One of the main reasons I’m not an Atheist is because I reject Materialism as a philosophy. Not all versions of Atheism rely on Materialist philosophy, but many in the Western world do. Materialism is a philosophy that postulates that all phenomena in the universe are reducible to material explanations. I don’t think Materialism or Naturalism works as an account of all of reality, and see it as largely an incoherent position.
Many types of Atheism not only rely on Materialism but profess Scientism as well; if not in word than at least in deed. Scientism is a philosophy that takes Materialism one step further, saying that not only are all phenomena reducible to material accounts, but also any assertion that is not 1) testable, 2) measurable, and 3) repeatable, is not a valid candidate to be considered “truth”. To the adherent of Scientism, Science is the only valid way of knowing. “Knowledge” garnered outside the scientific method is not really knowledge, but whimsy masquerading as knowledge.
I reject Scientism along with Materialism. I believe there are better and more sophisticated accounts of the world. My reasons for rejecting Materialism are as follows:
1. Science relies on unprovable, immaterial phenomena that it, in principle, has no way of explaining.
Science relies on five basic non-material components that are central to its functioning: 1) mathematics, 2) logic, 3) language, 4) consciousness, and 5) the scientific method. Each one of these is used without proof of its reliability and yet science could not exist without any one of these phenomena.
This leads me to the conclusion that science, along with every other way of knowing, relies on assumptions that are simply unprovable. These phenomena are, by definition, irreducible to a physical, mechanistic account of their working. No material account of mathematics, logic, language, consciousness, or the scientific method exists, or could ever exist, ipso facto, based on their immaterial nature.
This does not mean science doesn’t work. Science of course does work. It simply shows that by science’s own standards a strictly materialistic construal of all of reality and all knowledge simply does not hold water since every fundamental tenant of science relies entirely on immaterial phenomena in order to work in the first place.
2. Recent science has shown how irreducible matter is.
The Materialist sees science in the way that Hegel saw history: it will all lead up to an inevitable end, a fortuitous conclusion when the most basic forms of matter are accounted for and we have built an entire geometric model of the universe with those most basic constituents as units of measure. The problem is: every time we thought we were getting to the most basic level, we realized there was something smaller to discover. It was once the particle that was the most basic unit of matter, then the cell, then the atom, then the subatomic particle. There seems no reason to suppose we’ll ever get the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow at this point.
If there is a ‘smallest’ level we can reach, there seems no good reason beyond faith to suppose so.
My reasons for rejecting Scientism are as follows:
1. Science is good at producing material innovations, and making discoveries, but it does not follow from this that science trumps all other ways of knowing.
Terence McKenna famously called this “a fool’s argument for truth.” Saying science produces exhaustive and irreproachable truth above all other disciplines because of the “beautiful toys that it [can] create: aircraft, railroad, global economies, television, and spacecraft” is simply not a rational or logic argument. It’s an assertion, but no more provable than anything Scientism would itself decry as unscientific.
It is of course a laudable and good thing to praise science for its achievements – the more the better in my opinion. But to use this as an argument to say science is therefore the only or even best way for knowing something, or producing truth, is as fallacious as they come.
2. Most of our lives are occupied with considering non-scientific problems.
Most of our lives are spent outside of laboratories for good reason. Most of our lives are addressing problems and questions outside the realm of scientific inquiry.
Who to marry, what career to choose, what city to live in, which novel to read, how to raise your kids; these are issues that can be slightly aided with some science, but are not themselves problems to be solved using the scientific method. To do experiments on romantic interests would actually devalue that experience. To test every single career opportunity with the inductive method would waste time, not improve the quality of future work life. To look up opinion polls and city ratings may overlook important personal preferences that are unique to you, and lead you to move to the wrong city. Amazon reviews will tell you “The Da Vinci Code” is more highly rated than “The Tale of Two Cities,” but that doesn’t mean it’s a better book. Raising kids presents problems to be solved that cannot wait for the laborious pace of science.
The definition of science – “the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment,” – shows that more science would not always be helpful to these areas of life. It simply makes no claims to address certain issues.
A thing like taking a swing at the meaning of the universe, or “religion,” I would argue, is a problem science is ill-equipped to address. Science itself does not produce raw “meaning” for anything, let alone meaning for the entire universe. It produces data to be interpreted. It’s the interpretation that produces the meaning.
And to say that since science can’t measure it, therefore it does not exist, is again, fallacious.
Insofar as Atheism uses Materialism or Naturalism as a way of justifying its view of the universe, I have to disagree. Materialism is, in my view, a weak leg to stand on. It ignores the mysterious, non-material tools that are used in science everyday – takes them for granted – and holds a different standard for everyone else who also relies on unexplainable phenomena for their worldview. Materialism also overlooks the seeming irreducibility of life, of matter. There seems no reason to suppose that beyond a certain level of microscopic intensity, nothing else exists. Science in every one of its new reincarnations has discovered new levels of complexity, each one mind-boggling, that have revolutionized our understanding of the world. To supposed that this will one day stop, and we will have a grand poobah, ultimate material interpretation of the universe is of course possible in theory, but I doubt its reality.
Scientism’s claim that nothing beyond science should constitute genuine knowing is in my take, an outgrowth of Materialist philosophy and just as wrongheaded. Although science is a powerhouse at producing material discoveries and enhancements to everyday life, this does not ‘disprove’ or even discount other ways of knowing or of inquiry; despite what many popularizers of science professes. Science is a powerful tool, designed for a specific endeavor. Our daily lives also reflect how shallow an interpretation of reality Scientism is. Most of it is spent considering the experiential flow of our lives, not things that are testable, measure and repeatable. To then hold our lives to the standard of science at all times, would rid us of many rich experiences.
This post does not address all types of Atheism, only the Atheism that desires to wield science as a club against all other interpretations of reality, which insists upon a Materialist account of everything and insists that science is all we can say about the world around us.