Can a scientist be an atheist?
Over recent discussions of religion and science, I’ve twice now been given the argument that for a scientist to be intellectually consistent, they should have to allow for the possibility that God exists, and therefore they must be agnostic and not atheist.
What struck me most was that this same view of science was held by people with diametrically opposed views on the existence of God. If both someone with a strong belief in God, and another with a strong belief in the lack thereof, were both telling me that scientists couldn’t be atheists, then obviously this wasn’t the result of bias one way or the other.
Now I consider myself both a scientist and an atheist, so naturally I disagreed with this position. But I hadn’t ever given it much thought, and I didn’t have a very good reason during either discussion for how I could hold two intellectual positions that these people thought were opposed to one another. Being somebody who would rather be right than happy, I decided to dig into my own reasons for belief, so see for myself whether I was being hypocritical when it came to God.
The argument presented to me in both cases was that, as a scientist, I should only hold something to be true if it has been proven true. And that if something has not been proven true, I must allow that it might be false. Likewise if something has not been proven false, I must allow that it might be true. From there it was claimed that, since the statement “there is a God” has not been proven false, then I must allow that it might be true.
I’ll demonstrate the problem with this claim by way of example. Suppose I set about to invent a creature that was solely of my own imagination. Given the above stipulation, a scientist would then be required to allow that this creature might exist, as he would have no proof that it doesn’t. Moreover, even if I admitted that this creature was of my own imagination, and told the scientists that, being it’s author, I knew that it didn’t exist, I would still be without proof that it didn’t exist, and therefore under the above stipulation, the scientist would still be required to allow that it might exist.
Obviously if science were to be held to this principle, it would be required to allow for an infinite number of fantastic ideas, meaningful or not, rendering all of science useless as a means of prediction.
This statement also fails in the opposite way, in supposing that anything that is true can be proven true. Goedel showed that this is not the case, that there exist some true statements that can not be proven true. Therefore this principle, that scientists must only believe that which is proven, fails both to encompass all of what is true, as well as prohibiting any that are false.
Another approach used by science is attempting to prove the inverse of a given statement. That is, if we can prove that the inverse of a statement is true, we have effectively proven the original statement false. For some statements, called universal statements, it is simpler to prove their inverse than to disprove the original.
The atheistic statement, “There is not a God”, is one such universal statement. It is impossible to prove true, as you would have to observe everything, everywhere, at every time, to verify that God is not there. However, the inverse of that statement is the theistic statement, “There is a God”, which can very easily be proven true, as you only need to find God once.
Popper described the concept of falsifiability as a means of separating scientific statements from unscientific ones. Scientific statements are falsifiable, that it is possible for their inverse to be proven true. Unscientific, or what he labeled metaphysical, statements were not falsifiable, their inverse could not be proven true.
While both theism and atheism held equal weight under the philosophy of logical positivism, they hold very different weight under the philosophy of falsifiability. Since the atheistic statement can be proven false, it is considered scientific, while the theistic statement, which can not be proven false, is moved to the realm of metaphysics.
Without attempting to show that one position is more correct than the other, it can be shown that one position is more scientific than the other. Therefore I can reasonably claim that, as a scientist, I am not being hypocritical in rejecting an unscientific statement, while accepting a scientific one.