Something we learned by doing science for 400 years is something called Naturalism, the idea that there is only one reality; that there are not separate planes of the natural and the supernatural; that there is only one material existence; that we are part of the universe and do not stand outside of it in any way. And the way that science got there is by basically realizing that Human beings are not that smart. You are not Vulcans, you are not Mr. Spock, you are not perfectly logical.
We as Human beings are subject to all sorts of biases and cognitive shortcomings. We tend to be wishful thinkers and to see patterns where they are not there and so forth. And in response to this science developed techniques for giving ourselves reality checks, for not letting us believe things that the evidence does not stand up to.
One technique is simply skepticism which you may have heard of. Scientists are taught that we should be our own theories harshest critics. Scientists spend all their time trying to disprove all their favorite ideas. It’s a little bit counter intutitve, a different way of doing things, but it helps us resist the lure of wishful thinking.
The other technique is empiricism. We realize that we are not smart enough to get to knowledge of the world just be thinking about it. We have to go out there and look at the World. And what we done by looking at this for the past 400 years is to realize that Human beings are not separate; that the World is one thing, the natural World, and that it can be understood.
It is all very counterintuitive; it is not very obvious, this Naturalism claim. You are made of atoms. You’re made of molecules, you’re made of cells, you’re made of atoms, and as (unintelligible), we know how atoms behave. The laws of physics covering the behavior of atoms are Ccompletely understood. You put an atom in a certain set of circumstances, and you tell me what those circumstances are, and as a physicist, I will tell you what the atom will do.
If you believe that the atoms inside your brain and your body act differently because they are in your body as opposed to being in a rock or a crystal, then what you are saying is that the laws of physics are wrong, that they need to be altered because of the influence of a spirit or soul or something like that. That may be true. We can’t disaprove that. But there is no evidence for it …
… Naturalism has won. If you go to any university physics department, listen to the talks they give or the papers they write; go to any biology department; go to any neuroscience department; any philosophy department; people whose professional job it is to explain the world, to come up with explanatory framework that matches what we see, no one mentions God. There is never an appeal to a supernatural realm, by people whose job it is to explain what happens in the world. Everyone knows that the Naturalist explanations are the ones that work.
And yet! Here we are! We’re having a debate. Why are we having a debate? Because, clearly, religion speaks to people for reasons other than explaining what happens in the World. Most people who turn to religious belief do not do so because they think it provides the best biology or cosmology. They turn to religious belief because it provides them with purpose and meaning in their lives. With a sense of Right and Wrong. With a community. With hope.
So if we want to say that science has refuted religion, we need to say that science has something to say about those issues. And on that I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that the universe does not care about you. The universe is made up of elementary particles that don’t have intelligence, don’t pass judgment, don’t have a sense of Right and Wrong. And the fear is, the existential anxiety is that if that purpose and meaningfulness is not given to me by the universe, then it cannot exist. The good news is that that fear is a mistake. That there is another option: that we create purpose and meaning in the World.
If you love somebody, it is not because that Love is put into you by something outside, it is because you created that from inside yourself. If you act goodness to somebody, it’s not because you are given instructions to do so, it’s that it’s a choice that you made. In the very scary World, you should be affected at a very deep level, by the thought that the universe doesn’t care, does not pass judgment on you, but it’s also challenging and liberating that we can create lives that are worth living.