Reductionism, Scientism, and Pantheism in New Atheist Thought
Reductionism often involves not just simplification, but oversimplification; and, it carries a powerful emotional impact, especially when it pertains to human beings.
Introduction by Ted Davis
Stephen Snobelen’s series on the New Atheists and science resumed last week after a hiatus overlapping with the BioLogos conference in Houston. Previous columns have critiqued New Atheist uses of the Conflict Thesis and the Myth of the Medieval Gap and examined some of the ways in which New Atheist writers exhibit intolerance of religion.
Today the topic is “reductionism,” a fancy term for a simple, but controversial notion. What does it mean? Merriam-Webster defines it as “explanation of complex life-science processes and phenomena in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry,” or “a procedure or theory that reduces complex data and phenomena to simple terms.” That’s accurate as far as it goes, but it fails to spell out that reductionism often involves not just simplification, but oversimplification; and, it largely misses the powerful emotional impact carried by the idea, especially when it pertains to human beings. For example, from a purely chemical point of view, a human being might be described in basic terms as amounting to just a few dollars’ worth of chemicals, mainly water—thus failing to capture almost everything that makes us human. The attitude that we really are no more than a bunch of molecules is the topic of this column. The words after the next heading are those of Dr. Snobelen.
Two further characteristics of the New Atheism—reductionism and essentialism—are related.
At least three kinds of reductionism are associated with the New Atheism. One is their reductive view of religion, religious institutions and religious people. A second form of reductionism is the argument that all explanations ultimately reduce to scientific explanations. A third is reductionism in science itself, seen for example in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976), which reduces life to the function of genes. Another example of this kind of reductionism is the argument that everything reduces to matter, whether it be minds, laws of nature, or what have you.
This first kind of New Atheist reductionism has been dealt with in part already, when I discussed their caricatures of religion, including their understanding of faith as just blind faith. Religion reduces to nothing but dogmatism, hypocrisy, intolerance, and authoritarianism. God reduces to an evil, sadistic being. Dawkins’ (in)famous description of the God of the Bible (quoted in a previous column) is but one of the more striking of numerous examples of reductive thinking about theological concepts. These kinds of assessments make little or no attempt to contextualise and treat holistically biblical descriptions of God or expressions of faith.
Another example of this type of reductionism views belief in God as the same as belief in fairies, leprechauns or Santa Claus. Thus, in the Intelligent Design documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Dawkins says: “I think that God is about as unlikely as fairies, angels, hobgoblins, etc.” (listen here at 1:03:16). This not only displays a tone deaf attitude toward theology, but involves a subtle sleight of hand. Whether or not one believes in God, it is hardly fair to equate belief in fairies with the God of classical theism, whose scope is meant to surpass that of the universe, of which God is believed to be the ultimate cause. No one holds conferences or writes academic tomes about the fine-tuning of the cosmos and offers fairies as the answer. Nor for that matter are the New Atheists penning books attacking the concept of fairies or elves.
The second kind of reductionism is part of the agenda of scientism, which will be discussed more fully in a later column. The following statement by Oxford chemist Peter Atkins usefully encapsulates it:
reductionist science is omnicompetent. Science has never encountered a barrier it has not surmounted or that we can at least reasonably suppose it has power to surmount and will in due course be equipped to do so. There is no explicitly demonstrated validity in the view that there are aspects of the universe closed to science (quoting “The Limitless Power of Science,” in Nature’s Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, p. 129).
In the very same book, however, philosopher Mary Midgley points to the dangers of excessive reductionism in science—something she has often done most skilfully. Although she does not reject reductionism outright, she also notes that materialist reductionism is associated with subjective anti-religious stances (to which she herself is apparently not altogether unsympathetic) rather than objective truth. As she points out, “formal reductions don’t spring up on their own, like weeds in a garden. They are not value-free. They are always parts of some larger enterprise, some project for reshaping the whole intellectual landscape, and often our general attitude to life as well” (quoting her essay, “Reductive megalomania,” in Nature’s Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, p. 133). Both Atkins’ stance and Midgley’s observation are profoundly relevant to understanding the New Atheism.
As for the third kind of reductionism, a well-known example comes from Richard Dawkins’ book, River Out of Eden: (1995):
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference (p. 133).
Dawkins’ work in the biological sciences makes him familiar with the importance of holistic understandings of the environment. He would certainly embrace that kind of holism. But, when considering the world around us metaphysically, intentionally or not, Dawkins appears to take a reductive view: his use of the phrase “at bottom” is particularly noteworthy: it means there isn’t really anything to say about any “higher” dimension to reality. By contrast, a religious perspective will not simply leave matters there. Even if a religious thinker starts at the bottom (as some do), she or he will still work upwards, ending at a transcendent purpose or a personal God. This metaphysical difference between examining the world reductively versus seeing it holistically may help explain the respective philosophical positions of the atheist and the theist.
ADDENDUM by Stephen Snobelen: In making these observations, I am aware that a reader might contend that by laying out identifying characteristics of the New Atheism, I am myself guilty of making reductive or essentialistic claims about atheism. In fact, I want to avoid this very thing. For example, I have tried to note when individual New Atheists depart from the rhetoric of their fellow New Atheists. If anyone believes that I am being unfairly reductive or setting up straw men in my descriptions, I am happy to be corrected by compelling evidence. Here it might be useful to remind readers that my focus is almost entirely on the popular culture phenomenon of the New Atheism, not metaphysical or philosophical atheism more generally. That said, offering a careful description of a cultural or intellectual phenomenon (which is what I hope I am doing) is not in itself reductive or essentialistic—if the evidence is presented and the descriptions are nuanced rather than set out in superficial sound bites.
Scientism is not science. It is an interpretation of science resulting from a simple, misplaced optimism in the scientific method, which the New Atheists couple with an imperialistic ambition. The term “scientism” most commonly refers to aggressive, imperialistic, hubristic, narrow-minded, reductionist, essentialist, and totalising views of science. That is what I am writing about here.
Oxford chemist Peter Atkins, apparently unintentionally, provides an authoritative insider’s definition: “Science is the only path to understanding. It would be contaminated rather than enriched by any alliance with religion. Such should be (in my view) the attitude of a scientifically alert atheist (a ‘scientific atheist’).” (Quoting his essay “Atheism and Science,” in The Oxford Handbook of Science and Religion, p. 124.) This form of scientism is expressly anti-religious and actively promotes the historically bankrupt Conflict Thesis as a core component of atheism.
Steven Hawking is another exponent of a totalising and imperialistic form of scientism. As he said in an interview from 2010, “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.” In a book he wrote with Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking quickly dismissed the relevance of philosophy and theology, stating unequivocally that “scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge” (The Grand Design, p. 5). In context, this means not merely “bearers of the torch of discovery” or “bearers of a torch of discovery,” but “the bearers of the torch of discovery.” This is scientism.
Philosopher of religion Mikael Stenmark identifies four principal theses of scientism (Scientism, p. 18):
As Stenmark demonstrates, the first two theses go beyond science and are self-refuting. Science simply cannot determine of itself whether scientific knowledge is the only possible form of knowledge. Nor is it able to demonstrate that the only reality is what science alone has the tools to perceive. My own sense is that New Atheists lean in the direction of both T1 and T2, but most are probably reluctant to state their case in such absolute terms—although Peter Atkins is apparently not so coy. On the other hand, Hawking and Mlodinow (and some others) do specifically advocate for T3 and T4.
How do New Atheists respond to the accusation that they are guilty of jingoistic scientism? Steven Pinker supplies one answer. Responding to a series of criticisms of scientism in the New Republic and elsewhere, he basically embraces scientism as a badge of honour. Jerry Coyne tackles the accusation of scientism in Faith vs. Fact (pp. 196-201), where he disparages it as a “canard” and proposes that the term be “dropped.” In a sleight of hand, he insinuates that the scientism critique is an attack on methodological naturalism, the scientific method and science itself. Although there is some nuance in Coyne’s response, a careful reader will be forgiven for concluding that he manages to embrace scientism even while dismissing it.
A Genealogy of Scientism
Although some New Atheists actively promote scientism, it isn’t new. We can trace its roots back to the emergence of modern science in the seventeenth century. Political philosopher Tom Sorell finds early glimmerings in Francis Bacon, who “subordinate[d] non-scientific to scientific subjects,” and René Descartes, who went even further than Bacon, “apparently absorbing both the doctrine of God’s nature and morals almost completely into the body of science” (Scientism, p. 37). But, Bacon and Descartes are generally understood to be pious Christians, with Descartes receiving some of his inspiration from Augustinian thought. Less ambiguous milestones come in the “Preliminary Discourse” to Jean le Rond D’Alembert’s famous Encyclopédie” (1751), with its hagiography of scientists (replacing the saints of old), not to mention the Encyclopédie itself, with its secular celebration of the sciences and the mechanical arts. Coming near the end of the French Enlightenment, the Sketch of an Historical Tableau of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1795) by Marquis de Condorcet also pointed the way with a secular narrative of progress.
In the wake of the French Revolution, Auguste Comte argued that the human sciences go through a progression of three stages in his six-volume Course on positive philosophy (1830-1842):
His “law of the three stages” not only provides a logic of history, but also embraces the philosophy of positivism, which he founded. In the third stage, Comte argued, humanity abandons absolute truth and the search for causes, instead focusing on knowledge that comes through positive confirmation and by studying only the laws that govern causes. This stage is also characterised by relativism. While science moves incrementally towards truth, it never quite arrives at this destination. What is more, there is nothing above science to establish truth—not theology, metaphysics, or anything else. The absolute truths of theology and metaphysics are unattainable (see “Auguste Comte” by French philosopher Michel Bourdreau).
Some might want to point out an inherent contradiction: making this claim is itself to espouse a certain kind of metaphysics. Nevertheless, Comte’s positivism is more nuanced than the absolutist thinking behind what is often called “naive positivism,” the belief that science is simply about discovering objective facts in nature, that “fact” equates with truth in an unproblematic way, and that truth and opinion are easily separated. Insofar as it is combined with the view that what is beyond science is not real, naive positivism is (ironically) part of the metaphysics of some atheists.
The notion of laws of history fell out of favor among historians and scholars after its heyday in the nineteenth century, and few contemporary historians or philosophers of science would want to associate themselves with naive positivism. Nevertheless, New Atheists commonly provide a secular plot for history that is similar to that presented by Comte (but without Comte’s intellectual analysis) as well as a naive positivistic view of science. Both elements helped to shape Andrew Dickson White’s infamous History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) and remain pervasive in popular culture.
Although many scientists have stressed the need for intellectual humility in the face of the great oceans of knowledge still beyond our reach, some New Atheists display a very different attitude. In a discussion at Arizona State University, biologist Richard Dawkins said to physicist Lawrence Krauss, “I’m now learning that in your field [physics] we’re coming stunningly close to understanding everything.” We should be wary about such claims. The last time physicists said that their discipline was almost complete, Einstein came along and revolutionised the field.
Scientism also involves the belief that because science has been so successful, it can and should be applied to other human endeavours. This is the claim of Sam Harris, who has recently attempted to apply science to morality, traditionally the domain of religion and philosophy. According to a promotional statement inside the front cover of his book The Moral Landscape (2010), “Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of ‘morality’; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.” This adds a potentially coercive element to an expansionist agenda.
If not kept in check, a misplaced zeal that extrapolates from the success of science to the belief that science can be universally successful in all disciplines can lead to a form of aggressive imperialism. The philosophy of science, on the other hand, has raised serious questions about the success of science even within science. As Del Ratzsch argues, ever since Thomas Kuhn’s arguments about paradigm shifts in the 1960s, philosophers of science have noted “that empirical data and logic alone can never tell us that any one specific theory is the right one.” Thus, theory selections “have to be made on partially nonempirical grounds.” These include “the presupposition that nature is uniform, that natural laws operate everywhere in the cosmos, that theory should be consistent with empirical observation, that human minds, human reason, and human senses are the right sort for understanding nature, and so on.” However, as Ratzsch emphasises,
“[s]uch presuppositions are not direct results of science—they are among the conceptual materials which science itself depends upon and without which there simply would be no science.” Thus, “their rational justification cannot rest upon science,” but must be found “somewhere beyond the borders of science.” Despite popular conceptions and the gesturing of those who advocate scientism, science “is not just a simple matter of data and theory with logic connecting the two.” (Ratzsch, “The Nature of Science,” cited below, pp. 47 and 53)
The achievements of science have unquestionably been great, but as cosmologist George Ellis has emphasized (cited below), the limits of science must be recognised. Do we really want to see all aspects of life and society subsumed within science?
To conclude, I offer four take-home points. First, to be anti-scientistic is not to be anti-science. Some of the best scientists in the world are openly anti-scientistic. Second, scientism is not methodological naturalism; nor is it the scientific method. Third, scientism is not science. It is an imperialistic interpretation of science and a form of scientific fundamentalism. Finally, as such, the scientism of the New Atheists is not only hostile to religion, it is hostile to good science.
For the theist the large categories of being are God followed by Creation. God is eternal, while Creation began in time and is ontologically separate from God. Creation includes life in all its wonderful and myriad forms. Humans are a special category of life, bearing the imago Dei (Genesis 1:26-27) and uniquely able to worship God and contemplate the meaning of existence. God is transcendent, existing now, existing before the universe and existing forever. God is the “Alpha and Omega … which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8 KJV). At the same time, the God of the Bible is personal and immanent in Creation and human affairs. For the scientific naturalist there is no personal God, so the most significant category of being is the cosmos—or, for some, the multiverse. As humans are part of the cosmos and its history, the cosmos for theists is not “Wholly Other” with respect to humans, to borrow the famous language of the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his book, The Idea of the Holy (1917).
But what about the scientific naturalist, for whom the Cosmos is the supreme entity or being? Sometimes language used by scientific naturalists suggests that the cosmos has a certain numinous quality, at least at the metaphorical level, but perhaps occasionally at a much deeper level. This is the case, for example, when Carl Sagan begins his 1980 book and documentary television series Cosmos with the powerful words, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” (p. 4). Sagan continues:
Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.
The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. … I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.
The language is majestic, almost poetic. It is also recognisably religious. The opening line is a quotation from Revelation 1:8 with “the Almighty” replaced with “Cosmos.” If we replace “Cosmos” with “God” in the rest of quotation, the text almost makes sense: contemplating God, the mystery of God, God beyond our understanding, the salvific need to know God. In the documentary, the opening sequence has Sagan, sage-like, uttering the words: “The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” In Episode 9 (called “Stars: We Are Their Children”), he declares: “Our ancestors worshipped the sun and they were far from foolish. It makes good sense to revere the sun and the stars, because we are their children.” It is not only the words that lend a religious sensibility to Cosmos. We see Sagan seated in a cathedral-like spaceship, with an altar before him and a screen on the wall displaying the stars that looks very much like a modern stained-glass window. This is Sagan as high priest of science.
Sagan’s conception of the cosmos sounds much like a scientific form of pantheism. Many see the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza as the founder of modern pantheism, although the word “pantheism” wasn’t coined until the next century. In the Latin edition of his Ethics, Spinoza made his famous statement associating God with Nature (Deus, sive Natura): “That eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists” (quoting the Preface to Part IV and elsewhere in Part IV). Some think Spinoza was actually a panentheist, a person who believes the universe exists within God, rather than just a pantheist. He seems to have believed that Nature is God, but that God is even more than Nature. In any case, he did not believe in a personal God. Nevertheless, his language is similar to that of Sagan, and Spinoza believed that there is only one substance. (Those who want further details should read the APPENDIX below.)
The Pantheism of Lawrence Krauss
Now Carl Sagan passed away a decade before the heyday of the New Atheism, and he rejected the label “atheist.” So his ideas are presented here only as an exemplar of scientific pantheism. It is notable that the New Atheist astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss also comes off sounding pantheistic when he describes the cosmos. For example, the third chapter in his book, A Universe From Nothing (2012), opens with an epigram from the Book of Common Prayer: “As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall ever be. — Gloria Patri” (p. 39, but see the note below). The Latin expression at the end says “Glory to the Father.” For Krauss, it is glory to the cosmos. He also applies a kind of cosmic Christology to the stars (p. 19):
Over the course of the history of our galaxy, about 200 million stars have exploded. These myriad stars sacrificed themselves, if you wish, so that one day you could be born. I suppose that qualifies them as much as anything else for the role of saviors.
In a video promoting the book, he says it more succinctly: “Forget Jesus, the stars died so you’d be born.” We have just seen a similar point made by Sagan. But there is something more going on in Krauss’s book. The full title of the book is highly misleading. Although it’s called A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, there is no point in the book when he is truly talking about nothing. Just as in classical theism’s doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, where the “nothing” excludes God, who is prior to and transcendent over Creation, so in Krauss’ cosmology there is always something rather than “nothing.” As theologian Ted Peters has explained, “nothing” means “no-thing,” not “some-thing,” and the equations of quantum field theory from which Krauss thinks the universe was produced are a very specific kind of thing.
Krauss’ universe begins in a quantum fluctuation. This is hardly something from nothing, for it occurs in empty space that also possesses a gravitational field; in other words, it starts with space plus the laws of physics (pp. 141-52). Where does “empty” space come from? Quantum gravity could bring space and time into existence, although Krauss admits (p. 170) that this possibility falls short of proof that the universe came from nothing. But, how can we explain this? Krauss’s chain of causation ends with the multiverse, which he interestingly admits, “has some of the same features of an external creator” (p. 175). For Krauss, a multiverse would guarantee that “some universe would arise with the laws that we have discovered” (p. 176), but a multiverse is very far from nothing. Quite the opposite. It is also by definition unobservable—rather like God. As with the theist, for Krauss there is a specific something that precedes the universe: a larger context, a hyper-cosmos. For both Sagan and Krauss, the cosmos or the hyper-cosmos is the supreme being—not a personal being, but the supreme existent thing. This is scientific pantheism.
Non-Theistic Scientists and Religious Language
Non-religious scientists sometimes use God language in a metaphorical sense. Probably the most well-known example is the concluding line of Steven Hawking’s best-selling book A Brief History of Time (1988): “If we find why it is that we and the universe exist, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God” (p. 175). Einstein also famously used God language, such as when (speaking of quantum mechanics) he said that God does not throw dice. He also used religious language on many other occasions, especially when he spoke about the great mystery of the deep rationality of the universe: “Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order” (Ideas and Opinions, p. 262).
Richard Dawkins has expressed irritation at this use of God language by non-theistic scientists like Einstein and Hawking, in part because it has been appropriated by less-discerning theists as evidence that those great scientists believe(d) in God. Dawkins is right to see their language as non-supernatural (The God Delusion, pp. 33–34), but why would a non-theistic scientist evoke such religious language? Because it is both powerful and deeply ingrained in the western psyche—and because the scientific naturalist can evoke and invoke no higher state of being. As Dawkins also said, “Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered down theism” (p. 40). In a sense, he is right: at one level, there is a kind of continuum from atheism through pantheism and deism to classical theism and the God of the Bible.
Yet there might also be an imperialistic ambition in these characterisations. For instance, Dawkins considers Einstein to have been an atheist (p. 34), yet Einstein did not express himself in this way, although he clearly did not believe in a personal God. In 1929, Einstein received a telegram from Orthodox Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, who asked, “Do you believe in God?” His reply (in German) was, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings” (“Professor Einstein and Religion,” The Spectator, 4 May 1929, p. 15).
It is therefore rather curious that Dawkins himself expresses an affinity for a God very much like Einstein’s. In an interview for the documentary, Tsunami: Where Was God? (2005), Dawkins said:
The kind of God that I would respect people for believing in, would be the kind of God of the deists, who set up the universe in the first place, who set up the laws of physics, perhaps in such a way that it would be likely to bring the conditions for evolution into existence, something of that sort, but that kind of grand God of the physicists, is not the kind of God who’s going to be the slightest bit interested in listening to the odd prayer.
Of this, Mark Dowd, the interviewer, reflected: “When someone like Dawkins leaves the room open for some kind of take on God, you know that all hope isn’t lost…”
As remarkable as this may sound, this isn’t the only time Dawkins has mused about the deist God. As he wrote in The God Delusion (p. 59),
the deist God of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment is an altogether grandeur being: worthy of his cosmic creation, loftily unconcerned with human affairs, sublimely aloof from our private thoughts and hopes, caring nothing for our messy sins or mumbled contritions. The deist God is a physicist to end all physics, the alpha and omega of mathematicians, the apotheosis of designers; a hyper-engineer who set up the laws and constants of the universe, fine-tuned them with exquisite precision and foreknowledge, detonated what we would now call the hot big bang, retired and was never heard from again.
Dawkins has said that he is not an atheist, but an agnostic who leans strongly toward atheism. Conceptually, at least, he apparently also leans towards the God of the physicists.
It is perhaps natural that someone who thinks of God as a scientific hypothesis would have more affinity for the God of the physicists. Such an understanding of God is not, strictly speaking, incompatible with the God of the Bible—provided one is focusing only on (say) the origin of the laws of nature. Thus, many theists engage in rational arguments about fine-tuning and design in the universe based on these laws. On the other hand, belief in a God who merely sets up the laws of physics is not compatible with the personal God of the Judeo-Christian tradition who is both transcendent and immanent.
This is the big difference between deism and biblical theism: with the latter, God is both Creator and Sustainer of the world. It may be that what we are seeing in Dawkins’ contemplations is the God of scientism. It is certainly not the loving God of the Bible, who has a continuing care for even the tiniest creatures of his creation (Luke 12:6) and like a father wipes away the tears of his children.
About the authors
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