Superagnosticman III: Dark Matter

02/12/2008 03:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Given the excellent response to my two recent posts suggesting that agnosticism in religion was not an intellectually defensible position, but that an examination of what being agnostic means (in various contexts) is revealing as to what it means to believe something, or to know something, or be certain about something, a part three beckoned. I don't want to individually respond to points that were made, in what has been an enthusiastic and a very thoughtful, and fruitful, debate, but rather develop a couple of the themes.

In the first place it is worth noting that the "atheism as a religion" misunderstanding is alive and well. I was accused of demanding that people believed exactly what I believed, and therefore was no better than a religious leader like Falwell. I want to respond to this not in order, as it were, to clear my good name, but to make a more general point. While in many countries in the world I would be killed for being an atheist, and in others I would be ostracized, and in many more I would either legally or practically be prevented from running for political office, the reverse is not true. I don't care what personal beliefs people have, and I have friends with a spectrum of beliefs that we agree to disagree on. Now it is true that I think the world would be a better place if all six billion of us were atheists, but it is clear that I can't make that happen anytime in this millennium. Note that I don't think that the world would be a perfect place, or even a good place, human beings would still fight as a result of economics, or culture, or history, or skin color, or psychology, or nationalism, but at least the lack of religion among the mix would make for a slightly more rational approach to social and political questions. Listen to fundamentalists of all religions talking these days, and you will find yourself listening to psychotic thought processes that would get them put into a Cuckoo's Nest if they didn't have the get-out-of-the-asylum-free card of religion.

In the second place I am not suggesting that science knows everything. Even making such a suggestion reveals a misunderstanding of science, which can never know everything, by its very nature. But to say something like, well, science has only just discovered dark matter, so how do you know god isn't out there too, beyond the reach, either temporarily or permanently, of Earth-bound science, is to misunderstand again the nature of science and, indeed, the nature of religion. It is a commonplace that early societies on every continent, while understanding much about the natural world around them, nevertheless were completely mystified by phenomena such as thunder and lightning, the seasons, earthquakes, tides, madness, comets, life, death. In addition, because they knew, and knew they knew, so little of the world geographically, there was a great deal of unknown world where dragons might exist, and cannibals certainly did. Out of all these known unknowns came religion, and I don't think we have to look any further at religion as an evolutionary product, or hard wired into human psychology (though some aspects of it for individuals are certainly genetic).

Now what science has done in the last few hundred years (following on from much older work by Greeks and Arabs) is to work out, sometimes in broad terms, often in very fine detail, how our world (in the widest sense) functions. The whole framework is in place, through the work of scientists in all of the disciplines of astronomy, physics, biology, chemistry, geology and so on. It is certainly the case that new discoveries are being made all the time, and in the case of astronomy and physics, big discoveries. Big questions like is string theory the explanation of the structure of matter for example, and how did matter come into being during the Big Bang, and is the universe infinite, as well as smaller questions about the exact nature of particular stars and galaxies or the history of Mars and Venus. But that doesn't mean that if we manage to make an even bigger and better telescope we will suddenly discover god lurking behind some dark matter, or sitting on a quasar just beyond the reach of current telescopes. I thought we had gone well beyond the concept of heaven being "up there" beyond the stars, but it seems not when you read some comments from religious people. Science could have discovered "god" but not by building bigger telescopes. I'll come back to that, but first a bit of a digression.

It has been said that there is no such thing as medicine and "alternative medicine" there is simply medicine that works. That is if there is anything among all the crazy beliefs about homeopathy, and naturopathy, and iridology, and Chinese herbs, and reflexology, and crystals, then it will, when demonstrated to be effective, be adopted by mainstream medicine. This stuff isn't rejected because of stubbornness, but because in order to know whether a treatment is effective it has to be scientifically tested. Mere belief doesn't cut it when it comes to cures for cancer, or making the lame walk. Similarly, one of my respondents noted that there is really no such thing as the supernatural. There is the natural world, and then if something appeared from beyond the natural world, as it were, it would be incorporated into an enlargement of our understanding of the limits of the natural world (this is essentially the case with dark matter, for example).

Now we can return to the question of scientists finding god (so to speak - I don't, by the way, believe that you can be both religious and a scientist, but that's just one of my many prejudices). What 300 or so years of science has given us is not just an understanding of how individual parts of our world work - how the brain functions, how the solar system was formed, the history of the Grand Canyon, the chemistry of our bodies, gravitational forces, and so on - but how all of these individual studies fit together. When science began it began as a single subject - natural philosophy (as distinct from religion). Over time it was split into more and more subjects as the amount of knowledge became far too much for any one brain to handle, and people became more and more specialized. But these different subjects, astronomy, biology, physics and the rest don't operate in isolation to each other. Nor do they contradict each other. They are, quite clearly, all reporting back on the same universe. Nothing uncovered by the geologist contradicts what the biologist is working on; the chemist is unsurprised by theories on the composition and function of distant stars; the physicist has no quarrel with the climatologist; the psychologist and physiologist are comfortable dinner companions; the botanist and archeologist can lie down together in an excavation.

Now, in a god-driven universe none of that could be true. By now cracks would be appearing as tens of thousands of scientists work away at finer and finer details. At some point someone would have said - "Just a minute, this experiment isn't working, there is some unknown factor coming into play". At some point a biologist would find a species with no evolutionary history; a doctor would find a miraculous recovery; a geologist would find that the Earth was only 6000 years old; a chemist would find a mixture of chemicals that behaved in some inexplicable way. In short the supernatural would begin to appear, as the whole natural structure described by science was revealed as being affected by some outside agency. And then the Jerry Falwells of this world (if he was to come back to life) could say "I told you so", and the scientists would eagerly set about trying to uncover the nature of this mysterious outside agency that had previously only revealed itself to Mr Falwell.

Hasn't happened of course, and we are at least 100 years beyond it happening. It ain't going to happen now. The last gasp of an attempt to find it is the phony science of "Intelligent Design", and the craziness of the young Grand Canyon and the humans with dinosaurs on Noah's Ark. These are people who are pretending to be scientists who have found evidences of christianity, processes that don't fit with the mainstream scientific body of knowledge. Just like the homeopathists, who pretend to have found cures that are beyond mainstream medicine. But there is no such thing as alternative medicine, and no such thing as alternative science, only science that can be tested and proved.

So, to come back to the main point of this series. There is no alternative body of learning which points to a god of any kind - there really is just the natural world. There is therefore nowhere for religious agnostics to hang their hats.

And finally, as something of an afterthought, just as I pointed out that one could be agnostic about UFOs visiting Earth as a subset of being agnostic about life elsewhere in the universe (or you could believe in life elsewhere and be agnostic about visits), so you could be agnostic about the existence of Christ as a real person as a subset of atheism about god. The evidence in favor of Christ being a real person is very poor, but evidence against is also thin. I'm probably agnostic on this topic, but I can understand being convinced for or against.

I promise this is the last in the series, and I hope you have all enjoyed the debate the exploration has created. Next time, for something completely different - why Darwin didn't create evolution.

Thomas Huxley asked "If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?" Why, on the Watermelon Blog, of course, Thomas.