Looking at the demographics of the Mallard, I assume most are familiar if not directly, then indirectly, with New Atheism. It was particularly popular between the 2000s and the 2010s, likely because the last vestiges of cultural Christianity were being stamped out, but the embers of cultural leftism were yet to catch. Early YouTube was dominated by atheists, who took to the new media platform to deliver the message of atheism to a new generation of young adults – myself included.
In fairness, I can’t blame YouTube for my lack of faith. My Church of England school hardly did anything to justify the faith to me, and without parental guidance, it was inevitable that I’d be filled with misgivings and misunderstandings of what faith was. Later in life, I’d take up a degree in Physics and later rest my atheism on the claim that the existence of God doesn’t adhere to the tenets of science. This is true, and something I believe even now. In science, if something cannot be validated or invalidated, then you dismiss it. This tenet is so engrained in scientists that when Pauli proposed the existence of a massless, chargeless particle, he bet a crate of champagne that no-one would find it due to the ludicrousness of being able to test the existence of a particle with no mass and no charge.
Of course, they did find it – and Pauli made good on his promise, gifting a crate of champagne to the scientists who discovered the neutrino. If you want to dismiss the existence of literal physical objects, this tenet will do just fine. The problem with it, is that it applies equally to anything not located in space and time. Morality, for example, is not a physical thing and its existence cannot be tested. We can do an experiment showing that murder rates generally correlate with unhappiness, but who says unhappiness is synonymous with badness? And so, on the same basis I dismissed the existence of God, I dismissed the existence of morality. At the time I did not know it, but this problem had been expressed in Hume’s Guillotine. A should statement can never rest on an is statement. It is raining, so I should wear a coat presupposes I shouldn’t want to get wet, which only pushes the problem back one step. Of course, if you insert an intelligent creator into the picture, you can say the way the world is, is a reflection of that creators plan for us, which we should follow – and so you can begin to talk about some kind of natural order to the world beyond science.
In time, I would find the failure of scientism to present a morality to be troublesome. After all, even if I were correct, and that morality didn’t exist – it was wholly arbitrary to hold that belief, after all, believing the truth over lies could not be the right thing to do by the very nature of my claims. The answers I saw from atheists regarding this, particularly Richard Dawkins, were not so impressive. Dawkins has argued that morality is an evolutionary instinct, which only begs the question as to why to follow that instinct over any other instinct. All instincts do is attempt to keep us alive, after all. Instincts also tell us to be distrustful of people ethnically dissimilar from one another, and Dawkins refutes that behaviour in the strongest terms, often accusing Brexiteers of behaving in that way. If we are to follow the evolutionary moral instinct because it is the ‘right thing to do’, and what is right is determined by that same instinct – all Dawkins is saying is that the evolutionary moral instinct says to follow itself, but of course an instinct says to follow it: that’s what instincts do. At this point, it became quite clear that attempts to either dismiss morality on the basis of science, or to construct one out of scientific principles inevitably tended towards circular logic.
Materialism, the belief that everything is one substance, that of matter, is very elegant on its surface: Everything is matter, the interactions of that matter are described by science, and anything we perceive to be outside of that is just a social construct, a spook, or a delusion. One major flaw in materialism is the existence of qualia, of the sensation of experiencing things. For example, the sensation of happiness is not the same as the chemicals that produce that sensation. It may be described as such, and you may even be able to predict with perfect certainty that someone will feel a sensation and how intense you expect the sensation to be. However there is a thisness to the sensation that cannot just be reduced to the biochemical processes that go into it. As a consequence, materialism has to simply deny that these sensations are real, and insist that things like joy, sadness, and conscious experience itself are just tricks of the mind (composed of atoms and microelectrodes and nothing more). This ultimately refutes materialism itself, however. If our conscious experiences are not meaningful or true, then the scientific laws we derive from those experiences are not meaningful either.
If you want to insist the universe is one substance, it makes much more sense to argue the universe is not all matter, but all consciousness – as consciousness is all anyone has ever been given, even those who came up with and tested scientific laws did so through verification of sensations they experienced in their consciousness, which cannot be reduced to the physical processes that went into bringing consciousness about. Even if we could have a perfect understanding of the human brain, and could replicate what I imagine on a screen – all we would have succeeded in doing is making a map of consciousness, not replicating consciousness itself. This would be the same as arguing that because we can make a map of New York City, that the map is identical to New York City. The map may describe New York, it may even predict things around New York – but the map is not New York. Equivalently, science may describe and predict consciousness or reality, but science is not consciousness or reality.
There is a comfort in appealing to scientific laws, they are predictable (that’s what makes them scientific,) but this predictability relies on the laws themselves being continuous. If gravitational attraction changed overnight, then the equations that described them would also have to change. The assumption that these laws are constant and reliable, and therefore the basis of yet more science is something that cannot itself be tested. If you want to insist that you only believe in the existence of things that can be falsified, then you cannot believe the laws of physics are continuous and constant – as this cannot be falsified. Again, Hume recognised this – and labelled it ‘naïve empiricism’. The naïvety comes in when we insist the laws of Physics are constant because they’ve always been constant in our experience. By the same token we can’t say the Universe existed before we were born because we have never experienced it, which creates a solipsism harder to justify than any spooky non-materialistic belief. Even if we appeal to the material truths which demonstrate existence beyond our lifetime, for example, carbon-13 dating – we can never justify whether or not the laws of physics will spontaneously change the day after our deaths, we simply assume that they won’t. This is not to say such the belief that the laws of Physics are constant is unreasonable, only that it is unreasonable within a world-view conforming to empiricism, and not something proven empirically.
So what kind of world-view does answer these questions? Well, I gave one answer earlier: one in which consciousness is primary, also known as Idealism. Another would be faith, which recognises the objective value of things not located in space and time. For example, morality. Morality is of course, not the only thing located in space and time that we treat as objective, I’ve just talked about it a lot in this article so I felt compelled to mention it first. Another would be numbers. You can have seven marbles, seven pounds, and the number seven on a piece of paper – but destroy the marbles, spend the money, and erase the number on the paper and yet the number seven still exists. We can’t simply escape the reality of numbers by arguing they are an invention of the mind, physical laws, such as attraction due to gravity require them. The gravitational constant, G, is a number you are required to multiply by (and cannot simply be dropped) to describe gravitational attraction. We can shunt the value of the number about by changing our units, but the number itself remains – and would make human life impossible if it were off by just 1 in 1060. Which is the same as getting statistically impossible odds ten trillion times. Not only are numbers not reducible to material reality, but they are also required to be highly specific for life to develop whatsoever.
A materialist might want to escape this by claiming that there are trillions of universes where these constants vary, and therefore our existence is statistically inevitable. But at this point you are no longer doing science. A multiverse is necessarily not empirically verifiable, and the existence of a multiverse is just as unfounded (on materialist terms) as a belief in God. Furthermore, this only shunts the problem back one step – why is it that multiverses are created in this one specific way, with the values of the constants varying? Why can’t there by multiverses where not just the constants in the equations, but the equations themselves vary? Who is to say there has to be these forces and their respective equations at all? Is there a multiverse of multiverses and a multiverse of multiverses of multiverses? Isn’t this all just circular and ridiculous at this point?
It was in light of all of these things: the absence of transcendence, the inability to consistently derive physics and metaphysics, and the failure to construct a morality, that drew me away from atheism and into my current beliefs. There are things beyond this world that we not only need to appeal to pragmatically, but need in order to make sense of the world as it exists. They are transcendent. They are not just a reflection of a higher world, but necessary components of this world as well. From morality, to numbers, to the very sensation of being anything at all, every part of life is beyond the mere matter we interact with every day. In that kind of understanding, the world ceases to be sterile, and instead takes on the character of an enchanted garden – where life, death, and the interplay of tragedy and comedy make up just a part of an order much larger than our mere existence.