A Very Modern Delusion


Peter Atkins wants us to understand the glory that is science. In the course of an essay denigrating not only theology, but poetry and philosophy as well, Atkins writes: “there is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.” [1]

This is exactly what scientists write before having thought about what they are writing.

Atkins is a former professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford. When he uses the word science, he refers to the physical sciences, the world of boron salts and electromagnetic fields. In the Englishspeaking world the word science refers to just that. Further afield in Deutschland however, there is the parallel German term Wissenschaft, which includes not only the physical sciences but also the humanities— history, languages, literature, philosophy, and yes, theology. Wissenschaft lies in much closer proximity to the Latin term scientia (knowledge), from which the word science is derived. This is science in its avatar of rational thought—this is science as conveyed by Wissenschaft.

The aura of the physical sciences—the one to which so many scientists are reverently drawn—is due to its ability to reduce the complexities of the natural world to their underlying parts and mechanisms. You may know the fragrance of the earth after the summer rain, you may know the serenity of snow in winter, you may know the babbling brook and the languid lake, but did you know that in 1783 the French aristocrat Antoine Lavoisier sparked the two gases of hydrogen and oxygen together in a test tube, to find a residue of dew-like drops that seemed like water?

If men and women did not have the impetus to get off their philosophical posteriors and do science, Atkins has indignantly exclaimed on many an occasion, would we be able to explain things like we do now?

This is exactly what Atkins and others of his persuasion say when they are convinced about the intrinsic superiority of “scientific” knowledge over any other. It is a conviction that allows them to demonstrate their philosophical incompetence without ever having to acknowledge it.

Walking through the ochre-tinted corridors of an art museum, your attention is riveted by an exquisite painting. In hushed tones etched with obvious veneration, the curator imparts the secret: it is to Rembrandt, the celebrated Dutch painter, that you owe your amazement. Being amazed is a state of affairs that Atkins and his cohorts can barely afford. They hand you a scrupulous chemical analysis of the paint and the canvas. Voila! The painting, they claim, has now been explained!

And Rembrandt, so long coughing discreetly at the sidelines, what does he have to say about all this? He may now be invited to comment, strictly as a non-scientist of course, and this is what he has to say:

Why does the darn thing, the universe I mean, exist?
Why is there something rather than nothing?

Why are the parameters and laws of nature what they are
when what they are seems anything but arbitrary?

Why, there being this world, does devastation and
deterioration impose its domination over it?

Why do we wake in the early hours of dawn,
longing for long-lost loves that will never return?

Why do we immerse ourselves in plans for happiness knowing that our
stratagems will be crushed by the inexorable wheel of time?

And knowing inasmuch, why choose a life any different from the petty
and the pernicious that the media daily celebrates? Why, really, why?

“The great delusion of modernity,” observed the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is that the laws of nature explain the universe for us. The laws of nature describe the universe, they describe the regularities. But they explain nothing.” [2]

Wittgenstein’s remark suggests an obvious counsel of humility to those scientists overmuch preoccupied with gloating over the omnipotence of the physical sciences. Before frivolously dismissing the insights of “non-scientific” traditions, why not consider what raison d’etre you have to offer for our existence?

If your reasons amount to nothing, then why gloat over them?
And they amount to nothing. So why gloat over nothing?

[1]  John Cornwell and Freeman J. Dyson, Nature’s Imagination: the Frontiers of Scientific Vision (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 125.
[2] John C. Lennox, Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists are Missing the Target (Oxford: Lion, 2011), 228.

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