by Quentin Bet
On April 20, students sat in Merkert 127 for the Veritas Forum, a seminar that challenges students and faculty to contemplate religious and intellectual matters. MIT professors Ian Hutchinson and Alex Byrne spoke at the discussion entitled “Does Science Point to Atheism?” Professor Byrne spoke in favor of the claim, saying that scientific evidence disproves the existence of God. Professor Hutchinson took the opposite stance, claiming that faith and science are perfectly compatible. The professors presented their arguments in a discussion moderated by Micah Lott, a philosophy professor at BC. As Professor Lott made clear, the forum was not meant to be a debate, but as a discussion to foster intellectual curiosity.
Ian Hutchinson, Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, spoke in opposition to the idea that science points to atheism. He began his argument with the claim that the natural sciences disprove only certain conceptions of divine power. Polytheistic religions such as Greek mythology sought to explain natural phenomena, and so they described gods as being a part of the natural world. This contrasts with the modern monotheistic idea that God is “the creator and sustainer of the whole universe, not just one of its residents.” Thus, while the sciences can debunk Greek mythology, they can’t disprove the Christian God who “put in place and upholds the natural laws that science discovers.”
According to Hutchinson, the Bible is not a science textbook, and treating it as such is to miss its larger purpose. He acknowledged that atheism and science seem to be natural allies, as only 7% of members of the National Academy of Science report to believe in God, but Hutchinson attributed this to other factors. For example, the National Academy of Science has a strong tradition of secularism, and thus elect members who fit their ideals and may be skeptical of those who do not. Hutchinson also postulated that some academics have become renowned due to “a sense of self-importance contrary to the Christian idea of humility.”
According to Hutchinson, many believe the myth that Christianity impeded scientific progress throughout history; in reality, many academic institutions and thinkers of the past were Christian. The myth of the war between education and religion had been fabricated as a part of the secularization of the academy. Hutchinson believes the two coincide, having stated: “My knowledge of science grew alongside my knowledge of God through my graduate studies and during the rest of my career. I believe the Christian faith made me a better person and a better scientist.”
On the other hand, Professor Alex Byrne, chair of the Philosophy Department at MIT, defended the claim that science points to atheism. His stance was based on three primary arguments, the first of which he referred to as “lonely suffering.” According to Byrne, lonely suffering occurs when we face pain that is not witnessed by anyone else and that offers no benefit to us in the long run. He referenced the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles: 30,000 years ago a mammoth was trapped in the pits and died a slow, agonizing death. According to Byrne, this is just one example of the meaningless pain endured by God’s creatures. If God really was an all-loving, all-powerful being, He wouldn’t allow such pointless suffering. Therefore, logically, there must be no God.
Next, Byrne referred to the so-called “hiddenness argument.” He first postulates that “if there is an omnipotent God who is open to a reciprocal loving relationship with competent adults, then they all have an opportunity to accept God’s love.” Therefore, all people should either know that God exists or willfully refuse to accept that God exists. This is not the case, as anthropological studies have shown that some people, such as modern hunter-gatherers, do not satisfy these criteria. Therefore, it logically follows once again that God does not exist.
For his third and final argument, Byrne referred to the “argument from uniqueness.” As God’s “chosen ones,” we assume God has a special plan for humans, that He made a definitive contrast between us and the rest of His creation. There must be some relative and sharp division; however, this is not the case, as there is little to distinguish us from our evolutionary predecessors. Since there is no definitive contrast, there must be no plan for humanity and consequently no God.
This intellectual dialogue saw two very different approaches toward the implications of science. Does it result in a secular view of the world, or does it offer us an even deeper appreciation for God’s handiwork? Regardless of one’s views on the matter, the discussion was illuminating and thought-provoking.