Thursday, June 6, 2013

Atheist Inspirations

Lawrence Krauss is a cosmologist of some note and a militant atheist. In fact, judging by this interview, he'd much rather talk about why he rejects religious belief than about the science that is his profession.

One of the interesting things about the interview is that Krauss tries to argue that despite the fact that atheism leads to some very distressing conclusions about the human predicament it's nevertheless more inspiring to be an atheist than to be a theist who believes in eternal life. For example, he says - using the word "science" as a synonym for "naturalism," that:
I don't mean that science isn't spiritually uplifting. I do think it is, but for the very reasons — the very antithetical reasons to religion, I guess, is the fact that it causes us to feel less comfortable. [It] should provoke us to try and understand what we can do and what meaning we can make in the universe. So learning that we're more insignificant or learning that the universe isn't made for us, or there's no evidence that it is, is profoundly inspiring or should be.
Why it should be inspiring to learn that we are far more insignificant than we could ever know, as he tells one audience member during the Q&A, and that the universe is a meaningless, purposeless, indifferent, and hostile place Krauss doesn't explain. The interviewer, Kate Tippett, later presses him on the point:
Ms. Tippett: What does science have to say to death, to dying, not to the biological breakdown of a body, but to the existential moment of dying?

Dr. Krauss: I think it has a tremendous amount to say. I mean, it has to say to us that, you know, first of all, it has to say what dying is. What is dying? What's the process of dying?
That's it? That's the "tremendous amount" that naturalistic science has to say about what death is and what it means? Well, maybe not exactly. There's also the fact, Krauss tells us, that death means the end of our existence. Perhaps Prof. Krauss finds that inspiring, too:
I mean, we're all going to experience it [death], and I think a realistic assessment of what the process is helps us understand what we're going to experience and try and make sense of it. It seems to me you can't make sense enough to make even an ethical or moral decision without understanding the basis in reality.

What seems to me what science could say is what I've sort of said in the book is that - look, what I'm about to say is going to sound awful, and I'm not going to go to someone's bedside and offer this, OK? It's up to them to decide if they want to look at these things - but we should at least offer the possibility of that knowledge that there's no evidence — in fact every bit of evidence that there's no afterlife, that you're here, but in fact the meaning of your life is the meaning that you make.

And in your life, you've made incredible meaning. You created love for other people. You've brought up children. You've allowed people to have livelihoods and that meaning has made your life worthwhile and enjoy every second of being alive. And death is a sad but necessary part of being alive. That may not sound like the same comfort of saying that, you know, you're going to have eternal life and you're going to be with your family ...
Indeed. In fact, it's hard to see how there's much comfort in this at all, particularly if we're talking about a tragic death of a young person rather than the death of someone at a ripe old age. What Krauss offers, so far from being comfort, so far from giving hope, is despair.

Of course, that doesn't mean that he's wrong about the existence of God and an afterlife. He could well be right. It could turn out that the truth is very depressing, but what is silly of him to say, in my opinion, is that atheism offers a view of the world that is at least as inspiring as the theistic view. The theistic view may be wrong, but any belief system that offers the hope of eternal happiness is far more inspiring, it seems to me, than one that offers nothing more than the prospect of eternal annihilation.

Perhaps this has something to do with why Christianity has inspired far more art, music, science and moral progress than has atheism which has inspired pretty much nothing.

At any rate, Tippett then makes the observation that although Krauss is calling his view the scientific view, it's really not:
Ms. Tippett: But what you just said isn't science.

Dr. Krauss: Yes, it is. It's saying there's no evidence. I mean, here's what we're saying is that...

Ms. Tippett: But you can't put meaning under a microscope. You can't shoot particles at it in a Large Hadron Collider.

Dr. Krauss: No, but I don't understand what meaning is till I ask the questions of how the universe behaves.
Which is a complete non-sequitur, but Krauss plows on undeterred by logic.
You know, some people say that religion gives meaning to their lives, but to me, the knowledge that the meaning we have is the meaning we make should inspire us to do better. So I think that — I personally think that every single thing that religion provides, rationality, empiricism and science can provide, and not only that, it can provide it better.
Well, no. It can't. Especially if Krauss is using science as a place-holder for atheism. It can't give our lives ultimate meaning, it can only tell us there is no meaning. It can't give us an objective ground for morality, it can only tell us that any moral system we live by is purely arbitrary. It can't give us hope, it can't give us a reason for desiring truth, it can't even give us a basis for trusting our reason to lead us to truth, as philosopher Alvin Plantinga has so cogently argued in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies.

In fact, earlier in the interview Krauss said something that implicitly undermines his claim that an atheistic worldview based on science can give better answers to the big questions than can religion. He said:
We've been, as I often say, like people locked in a room with sensory deprivation for 40 years. What happens? You hallucinate, and that's what most of the business of what I've been in is hallucinating for the last 40 years.

Most of the hallucinations we've had, namely theoretical physics, will be wrong. Most ideas are wrong. We don't celebrate that enough, but it's true. Most ideas are wrong, so all of the ideas may be wrong. But we won't know until nature points us in the right direction. And I think, and many other people think, that if what we really discovered is the Higgs, there's bound to be new things at the Large Hadron Collider that will point us in the much more interesting direction.

Ms. Tippett: And you don't even know what that direction is right now.

Dr. Krauss: No, no. I mean, I have speculations. I have ideas and so do other theorists. I always hope I'm wrong. I've often said the two greatest states to be in if you're a scientist is either wrong or confused, and I'm often both.
It seems rather odd to say on one hand that one's intellectual approach to truth leads either to error or confusion and on the other that it is nevertheless superior to other approaches. Any approach to truth that causes one to always hope he's wrong is hardly inspiring.

I can't help but think that all the talk about the wonder of life from the point of view of naturalism is just so much wishful thinking. Perhaps a more realistic assessment comes from another famous atheist Bertrand Russell. Russell wrote in A Free Man's Worship:
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
I think Russell was closer to where things stand for the atheist than is Krauss, and I don't think many will find Russell's assessment of life in a world without God particular inspiring.