope is receiving a signal that confirms this. Or they may be other ways of conformation to happen to be successful. In any case, at present time we do not have such a confirmation. Therefore I – following my principles consequently – do not believe in extraterrestrial life, but I do not believe in the opposite either. I am an agnostic in this question, as I am an agnostic in the existence of a deist god. There is however an important difference in the question of god and the question of extraterrestrial life. The possibility of the later one is a meaningful, real possibility that can be potentially confirmed quite “easily”. There are only practical problems, and it may happen any time.
It may sound disturbing that sometimes the scientific community withdraws its earlier theory, for example the Newtonian physics. This may seem to undermine the trustfulnes of science. However, Newtonian physics is still a good estimation, and in practice, in most of the everyday life cases we still use Newtonian physics in our computations. This is also why Newtonian physics could be so gloriously confirmed for ages. So, Newton did not fail so epically. Or there is the model of the Geocentric Solar System by Ptolemy. He erred in theory by way, but actually his model was fitting the observations, actually even better than the Copernican model in the beginning. So, we know that scientific theories are not infallible. But while according to all of our knowledge a theory happens to be confirmed, we shall regard it as the truth, it would be silly not to regard it to be true. Until the 19th century it had been folly not to consider the Newtonian theory to be true, and not to apply it to a mechanical problem, just because it might be a fail. There was no better theory, and as we know, practically it is still a good theory. To think that anything else had been better is a blunt. To think that anybody lets say in the 18th century, who believed the Newtonian theory was false would come up with the relativity theory of Einstein, is a naive hypothesis. By at large, the scientific method is on the long run the best method, better than any short term folly.
It is customary to demonstrate this principle in probabilistic terms, although precisely speaking one cannot speak of the probability of scientific theories. But it is obviously silly to bid for an event B that has 0 probability, just, because the probability of even A does not reach 1, if the probability of event B is much higher than 0. Now, the “probability” of scientific theories does not reach certainty, that would have probability of 1.4 Therefore I never speak of a proof, just of confirmation in case of empirical science. (I only speak about proof in mathematics, that is however not about reality.) Still, the degree of confirmation of an accepted theory is very high.
The degree of confirmation in fat cannot be quantified (Carnap did try this, but he could not accomplish this kind of probabilistic theory). But what we can say, is that the degree of confirmation of a scientifically accepted theory is usually much higher than 0. the degree of confirmation of the religious beliefs is 0 or, practically 0. The strength of the Bible as a confirmation is negligible. Therefore it would be silly to believe the articles of faith.
I also have to precise my thesis about science by saying that of course one does not have to ask science about all kinds of trivial questions. About such a simple question, like: “where is my mobile phone”, we should not ask scientists, we cannot expect them to write an article about our particular case. Maybe sociologist would do a research about general patterns. However, this is also a question about reality, that is meaningful and there is a true answer to it, that we are very much interested in. It can be solved in a logical-empirical way, which is similar to science. All the intelligent people approach such a question in such a way: namely (s)he would search the phone by his/her sense-organs, or even do an experiment to search it (calling it by another phone may be called as an experiment), or one would ask witnesses, who might have seen it. all these one would try to combine by as much logic as needed. For example one may try to infer from where (s)he was yesterday, what (s)he was doing. All this is the scientific method in small scale. This is, what we call common sense intelligence. And science is nothing else, that the precise, crystallized out version of this.
In a sum, the truth-questions about reality can be answered by the logical-empirical method, that has a not so precise, everyday version called rational thinking, and there is the precise version, called science, for general, very important questions. Science was developed exactly for the more important, more general, more difficult question, where more precision is needed and can be afforded.
I have defined formally the dimension of science. For the sake of apprehension and as a demonstration it is worth to list up some significant examples that believers use to bring up to in a debate. I took the following examples from a real dabate that I had in a scientific journal. The examples were asked by Tamás Freund5 and I answered to them. Here I try to summarize my answers in short. I had unfortunately no possibility to answer in the journal itself. So, the questions of Tamás Freund that really represent often ut questions are as follows:
A) What is the meaning of life?
B) What is the origin of the Universe?
C) What is the explanation of our souls?
A) is an issue that deserves much more elaboration and I write about it elsewhere. Here I only state that this is not a meaningful question, that asks about a fact of reality, therefore there cannot be a clear, unique and true answer to it. It is a meaningless question in this form, and therefore it is of course outside the dimension of science. But it is not only science that cannot answer a meaningless question, but religion neither. If you examine it carefully, religions do not state explicitly what the meaning of life is. If they would, very many people would find that disturbing. Namely that for example the meaning of life is only to serve Jesus. To return to science, it is not the fault of science that it cannot answer a question, that is meaningless, it is the fault of the question.
Question B) seems to be more meaningful, but it is not, if you push it to its end. And this is, because according to our best knowledge, space-time is not separable from the matter or energy of the Universe. Therefore there was no time “before” the Universe. There was nut such a thing as “before the Universe”. Strictly speaking the Universe did not come into being. Respectively, it has no origin. The Universe was “always” existing where by “always” we mean the time of the space-time, that is strictly speaking always. It is a finite interval, but it is always in real, according to our best knowledge. And to precise it even further, this interval is an open interval: the singularity of the Big Bang is not a real point of time, it is only a limiting point. The Universe did not exist in the so called singularity, that would be a physical nonsense. Regarding this, we can even say that any event in any time in the Universe had preceding events that were its cause. This means that everything had its causes in the Universe, and that cause its its explanation.
C) Most of the neurobiologists are physicalists, consequently all kinds of so called “spiritual” phenomena in our minds – and that hte dualist worldview would explain with a non-material substance – so most of the scientists would explain these phenomena by our body, mostly by the activity of our brain. Substance-dualism is not only backing out in science (in fact it has never been a progressive, scientific program), but it has been from the beginning a conceptually nonsense hypothesis. Since, if our soul is not material, how can it have material causes? This problem is called mental causation in philosophy. And vice versa: if the soul can have material causes, then what does it mean that it is non-material? What is then the difference between the material and non-material substance? How can we tell it appart? Moreover, if the soul can cause effects that are material, consequently sensible, then science should be capable to confirm it. So then it could not be an unanswarabel question for science. However, science does not confirm a non-material soul.
And here I would add the question of the existence god that is very similar to that of the transcendent soul. We have namely the same problem with god and with substance dualism, god being non-material in the imagination of the religious. Theists think that god can act in the world. I.e. god has detectable effects. Now, the first problem is here again the material causation: how is a non-material substance capable to effect the material substance? And if it can by some of “miracle”, how is it then different from matter? And finally, if god is causing detectable things in the world, the how comes that science cannot examine god, or that science is not confirming the existence of god?
Believers usually think that science is only competent to examine material things. But in fact in the method of science there is no such restriction. And there is also no reason why there should be. Scientific method has only one restriction: the only things to research are those, that have some empirical effect, since the basis of science is empiricism. If god however had empirical effects, it fulfilled the criteria of science.
Now, one could refer back to my note that science is not accomplished, and it is not infallible. Believers may say that science has not yet discovered god. Or that the acts of god are so rare and negligible that science could not confirm it. For example that god does only effect our Universe every 2000 years and he has been hiding since then.
Today science is capable to confirm the existence of exoplanets that orbit other suns and are not visible with any thelescope. Science even may tell some attributes of these planets. Despite these planets have no effects on our everyday life, whatsoever. They are so unimportant. Science is capable to detect unvisible neutrinos. Particles that are hard to detect exatly for the reason that they hardly interact with other meterial. They are so negligible. Now, if science could not have confirmed the existence of god yet, then god must to be something even more negligible as neutrinos and exoplanets. And if he is so negligible, then why is it important to believe in him? If I live my life as an atheist, I cannot err so big.
This is one way of the comparison. Another way is to compare science with religion itself. Imagine, you read in the news that science has not yet discover the Higgs-boson, but a monk did it. Of course I mean this example at that time, when science was searching the Higgs-boson in CERN but has not confirmed it yet. And then you read that an Irish catholic monk discovered the Higgs-boson. Now, you would ask rightly, how the Hell did he it, when scientist have that particle-accelerator, they have their computers to analyse the vast mass of data (those, who know about it, would understand that the discovery of the Higgs-boson needed huge computational resources). And then, this Irish monk prying in his cell, without any experimental device, computer, mathematical or physical knowledge, suddenly discovered the Higgs-boson. It is not plausible, right? Now, then why do we believe the same about the existence of god? If god existed and he could be discovered, an intelligent guy would expect this from scientists, not from the priests.
One well defined, scientifically researchable area, where the existence of god could be confirmed is the effect of intercessory praying in medicine. There has been carried out some experiments in this topic, and some publications has been written. As a result of these experiment, the scientific consensus is that prayer has only placebo effect. That is, if someone knows, they are praying for him/her, that helps, because his conscious state (being the state of his/her material brain) can have an effect on his health (being the state of his/her body), but if (s)he does not know about it, then prayer has no effect. That means god does not intervene here. Even if god existed, the effect must be so little that it is not worth it. That leaves with us with at least practical atheism.
2 Rudolf Carnap: „The logical structure of the world”, Open Court, 2003. In the chapter 181. “Faith and Knowledge”, pp. 192.
3 Nowadays it is for example Stephen Hawking, who declares his opinion about future a lot, and he is not an expert in those topics.
4 I am aware of the fact that there might be “almost surely” events that have probability 1, but are not sure. I understand the difference having a trining in probability theory. But this does not change my argument.