Thursday, May 3, 2012

Are Some Atheists Afraid of Nothing?

Seinfeld, one of the most successful shows in television history, was purportedly about nothing.  Of course that was never true.  The show was about a few people with consistent personality quirks, a bit narcissistic and often socially challenged (and challenging).

When physicist and outspoken atheist Lawrence Krauss talks about the scientific concept of nothing, he's not talking about nothing, either.  In his view, if nothing is a scientifically legitimate concept, then it refers to something measurable.  You can quantify it somehow.  I agree.  Science deals in the quantifiable and measurable, after all.  It does not deal in that which cannot, in principle, be measured one way or another.  Yet it's plain as day that, if you can measure some x, then x does not equal nothing.  If you can measure it, it isn't nothing.  And so we must admit that, if science can tell us about x, then x does not equal nothing.  Science has nothing to say about nothingness.

Krauss also believes that science can tell us everything worth knowing, so it is no wonder he has no patience for discussions of nothingness.  And I mean discussions of literal nothingness, not discussions of whatever empirically measurable stuff scientists decide to call "nothing."  Discussions of nothingness are outside the purview of science.  And according to Krauss, if something is worth talking about, it's worth talking about scientifically.  If it's not a scientific question, it's not a question he wants to be bothered with.  Non-scientific (I won't say unscientific) discussions of nothingness, or anything else which might be called "philosophical", are out the window.

Krauss is in a bind, though.  He says there is some concept of nothing which is outside the scope of scientific discovery, and he's telling us that it is not worth talking about it.  He could be right on both counts, but obviously he can't argue that scientifically.  It's a philosophical matter, not a scientific one.  Philosophy, not science, tells us that science cannot tell us about nothing.  Philosophy, not science, makes sense of non-scientific concepts.  By demanding that science alone comprises truth, Krauss is shooting himself in the foot. His rejection of non-scientific knowledge is self-refuting.

I don't want to psychoanalyze, but I wonder how he thinks and feels about this.  I wonder if maybe this bind explains his infamous verbal aggression towards philosophers who, despite his irrational insistence, refuse to let science define the limits of their discourse.

I don't mean to pick on Lawrence Krauss.  There is a lot of aggression towards philosophy coming from atheists--I can provide links if you don't believe me.  And I think this might explain it.  A lot of atheists might be in denial about the need for philosophy in addition to science--about the fact that science cannot say everything that is worth saying.  They might think this is a threat, as if it somehow opened the door to theism.  But that's not the case.  Philosophy does not lead to theism.  Philosophy is not a gateway drug.  In fact, what I've tried to point out is that philosophy is already there, part of the conversation, being used and abused.  The people who attack philosophy just don't seem to realize it.

And those apologists of philosophy who say that philosophy is good because it teaches critical thinking skills, even if it does not generate knowledge of its own, are not helping.  Philosophy can and does generate knowledge, just not scientific knowledge.

A lot of atheists think philosophy (as a field of inquiry, with specialized knowledge) is the enemy, and yet they cannot rationally avoid it.  I think this explains why they so violently and irrationally lash out against it.  It would explain the displays of arrogance and ignorance, not as mere personality quirks, but as defense mechanisms against the perceived threat of theism, which they think is hiding behind philosophy's door. And so we have what I presume to be otherwise good, honest people behaving in very disrespectful and embarrassing ways.

Hopefully the tides will soon turn, and philosophical knowledge will be more widely embraced as a friend, and not an enemy, of atheism.