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Awidespread belief exists that science has nothing to say about God—one way or another. I must have heard it said a thousand times that "science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God."
However, in the past two decades believers and nonbelievers alike have convinced themselves in significant numbers, and their opponents in negligible numbers, that the scientific basis for each position is virtually unassailable.
Atheists look at the world around them, with their naked eyes and with the instruments of science, and see no sign of God. Even the most devout theist must admit that the existence of God is not an accepted scientific fact in the same way as, for example, the existence of quarks or black holes. As is the case with God, no one has directly observed these objects. But the indirect empirical evidence is ample for them to be considered to have some relation to reality with a high degree of probability, always with the caveat that future developments could still find a better explanation for this evidence.
Now, the theist will retort that this does not prove that God does not exist. If she is a Christian, she will of course be thinking of the Christian God. But the argument also does not prove that Zeus and Vishnu do not exist, nor Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Still, one can easily imagine scientific experiments to test for the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Just post lookouts on rooftops around the world on Christmas Eve, and at the bedsides of children who just lost baby teeth.
As I pointed out in my 2007 book, God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, it is possible to scientifically test the hypothesis of the existence of a god who plays such an active role in the universe as the traditional God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Zeus and Vishnu might be a little tougher to rule out scientifically, but the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is surprisingly easy to test for by virtue of his assumed participation in every event in the universe, from atomic transitions in distant galaxies to keeping watch that evolution on Earth does not stray from his divine plan.
While the majority of scientists in Western and non-Islamic nations do not believe in God, many prefer to adopt the stance advocated by famed paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Gould proposed that we redefine science and religion so that they are "two nonoverlapping magisteria" (NOMA), leaving science to deal with studying nature and religion to deal with morality. Or, to paraphrase Galileo, science tells us the way the heavens go and religion tells us the way to go to heaven.
Gould's NOMA especially appeals to believing scientists. The many I have known in fifty years of academic life place their religion and science in separate compartments that never interact with one another. Most nonbelieving scientists go along with NOMA as well, since they would prefer, as a social and political strategy, to avoid getting into battles over religion. However, philosophers, theologians, and many atheist scientists have not found NOMA practical. Notice I referred to Gould's proposal as a "redefinition." Gould, an avowed atheist, now deceased, was good-intentionally trying to carve out distinct, "nonoverlapping" areas for both religion and science. He strived to eliminate conflicts, which had increased in recent times, by basically redefining religion as moral philosophy. However, existing religions, while claiming to tell us how to go to heaven, also try to tell us how the heavens go. Moreover, science is not proscribed fromobserving human behavior and providing observational data on matters of morality.
NOMA simply does not accurately describe either the history or the current status of the relationship between religion and science. Neither is likely to agree to any limitations on its zone of activity. So they overlap and are going to continue to do so, and they will continue to battle over their common ground where differences are, in many cases, irreconcilable.
1.2. NATURAL THEOLOGY
During the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, when the rise of science increasingly influenced thinking, religion was deeply questioned in Europe and America. For the first time perhaps in history, it became possible to be openly atheistic or at least critical of established religion. But it was not a one-way street. Western Christian theology, which by then already had a proud history of logical thinking on the problem of God, found a place for science in what was called natural theology.
Natural theology provided several excellent scientific arguments for the existence of God that, when first introduced, were irrefutable with existing scientific knowledge. They only became refutable with further scientific developments.
The premier figure in natural theology was William Paley (d. 1805), archdeacon of Carlisle, whose 1802 book, Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, was the first serious attempt to use scientific arguments to prove that the world was designed and sustained by God. While design arguments for God had been proposed since antiquity, and argued against—notably by the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (d. 1776) in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding—Paley went beyond the typical theological emphasis on logical deduction to a direct appeal to empirical observation and its interpretation.
This was important because every one of the endless series of "proofs" of the existence of God that has been proposed, from antiquity to the present day, is automatically a failure because, as I have mentioned, a logical deduction tells you nothing that is not already embedded in its premises. All logic can do for you is test the self-consistency of those premises. There is only one reliable way that humans have discovered so far to obtain knowledge they do not already possess—observation. And science is the methodical collecting of observations and the building and testing of models to describe those observations.
Paley's main argument was based on the "watchmaker analogy," which had been used by others in the past to illustrate divine order in the world. In his opening paragraph he talks about crossing a heath and pitching his foot against a stone. He sees no problem thinking that the stone had not lain there forever. On the other hand, if he had found a watch upon the ground and saw that its several parts were put together for a purpose, the inference would be inevitable that the watch must have had a maker, an artificer who had formed it for a purpose. He then proceeds to make an analogy between the watch and living creatures, with their eyes and limbs so intricately designed as to defy any imaginable possibility that they could have come about by any natural process.
This argument convinced almost everyone, even the young Charles Darwin (d. 1882) when he was a student, coincidentally occupying the same rooms at Cambridge as Paley had a generation earlier. But Darwin would eventually change many minds besides his own. During his voyage around the world on HMS Beagle from December 27, 1831, to October 2, 1836, Darwin accumulated a wealth of data that he analyzed meticulously during the next twenty-three years. In 1859, he published On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, which demonstrated how, over great lengths of time, complex life-forms evolve by a combination of random mutations and natural selection. Living organisms not only develop without the need for the intervention of an intelligent designer but also provide ample evidence for the lack of such divine action.
While it should not be forgotten that Alfred Russel Wallace announced his independent discovery of natural selection simultaneous with Darwin (by mutual agreement), and others had also toyed with the notion, Darwin deserves the lion's share of the credit by virtue of providing the great bulk of supporting evidence and his brilliant insights in interpreting that evidence.
I need not relate the familiar history of the 150-year battle between science and religion over the theory of evolution, especially the attempts by Christians to have public schools in the United States teach the biblical creation myth as a legitimate "scientific" alternative. While heroic attempts have been made by theists and atheists alike to show that evolution need not conflict with traditional beliefs, the fact remains that the majority of believers in the United States refuse to accept a scientific theory that is as well established as the theory of gravity because of its gross conflict with the biblical account of the creation of life.
A series of Gallup polls of Americans from 1982 to 2008 asked respondents to choose from three options: (1) Humans developed over millions of years, God-guided, (2) Humans developed over millions of years, God had no part, (3) God created humans as is within ten thousand years. The results were fairly consistent over the years, the 2008 results giving 36 percent for God-guided but over millions of years, 14 percent for the long period with God having no part, and 44 percent with creation as is within the last ten thousand years.
Another recent poll was conducted by Vision Critical, a UK organization, on the question of whether human beings evolved from less-advanced forms over millions of years or whether they were created by God in their present form within the last ten thousand years. The result for Great Britain was that 68 percent supported evolution, 16 percent supported creation, and 15 percent were unsure. The result for Canada was 61 percent for evolution, 24 percent for creation, and 15 percent unsure. The result for the United States was 35 percent for evolution, 47 percent for creation, and 18 percent unsure. The difference between the United States and the two nations closest to it in culture is striking.
Only the Gallup poll considered the question of God guidance. While it is true that there were people before Darwin, including his own grandfather, who had speculated about evolution, today the term is understood to include the Darwin-Wallace mechanism of random mutations and natural selection. There is no crying in baseball, and there is no guidance, God or otherwise, in Darwinian evolution. Only the 14 percent of Americans who accept that God had no part in the process can be said to believe in the theory of evolution as the vast majority of biologists and other scientists understand it today. God-guided development is possible, but it is unnecessary and just another form of intelligent design.
Just because the Catholic Church and moderate Protestant congregations say they have no problem with evolution, that doesn't mean they don't. A statement by Pope John Paul II in 1996 seemed to support biological evolution. However, he made it clear that in his opinion it was still one of several hypotheses still under dispute. That opinion sharply disagrees with that of the vast majority of biologists. Furthermore, the pope unambiguously excluded the evolution of mind, saying that "the spiritual soul is immediately created by God" and that theories of evolution that consider mind as emerging from living matter "are incompatible with the truth about man." No doubt the pope has never considered the possibility that the evolution of the human species was not controlled by God.
In the theory of evolution accepted by an almost unanimous consensus of scientists, humans with fully material bodies evolved by accident and natural selection only, with no further mechanisms or agents involved, and simply were not designed by God or natural law. The evolution of mind is currently more contentious, but the evidence piles up daily that mind is also purely the product of the same natural processes with no need to introduce anything beyond matter. This conclusion is unacceptable to anyone who has been raised to think he was made in the image of God with an immortal, immaterial soul that is responsible for our conscious thinking.
It is important to recognize that when evolution by natural selection was first proposed in 1859, it was not in agreement with all scientific knowledge and was potentially falsifiable. According to calculations by the great physicist William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, the sun did not have enough stored energy to last the millions of years needed for biological evolution. It was not until the early twentieth century that nuclear energy was discovered and was shown to be the highly efficient source of energy of the sun and other stars that allows them to shine for billions of years, thus providing ample time for life to evolve.
1.4. INTELLIGENT DESIGN
In recent years we have seen Paley's argument exhumed with an attempt to place it on a sounder scientific basis, or, at least, to make it seem so. In 1996, biochemist Michael Behe published Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, which claimed that some biological structures are "irreducibly complex." 15 That is, living systems possess parts that could not have evolved from simpler forms since they had no function outside of the system of which they were part. His examples included bacterial flagella and blood clotting. Evolutionary biologists, of whom Behe is not one, easily demonstrated the flaw in this argument. Parts of biological structures often evolve with one function and then change function when joining up with another system. This was well known before Behe wrote his book, and many examples have since been described.
In 1999, theologian William Dembski published a book called Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science & Theology, claiming that he could mathematically demonstrate that living systems contained more information than could be generated by natural means alone. While he had a number of other arguments based on information theory, they all boiled down to what he called the "law of conservation of information." This law, Dembski asserted, required that the amount of information output by a physical system could never exceed the amount of information input. Thus it followed that the large amounts of information contained in living systems must have had an external input of information provided by an intelligent designer outside nature, who shall remain nameless.
Hundreds of papers and dozens of books have refuted Dembski (as well as Behe), and I need not refer to them all. I will just mention his misuse of the concept of information. Dembski used the definition of information provided by the father of communication theory, Claude Shannon, in 1948. Shannon defined the information transferred in a communication process to be equal, within a constant, to the decrease in the entropy of the system. Here he used the conventional definition of entropy in statistical mechanics that was provided by Ludwig Boltzmann in the late nineteenth century.
Now, it is well known that entropy is not a conserved quantity such as energy. The second law of thermodynamics allows for the entropy of a closed system to increase with time. It follows that information is not a conserved quantity and Dembski's law of conservation of information is provably wrong. On the empirical side, many examples can be given of physical systems creating information. A spinning compass needle provides no information on direction. When it slows to a stop, it "creates" the information of the direction North.
The particular form of intelligent design proposed by Behe and Dembski received a deadly blow in December 2005, when a federal court in Dover, Pennsylvania, ruled that it was motivated by religion and thus would violate the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution if taught as science in public schools. There can be no doubt that intelligent design claims are motivated by religion. However, in his ruling the judge went further than necessary by declaring that intelligent design is not science. It is my professional opinion and that of several philosophers that intelligent design is in fact science, just wrong science. That should be sufficient to keep it out of classrooms along with phlogiston and the theory that Earth is flat, except as historical references.
Excerpted from THE FALLACY OF FINE-TUNING by VICTOR J. STENGER Copyright © 2011 by Victor J. Stenger. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 22, 2011
Dr. Victor Stenger has argued that the facts of the world around us are exactly what we would expect them to be if there was no supernatural design in the works. In chapter after chapter, Dr. Stenger fleshes out his many reasons for thinking this is the case. On each page we are informed of common mistakes fine-tuning arguments make, as well as many ways in which religious apologists have misrepresented cosmology to suit their arguments.
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Posted October 31, 2011
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Posted July 30, 2011
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