Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything”

In today’s opening episode, Fred takes our hero to the Louvre, but then stuns him in the cafeteria. When he wakes up that night, the first thing he thinks is that Fred is planning to steal the Mona Lisa, but no, he just wants a color sample for testing. Why can’t Fred look up the results of someone else’s analysis? Because he is a scientist and insists on doing his own research.

Bannister clumsily connects this with reality by quoting the Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, Harry Kroto: “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine the truth with any degree of reliability.” But just two sentences later, Bannister screwed it up in: “Science can answer all questions.” Yes, that is correctly quoted. You’re right – that’s not even close to what the scientist said.

This continues our review of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister (Part 1), which criticizes a number of atheist arguments.

In the reviews of the previous chapter, I defended the atheist argument against Bannister’s attacks. But I’m not defending this because nobody can do it. Nobody can do it, that is, except for theists. They are drawn to straw man arguments like flies to trash.

Can science answer ethical questions?

Back to Bannister: if the scientist in question thinks so. . . that science can explain everything. Well, we have a few things to point out.

Oh great – we’re about to be tutored by a guy who can’t paraphrase a simple idea properly.

Bannister challenges us, “What is the value of a human life?” He insists that something outside of science dictates that evaluation.

OK, atheists, how would you answer that with science alone? A chemist could estimate the value of the recyclable chemicals in the human body. An economist could look at each person’s net contribution to the economy. But man certainly has an intrinsic value that science cannot discover. Bannister tries to startle with the idea that science would dictate this calculation, rather than love or God. Or so.

As to do do we calculate the value of a human life?

We all know how financial value can be placed on human life when we look at how life insurance works. Or we can weigh the cost of improving food or road safety against the number of lives saved. This calculation is not terrifying; it’s something we’re all familiar with.

Bannister probably wants an intangible or more intuitive approach. For example, he would likely say that we all think that a human life is worth more than an animal life.

Or we? When Harambe, a lowland gorilla (which is critically endangered as a species), was killed in 2016 to protect a four-year-old boy who fell into his zoo enclosure, many criticized the zoo for its actions and the behavior the boy’s mother received over their supposed negligence on the internet sparked a barrage of outrage.

Consider some other comparisons. Your life is more precious than the life of a nudibranch or a rat, but would it be more precious than the last breeding pair of bald eagles? What’s more valuable – the life of a random stranger you will never meet, or your beloved pet? Is human life so precious that the death penalty is immoral?

Another way to explore this is to challenge a life to value using Peter Singer’s drowning child experiment: you pass a pond with a drowning child. There is no trouble stopping you from wading out and saving the child other than getting your clothes dirty. Let’s say the financial cost to you is $ 500. Would that stop you? Of course not – everyone would sacrifice their clothes for a child’s life. But that means your life’s saving is worth $ 500 or more to you. Now, let’s say a nonprofit that provides mosquito nets to protect children from malaria-carrying mosquitoes (or a similar project) shows you how a $ 500 donation would save at least one life. Most people would dismiss this appeal after a few seconds of reflection.

Using science to uncover and explain moral inferences

That was a detour, but I think it was relevant to Bannister’s challenge that the value of human life will never be found by science. My point first is that we can actually attach stark monetary value to human life. We do it all the time.

Furthermore, Bannister’s unspoken supernatural evaluation of human life is likely a joyous declaration that God made man the culmination of His creation, QED, and yet it is more complicated.

Let me now go straight to his challenge. Our moral programming tells us (in general) to put human life above other types of life. This is a product of our evolutionary path explained by science. Or consider lawmakers to evaluate a proposed improvement to a dangerous intersection. They discover and follow evidence and test hypotheses to make their decisions – and that is the scientific method. What is inexplicable?

Bannister reminds me of the child who thoughtlessly asks, “Why?” in response to every statement while fishing for something beyond science that only God can explain. He asks, “Why is the pursuit of knowledge a good thing?” And “Why is it wrong? [for a scientist] lying around [experimental] Results?”

Well, little Andy, lying slows down the process of finding knowledge, and knowledge is good because sometimes we can use it to improve life – like eradicating a disease or improving food production. Why is that good, you ask? Because we strive for happier, healthier lives – that is exactly how we are programmed. In this case, “good” is defined by our programming, there by evolution. There is no need to appeal to the supernatural to explain this.

Back to Bannister’s original challenge: can science answer all questions? We do not know yet. But the problem of balancing the worth of human life is one to which the scientific method is essential.

To be continued.

When science can’t know your god
neither can your priests.
– Comment on Pofarmer


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared on January 16, 2017.)

Image from Wikimedia, public domain

Comments are closed.