Friday, May 21, 2010

“New Atheist” Challenge,
Believer Response
Shane Hayes

My friend is deeply versed in the New Atheist literature that is so in vogue among intellectuals. He states categorically: “There is no evidence -- zero evidence -- that God exists or that he created the universe.” For a moment I’m nonplussed. My mind draws a blank. I have loads of arguments, but… evidence? What does he want, footprints? Are there no clues?

Then the lawyer in me reflects: What is evidence? The Oxford English dictionary gives this definition: “evidence: 2. An indication, a sign... 3. Facts or testimony in support of a conclusion, statement, or belief… b. something serving as proof.” Evidence need not be proof. In the matters we’re examining, I see no evidence on either side that rises to the level of proof. But “facts in support of a conclusion or belief…” That we have.

A World of Evidence

To those who say there’s no evidence of a Creator-God I reply: The universe itself is evidence. Abundant and in many ways highly convincing evidence. It is a vast complex of facts that can be seen as supporting the belief that a Cosmic Mind exists. The appearance of inventive thought is everywhere in our universe, from the laws and patterns that govern the galaxies to the composition of matter.

If matter were simply a blob of undifferentiated clay, as it appears to the eye, it would be easier to suppose it just happened. But matter is composed of molecules, and molecules are composed of atoms. Even atoms are not simple -- they resemble a small solar system. The planetary model describes electrons “orbiting” a nucleus at the center, composed of positively charged particles called protons and electrically neutral particles called neutrons.

And there are subatomic particles: muons, pions, hyperons, mesons, baryons, and tachyons, to name a few. And then there are quarks. They come in six varieties, known as flavors: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom. A proton is made of two up quarks and one down quark. Among the intrinsic properties of quarks are electric charge, color charge, spin, and mass.

The Miracle of Matter – and Mind

When I got to the level of quarks it hit me: The astoundingly complex structure of matter – which only brilliant scientists could discover and comprehend – is evidence of a Mind whose ingenuity far exceeds the human, One whose intellective fingerprints are all over the world. Maybe “a blob of glup” just happened. But the elegant architecture of the invisibly fine – of the atomic and subatomic realm -- is no accident. Natural selection does not explain it. There’s no Darwinian challenge to it. It’s simply there, and has been for fourteen billion years, since the dust settled after the Big Bang. One can’t help contemplate it with a wild surmise.

Our own species is the most prodigious and inscrutable facet of the entire cosmos. Human consciousness and its phenomenal achievements – scientific, philosophic, and cultural – are evidence (“signs, indications”) of a Cosmic Intellect whose creative exploits went beyond matter, with its micro wonders, to create the even more dazzling phenomenon of life; and beyond that to create consciousness; and beyond that to create a species of primate with peak specimens like Aristotle, Shakespeare, Newton, Michelangelo, Bach, and Einstein.

Unproven, Not Disproven

“No!” you shout. “That’s the old Argument from Design, resurrected in the lab of particle physics and dressed in the robes of genius. 200 years ago Paley argued that a watch requires a watchmaker. Now Hayes says, A genius is a Work of Genius. We’ve put all that behind us.” No, we haven’t. At most we’ve conceded that it’s not proof. It doesn’t compel belief. But we can’t deny it the status of evidence. Evidence of a highly probative kind.

The evidence is ambiguous. It may be variously interpreted. But it is evidence of something exceedingly hard to explain. We can disagree on what that something is: a cryptic force of nature, or a Cosmic Consciousness that stands apart from the awesome world it produced. A reasonable case can be made for either position. Let me sum up my take on the evidence with two questions I often ask:

Which View Is More Credible?

Did the Big Bang ultimately produce Plato, or did a cause more like Plato produce him? Did cosmic dust evolve into a great mind, or did a Great Mind produce the cosmos?

Viewed in that light I think the case for God is stronger than the case against. But since neither theist nor atheist has proof on this crucial issue, uncertainty is our fate. We can’t know. We can only believe – in God or in No God. We who choose God can legitimately cite the universe – at the macro and micro level -- as evidence.


  1. Shane:

    As you say, "the evidence is ambiguous," and much turns on how one interprets the evidence. You see the complexity of the universe as evidence of creators. One could just as easily argue that the complexity of the university is evidence that the universe was NOT created. Why couldn't the creators, if they had actually existed, have made the universe simpler? But let me grant, for a brief moment, and strictly for the sake of argument, that the creators existed. In that case, the complexity of the universe could be interpreted as "evidence" that the creators were either not smart enough, or not capable enough, to make the universe any simpler. That rules out omnipotence, or omniscience, or both.

    You write, Our own species is the most prodigious and inscrutable facet of the entire cosmos. It seems to me that such a statement is not at all in keeping with your Believing Agnostic persona. I don't think that advanced civilizations such as the one we are currently living in are particularly common throughout the universe. In fact, I suspect that they are probably quite rare -- and they may have a tendency not to last very long. Nevertheless, our sun is one of a hundred billion stars in a galaxy that is one of a hundred billion galaxies, so it would not be unreasonable to guess that, at the present time, there could be at least a hundred billion advanced civilizations currently existing in the universe. It seems extremely implausible that we are unique.

    Your statement that "Our own species is the most prodigious and inscrutable facet of the entire cosmos" is faith-based anthropocentrism. You can say is that we are, indeed, pretty hot stuff in comparison with what has gone on on Planet Earth in the 4.5 billion years before we showed up -- but, if the human race is what the universe is all about, according to the plan of the creators, what is the rest of the universe for? What purpose does it serve? And why did the universe exist for 13.7 billion years before we showed up? If the creators had to make us before it was their quittin' time, they were apparently in no hurry about it.

    But of course they existed outside of time, so they didn't even notice, right? If that is your response, then I must ask why, if the creators existed outside of time, did they create us so that we exist inside time? What's the purpose of time?

  2. Shane,
    You make a good argument. I would like to add another. I recently listened to lectures on The Science of Biology. The complexity of a cell amazed me. It is like a miniature factory and everything has to be just so or it doesn't work. Plus it has a number of fail safes. How something like this could have come about without intelligent help is beyond me. Yes, there is no proof, but I can’t understand how anyone can be so certain that it all came about by chance without any help from a supernatural being.

  3. PCoyle, you said: "You see the complexity of the universe as evidence of creators. One could just as easily argue that the complexity of the university is evidence that the universe was NOT created."

    Shane's argument is that complexity makes it difficult to see how the universe could have come about without a creator. How you can twist the argument in favor of chance, is beyond me. Your argument as to why the creator couldn't have made it simpler is irrelevant since complexity is what we have and complexity has the smell of creator all over it.

  4. Wayne:

    Take a look at the Wikipedia article on "KISS Principle." Note especially the sentence that says, "The KISS principle states that simplicity should be a key goal in design, and that unnecessary complexity should be avoided."

    The complexity of the universe could be seen either as evidence that the universe was not created, or evidence that the designers of the universe weren't very good at the business of designing things.

    This counterargument admittedly works better against Shane's Christian God than it does against your anonymous "creators." Perhaps your creators had to deal with something that I will call, for lack of a better word, "reality." If the universe they designed is complex, that does not mean that it is unnecessarily complex. It could simply mean that they had no way to make it simpler.

    Such a constraint presumably did not face the Christian God, who is generally characterized as being both omnipotent and omniscient. On Star Trek, Scotty used to say, "I canna' change the laws of physics, Captain." When confronted by the laws of physics, a designer may find no way of reducing complexity beyond a certain point. However, the Christian God COULD (one supposes) change the laws of physics, so a Christian cannot invoke the laws of physics as an explanation for what appears to be the unnecessary complexity of the universe.

    There are two basic problems with design complexity. First, it creates multiple points of failure. Second, it makes it difficult to fix problems when something goes wrong. We can even consider the problem of death as a problem of complexity. We humans have lots of complex parts. Eventually some of them break. Sometimes we can fix them, but often this takes a lot of expertise and technology. That's why doctors make the big bucks. Eventually one or more of our crucial parts will break irreparably, and we die.

    If you wanted to have some fun, you could even make up a theology out of this observation by saying that God, being a good designer, designed Adam and Eve according to the KISS principle, so that originally they were extremely simple. After they ate the forbidden fruit, he punished them by making them more complex. But as this imaginary theology suggests, it would be a mistake to cite complexity per se as evidence of a designer.

  5. P.Coyle, Ahhh something we an agree on. We are both Star Trek fans. You are right, my creator is probably not omnipotent and omniscient. A good example is in the fossils in which this creator had to either keep playing with his creations until he got it right. Perhaps an alternative explanation is that the creator set up evolution and let natural selection take care of it for him. He could occasionally jump in and make adjustments. The complexity part makes me thing that it could not have come about by chance and would need involvement by a creator. And like you said, the creator may not have been able to make it less complex or perhaps was not knowledgeable enough to know better.