Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Scientific Verdict on God (Part 4): The New Deism

The more we refine our understanding of God to make the concept plausible, the more it seems pointless~ Steven Weinberg [1]

In his bestselling 2006 book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes geneticist Jerry Coyne as saying that the real nature of the current conflict between religion and science goes far deeper than just the cultural battle between evolution and creationism:

It’s not just about evolution versus creationism. To scientists like Dawkins and Wilson [E.O. Wilson, the celebrated Harvard biologist], the real war is between rationalism and superstition. Science is but one form of rationalism, while religion is the most common form of superstition. Creationism is just a symptom of what they see as the greater enemy: religion. While religion can exist without creationism, creationism cannot exist without religion [2].
If theists want to use reason to argue for their position that a god exists, whatever model of god that may be, they have every right to do so. If they argue on the basis of ancient superstitions, on beliefs based on the myths of a primitive tribe that lived in the desert thousands of years ago and thought very highly of themselves and regarded themselves as special, then there is no point in arguing with them. If, on the other hand, we are going to debate on mutually-agreed grounds of rational argumentation – that is, if the theist agrees along with the atheist that they are going to make clear what their assumptions are and what their reasoning is for making those assumptions, then we should levy no objection to taking the time to debate with them. We atheists want just that kind of debate.

Incidentally, there are many theologians who do just this. Physicist and atheist Victor Stenger refers to this class of theists as the “Premise Keepers” in his 2003 book Has Science Found God? [3] This is a group with whom he sympathizes despite his disagreement with their conclusions. The premise keepers are theologians who fully accept and embrace the findings of modern science. They reject the approaches of people like William Dembski and Michael Behe and the flat-earth creationists before them, who want to denigrate science. But the premise keepers are theologians, after all. They cannot very well argue that God does not exist, because then they would find themselves out of a job. Therefore, they have to start with the assumption (the premise) that God exists and then attempt to make that proposition consistent with everything we know, not just in science but in all areas of knowledge that weigh in on the god question. And they have actually made a fairly impressive effort in this task by developing a highly abstract idea of god.

Their abstraction of god has led many of those who follow and agree with their books and articles to write highly critical reviews of the “new atheist” literature that has hit the publishing world like a storm in the past decade. A common accusation they make against the new atheists is that the latter group has not recognized what eminent scientist-theologians like John Polkinghorne or others like him have said. This is simply not the case; atheist writers have considered and written a fair amount about the science-savvy theologians, and I can direct any fan of the premise keepers to the relevant books and articles. However, in many other cases the abstract god of the theologians is not the kind of god being discussed in recent atheist literature. The theologians’ god, who may have created the universe and then allowed it to run on its own, just as in the Enlightenment model of the deist god, is not as interesting as the much more falsifiable personal god of theism who throughout history interacts and interferes with his creation on a moment-to-moment basis. The premise keepers posit a different god, one that essentially amounts to a modernized version of the old deism. Whereas the deism of the Enlightenment was an offshoot from the revolutionary Newtonian picture of the world as a clockwork mechanism, the new deism is an offshoot from developments of quantum mechanics early in the twentieth century.

Most educated theologians today fully realize that the God they espouse does not answer the prayers of the faithful. Most do not believe Jesus resurrected from the dead or that he was born of a virgin. They are fully aware that these stories and concepts are fictional, quaint mythological stories that may have served some purpose at one time in the past, as all myths seem to have done. Mythology once provided people with a way of understanding their life and the world in which they found themselves that was appropriate for their level of intellectual development.

Thus, when today’s educated theologians take to task common definitions of God – employed by us outspoken “new atheists” for use in hypothetical argumentation – they are not disagreeing with our observation that the personal God most people believe in does not answer prayers. They are disagreeing with the model of a God that does things like respond to prayers, raise people from the dead, and impregnate virgins with his holy spirit. They realize that the model of this active personal God is a testable hypothesis and one moreover that has failed the test in both science and philosophy. And theologians are notoriously averse to testable hypotheses. Rarely do we ever hear them positively define their god to let us know what they actually believe their god is and what he/she/it actually does. These are the theologians whose sole objection to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is an insistence that the kind of deity Dawkins dismantles is not the god they believe in. But they rarely lay out what they actually do believe about god, only what they do not believe god is like.

Evolution Theology

There are several exceptions to this general rule, of course. For example, in the cultural conflict between Christianity and the science of biological evolution, large groups of moderate Christians – taking their cue from the Catholic Church in general – have come out in support of the theory of evolution. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons the majority of scientists are loathe to involve themselves in too great a conflict with these religious groups; they reason that they need their continued support in order to see evolution taught more often than it unfortunately is in most public schools.

The fact that many religious groups support evolution means that several scientifically-literate theologians must have some answer to the largest theological problem raised by evolution: the fact that the existence of humans is an accident of nature. As the late eminent paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, if we were to wind back the “tape” of evolution and start the process up again from the beginning without changing any of the laws of chemistry, biology or physics, we would not see any of the same set of species we do today. Humanity would not again evolve, since humans are the product of innumerable accidents, chance events that occurred in the process of evolution [4]. The evolutionist John Maynard Smith reiterated Gould’s point in a review of the latter’s work:

If one was able to replay the whole evolution of animals, starting at the bottom of the Cambrian (and, to satisfy Laplace, moving one of the individual animals two feet to its left), there is no guarantee – indeed, no likelihood – that the result would be the same. There might be no conquest of the land, no emergence of mammals, certainly no human beings [5].
This means that humanity is not special. Yet the Christian religion, along with most other religions, has always placed humanity at the center of the universe. Christianity thus has no viable way of accounting for evolution and reconciling it with Christian doctrine.

How do theologians cope with this? Some, like physicist and Episcopalian priest William Pollard, suggest that God occasionally pokes his finger in at various points to bring about the emergence of human beings [6]. But this model is not consistent with evolution, which is a naturalistic process which operates by a well-established naturalistic mechanism. Pollard’s model is a form of intelligent design.

Other believers come up with a different theology more consistent with evolution as a naturalistic process. One approach is to basically revert to the god that Einstein famously objected to, namely the god who throws dice. Kenneth Miller, an evolutionary biologist and devout Catholic, suggests that God created the universe with a number of initial possible pathways and then played dice, letting his universe go to let its pathways obtain naturally according to chance, without interfering in any way after the toss. “Evolution is not rigged,” he writes, “and religious belief does not require one to postulate a God who fixes the game, bribes the referees, or tricks natural selection” [7]. This view is shared by physicist and theologian Ian Barbour, who writes, “Natural laws and chance may equally be instruments of God’s intentions. There can be purpose without an exact predetermined plan” [8]. One possible pathway (and the one that the universe obviously took) resulted in the evolution of humanity, but another possible pathway may have led to some other advanced creature. It was just an accident of chance that the path happened to result in the human species.

In any case, Miller and others with similar views believe that God’s purpose was served, and would have been regardless of what path the universe naturally followed after his roll of the cosmic dice:

Given evolution’s ability to adapt, to innovate, to test, and to experiment, sooner or later it would have given the Creator exactly what He was looking for – a creature who, like us, could know Him and love Him, could perceive the heavens and dream of the stars, a creature who would eventually discover the extraordinary process of evolution that filled His earth with so much life [9].
In other words, whatever path the universe took, whether it resulted in the emergence of humanity or in some other species, God’s only “intention” was to allow the dice to roll as they will. Whatever might have happened, they say, God’s purpose in throwing the dice in the first place is accomplished. As Miller puts it, “If another group of animals had evolved to self-awareness, if another creature had shown itself worthy of a soul, can we really say for certain that God would have been less than pleased with His new Eve and Adam? I don’t think so” [10].

This is a workable model of God, and one that nobody can disprove or rule out. But it is also not testable or falsifiable, as is the failed model of the Judeo-Christian Islamic God who interacts with his creation on a daily basis and takes an active interest in the lives of humans. Moreover, it is not a god for which any evidence is forthcoming, and the “absence of evidence” argument, as discussed in Part 2, still applies to the dice-throwing deistic god of Barbour and Miller.

Emergent Theology

Another common notion entertained by the premise keepers is that god emerges from natural processes, similar to the way consciousness emerges from organic brain matter. The notion of emergence, which grew out of complexity theory, suggests that certain properties and principles not built into material systems can arise out of those material systems, which initially were composed only of particles bouncing off one another. In his book Mind and Emergence, theologian Philip Clayton identifies downward causation as the most important defining characteristic of emergence. Downward causation is “the process whereby some whole has an active non-additive causal influence on its parts” [11]. This is a process for which the only actual evidence in nature are trivial instances with no metaphysical import, contrary to the theologians’ claims. Clayton himself acknowledges this mundaneness when he points out that claimed instances of downward causation “are clearest when the ‘whole’ in question is something we standardly pick out as a separate object in the world, such as cells, organs, organisms, and objects built by humans” [12].

A common example invoked by writers on emergence is water. There is no property of wetness in the individual particles that form water, namely hydrogen and oxygen atoms. But when two hydrogen atoms join with one oxygen atom, they produce water molecules which collectively possess the property of wetness. And so, wetness is said to “emerge.”

Sure, wetness emerges. But this fact does not in any way imply either that emergence is therefore a supernatural process, or that something more than reductive physics is needed to explain emergent properties, as the premise keepers are trying to insinuate.

Interestingly enough, a number of Christian theologians have come to accept the fact that we can safely conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that there is no such thing as a soul, a spiritual substance that exists in each person separate from their material selves. As Christian theologian Nancey Murphy admits, “It is undeniable that a serious theological problem awaits solution” [13]. She acknowledges that “biology, neuroscience, and cognitive science have provided accounts of the dependence on physical processes of specific faculties once attributed to the soul” and that “the neurosciences have completed the Darwinian revolution, bringing the entire human being under the purview of the natural sciences” [14]. She is a proponent of the position which has come to be known as nonreductive physicalism, which she describes as follows:

Applied to the specific area of studies of consciousness, it [nonreductive physicalism] denies the existence of a nonmaterial entity, the mind (or soul) but does not deny the existence of consciousness (a position in philosophy of mind called eliminative materialism) or the significance of conscious states or other mental (note the adjectival form) phenomena. In brief, this is the view that the human nervous system, operating in concert with the rest of the body in its environment, is the seat of consciousness (and also of human spiritual or religious capacities). Consciousness and religious awareness are emergent properties and they have top-down causal influence on the body [15].
In other words, nonreductive physicalism accepts reductive accounts of human beings as purely physical organisms, but in addition to rejecting the dualistic notion of a mind or soul separate from the physical constitution of conscious creatures, nonreductive physicalism also denies that reductive physics and biology possess any causal role in bringing about higher capacities such as consciousness.

Physiological psychologist Warren S. Brown of Fuller Theological Seminary suggests that what we call “soul” is an emergent property which arises from the capacity for personal relatedness among humans. Personal relatedness, says Brown, is made possible by a number of cognitive functions which he argues are either qualitatively or quantitatively unique to humans. These include language, a theory of other minds, episodic memory, future orientation and emotional modulation. While he rejects body-soul dualism and admits that the functions which allow for personal relatedness depend on lower abilities for their existence and operation, Brown argues that they cannot be reduced to those lower abilities. Something more is required to account for them. He further asserts, without providing any evidence, that human cognitive capabilities exert “downward causative influence” on those lower abilities [16].

So, while the premise keepers have seemingly come to terms with the results of modern neuroscience which demonstrate conclusively that thinking is a purely physical process, as are emotions, they proceed to argue that perhaps, as humanity and the rest of the universe evolves further, out of our materialistic brain chemistry will emerge a tendency toward a point of ultimate complexity. This point of ultimate complexity, which the theologians want to call “God,” is often referred to in the context of the Omega Point, an idea originally proposed in 1955 by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and paleontologist [17].

Murphy, Brown and other proponents of top-down emergence and nonreductive physicalism still seem to be in denial of another fact, namely that physics implies reduction by definition. If one wants to philosophize it by suffixing an ism onto the term “physical” and talk about physicalism while rejecting reductive accounts which make sense of its constructs, why not deny altogether the primacy of the hard science they are trying to reconcile with theology in the first place and present the physical sciences as simply another branch of theology? As it turns out, some god-believing physicists do just this.

Christianity and Eternal Life as Physics

Physicist Frank Tipler of Tulane University, probably the most enthusiastic proponent of Teilhard’s “Omega Point” idea among scientists today, has been rightly described by biologist and popular atheist blogger PZ Myers as “one weird dude” [18]. Tipler promotes some of the most incredibly amusing and bizarre ideas one can hope to come across in his field. He has made a career out of interpreting modern physics in terms of both Christianity and the ultimate movement to the Omega Point, and in trying to persuade his colleagues and readers that theology is a branch of physics. Tipler was introduced in Part 2 of this series as the one who announced in 2007 that he had come up with a physics equation that he claimed proved the existence of God, stating that “as long as you're using . . . general relativity, and quantum mechanics, you are forced to conclude that God exists” [19].

Some years before this, Tipler authored a fascinating book titled The Physics of Immortality, in which he purports to “absorb theology into physics, to make Heaven as real as an electron [20].” Let me summarize his interpretation, which is well worth exploring for those not familiar with it.

Tipler begins the book by asserting that the planet Earth is doomed to be engulfed by the Sun’s outer atmosphere, into which the planet will then spiral, in about 7 billion years. If the human species is to survive into the far future, we must move off the planet and colonize space. In less than fifty years, Tipler is convinced that humanity will have succeeded in building interstellar robot probes which possess intelligence and which will leave Earth to explore the universe and colonize it with the DNA codes of humans and other life forms. These intelligent robots will evolve over time into ever more complex artificial intelligence systems. In about a billion-billion (or 1018) years from now, the universe will have reached maximum expansion and will begin to contract. By harnessing the chaos equations governing universal dynamics, the intelligent robots we created will control the rate and direction in which the universe collapses back down to a single point of infinitesimal size (the Omega Point).

Now, when a system gravitationally collapses, any clocks contained within it run slower and slower as the collapse progresses. This means that an infinite amount of time is available while the collapse of the universe takes place. During this infinite time, everything that can and has happened can be repeated over and over again. The advanced robotic life forms will thus be able to regenerate every single human that has ever existed and make them relive their life over and over again. Not only will every single human being who has ever lived repeat the life they had the first time around, but they will live every other possible life. In other words, everybody will do every possible thing they might have done in their lives. This, then, is the immortality which Tipler envisions: a coming infinity of time in which everything can and will happen, the mechanism for which he works out from advanced physics.

In 2007, Tipler published The Physics of Christianity, a book in which he presents pure reductive physics explanations for the resurrection of Jesus, his virgin birth, and his miracles. All of these events occurred naturally, says Tipler, and no postulate of supernaturalism or divine intervention is required to account for and explain them.

Tipler speculates that when Jesus resurrected from death, his entire body was converted into neutrinos, elementary particles which interact very weakly with normal macroscale matter and thus are invisible, allowing Jesus to walk through solid walls. By reversing the conversion process, Jesus can materialize out of nothing and thereby reappear before his disciples [21].

Jesus’ virgin birth could have occurred by the natural inducement of oocyte (egg cell) division in the female body of Mary. Tipler points out that the phenomenon of parthenogenesis has been known to occur in nature, resulting in about one in thirty human births. However, because females have two X chromosomes while males typically have the XY combination, natural virginal births should always result in a female child, since all the genes come from the mother in those rare cases. Tipler gets around this problem by noting that 1 in 20,000 males have two X chromosomes, their maleness coming from a key gene (the SRY gene). This SRY gene may have been inserted into one of Mary’s X chromosomes and inactivated by a standard RNA mechanism which turns off genes. The gene would then be activated in Jesus, who in this scheme results from the division of one of Mary’s oocytes prior to its becoming haploid, thus allowing Jesus to be born a male [22].

Jesus’ miracles are said by Tipler to have been achieved by the electroweak quantum tunneling mechanism, basically the same as that which allowed the resurrection of his invisible body and re-materialization before his disciples: the annihilation/conversion of protons and electrons into neutrinos and vice versa. When Jesus walked on water, the protons and electrons making up the layer of water under his feet were annihilated, creating neutrinos in their place. This means Jesus would have been kept from sinking by the upward recoil resulting from the rapid motion of these neutrinos as they move downward with high momentum [23].

Tipler even has a physics account of the coming “Great Tribulation” described in the Bible’s more prophetic passages. Tipler is convinced that we as a species are doomed to destroy ourselves within the next fifty years. Recall the intelligent robot probes we will send off into space, as discussed above in reference to Tipler’s previous book. In order to do this, humans will first need to develop a highly-efficient form of propulsion, which Tipler believes will be found when collective humanity discovers the means to control the matter annihilation process used by Jesus. That dematerialization mechanism will provide each of us with a tabletop weapon so powerfully destructive that it makes nuclear bombs look like spitballs by comparison. Our inability to control this weapon will mean our demise at our own hands [24]. Thus, the very process that will ultimately bring about the resurrection of each and every human being to eternal life in the Omega Point – the sending off of intelligent robots into the cosmos who will later resurrect us in the form of computer emulations – will also be the cause of our temporary destruction in less than fifty years.

Traditional Theology versus “Sokaled” Theology

In reading Tipler’s works, one is led to wonder if he is actually serious. Perhaps he is playing a great hoax on his colleagues and readers, in similar fashion to the famous Sokal hoax. In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal of New York University wrote an article for the peer-reviewed journal Social Text in which he proposed that the laws of physics are little more than mere social and linguistic conventions and that science must be subordinated to political strategies rather than to reality in order to be liberated [25]. In writing this article, which was accepted by the peer-review board of the journal, Sokal intentionally filled it with pseudoscience and nonsensical but obfuscated postmodern gibberish. His prank highlighted one of the many problems with postmodernist academics, namely the tendency of postmodernists to communicate using a façade of theoretical sophistication to the exclusion of internal logical consistency. As Sokal put it in a Lingua Franca article, in which he revealed his Social Text article as a satire, “Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors, and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this” [26].

This is a fitting description of Tipler’s writings. Although he is careful and rigorous in his use of well-established science and precise mathematics (and so is not postmodern in that particular sense), he has misused and abused the physics he knows in trying to treat theology as a branch of physics and in making up a practically fictional universe from the depths of his fertile imagination. It should be obvious that no Christian layperson talks or even thinks the way Tipler and other “theophysicists” do on a regular basis.

This is a problem for the evolution-theologians who want to massage their model into consistency with the basic tenets of Christianity. Many want to maintain that the model of a god who throws dice is consistent with what we find in the Bible. However, their model is not at all consistent with what most lay believers and worshippers think and believe. The theologians’ “Sokaled” god is not the one being prayed to by the average layperson in the pew. It is in fact unrecognizable to them, and most of those people in the pews would view the god of the theologians as a heresy. After all, the theologians’ model denies many of the essential traditional precepts of the Catholic Church, for example, one of which states that Jesus was a divine being.

So in one sense, the premise keepers have come to grips with reality, only to then retroactively define their god back into consistency with the findings of modern science. Because they have come to accept that the broader model of god can no longer be supported, they have scaled back and attempted to fit god into whatever nooks and crannies they possibly can. But they then use their model of god as a justification for religion itself, the exercise of which is completely independent of and separate from the idea of god they have conceived. The premise keepers want to argue that religion itself is good for society and individuals, whether or not there is a god behind it and regardless of whether their god is even identifiable by the worshippers.

Moreover, the “intention” of the evolution-theologians’ god is indistinguishable from a complete absence of intention. In other words, their god may as well not exist, because if this god does no more than roll the cosmic dice and allow whatever happens next to play out naturally, then there is no reason for supposing that he exists in the first place. Unless, that is, the chance-theologian resorts to the classical First Cause argument, which has been soundly refuted for over 400 years. And besides, there can be no benefit whatsoever to believing in the god who throws dice. He does not hear prayers, much less answer them, and he does not interact in any way with his chance creation. Again, he might as well not exist.

Conclusion: Rational Christians Are Effective Atheists

Because the professional reason-oriented theologians posit a god that may as well not exist, it follows that they may as well be atheists. That is, they are effective atheists. This renders their adherence to Christianity all the more perplexing. If they accept that god throws dice and allows chance processes to take over, they must accept that Jesus himself was just another accident of history, as are all the rest of us. Nancey Murphy expresses this concern when she writes, “A revised concept of the person has implications for thinking about the person of Christ. Recognition of the centrality of resurrection to Christian teaching, combined with recognition of the continuity of humans with the whole of nature, calls for reconsideration of the scope of God’s final transformative act” [27].

Then again, it is not even clear that the majority of today’s professional theologians, even the ostensibly Christian ones, actually believe in Jesus as the divine savior of humankind. Consider, for example, the case of John Shelby Spong. A retired bishop of the Episcopal Church, Spong is the author of many books promoting liberal and progressive Christianity and debunking fundamentalist doctrine. In his 2007 book Jesus for the Non-Religious, Spong gives strong, reasoned arguments as to why the virgin birth of Christ could not have happened, why the whole story of the Nativity of Christ could not have played out as depicted in the Bible, why students of history can safely conclude that the story of Christ’s resurrection is not historical and the story of his ascension is a myth. By the time Spong concludes the first part of his book, practically nothing of the Gospel narrative survives his critical examination. He summarizes his findings as follows:

The first stage of our faith journey, the clearing out of distortions in the way we view the Jesus story, is complete. The literalness of centuries of misinterpretation of the Jesus story has been broken open. The pieces lie before us in frightening array. Jesus was born in a perfectly normal way in Nazareth. His mother was not the icon of virgin purity. His earthly father, Joseph, was a literary creation. His family thought he was out of his mind. He probably did not have twelve male disciples. He had disciples who were both male and female. He did not command nature to obey him. He did not in any literal sense give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf or wholeness to the paralyzed and infirm. He did not raise the dead. There was no stylized Last Supper in which bread was identified with his broken body and wine with his poured-out shed blood designed to symbolize his final prediction of death. There was no betrayal and no romance connected with his death, no mocking crowd, no crown of thorns, no words from the cross, no thieves, no cry of thirst and no darkness at noon. There was no tomb, no Joseph of Arimathea, no earthquake, no angel who rolled back the stone. There was no resuscitated body that emerged from that tomb on the third day, no touching of the wounds of Jesus, no opening by him of the secrets of scripture. Finally, there was no ascension into a heaven that exists above the sky. . . . All of these narrative details were the creation of a community of people who individually and corporately had an experience that they believed was of God in the human life of one Jesus of Nazareth [28].
Spong is by far the most honest Christian I know, and probably one of the most honest Christian writers of our time. His many years of close study have convinced him that there is little to no historical truth to be found in the Gospels, and he has not shied away from presenting the results of his research, however devastating to the tenets of traditional Christianity. It is not often nowadays that we find a Christian author, even a liberal one, writing as Spong does when he says that the “resurrection language of the gospels is literal nonsense” [29].

I am in complete agreement. If one came across many passages in Spong’s books unattributed, he or she would be excused for thinking that an atheist wrote it. However, through all this, Spong the self-identified Christian somehow manages to retain a dimly-perceived concept of Jesus with which he has lived his whole life and which he believes has brought him a feeling of happiness and fulfillment. He is still somehow able to find in Jesus a name for something by which he accounts for the goodness he sees in life. At the end of Jesus for the Non-Religious he writes,

It is through the expanded consciousness of these transcendent experiences [life, love and being] that I look at Jesus of Nazareth and assert that in his life I see what the word “God” means. My view of God and even of the God I meet in Jesus is a subjective description of what I believe is an objective reality.

It matters not to me whether any of the details of the cross story are accurate historically. I have long been convinced that they are not, since as I have already suggested, the gospels appear to be liturgically crafted documents based not on eyewitness accounts but on ancient Hebrew sources. They do, however, present a memory of Jesus of Nazareth, a portrait that I still find to be astounding [30].

Spong’s Jesus is just a name, nothing more. His Jesus is a concept not based on anything of substance, but rather on subjective feelings and sentiments. And while the various scientist-theologians reviewed above are more oriented toward hard science fuzzy feelings of the Spong variety, they too champion a model of theological belief of which the sole justification is their subjective aversion to a fully materialistic account of life, the universe and everything. This materialistic, fully reductive account is all that is required of the data, and many of them are good enough scientists to be fully aware of this deep down. The non-interventionist god of the scientist-theologians can thus be safely ruled out on the basis of its status as an unnecessary and post-hoc ancillary hypothesis.

Paradoxically, the scientist-theologians’ attempts to reconcile their conception of god and religious belief with the findings of modern science represents a fundamental unwillingness to come to terms with the fully reductionist picture of the universe which the data presents to us. At least the religious anti-science fundamentalists live in their own self-contained albeit ridiculous universe of their own dogmatic making which, while completely divorced from the real world, operates consistently according to its own rules which are provably incompatible with reality. Trying to harmonize religion and science succeeds only in a confused and inconsistent worldview unrecognizable by either traditional religion or modern science.

NOTES

1. Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist's Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), p. 256.

2. Jerry Coyne, as quoted in Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 92.

3. Victor J. Stenger, Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), ch. 11. See also Stenger, Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), chs. 14-15.

4. Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: Norton, 1989).

5. John Maynard Smith, “Taking a Chance on Evolution,” New York Review of Books 34 no. 9 (14 May 1992): 34-36.

6. William G. Pollard, Chance and Providence: God’s Actions in a World Governed by Scientific Law (London: Faber and Faber, 1958).

7. Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), p. 238.

8. Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 216.

9. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God, pp. 238-239.

10. Ibid., p. 274.

11. Philip Clayton, Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 49.

12. Ibid.

13. Nancey Murphy, “Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues,” in Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy and H. Newton Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), p. 24.

14. Ibid., p. 17, 24.

15. Nancey Murphy, “Nonreductive Physicalism: Philosophical Issues,” in Brown, Murphy and Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? pp. 130-131.

16. Warren S. Brown, “Cognitive Contributions to Soul,” in Brown, Murphy and Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? pp. 99-125.

17. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, English trans. Bernard Wall (London: Wm. Collins Sons; New York: Harper & Row, 1959). Originally published in French as Le Phénomène Humain (Paris: Editions du Seul, 1955).

18. PZ Myers, “Is This What We Can Expect from Comfort/Cameron?” Pharyngula 5 May 2007, http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/05/is_this_what_we_can_expect_fro.php (accessed 22 December 2012).

19. Quoted in Salman Hameed, “The Proof of God – Tipler and His Pseudoscience,” Irtiqa: A Science & Religion Blog 10 May 2007, http://sciencereligionnews.blogspot.com/2007/05/proof-of-god-tipler-and-his.html (accessed 22 December 2012).

20. Frank J. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. xv.

21. Frank J. Tipler, The Physics of Christianity (New York: Doubleday, 2007), pp. 198-212.

22. Ibid., pp. 166-175.

23. Ibid., p. 200.

24. Ibid., pp. 62-81.

25. Alan Sokal, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Social Text 46/47 (Spring-Summer 1996): 217-252. Reprinted in the editors of Lingua Franca, eds., The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), pp. 11-45.

26. Alan Sokal, “Revelation: A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies,” in the editors of Lingua Franca, eds., The Sokal Hoax, p. 52.

27. Murphy, “Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues,” in Brown, Murphy and Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? p. 23.

28. John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), p. 128.

29. Ibid., p. 122, emphasis mine.

30. Ibid., pp. 285-286.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Scientific Verdict on God (Part 3): The End of Classical Theism

Deus does not exist
But if he does he'd want to get down from that cloud
First marzipan fingers then marble hands
More silent than silence and slower than slow.

~ The Sugarcubes, “Deus” (from the 1988 album Life’s Too Good)

In Part 2 of this series, I made the case that science is justified in weighing in upon claims of the supernatural, and that it violates no jurisdiction by doing so. Now that that argument has been made, we can now move on to put the various models of God to the test to see how well they stand up to scientific scrutiny. My thesis in this essay is that the existence of a personal God, the God of classical theism, is a scientific and philosophical impossibility.

Arguments for God's existence continue to be a topic of intense debate within discussions of the philosophy of religion. I want to make the case that it is high time philosophers of science entered into the question of God with equal intensity. Here I must draw a distinction between questions concerning the concept of God and questions concerning religious practice. All religions, regardless of their relative antiquity or modernity, can easily be demonstrated through critical scholarship to be fallible human inventions. However, the more important and interesting inquiry (at least for me)comes when we put aside theology, all the creeds and the bells-and-whistles with which people dress up their conception of a deity, and consider, if at all possible, only the God concept itself.

The proposition “God exists in reality” is a hypothesis, and as such it requires objective verification and evidential demonstration to be justified. The particular model of a god I am examining here is that of the personal “Tinkering God” introduced in Part 2 of this series – the one who is said to be intimately involved with and active in his creation. According to classical theists, not only does this God play a very important role in every single event in the universe, from atomic phase transitions in far-off galaxies to the falling of a leaf on the ground here on Earth, but he also actively listens to every human thought. As I noted in Part 2, this God should be eminently detectable by the tools of science, based on the predictions of the model itself, that is, the ways in which this god is said to make his presence known within the natural world.

Before examining the various classical scientific arguments for the existence of the Tinkering God, let’s review what the theistic worldview is up against.

I. ANTI-THEISM ON THE OFFENSIVE

The Problem of Evil

The most devastating argument that weighs against the hypothesis that the God most people believe in exists is the problem of evil. There is an irreconcilable conflict between the conception of an omnipotent, all-wise and all-loving God and the existence in our world of human cruelty and natural disasters. How can an omnipotent (that is, all-powerful) being who is also the epitome of goodness and love possibly allow such evils as war, wholesale genocide, private murder and economic depressions to run indiscriminately rampant and lay waste to his creation? If any higher creative being must be proposed, it would be eminently more reasonable and plausible to posit the existence of a demonic god than a good and wise one. The only other reasonable option open to the theist in the light of the problem of evil is to say that their god is not in fact all-powerful and is therefore powerless to restrain evil. This latter option reduces the theists’ god to utter uselessness; if such is the case, there is no sound basis in reality to all the fears with which religion threatens people and no need for any creed or worship of any kind. Chapman Cohen writes,

If there is a God, he is quite careless of human well-being or human suffering. The deaths of a hundred thousand men mean no more to him than the deaths of a hundred thousand ants. A couple of million men locked in a death struggle on the battlefield is only a replica of the struggle that has been going on in the animal world throughout time. If there be a God, he made, he designed all this. He fashioned the hooks for the slaughter, the teeth for the tearing, the talons for destruction, and man with his multiplied weapons of destruction has but imitated his example. A world without God, and in which humanity is gradually learning the way to better things, is an inspiration to renewed effort after the right. A world such as this, with God, is enough to drive insane all with intelligence enough to appreciate the situation [1].
Theists have yet to explain how a benevolent, loving, omnipotent father-being – who personally guides the destiny of each and every individual – can allow such monstrosities as war, the effects of racism, hatred and bigotry of all kinds stemming from jealousy and fear, the gross disparity between rich and poor worldwide, mass poverty and starvation, the extreme pain and suffering that can be witnessed by touring through any hospital, etc., etc. Consider: if any human father consciously and purposefully allowed his children to starve, he would be imprisoned and indicted. Yet we are told we have a “Heavenly Father,” one we are of course powerless to indict even as he neglects us for eons. If such a god does exist, he is the very antithesis of goodness and wisdom, and it is humanity’s duty to cease paying any tribute to him through worship. In Sunday schools all over the world, theists tell children the fantastic story of how the Son of God miraculous multiplied five loaves of bread and two fishes to feed a large multitude. Yet today millions upon millions of people starve and languish in poverty even as they piously utter “Our Father which art in Heaven, give us this day our daily bread” out of a sense of fear and duty to this deity who has apparently grown tired of performing miracles of any kind. In his book Mind and Matter, the late philosopher C.E.M. Joad summed up the problem of evil forcefully and eloquently:
If we suppose that the universe is the creation of an Omnipotent and Benevolent God, it becomes necessary to ask how pain and evil arise. Pain and evil are either real or unreal. If they are real then God, who, being omnipotent, was bound by no limitations and constrained by no necessities, willfully created them. But the being who wilfully creates pain and evil cannot be benevolent.

If they are unreal, then the error which we make when we think them real is a real error. There is no doubt that we believe we suffer. If the belief is erroneous, then it follows that God wilfully called falsehood into existence and deliberately involved us in unnecessary error. It follows once again that God cannot be benevolent.

If we regard pain and evil as due to the wickedness of man and not as the creation of God, we are constrained to remember that man himself is one of God's creations (God being conceived as all creative), and received his wickedness, or his capacity for it, from whom? If we say that man had no wickedness to begin with but willfully generated wickedness for himself, we have to face the double difficulty of accounting for: (a) How man, who is an emanation from God, can will with a will of his own which is not also a piece of God's will; and (b) how a benevolent God could, assuming pain and evil to be a purely human creation, deliberately allow them to be introduced into a world that knew them not, when it was open to Him to prevent such introductions [2].

The Hiddenness of God and the Problem on Nonbelief

The very presence of nonbelief poses a serious problem to the viability of a theistic worldview, a problem closely related to the problem of evil. Theists often argue that the reason we do not observe the effects that should obtain all around us if a personal and active God existed is because this God has purposefully gone to great lengths to hide himself from us in order to allow faith to fully play its part in building our character.

But if this is the case, God is not good. If the only nonbelievers in the world were “bad people” who stubbornly refused to believe in God’s existence simply because they did not want to believe, then that would one thing. However, the vast majority of nonbelievers (certainly all those I have known, met and read) are very open to any and all evidence that might be presented. “Show me the evidence, and I will believe” has been the continual refrain of most in the atheist community, including myself. The fact of the matter is that we still do not believe. Therefore, if the God of the theists really does exist, he must be intentionally hiding himself from people who are open to belief in God and thereby cutting himself off from us skeptics.

In fact, this distinctly Calvinist interpretation seems to be the view of most evangelical Christians, whether they consciously identify as Calvinists or not. Many believe that their God really has chosen only a select few to be the recipients of his revelation (all those who believe this, of course, are part of that select group). The chosen few are the people God wants to spend eternity with, for whatever reason, and everybody else is doomed to suffer eternally outside his presence. Now, while it is true that this Calvinist model of God goes a long way toward explaining the Problem of Evil, it is certainly not an explanation Christians want to accept. The explanation that presents itself is that God himself is evil. How do we reconcile the rampant, unrestrained evil in the world with the existence of God? Simple: the Calvinist God of the Christians is pure evil.

Needless to say, this is not the kind of God most people want to believe in. Most people want to believe in a good god, a god that has great love for humanity. But unfortunately, that is precisely the kind of god we can definitively rule out as impossible. Why? Because there should be abundant evidence for a good god, if in fact there existed a good god who did not intentionally and purposefully conceal himself from nonbelievers who are open toward and waiting for positive evidence of the god’s existence to come to light.

Thus, the very hiddenness of God – quite apart from any consideration of the phenomenon of nonbelief – is damning to the god hypothesis. If the kind of God that most people believe in actually existed, certainly we should expect such a being to have revealed himself to humankind in such a way that there can be no doubt as to his existence and presence in the universe. Furthermore, if any religion is true, this God (if he is not evil, psychotic or otherwise mentally-challenged) should have no qualms or hesitation whatsoever in revealing which is the true religion and why it is true – to all people at all times and in an unambiguous and unmistakable manner – instilling into the collective minds of all people everywhere the True Creed so that no doubt can possibly enter into any skeptic’s mind. Needless to say, this has not happened. “Why, we may ask,” writes philosopher John L. Schellenberg in his book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, “would God be hidden from us? Surely a morally perfect being – good, just, loving – would show himself more clearly. Hence the weakness of our evidence for God is not a sign that God is hidden; it is a revelation that God does not exist [3].” Presumably, God could easily, at any moment, exercise his claimed omnipotence to reveal his existence with force sufficient to overpower all traces of doubt and skepticism. Yet humanity has been futilely searching for millennia for even just the slightest evidence of his existence. In his little-known but important book The Churches and Modern Thought, Philip Vivian highlighted the problem succinctly: “How is it that God allowed earnest and learned divines to commit themselves to arguments in proof of His existence, the subsequent overthrow of which has been a potent cause for unbelief? [4]” As for the hundreds of millions who think they have already found a solid faith, William McCarthy asks,

If there are and have been gods, why hasn’t, at least, one showed up? Why do we have to pay their self-appointed, man-selected priests to tell us about them? If the gods wish to save our souls (?) why don’t they, in a few simple sentences, tell us what to do? Why do they permit their vicars to tell us so many conflicting stories about them? The agents of Jehovah alone have pointed out fifteen hundred different mythical roads to heaven, all leading in different directions . . . Why doesn’t god tell the faithful who is right? Is there a god? Would a god permit such confusion and damn foolishness? We wouldn’t [5].
For the sake of argument, let us accept for a moment the theist worldview as a hypothetical exercise, and assess the situation we find ourselves in given the truth of that worldview. The situation, which I have described in five parts, is as follows:

1. God created the universe but purposefully constructed it in such a way that it looks to all appearances and observation as if no god created it. In fact, God has gone out of his way to hide himself from all people in every conceivable aspect.

2. However, in a bizarre move on his part, God endowed his favorite creation, humankind, with brains that work with tools called “reason” and “logic,” tools which allow us to discover and learn about the physical world around us.

3. We develop science, and every discovery we make with the brains God gave us continues to demonstrate that either there is no God, or he is increasingly running out of places to hide.

4. On top of this all this madness, God divinely inspires a book which tells its readers that he will help anyone come to know him, as long as they are simply willing and open to understanding and receiving him.

5. And yet, there are millions of people like me – who are certainly open to any evidence that would support the claim that a Supreme Intelligent Creator and Ruler exists – who continue to find it impossible to simply decide to believe despite the utter absence of evidence. And the theists would have us believe that their God has intentionally hidden himself from honest doubters and skeptics.

II. THEISM ON THE DEFENSIVE

The Cosmological First Cause Argument

A whole raft of classical arguments favoring the existence of God have been advanced for centuries and continue to be invoked today, despite the fact that they have many times been refuted in short order (if the Bible is correct about anything, it is that “there is no new thing under the sun”). Among these antiquated and obsolete apologetic items is the “First Cause argument,” which assumes as its a priori starting point that every event must have a cause, and that therefore the universe must have had a cause, which theists call “God.” But by predicating a First Cause which they assert to be a “cause that was uncaused,” the theist simply pushes the conundrum it seeks to solve further back. They create a larger mystery to explain a comparatively lesser mystery, and thereby fall into logical absurdity. If everything must have a cause, then we are not justified in making an arbitrary exception for a postulated First Cause. Who, it needs to be asked, created God? And who or what created that creator? To say that this First Cause has always existed and was never created is to deny the foundational and basic assumption with which the argument was started in the first place!

Moreover, even if it is reasonable to assume that some First Cause always existed, why is it then unreasonable to assume that the universe itself is what always existed, rather than a deity? Postulating the necessity of a First Cause in order to affirm the existence of a god through reason is a complete rejection of all logical procedure, because the First Cause argument seeks to explain that which is provisionally known (the existence of the material universe) with an unknown (God).

Furthermore, while we can conceive of a cycle of virtually endless causes for any given physical phenomena, it is impossible to conceive of a single ultimate cause for any one obtained object or event. Science provides no justification for tracing causes and effects backward to one simple First Cause. In his excellent book Theism or Atheism: The Great Alternative, Chapman Cohen reminds us that “Cause and effect are not two separate things; they are the same thing viewed under two different aspects. . . . If cause and effect are the expressions of a relation, and if they are not two things, but only one, under two aspects, ‘cause’ being the name for the related powers of the factors, and ‘effect’ the name for their assemblage, to talk, as does the theist, of working back along the chain of causes until we reach God, is nonsense [6].”

Today physicists are confident that no laws of physics were violated or altered as a prerequisite for the universe to emerge into existence. But that was once one of the best arguments for the necessity of a First Cause, because as early as two hundred years ago it appeared that certain laws of physics, such as energy conservation, did indeed have to be violated in order for the universe to come into being. Physicists today know for a fact that energy conservation was not broken, because we know that the total energy content of the universe is exactly zero; this means no energy was ever required to produce our universe in the first place. We have no evidence that any other laws of physics were similarly violated, either.

But the First Cause argument contains within it the seeds of the next response resorted to by theologians even today: “Where did the laws of physics themselves come from?” Modern science, not theology, gives us the answers to this question and reveals the fundamental weakness in the First Cause argument. In his book The Comprehensible Cosmos, physicist Victor Stenger undertakes to show how physicists have come to derive the so-called “laws” of physics [7]. Stenger is interested in accomplishing this daunting task as convincingly as possible, and this obliges him to invoke heavy mathematics of the sort many people cannot read [8]. Stenger’s explanatory account of physical laws as restrictions imposed by observers on themselves is consistent with what would be expected if the universe was not designed by a lawgiver handing down laws from above.

There is a sound basis for making the case for an uncreated universe that actually does not require a great deal of technical language. Very simply, when a physicist writes a model, he or she is forced to write it in a certain way, namely in such a way that it is independent of the reference frame of the particular observer, what physicists call the “point-of-view.” This required perspective Stenger calls point-of-view invariance: “The models of physics cannot depend on any particular point of view [9].” When this invariance of perspective is achieved, it is nothing short of incredible how all the pieces of the cosmological puzzle fall consistently into place within a wholly naturalistic framework “Thus,” writes Stenger, “the conservation principles follow from point-of-view invariance. If you wish to build a model using space and time as a framework, and you formulate that model so as to be space-time symmetric, then that model will automatically contain what are usually regarded as the three most important ‘laws’ of physics, the three conservation principles. . . . further symmetries will require the introduction of other ‘laws,’ not to govern the behavior of matter, but to govern the behavior of physicists so that when they build their models, those models will be point-of-view invariant [10].”

Again, the provisionally-derived “laws” of physics, formulated based on human observation and experimentation, are exactly what they should be expected to be if our universe came into being from nothing. Stenger shows in his book that,

[T]he laws of physics do not follow from very unique or very surprising physical properties of the Universe. Rather, they arise from the very simple notion that whatever mathematics you write down to describe measurements, your equations cannot depend on the origin or direction of the coordinate systems you define in the space of those measurements or the space of the functions used to describe those laws. That is, they cannot reflect any privileged point of view. Except for the complexities that result from spontaneously broken symmetries, the laws of physics may be the way they are because they cannot be any other way. Or, at least they may have come about the simplest way possible [11].
The next question theologians ask is: why is there something rather than nothing in the first place? This question assumes that nothing should in fact be a more natural state than something. But why should nothing be the most natural state? As it turns out, we have an answer to the theologians that again comes from hard science. In physics, the most highly symmetric systems we encounter tend to be less stable. For example, a raindrop will freeze into an ice crystal, which does have structure but lacks the level of symmetry the raindrop possessed. Let us stress this: A spherical raindrop has symmetry, while an ice crystal has structure, which is caused by broken symmetry. Likewise, a pencil sitting on a table possesses rotational symmetry around its vertical axis. But that symmetry is highly unstable; if it falls over, that symmetry is broken. Many other examples abound, magnets being a particularly helpful one. Many examples from everyday physics demonstrate conclusively that the more symmetrical a system is, the less stable it will be. Physical systems therefore naturally tend to undergo phase transitions from more symmetric to less symmetric.

Consider: there is no thing in the universe more symmetric than nothing. Therefore, the state of nothingness is highly unstable. As Stenger explains in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis,

So where did the laws of physics come from? They came from nothing! Most are statements composed by humans that follow from the symmetries of the void out of which the universe spontaneously arose. Rather than being handed down from above, like the Ten Commandments, they look exactly as they should look if they were not handed down from anywhere. And this is why, for example, a violation of energy conservation at the beginning of the big bang would be evidence for some external creator. Even though they invented it, physicists could not simply change the “law.” It would imply a miracle or, more explicitly, some external agency that acted to break the time symmetry that leads to conservation of energy. But . . . no such miracle is required by the data. . . .

[T]he natural state of affairs is something rather than nothing. An empty universe requires supernatural intervention – not a full one. Only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something is just what we would expect if there is no God [12].

In other words, the existence of our Universe is the natural consequence of the spontaneous collapse of the inherently unstable symmetries of the void. In a Scientific American article written in 1980, Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek provides a succinct mechanism for how this symmetry-breaking may have occurred in the early universe: “One can speculate that the universe began in the most symmetrical state possible and that in such a state no matter existed; the universe was a vacuum. . . . The second state had slightly less symmetry, but it was also lower in energy. Eventually a patch of the less symmetrical phase appeared and grew rapidly. The energy released by the transition found form in the creation of particles. This event might be identified with the big bang. . . . The answer to the ancient question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ would then be that ‘nothing’ is unstable [13].”

Thus, in responding to theists who invoke the First Cause line of argumentation, many atheists make the slightly mistaken claim that naturalists are not positing a “something-from-nothing” scenario. As we have seen, it is not necessary to distance one’s arguments from this scenario. Despite the difficult philosophical twists one gets into when attempting to describe nothingness, one can plausibly imagine a state of absolute absence of matter, energy and space curvature, and still be able to describe that empty state. To see why this is the case, consider the possible ways of measuring a photon radiation field. This field is described quantum mechanically with a harmonic oscillator, that is, in terms of a series of energy levels. As the physicist applies what is called a violation operator, a wave function for each energy level is specified by the oscillator. When the measurement is at its lowest level and all the photons have been removed, a wave function still remains. It is a wave function that is describing “nothing.” Thus, it is possible to mathematically describe the property of nothing without any problem, and one can derive a number of plausible scenarios and mechanisms by which something comes from nothing.

The world-renowned physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking made the same case for a “something-from-nothing” scenario in his J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture delivered in March 2007 at the University of California at Berkeley. Hawking likened the spontaneous quantum emergence of the universe to “the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water [14].” The plausible naturalistic scenario proposed by Hawking became the subject of his 2010 book The Grand Design, co-written with Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow. They conclude, “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing . . . Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going [15].” The analogy to the expanding surface of a bubble is again invoked in Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s book to describe the universe coming into existence via random quantum fluctuations through which the current universe tunneled from a previous one:

Our picture of the spontaneous quantum creation of the universe is then a bit like the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water. Many tiny bubbles appear, and then disappear again. These represent mini-universes that expand but collapse again while still of microscopic size. They represent possible alternative universes, but they are not of much interest since they do not last long enough to develop galaxies and stars, let alone intelligent life. A few of the little bubbles, however, will grow large enough so that they will be safe from recollapse. They will continue to expand at an ever-increasing rate and will form the bubbles of steam we are able to see. These correspond to universes that start off expanding at an ever-increasing rate – in other words, universes in a state of inflation [16].
The Argument from Design

The “Argument from Design” and the so-called “Anthropic (or fine-tuning) Argument” are two closely related classical defenses of a god’s existence that are ubiquitously used today and have been for centuries past. Many theists have attempted to deduce the existence of a supernatural creator and sustainer of the universe from the visible features of the natural world. They do this by selectively pointing to instances in nature of “design,” of carefully-balanced regularity and order, and in various examples of beauty to be found in the exploration and study of natural objects.

In the early 1800s, Anglican theologian and philosopher William Paley (1743-1805) famously presented this argument in his book Natural Theology, first published in 1802. A teleological defense of divine causation of nature that was applied on a terrestrial scale, Paley’s argument began with the premise that everything owed its existence to a first cause, which he proceeded to identify as God. The famous “Watchmaker Analogy” was introduced by Paley to illustrate this argument. The structure of the analogy, in Paley's own words, is as follows:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e. g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. To reckon up a few of the plainest of these parts, and of their offices, all tending to one result: -- We see a cylindrical box containing a coiled elastic spring, which, by its endeavour to relax itself, turns round the box. We next observe a flexible chain (artificially wrought for the sake of flexure), communicating the action of the spring from the box to the fusee. We then find a series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in, and apply to, each other, conducting the motion from the fusee to the balance, and from the balance to the pointer; and at the same time, by the size and shape of those wheels, so regulating that motion, as to terminate in causing an index, by an equable and measured progression, to pass over a given space in a given time. We take notice that the wheels are made of brass in order to keep them from rust; the springs of steel, no other metal being so elastic; that over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work, but in the room of which, if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not be seen without opening the case. This mechanism being observed (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood), the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use [17].
Paley's Watchmaker Analogy can be more succinctly represented by way of a simple syllogism:
1. The complex inner workings of a watch necessitate an intelligent designer for the watch.

2. As with a watch, the complexity of X (a particular organ or organism, the structure of the solar system, life, the entire universe, etc.) necessitates a designer.

Paley's reader is invited to imagine walking through a completely natural locale (forests, deserts, and remote beaches have been used in modern rehashings of this analogy), where a lone watch is found. The analogy suggests that this watch obviously cannot be an artifact of the surrounding nature, that it must have been designed by an intelligent agent.

Throughout the rest of his book, Paley extrapolates this analogy to everything encompassed by the natural world. This is an example of fundamentally flawed logic. In the context of the Watchmaker analogy, the only reason one is able to apprehend that the watch in the heath is not an artifact of nature in the first place is because nature and design can be distinguished from each other. We can recognize that which has been made by an intelligent agent for what it is. But how do we know when something has been designed and when it has not? The most important failure in Paley's argument is that it lacks a frame of reference from which to compare design to non-design. Paley, along with modern-day proponents of teleological design arguments for theism, failed to realize that the only reliable indicators of genuine design are those that derive from experience. This being the case, a means of identifying instances of design and non-design independently of the indicators in question is required.

Paley’s design argument also stands as an example of a grossly over-extended metaphor, to which the whole argument is ultimately reducible. While metaphors are often useful for communicating hard-to-grasp concepts to people, they are never the foundation of any strong logical argument. A runaway metaphor cannot be stopped; anything and everything can be applied to it, rendering the necessity of any semblance of logic obsolete. The teleological argument from design is therefore inherently incoherent.

One can then argue, as biochemist Michael J. Behe does in his 1996 book Darwin's Black Box (which, in my estimation, is essentially little more than a glorified and updated restatement of Paley's Natural Theology), that complexity is that elusive standard that determines the criterion for justifiably concluding intelligent design [18]. But in actuality, many things that are very simple look designed. For example, a rubber ball is vastly simpler than a rock, geometrically speaking. The reason such simple objects as a rubber ball are recognizable as a designed thing is because of its regularity, not because it is complicated. In fact, designed things tend to be far simpler than natural things. One of the crucial characteristics of agency that need to be taken into account is that needlessly complex things are never an acceptable standard for building things. We want to make them as simple and as efficient as we possibly can. Natural things are (1) generated by chance and necessity, (2) are functionally unspecified and diverse and (3) often very complex. Things that are designed by agents, on the other hand, are (1) built with intent, (2) are functionally specific and (3) always relatively simple compared to natural material.

It is therefore a basic category mistake to invoke complexity as a measure of design. Complexity more often arises as a result of a lack of planning, than as the result of intelligent deliberation. In addition to this problem, the design arguments characteristic of Paley and his successors also face the problem of lacking sufficient falsifiability: What would a thing not designed by God look like, and how would this non-designed thing operate? These are questions that Paley's argument cannot answer, simply because it was far too simplistic and was not well thought out.

Moreover, the Argument from Design in general has been conclusively overruled by the discovery and subsequent study of natural evolutionary processes [19]. The argument for god from design relies entirely on the assertion that a Mind exists behind, over and above physical phenomena. The motives of this posited Mind, Paley and others believed, could be apprehended by us mortals through studying the forms of animals. While theists today very rarely use Paley’s original formulation of the design argument, a surprising number of theistic arguments, particularly those of the “recent” Intelligent Design (ID) variety, are still based on Paley’s basic faulty assumptions.

An understanding of what biological evolution is and how it operates in the natural world is sufficient to soundly and definitively refute the modern ID position. The evolutionary forces that have been conclusively demonstrated to be at work in nature are not only merciless (recalling again the problem of evil discussed above) but also full of waste; innumerable physiological and biological plans have been deemed by natural selection to be futile, useless and worthless for survival. The ruthless preying of a great many forms of life upon many others was unrelenting throughout hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary history and continues to be unrelenting today. Untold myriads of living organisms have emerged onto the scene, only to suddenly perish before reproducing and contributing to their species’ perpetuation. All in all, the world we find ourselves in is a largely useless one, devoid of ultimate purpose and whose defining characteristic is pain and misery.

The Argument from Design suffers from an extreme case of confirmation bias and selective reasoning. The practice of science, if it is to be objective and impartial, will take note of ugliness and disorder in nature, not just supposed instances of beauty and order. And even if it was true that the earth and its inhabitants are “evolving toward something better” (which is itself a very fundamental misunderstanding of what evolution is and what it is not), this would not lessen or mitigate the impact of the extreme, unimaginable cruelty that predominated throughout all of the evolutionary past. In fact, the Argument from Design is inconsistent with every known fact of the natural world; the steady advance of scientific knowledge has rendered it an impossible position.

The Fine-Tuning Argument

A common theistic argument, closely related to the Design Argument, insists that it is impossible for the inherent properties of natural physical forces, acting on their own, to produce an orderly universe that sustains life. The universe, the theists say, requires constant “directivity” in order to remain on its present course.

It is indeed true that if any one of the physical constants were to be changed by even the slightest amount, life as we know it would be impossible. But it does not then follow that all plausible forms of life could not have existed under those hair-trigger circumstantial changes. This was demonstrated by particle physicist Victor Stenger, who wrote a computer program in the early 1990s called “MonkeyGod,” an interactive module that allows the user to design and run his or her own universe, simply by changing however many constants the user sees fit and then watching to see what kind of virtual universe emerges. Stenger writes, “While these are really only ‘toy’ universes, the exercise illustrates that many different universes are possible, even within the existing laws of physics [20].” Stenger reports on his own experiments with the program as follows:

In previous publications, I have applied MonkeyGod in a computer simulation in which I varied the four parameters randomly (on a logarithmic scale) over ten orders of magnitude. I was mainly interested in seeing how many universes would have stellar lifetimes long enough to allow for some form of life, not necessarily exactly like ours, to evolve.

. . . I used a formula obtained from one reference for the minimum lifetime of a main sequence star. I later adopted a different formula, from another reference, which I thought was more realistic since it gave the maximum lifetime of a star . . . The results are not in general disagreement with that previously published. In fact, as expected, I get results even more favorable to life. While a few stellar lifetimes are low, most are over ten billion years, which is probably enough time for stellar evolution and heavy element nucleosynthesis to occur. Long stellar life may not be the only requirement for biological life, but I have demonstrated that fine-tuning is not necessary to produce a range amenable for life [21].

Thus, the random, unplanned, chaotic emergence of a universe capable of sustaining life as we know it is not as unlikely as most people seem to think. A number of other studies have been published which report on even more sophisticated scientific programs than MonkeyGod, and which have backed up Stenger’s conclusions. The scientific evidence strongly suggests that some form of life may have been possible under a wide range of circumstances that might have obtained [22].

There is also a serious philosophical problem confronting the fine-tuning argument: If God was perfect and omnipotent, why would he need to “fine-tune” the universe for life? If the universe was the creation of an omnipotent and perfect God, it should be capable of producing life no matter what the conditions may be. If humanity was so special and elevated above all other species, being formed in the “image of God” as most theists believe, we should be able to live and thrive in literally any locale, under any condition. We should be able to live in the void of space without any need of a spacesuit or other life-preserving equipment.

However, philosophical and logical objections aside, the practical scientific fact remains that we do not know exactly what kind of universe might be possible under a different set of constants. We can make careful calculations, of course, but in the end we still do not know for certain. Science is an empirical discipline, and the totality of our collective experience is based on just this single universe we find ourselves inhabiting. Still, as we have seen, it is certainly possible to infer what kind of phenomena might manifest in an alternate universe, one with a different set of physical laws and constants. There are no grounds for concluding that this universe is special in any way.

The universe is not fine-tuned for humanity. Rather, humanity is fine-tuned to the universe. As a species, we humans just happened to evolve in the kind of universe that features the constants that make our existence possible. If we were not suited for the world in which we find ourselves, we would not be able to live in it. Obviously, then, the situation in which life evolved was one in which the earth had an atmosphere transparent to what scientists call “visible light” – that extremely narrow region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our sun produces a large amount of light within that region, so it was only natural that the human eye developed. How absurd and nonsensical would it be to assert that the sun puts out light in that narrow spectrum, and that the earth’s atmosphere is transparent to that spectrum, because our human eyes are sensitive to that region? This is exactly the kind of silly reasoning underlying the fine-tuning argument.

The fact that the present order exists as it does is not enigmatic, mysterious or shocking in the least. What would really constitute an anomaly is if any radical and drastic alteration of the present order should occur before our eyes. The state of the universe at any given moment is the inevitable and unavoidable natural result of all the innumerable physical conditions prevail upon the universe in well-understood ways. These physical conditions demonstrate that purely natural forces are capable of producing the universe as we see and experience it. Regardless of what the ultimate nature of our admittedly provisional models of physical forces may be – whether we are considering electrons, protons, electricity or wave energy – these material forces are alone fully capable of producing a universe such as the one we happen to find ourselves inhabiting.

Moreover, even if these natural and physical forces were not alone capable of bringing a universe into existence, in what conceivable way could an “ultimate, directing and supreme supernatural mathematician” create and install this capacity in natural forces? Unless the capacity for producing the universe as we know it already existed in natural elements themselves, no amount of outside “direction” could have endowed them with that capacity, because this would violate the second law of thermodynamics. Besides, if such an external supernatural and directive agent did exist, why would he/she/it not simply create the universe ex nihilo, without creating natural elements which we observe to possess the inherent capacity for producing the universe on their own?

As we saw above in regard to the cosmological First Cause argument, inherent in the properties of the fundamental physical elements, and in consequence of their specific combinations, is the capability of “coughing up” the universe as we know it from nothing. The operations of a deity are not required for the universe to either come into being or to subsequently sustain life within it. The order that manifests itself in the universe is the necessary and inevitable consequence of the universal persistence of wholly natural physical forces. If an intelligent supernatural force or being does exist, the best possible evidence of its existence would surely come in the form of inhibitive influences that prevent certain events, predicted by established physics, from occurring or obtaining – events that established scientific observation and testing can confirm would have transpired if it was not for such unnatural interference constituting a clear-cut violation of natural law. But such violations have never been observed to occur. I challenge any theist to present any example of an aberration of the normal operation of known forces which cannot be explained by the effect of other known, natural forces.

Furthermore, recall also from the above discussion that a “law” of nature is not a fixed statute, as if set in stone by an external legislator. Rather, they represent pragmatically-functional human inventions, interpretations and summations expressed in falsifiable models that are based on established facts inferred from repeated and tested observation. The phenomena observed by scientists do not operate in a particular manner because they derive from a law. The “law” is declared to be so by human scientists because they operate in the manner they do. To assert that “the laws of nature are the result of a lawmaker” is unfounded and an example of faulty logic and poor critical thinking. We have no evidentiary basis to justify any claim that a supreme intelligence decreed natural things to act in certain ways from which they are not to deviate.

If the theist goes on to claim that a supreme intelligence issued the natural laws for his own pleasure and for no reason whatsoever, then the theist is suddenly forced to admit that something exists which is not subject to any natural law, and the great chain of natural law on which the theist first based the fine-tuning argument is arbitrarily severed in order to posit the nature-independent supreme intelligence! If, on the other hand, the theist claims that there is a divine reason underlying the natural laws instantiated by the supreme intelligence – say, for example, to create the best possible universe – then logic would dictate that the Supreme Being himself is subject to a law over and above himself. Introducing the “Supreme Being” (now not-so-supreme) as an intermediary in the first place is thus rendered superfluous and unnecessary. To say that “God had a reason and purpose” in creating the universe is to posit a law external and anterior to divine edicts and thus the notion of God as an “ultimate lawgiver” suddenly dies at the hands of the theist trying to save the notion.

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In order to determine whether or not the God Hypothesis is supported by evidence and able to withstand critical scrutiny, we must first construct a testable model of God. The model I have used in this essay is the God of the capital G, the personal God of classical theism that most people worship. As we have seen, the God described by classical theism can be conclusively determined not to exist. In addition the Problem of Evil and the problem of the hiddenness of God discussed above, we do not observe any of the effects that the Personal God model predicts we should see on a regular basis. In other words, the universe appears just as it should if there is no god.

But most modern-day theologians, particularly those who accept the findings of science related to the origins of the universe and of life on earth, take issue with the model of God constructed by classical theism. Many have insisted the God of classical theism is not the kind of god they believe in or write about in their sophisticated theological treatises. They embrace a different model of god, one that bears little or no resemblance to the God believed in by most non-theologians.

In Part 4 of this series, I will examine the model of god preferred and embraced by today’s scientist-theologians.

NOTES

1. Chapman Cohen, War, Civilization and the Churches (London: Pioneer Press, 1930), p. 122.

2. C.E.M. Joad, Mind and Matter: An Introduction to the Study of Metaphysics (London: Nisbet & Co., 1925), pp. 100-101.

3. John L. Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 1.

4. Philip Vivian, The Churches and Modern Thought (London: Watts & Co., 1906), p. 251.

5. William McCarthy, Bible, Church and God Second Edition (New York: Truth Seeker Co., Inc., 1946, 1972), p. 37).

6. Chapman Cohen, Theism or Atheism: The Great Alternative (London: Pioneer Press, 1921), pp. 62, 64.

7. Victor J. Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006).

8. The Mathematical Supplements in Stenger’s book (ibid., pp. 190-320) are accessible at the level of anyone who has undergraduate science or math training; i.e., those with a Bachelor’s degree in areas such as physics, chemistry, electrical engineering or mathematics will be able to follow Stenger’s mathematics.

9. Ibid., p. 57.

10. Ibid., p. 58, italics added.

11. Ibid., pp. 112-113, italics added.

12. Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), pp. 131, 133.

13. Frank Wilczek, “The Cosmic Asymmetry between Matter and Antimatter,” Scientific American 243, no. 6 (1980): 82-90.

14. Web Feature, “Origins of the Universe: Stephen Hawking's J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture,” UC Berkeley News Center 16 March 2007, http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2007/03/16_hawking_text.shtml (accessed 12 November 2012).

15. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), p. 180.

16. Ibid., pp. 136-37.

17. William Paley, Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, Stereotype Edition (Boston: Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, 1841), pp. 5-6.

18. Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press, 1996).

19. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (London, New York: Norton, 1987).

20. Victor J. Stenger, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011), p. 236.

21. Ibid., pp. 240-1.

22. See, for instance, Fred C. Adams, “Stars in Other Universes: Stellar Structure with Different Fundamental Constants,” Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics 08 (August 2008); Roni Harnik et al., “A Universe without Weak Interactions,” Physical Review D74 (2006): 035006; Anthony Aguirre, “Cold Big-Bang Cosmology as a Counter Example to Several Anthropic Arguments,” Physical Review D64 (2001): 083508.