Monday, January 5, 2015

A Response To: Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God

The Original Article

This was written in response to my dad, who as a Presbyterian Christian shared Eric Metaxas’s article from the Christmas WSJ Op-Ed page. Dad and I haven’t really discussed religion much since he found I’m an atheist. He is the treasurer and has served as a deacon in our church.
Eric Metaxas
Dec. 25, 2014 4:56 p.m. ET

My Response:


I hope you're feeling better.  We were all sad that we didn't get to see you and mom this weekend.

I also hope you wanted an honest and thoughtful response to the article you sent. I've taken an interest in philosophical debates over the last year or two, so I'm quite familiar with this particular style of god claim, as it's in fashion right now.  I'm happy to have these discussions any time.  Here's a sampling of my current thinking on this subject.  I'm sharing my thoughts and opinions on the article, which aren't going to be supportive. Keep in mind that I'm criticizing the article here, not you.  I'll do my best to be respectful to Mr. Metaxas, but I think he's been sloppy in his argument and in the claims he makes.

For starters, the headline is just plain wrong, and striking in its ignorance of the scientific method.  It's common to have flashy headlines in the media, so it's not surprising.   Nevertheless, science most certainly does not "Make the Case for God", and I'm not sure how to restructure the scientific process such that it actually could make such a case.  Science deals with the construction of models which accurately predict the observable behavior of the natural world around us.  To do this, science requires verifiable, repeatable experimentation to demonstrate the validity of clearly stated, falsifiable hypotheses.  Theistic claims of a god generally place the god in a nebulous "super-natural" or "spiritual" realm which is firmly outside any ability to test and validate. By definition, this is outside the realm of science. Furthermore, as an intelligent agent, a god with "the omni's" (omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence) would not follow pre-definable orderly rules we seek to establish with science. As far as I know, there's no reasonable way to study any god claim using science.

In his article, Mr. Metaxas lays out a well known philosophical argument for the existence of god.  The fact that the philosophical argument cites science as its evidence doesn't make it scientific.  There is no "god hypothesis" presented, much less actually tested.  The particular philosophical argument is in the category of "Fine Tuning" or Teleological arguments for the existence of God. The teleological argument on physical constants is one of the best arguments I've ever seen for the existence of God.

Hardly any cosmology scholars are making teleological claims of god's existence as the author seems to want his readers to think.  This sort of claim comes from Christian (and Muslim) apologists. I've studied the teleological argument and I find it unconvincing for several reasons.  I'll outline the four biggies here:
  1. At its core, it uses what's called an argument from ignorance fallacy. The argument from ignorance fallacy is when a debater (A) claims that his opponent (B) doesn't know the answer but Aclaims to know the answer, therefore A is right.  In this case, the statement goes, "We don't know why these constants are balanced, but our religion claims God did it, so our religious dogma must be true."  To see just how absurd this debate technique is, notice that the argument works equally well for any conceivable creation myth: a creator pixie; the Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent; or the classic modern parody, Flying Spaghetti Monster.
    • Aside: The fact that there are aspects of the laws of nature that we don't yet understand never implies that any god did it. This is called "God of the Gaps". It's an attempt to spread the deity / deities into the ever-shrinking bits of the natural world we don't yet fully understand. We no longer need Ra, Apollo, or Helios to explain why the sun moves across the sky each day, or Zeus to explain lightning, or Poseidon to explain storms at sea. God of the gaps is asymptotically approaching zero.
  2. The teleological argument is often presented as an argument for the Christian or Muslim model of an intervening (or theistic) God. In the cosmological constant form, it's AT BEST, a argument for deism, not theism — an intelligent "first cause" with no demonstrable continuing affinity towards humanity, and certainly no "personal relationships" as the Christian and Muslim traditions teach.
  3. The argument fails to address the elementary "what created God?" Question. At it's core, this argument implies that the things around us (e.g. cosmological constants) appear to be "designed", so they must have a designer. But surely such a designer must be even more complex than the thing it designed. Why then do we not insist on a second designer to design that first designer?  Apologists, and indeed most Christians I know, get around this by something called "special pleading" – the assertion that we should make a special case for God that they refuse to grant for the universe. Namely, that a complex, all-powerful god could simply exist without needing a cause. Yet for some reason, the universe and all the things within it cannot.  Without special pleading, the intelligent creator deity requires his own creator, which requires a creator, and so on to infinity.
  4. The teleological generally starts from the foundational assumption that humans are the ultimate "goal" of the universe, a strikingly arrogant position in my opinion. This is a problem for all religious apologetics I've seen. As a human, it's tempting to to take this position.  After all, it makes me feel special. But on the spatial and temporal scales of the universe, our entire species is insignificant, so we're left to assume that the universe was made just for us?  Seems like an tremendous waste of effort -- particularly the meteors and inescapable eventual destruction of our sun.  
Very few modern cosmologists consider these numbers evidence for God in the way that the article seems to suggest. There are several potential mechanisms whereby these constants could be "tuned" without an intelligence. The Multiverse is one. Very long time scales is another. There are not any fundamental problems with our understanding of the universe that ONLY a god could explain.

In my opinion, these sorts of articles, and apologetics in general, serves only to help believers feel more justified in their beliefs by giving the appearance of a solid foundation for religious beliefs where there is actually none to be had. The argument makes brilliant sense if you read it starting with the assumption that an intelligent creator god exists.  But it doesn't actually provide any clear or compelling evidence that such a creator deity exists in the first place, much less indication of what properties such a deity would possess.  So the honest truth is that:
  • We don't (yet) know why the physical constants are balanced, but that doesn't mean a god did it.
  • We have no way to determine how likely it is that they would be balanced, but even if it's extremely unlikely, that doesn't mean a god did it.
In the end, religion is based on faith. There is not, nor will there likely ever be any "proof". Until such a time, I remain very skeptical.  But I'm always happy to discuss. I'd like to know if I'm wrong, and I'm not going to find that by navel gazing.

With Love,
  • Me

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