One of the regular sentiments of atheists is that certain forms of thinking and knowing are superior to all others. Typically they laud those beliefs which are derived empirically (usually they really mean scientifically) or through rationalism, that is deriving the beliefs one holds through human reason or logical. As one atheist recently put it, “The best knowledge is had through a combination of empiricism and logic”. In the same vein, atheist Jerry Coyne recently criticized “other ways of knowing” as inferior to science as a way of knowing.
What is missed in these sentiments, as is often missed in points made by atheists, is the failure to go further than the surface in terms of their considerations. It is a form of thinking bereft of depth or seriousness. They laud science against Revelation and faith, unaware apparently that science is based on certain assumptions itself, which are the product of a faith. These faith-based assumptions include the idea that the universe operates according to certain rules. That from our observations and experiments we can infer what these rules are, and that our minds are capable of comprehending these rules of nature and developing accurate ideas about how nature operates. Also that the recording and publishing of these investigations, coupled with the peer-review is sufficient over time to provide us with an accurate picture of how nature operates.
So science itself is the product of certain metaphysical and un-provable assumptions, immediately undermining the notion that it is the ‘best’ way of knowing. Also, we know now that historically science is simply not sufficient for any number of critical human endeavors. Whether we are talking human relationships (marriages, parenting, social relationships), political philosophies, liberties, rights, law, social issues, economics, personal fulfillment, the nature of beauty, happiness, etc. all of these resist scientific analysis and mere rational derivations, at least when we try to limit their consideration within a solely naturalistic milieu.
Pascal (no stranger to empirical thinking in his mathematical work) put it this way in his Pensees:
“I spent a long time in the study of the abstract sciences, and was disheartened by the small number of fellow-students in them. When I commenced the study of man, I saw that these abstract sciences are not suited to man, and that I was wandering farther from my own state in examining them, than others in not knowing them.”
As Pascal detailed throughout his writings, science failed in regard to what was perhaps the most important study, that is, the ability of man to understand himself.
And this is established historically as well. As much as Coyne and others wish for our species to simply ‘grow up’, the reality is that some of the most tragic events in history have been in some of the most ‘scientifically’ enlightened nations in the world. Whether we are talking Hitler’s Germany, or eugenics in general, or the communist nations of Stalin and Mao, mere ‘science’ has not been sufficient to prevent human tragedy. Indeed, many times it has contributed to it. One need only consider the fact that even as we speak that there are highly trained scientists in North Korea and Iran building nuclear bombs to be used by fanatical leaders to realize that science, uncoupled from the ‘other ways of knowing’ is potentially devastating.
In addition, invested as they are in empiricism as a way of knowing, atheists put great faith in that which is perhaps the most unstable of all instruments, that being the human intellect. This too is an act of faith, and one which is immediately suspect – because empiricism itself proves again and again how wrong our ideas have been in the past. Of course it doesn’t tell us how right our current ideas our, and so every confidence we have into today’s knowledge is an act of faith, as is our confidence that our cognitive equipment is sufficient to produce accurate beliefs in us. As atheist JBS Haldane acknowledges it in his essay Why I am a Materialist:
The light which reaches my eyes causes nervous impulses in about half-a-million fibres running to my brain, and there gives rise to sensation. But how can the sensation be anything like a reality composed of atoms! And, even if it is so, what guarantee have I that my thoughts are logical! They depend on physical and chemical processes going on in my brain, and doubtless obey physical and chemical laws, if materialism is true. So I was compelled, rather reluctantly, to fall back on some kind of idealistic explanation, according to which mind (or something like mind) was prior to matter, and what we call matter was really of the nature of mind, or at least of sensation. I was, however, too painfully conscious of the weakness in every idealistic philosophy to embrace any of them, and I was quite aware that in practice I often acted as a materialist.
It is in part this acknowledgement, that a pure materialism or naturalism causes us to doubt our very ability to discern reality accurately that leads us in part into faith. Indeed, Hebrews suggests that is the very definition of faith:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
As has been noted, the atheist already has faith – they are confident the universe can be apprehended through observation and experimentation, faith that their minds our sufficiently able to accurately derive true beliefs about the world around them. The Christian of course has the same faith – the difference between the two is that while the Christians belief is warranted by what he has faith in – a God who created the universe and the human mind, the atheist’s belief is not warranted within atheism or naturalism.
In the end of course, true faith derives from the intellectual humility of realizing the limits of human derived knowledge – even if one accepts that ‘other forms of knowing’ – like Revelation, and the Spirit, historical, philosophical and personal experiences have value, all of them can be corrupted by the tendencies of human nature. This is why Proverbs implores us to,
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”
Not only because we are told to so, but as a matter of intellectual necessity.