It is refreshing to hear an atheist and physicist admit that there are some things that he can’t explain. Alan Lightman, in an essay entitled “Does God Exist?”, has this to say.
I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but, in the end, we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.*
Many of the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, and the late Christopher Hitchens have been trying to convince us that they can use science to prove that God does not exist. What they are really doing is coming close to showing that it is possible to imagine a way in which the universe could exist without a need for God. This, of course, is far different than proving that God does not exist. Lightman explicitly states that some things are just not provable in the way that a physicist proves a theory. We cannot set up an experiment that could be used to once and for all prove that God does not exist. Such things are outside of the realm of science. Lightman knows this and I suspect that the new atheists also know this but will not say it because it does not serve their rhetoric and their ultimate goal of getting rid of religion.
Philosophy, theology, art, and poetry are not science. Such disciplines often defy description by science and are in fact legitimate means of exploring the questions of ultimate meaning and reality. We cannot allow proponents of a rationalistic science to convince us that the only tools we are allowed to use are those on the scientists tool-belt. Despite statements to the contrary, philosophy is not dead; and neither are theology, art, and poetry.
Lightman has a marvelous story within the essay of how he and his wife had spent several years watching osprey nest near their summer home. They studied the birds in their spare time and made notes about their behaviour. They knew much about the birds from a scientific perspective. But one day something “other” happened. He describes it this way.
. . . one August afternoon, the two baby ospreys of that season took flight for the first time as I stood on the circular deck of my house watching the nest. All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them. To them, it must have looked like I was in my nest just as they were in theirs. On this particular afternoon, their maiden flight, they did a loop of my house and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed. My immediate impulse was to run for cover, since they could have ripped me apart with their powerful talons. But something held me to my ground. When they were within 20 feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I cannot explain what happened in that half-second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.#
*Lightman, Alan. “Does God Exist?” Salon.com. October 2, 2011. http://www.salon.com/2011/10/02/how_science_and_faith_coexist/singleton/ (accessed February 9, 2012). The whole essay is worth reading.