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The Problem with 'Nothing Buttery'

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 24, 2013)
In September 2012, Dr. Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, began receiving letters from his niece who had just started college in New England. He wrote back to her on a regular basis throughout the year, helping keep her mind and heart open to belief in God in the midst of a secular university in which those truths were being questioned and challenged every day. With her permission, Dr. Stackpole shares his letters with our readers, hoping that other young people will be helped by them to see the truth more clearly in a confused and clouded world. Here is his second letter:

Dear Krystal,

OK: I know it was not fair to end my last letter by promising you that there was some easy way to "reach for the heavens"— and then saying nothing more about it. And I know I failed to say anything at all about your scientific-atheist friends. I understand from your letters that your university campus is full of "buzz" these days about the so-called "New Atheism," so I guess I might have said something about all that. Since you are inviting me to do so now, I will certainly try.

As I understand it, the New Atheists claim that the only thing we can really be sure about is what can be proven by the scientific method of observation and experiment. In other words, only the natural sciences can give us the facts, the real "objective truth." Anything else — religion, judgments of moral value and beauty — are just "subjective opinions" or comforting sentiments at best, or superstition and bigotry at worst.

What scientists can now tell us, the New Atheists say, is that they are on the verge of coming up with a scientific "Theory of Everything": a law or set of laws that can fully explain the origin and evolution of the universe and everything in it, without any need for belief in God. This means that literally everything could be explained in terms of atoms, molecules, and the mathematical laws that govern their behavior. Human life itself, on this reckoning, is only the chance product of the natural laws that govern the evolution of life on planet earth ("survival of the fittest"). So any ultimate meaning or purpose for human life can only be found by examining our place in the story of evolution and the development and survival of life on this planet. The only objectively "right" way for human beings to live, therefore, is the way that best promotes survival of our species and of the whole evolutionary biosphere that gave birth to us.

In short, in the New Atheism we have what astrophysicist Rodney Holder of the Faraday Institute in Great Britain has called the theory of "Nothing Buttery." This is the theory that the whole universe, and everyone and everything in it, is "nothing but" matter and energy, atoms and molecules (or more precisely, quarks and gluons) bouncing around in space according to mathematical laws. Imagine the universe as one gigantic popcorn-popping machine with all of the kernels bouncing around inside it for billions of years, and you get a fair idea of what they mean.

What the New Atheists don't seem to acknowledge is that, fundamentally, there is little that is "new" about "Nothing Buttery." The ancient Greeks had their own version of it in the philosophy of Democritus. Also known as "Reductionism," it has been kicking around again since the 18th century, summed up by the famous mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at any given moment knew all the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit its data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the vast movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom: for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain; and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

OK, so what's the problem with Nothing Buttery?

To begin with, while many of the New Atheists are accomplished scientists, very few are accomplished students of philosophy. It's all very well to claim that the only thing we can be sure of is what can be verified by the scientific method. The trouble is, you cannot prove that claim to be true by the scientific method. Try devising a scientific experiment to prove that only the natural sciences can give us objective truth! It's simply not possible. What some of the New Atheists are asking us to accept, therefore, is just their own blind faith in the natural sciences as the only path, the only method for finding the objective truth about this world in which we live.

I am not knocking the natural sciences, Krystal. Without question, they tell us lots of important and useful things about the physical world. Because of the natural sciences, we know more than ever before about the age, expanse, and early history of the cosmos, the appearance of living things on earth and their interdependence in "ecosystems" on our planet. As a result, we can take pains to try to be more responsible stewards of our natural environment to safeguard what God and nature have passed down to us. Moreover, we can now enjoy the blessings provided for us by modern science, such as information technology (the internet, etc.), medicine, travel, and agriculture.

Clearly, the natural sciences have vastly increased our capacity for wonder at the awesome design of the universe in which we live and have rolled back a fair amount of human misery in the process.

Still, there are many important things that we know for sure that do not come from the natural sciences. Think of all the "properly basic beliefs" I listed in my last letter. For instance, why would anyone even bother to engage in scientific investigation in the first place if they did not already know for sure that we exist, that we have human bodies that inhabit a natural world that really exists, and that we can investigate this world with our five senses and make true statements about its order and structure that can be understood in meaningful language and mathematical terms by other human beings? Scientists must believe and presuppose all of this before they even get started!

Beyond all of that, scientific investigation cannot make progress unless scientists themselves are entirely committed to some properly basic moral beliefs — for example, the principle of truth-telling, that scientists should honestly report (and not invent) their own findings.

Moreover, the whole scientific enterprise is based on a key presupposition — another properly basic belief: that reality is consistent, that the small slice of the natural world we observe through our microscopes and telescopes is an accurate microcosm of the entire natural world. In other words, scientists have to believe — and cannot strictly prove — that the order of nature and the laws that describe it persist in all parts of the universe, at all times, past, present, and future. These laws are not true today and gone tomorrow, or true in Texas but not in the Andromeda galaxy. The validity of the same laws of nature in all parts of the universe at all times is, indeed, a remarkable feature of the universe. As Albert Einstein famously remarked" "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible."

Most the great early scientists were Christians (for example, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, and Newton). They were propelled into the scientific study of the world by their faith, their belief that all of nature must have a uniform rational order because it is the creation of a single, all-powerful, and rational God. Atheists who are scientists have to believe in the uniformity of nature, too, but in their case it's simply an act of faith. Summing up the perspective of many others, Christian astrophysicist Rodney Holder has written:

Scientists, in going about their business, exercise a kind of faith. They rely on the order and rationality of the world. And it is very hard to see where this order and rationality, and the applicability of the same laws across all of space and time, could come from except there be a single source for them, namely God.

My point, Krystal, is that there are lots of things scientists have to believe that the natural sciences cannot prove, or science could not progress at all.

Besides, there are realities that human beings experience every day that cannot be reduced merely to atoms and molecules bouncing around in space. "Nothing Buttery" just cannot offer a complete explanation of it all.

For example, what is love? Have you ever experienced the love of another person (I know you have, Krystal, because I know your family well!). Can your experiences of love simply be reduced to a series of chemical reactions in your brain? No doubt chemical reactions in the brain are involved every time you experience anything at all, but how can someone prove that such physical events are all that is going on, say, when your mother takes care of you, or your friend sits down with you and listens to you share your problems over a cup of coffee? How about the beauty of poetry or symphonic music? Can these, too, be reduced merely to chemical responses and reactions in the brain? And how about the universal human desire to find meaning and purpose in life?

Some rather bold evolutionary scientists do, indeed, claim that we can explain all of these aspects of human life on the basis of their "survival value." Maybe these things — love and friendship, poetry and music, meaning and purpose — just calm our nervous systems enough to enable us to survive as a species!

But consider: How could good poetry and music really bring us much comfort and help make our lives worth living unless we sincerely believed they opened us up to a realm of beauty that goes beyond our mere need for biological survival? And what biological survival-value could there be in the agonizing search for the meaning of life, which leads many people, after all, only to suicide or despair? And what biological survival-value could there be in commitment to moral values that involve the proper care and respect for the dignity of each and every human being — even the weak, the broken, those "unfit" for survival?

Every code of human rights that humanity has ever written proclaims loud and clear that human dignity is not based merely on survival value! Surely we ought to treat each other with dignity and respect, no matter whether it lengthens the life span of our species or not!

In fact, we now know that even in the natural, physical world we simply cannot explain everything in terms of the mathematical behavior of atoms and molecules. For example, there are complex systems in the universe that cannot be fully understood or explained on the basis of the laws of physics that apply to its parts. Scientists call these "emergent" properties. The physical "wetness" of water, for example, has no meaning at the level of a few water molecules, but requires an aggregation of many water molecules. "Wetness" is an emergent property of water that is neither predictable nor fully comprehensible on the basis of its molecular structure alone.

"Emergent" properties of nature are even more evident in living creatures. For example, a simple living cell has "information transfer" going on within it all the time, as the DNA within the cell "communicates" with other parts of the cell to enable the cell to grow and develop. But "information transfer" cannot be deduced from, nor fully understood, in terms of the physical and chemical structure of DNA alone. Even the concept of "information" itself is meaningless apart from the function and purpose of the cell as a whole. It would be a bit like trying to understand what a "book" is simply by analyzing the chemicals and physical laws involved in the paper and ink that the book is made out of: You would totally miss out on the information, the message, that the book was trying to convey!

The claim that scientists may soon find a mathematical "Theory of Everything" is also doomed to failure because of modern advances in mathematics. Now you know very well that I am no mathematician, Krystal. It's a good month if I can just succeed in balancing my bank account, much less attempting more difficult equations! But I do know that the 20th century witnessed a revolution in the field of mathematics that makes the search for a mathematically based explanation for "Everything" an impossible quest. Physics is based on mathematics, but we now know that mathematical systems, themselves, can never be completely explained or proven. Rodney Holder sums it up like this:

What is very surprising is that, in any system at least as complex as arithmetic, there exist statements which we know to be true, yet which cannot be proved. To put it another way, you cannot have a consistent mathematical system which is also complete. This remarkable fact was discovered by the eminent Austrian mathematician Kurt Godel and is known as Godel's theorem.

What this means is that if we try to explain everything in terms of physics, and physics itself in terms of mathematical laws, we will run into a dead-end of explanation, because mathematics cannot fully explain or prove itself!

Once again, Krystal, it's clear that there are many aspects of our human experience, and even of the physical universe, that "Nothing Buttery" or "Reductionism" can never account for. Everything in the universe simply cannot be "reduced to" atoms and molecules.

Finally, one of the biggest problems of Reductionism is that it can only really answer the "how" questions we ask (how does the natural universe of matter and energy behave?) but it cannot even begin to answer the "why" questions. For example, why is there something rather than nothing at all? Why is there a high degree of order in the universe rather than sheer chaos? If we are genetically programmed merely for biological survival, why do human beings seek for meaning and purpose and a life of fulfillment even beyond death? As Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College, London, put it in the Reith Lecture series of 1991:

It is the essence of all scientific theories that they cannot resolve everything. Science cannot answer the questions that philosophers — or children — ask: Why are we here, what is the point of being alive, how ought we to behave? Genetics has almost nothing to say about what makes us more than just machines driven by biology, about what makes us human. These questions may be interesting, but scientists are no more qualified to comment on them than is anyone else.

Perhaps the best answer of all to "Nothing Buttery" is simply the famous quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Arguably the greatest scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, had this to say about the harmony possible between science and religious belief. For the true person of science:

His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work insofar as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.

And here is another great quote from Einstein, Krystal, which you can share with your New Atheist friends whenever they tell you that science alone can give us "objective truth" and that science will soon be able to explain Everything: "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind."

With Love,
Uncle Robert

Past Letters in the Series
• Letter #1: Can We Really Know Anything for Sure?

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, based in Stockbridge Mass. He is also the author of our Divine Mercy Q&A series.

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