Chapter One

God Does Not Make Sense of Human Existence

Matthew Taylor

 

Man has pondered the reasons for his existence for as long as he's been able to look up and formulate thoughts of wonder at what lies beyond the boundary of earth's atmosphere. The idea that humans; with their intelligence and their ability to investigate, discover and think, could be a mere insignificant spec on an insignificant rock orbiting an average star in an average galaxy is unsatisfactory. Those who can't accept this insignificance have invented many imaginative ways of elevating humans out of this cosmic indifference. Christianity is one of those methods.

Christianity addresses human existence by claiming that we can't be an accident. Humans must be the product of a creator god, a god that, having created everything else and deeming it good, needed something to top it off. The Christian story is that man is made in this god's image, to rule creation (Genesis 1:28), to elevate it from just good, to very good (Genesis 1:31).

This self-adopted best of everything promotes humans from being an inevitable product of nature to being the offspring of god; an undeserved promotion that those in need of answers latched onto.

The Christian claim is that their god is the best explanation for our existence. The justification is that everywhere we look, nature is amazing and wondrous and it simply can't be an accident. All that is must be the product of something greater, and that something can only be the Christian god. Ask any Christian to justify this and you'll get an answer that attempts to show how science and faith do not conflict or that science confirms the reasons for the faith. Press hard and the reasons sound more wishful thinking than demonstrated conclusion.

The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful. ” - Francis Collins

There are answers that science isn’t able to provide about the natural world—the questions about why instead of the questions about how. I’m interested in the whys. I find many of those answers in the spiritual realm. That in no way compromises my ability to think rigorously as a scientist. ” - Francis Collins

A Christian would think that only their god can make sense of human existence. They have to think that; to think otherwise is to question the very foundation of their religion. Christians proclaim that their god makes sense of human existence, not because they can show it to be true but because they need it to be true in order to justify their beliefs. This is not an evidential claim that can be tested, it is a statement of faith, asserted as a device that shores up belief. If the sciences really did provide evidence to support religious claims, then apologetic statements that a god makes sense of human existence would not be required because they would be demonstrated.

Evidence is a genuine challenge for Christian claims involving their god. The bible makes it clear that faith in an unseen god is something to be respected. A trait that Jesus himself praises when he says to Thomas “ Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. ”. John 20:29

However, in today's world of increasing scientific knowledge and literacy, it is easier and easier to fact check claims and to challenge unsupported assertions. As science shines more and more light on what it is that makes us human and how we got here, so the dark corners of ignorance where religion breeds best are getting smaller and smaller.

The claim that god makes sense of human existence is neither supported nor rational, it is the gasp of a dying religion, desperate to show itself as relevant.

Entropy

 

Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a favourite of Christian apologetics. The law states that in closed systems the measure of entropy will increase, a closed system will get more disordered overall. The key point here is that this is referring to the system as a whole and not to small sub-components. Entropy will increase over the whole of the closed system, which necessitates energy transferring from one part of the system to another. Energy moves from the Sun to the Earth. Those areas (like the Earth) that energy moves to are exactly where we would expect to find pockets that buck the trend (i.e. show decreasing entropy). The Earth receives massive amounts of energy from our Sun, making it one of millions of pockets in our universe where you'd expect to see something different. 

In his book, Justin gives an example from his father, of a garden being left unattended. Most people would agree with the suggestion that the garden would become more disordered. A garden isn’t a closed system, so it’s hardly a good example, ignoring that though. Overall the garden would become more disordered, but start looking closer and there would also be small areas in the garden where there is a little bit more order than in the surrounding sections. A plant or bush bearing fruit would be an example. It’s the same with the earth, life has been able to survive on earth because the energy it receives keeps entropy at bay. This is not the contradiction that Justin claims it is, it is expected.

When entropy is used to justify belief in a god, it is typically used in the way described above, it betrays a lazy attitude to what the scientific literature says; literature that is based on predicted expectations and the resulting observations.

What is the best explanation?

The motivation here is clear, the Christian needs to justify their belief by arguing that the Christian god is the better explanation for human existence. What is meant by best? And how is it measured?

A common apologist strategy is to paint atheism as a worldview dead set against anything supernatural and the Christian being the one who is open minded and modestly suggesting that maybe there could be something unseen behind it all. Those who don't accept the suggestion are seen as dogmatic Doubting Thomases that demand something tangible. As always, reality is more complicated than that.

This isn't a case of Christian view vs atheist worldview. It's what the scientific literature can and does demonstrate vs supernatural ideas seeking credence by exploiting the areas that are not yet fully explained. The things we know in nature are discovered through a process generally known as the scientific method. That is, ideas are formed from what is observed and those ideas are subjected to test through experimentation. The observed results then form the basis of more ideas, sometimes ideas are found to be in need of adjustment, or may even be wrong. Adjusted ideas form the basis for new experiments and so the cycle of testing and learning is repeated and the bank of human knowledge moves relentlessly onwards.

An example of this would be Newton's idea that gravity is an attractive force being replaced by gravitational waves as predicted by general relativity and eventually demonstrated by the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) experiment. LIGO is a pair of lasers fired at right angles to each other that detect the tiny fluctuations created by a gravitational wave as it passes by. If scientists religiously stuck to a single idea that seemed to fit, then there would never be any new things to learn and argue over.

On the question of human existence, evolutionary theory explains how humans arose from other animals, which in turn came from others. It's a long and unbroken chain of generational hereditary with a few mutations stirred in for good measure. The theory is so well supported that the majority of Christians now accept it. Those who don't are the literalists who accept those early chapters of Genesis as fact, they find very little support in the scientific community. Christian acceptance of evolution is arguably increasing, especially when you look at the Catholic and Anglican church traditions, where the dialog between religion and science is more ‘friendly’. outliers rather than the mainstream. For the Christians that accept evolution, the argument has moved from how humans evolved to what sparked the first life and how did it manage to replicate. Science doesn't currently have an answer; so Christians jump on this unexplained event and, in a shout of triumph declare, that because man can't explain it, their god does. It's here that you'll find the Christian mantra that atheists believe only in nature and they don't allow any god a look in.

The battleground is set.

Where Does the Evidence Point?

 

It is not unusual for Christians to claim that there is an evidential basis to the Christian faith. In fact, many Christians hold so dearly and so strongly to that line, that they will interpret challenges to that claim as hostility. This inability to differentiate between legitimate challenge and wanton hostility is often the source of many unhelpful discussions between Christians and atheists on the Unbelievable? forums.

One Christian answer to the challenge of how the Christian god can be evidenced is:

“Through conscience, rational discourse, special revelation like the Scriptures, and supremely through taking on human flesh and living (and dying) among us”


Note how the answer is a series of claims; it is not a reference to evidence that is documented in a structured manner. By this I mean evidence that is experimentally gathered in a manner that does its best to control the variables as much as possible. That is the method by which all of science currently works. If someone wants to confirm the existence of gravitational waves or the Higgs Boson, then they have to design an experiment to test the idea and the results will be scrutinised. LIGO was built at great expense to test for gravitational waves. The Large Hadron Collider, another massively expensive experiment, detected the Higgs Boson and will hopefully go on to detect other particles. These experiments are ongoing and will continue to inform science and increase our knowledge of what makes up the universe in which we live.

In the case of LIGO, it detected gravitational waves 100 years after they were first hypothesised. It is grand experiments like this that move the knowledge that humans have of our natural world forward in small but very important steps. The history of science is littered with experiments both great and small that have progressed the knowledge of mankind forward.

So why is it that when the Christians on the Unbelievable? forums are challenged to provide the details of the experiments that can confirm the presence of the Christian god, the questioner is accused of being hostile? This is exactly what Justin does in Chapter Two of his book when he quotes Lawrence Krauss as describing the world’s religions of being in disagreement with science. If the Christian is to remain in step with science, they must be prepared to subject their god to scientific testing. Testing that will, over time, make the Christian god more or less probable.

Yet, when the Christian is challenged to do that, the response is that the Christian god can not be tested in a lab and so, as Krauss predicts, the Christian removes their religion from the boundary of science. When the Christian's response to the question of where is the experimental evidence that supports their god's existence is variations of “god is outside of nature and can not be tested” then they are at odds with science and they are making claims that science can not support. That being the case, they can not then claim that the arrow of evidence points in the direction of the Christian god. The two positions are contradictory.

Take the claims of intelligent design as an example, the evolved world we see around us is the result of millions of years of natural selection. The process of natural selection is such that features more suitable for the environments in which they find themselves will provide a survival advantage to those that have them over those that don’t. After millions of years it is to be expected that there will be a multitude of features that appear perfectly appropriate for their environments, designed even. It is a mistake to look at those end results and conclude the world was designed while ignoring the entirety of natural history that brought those features into existence. It is this blinkered view of nature that results in Christians giving an unproven creator the credit for something which science already has an explanation for.

In his book, Justin makes reference to intelligent design, the big bang and fine tuning as areas that point to the existence of his god. However, where is the cited positive evidence that can support this? It's absent.

The Big Bang

 

One challenge that Christians often make is that the start of our universe needs an explanation. Something must have caused the big bang. The universe can not be the cause of itself because that is a circular non explanation. The Christian does have a point. If our universe began with a bang, then how did that happen and what was before that to start it off? It's a question that deserves an answer, and cosmologists and physicists are working on it. The answer isn't simple and there are significant practical hurdles to overcome in order to find that answer. It may well be that we can never know that answer because the entirety of our existence is confined within this universe and there may be a hard barrier that prevents us from discovering whatever is beyond our universe, if indeed there is anything beyond it.

One of those barriers is time. Time, as we experience it, is also constrained to this universe and is dependent on the matter within the universe. We can measure the effects of mass on time to the extent that our GPS satellites need corrective actions on their clocks so that they all keep in sync with the clocks on earth and our location devices remain accurate. This creates a challenge when working out how the universe behaved in those very first moments of its existence. This needs to be overcome before we can get to the question of the cause of the big bang; a point where our concept of time does not exist. It may even be that asking what happened before the big bang makes no sense because you can't have a before where time doesn't exist.

We do not yet know what could have caused the big bang, or indeed if it had a cause. The laws of physics and everything else that operate within our universe did not apply at the moment that the universe began.

Asking time related questions about events that were not constrained to our knowledge of time makes no sense, so the question of what was before the big bang might not even be the right question. I hope that one day we will have a better idea of what that question should be.

The Christian already knows the answer of course, they say the answer is their god. Yet challenge the Christian to explain what was before their god and the response is it's not a valid question because god is beyond time. The very answer that they reject with reference to the big bang, is the answer they give for their god.

There was a time when the universe was thought to be constant and unchanging, a so called steady state universe. The Christian god can be invoked to support and hold the universe in that unchanging position in order to support mankind. However, the steady state universe is no longer supported by science and so the Christian god is invoked by apologists as the initiator of an event that brought the universe into being. 

Christianity will adopt whatever science has to say and use that to support its god. This isn't evidence that the claims of Christianity are true though. It merely shows the creativeness of apologists.

The best known example of this is the Kalam Cosmological Argument, made famous by William Lane Craig and discussed further in Phil’s chapter “ Do the Heavens Declare the Glory of God? The Kalam and Fine-tuning Arguments

Fine Tuning

 

This is a very popular argument of Christian apologists. Apparently the universe we are in, is fine tuned to such a degree that it's impossible for the universe to exist as it does without a god, yet exist it does. 

What is the universe fine tuned for? Human life? The Christian god's pleasure? Life in general? Some other unknown purpose? The truth is that the universe is very hostile to life. The observable universe is estimated to be 93 billion light years across, this enormous expanse is host to an estimated one hundred billion galaxies, each with about one hundred billion stars. Current estimates are that the number of planets in the universe is greater than the number of stars. The numbers are mind bogglingly large. Yet in that entire expanse, we only know one small planet orbiting one average star that is home to life. The stats get worse because while life exists in many extreme places on that planet, complex thinking human life is very fragile and can only exist unaided in a fraction of the surface area of that planet. Step off that planet and the universe will try to kill human life in an impressive number of unpleasant ways.

The apologist who argues for a finely tuned universe needs to answer why that universe is so inhospitable and ordered and random.

The fine tuning argument is also discussed in more detail in Phil’s chapter “ Do the Heavens Declare the Glory of God? The Kalam and-Fine tuning Arguments ”.

The Christian Responses to Challenges

 

There have of course been many challenges to the claims that the nature of the universe indicates there is a god, and Christians have responded back. The following directly respond to items in Justin's book.

1) Life adapts to whatever universe it finds itself in

Apologists that accept the science of evolutionary adaptation don't have any particular truck with the idea of life finding places it can survive and adapting itself to better suit the environment.

The angle taken in this response is to restate the fine tuning argument that the initial conditions for life need to be there for the first life. There is a basic dishonesty at play in this challenge response. The challenge is a challenge of the diversity of life and not at the fine tuning of the universe and the response is not a response to the diversity challenge but a response that repeats the origin of life challenge. It's an unfortunate mismatch and it is unclear if it was intentional or accidental. Either way, the Christian response doesn't in any way counter the challenge as quoted.

2) If it weren't fine tuned, we wouldn't be here to see it

This is the Weak Anthropic Principle.

The universe exists as it is, and the only thing we can do is look back at it and try to work out why it exists as it does. The fine tuning argument does that with the assumption that every possible imagined variation had an equal chance of being the end result and so the chance of the universe existing as it does is all those options multiplied, which results in a very big number and a very small probability. 

The chances of the universe forming just the way it has are so small that it can't be chance alone, it needed help. This method of retrospectively looking back and seeing god in the footprints is a favourite tactic and is also seen in creationist denial of evolution. No one looks at a fully grown human and declares it's impossible for those cells to have randomly aligned themselves to create that person. Why do it to a universe?

3) Fine tuned? Waste of Space more like.

Our universe is huge, it's utterly massive, so large that there are sections of the universe that we can't see because the light from those parts hasn't even reached us yet. Why does such a universe need to exist in order for humans to have been created by the Christian god? Why did those millions of years and all those star explosions and planetary impacts need to happen in order for humans to be here on this earth to worship a creator god?

In order to get over the hurdle of the enormous amount of time spent waiting for humans to emerge, apologists will say that maybe that's the most efficient way god had of doing it. Really? This god, which can allegedly speak things into existence could only do it the long and wasteful way?

Special pleading for fine tuning doesn't make it any more likely.

Why Can We do Science At All?

 

The matter in our universe is made up of innumerable tiny bits of matter with properties that behave in mostly predictable ways. This means that with a methodological process of investigation we can measure and predict how most of the matter in our universe interacts. From the operation of cells and how cancer develops to the gravitational effect of far off clouds of galactic gas, we humans have worked out how much of the universe came to be where it is and as it is. We have used this knowledge to launch probes into the far reaches of our solar system and extended the lives of millions through improved diets and medical intervention. We call the process that enables us to learn and perform these amazing feats science. If the way things worked wasn't measurable and predictable in the way that it is, life as we know it wouldn't exist.

There is a trend in Christian apologetics to claim that this can only be the case because the Christian god created everything to be this way. The process of science can only work because matter interacts and behaves the way it does. If the interactions of particles, chemicals and everything else was arbitrary then science would be impossible. The reason why everything acts the way it does is because of the properties of each particle. The elements hydrogen and oxygen exist the way they do because they can’t exists any other way. of how their atoms are formed. They interact the way they do because their make up means that there is no other way for them to interact.  Why is this the case? Well we don’t know at the moment, could there have been any other way for these particles to exist and interact? We don’t know at the moment. Will we ever know? Maybe, which is why the efforts are being made to find out. Does any of this mean that a god should be invoked as the unexplained explainer? No, because that doesn’t explain anything.

The gravitational pull of planets, moons and gas clouds in space is defined by the total mass of each object and this measurable interaction is predictable and is why planets and galaxies form the way they do.

Those who claim that matter behaving in these consistent ways suggests that there is a god need to justify that assertion. They need to explain why a natural universe without a creator god can't exist the way it does now. It's not enough to assert that the uniformity of nature means there is a supernatural god.

What’s more, a supernatural god can create a universe that operates in any way it likes, intervene with miracles whenever it chooses, all without regard to natural laws or consistency. Creation can be reordered, man can be made from mudpies, snakes and donkeys can talk, and the sun can be stopped in the sky in order to create a longer work day. On the other hand, for a natural universe to exist it would have to be bound by a variety of predictable and consistent constraints that serve to make its continued existence possible.

All that we know about nature and the universe is knowledge that has been gathered through the scientific process. More than that, the scientific process has only provided details and information on what is natural, science hasn't provided us with any clues about the existence of anything extra natural or supernatural.

In his book, Justin echoes the argument of many Christians, that the existence of our universe and the stable and predictable way in which everything interacts to make science possible, is evidence for the Christian creator god. This assertion rests on the idea that a creator god could have created everything the way that it is. Yes, a creator god could have created our universe and everything in it. If one wants to start thinking up possible ‘could have’ scenarios, then there are many things that could be imagined as the creator of all that exists.

The statement that it could be possible for the Christian god to exist and have created everything carries no weight on its own, it needs to be backed up with something tangible. This is where the Christian assertion falls over. There is no evidential support for the argument. The scientific method, which has reliably told us so much, doesn't support the existence of a supernatural god. Christians who claim that their god is the reason science works the way it does seem to also believe that their god is immune to the investigations of science. A god that interacts with the natural world, as the Christian god supposedly does, should leave a detectable mark that can be investigated but not explained naturally. The relentless advancement of knowledge, thanks to the reliability of science, is eroding every area of incomplete knowledge. Every new discovery reduces the spaces available for a god to hide.

Over the many years and decades of scientific study, many ideas have come and gone. Some have survived because they were confirmed to be accurate, some have needed to be changed and refined and some have been shown to be false. False ideas get exposed and replaced with new, more accurate, ideas and eventually the right answer is found.

Human existence is explained without need to defer to any god, let alone the Christian god. At what point is it fair to call the Christian god an idea that has been tested and failed?