Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Encounter with an Atheist Scientist

Recently, I was privileged to engage in a discussion with a lady who was one-year away from completing her Ph.D. in a particular field of science. When she discovered I hold a doctorate in theology, she asked the question, “does this mean you study religions?” I responded “a little, perhaps.” She proceeded to inform me that she loved to study the different religions and that she was an atheist. Now when someone informs you that they are an atheist, it is always wise to qualify what they mean by such a claim. Many people are really agnostics while using the word atheist to describe themselves. An atheist is one who denies positively that there is no God. An agnostic contends that you cannot know if God exists. Overly simplistic, perhaps, but that will suffice for purposes of this article. So I asked this scientist if in fact she rejected the idea that God exists and she emphatically said “of course, I am a scientist and I do no believe in anything that cannot be proven using the scientific method.” This last statement contains a presupposition that will inevitably cause the dear scientist’s view tremendous grief. The scientific method relies on the epistemological method of empiricism in order to arrive at truth. Empiricism contends that all knowledge comes through the senses and that nothing can be demonstrated to be true outside of empirical verification. Before continuing with this interaction, a short review of the problems of empiricism and the scientific method are in order. This will serve as the basis for how I challenged the scientist’s basic assumption: the scientific method is the only valid means by which truth (or the highest probability that something is true) can be known. Her conclusion then would be that unless you can demonstrate something empirically, you should not believe it exists. Remember, this is her basis for rejecting the idea of God. In her view, God cannot be proven using empirical methods, and therefore she is justified in rejecting the idea of God.

Problems of Empiricism

The first problem is the issue of verification. It is clear that knowledge of all facts cannot be subjected to empirical verification. Does that mean that we reject them as false or even simply contend that we cannot know for sure? A simple example is historical testimony. We have good historical evidence that says George Washington was the first president of the United States. However, this claim cannot be empirically verified. We have to take someone’s word for it. However, using strictly empirical methods we cannot demonstrate that it is true.

A second observation is that empiricism has a major problem with general statements. For instance, empiricism cannot accept the claim that all humans have minds. In fact, empiricism cannot demonstrate than any human has a mind. The best it can do is to prove that the humans it examines have brains. Mavrodes aptly points out that to make the demand for verification a general requirement for knowledge is futile. This would of course demand that every claim to knowledge require verification ad infinitum. [Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 116]

Finally empiricism cannot justify itself empirically. How would one ever empirically verify that empiricism holds the key to all knowledge? Empiricism as a sole method for knowing the facts of reality would require that we limit what we call knowledge. [Frame]

Back to the Conversation

Given the scientist’s assertion that she rejects God on the basis that the God idea cannot be proven empirically, I had a question. I have learned, after great trouble and tribulation, how we interact with those who oppose the faith is just as important as what we have to say to them. One’s way of saying something should never distract from what one is saying. When that happens, you defeat your own purpose. So I took the Q&A approach. Any good post-grad student closing in on an advanced degree loves questions. They are prone to teach. So I took the approach that I wanted to learn from the good scientist. With that I asked, “Do you believe in logic?” Those of you trained in apologetics and philosophy already know where I am going at this point. She answered, “well of course I do I am a scientist.” As you can see, I already had enough information to place the scientist in a position that would expose her inconsistency at the very foundation of her worldview. Instead of saying something in such a way that would make her intellect feel threatened, I simply followed up with another question. Ph.D. candidates tend to have big egos and the last thing I wanted to do was to make this discussion about intellectual capacity. I did not want this to feel like a debate. I have made the mistake of doing this repeatedly in the past and it has usually not ended charitably.

As of late, I would like to think I have learned some things about my own sinful tendencies to provoke egotistical responses and by God’s grace, I have determined to take a different, more charitable course in the future. That being said, I followed the good lady’s answer with one more question: “Can you tell me what it looks like when a scientist empirically verifies that logic exists?” The scientist paused for a few seconds. And then she paused for a few seconds more. While she was thinking about how to answer my question, I followed with another question: “Can you tell me what it looks like when a scientist empirically verifies that empiricism is true?” The scientist paused again. After about a minute of consternated expressions, she looked at me and said, “you have taken this to a whole new level.” Well, I have not taken anything to a whole new level. These arguments are all over the landscape of philosophy and Christian apologetics. All I did was to take her method of reasoning and ask her to apply that method to itself. And when she did, she felt the incoherence of her own thinking. I did not have to directly attack the incongruence in her thinking. She was seeing it for herself. All I had to do was to ask the right questions so that she could arrive at this conclusion on her own. This protected her ego. This was enough to cause her to wonder if her basis for contending that God did not exist was valid or not. However, she was not entirely ready to give up defending her ultimate commitment that there was no God.

The next item to be attacked was ‘reason.’ She proceeded to challenge the concept of logic. She asked for a definition of logic. This was a brilliant move on her part. She had turned the tables of questions and answers on me and placed me on the defensive. When engaging unbelievers, the position of strength is always the offensive position. Try to avoid playing defense. If you are not careful it can turn into questions ad infinitum and you end up not able to move the discussion to Christ which is where you want it to go. My answer was “Logic is the science that governs all human cogitation.” Without logic, all hope for meaningful communication is lost. Reason no longer exists. She then attacked reason. But before she could continue her assault, I asked her another question: “Is it possible to touch a hot stove and be burned and not burned at the same time?” Can such a state exist? Can I feel pain and not feel pain at the same time? If I demonstrate that something is true empirically, can it also be false empirically? She either could not answer or would not answer these questions.

In closing our discussion, I said two things to the good scientist: before you destroy logic in your insistence to reject the God idea, you should recognize that science is destroyed along with it. Secondly, there are a number of things you believe to be true that you cannot verify empirically. If ever we get the chance to speak on the subject again, I would like to point them out to you so that you may have something more to think about when you think about why you reject the God idea.

I have not had the occasion to speak to the good scientist again. I can only hope that our exchange produced fruit by way of causing her to doubt the validity of her rejection of God. I do not know if God sent someone behind me to follow up with that discussion. God is sovereign and should it be His will, perhaps He did. It is my prayer that someone else comes along to follow up on that discussion or that our paths will cross again and I may be afforded the opportunity to press her with the question of Jesus Christ.

It should be noted that I do not in any way intend to imply that we cannot know anything by empircal means. Such a view is preposterous in my estimation. My point is that empricism, nor the scienfitic method that relies on it so heavily serve as valid means for concluding that God does not exist. The purpose of this article was to demosntrate that man's rejection of God is always based on invalid inferences in one way or another. Secondly, I hoped to impart some strategy for how one should engage the unbelieving community. Titus 3:2 instructs us to malign no one and this includes unbelievers. In fact, most commentators believe Paul has unbelievers in mind when he penned those words. I pray you find the information in this blog useful.

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