He’s at it again. Physicist Lawrence Krauss has written an article for the New Yorker titled, All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists (September 8, 2015), in which he asserts that for scientists, “no idea is sacred,” while at the same time declaring: “Scientists have an obligation not to lie about the natural world.” Sorry, Professor Krauss, but if no idea is sacred, then neither is the idea of an obligation. Krauss also argues that scientists should “openly question beliefs,” even if that means offending others, and that they should not be ashamed of being called militant atheists. I am astonished that Krauss cannot perceive the contradiction between his universal skepticism and his absolutist endorsement of Enlightenment values, when he gushes, “Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance,” or when he lauds Planned Parenthood for providing fetal tissue samples from abortions to scientific researchers. If “no idea is sacred,” then neither is the idea that selling dead fetuses is morally justifiable, so long as it helps scientists cure diseases such as Alzheimer’s or cancer. That idea needs to be questioned too. (I wonder what Krauss would say about this video which shows Planned Parenthood harvesting the brain of an aborted baby who was still alive. I should also mention that while adult stem cell research has helped doctors to treat 100 different diseases in human beings, embryonic research hasn’t even helped treat one human disease.) We should also question the idea that knowledge is always better than ignorance, which Krauss takes for granted. Often it is; but sometimes it isn’t. As the poet Thomas Gray put it: “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” Krauss doesn’t believe in free will: “Everything I know about the world tells me that there’s no such thing as free will,” he recently declared. Assuming for the moment (hypothetically) that he is right (and he isn’t), it is surely questionable whether scientists should be shouting from the housetops a truth that would not only make lots of people miserable, but would also drive many people insane. Insanity sounds like a high price to pay for knowledge. I might add that several recent studies indicate that inducing disbelief in free will (e.g. by exposing experimental subjects to scientific arguments against free will) tends to make people more aggressive and less altruistic. Krauss is playing with fire here.
Krauss quotes the words of the biologist J.B.S. Haldane: “My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career” (Fact and Faith, Watts & Company, 1934, Preface). I am quite sure that whenever Haldane set up an experiment, he also assumed that the molecules in the air that he breathed were not going to all rush to one corner of the room, leaving him in a vacuum; however, any physicist will acknowledge that such an outcome is thermodynamically possible, even if it is astronomically unlikely. At most, then, Haldane’s argument merely establishes that Divine intervention in Nature is very rare, if it happens at all. By itself, though, the argument says nothing about the existence of God.
I should also point out that Professor Krauss overlooks a vital philosophical point: science cannot explain what science presupposes. Science presupposes a universe in which things behave according to certain laws, known as laws of Nature. But these laws are totally contingent, and as I have argued previously, they also appear to be fine-tuned. These facts point heavily to the likelihood that they were designed, as Dr. Robin Collins argues in his essay, The Teleological Argument. (Readers who are inclined to think fine-tuning is a fallacy should read cosmologist Luke Barnes’ essay, The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life.) The rival hypothesis of an infinite multiverse, in which our universe happens to be just one of a lucky few universes supporting life, is fatally flawed on five grounds, as I have argued elsewhere.
In his essay, Krauss melodramatically asserts, “The more we learn about the workings of the universe, the more purposeless it seems” – a remark which seems to plagiarize physicist Steve Weinberg’s famous aphorism that statement that “the more comprehensible the universe becomes the more pointless it seems.” But as Dr. Benjamin Wiker of the Discovery Institute has noted, “the case for intrinsic purposefulness is even greater in the cell than in a car,” since “a cell (unlike a car) continually makes and remakes its parts, and there are far more parts of far greater intricacy (by several orders of magnitude) than can be found in any automobile.” Moreover, the cell “is not reducible to its simplest chemical parts but is only fully comprehensible as the result of top-down, hierarchical integration that governs both the structure and activity of its parts.” These facts, coupled with the fine-tuning of the Big Bang itself, indicate that “purpose is not a fiction that we foist on a meaningless swirl of matter and energy but an essential property of nature.”
But the chief weakness of Professor Krauss’s argument is that if we take his assertion that “no idea is sacred” to its logical conclusion, we will end up becoming agnostics, rather than militant atheists. Agnosticism is intellectually modest, whereas atheism is strident and dogmatic. Thomas Henry Huxley, who coined the word “agnostic,” expressed this point very aptly when he wrote:
Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.
Huxley’s exhortation, “[F]ollow your reason as far as it will take you,” calls to mind a statement by the late philosopher Antony Flew (1923-2010), who declared, “My whole life has been guided by the principle of Plato’s Socrates: Follow the evidence, wherever it leads.” Interestingly, Flew, who was arguably the greatest atheist philosopher of the 20th century, ended up becoming a philosophical theist, even if the God he ended up worshiping was “a Spinozistic or Deistic ‘God of Nature’ who or which leaves Nature and its creatures (including its human creatures) entirely to their own devices.”
So by all means, let us question established dogmas. But I would contend that such questioning will not lead us to militant atheism, as Professor Krauss fondly imagines, but to a more refined and well-tested concept of God.
(P.S. In his essay, Professor Krauss holds up the Kim Davis controversy as an example of religious dogmatism invading public life. This strikes me as a very “orthodox” position for a member of the intelligentsia to take; Krauss is not being very adventurous here. For a very different take on the controversy, readers might like to have a look at Dr. Lydia McGrew’s thought-provoking post, Kim Davis, metaphysics, and the public square.)