Friday, November 7, 2014

What Sort of God is This?

Scientific evidence including the necessity of a cause outside the universe, the fact of the incredible
complexity and apparent  fine-tuning of the universe for life like ourselves, and the wonderful complexity of the human DNA information system recommends to us the high probability that there is a God. But what sort of God is this?

I recently read Stephen Jay Gould's essay "Nonmoral Nature." Now, Gould is one of my favorite science writers, so I was interested in his conclusion as well as his observations on nature. What can it tell us about the God who made it?  His conclusion was that we cannot derive from nature any indication about the moral character of God. His observations were all related to the pain and suffering that is fundamental to the natural world and which would be, if one chose to make the case, evidence for a immoral God. Gould does not make that case, however. His final position was that nature just is. To consider the death and pain evident in the natural world in an anthropomorphic way is to read into nature something that is not there. It just is.

Others who have written about the essay, however,  have derived more from the same evidence Gould presents. Their conclusions are that God, if there be such, is not moral. Indeed he is immoral by the standards of morality of the authors. So if God created nature and nature is vicious, would not this God be vicious also?

I lean toward Gould's position rather than the latter, but I would like to suggest that there is more we can derive about God than Gould allows. (To be fair, Gould's argument has to do with the somewhat common attempt to derive the goodness of God from nature and, at that, only a small slice of nature. It is a limited argument.)

I begin with the observation that the universe had a cause and that cause is possibly if not probably the being we call God. First, the cause had to be able to produce the universe. That would require great power or authority. Even if the cause of the universe was an impersonal quantum or energy fluctuation in a prior universe, the cause would have to be powerful. It would have to be on the scale of the Big Bang itself.

Secondly, we observe that the universe functions according to rather finely tuned and universal physical laws. In addition, these laws work together to produce a complex, well balanced, long lasting universe that has existed for as much as 14 Billion years and, we project, will continue to exist in a functioning state for at least as long. As an example, gravity, one of those universal laws, has to be quite precisely the strength it is for the universe to expand as it has over 

time. A very little stronger and the universe would have collapsed early on. A very little weaker and the universe would not develop galaxies and stars. Neither universe would be anything like ours. So, we can derive that this God who caused the universe has to have great knowledge and wisdom. 

Next, we observe that this earth of ours is a remarkable place. The conditions that obtain here are not only many and interrelated but necessary in almost every case for there to life at all like ourselves. That is called the anthropic principle. However, that alone does not make God necessary. Some scientists conclude that we are just lucky and that, in any event, if those conditions did not prevail we would not be here to observe it. Others see more going on.

About fifteen years ago biologist Michael J. Denton wrote a book with the title Nature's Destiny. His argument, well supported by factual evidence, was that there was a destiny built into the universe. That destiny would produce eventually life something like ourselves on some world much like ours. Denton was not a theist. But he was convinced that the universe by its makeup displayed some purpose. If that is so, then we can derive from nature that God, if there is such, would have to be both highly intelligent and ingenious in the design he created in the universe, a design that inevitably leads to sentient life.

As an aside, it would be interesting to speculate whether there are other worlds on which sentient life might be found. There is no reason to reject that possibility since the very nature of nature is productive of life.

But back to our task. What of the that sentient and wonderfully imaginative life? It would seem reasonable to assume that the effect of a cause cannot be greater than the cause. If we think, if we are imaginative, if we have a sense of right and wrong, if we have a will, it suggests that this God who is our cause also has volition, is moral, creative, and obviously sentient. All that is to say that he is a person, for those are the characteristics that define a person.They are the features that define us as persons.

Now, what of Gould's observations about the cruelty of nature? Does nature argue that God is cruel? Gould would not take the argument that far. But he took it far enough. Nature is not immoral; it is nonmoral. The natural world other than ourselves cannot tell us about the nature of God. We, however, are moral. Does anyone doubt that? Virtually everyone makes judgments daily about the morality of the acts of others and their own. We may not agree on what is moral or immoral, though there are some basic agreements, but there is plenty of evidence for our moral nature. God, then, must be moral also if we his creations are moral.

It would be possible to go further, but at this point we can draw these conclusions about this God who is the ultimate cause. He is powerful. He is creative and imaginative. He is intelligent and wise. He is moral. He has volition. He is personal.

But of course, that picture may fit many different presuppositions. Allah, Yahweh, and possibly some of the gods of the Asian religions could fit those characteristics. So, is it possible to decide based on reasonable examination of the evidence which god is God? I think so, but that waits another blog.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

I Don't Believe

In a recent discussion with a variety of posters on the CNN website I heard over and over again that they do not believe in the existence of God because there is no scientific evidence for God’s existence. I find that particularly surprising because in my investigation over 20 years I have found that there is more than enough evidence.  

So I pondered why the evidence available was not considered evidence. 

One reason seems to be that they believe there is no direct evidence. By that they mean someone who  has seen God and whose testimony can be examined in depth for it reliability, though few of my atheist friends know what criteria to apply to a witness and to personal testimony. They are simply judging subjectively rather than applying rigorous criteria and are sure that this rebuttal would be sufficient: no one can see God, so his existence cannot be proved.

Most Christian theists would counter with the statement that Jesus, being God, was seen and we have the testimony of a quite a number of witnesses. I like that. But that begs the question: does God in fact exist. We must be convinced that there is a God before we can examine the witnesses of Jesus to determine if he is God.  So it is crucial to the argument to show that it is highly probable based on scientific evidence that God exists. 

That brings me to the second reason my atheist friends do not believe in the existence of God; they don’t believe the evidence is sufficient to prove God’s existence. I’d like to challenge that idea, but it must wait until we determine what “sufficient” evidence would be. 

In science there are few absolutes because all scientific conclusions, whether they are hypotheses, theories, or laws are based on observations and arrived at by inductive reasoning.  Because it is not possible to collect all the facts, it is also not possible to be 100% certain of the conclusions drawn from the facts observed. 

But that does not prevent scientists from creating hypotheses. They know that a collection of many facts may provide sufficient evidence for a conclusion that is highly probable, even if not absolute. In fact, a hypothesis is necessary because facts by themselves mean nothing. Meaning must be derived from facts via inference. They consider the facts they have as sufficient if the quantity of facts is large and the number of facts that might lead to a different conclusion is small. If that criterion is met, scientists conclude (or believe based on the facts) that their hypothesis is accurate. 

So, to answer my atheist friends, “sufficient” evidence for the existence of God would be facts which taken together and in a large enough number would provide a basis for the inference or hypothesis that God exists. That, of course, assumes that there are no or few scientific facts that could lead to the contrary conclusion that God does not exist or facts that could be reasonably explained by a different hypothesis. Reasonableness is, of course, the critical condition. 

So, what are the scientific facts? The first is that from observation and via inductive reasoning we are almost all convinced that everything that begins has a cause.  In fact, science would be impossible if that were not so. But we don’t need to be scientists to be convinced of that hypothesis. If we arrive home one evening to find a window broken, every one of us would look for the cause because we are absolutely convinced there has to be a cause. 

If we come upon a painted vase in the forest, we would never assume that it just appeared out of the sky with no cause. We would all ask how it got there. We would even go beyond that. We would never conclude that it exists without a cause. Every vase had a maker.  We would reasonably ask who made it. And we would expect that there is an answer. 

So too with the universe. If it is, and few would argue that it is not (and even they would have to agree that exists at the very least in our minds) then it is our expectation that there was a cause. The only exception to that is if we find the universe is eternal. (And that, by the way, is the only way to truly falsify the hypothesis that God exists.) 

The idea that the universe is eternal was, in fact, the conviction of many scientists a century ago. But then Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble and a host of others produced scientific and mathematical evidence that the universe was expanding. The reasonable conclusion, which virtually all now accept, is that if it is expanding there must have been a beginning.  Little evidence points to any other conclusion.

As a digression here, it once was suggested that the expanding universe would reach the end of expansion and collapse to start the cycle over again. That could mean the universe is eternal. But recent discoveries show that the rate of expansion is increasing rather than decreasing.  That means we are on a one-way trip to oblivion rather than on a round-trip to a new beginning.

If the universe had a beginning, there must be a cause. There have been a variety of causes proposed. Our universe might have been spawned through quantum fluctuations or from a prior universe. Or maybe God created it. With just these bare facts to work with those hypotheses have a low probability. But there are additional facts. What we all believe is that it had a cause.

The universe is highly complex. That is a fact no one disputes. The particular level of complexity includes a set of many conditions which are particularly finely tuned. For example, gravity could vary in only the smallest degree from the strength we now observe or the universe would either have quickly collapsed or would not have formed stars and galaxies. Gravity along with the other conditions necessary for this universe to exist as it is are facts which demand an explanation for their existence.
In the case of the laws that govern the universe, which are among the facts in the list, those laws must have their cause in something other than the universe they caused. There have been a number of suggested causes for the laws of the universe which along with gravity include entropy, the weak and strong nuclear forces and others. One is that we are just lucky. There may be an infinite number of universes in which other laws prevail, and we happen to live in the one in which these laws prevail. It would be fair to ask then for evidence for these other universes. Or maybe a highly intelligent being designed and created the universe.

The third piece of scientific evidence is the extraordinary complexity of life on this planet. All living things have DNA (or RNA). In even the simplest of living things the complexity of the DNA that directs the cells how to develop is incredible. The DNA in humans is the most complex thing we know of in the universe. 

In addition, DNA is a kind of biological code very much like written language. In other words, it is information.  Information is known only to be the product of intelligence.  And information as complex and specific as the DNA/RNA in the simplest form of life we know of is unthinkable apart from an intelligence producing it. It is like taking a million individual letters, throwing them up in the air and hoping for them to fall into place as a Charles Dickens novel. It simply won’t happen no matter how many times they are thrown. 

But what if among some of those fallen letters there is a word, suppose the. Leaving that word intact we throw the letters again. And another word appears, suppose dirty. Can’t Great Expectations be created that way?  No. The analogy fails at that point because none of those words mean anything by themselves. There is no information. So in real life it would be at least necessary for a sentence to appear from the thrown letters. Only then is there information. But even given that, there is not enough time in the universe for a meaningful book to be created by this process. At the very best there would be a mass of random letters and a very few random words which were not connected in sentences and would mean nothing. Chance cannot create  meaningful  information.

So, it is reasonable to ask how DNA came to exist and how it could be as complex as it is. There are a variety of explanations. The one most often proposed is that DNA became more complex over time via the evolutionary process by which new features are added to existing ones. We’ve seen this fails even if there is a selection process. There is not enough time and the chance is far too small. But even if we were to accept that explanation (it requires acceptance without sufficient evidence) it begs the question where the first DNA/RNA came from. 

The proposals for the beginning of what would be life are many. None of them, however, have been scientifically demonstrated. So believing any of these proposals to be accurate requires a suspension of disbelief in any critical observer. (I should say that the stance of most scientists is skepticism. Otherwise we’d still believe flies spontaneously appear on rotting meat.)

The other possibility is that God designed and directed the existence of life and the complexity of the life we know.  

Is this scientific evidence? Obviously it is. It is the very same evidence scientists puzzle over and create experiments to analyze and which they use to test hypotheses. And there is more. I have simply stopped here because this is sufficient to make the point that there is scientific evidence from which we can infer with a high degree of probability that God exists. 

To recap, the God hypothesis is a possible explanation for all of the facts I have presented. There is no single other hypothesis that does that.  That would make the God hypothesis more probable  than the others. It is not absolute proof. But that is not what science produces. However, there are two other considerations.

The first is the inability to test the hypothesis as we usually can with a scientific hypothesis. However, there are many scientific theories that have been tested only by applying the test of probability to what we have observed. We generally accept those theories until the phenomena can be explained better another way. That is why the stance of science is always a bit tentative and never absolute.

Finally, there is the question of how God might have done this. What was the mechanism of creation?
The best answer to that is, I believe, an analogy. An author creates a world as he writes a novel. He creates characters to live in that world and he creates the events that happen in the story. Where do they come from? They come from mind. He wills them to be. They exist in the mind of the author before they are ever given a kind of life on the pages of a book. They exist in the mind of the author even if they never are written.

In a similar way, God can be conceived of as the author of this story that is our life and our universe. We and all that is are the result of his willing it to be. And that is what the Bible tells us. It says that God spoke and things came into being. 

That challenges the idea that reality is the material universe we are acquainted with. The characters in a story are not real, after all. They are only imagined. Taken a little further, it suggests that the only non-contingent reality is God. It is interesting that recently there have been theorists who have noticed the similarity between the universe and a digitally created game, a game in which the characters have no reality of their own, but that must wait another blog. 

As a conclusion to this discussion, the scientific evidence convinces me that the God hypothesis is the best and most probably.  But that leaves me with only the existence of God. It would be interesting to reason what sort of God might have created the universe and life within it. That will be the subject of a future discussion.