I am astonished by the irrationality of atheists.
I am constantly astonished by the irrationality of atheists. Like most people who are irrational though, they usually think of themselves as exceptionally rational. Their line of thinking generally goes something like this: at one time of day people didn’t have science, so, confronted by the mysteries of the universe, they believed in myths and sprites and fairies. But now science has explained many of those mysteries, and those that haven’t been explained yet eventually will be, so there is no need to believe in myths and sprites and fairies any more or for that matter religion. It is easy to see how people come to think this way. In a world of so many uncertainties the certainty that science can deliver to us is truly awesome. It is obvious that the world is flat. But science can tell us with absolute certainty that it is round. It is obvious that the sun goes round the earth. But science can tell us with absolute certainty that the earth goes round the sun. Nevertheless, such a view of life that pins all its trust in science, and allows science alone to provide all the framework for its thought, such a view is irrational. Science by definition examines material reality. If it so happened that there was an immaterial reality – and perhaps there is not – science, by definition, could not tell us whether it exists or no. To argue that science has not found God, so therefore there is no God is quite irrational.
Science may not be able to tell us whether there is an immaterial dimension of reality further to our own, but it can point us towards it, and this is exactly what it does. Science is able to offer us propositions of such certainty because it has discovered laws in the universe. Newton can tell us without quibble or abrogation that every action has a reaction. Einstein tells us that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Planck discovered a very small number that is so constantly involved in motions of matter at the quantum level it has come to be called Plank’s constant. Science can tell us that these laws exist. But what are they? Of one thing we can be sure, they are not chunks of matter. But are they extrinsic to matter in the sense that the central office of a bank directs its branches from afar or are they somehow intrinsically inseparable from matter? Are they, so to speak, each one of them a one off phenomenon that happens to exist, or are they lights from a whole immaterial realm to which they belong, as we might catch glimpses of sunlight through the cracks in a door? Science itself cannot answer these questions. But it inevitably provokes them.
Or consider that quantum physicists increasingly only seem able to make sense of the extraordinary contradictions of their subject by invoking an infinity of universes. An infinity of universes? How could an infinity of universes be entirely material? Scientists speculate that there could be other universes in which the laws of physics might be different? The laws of physics could be different? If that is the case, then to be a materialist in the sense that people refer us to the laws of physics (perhaps, it might turn out, actually only our own local bye laws) in the manner in which Dr Johnson kicked the stone (the laws of physics sir, let God compete with that), is entirely irrational. Or consider that physicists tell us that matter can be created out of nothing. Events within the nucleus of an atom occur so fast that within a single second a proton can travel from one side of the nucleus and back more times than there have been seconds since the big bang. (Wow Professor!). Given this very very short time scale, protons and electrons can ‘borrow’ energy from literally nowhere provided they pay it back (rather like banks using your deposited money to speculate provided they can pay it back when you want to withdraw it, although mercifully the laws of the universe are more reliable than banks). But since Einstein tells us that energy is convertible with matter, massive particles (using massive in a technical sense, not as in ‘massive discounts in this store’) are being created out of nothing the whole time. But what is this nothing? We used to think it was literally nothing. But science now tells us that this chunky stuff we know is constantly being created out of it. So it must be something. Science has told us an amazing amount about this nothing that can’t just be nothing but it can’t tell us what it is. Except that it is not the chunky stuff of daily experience.
Atheists generally err by shrinking reason into the logical appraisal of facts. In fact ratio, the logos of the universe, embraces other logics than the merely intellectual one. The logical appraisal of facts can tell us a great deal, but the one thing it can’t tell us is whether the logical appraisal of facts is the only way we can encounter truth for all it can do is to logically appraise facts, as the one thing black and white films cannot tell us is what films in colour are like. The fundamental propositions of logic are, as it were, longstops. You can’t explain why two plus two equals four. Your mind just forbids you to think they might make five. All you can do is to demonstrate it by going out into the garden and laying two stones side by side and adding two more, and then saying ‘look we’ve got four stones’. But there are also emotional longstops that we can recognize intuitively with that sense of brain and heart coming home that we experience intellectually in knowing two and two make four.
Consider Wotan’s farewell to Brunnhilda in Act 3 of Wagner’s Die Walkure. I don’t have a daughter myself but I am as sure as I am of anything (not that we can be sure of anything for the one thing science makes clear to us is that we can’t be, for we may know that the earth is flat but what does that mean? – could I draw your attention Professor to an excellent paper by Doctor y on the flatitude of flatness…), I am sure that this music captures the mixed emotions of a father who is surrendering his daughter to the care of another man with ravishing sublimity. Through the music I know what it is like to have a daughter. How do I know that? It’s a longstop. To the people who say, and you do meet them ‘Oh Wagner, it’s all heavy Teutonic stuff about elves and fairies and anyway he was a Nazi’, in the same way that you can only take them out into the garden to look at the four stones, you can only say ‘come to the opera with me’.
I feel the same way about beauty. I certainly get the impression that when Brian Cox stares moodily out into the universe and says ‘isn’t it beautiful’ he means ‘it’s nice, I’m having a pleasant aesthetic experience’ (although maybe not, I don’t have access to the Professor’s inner life) or when Dawkins says I’ll tell you about the wonder of the rainbow and it turns out it’s all about the mechanics of how the eye sees colour in raindrops (which is itself truly wonderful), I feel they have missed it, as people miss the sublime beauty of Wotan’s farewell. For me things are beautiful because they are specific and individual expressions of beauty itself, things are beautiful not because they give us aesthetic pleasure (although they do) nor because the mechanics of these harmonies are wonderfully fascinating (although they are) but because they are beautiful. You can’t argue with people who say beauty is just a private emotion, any more than you can argue with people who say two plus two make five. For, after all, in another universe they might. I can’t prove my point of view. What I am pointing to is the irrationality of people who say ‘it’s all science mate, beauty is just a private emotion’. They simply haven’t had, I won’t say the evidence for in these misty realms there is no evidence, but what I might call the undodgeability of my experience.
The one thing science does not do is to explain mysteries by revealing them to be facts. On the contrary, it shows us that the facts we know are ever more mysterious. How could the scientific method of data gathering, hypothesis, experiment, verification and peer review ever get an infinity of universes into its laboratory? How can two electrons communicate with each other instantaneously even though they are separated by the whole universe, although we know that they do, when we also know that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light? How can subatomic entities be waves and particles at the same time? Yet they are. How can we say we know matter when we also know that over 99% of the material of the universe is dark, and since it is by definition dark it is extremely difficult to see how we could ever know it? Yet these mysteries are so fascinating we are inevitably drawn to speculate about them. Such speculations are called myths, or in their more thought-through form religious beliefs. Compared with people who sit on their little box of facts and cry cock a doodle doo aren’t we rational, or The God Delusion in hand kick the stone with Dr Johnson and cry ‘science, sir, science’, believers in astrology and sprites and fairies are like Newton (not that Newton, being so rational, didn’t believe in astrology and sprites and fairies).