Atheism and science are bros. Everybody knows they belong together, just like Troy and Abed. For most of the reign of New Atheism, science has been right hand man, directing New Atheism’s trajectory and enjoying the privilege of being considered totally awesome by most atheists. I have yet to meet an atheist who doesn’t whole heartedly support scientific exploration and scientific understandings of the world.
But sometimes bros need to be willing to let a new friend join the party. Or, if we’re using metaphors aptly, sometimes bros need to be willing to let their old bro back into the fold. That’s right atheists, I’m talking about philosophy. Last week Salon published an interview with Jonathan Sacks about the downfalls of new atheism. It’s not as if articles about what’s wrong with atheism are new, but there was a particular passage of this interview that stuck out to me as half incredibly truthful and important, and half utter bullshit.
“Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts them together to see what they mean. And I think the people who spend their lives taking things apart to see how they work sometimes find it difficult to understand the people who put things together to see what they mean.”
It’s true that much of science is about breaking things down into constituent parts, about understanding the functionality of the world rather than the purpose of the world. What isn’t true is that religion is the only method we have for putting things together into larger pictures. In fact for most of history, that was philosophy’s role. While many scientists tend to view philosophy as just science lite or “science without any actual observation or evidence”, philosophy actually takes a different approach than science, and it’s one that pairs incredibly well with scientific exploration.
Here’s how I like to think of it: science gives us the raw pieces. It tells us what things are and how they work. Philosophy is the lens through which we view those pieces, the paradigms we build out of them, the larger pictures we try to understand through the evidence we have. It does that with rigorous logic (at least if it’s done well. I am the first to admit that many a first year philosophy student just makes it all up). Philosophy helps us build back up the why when we’re building our own meaning and purpose.
And while some scientists will assert that we don’t need philosophy for this (coughSamHarriscough) because we can easily find the way to the best possible human life through science, what those scientists miss is that they’ve already done their philosophy. They’ve already decided that the best possible human life (one which maximizes flourishing) is what we should be aiming for. But that’s a huge assumption that isn’t shared by everyone and isn’t self-evident. We need other ways to talk and think to try to figure out what we should be doing. The options here aren’t “science or make believe”, but are in fact “science and logic or just science”. It’s a good idea to have the logical, more abstract, larger systems perspectives because they do minor things like give us the scientific method (thanks Francis Bacon, you philosopher you!)
Similarly, philosophy is also an important part of reaching atheist conclusions for many people. Things like the cosmological argument or the ontological argument can be dismantled using logic and philosophical techniques. For those of us (even the laypeople who unknowingly used philosophy to fight these arguments) who relied on philosophy and philosophical arguments to reach our atheism, it would be disingenuous to say that we no longer need it now that we have decided to be skeptics.
Skepticism itself is a philosophical position that requires philosophical tools to keep up. We have to be equipped to dismantle logical fallacies, dissect arguments, and have an epistemological framework that allows us to understand when we’re justified in believing something.
There are things missing from New Atheism if all New Atheism means is science and a lack of God. Those things aren’t enough to create a community or provide the support that many human beings feel they need in the pursuit of larger questions about purpose and meaning in the world. But where many people think the only way to get these things is through religion, we do actually have other systems of knowing that can support us: the humanities, philosophy, social sciences…all of these give us more information about how to connect and build community and get through life in a way that feels good to us.
So hey atheism, I think it’s time to remember how cool that old friend philosophy is and welcome it back into the fold. You’re way cooler when you’re not being exclusive, and there might be a few useful things it could teach you.