God and science
Dear Colin Howson,
The philosophical and scientific arguments for the existence of God are now almost overwhelming. Let me explain what I mean, using the canons of philosophical and scientific evaluation. Most theists believe in a “loving ultimate creator”; most rational atheists believe in “quantum uncaused stuff,” tracing everything to the Big Bang (or a quantum seed) but no further. Let us call these views Red and Green respectively, and use accepted standards for testing hypotheses: simplicity of statement; explanatory power; and likelihood of observed facts.
As to simplicity of statement: we all understand the ideas of love and creation, but the quantum world-view depends on abstruse mathematics, the basic interpretation of which is far from agreed. Of course, simply expressed views are often wrong, but between two hypotheses of equal power that both fit the facts, we should prefer the simpler.
Since Red offers explanations of why quantum stuff should exist at all; why the universe is comprehensible; and why there is an objective basis to morality, it has greater explanatory power than Green.
Testing against “observed facts” is more difficult: anything involving love is intensely personal. But there are four areas where we can reach some agreement on the evidence.
The first is that scientists now appreciate that the universe appears to be finely “tuned” to produce life. If the balance between expansion and contraction of the universe, or the ratio of the mass of the electron and proton were minutely different from their present values, intelligent life could not exist. Attempts to explain this away by positing millions of other universes could “explain” anything. Under Red the likelihood of a universe that supports intelligent life is one; under Green it is less than one in a million.
The second area is the extraordinary accuracy of mathematical predictions and the strange fact that our perceptions of mathematical beauty turn out to be a reliable guide to physics. Einstein remarked: “The one incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Green explains why we might evolve the mathematics needed to hunt and avoid predators, but offers no explanation of why this sort of mathematics can predict the movements of binary pulsars to accuracies of better than one in 1020.
The third area is morality. Is torturing babies for fun always wrong, or is this just a matter of opinion? Only a complete moral relativist can deny that there are some objective moral truths. In practice, most versions of Green accept the existence of objective morality. Under Red this is grounded on the reality of God’s love; under Green it is another unexplained “brute fact.”
Fourth, there is the phenomenon of Jesus. Most believers in Red find his life, teaching, death and resurrection utterly compelling. Believers in Green generally agree that something must have happened around the first Easter to give the disciples the conviction that they had seen, touched and spoken with their risen master. The disciples didn’t fake the resurrection-no one would die for something they knew to be a lie. The authorities could not produce Jesus’s body, which would have enabled them to kill Christianity at birth. So, under Green, what are the alternatives? If Jesus did die, we have an unknown grave-robber (who eschews a large reward from the authorities) and large-scale mass hallucination. The likelihood of such a careless robber is no higher than 1 per cent, and such mass hallucinations are rare. So maybe Jesus survived, and then deceived the disciples into believing in the resurrection? The odds against surviving crucifixion must be 1,000 to one; and would a great moral teacher lie to his friends in a way that could endanger their lives? Green implies that something like this must have happened. Freak coincidences do occur, but the likelihood in this case is one in a million.
So here are four sets of observations, two more readily quantifiable than the others, whose combined likelihood is more than one million million times higher under Red than Green. This does not mean Green is irrational, but it seems to me that it does show that the arguments for Red are almost overwhelming.
23rd March 1998
Dear Nicholas Beale,
I hold no brief for the view that there is only “quantum stuff.” I am an agnostic; I don’t think the available evidence justifies any inference as to statements of ultimate causation (or lack of it). You invoke “accepted standards for testing hypotheses.” These, you claim, are simplicity, explanatory power and likelihood (the probability of the data, given the hypothesis). Simplicity is hard to pin down, and is hardly an accepted standard: many people (including me) are simplicity-sceptics. It is also widely accepted that likelihoods have no evidential value by themselves, and are informative only in conjunction with how independently probable the hypotheses are (see Colin Howson and Peter Urbach, Scientific Reasoning: the Bayesian Approach). We can always fix up some absolutely incredible hypothesis which describes in exact detail what we have observed, but tells us nothing.
You claim that Red can explain: (a) why “quantum stuff should exist at all”; (b) the apparent comprehensibility of the universe; and (c) objective moral standards. I cannot allow the latter point: the claim that there is an objective morality is a hypothesis, not a fact, and one which most moral philosophers reject. I am equally amazed that you can say that Red explains (a). Red has nothing at all to say about the physical structure of this universe. Indeed, it is the complete emptiness of Red on detail that explains why people have largely switched their interest to scientific accounts of the universe rather than religious ones.
So we proceed to (b). You say that Red explains why the universe is comprehensible to us, whereas science doesn’t. We seem to be good at constructing accurate mathematical theories in a way, you claim, that evolutionary pressures cannot explain. But it is known that mathematics can be developed within a conceptual system consisting only of general logic and the relation “x is a member of y.” So a general classificatory ability, which surely did have an evolutionary function, will suffice to discuss such mathematical exotica as Hilbert spaces, affine connections, gauge fields and so on.
You ask: why, if Red is false, the universe should be so accommodating as to reveal its structure? But it has not been established that the physical universe is comprehensible to us. There is little evidence (pace Hawking) that it will turn out to be. The predictive successes of quantum theory and relativity don’t imply the truth of those theories and might well be accidental. Given that the theories seem to be inconsistent with each other, that is quite likely.
Let us look at your other claims. First, you say that under Red the probability of a universe that supports intelligent life is one; otherwise it is highly improbable, given the degree of fine tuning of the physical constants required for the universe to support life. I think you are assuming some unwarranted things about probability. Toss a coin enough times and you’ll get a result as improbable as that or more so-but you would not claim this as evidence that the coin was “unfair.”
Second, you claim that if I deny-as I do-that there are objective moral truths, then I must accept that torturing babies for fun is fine. Not true. I have ideals of conduct that I find compelling, and I believe that a society which accepted them would be preferable to one that didn’t. Ideals and preferences are neither true nor false, but they can be compelling. Moreover, as philosophers from Hume and Kant onwards have rightly pointed out, there is no moral value merely in obeying the wishes and commands of someone else, whether they love you or not.
Third, you claim that the secular alternatives to the Christian account of the resurrection of Jesus have a low probability. But there are more plausible explanations than the ones you provide: for example, Jesus did not die on the cross, but was taken down before death, later revived, helped to escape, and then selectively reappeared. In view of its propaganda value the resurrection myth was encouraged. One such account is given by Barbara Thiering in her book Jesus the Man. You can’t object that this explanation contradicts the gospels, because it is illegitimate to assume the gospels to be literally true (leaving aside the fact that they contradict each other). In spite of this, much is consistent with the above account (particularly in John).
One fact you don’t mention is the horrifying ubiquity of innocent suffering. In the light of this the probability of Red should surely be zero.
26th March 1998
Even if Red really were saying nothing about the physical structure of the universe, at least it offers an explanation of why the universe exists at all. This has long been known, but the remarkable fine-tuning of the constants of the universe has not. John Polkinghorne in Quarks, Chaos and Christianity estimates the odds against intelligent life at a trillion to one, so my suggestion of a million to one is generous to Green.
The mathematics issue is not “why can our brains do mathematics?” but “why can our mathematics predict the universe?” To escape this you say that “the predictive success of quantum theory and general relativity might be accidental.” Both of these have given remarkable predictions which have been verified to better than one part in 1020. Some accident.
I did not accuse you of saying “torturing babies for fun is fine,” but you imply that whether it is acceptable or not is a matter of opinion. So it seems we can choose between belief in God or belief in possibly acceptable baby torture.
What about the resurrection? Of course there are conceivable Green explanations (including time-travelling fundamentalists from the 24th century). The problem is not conflict with biblical accounts but positing occurrences which we know on other grounds are improbable. There have been more than 100,000 crucifixions, but no known instances of un-reprieved crucified people surviving. Perhaps a few did, but the proportion must be tiny. There have been many great moral teachers. Is there any evidence that any of them lied to their friends in a way that foreseeably caused their deaths?
You suggest that Red is contradicted by the observed level of innocent suffering. But even if we accept that a loving ultimate creator would not allow human suffering without sufficient reasons, can you demonstrate that an ultimate creator could not possibly have such reasons? I am sure I do not fully understand them, but I can see what some of them might be. If the purpose of the universe is to bring into being persons who are free to love, that requires freedom for people to inflict suffering on others and to alleviate their suffering. Suffering seems to be an essential part of learning to love; and suffering not caused by people is caused by the processes that drive the physics and biology which are a vital part of our coming into being.
It is not clear how to estimate the likelihood, under either Red or Green, of the suffering we observe. It sometimes looks rather low. Christians do not forget the cry “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But we also see a God that takes suffering upon Himself and transforms it into hope through resurrection. Under the Christian version of Red, suffering makes some kind of sense; under Green it is another meaningless fact.
27th March 1998
I repeat, I hold no brief for Green. As to the fine-tuning of the physical constants (to be compatible with life), that by itself tells you nothing about the probability of a loving creator: you also have to assess how independently likely that is. Given the other evidence against it, I give Red probability zero.
What about predictions? No physicist I know believes that quantum mechanics in anything like its present form will emerge as the true theory-if there is one. If they are right then its predictions, however precise, will turn out to have been accidental, arising from a false theory. The distinguished mathematician and physicist Poincar?aid a century ago that the predictions of Newtonian theory, a theory now rejected, were so accurate that they could not have been accidental. Ironically, he was also the first to point out that any finite set of data, however precise, can in principle be accounted for in an infinite number of ways: in other words, as a matter of logical fact there simply have to be quite a lot of “accidents.”
The resurrection story, or stories, is regarded as one of the weakest points in the Christian canon. According to the synoptic gospel on which the other two are thought to be based (Mark), Pilate “marvelled” that it took Christ only six hours to die: it frequently took days to die on the cross. The relevant reference class for survival probabilities is not that of all people crucified, as you suggest, but that of healthy young males taken down after a very short time, in circumstances where it is not easy to determine the point of death and where, according to one account, there were still signs of life. Moreover, the authentic part of Mark ends merely with the discovery, two days after the crucifixion, that Jesus had vanished (16; 8); an event hardly surprising if Christ was revived and helped to escape (as the young man present suggested). The rest of the gospel was added by other hands, and with contributions contradicted elsewhere. On any informed probability distribution, based on what we know about the genesis of the gospels and their historical context, the probability of any of the resurrection stories being true should be zero.
Finally, the problem of suffering. Yes, I would have thought it self-evident that a loving creator, not acting under compulsion, would not, in your words, allow “freedom for people to inflict suffering on others.” You yourself say that it is objectively wrong to torture babies for fun. So probability zero again. I don’t know about Green, but on the evidence Red should go.
28th March 1998
When science goes against your arguments you resort to “other reasons presently unknown.” The truths of Newtonian prediction are far from “accidental”-they are the limiting case of the deeper, more complex, theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics, which are entirely consonant with a Christian world-view.
And when the scientific and philosophical arguments have gone against you, you turn to selective interpretation of the Bible. You stress the short time Jesus was on the cross and ignore the previous torture and exhaustion and the spear thrust from a Roman soldier (who, if he had let Jesus live, would have been crucified himself). The definitive account of Jesus’s death, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, deals with this nonsense. Nor does speculation about the origin of the Bible help your case. Unless you can produce a single instance of a crucified man not dying, you must concede that the probability is tiny, just as I concede that it is not zero. Nor have you addressed the tiny probability-even if he had survived-of a great moral teacher lying to his disciples.
You claim that Red is refuted by the fact that there is “freedom for people to inflict suffering on others” (and that they do so). This would only be true if “loving” means “always preventing suffering.” Would a mother who painlessly killed her healthy children on the grounds that this would always prevent their suffering be loving? This is not what Red means by love, and you cannot refute Red without understanding it.
Take away your purported refutation, based on a misunderstanding, and what are you left with? “Reasons presently unknown,” selective interpretation of the Bible, accidental physics and possibly acceptable baby torture.
29th March 1998
I am not resorting to agnosticism. I stress, again, I am not an advocate of Green-a position for which there is no positive evidence either. To repeat: Newtonian theory, according to its successors, is wrong on most fundamentals. Any false theory has some true consequences; those of a fundamentally false theory will be accidentally true-that they’re explained by a later theory is irrelevant.
As for “selective interpretation of the Bible,” what alternative is there? The Bible is inconsistent. So it can’t all be true. The resurrection story is one part that isn’t (Jesus casting devils into a herd of pigs is another). The few uncontroversial facts are consistent with un-miraculous explanations. One is that Jesus was taken down before death, revived and helped to escape. You cite a “definitive medical account” of his death, and claim that “a great moral teacher” would not connive at a deception. Can a “definitive medical account” be based on the pot-pourri of mutually inconsistent anecdotes embellished by the authors of the gospels, who had an axe to grind? And Jesus a great moral teacher? How many great moral teachers tell people who reject their teaching that their fate will be worse than that of Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgement?
I have no idea what “love” means in the mouth of someone who claims to love someone they’re torturing. It must mean something I don’t understand. I assume we are speaking the same language. If we are, Red is false.