While I was somewhat moved to post this by this article at the Chronicle of Higher Education, it’s really a point I keep making, and keep having to make. Reading the article, and the comments, it seems that the default consensus is that one must pick between a materialistic view of the universe, where even if there is much that is unknown, there is nothing which is inherently unknowable, nothing “beyond” understanding, just beyond our present knowledge, and the JudeoChristianIslamic God.
This is bollocks.
The choice is, basically, between science, and every god, demon, spirit, entity, manifestation, or idea ever imagined and yet to be imagined. Pretending as if Zeus, Odin, Kali, Osiris, Xenu, the Angel Moroni, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster have already been eliminated from the running oversimplifies the issue and more or less hands victory to the Believers. However, once you reject the idea that the universe can be understood through science, you reject the scientific method and all it entails and implies. You reject not just some specific theories or knowledge, but the entirety of our way of knowing. You are left with nothing but the subjective, the personal experience, the whim. You are left with no means of distinguishing between Christianity, Mormonism, and Scientology in terms of which one is “true”, because any methods you devise will, ultimately, rely on some variant of the scientific method (or on bloody violence, purges, and the burning of heretics). If you accept, for example, archaeology as a means of proving that the pre-Columbian civilizations described in “The Book of Mormon” did not exist, you are accepting the supremacy of science as a means of determining truth — and if you accept that, you must accept that there are no truths “beyond” science. (Though, again, I wish to emphasize this doesn’t mean all the answers are known, just that there is no way we will ever know the answers if we abandon science.)
Absent science, and the scientific way of thinking, there is no means of convincing a neutral party that your god is more ‘real’ than someone else’s. How, for example, can you prove an E-Meter is bunk if you reject the scientific model of the universe? That is, if you say, “This a magic machine that reads emotions!”, I could, in a scientific frame of mind, say, “OK. If this is true, then we can set up tests. We can take people who have been proven to have certain mental illnesses, and others who do not, but are pretending to, and we will see if you can figure out who is who consistently over many tests. Then we can take the E-Meters and make 10 give basically random readings and 10 work as designed, and see if the accuracy goes up or down as expected. Then…”. However, this requires first accepting the primacy of science, the idea we live in a knowable universe that does not allow for supernatural intervention. Otherwise, any failure can be ascribed to any cause one can imagine — the agents of Xenu, “negative vibes”, or anything else, and this cannot in turn be tested for and eliminated as a factor.
It’s been said, quite often, that the difference between an atheist and a believer is “one less god”. Any truly honest believer who applies the same filter to his or her own god that they do to all the others would be compelled to become an atheist. Any believer who attempts to prove their god is the right one via the tools of science is asserting that science is how we understand the universe and that this understanding does not permit, by definition, the supernatural. Any believer who simply asserts their god is the “right” one and offers no evidence beyond their subjective experiences or other arguments by assertion (“So many people believe in my god, they can’t all be wrong!” or “If my god wasn’t real, the world would be horrible!” or, my personal favorite, “If my god isn’t real, then there can’t be any morality!”)has no means of convicing anyone, so they are ultimately left with coercion — faith at the point of a sword.
(Any time you see the word “god”, in the above, please interpret it as reading “god, gods, goddesses, godlings, demons, spirits, body thetans, fay folk, and every other such thing”. This isn’t about Yahweh. This is about choosing between a universe that can be known and a universe that can’t, and that’s the only choice there is. Once you’ve chosen to believe in an unknowable universe, you have chosen to abandon the only tool which can tell you what should be believed.)
“Inherently” is a key word. There may be things we will never know, because no method will ever be found to know them. This does not mean they are inherently unknowable. Consider, as one of a trillion possible examples, a man marooned in 1756 (a randomly picked year) on an island somewhere in the Pacific, who dies there, alone. What were his final words? Barring some fairly spectacular changes in our understanding of the universe and how it can be manipulated, I am happy to say “No one can know the answer to that.” It would be rather ridiculous to say “Since there exists this unknown thing, this proves there’s a God”, but just about every “God of the gaps” argument, which is what virtually all modern “proofs” of the existence of some god boil down to, is precisely this. There is nothing inherent in the nature of “a man’s final words” that makes them unknowable and beyond science, even if it is not possible for anyone to know this hypothetical man’s last lonely utterance. I cannot tell you with absolute certainty why there is a universe at all. I can offer some speculations and ideas. I, or at least some alternate me who is a competent physicist, could probably devise experiments to test at least some of them. It may be that this is a fairly simple question when all is said and done and we’ll soon be making universes as High School lab projects. It may be that it is a question whose answer cannot be found. Even in the latter case, though, there’s absolutely no reason to leap from there to god… no reason to say, “Since we don’t know why or how the universe exists, this proves the existence of some other entity I just made up.” The universe does exist; this is a fact. (Descartes notwithstanding). Making up some cause of the universe which cannot, itself, be proven to exist does not work. It answers no questions. It provides no knowledge. It tells us nothing about how we should live our lives, what values we should hold, what is good or evil, or how to increase crop yields or overclock our graphics cards. “Some entity outside reality made reality” is a non-answer. If this non-answer gives you emotional comfort, it’s only because you’re not thinking about it very hard. (It also, inevitably, instantly leads to “Who made that entity?”, which means it’s either turtles all the way down, or we leap forward to “If a universe-creating entity can spontaneously exist, so can a universe, rendering the entity unnecessary.”)