Why do some sensible-seeming folk have beliefs which have no generally accepted scientific basis? In particular, why do some people who generally come across as intelligent and logical go and “spoil” it all by expressing a belief in God?
It can be easy to dismiss such beliefs as superstitious nonsense without a second thought, especially when the belief is accompanied by an actively anti-scientific viewpoint, as it too often is.
But what if rational, scientific folk are some of the people who hold such beliefs? Is this notion a contradiction in terms? Apparently not – some critical thinkers, mathematicians, and scientists, even Nobel prize winners, profess to hold such beliefs. Why? This is not only an enormous question to answer, but it’s a question whose answer varies from individual to individual.
Indeed, this really has to be addressed. The number of self-professed “sceptics” and “rationalists” who I’ve met who would so readily denounce the intellectual capacity of Nobel Prize winners is astounding. At some point you have to stop and ask yourself what’s going on. And this post does exactly that by laying out the different approaches to knowledge…
Before we get to that more narrow question, I need to explain a few terms.
Theism in its broadest sense is a belief in the existence of one or more deities, or Gods. It’s a belief in an intelligent supernatural power, often one presumed to exist outside the observable universe. Theism is a necessary part of most religions, but does not imply an entire system of beliefs and practices as religion generally does.
Methodological naturalism is the assumption that all causes are empirical (experimentally testable) and naturalistic (stemming from the laws of nature). It’s part of the foundation that allows you to do science: things you can measure and quantify are things you can develop theories and identify laws about.
Ontological naturalism is the belief that all causes are empirical and naturalistic. That is, not only are untestable or “supernatural” causes outside the bounds of science, they are outside the bounds of possibility; such causes do not, and cannot exist.
From these definitions, it follows that all scientists are methodological naturalists, whether theistic or not. It also doesn’t make sense to be both a theistic scientist and an ontological naturalist; by definition, the two viewpoints are contradictory.
That’s profoundly helpful because, as others have pointed out, the real conflict here is not between science and non-reason but one’s view of epistemology.
The article then goes on to fairly describe some objections to ontological naturalism and then concludes…
Although philosophical theism and ontological naturalism are mutually exclusive worldviews, the philosophical pursuit of each shares some of the same goals. Namely, to reason about how questions of existence, which go beyond the realms of science, might be answered. With apologies to Arthur C. Clarke, two possibilities exist: either we are in a universe which was created, or one which was not. Both are equally terrifying. But both possibilities are also solid grounds for wonder. So next time you have a free moment, why not spend a few moments considering the amazing universe we find ourselves in – one way or another?
All in all, a great and fair piece which seeks only to set out the issues for all to understand. Oh that some of our “scientific” and “learned” opponents would have even this level of epistemic humility.