Posts Tagged ‘Steven Weinberg’

Robert Boyle, Atheism and Christians in Science

May 8, 2013

Robert Boyle was one of the founder of modern experimental science in the 17th century. His book, the Sceptical Chymist, broke with medieval alchemy to lay the foundations for modern chemistry. Unlike previous, Aristotelian Natural Philosophers, Boyle believed that the universe was composed of atoms. This theory was viewed with great suspicion in the 16th and 17th centuries, as it had originated with the ancient Epicureans. These considered that the universe had been created by chance without the intervention by the gods, although they did not deny their existence completely. It was thus considered an atheist doctrine. Boyle himself was deeply religious, and bequeathed a legacy to set up a series of annual lectures arguing for and promoting Christianity. He also attempted to argue for Christianity and the compatibility of the Christian faith with the new science in his book, The Christian Virtuoso. Many of the arguments he advanced there are still valid today.

In the book’s preface, Boyle states that

‘I could scarce avoid taking notice of the great and deplorable growth of irreligion, especially among those, that aspired to pass for wits, and several of them too for philosophers. And on the other side it was obvious, that diverse learned men, as well as others, partly upon the score of their abhorrence of these infidels and libertines, and partly upon that of a well-meaning but ill-formed zeal, had brought many good men to think, that religon and philosophy were incompatible; both parties contributing to the vulgar error, but with this difference, that the libertines thought a virguoso ought not be a Christian, and the others, that he could not be a true one’.

He then argued that, whilst some atheists used science to oppose religion and Christianity, truly devout people would find in science even greater reasons to believe and praise the Lord:

‘And I deny not, but that, if the knowledge of nature falls into the hands of a resolved atheist, or a sensual libertine, he may misemploy it to oppugn the grounds, or discredit the practice of religion. But it will far much otherwise, if a deep insight into nature be acquired by a man of probity and ingenuity, or at least free from prejudices and vices, that may indispose him to entertain and improve those truths of philosophy, that would naturally lead him to sentiments of religion. For, if a person thus qualified in his morals, and thereby disposed to make use of of the knowledge of the creatures to confirm his belief, and increase his veneration of the Creator (and such a person I here again advertise you, and desire you would not forget it, I suppose the virtuoso, this papers is concerned in, to be) shall make a great progress in real philosophy; I am persuaded, that nature will be found very loyal to her author; and instead of alienating his mind from making religious acknowledgements, will furnish him with weighty and uncommon motives, to conclude, such sentiments to be rational and just’.

Boyle then goes on to quote the founder of the experimental method, Francis Bacon, whom he acclaims as the ‘first and greatest experimental philosopher of our age’

‘that God never wrought a miracle to convince atheists; because in his visible works he had placed enough to do it, if they were not wanting to themselves’.

Boyle himself was not impressed either by contemporary atheists’ grasp of the new science, or their arguments in favour of atheism. He states

‘I must own to you, that I do not think there are so many speculative atheists, as men are wont to imagine. And though my conversation has been pretty free and general among naturalists, yet I have met with so few true atheists, that I am very apt to think, that men’s want of due information, or their uncharitable zeal, has made them mistake or misrepresent many for deniers of God, that are thought such, chiefly because they take uncommon methods in in studying his works, and have other sentiments of them, than those of vulgar philosophers. And in the next place I must tell you, that having through the goodness of God, chosen my religion, not inconsiderately but upon mature deliberation, I do not find those virtuosi, you call atheists, such formidable adversaries, as those that are afraid to hear them do, by that apprehension, appear to think them. And indeed I have observed the physical arguments of the atheists to be but very few, and those far enough from being unanswerable.’

These arguments still apply today. From the statements made by very vociferous atheist scientists like Dawkins and Steven Weinberg, you could be mistaken for believing that all scientists were atheists, and indeed true scientists could only be atheists. Yet a Gallup poll made nearly a decade or so ago recorded that the proportion of religious and atheist scientists had not changed since the poll was first made a hundred years previously. Even then the number of theist scientists had surprised the researchers, who had confidently expected all the scientists to be atheists. Now the religious scientists are not in the majority, but they still form a sizable number equal to the number of atheists in science. There is a group, Christians in Science. James Hallam, the Roman Catholic historian of science who blogs as ‘Bede’ in Bede’s Library and the Adlibitum website, was an atheist until he studied physics and university and found just how unlikely it is that the cosmos does exist by chance. It can astonish you just how scientifically active and accomplished some of these religious scientists are. Yet you mostly don’t hear about them, because they’re mostly just interested in doing science, rather than using it like Dawkins and co. to promote atheism. So it’s important to bear Robert Boyle’s comments in mind the next time Dawkins or the comedian Robin Ince try claiming science for atheism.


Robert Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso, in D.C. Goodman, ed., Science and Religious Belief 1600-1900: Selection of Primary Sources (Dorchester: John Wright and Sons/ The Open University 1973) 119-29.


Nietzsche, Nihilism and the ‘Shadows of God’

March 24, 2008

Friedrich Nietzsche is undoubtedly one of the foremost atheist philosophers and perhaps the one who most strongly represented the 19th century attack on God. Although atheism long predated his assault on theism in general and Christianity in particular, Nietzsche’s vehement declaration that ‘God is dead’ in a series of books sent a philosophical shockwave through Europe. Previous atheist works, such as those of the French philosophes, had argued for atheism as a liberating force while often still accepting the existence of objective moral values that could be discovered by human reason, a reason freed from belief in God. Nietzsche challenged this assumption. In his attack on Christian morality, Nietzsche attempted a thorough exploration of what it actually meant to live in a Godless universe. Instead of the optimistic belief in continuing progress of the philosophes and Positivists, Nietzsche instead argued instead that in the absence of God, there were no objective moral values and the universe itself was inherently meaningless. It was a profoundly pessimistic view, and one from which the human mind instinctively draws back. While conceptions of morality vary from age to age and generation to generation, nevertheless people instinctively insist that some moral must be absolute, such as the injunctions against killing and lying. As for an inherent meaning in the cosmos, atheist philosophers such as Sartre argued that humanity was now free to invent its own meaning. Yet whether one agrees with Nietzsche’s analysis or not, his discussion of the philosophical implications of atheism far beyond the mere question of the existence of God – how it affects, or can affect, every aspect of human life and endeavour, is still immensely relevant to the debate about atheism. Recent critiques of the arguments by New Atheists like Sam Harris, for example, by Dinesh D’Souza have cited Nietzsche. So an examination of Nietzsche’s basic conception of atheism and his violent rejection of Christianity and morality is timely here.

Nietzsche’s View of Theism as a Disease

Despite the marked difference between Nietzsche’s nihilism and the positivism of the New Atheists, there are a number of striking similarities. Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins claim to be arguing in favour of science when they attack theism. Nietzsche similarly claimed to be critiquing theism from a scientific standpoint, considering himself to be a physiologist or psychologist examining the unconscious reasons why people say what they do. 1 In his discussion of truth from the perspective of life, Nietzsche constructed a series of typologies of humanity based on physiology, environmental and temperamental conditions. 2 Indeed, he declared that all moral values needed to be critiqued from the perspective of physiology and medical science.

‘In fact all tables of values – all ‘you out to’s’ – which we know from history or ethnological research, in any case, first require a physiological examination and interpretive explication, before even a psychological one; similarly, all of them stand in need of a critique from the side of medical science.’ 3

Like some contemporary atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, who regard theism as a disease or disorder, Nietzsche similarly rejected theism, and particularly Christianity, as a source of depression and spiritual debilitation, and that God had to be killed in order to restore health and self-confidence. 4 ‘He perceives taht the human society surrounding him is in a diseased spiritual state, and that something needs to be done, lest the entire species waste away.’ 5 Nietzsche’s sentiments here are very strongly similar to some of the claims by contemporary atheists that theism is somehow harmful to the species, or humanity needs to evolve out of theism. Part of Nietzsche’s rejection of God was based on his belief that theistic religion repressed healthy biological energies. In the case of Christianity, it was the sexual energies that were repressed. The Rational Response Squad notoriously provoked a storm of controversy by describing theism as a ‘mind disorder’. While even other atheists attacked them for this, their views here are exactly the same as Nietzsche.

‘As far as Nietzsche can see, this theistic outlook amounts to a form of madness, and he reasons that the kind of sickness with which he sees the European Christian as having been infected is a mental illness.’ 6 

Rejection of Absolute Truth In Nietzsche

Where Nietzsche differs from contemporary atheists is that while many contemporary atheists deny that the absence of God has any bearing on objective truth or morality, Nietzsche believed that without God there was no single, objective truth or set of moral values. Indeed, Nietzsche was resolutely opposed to any dogmatic philosophical or scientific concepts that did claim to be objectively true. Thus Nietzsche rejected concepts such as eternally enduring substances, matter and Platonic forms. He denounced these concepts as ‘shadows of God’, ideas that act like God in that they similarly claim to be the absolute foundation of the universe and its contents. 7 Scholars of Nietzsche have also suggested that these ‘shadows of God’ could also be expanded to include notions such as ‘laws of nature’ and definitions of human nature that set limits upon or imprison humanity within distinct notions of the human condition. 8 

This rejection of any single, dogmatically true conception of the universe was based on a vehement rejection of any kind of anthropomorophism of the cosmos. Nietzsche followed Hume, Feuerbach and the ancient Greek philosopher, Xenophanes, in considering that God was merely a projection of human concerns and qualities. However, expanded this rejection of anthropomorphism to the universe itself. He strongly rejected anthropocentric interpretations of reality, comparing them to ants in a forest who similarly believed that the forest was for them. 9 Far from being a universe of order, the cosmos was instead based on chaos.

‘The overall character of the world is, to the contrary, in all eternity chaos – not in the sense of any necessity that is missing, but an absence of order, structuring, form, beauty, wisdom, and everything else named by our aesthetic, human constructions’. 10

The universe was not just beyond or outside human aesthetic constructs, but also based very much on chance. ‘Nature, considered artistically, is no model. It exaggerates, it distorts, it leaves holes. Nature is chance.’ 11

Like conceptions of the universe, objective truth also was, for Nietzsche, merely another anthropomorphism without any real validity.

‘What, then, is truth? A maneuverable army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms – in short, a summation of human relationships which have been poetically and rhetorically heightened, transposed, and embellished, and which, after long use by a people, are considered to be solid, canonical, and binding: truths are illusions whose true nature has been forgotten.’ 12

Nietzsche’s Rejection of Objective Moral Values

For Nietzsche, the absence of God and objective truth and humanity’s existence in a meaningless, fundamentally unknowable universe, meant that not only were all moral values merely social constructions, but even immoral acts were valid from the perspective of life – when they aided the individual’s continued existence or social advancement. For example, lying is traditionally considered immoral. Yet Nietzsche considered that weaker and less robust people often maintained themselves by lying, flattery and other forms of deception, so from the perspective of survival, lying was not entirely objectionable for those whose circumstances necessitated it. 13 Indeed, Nietzsche considered that humans were primarily motivated by a will to power, and that traditional moral principles, such as those against lying and harming and exploiting others, were opposed to human biology.

‘Life operates essentially, namely, in its basic functions, with injury, violation, exploitation, destruction, and cannot at all be concived without this character. One must stand by an even further thought: that, from the highest biological standpoint, legal conditions can only be anomalous conditions, as partial restrictions upon the actual life-will, which is a will for power.’ 14

Nietzsche and Suffering

Contemporary scholars of Nietsche note that although there is a very definite sense that might makes right in his works, Nietzsche’s philosophy is also one of being able to transcend and transform oneself and ones values to become a stronger person. 15 Nietzsche was strongly aware of humanity’s insignificance in the atheist conception of the cosmos. In the absence of God, the problem of evil for Nietzsche was not how God could let evil occur, but ‘the more frightening problem of how to say “yes” to a world where there is no God to work against evil, and where there is no justice.’ 16 Nietzsche conception of the universe as a place of suffering in which one must test one’s strength has suggested to scholars that he designed his philosophy not for the brutal and insensitive, who suffer less under cruel conditions, but for those who were potentially strong-willed, but also cultivated and caring. 17 

Nietzsche and the Nazis

Nietzsche’s philosophy is also strongly associated, at least in the popular view, with the Nazis through his celebration of the superman and the will to power. The association of Nietzsche with militant German nationalism began in the 19th century when his cousin, Elizabeth Forster-Nietsche, issued an edition of his writings under the title The Will to Power. During the Third Reich, his sister attempted to approach Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to help spread his ideas. In 1934 the Nazis issued a propaganda photograph showing Hitler gazing at a bust of Nietzsche during his visit to the Nietzsche archive in Weimar. 18 The association between Nietzsche’s ideas and Nazi ideology was reinforced still further by the title of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film of the Nuremberg rally, Triumph of the Will. The perceived link between Nietzsche and the Nazis has been strongly criticised and refuted, however. Nietzsche himself was a vehement critic of the Germans and despised the nationalism of Wilhelmine Germany. When Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche published her edition of his works, with a very strong nationalist bias, he commented that he wrote his books ‘only for people who like to sit and think, no more’. He was not particularly anti-semitic, and while Thus Spake Zarathustra celebrated the warrior and was issued by the German government to soldiers in the trenches during the First World War along with the Bible as inspirational reading, Nietzsche’s own view of the warrior was that of the idealised heroic warrior of ancient Greece, rather than modern soldiers who massacre unarmed civilians. 19 Nietzsche hated mass politics, and his philosophy was too individualistic to support the totalitarian ideology of the Nazis. Historians such as Joachim C. Fest have noted that Hitler was far more influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer, and that only severely edited versions of Nietzsche’s works were published during the Third Reich.

Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s vehement hatred towards Christianity has been compared to the Nazis hatred of the Jews and other racial groups. ‘Sometimes when reading Nietzsche, one feels that in his worst moments, the psychological venom with which he attacked Christians was comparable to the venom with which Hitler attacked the Jewish people. It is from the same bottle of poison that rabid racists attack those who are unlike them, and  religious fanatics attack those who stand opposed to their doctrinal expansion.’ 20 Unlike the Nazis, however, Nietzsche mostly advocated peaceful solutions to what he perceived as contemporary problems which involved merely a change in worldview and self-improvement through an emphasis on personal strength and aesthetic appreciation. 21 Indeed, the Nazis themselves and their aggression can be seen as psychologically weak and inferior from a Nietzschean perspective that considers that the truly strong individual can nevertheless still flourish and not feel threatened by the type of society, like Weimar Germany, which threatened the Nazis. 22

Nietzche’s Influence on Contemporary French Philosophy

Regardless of Nietzsche’s perceived connection with the Nazis, he has influenced 20th century and contemporary French philosophy, including existentialists such as Sartre and Camus. His statement in Human, All-Too-Human, that ‘everything, though, has become; there are no eternal facts: just as much as there are no absolute truths’ formed the basis for Postmodernism. 23 Nietzsche’s rejection of a single authority and unique worldview for historical philosophizing influenced Georges Bataille, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida. 24

Similarity Between Nietzsche’s Views on Cosmic Meaninglessness and those of Monod and Weinberg

Some of the pronouncements made by contemporary atheist scientists are also very similar to statements made by Nietzsche, even though there may be no direct influence. The French evolutionary biologist, Jacques Monod, who signed the 1975 Humanist Manifesto, declared that the message of of science was that humanity was a gypsy on the boundary of an alien world. 25  Monod considered that the emergence of humanity was entirely due to chance, stating that

‘Immanence is alien to modern science. Destiny is written as and while, not before, it happens … The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game. Is it surprsing that, like the person who has just made a million at the casino, we should feel strange and a little unreal?’ 26

The great American cosmologist, Steven Weinberg, has similarly remarked that humanity is merely an insignificant part of a vast, meaningless universe.

‘It is very hard to realise that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realise taht this persent universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.’ 27 Nietzsche expressed a similar bleak, cosmic pessimism at the beginning of his essay, ‘On Truth and Lie in a Morally-Disengaged Sense’, stating

‘In some isolated corner of the cosmos, poured out shimmeringly into uncountable solar systems, there was once a star upon which clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most arrogant and hypocritical minute of “world history”: but it was only a minute. After nature drew a few breaths, the star grew stiff with cold, and the clever animals had to die.’ 28

In fact the view of humanity as an alien, out of place in the universe, has been challenged by science. It has been remarked that evolutionary biologists have been demonstrating for over a century that humanity was born here and should acknowledge the cosmos as their native home. 29 Humans are natural products of the world, and so, like other creatures in the cosmos, are intrinsic to it. 30

Intelligibility of the Cosmos

Despite these apparent points of contact between Monod, Weinberg and Nietzsche, however, there are immense differences. Rather than believing in an unknowable cosmos, such as that imagined by Nietzsche, Monod and Weinberg would argue strongly that science gives a unique access to objective truth about the nature of the world. From the Nietzschean standpoint, any attempt to ascribe a particular character to the cosmos, or make dogmatic statements about its fundamental nature, is an anthropomorphic projection comparable to the process by which humans invented God. The physical laws and models of the universe created by Monod and Weinberg are, in the Nietzschean view, shadows of God fulfilling the same conceptual role in human ideology as God. Thus, ironically, in the Nietzschean view atheists like Monod and Weinberg, in their conception of an intelligible, universe, aren’t atheist enough.

Criticisms of Nietzsche

In fact Nietzsche’s philosophy is vulnerable to criticism on a number of fundamental points. It is fatally flawed in the sense that it is basically self-contradictory. Nietzschean philosophy states that there is no fundamental truth about the world and no objective worldview or morality. Yet for Nietzschean philosophy to be valid, it has to be fundamentally and objectively true, something which it denies.

Furthermore, for all his claims to rationality and scientific methodology, Nietzsche’s approach was literary and poetic rather than entirely scientific and rationalistic. Nietzsche was opposed to exclusive and excessively rationalistic thought and ‘to any science devoid of art, to any purely literalistic, non-literary, non-poetic approach to understanding the world’. 31

Nietzsche’s family circumstances also seem to bear out the suggestion of the Christian psychologist, Paul Vitz, that people turn to atheism due to the breakdown of their families and particularly a poor relationship with their father. Nietzsche himself loved his father, a Lutheran minister, and his early years centred around his father’s church and pastor’s house, which was situated only a few meters away. In his teens Nietzsche wrote music strongly influenced by the style of that of the contemporary Lutheran Church.  However, Nietzsche’s father died when he was four, and his two year old brother only six months later. It’s possible that the grief caused by this loss was important in generating Nietzsche’s atheism. ‘Nietzsche’s early childhood experiences presented him with an understanding of death that could easily be transposed into reflections on the “death of God,” if only because the Christian God is a superhuman father figure.’ 32

There is also the point that rather than being an unintelligible chaos as imagined by Nietzsche, science instead has discovered the universe to be intelligible and ordered. T.H. Huxley himself stated that ‘if imagination is used within the limits laid down by science, disorder is unimaginable.’ 33 For people of faith, this order present in the cosmos is due to it being the product of a transcendent Creator, and the belief that this is case was one of the causes of the rise of science in Europe. Paul Davies has pointed out in his 1983 The Mind of God that the scientific investigation of nature was justified in renaissance Europe through the argument that nature was the creation of a rational God and therefore displayed this order. 34 Eugene Wigner, one of the founders of Quantum physics, remarked on the ‘unreasonable successfulness of mathematics’ in describing the universe. The British physicist Sir James Jeans similarly considered that it was little short of miraculous that an insignificant creature such as humanity, briefly occurring in the immensity of the cosmos, should possess a mind that could map the universe. Humanity was able to do this because the universe conformed to the same mathematical framework that humanity had constructed, and so bore witness to a mind that had kinship with humanity’s own. 35 The Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose similarly argued in his 1985 Shadows of the Mind that the best explanation for the beauty and structure of mathematics was that they were somehow given by God. Instead of inventing equations and formulae, mathematicians instead discovered the mathematical creations of God. 36

Conclusion: Intelligibility of the Cosmos Supports the Existence of a Rational God

If the universe was unintelligible, then Nietzsche’s rejection of any attempt to define its fundamental characteristics as mere anthropomorphism could be justified. However, its intelligibility suggests that both it and humanity have a common origin as creations of God. The former Quantum physicist and Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, in his 1988 Science and Creation: A Search for Understanding, stated that

‘If the deep-seated congruence of the rationality present in our minds with the rationality present in the world is to find a true explanation it must surely lie in some more profound reason which is the ground of both. Such a reason would be provided by the Rationality of a Creator.’ 37 Thus, science, far from supporting the meaningless universe of chaos envisaged by Nietzsche, instead to people of faith continues to point to a meaningful cosmos of divine order, and a transcendent rationality which humans share with the author of that cosmos. In this view, Monod and Weinberg are also wrong for viewing the cosmos as meaningless like Nietzsche despite their rejection of Nietzsche’s view that the cosmos has not objective nature.


1. Robert Wicks, Nietzsche (Oxford, One World 2002), p. 39.

2. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 43.

3. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, cited in Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 43.

4. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 54.

5. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 57.

6. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 56.

7. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 65.

8. Wicks, Nietzsche, pp. 65-6.

9. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 66.

10. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, cited in Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 68.

11. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, cited in Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 68.

12. Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lie in a Morally-Disengaged Sense’, cited in Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 44.

13. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 42.

14. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, cited in Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 70.

15. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 73.

16. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 75.

17. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 77.

18. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 125.

19. Wicks, Nietzsche, pp. 128, 129.

20. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 131.

21. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 131.

22. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 134.

23. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 140.

24. Wicks, Nietzsche, pp. 136-44.

25. Mary Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (London, Methuen 1985), p. 76.

26. Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion, p. 88.

27. Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion, p. 88.

28. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 74.

29. Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion, p. 76.

30. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 148.

31. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 38.

32. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 51.

33. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 79.

34. Alister McGrath, The Science of God (London, T& T Clark International, 2004), p. 67.

35. C.E.M. Joad, Philosophical Aspects of Modern Science (London, Unwin 1963), p. 48.

36. McGrath, The Science of God, p. 116.

37. John Polkinghorne, Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding (London, SPCK 1988), p. 22, cited in McGrath, The Science of God, p. 60.