This week I’m taking a side-step into an examination of some arguments in Victor Stenger’s “God, The Failed Hypothesis” and “The New Atheism.”
Self-Organization and Cellular Automata
The new atheists explain the organization of the phenomenal world as a case of “self-organization,” i.e. the apparent ability of matter to form patterns by nothing but natural processes. Stenger provides examples, such as the Fibonacci sequence of numbers that we find in sunflower seeds and 80% of plant species with double spiral designs. He also refers to “cellular automata” as examples of a very simple rule enabling the appearance of complex patterns. We darken, fill in or turn “on” a cell or square or triangle etc. according to a certain rule and simply by repeating the action, complex patterns emerge. (Check ‘cellular automata’ on the Internet for examples.)
However, cellular automata do not negate the need for an external factor to make this procedure work. We obviously need someone (a) to draw the initial cells needed to allow the rule to operate, (b) to devise and apply the rule and (c) to provide the hardware and energy needed to carry out the process. In the case of cellular automata, this job is done by the computer programmer. Simply letting a computer sit there and wait for it to start generating patterns from cellular automata will not get the process going. In short, Stenger’s own example undermines the very point he is trying to make. A theist would be hard-pressed to find a better example to illustrate the need to posit the existence of God.
Analysis shows further failures. In both cellular automata and alleged cases of self-organization, Stenger and others begin with the assumption that cells or particles already have certain qualities or attributes that enable them to receive and to communicate certain actions in a certain way, in addition to the fact that they actually start doing so. Electrons, for example, have attributes that allow them to affect/communicate action and to receive certain actions in specific ways. They behave lawfully, even if the laws are statistical in nature. A similar argument can be made about cellular automata: they have certain attributes and follow specific rules. The “overwhelming question” concerns the need for an “external factor”—or God—to provide these attributes and rules in the first place. Let us look a little deeper.
What is the origin of these attributes and/or laws? If we say “That’s just the way things are” we have an answer that neither satisfies science nor logic. It cannot be tested experimentally and explains nothing. It does not even posit the existence of something that could possibly explain the origin of attributes and laws—i.e. God. Indeed, it is merely a dogmatic statement of faith to avoid admitting that we don’t know. We shall deal with the variation—we don’t know yet—below.
If we reply that all this happened by chance, we are only begging the question: the origin of the laws of chance is one of the things requiring explanation. We cannot assume the existence of said laws, and work from that point on if we want a complete explanation of the cosmos. Even these laws are among the things that exhibit mindfulness and order, because “the creation of God . . . is not a fortuitous composition and arrangement.” The laws of chance are part of the cosmic order—not the whole of it.
It has also been suggested—by Stenger and Hawking—among others, that the universe originated from “nothing.” But this only raises more problems. Either the “nothing” Stenger refers to is a quantum nothing—in which case it is not literally nothing—or it is a literal nothing—in which case there is nothing for the laws of nature to arise from (if somehow there can be laws in absolute nothing). Of course, if Hawking, Stenger and others mean a quantum nothing, then we are back at the issue of the origin of the quantum nothing, its attributes and fluctuations. Absolute nothing does not fluctuate. This reminds me of Abdu’l-Bahá’s statement that “absolute nothingness cannot find existence, as it has not the capacity of existence.”
At this juncture it becomes clear that scientific explanations are inherently incapable of explaining the origin of the material cosmos. We obviously cannot be looking for something itself material and subject to any of the laws of matter. Indeed, we are looking for that which is the necessary pre-condition for the existence of matter and laws. From the nature of matter itself we can deduce some of its attributes: it is not material; not subject to physical laws; not subject to limitations of space, i.e. omnipresent; not subject to limitations of time, i.e. non-temporal; and, as the determining pre-condition of all other existences, omnipotent. Of course, these are among the minimum ontological requirements of God as usually thought of in theology. (The fact that these are sometimes misunderstood and misused by some theologians is a separate issue.) The foregoing explanation allows us to conclude that the existence of something called “God” is a logical necessity even in our scientific thinking.
Bahá’is will recognize that this argument is an application of Bahá’u’lláh’s statement, “No thing have I perceived, except that I perceived God within it, God before it, or God after it.” To see God “before” something is to see Him (among other things) as the ultimate cause and even the pre-condition for its existence. Read like this, the statement tells us that God is the pre-condition for the existence of the phenomenal realm. We can also see evidence of God as the pre-condition of all phenomenal being in his description as “pre-existent.”
Another problem with Stenger’s argument is that it is circular—i.e. it assumes what is to be proved. It is precisely the origin of the rules (software), the necessary atomic attributes, the origin of the hardware and the energy that makes it go that theists are trying to explain. Yet Stenger and others simply assume that these things are all there for their use just like in an old philosophical joke in which a scientist says to God, “I can make life just as well as you can.” God says, “Okay, let’s start.” The scientist picks up a handful of dirt, and God says, “Hey, stop! Make your own dirt.”
In other words, the scientists lacked or could not create the pre-conditions necessary for life to exist, just as a piece of matter or cellular automata cannot create the pre-conditions for their own existence. God is and creates the pre-conditions needed for anything other than Himself to exist. The existence of the pre-conditions is not observable in the phenomena themselves but must be discovered by reasoning about the phenomena. They are hidden, yet, if we think about it, God’s existence is amply evident. That is why the Baha’i Writings describe God as “the most manifest of the manifest and the most hidden of the hidden!”
Stenger’s argument and illustration work only because they mentally perform a diremption—i.e. they take their illustrations of self-organization or cellular automata out of the whole context—which includes them filling in for God—and then draw their atheistic conclusions. In effect, they act behind the scenes by removing their own role from the process.
This leads them to another, related error in reasoning. Stenger claims that if there were a God interacting in the cosmic processes, we would have physical evidence of that. But he is blatantly contradicted by his own examples. We could endlessly examine this process undergone by cellular automata for all its physical characteristics—and we would find no sign of the rule-maker. All we could observe is a certain order of actions being performed repeatedly. But, of course, we know it is not so. Rules don’t make themselves and Stenger’s own examples illustrate as much. To prove his point, he will need to let a computer create itself, turn itself on and develop and continue applying a rule for organizing data (from where?) into patterns.
This leads to a second problem for anyone using Stenger’s argument. The fact that no amount of physical analysis of the patterns made in cellular automata can reveal the mind behind the whole process, illustrates the theist argument that God acts through secondary causes—i.e. God acts by means of the physical entities and laws He has created. Thus, Stenger’s assertion that if God acts in the universe we must be able to see evidence of his actions is not valid—even by his own examples. If we confine our evidence to what we can observe, as science does, we can no more see evidence of God than we can see evidence of a programmer by observing cellular automata. In this important respect, therefore, God is not a “failed hypothesis” because God is not a scientific hypothesis at all. On the other hand, we can say that existence of matter and laws is direct evidence for God’s action, just as cellular automata are evidence for the existence of a programmer.
The third problem is, ironically, an atheist version of the “god of the gaps” argument except in this case it is a “no-god of the gaps” argument. The gap, of course, is the diremption—the implicit exclusion of the scientists’ or programmers’ and hardware manufacturers’ role in the process of making cellular automata. Having excluded the role of maker, Stenger concludes there is none! This is, of course, also an example of a circular argument.
Another version of “no-god of the gaps” is the argument that science has proven something about the existence or non-existence of God. This is especially applicable in the new atheist’s case because they tend to claim that someday science will find a way to do or know something. This is true—as far as it goes. The problem is, the scientific method has inherent limitations that cannot be broken without undermining the method itself—e.g. the rule about quantifiable physical phenomena. There is logically no way for a method confined to physical phenomena to tell us anything about non-physical (spiritual) existences.
Finally, let us examine Stenger’s argument that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence in this case. In a situation which is completely or nearly completely understood, Stenger has a point. However, the origin of the universe is not one of those situations —not even nearly one of those situations given the frequency of major scientific surprises in cosmology among other subjects. Thus, Stenger’s point is not wrong; rather it is simply not applicable or relevant to this subject.
Thanks for indulging the digression. Next time, we carry on…