So while there are plenty of good books by scientist-atheists, they sometimes under-emphasise the main lesson from science: that our knowledge is vastly outstripped by our ignorance. For me, a life in science prompts awe and exploration over dogmatism.
Given these considerations, I do not call myself an atheist. I don't feel that I have enough data to firmly rule out other interesting possibilities. On the other hand, I do not subscribe to any religion. Traditional religious stories can be beautiful and often crystallise hard-won wisdom - but it is hardly a challenge to poke holes in them. Religious structures are built by humans and brim with all manner of strange human claims - they often reflect cults of personality, xenophobia or mental illness. The holy books of these religions were written millennia ago by people who never had the opportunity to know about DNA, other galaxies, information theory, electricity, the big bang, the big crunch, or even other cultures, literatures or landscapes.
Indeed! Over the years, I have developed a feeling for militant atheism which is akin to that which I feel about dogmatic theism. They both make me a bit sad.So it seems we know too little to commit to strict atheism, and too much to commit to any religion. Given this, I am often surprised by the number of people who seem to possess total certainty about their position. I know a lot of atheists who seethe at the idea of religion, and religious followers who seethe at the idea of atheism - but neither group is bothering with more interesting ideas. They make their impassioned arguments as though the God versus no-God dichotomy were enough for a modern discussion.
I consider myself a functional atheist, but a technical agnostic. I simply cannot rule out that there is an Intelligence orchestrating the unfolding of the Great Cosmic Simulation (scale = 1:1). But nor can I reconcile my observations and studies with the premise that there must be such an Intelligence. I have absorbed enough from Chaos/Complexity theory to find highly satisfying comprehensiveness in the explanatory power of the concepts of self-organization in complex systems under far-from-equilibrium conditions. I simply do not see the need for a Cosmic Controller, any more than I need to posit a "Brain Bird," guiding and controlling the dynamics of a flock in flight.
But, when you come right down to it, what the hell do I know?
To make the leap from "What" questions to "Why" questions is to commit the fundamental(ist) error of both believers and non-believers. "What" questions are the proper domain of science: they deal with that which can be tested and observed (what are the proportions of ordinary matter to dark matter in the observable universe?). "Why" questions deal with ultimate issues (Why is there something instead of nothing?). Any effort to transplant one from the other is bound to bump against a hard metaphysical stop, and require what, for all intents and purposes must be considered a leap of faith. One of the most lovely treatments of this matter was the brilliant 1996 film, "Contact," in which a woman of science and a man of faith must find a way to reconcile their ostensibly antithetical world-views to questions of cosmic import. It is one of my very favorite films for the sheer poetry with which it addresses this matter which has so dominated the landscape of my thinking since childhood. The limits of knowledge need not represent the foreclosure of possibilities, but that we conjure they do.
This is why I call myself a "possibilian". Possibilianism emphasises the active exploration of new, unconsidered notions. A possibilian is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind and is not driven by the idea of fighting for a single, particular story. The key emphasis of possibilianism is to shine a flashlight around the possibility space. It is a plea not simply for open-mindedness, but for an active exploration of new ideas.
Again, big bang-on. Now, he term “Possibilian” seems too precious by…well, a frack of a lot more than half. But the term “agnostic” has always rankled me something fierce. To live by the dictum that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence seems a mite…reduced by simply calling it “No-Knowledge.”Is possibilianism compatible with a scientific career? Indeed, it represents the heart of science. Real science operates by holding limitless possibilities in mind and working to see which one is most supported by the data. Sometimes it is difficult or impossible to gather data that weighs in - and in those cases we simply retain the possibilities. We don't commit to a particular version of the story when there is no reason to.
Sure, sure, saying you don’t know is supposed to be the beginning of wisdom and all that. But it feels a little like calling an American boy “Leslie.” It’s a fine name, but don’t expect him to thank you for it in middle school.
Nomenclature aside, though, it's a big 'Verse, with room for Grand Unifying Narratives aplenty. It seems to me that digging in our heels and shouting names at each other is a less than optimal use of the finite quanta of energy available to us before we flame out. This is one of the (many) reasons I find Bill Maher no less a nauseating homunculus of a man than Pat Robertson. Both pull for a zero-sum, annihilationist exclusivity which offers absolutely no quarter for the "other side."
To quote from another one of my favorite movies, "You have to see with better eyes than that."