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Without a Change of Heart Will These

Two Atheists Ever See Eye to Eye?

[The following excerpts are from an article in Scientific American entitled ‘Should Science Speak to Faith?’ Part of the editors’ introduction should provide adequate background to this discussion between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence M. Krauss: ‘Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, prolific author and lecturer, is also an eloquent critic of any attempt to undermine scientific reasoning. He has generally shown less interest than Krauss, however, in achieving a peaceful coexistence between science and faith. The title of Dawkins’s best-selling book The God Delusion perhaps best summarizes his opinion of religious belief. These two allies compared notes from the front lines during breaks at a conference devoted to discussing clashes between science and religion held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego late last year. In a dialogue they re-create here, the authors explained their respective tactics for engaging the enemy and tackled some of the questions that face all scientists when deciding whether and how to talk to the faithful about science: Is the goal to teach science or to discredit religion? Can the two worldviews ever enrich one another? Is religion inherently bad? And can science ever test the “God Hypothesis”?’]

KRAUSS: Would a world without God necessarily look any different than the world we live in? Most scientists would say no, and thus claim we do not need the God Hypothesis to explain anything about nature. On the other hand one might also ask: Would a world with a God necessarily look any different than the world we live in? People of faith would argue no, and in so doing feel vindicated in their faith. The problem is that both groups are correct, and nothing either can say is likely to influence the other.

DAWKINS: I have several times said that a universe with a God would be a very different kind of universe from one without. You have translated this into operational terms, and consequently arrived at the legitimate question of whether the two kinds of universe would look different. Not be different (my question) but look different (your question, where ‘look different’ can presumably mean any difference, detectable in any way by any of our sense organs or scientific instruments). I agree that yours is an important question, and I agree with you that it might be surprisingly hard to detect, by observation or experiment, whether we live in a god-free universe or a god-endowed one. Nevertheless, I still maintain that there is a cogent sense in which a scientist can discuss the question. There still is a sense in which we can have an interesting and illuminating scientific discussion about whether X is the case, even if we can’t demonstrate it one way or the other by observation or experiment. How can I argue this and still claim to be doing science? . . . . It is not obvious to me that gods are beyond such probability estimates, any more than aliens are. And a probability estimate is the limit of my aspiration.

KRAUSS: I have argued that questions of purpose in the universe are generally not a part of science, and the best example I know is that of Georges Lemaître, the Belgian priest who was also a physicist, and the first person to realize that Einstein’s General Relativity implied there was a Big Bang origin to our universe (a claim initially much derided by Einstein). Following this realization Pope Pius XII issued a statement that said science had proved Genesis. Lemaître responded appropriately. He wrote to the Pope and urged him to stop saying that. The theory in question was a scientific theory whose predictions could be tested. What religious implications one took from the theory depended upon one’s metaphysical leanings. One could take it to validate Genesis, by implying that the Universe had a beginning—a revolutionary scientific claim at the time. But one could equally well take it to imply that there is no need for a God, that the laws of physics are all that are required to understand the universe right back to the beginning. The point is that the science is accurate in describing how the universe works, independent of the metaphysical implications one derives from it. The same is of course true for evolution, which happened and is happening, whether or not one chooses to believe in God.

DAWKINS: Of course Lemaître was very wise (although I must add that I am left wondering why he remained a priest at all). As for the option that his physics might or might not be taken to support Genesis, why is it even an interesting question? There never was reason to expect that the writings of an unknown scribe, probably less than a millennium ago in Babylon, might have any special insight into the origin of the universe. If Genesis happened to get something right, why would that be anything but a trivial accident?

KRAUSS: Well, the key point that you are neglecting here is that there is a reason to believe it might capture some truth about the universe, but only if you believe in God. Presumably Lemaître did. Getting back to the issue I raised earlier, I do not mean to say, of course, that science could never provide positive evidence of design or purpose. If, for example, tonight the stars suddenly lined up in the sky and spelled out ‘I am Here,’ most astronomers would be willing to consider a supernatural cause. However, the absence of such evidence of design—in spite of what the con artists and misguided pseudoscientists who presently claim that living systems currently provide such evidence—does not logically rule out the possibility that our universe, and life within it, has some purpose.

DAWKINS: I am perennially baffled as to why anybody thinks it is an important point that you can’t logically rule out some possibility. There is an infinite number of possibilities that we can’t logically rule out but which we nevertheless don’t take seriously because we have no positive reason to do so. This was the original point of Russell’s teapot.

KRAUSS: My point is that if you cannot rule out some possibilities, probably best not to dwell on them, other than saying that they may be unlikely. You have argued, and I agree, that the complete absence of direct empirical evidence for God does suggest that the existence of divine intelligence is unlikely. However I think that is as far as one can go.

DAWKINS: How much farther could one want to go? Unlikely is unlikely is unlikely. It is not the same as impossible, but science is replete with estimates of likelihoods that fall short of the demonstrably impossible. . . . If you agree with me that the existence of divine intelligence is statistically unlikely, that is all I would claim. But I would claim that this low estimate of likelihood that we both agree upon is a scientific estimate, not something that is in principle immune to scientific discussion.

KRAUSS: . . . I cannot see how one can use physical arguments to restrict the possible existence of something that, by definition, supersedes the laws of physics.

DAWKINS: Theologians resort to this definitional argument as their only defense against the statistical argument that we both accept. But why should we allow them this remarkably convenient get-out? Why should theologians be allowed to call the shots and immunize God against scientific scrutiny by a sort of definitional prophylactic injection?. . . .why allow Judaeo-Christian theologians to get away with evading the statistics issue in declaring, by definitional fiat, that their God is beyond the laws of physics?

KRAUSS: A valid point, but I think what most sensible theologians really argue is that the ‘intentions’ of God are beyond the laws of physics.

DAWKINS: That is strictly true, but I really do mean strictly. Why do you keep bending over backwards to be nice to superfluous and highly unparsimonious add-ons to science, when you would kick them out of the window if they were not protected by the label, ‘Religion. Handle with kid gloves for fear of giving offense’?

KRAUSS: . . . .I believe it is essential to intellectually separate science and religion. It may be true that faith is not based upon reason, but this fact would only make it bad science if the claims of faith were in general falsifiable. As long as the tenets of faith go beyond reason, i.e. go beyond issues that can be settled by evidence or lack of evidence, faith lies in the realm of human activity that has little to do with reason. Going back to my earlier point, if this realm was restricted to religion alone one might have a good argument for trying to squelch religion. But, like it or not, it is a central facet of much of what it means to be a human. All of us share some characteristics with Lewis Carroll’s Queen, who believed six impossible things before breakfast each day. For most people religion is one way of making sense of an irrational world, a world that is not fair, in which human justice is an afterthought.

DAWKINS: If it is a central facet of what it means to be human, so much the worse for humans. The world is not irrational. The world may be unfair but it is not irrational. The rational response to an unfair world is to recognize that we have no right to expect it to be fair. If that sounds callous, I’m sorry, but it is the business of science to understand the way the world is, not to try to derive comfort from it.

KRAUSS: I was recently in Washington, D.C., where as member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists I unveiled the new Doomsday Clock, which reads five minutes to midnight. After spending time examining the national security policies of the major powers vis a vis nuclear weapons, I am hard pressed to ascribe the word ‘rational’ to any of it. The universe may be unfair, but there are a host of examples that I think suggest human society is also not governed by rationality at the present time. . . . . Both you and I have devoted a substantial fraction of our time to trying to get people excited about science, while also attempting to explain the bases of our current respective scientific understandings of the universe. So it seems appropriate to ask which is more important: using the contrast between science and religion to teach about science or trying to put religion in its place? I suspect that I want to concentrate more on the first issue, and you want to concentrate more on the second. . . . Teaching is seduction. Telling people, on the other hand, that their deepest beliefs are simply silly— even if they are—and that they should therefore listen to us to learn the truth ultimately defeats subsequent pedagogy.

DAWKINS: The fact that I think religion is bad science, whereas you think it is ancillary to science, is bound to bias us in at least slightly different directions. I agree with you that teaching is seduction, and it could well be bad strategy to alienate your audience before you even start. Maybe I could improve my seduction technique. But nobody admires a dishonest seducer, and I wonder how far you are prepared to go in ‘reaching out.’

KRAUSS: Let me make clearer what I mean by reaching out. I do not mean capitulating to misconceptions but rather finding a seductive way to demonstrate to people that these are indeed misconceptions. . . .

DAWKINS: I like your clarification of what you mean by reaching out. But let me warn you of how easy it is to be misunderstood. I once wrote in a New York Times book review, ‘It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).’ That sentence has been quoted again and again in support of the view that I am a bigoted, intolerant, closed-minded, intemperate ranter. But just look at my sentence. It may not be crafted to seduce, but you, Lawrence, know in your heart that it is a simple and sober statement of fact. Ignorance is no crime. To call somebody ignorant is no insult. All of us are ignorant of most of what there is to know. I am completely ignorant of baseball, and I dare say that you are as completely ignorant of cricket. If I tell somebody who believes the world is 6,000 years old that he is ignorant, I am paying him the compliment of assuming that he is not stupid, insane or wicked.

KRAUSS: I have to say that I agree completely with you about this. To me, ignorance is often the problem, and, happily, ignorance is most easily addressed. It is not pejorative to suggest that someone is ignorant if they misunderstand scientific issues.

DAWKINS: In exchange, I am happy to agree with you that I could, and probably should, have put it more tactfully. I should have reached out more seductively. But there are limits. . . .

KRAUSS: . . . . let me pose another question, about which you may feel even more strongly: Can science enrich faith, or must it always destroy it? The question came to me because I was recently asked to speak at a Catholic college at a symposium on science and religion. I guess I was viewed as someone interested in reconciling the two. After agreeing to lecture, I discovered that I had been assigned the title ‘Science Enriching Faith.’ In spite of my initial qualms, the more I thought about the title, the more rationale I could see for it. The need to believe in a divine intelligence without direct evidence is, for better or worse, a fundamental component of many people’s psyches. I do not think we will rid humanity of religious faith any more than we will rid humanity of romantic love or many of the irrational but fundamental aspects of human cognition. While orthogonal from the scientific rational components, they are no less real and perhaps no less worthy of some celebration when we consider our humanity.

DAWKINS: As an aside, such pessimism about humanity is popular among rationalists to the point of outright masochism. It is almost as though you and others at the conference where this dialogue began positively relish the idea that humanity is perpetually doomed to unreason. But I think irrationality has nothing to do with romantic love or poetry or the emotions that lie so close to what makes life worth living. Those are not orthogonal to rationality. Perhaps they are tangential to it. In any case, I am all for them, as are you. Positively irrational beliefs and superstitions are a different matter entirely. To accept that we can never be rid of them—that they are an irrevocable part of human nature—is manifestly untrue of you and, I would guess, most of your colleagues and friends. Isn’t it therefore rather condescending to assume that humans at large are constitutionally incapable of breaking free of them?

KRAUSS: I am not so confident that I am rid of irrational beliefs, at least irrational beliefs about myself. But if religious faith is a central part of the life experience of many people, the question, it seems to me, is not how we can rid the world of God but to what extent can science at least moderate this belief and cut out the most irrational and harmful aspects of religious fundamentalism. That is certainly one way science might enrich faith. . . . Still another benefit science has to offer was presented most cogently by Sagan, who, like you and me, was not a person of faith. Nevertheless, in a posthumous compilation of his 1985 Gifford Lectures in Scotland on science and religion, he makes the point that standard religious wonder is in fact too myopic, too limited. A single world is too puny for a real God. The vast scope of our universe, revealed to us by science, is far grander. Moreover, one might now add, in light of the current vogue in theoretical physics, that a single universe may be too puny and that one might want to start thinking in terms of a host of universes. I hasten to add, however, that enriching faith is far different than providing supporting evidence for faith, which is something that I believe science certainly does not do.

DAWKINS: Yes, I love that sentiment of Sagan’s, and I’m so glad you picked it out. I summed it up for the publishers of those lectures on the book jacket: ‘Was Carl Sagan a religious man? He was so much more. He left behind the petty, parochial, medieval world of the conventionally religious; left the theologians, priests and mullahs wallowing in their small-minded spiritual poverty. He left them behind, because he had so much more to be religious about. They have their Bronze Age myths, medieval superstitions and childish wishful thinking. He had the universe.’ I don’t think there is anything I can add in answering your question about whether science can enrich faith. It can, in the sense you and Sagan mean. But I’d hate to be misunderstood as endorsing faith.

KRAUSS: I want to close with an issue that I think is central to much of the current debate going on among scientists regarding religion: Is religion inherently bad? I confess here that my own views have evolved over the years, although you might argue that I have simply gone soft. There is certainly ample evidence that religion has been responsible for many atrocities, and I have often said, as have you, that no one would fly planes into tall buildings on purpose if it were not for a belief that God was on their side. As a scientist, I feel that my role is to object when religious belief causes people to teach lies about the world. In this regard, I would argue that one should respect religious sensibilities no more or less than any other metaphysical inclinations, but in particular they should not be respected when they are wrong. By wrong, I mean beliefs that are manifestly in disagreement with empirical evidence. The earth is not 6,000 years old. The sun did not stand still in the sky. The Kennewick Man was not a Umatilla Indian. What we need to try to eradicate is not religious belief, or faith, it is ignorance. Only when faith is threatened by knowledge does it become the enemy.

DAWKINS: I think we pretty much agree here. And although ‘lie’ is too strong a word because it implies intention to deceive, I am not one of those who elevate moral arguments above the question of whether religious beliefs are true. I recently had a televised encounter with the veteran British politician Tony Benn, a former minister of technology who calls himself a Christian. It became very clear in the course of our discussion that he had not the slightest interest in whether Christian beliefs are true or not; his only concern was whether they are moral. He objected to science on the grounds that it gave no moral guidance. When I protested that moral guidance is not what science is about, he came close to asking what, then, was the use of science. A classic example of a syndrome the philosopher Daniel Dennett has called ‘belief in belief.’ Other examples include those people who think that whether religious beliefs are true or false is less important than the power of religion to comfort and to give a purpose to life. I imagine you would agree with me that we have no objection to people drawing comfort from wherever they choose and no objection to strong moral compasses. But the question of the moral or consolation value of religion—one way or the other—must be kept separate in our minds from the truth value of religion. I regularly encounter difficulties in persuading religious people of this distinction, which suggests to me that we scientific seducers have an uphill struggle on our hands.

KRAUSS: Having found another place where we definitely agree, it is perhaps a good one to end the discussion for now.

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