God, Yes! (Or: Critical Thinking About Thinking)
In his new book “God, No!,” magician Penn Jillette explains why he is an atheist. His olympian cogitations must amuse theologians and magicians equally.
“God, No” is one of a slew of books with a dim view of divinity. Christopher Hitchens, just before cancer took him away, published “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2009). A few years earlier, scientist Richard Dawkins wrote “The God Delusion” (2006).
Atheists tend to accept the ultra-scientific view that we don’t need God in our equations. There have always been atheists; but for the last hundred years, they seemed to be on firmer ground. Physics reduced everything to the laws of thermodynamics. If a claim couldn’t be tested and proved in the laboratory, science was not interested. So much for God.
Add in French existentialism, which celebrates humans for bravely embracing the alleged emptiness of the cosmos.
A smug reductionism, or minimalism, settled upon Western civilization. Some would say a lopsidedness. Science stated, or at least implied, that its approach to life was more efficient, sensible, logical, and tidy.
Let us stand in our backyard and stare up at the starry sky. Religions tend to see beings up there, activity, purpose, meanings, and meta-meanings. Scientists sneer at all that. Atheists say none of those unseen activities can be proven. But their most compelling argument is somewhat different: we just don’t need all those things. The God hypothesis is excess baggage--drop it! Life on the planet Earth can be intelligently discussed without any mention of extraterrestrial or supernatural existences.
Life is more logical, our non-believers insist, if we stick to what we see and measure.
That is where one must object. Physicists, with their smug minimalism, have gone too far. In being so scientific, they end up being unscientific, even anti-scientific. They make claims and finals assertions about the infinite. And end up being foolish. We exist as it were inside a drop of water; anything we say about the oceans is probably going to be limited.
SCIENTIFIC REALISM ISN'T REALISTIC
Space and time are just too big for us to make final pronouncements about. Even the reigning theories state that the universe is mostly made of “dark energy” and “dark matter,” substances we can’t see or measure, sort of like gods! Take something as self-evident as gravity. People throw the word around; but the truth is nobody knows how it works. So much of the universe remains invisible to us, unknown and perhaps unknowable.
QED: religion, with its openness to possibility, actually ends up being more scientific than science with its closed mind.
We don’t need to argue that any religion ever got anything right. Let’s just state that religion, even with its dogmas, ends up being more open to infinity than modern physics and its dogmas. There is something very small and claustrophobic about the atheistic worldview. It has a short list of approved truths, and a long list of things that are laughed at.
Our sun is one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. But the Milky Way is only one of 100 billion galaxies. At least. Space extends forever above us and forever below us. Time goes backward forever, and forward forever. Can you dig it? Nobody can.
Isn’t it just common sense to allow that there is a lot out there we don’t know about, we don’t understand, and if we knew about it, we still couldn’t explain. The mystical traditions say the obvious: be open, seek, and perhaps find.
One of the most entertaining things the last several decades is to observe the pretentiousness of modern physics, as these great brains struggle to jerry-rig theories that are supposed to explain “everything.” Modern physics can sometimes seem a bit like the cinderblock dwellings stacked up in a Brazilian slum. Can anyone have confidence that this physics coheres or finally explains “everything”?
Ironically, in their raptures, modern scientists sometimes sound like old-fashioned theologians. Here’s one small example: "Through experiments over the past few decades physicists have discovered matter to be completely mutable into other particles or energy and vice-versa and on a subatomic level, matter does not exist with certainty in definite places, but rather shows 'tendencies' to exist. Quantum physics is beginning to realize that the Universe appears to be a dynamic web of interconnected and inseparable energy patterns. If the universe is indeed composed of such a web, there is logically no such thing as a part. This implies we are not separated parts of a whole but rather we are the Whole."
What this physics seems to do, in fact, is to suggest the very incompleteness of our worldview, and this suggests that there are surprises ahead, many, many, surprises.
So this is simply to tell Penn Jillette, hey, let’s have a little humility. It’s a reliable sign of intelligence.
Teachers who sincerely want to teach critical thinking to college students (let’s say) should invite them to think critically about both sides of this great debate. Aspiring philosophers should be able to explain the pros and cons of the scientific view, and the pros and cons of the religious view. A half hour of this and their heads will spin, which should prove very educational. Everyone will have greater respect for the other side. From there, they can move to the philosophical view.
Too often so-called critical thinking is merely echoing some dominant or “correct” view. Actually, that’s the opposite of critical thinking.
Smug certainty, as exhibited by Penn Jillette, and a dumbed-down curriculum, as exhibited by most public schools--these two phenomena pretty well mark the end of any real education or any real thinking. Part of the answer is this: believe in knowledge.
Envisage in a general way all the basic information that a college-educated adult was assumed to know about 50 years ago. Instead of scorning it and demanding to know why bother, start teaching it when children are 4 or 5. Teach a few facts each day. That adds up to MANY THOUSANDS by the end of high school. Presto, we have the highly educated citizens and workers that the country urgently needs.
(For tips on giving kids a real education, see article by this writer on Improve-Education.org: “Start Early: Smart Content Makes Kids Smarter.”)