Socrates and Atheism

The ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, made his career on the basis of definitions.  In the classic “Dialogues,” documented by his erstwhile student, Plato, someone—usually one of the well known professional Sophists of the time–makes a proposition regarding topics like “justice” or “power” or even “truth.”  Socrates then asks questions as to the implications of that proposition, indicates some logical contradiction and demonstrates that the presumed conclusions of that proposition are not nearly conclusive.  That Sophist invariably sees the error of his ways and comes around to Socrates” point of view. 

In that context, imagine what Socrates would make of the following statement by the famous atheist author, Richard Dawkins: “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”  In other words, for Dawkins and people like him, there is a distinction between science and religion.  Science deals with empirical facts and proof.  Science may not have all the answers, but it assumes that the answers are, in principle, knowable and those answers can be found in the material realm of physics.  Religion, on the other hand, assumes the existence of a non-material “divine” realm to account for the existence of the material realm.  There is no proof for this non-material realm and, as a result, religion depends on words like “mystery,” “paradox” and “intuition.”  As the brilliant physicist, Stephen Hawking, argued: “Before we understand science, it is natural to assume that God created the universe.” 

Faced with such an analysis, Socrates would likely begin by asking about the definition of “science.” A common one is: “the knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or general laws  obtained and tested through systematic experimentation and processes.” With that as a starting point, Socrates might ask about the “systematic process” by which this definition was formulated.  For example, “Tell me more about this ‘systematic process.’  Doesn’t it assume from the very beginning that there is no non-material realm?”  “Not exactly,” a Dawkins might reply.  “Science simply confines itself to that which is observable–measurable–in the material realm. Since any non-material realm is, by definition, ‘non-material,’ science does not speculate as to its existence.”  A Hawking might add, as he was quoted in a recent interview in Time magazine, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing; why there is a universe.” 

Socrates could then look around and wave his arm, asking: “So all these material things we see around us–the trees, the sun, our bodies–these all came about spontaneously.  How is it possible for ‘something’ to come from ‘nothing’?”  At this point, Dawkins and Hawkings might jointly point out that all this “something” is eternal because there is no such thing as “time” without “somethings” in motion.  Questions like “What existed before time” are non-sensical.”  “Or a ‘mystery’? A ‘paradox’?” Socrates could suggest, narrowing his eyes. 

“But tell me more about this ‘spontaneous creation.’  It sounds rather arbitrary and unconscious.  Unplanned. Shouldn’t the results of an arbitrary and unconscious event also be arbitrary and unconscious?”  Dawkins and Hawkins might consider this.  “If so,” Socrates continues, waving his hand around him, “the results I see–all the natural laws of science of which you speak so highly and the consciousness with which you understand all this ‘something’ –hardly seem arbitrary or unconscious at all.  How is it that a spontaneous, arbitrary, unconscious event produced such a ‘something’ with so many rational laws and the consciousness to understand it?  In short, how is there an arbitrary explanation for science itself?”  With Plato writing the scene, Dawkins and Hawking would smile sheepishly and agree that Socrates had demonstrated that, no, it did not follow that an arbitrary and unconscious event could be responsible for rational scientific laws and the conscious awareness of those laws.  Socrates would then turn to his admiring students and say: “Therefore, it would appear that there is ‘something’ rational and conscious that is responsible for the rationality and consciousness of the universe.  I will not presume I know what the ‘something’ is.  However, based on the empirical observation of the universe I see around me, I have to conclude that that ‘something’ outside of the material world exists.” 

While not a Greek philosopher nor brilliant physicist, the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes deduced the approach that could well be the standard for all of us as we make choices for what we believe: “when you have eliminated all that is impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” 

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