How strong is the case for atheism?
In previous posts we have argued that (1) the Darwinian explanation of how life evolved fails on both evidentiary and logical grounds, and (2) for human life to exist, physical conditions must be fine- tuned to an unimaginably precise degree that could not possibly occur randomly. We concluded that the concept that best fits logic and evidence is that our world – all of it — is the work of some master creator / designer whom many of us call God.
Heeding, however, the warning of the quantum physicist Richard Feynman, that the easiest person to fool is yourself, we now must make the strongest case we can in support of the contrary view, atheism. If we don’t present the case for atheism as strongly as we can, our challenge to it has no credibility.
Our work here is nothing more than an extreme condensation of some of the writings of John Lennox, emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford and a Fellow in mathematics and philosophy of science at Green Templeton college Oxford. The power and clarity of his thoughts on the “death” of God at the hands of science merit thorough study.
Central tenets of atheism (materialism)
1. Material reality is all there is and everything else – consciousness, morality, human action – derives from it.
2. The unimaginably beautiful and complex world we see, including ourselves, is nothing but the result of mindless, unguided, random processes operating over a very long time scale.
3. The more science teaches us, the more we must conclude that it is not necessary to posit that there has to be some sort of creator / designer that consciously brought our world into being. Somehow the world created itself.
The cosmologist and theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, one of the towering intellects of the past hundred years, felt that religious belief was unnecessary; ultimately, we would understand that it is the laws of physics not God that brought the universe and us into being. In his book The Grand Design, he states that “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”
The case for atheism has been made in many different forms across many disciplines, but all of them rest on the same assumptions and logic employed by Hawking, namely, everything somehow emerges solely from physical processes. Materialists in the neurosciences, for example, have elaborate theories of how consciousness emerges from complex processes in the brain, but no one has come anywhere close to explaining how intentionality and the integration of our perceptions into a coherent whole emerge from the activity of the brain. The “ghost in the machine” always has to be invoked. The dream of materialists, however, is that with machines that enable more precise, real time study of brain processes, the mechanism by which consciousness emerges from brain activity will become apparent.
John Lennox shreds Hawking’s case convincingly. First, he distinguishes between the facile use of the term “God” as the explanation for some phenomenon we don’t understand from what he himself means by God, namely, the creator of the whole show ab initio. The former explains nothing and in fact is a cover for ignorance; the latter in his view (and mine) is logically necessary. Second, Professor Lennox shows how Hawking’s point is logically incoherent: Clearly, Hawking assumes that gravity (or perhaps only the law of gravity) exists. That is not nothing. So, the universe is not created from nothing. Worse still, the statement ‘can and will create itself from nothing’ is self-contradictory…. To presuppose the universe comes from nothing is to say that nothing contains something. As Shakespeare’s King Lear reminds us, “Nothing can come of nothing.” Third, Professor Lennox makes the obvious, but often overlooked point that a law in itself can produce nothing; it is a description, not a driving force. Hawking’s view ignores the necessity of agency – somebody (an individual human or God) has to act with intent before some non-random outcome can occur. Stephen Hawking was a giant in the world of mathematics and cosmology, but nonsense from a genius is still nonsense.
Perhaps the most famous atheist of our time is Richard Dawkins, an English evolutionary biologist and author. He is an emeritus Fellow of New College Oxford. The heart of his argument, as Lennox describes it is that natural selection – a blind, mindless unguided process –has the power to produce biological information. Lennox shows that this argument is just as circular and meaningless as Hawking’s:
“In his book [Dawkins] tells us that evolution is blind and without a goal. What, then, does he mean by introducing a target phrase? A target phrase is a precise goal which, according to Dawkins himself, is a profoundly anti-Darwinian concept. And how could blind evolution not only see that target, but also compare [an attempt to meet it with other attempts and select whichever one is closest. If, as Dawkins claims, evolution is mindless], what does he mean by introducing two mechanisms, each of which bears every evidence of the input of an intelligent mind – a mechanism that compares each attempt with the target phrase and a mechanism which preserves a successful attempt. And, strangest of all, the very information that the mechanisms are supposed to produce is already contained somewhere within the organism, whose genesis he claims to be stimulating by his process.”
It seems almost self-evident to me that there is design in nature. Design necessarily implies the existence of a conscious, intelligent designer. The question for me, therefore, is not whether there is a Creator / Designer of everything, but “So what?” Are we important? If so, what does that mean for the nature, quality, and duration of our existence? How do we know? If, as appears to be the case, there are no sure answers, how should we live? All I know for sure is that reason alone is insufficient to give me answers that would survive the test of life’s inevitable blows.