The How and Why of Saving Lives

We all have intellectual blind spots. No matter what our worldview, inevitably our ways of thinking will contain flaws – perhaps where our stated beliefs don’t match our actions, or perhaps where our systems of thought contain internal contradictions.

Blind spots are hard to detect in yourself, but often easy to see in others. In my experience, even the smartest people aren’t immune to having them – in fact, sometimes they’re in greater danger than average bears like me. And unless I’m missing something, one such blind spot was exposed during a fascinating exchange on the ABC’s Q & A program (in Australia) a couple of weeks ago.

For those not familiar with the program, Q & A is a weekly one-hour TV panel discussion, usually featuring five guests, a moderator (Tony Jones), and a live audience (both in the studio and online) who ask questions of the panel. On February 18, two particular guests took centre stage: John Dickson, author of several books and Director of the Centre for Public Christianity; and Lawrence Krauss, cosmologist and author of The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe From Nothing.

We’ll come to Dr Krauss’s views on ‘nothing’ in a moment. But where did the intellectual ‘blind spot’ of this highly intelligent man show most clearly?
The first question of the night focused on whether religious ethics could, or should, have an impact upon science. Dr Krauss’s answer was an emphatic no. He claimed that science, unlike religion, is interested in telling the truth, which he described as a ‘really important ethical boundary’. He said telling the truth, doubting yourself and being sceptical are ‘the very values we need for a better society’. He then railed against the Catholic Church’s comments about AIDS and condom use in Africa (perhaps with some justification), before finishing with these words: “It’s not an ideological question; it’s a scientific one, and we want to save lives. And so I think that whenever you see the church or religion trying to intrude upon science, they almost always get it wrong.”

And with five simple, easily-overlooked words – not argued for, but thrown in as a given – the intellectual blind spot of this brilliant cosmologist was exposed: “We want to save lives.” My question for Lawrence Krauss is this: How can science possibly give you the idea that ‘we want to save lives’?

Having emphatically denied any place for religious ethics within a scientific worldview, and having claimed that science can and does give us all the ethical values we ever need, Dr Krauss’s words dripped with non-scientific claims about what we value, what we want, what kind of society we need. But how can science, in and of itself, assure us that telling the truth is good? Why would we want to save lives? Why does the kind of society that we live in actually matter? For all the incredible things it can do and be, science cannot answer those questions.

Science is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. Science can tell us how to save a life – and for that reason (and a million others) we should all be incredibly thankful for it. But science can never tell us why we would want to save a life.

As John Dickson pointed out in his response to Dr Krauss, history is filled with examples of science being used to achieve wonderful good. But sadly, there are also times where it has been used badly, to achieve evil outcomes.  But within itself, science has no categories for ‘good’ or ‘evil’. If we all adopted Dr Krauss’s worldview and did so consistently, categories of good and evil would fall to the ground, dead.

In his essay, ‘Escape from Nihilism’, Dr. J. Budziszewski chronicles his conversion from hard-core atheism to faith in Jesus Christ. Among his many compelling observations, this one stands out: “Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to commit.” Summarily dismissing the place of religious ethics within science, while quietly sneaking non-scientific ethics in through the back door, strikes me as one such form of stupidity.

Not much better were Dr Krauss’s comments on nothing. When asked to give an explanation of how the universe could arise from nothing, Krauss floundered. Granted, it’s a big question (one he took 190 pages to answer in his book), but the transcript makes fascinating reading. His answer relied on completely redefining ‘nothing’ (to mean what the rest of us would plainly call ‘something’). For example, he claimed that ‘empty space … is actually unstable’. Maybe so, but how can such a space be equated with ‘nothing’? It may not be much, but it sure sounds like something to me.

Then again, maybe I’m using too much common sense. Because as Dr Krauss went on to explain, ‘our common sense does not necessarily apply to the universe’. “We evolved to avoid tigers on the plains of Africa but not understand quantum mechanics. And so the way the universe really works … very often … defies common sense.” And so, in the atheistic worldview, all of this constitutes a rational, scientific, evidence-driven approach to life and makes much more sense than the idea of a creator.

I’m not meaning to be dismissive. No doubt, Dr Krauss is a brilliant man with lots to contribute in his areas of expertise. But the blind spots are massive. As Budziszewski said, few of us are intelligent enough to sustain this kind of stupidity in any depth.

Re-watching Q & A is a fascinating case study. John Dickson offers a wonderful example of how to winsomely yet clearly confront the challenge of atheistic naturalism, while pointing clearly to the truth of Jesus. But watching Dr Krauss drown in a sea of nothingness while blindly importing non-scientific ideas into his supposedly scientific worldview reminded me of the old adage: I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.

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