Evidence for God seminar Jan 20 2005 – These notes were made during my preparation for the seminar in which I was a panel speaker. This is not an organized paper, or article, it is a semi-organized collection of thoughts. The seminar was very well received by those in attendance.
“There is no direct scientific proof of the existence of God. However, the natural world is consistent with and points toward an intelligent creator. I believe that an unbiased judge looking at the Universe would come to the conclusion that it was created.”
Richard Dawkins has a different perspective:
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
n Richard Dawkins, "God's Utility Function," published in Scientific American (November, 1995), p. 85
We are looking at the same world and coming to different conclusions. So, who is right?
An analogy between “beauty” and “the hand of God”
“Stephanie Forringer is a stunningly beautiful woman.” It is a statement which I fervently absolutely believe. It is a statement that many of you in this room might agree with, but fundamentally is it a matter of perspective and opinion. It cannot be called a scientifically verified fact.
We have to be careful when using this logic. “Stephanie is a stunningly beautiful woman,” is neither true nor false in any objective way in that it can be true for one person who believes it but not true for another person who does not believe it. “God exists” is a different kind of statement. Like the statement, “five times five is 15,” it is either true or false regardless of people’s beliefs.
However, the statement “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom …” is somewhere in between; maybe more like the question of beauty. But I do fervently believe that the physical universe behaves just as we would expect if it were created by the God of the Bible.
God Acts within the Apparently Random Circumstances of the World:
In the 1800’s scientists had come to the general conclusion that the world followed a set of predictable laws (electromagnetism,
A couple of examples. Dropping a ball; if we know how high the ball is when we drop it, we can predict the velocity of the ball when it hits the ground.
Knowing the location and velocity of each planet and the sun, a computer can predict the planets’ future orbits.
If we know the exact position and velocity of a die as it is thrown, and we understand exactly the interaction between the die and the table, we could (in theory) predict the outcome of each roll. In practice this is very hard, but a die’s outcome is still fully determined once it is thrown (even if we don’t KNOW the answer).
Taking this to its logical extreme, if we knew the exact position and velocity of every particle in the universe at any instant in time, we could predict the subsequent behavior of the universe for all time. Of course in practice this is impossible, but even if we don’t KNOW the outcome, it is still determined. This strict determinism flies in the face Christian theology disallowing of any sense of responsibility for sin, or possibility of miracles.
The good news is that in the 1900’s physicists discovered quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics rules out strict determinism. There is “uncertainty” built into the natural law. Subatomic particles simply do not have an exactly defined position and velocity. It isn’t that they can’t be known, but that they do not exist. In this way strict determinism is not the law of nature.
Some strange results from quantum mechanics include the fact that an electron is able to “roll over a hill” that it doesn’t have enough energy to climb, and given enough tries I could jump to Jupiter.
Some events in nature are truly random and apparently uncaused. These include the decay of radioactive nuclei, the transition of bound states in electron orbits and many others. These events can be said to have no physical cause and the occurrence of these events cannot be predicted before they occur. Other events that may be strictly determined have a large appearance of randomness and are effected by very small perturbations in initial conditions (the roll of dice, the stopping of the roulette wheel, etc).
The best superpower I can think of is to be able to control the outcome of the “random” events in nature. If I had this power, I could tunnel through walls like an electron or cause the statue of liberty to give me the “I love you” sign. These events are not complete forbidden under the normal laws of physics (although they are HIGHLY improbable).
Even without resorting to the highly improbable, if I could influence the results of “random” events, I could determine the gender of my next child, always win at casinos, cause people to meet each other at opportune times, and cause other people to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
While I could do these things without violating any laws of physics, and without anyone being able to PROVE that I was somehow controlling things, how many of these powers would I have to exert before you started believing that I was God? It seems to me that the natural laws of physics leave room for God to act through the uncertainty inherent to those laws.
In fact, for most of us, the “evidence” that you and I see for God is just that, the circumstances in our life that show us how God has worked to bring us where we are today. God can do this without ever breaking the laws of physics.
By acting in these ways, God does not give us proof of his existence, just strong suspicions.
Human control over our bodies is equivalent to God’s control over the created world.
One question I have always had for “philosophical naturalists” (people who believe that the natural world is all there is) is “how do I decide to open my hand?” It is almost an amazing “miracle” that by choosing, I can open my hand at any moment I desire. Our experience proves to us that the choice to open our hands or not, is not pre-determined. As far as the natural world goes, the physical events (electrical impulses in the brain etc) which lead up to opening or non-opening of my hand must fall within the category “events which seemingly have no physical cause and whose occurrence cannot be predicted before they occur.”
My will, my choice, or my desire, somehow influences the physical events which take place in my body (electrical impulses in the brain etc.). These events, which are not physically forbidden, and yet are not physically pre-determined, are decided by my choice. There is a real, obvious, observable link between the physical world, and my mind/will/spirit. I defy any atheist to explain how this works.
Is it possible that God has the same kind of influence over the whole of creation, being able to influence the “random” events in all ways?
By the way, this is not a proof of God or the supernatural. It is only an unexplained mystery that points (me) to God.
Why do I believe the natural world points to God?
The understanding that scientists have about the natural world are changing in ways that see to be consistent with my understanding of scripture points to a creator. I have already discussed the Quantum revolution which allowed for the possibility of a non-deterministic universe which contains free-will. There is also the relatively new understanding that the universe has a beginning. Scientists call the beginning of time the “big bang,” but will never be able to answer the question, “why did it begin?”
The laws of nature studied by physics and other scientists have an elegance that is hard to describe to someone does not have an advanced degree in science, but I will say that many time in my graduate courses, when we were trying to derive or understand a natural phenomena, the best course of action was to assume that the law describing the phenomena was as simple as it could possibly be. These assumptions usually lead us to the correct understanding. It always amazed me that when God has a choice about how to create the world, He chose the simplest set of rules that would produce the kind of world that we live in. Also, the simple fact that people are able to understand and study the natural world at all points to the fact that we were made in the image of its creator.
“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”
n Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1998), p. x., quoted from Victor J. Stenger, Has Science Found God? (2001)
“Proofs that God exists”
None of this elevates to the level of proof that God exists. It only shows that God certainly could exist in the type of universe that we have. Not only that, but God would have all kinds of power even if He never choose to break the physical laws that He put into place. And in fact, all of our experience about God seems to agree with my understanding of physics. This does not rise to the level of proof.
Some things are hard to prove. For instance, try proving the following statement “All rocks sink when placed in water.” To disprove it would be easy, find one rock that floats. To prove it is very hard, you have to check every rock in the Universe.
In order to prove that God exists, it seems like we would have to find an event which has no explanation other than “God did it.” People have come up with examples of such events, and they usually fall into the following categories.
1. Unlikely events that have occurred: An example of an unlikely even, which we know has occurred, is the advent of life on Earth. Another example is the existence of a universe which has all the necessary features to create life (the so-called anthropic principle). There are other unlikely events which people use as proof that God must have caused the event. However, even the most unlikely events can and do occur “randomly.” So it is very difficult to “prove” that is wasn’t. Some real difficulties in this area are related to the fact that people have a very poor understanding of statistics. For example, what is the likelihood that in a group of 50 people, two of them have the same birth date? (It is actually very high!)
2. Unexplained mysteries: If an event of phenomena has no natural explanation, some people will say that God must be responsible. This is called the “God of the gaps” argument. The problem with this is that as time goes on, God gets smaller and smaller. For years, people thought God was responsible for holding the planets in their orbits, and for moving the Sun around the Earth, now we understand gravity and orbits. Any unexplained mystery could have an explanation that is yet to be discovered.
It is my experience that every claim I have heard of evidence that the Universe is “young” has been easily and quickly debunked by a rational unbiased look at the data. (www.talkorigins.com or www.outersystem.us/creationism/tiscareno.html) Even the few “evidences” that seem to point to a young earth are better classified as unexplained mysteries in the face of the massive, self-consistent evidence of long time spans. (Cosmology and the big bang, light from stars, geology, radioactivity, elemental formation in stars, apparent age of stars, etc.)
Big Bang Proves God – Unexplained Mystery.
“Empty space” as we know it has some unusual properties. One of which is spontaneous production of matter. An electron pair, can, for instance appear out of nothing for a short period of time. One of these electrons can subsequently (before it disappears) interact with the world around it. This is measurable. Also, there are many examples of “spontaneous” events in the natural world: an electron falling from a higher energy state to a lower energy state, the decay of a radioactive molecule (after one, two, three, or 1000 half lives). None of the other “spontaneous” events recorded in our universe demand at cause. It is not immediately obvious to me that the spontaneous generation of the Universe is outside of the natural workings of physical law. I would argue however, that the existence of physical laws which could create such a universe (for me) points to a clever creator.
Complexity of Life Proves God – Unlikely event
Various claims have been made about the relative likelihood of life happening by accident. (See the Intelligent Design movement.) That an unlikely event occurred is not in and of it self proof that someone “caused” it.
Let me give a simple example. The odds of my getting a particular hand in bridge (hearts, spades, etc) is 1/635 billion; a very improbable event. If I play 10 hands in a row, the odds that I would get that exact series of hands (in that sequence) with random shuffling are 1 in 1 x 10118. Does the fact that this improbable event happened mean that someone fixed the deck?
“The Washington Redskins have proved to be a time-tested election predictor. In the previous 15 elections, if the Washington Redskins have lost their last home game prior to the election, the incumbent party has lost the White House. When they have won, the incumbent has stayed in power.” -snopes.com
This fact, by itself is supremely unlikely. If we assume that there is no correlation between Redskins games and presidential elections, we find the odds of this happening at random are 1 in 32,768. Some would therefore be led to conclude that the redskins game MUST be correlated to the elections. However, let’s dissect this a little bit…
What are the odds that SOME equally bizarre coincidence would occur? Well, if we include only pro teams in
The final evidence that the redskins’ game is not a predictor of presidential elections is that last year the redskins lost there last home game before the election and yet the incumbent (George W. Bush) still won thus breaking the impressive streak.
Misunderstandings about “unlikely” events
What causes some people to see patterns that lead them to believe in God and other to not see those patterns?
Nobody honestly believes that the redskins’ game determines the result of the presidential election. Most people would not even prescribe any particular meaning to the “unusual” coincidence. However, most of us faced with a similar coincidence in our lives might ascribe meaning to it. “God did it, therefore God exists.”
Misunderstanding of the fact that “unlikely” events are bound to occur “frequently” leads to all sorts of false conclusions. This is the source of most of the pseudo-science in our culture and the reason that so called “anecdotal evidence” should not be accepted when evaluating the effectiveness of a medical treatment (a single “unlikely” event has no significant value in determining correlation let alone causation).
((Consider the following: I knew a guy (when I was a kid) who had an ice cream cone in the morning, and later that day drowned while swimming in the public pool. And, in the last 30 years, the number of swimming deaths on any given day is directly related to the number of ice-cream cones sold on that day. Would you conclude that ice cream cones cause swimming deaths? Or would you conclude that on hot days people buy lots of ice cream cones and lots of people go swimming? What about my friend. Is that evidence of the danger of ice cream, or is it just a coincidence? What experiment could you do to find out whether or not ice cream eating actually causes swimming deaths? Could you do the experiment without putting people into harms way? OK, now another example: I had a friend with a totally normal child. Five weeks after the kid got the MMR vaccine he started showing symptoms of autism. In the last 30 years the use of MMR vaccines has gone up by a factor of 10, in the same time the number of diagnosed cases of autism has gone up by the same factor. What conclusions do you draw? What conclusions are drawn by people on the internet? What kinds of experiments could be done, to find if there is really a connection?))
“Either it is true that a medicine works or it isn't. It cannot be false in the ordinary sense but true in some "alternative" sense. If a therapy or treatment is anything more than a placebo, properly conducted double-blind trials, statistically analyzed, will eventually bring it through with flying colors. Many candidates for recognition as "orthodox" medicines fail the test and are summarily dropped. The "alternative" label should not (though, alas, it does) provide immunity from the same fate.”
n Richard Dawkins, The Devil's Chaplain (2004)
Monkeys on a typewriter
Some things are so unlikely that they deserve special treatment.
What are the odds that monkeys sitting at a typewriter randomly punching keys could generate the first full page of Shakespeare’s hamlet? A typewritten page has 47 lines of 65 coulombs each. Allowing for all caps, and using numbers, letters, and simple punctuation, there are 10+26+4 possible keys for each character. There are 2x104894 possible pages that the monkey could type. The smallest timeframe, of which I am aware is the time it takes light to cross a nucleus 1x10-23 s. The biggest number I am aware of is the number of nuclei in the universe. The universe is estimated to have a mass of 3x1052 kg, and it takes 6x1026 nucleons to make a kg. Therefore there are 2x1079 nucleons in the universe. If each nucleon were a monkey that could write a page each small time scale, for the entire age of the universe (14 billion years), they would only write 9x10119 pages. The odds that one of these pages is the first page of Hamlet is 1 in 2x104774 – none!
If you find a page that contains the text to the first page of Hamlet, you can be SURE that is wasn’t generated randomly.
On the other hand, any page full of gibberish has the same incredible unlikelihood of being generated at random. Why can we not make the same claim about any page of text? Can we say that it MUST have been intelligently designed?
Fine tuning of Physical laws
Are the incredible unlikelihood of the physical constants and laws that make up our universe evidence that they must have been designed like the first page of Hamlet, or are they just a particular unlikely event that happens to have happened like the page of random text or a series of bridge hands?
One can argue that the constants are fine tuned for life, so there must have been a plan, it is like Hamlet. On the other hand, if any of the other possible sets of physical laws had happened, nobody would be here to ask the question. The fact that we are here to ask requires the laws that are in place. The odds that they are in place (given that we are her to talk about it) are 100%.
Do we need proof of God’s existence?
In conclusion, I don’t thing we should be concerned that we cannot find scientific proof of God. It is always comforting when smart scientific sounding people tell us we are justified in believing what we already want to believe, but it isn’t necessary. The best evidences for our faith are found the in reliability of scripture, the historical evidence of the resurrection, the changed lives of believers, and the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.