Science & the Supernatural: Bonus

Apropos of my previous post, here is a clip of an old debate between Drs. William Lane Craig and Peter Atkins.

I almost feel sorry for Atkins. After making the surpassingly daft statement that  ‘…science is omnipotent…’ (0:53), he challenges Craig (beginning at 1:13; emphases added):

Atkins: Do you deny that science cannot account for everything?

Craig: Yes, I do deny that science…

Atkins: So, what can’t it account for?

Craig: […] I think there are a good number of things that cannot be scientifically proven but that we’re all rational to accept…

Atkins: Such as?

Craig: Let me list five:

  • logical and mathematical truths cannot be proven by science. Science presupposes logic and math, so that to ry to prove them by science would be arguing in a circle;
  • metaphysical truths. Like there are other minds other than my own, or that the external world is real or that the past was not created five minutes ago with an appearance of age are rational beliefs but cannot be scientifically proven
  • ethical beliefs about statements of value are not accessible by the scientific method. You can’t show by science whether the Nazi scientists in the camps did anything evil as opposed to the scientists in Western democracies
  • aesthetic judgements…cannot be accessed by the scientific method because the beautiful, like the good, cannot be scientifically proven;
  • and finally, most remarkably, would be science itself. Science cannot be justified by the scientific method. Science is permeated with unprovable assumptions. For example in the special theory of relativity; the whole theory hinges on the assumption that the speed of light is constant in a one-way direction between any two points A and B, but that strictly cannot be proven. We have to assume that in order to hold to the theory.


None of these beliefs can be scientifically proven, yet they are accepted by all of us and we’re rational in doing so.

Evolutionist Larry Moran dismisses Craig’s points:

I’d probably have the same look on my face as Peter Atkins. It’s not that these five things are devastating arguments against the power of science, it’s that each one would take at least an hour to explain. The audience isn’t going to wait that long so you know you’re going to have to pass and leave Craig (and Dembski) to smugly assume that he’s won.

It’s typical anti-science trickery and Atkins probably wasn’t expecting such a cheap shot in that environment.

Atkins does have that ‘deer in the headlights’ look for a bit there. Moran ascribes it to likely incredulity, as he regards Craig’s claims as not devastating, but just too time consuming to rebut in a debate format – and that Atkins would surely know that. Despite that, Moran doesn’t bother to refer his readers to any sources that can and do take the time to rebut Craig.

In any case, we can see how close Moran’s guess as to the nature of Atkins’ reaction is. Atkins’ response to Craig can be found in the following two portions of the debate. Starting at 8:45 in the first:

Atkins: But what you have to accept is that science is a network of – a reticulation – of ideas; that there’s an interaction of ideas that come from a wide variety of sources. That in order to understand the very large one has to, in fact, understand the very small. It’s a network of ideas which, where they flow together, do not annihilate each other, but support each other. Science is, in a sense, self-consistent way of looking at the world and in that sense, it gets its authority. I also disagree with [your point about aesthetics]. I see no reason why it can’t at least begin to show why we regard some sound, some chords, if you like, as attractive whereas dissonances are unattractive.

…and continuing through 2:13 in the second:

Atkins: I think it’s quite possible for us to anatomize a picture. You can see why the Golden Section is attractive, in a sense. We might not be able to look, at this stage in our understanding of aesthetics, and say that the Mona Lisa is the most beautiful thing on earth, but at least we can begin to analyze our perception of beauty. We’ll only get a full appreciation of aesthetic and religious belief and all that other stuff when one has a full understanding of consciousness, which is the most important, outstanding problem in current science.

Craig: Those are not, however, themselves aesthetic judgements that you’re talking about. Those are judgements about why we perceive something to be beautiful and ugly, but that is not itself an aesthetic judgement. It’s like an ethical…

Atkins: I think it’s quite possible to build a machine that decides whether a particular chord is pleasant or unpleasant

Buckley: But you’d have to trust the machine…

Atkins: No you wouldn’t, you would have to train it, just as we are trained, just as we live up in a world full of Western music and the Japanese grows up in world full of Eastern music. So you actually change that neural[?] network.

Buckley: We’re affected by conventional arrangements…

Atkins: But aesthetics largely comes from convention, just as ethics is largely convention..

Craig: Those are statements which are not scientific statements. Those are philosophical statements about these subjects which cannot be justified scientifically.

Atkins: But you can explore the origins of ethics. You can explore the origins, the evolutionary origins of ethics and see that they are conventions that have emerged under genetic control, in part, but also by the application of our massive brains.

Craig: At best, that would show how moral values are discovered, but it would not show that therefore moral values are invented or are mere conventions. That is…a philosophical statement .

Not only did Atkins fail to rebut Craig, his response actually proved Craig’s point. Whether or not there are cogent and valid responses to Craig here, it’s clear that Atkins didn’t have them at hand – or anywhere nearby. Atkins wasn’t incredulous at Craig’s ‘anti-science trickery’, he was blindsided. It’s painfully obvious that Atkins was fumbling around blindly for a coherent response only to come up empty-handed. He got caught flat-footed and made the best of it he could.

Moran’s characterization of Craig’s five points as ‘typical anti-science trickery’ is interesting. This interchange between Craig and Atkins can be boiled down to a very simple disagreement:

  • Atkins believes that science has no limits, that it can account for everything
  • Craig disagrees, insisting that science does indeed have limits

Moran takes Atkins’ part, claiming that to assert that science has limits is ‘typical anti-science trickery’. Incredible.

This is rank scientism. Merriam-Webster defines scientism as:

  1. methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist
  2. an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)
Atkins and Moran clearly subscribe to definition 2. The Skeptic’s Dictionary offers:

Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless. This view seems to have been held by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1922) when he said such things as “The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science…” He later repudiated this view.In the weak sense, scientism is the view that the methods of the natural sciences should be applied to any subject matter. This view is summed up nicely by Michael Shermer:

Scientism is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science (Shermer 2002).

On the other hand, the dictionary definition of ‘scientism’ is the attitude and method of the typical natural scientist, whoever that might be.

There doesn’t seem be much more than a semantic difference between the strong and the weak definitions above as Shermer’s ‘weak’ definition presupposes the ‘strong’ – including the belief that all phenomena and their explanations are amenable to empirical investigation and the scientific method. But, as Craig pointed out to Atkins, that very presumption is not itself capable of empirical verification.

Scientism is as much a religious faith as is Christianity; the fact of its anti-supernatural persuasion changes that not one bit. The chief difference between the two, as regards science, is that Christianity has legitimate claim to a consistent, rational justification for science while Scientism does not.

Now, while there is anything wrong with being a Scientism-ist, there is something wrong with pretending that Scientism is something that it’s not – a purely rational, faith-free approach to systemitizing data from the natural world. In a nutshell:

 Scientism ≠ Science

In any case, Scientism does not deserve to be priveleged by our governing institutions with being the sole gatekeeper of the scientific enterprise, having the authority to cast out ‘heretics’ as they see fit.

Again, this is not to say that Scientism-ists ‘can’t do science’ – they can and do, often in superb fashion. It is to say that they cannot derive a consistent, rational justification for science from their own belief system. They have to filch that rationale, knowingly or not, from the Judeo-Christian worldview. 

The full debate can be viewed on YouTube:

part 0, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4a, part 4b, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9, part 10, part 11

(h/t William Dembski @ UncommonDescent)


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