This post represents the other bookend to the effort I made to illustrate why waxing philosophical on the question as to whether or not God exists is an extraordinarily tricky problem to tackle, no matter what your personal opinions (atheist, theist, agnostic) on the subject might be. Especially simplistic arguments fail to reveal the true complexity of the argument as a whole.
To illustrate the gravity and true scope of the problem, I recruited the smartest person I know, an honest-to-God scientist recognized worldwide in his specific field of expertise, for an unbiased and unvarnished evaluation of the science and logic used in my article, focused on my own argument for God in particular to expose any and every perceived weakness in my reasoning.
What follows next is primarily my friend’s analytical feedback and constructive criticisms of my argument through our subsequent correspondence, which I’ve converted into an article to further elaborate on what we started…
No matter what you actually believe, your worldview will be at least partially based on faith, whether you are a scientist, an atheist, or someone like me.
Even if that faith is limited to yourself — you’ve put faith in something, but not in nothing.
The scientist places his or her faith in the scientific method and personal skill set to discern between illusion and reality. The atheist trusts intellect and reason will ultimately lead to evidence that validates their lack of belief in a supernatural God, while the theist has faith that his or her intellect is surpassed by something far greater.
In my opinion, no honest person should try to convince someone else that they know for a fact that God exists, or does not exist. It’s virtually impossible to make a comprehensive, rational, and coherent argument. On a scale of belief where zero represents certainty of no God and 100 percent represents the opposite extreme, the expected values should range between less than 1 percent and greater than 99 percent. A “knowledge” claim of either extreme actually has zero epistemic value.
So I solicited help from one of the smartest people I personally know well enough to ask for some advice. My (scientist) friend’s overall reaction to my request for constructive feedback was this:
Well, I think one problem is that science isn’t well suited to to this argument because, ultimately, the scientific method is a *negative* process. You want to believe something. But at best the scientific method can do is say is that belief in a God with some set of characteristics is not disproved. The Atheist faces the same problem. They want to believe there are no gods. Yet at best science can say “the facts indicate that gods with the following characteristics are not supported.” All you can do is say that belief in a God that created the universe with a fixed set of operating rules, and does not appear to interfere with those rules on a widespread, systematic basis, is consistent with the present state of the art of science. Likewise, the Atheist can only say that we see no evidence of Gods of a God who interferes with or directs nature in the operation outside of natural law (eg no supernatural interventions). That state is very unsatisfying to either party. But that’s where we are. And, interestingly, the former is in fact pretty well consistent with Orthodox Christian Theology as taught by the Church Fathers in the first few hundred years of the faith. It’s only later, when Christianity encountered the enlightenment, and the post-Augustinian worldview invaded Christianity, that it went off the rails. But that’s a different discussion.
My professional scientist friend and I seem to be agreeing more than we disagree on the idea that the scientific method does have its limitations as to what knowledge we might obtain by its application.
For example, once upon a time my friend Matthew Botsford was shot in the head, in a random act of violence. In fact, the bullet is still lodged in Matthew’s brain. He was so close to death and had suffered such serious brain trauma that his family was asked to donate his organs. Yet Matthew survived, only because his wife Nancy wouldn’t let go, and what he would call the grace of God.
Matthew sincerely and literally believes that he went to hell when he died and suffered horrific torment until he was literally rescued by God. And I believe him.
It’s a long story, but Matthew did recount most of the gory details in Nancy’s book titled A Day in Hell.
My point is simply this: Matthew knows that he was shot in the head, and he believes that God rescued him from hell. And I believe that he believes everything he has told me.
The first half of the statement above is a knowledge claim, well supported by scientific evidence. But what we believe happened after he “died” is not. The fact that I believe Matthew is sincere about his conviction that he really did spend time in hell is for the most part, irrelevant. What can we prove?
We cannot apply the scientific method to Matthew’s claims of his experiences in hell — for him, those experiences actually could be empirical observations formed through application of the scientific method but for anyone else, they can only be classified as anecdotal.
We might label Matthew Botsford a liar, selling a story for profit, but we have no evidence on which to base such an accusation. As a published author you’re going to have to trust my judgement on this, but the potential for future book sales is not a strong incentive for one to allow him or herself to be shot in the head, based on the assumption that it might make a good story for a book one day.
We could also assume Matthew Botsford suffered some hideous injury (well documented) that created a vivid hallucination (not documented) as an ugly delusion in his dying brain, horrific images and imagined experiences of torment and suffering in hell, but we’re also making a choice to reject belief due to our personal bias…anyone already convinced that no hell exists will not accept anything as evidence of hell.
Our third option is to give Matthew Botsford the benefit of the doubt and accept the possibility that he might actually be giving a true and accurate description of his experiences after death, to the very best of his ability to do so. And in doing so, we would be opening our minds to the distinct possibility that other personal accounts of similar stories might be true, too, which would require further investigation upon discovery.
Before judging my friend Matthew as a liar or a lunatic, perhaps you should follow my example. Before reaching any final conclusions you should also meet him face-to-face, and look directly into his eyes for any signs of deception while he tells his story.
As far as my attempt to inject myself into the debate between Dr. Alex Malpass and Matt Slick was concerned, my scientist/expert/truly brilliant friend had this to say:
Some quick thoughts FWIW – I think both Malpass and Slick are in gross violation of the “laws” (rules is probably a better term) of applied logic. As a denizen of the gray (and near expert in quantum mechanics), absolutes really bug me. They are very rarely applicable for anything other than highly theoretical, mathematical problems, yet people just *love* to force discussions in to a binary decision structure and argue “logic” because they want the purity of “right” and “wrong”. For example, I’d argue that the “God exists, or doesn’t” dichotomy is a sophomoric straw-man debate. Sure, it’s “true” on some completely theoretical level but it’s a stupid question from a practical standpoint because, as you correctly note, the definition of God is so open ended and fluid that the question becomes unanswerable. I think you go a bit off the rails when trying to argue that the alternative to “God” is “no God” – again, that argument it depends on the definition of “God”. So the other side, “God doesn’t exist” is also a “staw man” argument because it too depends on the definition of “God”. What if you define the Universe itself *as* God – the mathematical, QM rules, etc. Someone who wants an “intelligent” personal God would say that’s not a “God” – but someone else might argue that the laws of physics are in and of themselves intelligent on some level, rather than *evidence* of separate intelligence (definitions again). So the only real debatable question, certainly from a scientific/logic standpoint, is “Does a God with the following characteristics (a,b,c, …) exist?” because then you can provide observations that prove or disprove a,b,c,… In short, you can’t argue, on the basis of science or logic, that “no God’s exist”, only “Does this God (or class of Gods) exist?” which makes a disjunctive syllogism moot. Just skimmed most of the rest, but your list of “scientific claims” are not really “claims” made by the state of the art of accepted science – especially number 2. As I have tried over and over to get across, the “tuning” argument is coming from the string theory/multiverse hypothesis crowd (multiverse depends on string theory), and string theory is circling the toilet with every increase in energy of the LHC. Standard Model extensions and GUT argues that almost all, perhaps all, of the so-called fields collapse into a single mode. So all of the BS about dependencies goes away, as does your argument that “luck” is required. In other words, this Universe might exist because it’s the only one that is possible. [emphasis added] Now, if you want to argue that points to design, have at it. It’s an unanswerable question from a *science* standpoint because it requires being able to see other Universes (which seems to be theoretically impossible under either GUT or string/multiverse), and is therefore not science because there is no way to test the null hypothesis. Therefore a philosophical question. In short, I don’t think it’s a good idea to argue for God on the basis of bad, increasingly disproven science, just because it’s popular, and the “scientists” (they actually aren’t being scientists in this context) are using it to argue for atheism.
To my friend’s assertion (the particular sentence that I emphasized) above I replied,”That (the universe had to exist) is just as much of an assumption as fine tuning, isn’t it? Besides, I thought with spectrograph or some such equipment they could tell the composition of stars, which does seem to support the fine tuned argument, based on what I’ve read. But as we both know, I’m not a whole lot better than a trained parrot when it comes to understanding this stuff…weak gravitational force. Yeah, I can explain that. NOT.”
My spectroscope reference was a rather sloppy one, but I had this quote by cosmologist Chris Impey in mind, which I culled from his book The Living Cosmos:
Apart from hydrogen, everything else is just a trace element. Just how rare? Suppose a deck of cards represented randomly selected atoms in the universe. In one deck of cards, the aces would be helium atoms and the other forty-eight would be hydrogen atoms. You’d need thirty decks of cards before you’d expect to find one carbon atom. In the thirty decks of cards, there’d be a couple of oxygen atoms, too, but all the other cards would be hydrogen or helium. You’d need to search three hundred decks to find a single iron atom…How do we know what the universe is made of? Astronomers use remote sensing by spectroscopy to measure the composition of star stuff. Each element has a unique set of sharp spectral features that acts like a fingerprint, so by identifying that fingerprint in starlight, astronomers can measure contributions of different elements.
But I am woefully unqualified to argue either side in that science debate, multiverse hypotheses and string theories versus GUT. One possible solution would be to put people like Martin Rees and Roger Penrose in the same room with my friend and let them hash out the “best” answer to the origin of the universe as multiverse, string theory, or GUT. Just tell people like me how it all comes out.
Before I used up all of my friend’s time, I wish it had occurred to me to ask how the Grand Unified Theory (GUT) should not more accurately be called the Grand Unified Hypothesis (GUH) because his argument also seems to begin with a rather significant assumption, that the evidence can only lead to one conclusion without resorting to pantheism, by saying the universe had no choice but to exist in the current form it has taken. On the other hand, a man’s got to know his own limitations.
So to my friend I replied, “BTW, thanks very much for the feedback. It’s exactly what I needed. My plan is to say I offered the argument to an impartial moderator who happens to be a scientist (without naming names, of course) to demonstrate the dissent argument against what I’ve put together, after I mull it a while and perhaps change some stuff, too. But most of all, thanks. No one will know our little secret, because I might ask for the same sort of feedback again and I certainly don’t want to betray your confidence.”
In my opinion, if what Impey wrote about the delicate balance of elements distributed within the cosmos is correct (and I suspect it is) then my friend’s GUT is basically saying that the incredibly “fine-tuned” balance we observe in nature exists because natural forces would not allow these cosmological factors to vary even slightly.
Furthermore, if the laws of nature or physics were purely deterministic during the creation of the universe, meaning they could not have varied in the slightest, why does the resulting universe clearly show signs that random chance exists?
If chance did not exist, the outcome of any event would only have one possibility. Accidents would never occur, things would never break, and nothing would ever go wrong. To my pseudo-scientific ears, this sounds like my friend trying to say that if we threw six darts at a dart board, the only possible outcome that could occur would be that all six darts would strike the bullseye, with each of the six darts stuck into the fin of the previous one thrown — as if they had no choice .
On the other hand, involving myself in a disagreement between two highly qualified scientists would be most unwise. Brash claims and bold statements asserted to much smarter people have a tendency to blow up on a person. While I mulled over my dilemma on how to pursue more information from my source, my friend indulged me and solved my problem by continuing to hammer home his point:
Actually, “only one possible” is shorthand for “given the structure of matter and the laws of physics, only one combination of values for the underlying constants is stable”, is it’s not technically the same thing. You still get the philosophical question of how that one value came to be, but then there is no probability involved and is, in fact, finally a true binary situation: is, or is not. Other stars have nothing really to do with it, other than we know pretty well that the behavior of matter and energy “out there” is the same as it is here. Has nothing to do with the fine tuning argument. The fine tuning argument boils down to arguing that in order to get the universe we observe, the various “constants” have to be awfully close to what they are. If, for example, the strong nuclear force were 10% stronger than the electroweak force, nothing would work right. HOWEVER, what if the strong nuclear force and electroweak forces are manifestations of the same thing (eg the Grand Unified Theory)? Then they are the same thing and not “tuned”. There is some evidence for this – just like the weak and electromagnetic forces were “unified”, it is possible the other four forces will also be “unified”. That is on stronger ground than string “theory”.
I’m pretty sure that I understand from where my friend is coming — science definitely has its limits. On the other hand, I must respectfully disagree that with the idea that GUT could solve all the same problems as a god without supernatural intelligence.
Yet I also know that my friend’s specific field of expertise is more closely related to physics than chemistry or biology. And, due to time constraints and a very busy schedule, my friend may not be familiar with this two hour lecture by Dr. James Tour, an expert on chemical synthesis, on the subject of the chemical prerequisites for abiogenesis.
According to Dr. Tour, chemists have absolutely no idea how enzymes developed that allowed for the synthesis of molecules. Among many other interesting things Dr. Tour said was this:
We have no idea [emphasis added] how the molecules that compose living systems could have been devised such that they would work in concert to fulfill biology’s functions. We have no idea how the basic set of molecules, carbohydrates, nucleic acids, lipids and proteins were made and how they could have coupled in proper sequences, and then transformed into the ordered assemblies until there was the construction of a complex biological system, and eventually to that first cell. Nobody has any idea on how this was done when using our commonly understood mechanisms of chemical science. Those that say that they understand are generally wholly uninformed regarding chemical synthesis.
Now if I didn’t know better, I might have assumed “wholly uninformed regarding chemical synthesis” was a direct reference to me. Yet after listening to Dr. Tour, I can’t see how GUT for the universe could possibly make the origin of life within the universe a foregone conclusion.
No matter how we sincerely we reach for knowledge and proof, at some point, assumptions must be made on faith. Even my “ace-in-the-hole” argument that I alternately refer to as corroborated veridical NDE episodes (or a slight variation) or quantum consciousness, meaning the metaphysical, abstract mind learns and remembers new, accurate information while independent of the physical brain, must assume that the apparent reliability of the new memory validates the anecdotal evidence of the account as well. My friend then elaborated further:
Let me try to put it a different way. If the “extended Standard Model”/GUT is correct (and so far the evidence indicates it is), then there is only one possible configuration of relationships between the fundamental forces because the “constants” (forces) are all related in a fixed way. That part is science. Are there *other* universes? The GUT based theories don’t require them AFAIK (the various string “theories” do mathematically) and even if they did, they would behave (from a physical matter/chemistry standpoint) the same way this one does. BUT, as noted above, even if there are “other” universes, no information can be exchanged between them, so you can’t test that hypothesis, therefore it’s not a scientific question. So, given the present state of modern science, despite all the sound and fury of both the gnu atheists and those like you who want to argue there is scientific support for an intelligent creator trying to use the same (flawed!) reasoning they do, we’re actually in the same place we’ve been for a very long time. The physical state of the universe, and how it works, has no obvious direct evidence of any supernatural interventions since the “big bang”. We can’t speak to probabilities of this universe because its the only one we can look at, and from what we can tell about how it behaves, there is no reason to assume or even speculate there are more than one of them. That leaves both sides with plenty to be uncomfortable about. Yes, the atheist can argue there is no evidence for “sky wizards” and other straw-man deities, but is left with the very uncomfortable fact we have no explanation, and no *way* to apply science, to the ultimate question of first cause. The Theist is also stuck. The “first cause” question is unanswered (and unanswerable) scientifically since we can’t see past the singularity at the start of the big bang, and a universe that has fixed, logical laws governing its operation since. That screams for a supernatural explanation. Yet there is nothing since that event that indicates “divine intervention” – all the rest is explained as a result of natural processes.
At great risk to my pride (after my friend gleefully destroys this retort) I must humbly submit that my Big Picture argument for God, as presented in my book Counterargument for God, seems to survive both GUT and TAG due to what I’ve called the contingent probabilities. These are dependencies that strongly indicate that for life to exist this universe must exist, and that it confirms I’m alive and able to write this sentence, and the reader must be alive in order to read it.
My scientist friend’s closing words also resonated with me:
I don’t care about being “right”. The only thing I care about is being correct. Big difference . . . Facts are what they are. They don’t care what I or anybody else wants. I also try to draw a bright line between what the facts show, and the *conclusions* I draw from those facts. I think that last paragraph about both sides being in bad situations is “fact”, based on science. But you’ll notice that in none of that discussion did I say which “side” I’m on, because as long as it’s consistent with the “facts”, what I believe doesn’t matter. I’m happy to denigrate Theist and Atheist equally if they stray from the science . . .
On that final sentiment, we are absolutely on the same page. It’s more important to seek truth than be “right” or win an argument.
I’m not the least bit upset by my scientist friend’s assessment that Matt Slick’s TAG argument, Alex Malpass’s philosophical rebuttal, and my Big Picture argument all fail to meet a burden of proof.
We must all take calculated risks of faith and make assumptions in the course of seeking answers to our existential questions. These assumptions will naturally conform to our pre-existing personal bias toward theism or atheism.
The atheist will never see evidence of supernatural intelligence, and theists will never accept that this world could exist because there was no other choice, according to some abstract “laws of nature.” The existence of laws certainly seems to imply the existence of a Lawgiver.
But nothing that approaches proof. And that’s an assumption on my part.