What’s Wrong with Atheism: A Quantum of Time
Continuing our series on faith and atheism, we now begin our critical review of one of the main arguments against religion made by atheists, especially so-called “new atheists,” who make frequent and fervent appeals to science. In upcoming posts inshaAllah, we will draw broader conclusions and outline a positive argument for theism. So, stay tuned!
Many atheists challenge believers by arguing that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God. “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, et. al., argue that it is irrational to believe anything without empirical proof, and, hence, by believing in God, theists are hopelessly irrational. Contrary to this claim, however, there are many things universally believed to be real, by atheists and theists alike, despite a lack of scientific proof. Let’s start with…
Does time exist? We all experience the passage of time, have memories of the past, anticipate the future, etc. A brief survey of world literature, poetry, and art will quickly demonstrate the human obsession with the notions of time, temporality, and mortality. But, how do we scientifically prove that time exists? Or, better yet, how do we even define time?
Thinkers have debated this question for thousands of years. Some argued that time is a fundamental feature of the universe, like atoms and galaxies. Others took a contrary position and claimed that time is just a figment of our minds, a mental construction that simply organizes our experiences.
It is true that in the sciences, time is considered a fundamental dimension constituting the fabric of the universe. But we cannot literally see time, like we can see a star or, even, atoms. We cannot hold time, manipulate time, do experiments on time, or treat it like any other measurable quantity that we study in science.
For example, we see that the hands of a clock move. Aren’t we seeing the passage of time? Well, no, all we literally see is the hands of a clock; certainly we have empirical evidence that clocks exist. But, time — i.e., the thing that allegedly moves the clock and everything else “forward” — is entirely invisible, imperceptible.
What about a photograph? Or a video recording? Aren’t those empirical evidences of the past?
Well, what is a photo? Bear with me here, but, ultimately, a photo is a representation of reality not unlike a painting. But what makes a photo a representation specifically of the past? There is nothing inherent to a photograph or video recording that “captures” the past. The only way to know that a photo actually represents the past is through our memories of the past, and a memory is not empirical evidence. We know that a photo represents the past because we compare the photo to what we remember to have happened. Or, if we had not been physically present, we use other contextual factors to assess whether a photo is indeed a photo as opposed to, say, an ultra-realistic CGI counterfeit.
Put another way, why is a photo more compelling as evidence of the past than any other object?
Put a third way, a photo or video recording is, in actuality, a metaphysical object. To understand what this means, imagine showing a photo to a person who, due to some mental defect, not only has no conception of past, present, future, but also suffers from short- and long-term memory loss. Imagine this person as a skeptical empiricist who wants hard evidence for the existence of time.
How do you explain the concept of a photo to such a person? Maybe he would understand the photo in the same way we understand paintings or CGI. Simply stated, you cannot convey the significance of a photo without employing the concept of the past and time. As such, we cannot use a concept, like photography, which presupposes time, to prove the objective existence of time. That would be circular.
It appears we are out of luck as far as scientifically proving the existence of time. Clearly, time is not the kind of thing that can be experienced like we experience the sun, the sky, or molecules viewed through an electron microscope. Does this mean that time is not empirically realizable? Well, we can table this question and opt for the more immediate conclusion which is: To ask for empirical evidence of time in the same way that one might ask for empirical evidence of a physical entity, e.g., photons, black holes, etc., is to make a crass category mistake.
At this point, purists might argue that a lack of empirical evidence for time is an indication that it, in fact, does not objectively exist, i.e., that time is nothing more than an illusion. But, the rest of us ought to put our foots down. Why should only empirical considerations count for or against the reality of something as universally and deeply experienced as time?
Furthermore, if time — which, in many ways, is the basis of our mental function and our sense of reality itself — turns out to be nothing more than an illusion, then that would cast doubt on our cognitive capabilities at large. In other words, saying time is an illusion is tantamount to saying reality is an illusion. “Reality is an illusion.” (Let that twisted statement marinate in your mind for a second. It’s not the same thing as saying the world is an illusion a la the film The Matrix. The whole concept of an “illusion” is something in contrast to reality. So, to claim reality itself is an illusion is vexing, to say the least.)
The analogy between an empiricist who cannot grasp the concept of time and one who does not understand belief in God is instructive. Atheists cannot understand how supposedly rational theists can remain committed to something that, by atheistic standards, is lacking evidence. Likewise, theists have trouble conveying to atheists the depth of conviction that springs from a “sensus divinitatis” or numinous that permeates and underwrites their world. This rift results in miscommunication and confusion on both sides, but it all stems from an imprecise understanding of empiricism and its limits.
More can be said on this point, but, first, is time the only example of a reality which is functionally invisible to science? By the way, what is science?