Among the oddest bedevillers of our time are the eminent scientists who use their heaped up credentials, achievements, and awards as pedestals from which to foretell the future and pronounce upon the ultimate questions of life and religion. One of the most recent of these is Steven Weinberg’s essay “Without God” in the New York Review of Books for September 25, 2008.
The oddity of these ventures, of which Professor Weinberg’s is fairly typical, is in their ready—and, it seems to me, their thoughtless—abandonment of scientific rigor and methodology. For example, despite his protest that he does not want “to try to talk anyone out of their religion,” Prof. Weinberg sets forth an elaborate argument for the nonexistence of God, an argument obviously meant to be persuasive but based entirely on opinion.
As a fundamentalist of science, like the fundamentalists of religion, he is clearly evangelizing, hoping to convert or at least to disturb those who disagree with him. And, like the religious fundamentalists, he uses a language that presents belief as knowledge. But more troubling than the authority he grants to his own opinions is his claim to know what cannot be known. “As religious belief weakens,” he writes, “more and more of us know that after death there is nothing.” The only fact available here is that Prof. Weinberg and more and more of us do not, and will never, know any such thing. There is no proof of this “nothing,” and there is no scientific or other procedure by which to attempt such a proof.
Prof. Weinberg is a physicist, and he says that he is “professionally concerned with finding out what is true.” But as a mere person, evidently, he is concerned, like too many others, merely with investing his opinions with power. This is the concern of fundamentalists of all kinds: religious, atheistical, scientific, technological, economic, and political. They all seek power—they seek victory, in fact—by abandoning the proprieties that permit us to seek and to honor what is true while acknowledging the limits of our ability to know.
Not far into his essay Prof. Weinberg says, with proper humility: “Of course, not everything has been explained, nor will it ever be.” But, two paragraphs later, speaking of “religious conservatives,” he abandons the careful and exacting speech of humility, and prognosticates with the absolute confidence and gleeful vengefulness of a religious conservative: “I can imagine how disturbed they will feel in the future, when at last scientists learn [End Page 75] how to understand human behavior in terms of the chemistry and physics of the brain, and nothing is left that needs to be explained by our having an immaterial soul.” This is something else that he does not know. Nor does he hesitate over the apparent difficulty of a material proof of the nonexistence of something immaterial.
The argument about the existence of God necessarily must be conducted in the absence of evidence that would stand as proof either in a laboratory or a court of law. There is no objective or empirical or experimental evidence on either side. The argument, as such, is by definition hopeless—a piece of foolishness and a waste of time. Even so it has long existed and no doubt it will long continue, but only for the paltry reason that it cannot be won. Chaucer defined the problem about six hundred years ago in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, and I doubt that it can be more clearly defined:
A thousand tymes have I herd men telle That ther ys joy in hevene and peyne in helle, And I acorde wel that it ys so; But, natheles, yet wot I wel also That ther nis noon dwellyng in this contree, That eyther hath in hevene or helle ybe, Ne may of hit noon other weyes witen, But as he hath herd seyd, or founde it writen; For by assay ther may no man it preve.
People of religion, and not just fundamentalists, can speak with tiresome confidence of knowing what in fact they don’t know but believe. None of us is...