Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Structuring a Case for God

This summer in the world of Pete, in the occasional moments when I've not been getting engaged or planning a wedding, my reading and listening have centred upon books and lectures seeking to argue for the reality of God. What I find interesting is that all the arguments I've read or heard have been framed in very similar ways. So indulge me for a bit ... allow me to try and very briefly summarise the framework of their arguments here.

The theorists began by acknowledging that they can't prove - like, actually, mathematically or scientifically - prove God; just as someone can't prove the non-existence of God. But nevertheless they tried to argue their case in a rigid proper academic way.

And here's the thing: they started with worldviews - they started by weighing up the possibility of a deistic or theistic worldview over an atheistic or materialistic one. 60 years ago, C.S. Lewis did this in 'Mere Christianity' by considering our common sense of law and injustice. But today's theorists - at least the ones I've read and heard - did this (perhaps surprisingly) by starting with science.....

They started with the Big Bang and scientific evidence which points towards a starting point to time and space. And the question was raised: what caused a beginning? How did something come from nothing? When you boil it all down, they said there are only two possible answers to this: either something came from nothing by chance; or it was a deliberate act, brought about by choice. And the theorists argued for the latter.

If the latter is chosen, the theorists have so far only come as far as deism - a creator who sets the world in motion but then sits back, disconnected, disinterested. To get to theism, their arguments (again, perhaps surprisingly) turned to evolution ... they turned to the existence and development of life on earth.

Like the Big Bang, the evolution of life on earth can either be viewed as an undirected process or it can be viewed as a directed ongoing act of creation from a creator. If viewed as the latter, it serves as evidence for theism over deism.

The theorists also considered the concept of 'fine tuning' - the idea that there are so many different 'dials' which have to be in exactly the right place for life to exist on earth. By attempting to calculate the probability of all these 'dials' being in the right place, even factoring in all the planets in our universe(!), they claimed that the probability of life on one planet is absolutely minuscule. The only way round it they said, to make the Maths work, was to invent billions of other parallel universes (science fiction style) so that the probability of life existing in one of those universes becomes much more likely.

So as I see it, we are still left with two options: we either opt for a creator that we can't see or prove. Or we opt for multiple parallel universes which we can't see or prove (and we're still left with the question of how did those multiple universes begin!)
In other words, in either option, you've got to have faith.

Even some of the most ardent atheists acknowledge that the world looks like it has been designed - a quote from Dawkins was usually rolled out at this point - but they claim that the appearance of design is an illusion, the result of evolution and survival of the fittest. At this point in the argument, those arguing for God sometimes pointed to the complex construction of DNA; by calculating the probability of DNA being randomly constructed they claimed that it cannot be a result of undirected chance. Theism fits the evidence, they concluded.

The question now was, which kind of theistic worldview?
If there is a creator, what is this creator like?
Does this creator care?
Is this creator still interested in the world?
Does he/she/it interact with the world?
Does he/she/it desire relationship with the world?

And this was where the arguments left science behind and move off into the realms of the arts, examining historical, literary and sociological evidence. Some theorists asked 'what is wrong with the world?' and continue philosophically. Others went down a historical route, examining the validity of historical claims of revelation from a creator, using non-biblical archeological evidence to point towards the validity of the Bible.

But whatever route the theorists chose at this point, all concluded their books or lectures with a study surrounding the life of a 1st century Jewish rabbi named Jesus. Some had space to examine non-biblical literary and archeological evidence for Jesus' life ... one lecturer I heard even went to town on the probability of Jesus accurately fulfilling all the prophecies about a Jewish messiah. But all finished with historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection.

And that's it ... that's my quick, crude skeleton sketch of other people's arguments. Further reading is required to flesh in the details. There are obviously counter-arguments to be considered, and counter-counter arguments etc etc.

But let's finish with some personal reactions ... the first thing that strikes me is the length of the journey. The need to strip everything right back to worldviews is quite overwhelming. But it does make sense. I mean, if you're starting from a strong or subtle atheistic view point (as so many people are) then of course the resurrection of Jesus sounds like absolute nonsense! Yes, it is a long logical journey from atheism > deism > theism > Judeo-Christian theism > the resurrection of Jesus. But in order to build a strong sound reasonable argument for a Christian perspective of God then that's the journey some choose to take.

And finally, from in amongst the field of probabilities and uncertainties, if there's one certain thing that I do take from my summer of reading and listening, it's that scientific evidence and theories haven't discounted belief in a creator God - on the contrary, they provide a lot of evidence pointing towards one.


Richard Locke said...

Hi Pete,
I was flicking through Facebook on my commute home and came across your post. Having read through it I feel I should reply in case anyone impressionable happened to read your post and subscribe to it.
Towards the beginning of your post you raise the question “How did something come from nothing?” and suggest a creator as a possible answer. This is not an answer to the question of how everything began. It is a delay. If your answer to what created the universe is a divine creator, the obvious next step is to ask ‘well, what created the creator?’. This is regressive and goes nowhere.
You also show a somewhat alarming lack of knowledge of how evolution works.
“Like the Big Bang, the evolution of life on earth can either be viewed as a completely random undirected process or it can be viewed as a directed ongoing act of creation”
Evolution is not a “completely random undirected process”. Natural selection is the process by which life forms which have traits that better enable them to adapt to specific environmental situations will tend to survive and reproduce in larger numbers than others, ensuring the transfer of those traits to following generations. Non-random. Also, what does an ‘on-going act of creation’ mean?
You then move swiftly on to ‘fine tuning’, which I think is you moving on to the anthropological argument. The very simple counter says that the universe we live in must have the potential to host life because we are here.
Life only had to begin once in the universe. With 100 billion stars in the milky way and millions of other galaxies (http://www.esa.int/esaSC/SEM75BS1VED_index_0.html) we’re looking at having at least 10^17 stars. Even with life being improbable I find it plausible to envisage molecules forming in a certain way to create life on (at least) one planet. Accepting that life could have appeared somewhere it makes sense that one of those places is Earth; given that we are already here.
Just because something is unlikely doesn’t mean a God is required to explain it.
Next you come to faith. Your passage, verbatim, is:
“[We] either opt for a creator that we can't…prove. Or we opt for multiple parallel universes which we can't…prove (and you're still left with the question of how did those multiple universes begin!) In other words, in either option, you've got to have faith.”
I like how you ask how the multiple universes began but don’t bother to ask how God began. Selective.
Also, you don’t need faith. Faith is a strong belief in something without evidence. (“Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence - http://www.thefreedictionary.com/faith)
What you do need to understand the origins of the universe is EVIDENCE. Evidence increases our understanding. Faith hinders, prevents, and restricts scientific progress – it prevents us from understanding how the universe began.
The rest of your blog loses me somewhat, the gaps in your logic leave me confused, plus I’m hungry and tired, so I’m going to rattle through the bits that really lose, amuse, or terrify me.
1.“[Atheists conclude that] Theism fits the evidence”. Do you understand what atheism means?
2.“And this is where the arguments leave science behind…” THIS is where science gets left behind? Science got left behind and was encouraged not to catch up a while ago.
3.“Some have space to examine non-biblical literary and archeological evidence for Jesus' life”Well, I am glad to see that SOME people look beyond the Bible for evidence of Jesus’ life.
4.(My favourite although I may have taken it out of context) “atheism > deism > theism > Judeo-Christian theism”.

Your blog post does nothing to promote belief in a god. It does however serve as a good example of how shaky the reasons for believing in a god are and leaves me optimistic that as information and education become more available fewer and fewer people will be indoctrinated into organised religions.

If you’d like to discuss any of this further please get in touch – rlocke85@gmail.com.

Richard Locke

Pete Atkinson said...

Hi Richard, thanks for your comments - it's good to have a response to the article so that both sides of the argument are laid out for all to see.

I am more than aware that my article is very simplistic and inadequate - for the sake of brevity I didn't engage with any details. It's important to stress that the article is my very very brief attempt at summarising other people's work - the article itself does not serve as an argument and should not be read as an argument. The point of the article is merely to highlight how other people go about framing and forming their arguments.

Blob said...

Dear Sir,

I find you response to Richard's post highly inadequate.

You state "The point of the article is merely to highlight how other people go about framing and forming their arguments."

However, in your article you state:

"Yes, it is a long logical journey from atheism > deism > theism > Judeo-Christian theism > the resurrection of Jesus. But if you want to build a strong sound reasonable argument then that's the journey you need to take. "

This does not seem like the framing of someone else's argument - this is but one example. I suggest you edit your post to reflect the fact that it is solely your opinion rather than recounting any sort of argument.

This way no-one will be able to disagree.

Kind regards,


Pete Atkinson said...

Thanks again for your feedback. From your advice, I've rewritten the article in the past tense, trying to make it clearer what is a summary of things that I have read or heard, and therefore from other people.

My own personal thoughts are written in the present tense.

Marika said...

Two questions strike me on reading your post, Pete. First question is: if you can't prove the existence of God, then why are the apologists you're reading trying to, well, prove the existence of God? And second is, if you can't prove the existence of God, doesn't that suggest that belief in God is to do with something other than 'proof'? And if so, what might that other/additional thing be?

Underlying both of those questions is a thought I've been playing with recently, which is whether the argument for Christianity is less about showing that it's plausible or logical (though those things are probably important too) and more about showing that it's beautiful or desirable: that Jesus is worth loving, that the Church is worth loving. I think that's, really, the sort of argument you find in G K Chesterton's work. And I wonder if engaging with questions of beauty and desire might take you to a more interesting sort of apologetics than the one you seem to be describing here.