Scientists Should Tell Lawrence Krauss to Shut Up Already


Lawrence Krauss’s “argument” for atheism is like that of an artist who confines himself to using black and white materials and then concludes that, since color doesn’t show up in his drawings of fire engines and apples, it follows that fire engines and apples are not really red.

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In a recent opinion piece for The New Yorker, physicist Lawrence Krauss proclaims that “all scientists should be militant atheists.” Why? You won’t get any clear answer from the article, which is even thinner on argumentation (as opposed to sheer assertion) than the usual New Atheist tract—indeed, even thinner than the usual Lawrence Krauss tract, which is saying something. Most of the piece is about Kim Davis, Hobby Lobby, and other matters of public controversy entirely irrelevant to either science or the question of God’s existence.

The closest Krauss comes to justifying his thesis is in the following passage:

science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” . . . In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature . . .

Is this a good argument? Only if this parallel piece of “reasoning” is also a good argument:

Checkers is an atheistic enterprise. My practice as a checkers player is atheistic. That is to say, when I move a game piece across the board, I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my career as a checkers champ. In my more than thirty years as a checkers player, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned at a checkers tournament. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of the game.

So, it isn’t just science—even checkers proves atheism! Who knew?

Of course, the fallacy in the latter “argument” is obvious. That we need make no reference to X in the course of doing Y doesn’t prove that X does not exist. We need make no reference to general relativity when studying dentistry, but that doesn’t cast doubt on Einstein’s discovery. We need make no mention of the physiology of tapeworms when engineering bridges, but that doesn’t mean that reports of people having tapeworms are all bogus. Similarly, the fact that scientists need make no reference to God when doing physics, biology, or any other science doesn’t prove—or even suggest—that the existence of God is doubtful.

What Science Presupposes

Krauss might reply that, unlike checkers, dentistry, or engineering, science covers all of reality; thus, if God exists, evidence for his existence ought to show up in scientific inquiry.

There are two problems with such a suggestion. First, it begs the question. Second, it isn’t true.

It begs the question because whether science is the only rational means of investigating reality is precisely what is at issue between New Atheists like Krauss and their critics. Traditional philosophical arguments for God’s existence begin with what any possible scientific theory must take for granted—such as the thesis that there is a natural world to be studied, and that there are laws governing that world that we might uncover via scientific investigation.

The arguments claim that, whatever the specific empirical details turn out to be, the facts that there is a world at all and that there are any laws governing it cannot be made sense of unless there is an uncaused cause sustaining that world in being, a cause that exists of absolute necessity rather than merely contingently (as the world itself and the laws that govern it are merely contingent).

Spelling such arguments out would take more than a paragraph or a short article. For a more in-depth treatment, interested readers can examine chapter three of my book Aquinas. The point for present purposes is just this: From the point of view of the main arguments for God’s existence, it is a mistake to think that the place to look for evidence of God is within the domain investigated by science. Rather, the place to look is somewhere more fundamental—at what any possible science must itself presuppose.

The Rules of the Game

Think of it this way: you can’t find out why checkers boards exist by looking at the rules of checkers themselves, which concern only what goes on within the game. The rules tell you how each piece moves, how the game is won, and so forth. But why are the pieces governed by these rules, specifically, rather than others? Why do any checkers boards exist at all in the first place? No scrutiny of the rules can answer those questions. It is impossible to answer them, or indeed even to understand the questions, unless you take a vantage point from outside the game and its rules.

Similarly, what science uncovers are, in effect, the “rules” that govern the “game” that is the natural world. Its domain of study is what is internal to the natural order of things. It presupposes that there is such an order, just as the rules of checkers presuppose that there are such things as checkers boards and game pieces. For that very reason, though, science has nothing to say about why there is any natural order or laws in the first place, any more than the rules of checkers tell you why there are any checkers boards or checkers rules in the first place.

Thus, science cannot answer the question why there is any world at all, or any laws at all. To answer those questions, or even to understand them properly, you must take an intellectual vantage point from outside the world and its laws, and thus outside of science. You need to look to philosophical argument, which goes deeper than anything mere physics can uncover.

Krauss’s argument is as inept as that of someone who thinks that checkers game boards have no cause, because we can find no reference to such a cause in the rules of checkers. Such a person is looking in the wrong place, just as Krauss is looking in the wrong place when he confines himself to science to find some reason to affirm a divine uncaused cause.

Of course, Krauss would no doubt dispute all of this and insist on scientism, the view that science alone gives us knowledge. The point, though, is that Krauss has given us no reason at all to accept scientism. He simply assumes it rather than argues for it. Again, this merely begs the question against his opponents. Interested readers are directed to my book Scholastic Metaphysics for a detailed critique of scientism.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Analysis

You do not need to believe in God in order to see that science does not tell us everything there is to know about the world. As philosopher Bertrand Russell—who was no friend of religion—emphasized in a number of places, the very methods of physics guarantee that it will actually tell us relatively little about the nature of the material world. The reason is that physics confines itself to describing the mathematical structure of the world, since only what can be so captured is susceptible of strict prediction and control. The inner nature of the reality that has that structure necessarily falls through physics’ methodological net. As Russell wrote in The ABC of Relativity:

physics tells us much less about the physical world than we thought it did . . .

What we know about the physical world . . . is much more abstract than was formerly supposed. Between bodies there are occurrences, such as light-waves; of the laws of these occurrences we know something—just so much as can be expressed in mathematical formulae—but of their nature we know nothing . . .

The theory of relativity has accomplished a very great deal in this respect, and in doing so has taken us nearer and nearer to bare structure, which is the mathematicians' goal—not because it is the only thing which interests them as human beings, but because it is the only thing that they can express in mathematical formulae . . .

the physicist . . . knows nothing of matter except certain laws of its movements . . .

This point has often been made not only by philosophers of science, but by physicists themselves. For example, at around the time Russell was writing, Arthur Eddington made the same point in The Nature of the Physical World. In recent years, Lee Smolin and George Ellis have complained of the tendency of their fellow physicists to confuse their abstract mathematical models of physical reality with the nature of physical reality itself.

It is thus comically inept for Krauss to assert in his recent article that “the more we learn about the workings of the universe, the more purposeless it seems.” This is completely unsurprising, and would remain so even if the world is absolutely suffused with purpose. The reason is that purpose—what philosophers call teleology or final causality—is an irreducibly qualitative notion. Hence it cannot be captured in quantitative concepts.

If you confine yourself to quantitative concepts—as physics does—then you are guaranteed not to find purpose even if it is there. Krauss’s “argument” is like that of an artist who confines himself to using black and white materials and then concludes that, since color doesn’t show up in his drawings of fire engines and apples, it follows that fire engines and apples are not really red, or any other color.

Not Just Impolite—Amateurish

Krauss likes to pretend—as he does in his New Yorker piece—that the reason people object to his “militant” atheism is that they regard it as impolite. That’s a self-serving delusion. The reason Krauss has so many critics is that every time he opens his mouth about religion or philosophy, he demonstrates conclusively only that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. His confidence is inversely proportional to his actual knowledge and skill in argumentation. I’ve examined Krauss’s previous cringe-making forays into philosophy and theology in several articles, which can be found here, here, and here.

You needn’t take my word for it. People otherwise sympathetic to views like Krauss’s have been very critical of his amateurish attempts at philosophy—including atheist philosopher Massimo Pigliucci and even Krauss’s fellow New Atheist Jerry Coyne. Philosopher of physics David Albert (who, unlike Krauss, knows something about both physics and philosophy) has been particularly hard on Krauss.

His fellow scientists don’t need Krauss’s advice, but perhaps he would profit if more of them told him to give it a rest already. In particular, he could do with less militancy and mouthing off, and more effort acquiring some actual basic knowledge about the ideas he is criticizing.

Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College. He blogs here. His most recent book is Neo-Scholastic Essays.

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