No, not that Trinity. I refer to Lawrence Krauss’s trinity of claims about God that he feels must be refuted in order to refute God. A trinity of ideas he claims are based on faith rather than evidence.
First, let me remind you of the story so far. There are two teams: Team Atheist is composed of physicist Lawrence Krauss and writer Michael Shermer, arguing the motion that “science refutes God”. Team Believer is composed of political commentator Dinesh D’Souza and physicist Ian Hutchinson, arguing against the motion. Here is Dr. Krauss’s statement about the trinity:
Now, to refute God means refuting several claims. One that are all based on faith, not evidence. One, that God is necessary, two, that there is evidence for God; and three, that that belief is rational. And the point is that the progress of science has shown over and over and over again that the answers to all those three questions are no. No, no, no. Now, my own scientific field is cosmology. And that’s the study of the origin and evolution of the universe as a whole. And it’s where science and religion sort of confront each other. And creation myths have abounded throughout human history, and science confronts those creation myths. And we’ll talk about that, I’m sure, at some point in the debate. But I want to point out that our opponents, I’m pretty sure, are going to argue first that one aspect of science that supports perhaps the belief in God is this notion that the universe is apparently fine-tuned for life. I hear that a lot, and because it was fine-tuned so life could exist. That is a remarkable and, in fact, cosmic misunderstanding, because it’s the same kind of misunderstanding that led people to believe in special creation for life on earth before Darwin.
Okay, so the trinity of claims Krauss aims to refute are:
- God is necessary.
- There is evidence for God.
- Belief is, ergo, rational.
As Krauss laid out his argument that science refutes God, I thought I was at last going to get something to sink my teeth into. I was disappointed. It’s not the first time I’ve had that reaction. The huge claim that science not only refutes God, but replaces God and faith, is potentially earthshaking to a person of religious faith.
I admit that I entered the debate with anti-theists several years ago with some trepidation. I was, in a word, intimidated. I knew why I believed and I could articulate it fairly well, but so far I’d really only been called upon to defend my views to fundamentalist Christians. The idea of discussing faith and religion with anti-theists must surely be a vastly different experience and therefore alien. I expected to be out of my depth, in terra incognita. But once I’d read Hitchens, Harris, Dennet, Myers, and Dawkins, trepidation turned to disbelief. I remember finishing “God is Not Great” and thinking, “Really? That’s it?” It was, in its essentials, no different from the arguments I’d been fielding from fundamentalist clergymen: assumptions based on expectations and couched in emotional and often mocking or condemning terms. The overall message—repeated throughout the works of these philosophers is—”you’d have to be stupid, irrational, and delusional to believe anything but what I’m proposing”.
No one wants to be thought stupid, irrational, or delusional, and the fact that some of these men have stellar street creds in their chosen disciplines—Hitchens is (or was, if you prefer) a world-class analyst of political history; Harris has a degree in neurology from Stanford—only increase their persuasive power. These are very smart people and much is made of that. You are supposed to be intimidated by them because they’re smarter than you are. If they’re smarter than you are, and they don’t believe in God, what’s wrong with you?
But here I have pause to puzzle over a paradox. We are asked to be impressed with the scientific credentials of the A Team, and the fact of their extreme intelligence. What of the noble opposition? Aren’t these also very smart people with impressive credentials—people who not only have great intelligence but know how to use it?
Beyond D’Souza and Hutchinson, we’re also talking about people like Francis Collins (the scientist in the forefront of the effort to map the human genome), and mathematician William S. Hatcher. Yet it’s been repeatedly brought to my attention that their intelligence does not have the same cachet that the intelligence of their anti-theist opponents does. The intelligence of the anti-theist, we are asked to believe, is evidence that really smart people (Futrell and Geisert’s Brights) don’t believe in God. The intelligence of the theists, meanwhile, is evidence that, as the French say, “tout le monde peut se tromper”—anyone can be fooled.
The assumption is that people who do not believe in God are incapable of being mistaken in their views, are not prey to irrational ideas and are proof to dogmatism or wishful thinking. I leave it to the reader to consider how logical is that premise.
Krauss assures the listener that the idea that the universe is fine-tuned for life is a “cosmic misunderstanding”—one that his fellow physicist, Ian Hutchinson, has somehow fallen victim to. I waited for evidence that this was so, but none followed. He simply made the assertion. But that, in itself, is interesting. Krauss and others seem to seize on the “fine tuning” of the universe as a critical “proof” of the existence of God, whereas it is only a single piece of evidence that, taken with all other evidence, implies the existence of God in the same way that the light shining on the surface of the moon at night is a piece of evidence that implies the existence of an invisible light source. Krauss continued:
It looked like everything was designed for the environment in which it lived. But what Darwin showed us was that a simple proposition, namely that there’s genetic variation among a population combined with natural selection meant that you didn’t need supernatural shenanigans, that in fact all the diversity of life on earth could arise from a single life form, by natural law. And he didn’t know — what he showed was it was plausible, based on the evidence — he didn’t know about DNA. He didn’t know about the details of genetic replication, but he showed it was plausible. And as I’ll say, that’s where we’re at now as far as the understanding of the universe is concerned.
Now, our — my opponents, I suspect, will argue the universe is equally fine-tuned for life, and they — in fact, they will point out that certain fundamental parameters in nature, if they were different, we couldn’t exist.
Or they may boldly assert that, in fact, certain of these parameters are so strange and unnatural that they must have been established with malice aforethought to ensure our existence. This too is an illusion. Just as bees need to see the color of flowers but they’re not designed to do it, if they couldn’t see them, they couldn’t get the nectar and reproduce. So what we’re seeing is a version of cosmic natural selection. We would be quite surprised to find ourselves living in a universe in which we couldn’t live. In fact, that might be evidence for God. (emphasis mine)
An argument I hear frequently, and which Krauss seems in jeopardy of making, is that the theory of evolution explains the genesis of life in total. It does not. The missing piece of the puzzle is where that single life form came from and what caused it to begin its upward spiral. Mere physical environment cannot account for some of the twists in evolution—especially the peculiar evolution of human beings. His opponents might actually point to evolution as one of the evidences of the existence of a God. And the discovery of DNA seems not to have caused Francis Collins (Dr. Human Genome) to believe less. In fact, he seems quite gleeful about the role of DNA in the genesis of life. Simply saying something is an illusion is not the same as proving that it’s an illusion or even giving significant evidence that it is. I found myself hoping there was more to the argument.
Our Inhospitable Universe
Finally, Krauss got down to it. See those last two bold sentences above? Keep those in mind as you read Krauss’s next contention.
But I want to point out that in fact the universe isn’t particularly fine-tuned or conducive to life. Most of the universe is rather inhospitable to life. And in fact — perhaps the biggest fine-tuning problem in my own field of cosmology, something I’m, in fact, very proud to have proposed in a sense is that the energy of empty space is not zero. The weirdest thing you can imagine, that empty space weighs something, but remarkably the energy of empty space is 120 orders of magnitude smaller than we would naïvely predict.
Pardon? Let’s walk back through that.
- Team B might propose that the universe is fine-tuned for life and suggest that is evidence for God.
- But Krauss argues that if it weren’t fine-tuned for life that would be the real miracle and, therefore, “might be evidence for God.”
- He then states, “Most of the universe is rather inhospitable to life.”
What was almost as surprising about this sequence of ideas as their contradictory nature was that no one (not even D’Souza and Hutchinson) seemed to catch it (or if they did, they didn’t comment on it). Heck, I didn’t catch it until my second reading of the transcript as I was highlighting the two statements. Here, too, Krauss’s argument does something that tickles my irony bone. Back in the day when we were beginning to realize that our lovely blue marble wasn’t the only planet in the only solar system, atheist philosophers suggested that religion would be undermined by the discovery of other planets with other life on them. Two points here: 1) I write science fiction for a living and 2) I believe absolutely that there is life on other planets in part because … wait for it … the sacred texts of my faith say that there is and made that claim long before any evidence of this presented itself. However, Team A has taken a narrowly defined Christian doctrine about creation as the proxy for all religion and proposed that the fabric of all faiths would be undone if life is not found elsewhere. Krauss’s argument then seems to flip the notion on its head—he proposes that the less life is found in the universe, the worse it looks for religion and God … well, except for the previous assertion that it might actually provide evidence for God. I haven’t fully digested this wonderful anomaly, but I’ll let y’all know what happens when I do. I have to say, too, that I find this claim of the inhospitable nature of the universe an odd one. We are discovering more and more planets in the “sweet spot” for life and discovering the elements for life even in such seemingly inhospitable places as Mars and our moon. What sort of universe would Krauss consider “fine-tuned for life”? One that was completely uniform?
Most of the Universe…
But here’s something even more basic: the contention that “most of the universe is rather inhospitable to life” assumes the speaker has knowledge of most or all of the universe. Such is not the case. It also assumes that we would recognize all forms of life if we saw them. A colleague once asked how one would register a sunset if the only sense one possessed was hearing. If our way of measuring the energy of space (or any other universal element) is limited by our own senses, how can we presume to have measured it accurately? The scriptures of the Bahá’í Faith comment on this as well. One of my fellow Common Ground bloggers sent this quote out this morning:
“As to thy question whether the physical world is subject to any limitations, know thou that the comprehension of this matter dependeth upon the observer himself. In one sense, it is limited; in another, it is exalted beyond all limitations. The one true God hath everlastingly existed, and will everlastingly continue to exist. His creation, likewise, hath had no beginning, and will have no end. All that is created, however, is preceded by a cause. This fact, in itself, establisheth, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the unity of the Creator.” – Baha’u'llah
I find Krauss’s contentions somewhat hubristic. This does not make them wrong, but it does mean they are not the product of empirical knowledge, but of an emotional assumption that our knowledge—or more specifically, his knowledge as a cosmologist is complete enough to assert as fact his opinion about “most of the universe”. The fact that one of his opponents is a physicist of equal credibility does not seem to give him pause. I find that bemusing. When I encounter very intelligent people whose beliefs differ from my own, it always gives me pause. I am intensely curious about why they are so different.
Case in point—Christopher Hitchens. He and I had very similar experiences within the Christian community as children. We both encountered dogmatism, meanness, irrationality, ignorance and hypocrisy. Of course, I also experienced a profoundly Christian family, a keen sense of relationship with Christ, and a church in which the individuals had bonded deeply. I don’t know if he ever experienced that. And perhaps that is why our reactions to the negatives were markedly different. He imputed the vices of individual Christians to Christianity itself (“Mine is a Protestant atheism.”) and concluded—on the basis of the behavior of some believers and their interpretations of doctrine—that religion poisoned everything. He did not, according to his own testimony, investigate the scriptures himself to see if they were supportive of the dogmas he found so disturbing. I did. And that led me to impute vices to the individual believers and conclude—on the basis of the actual teachings of Christianity and the other faiths I studied—that human beings were capable of incredible flights of self-deceit. They could even poison the sacred and beneficial. They could profess a faith, then behave in ways that were tantamount to a rejection of its teachings. Had I read the Qur’an at that point in my life, I would have seen that Muhammad remarked on this propensity when He said:
Hast thou observed him who belieth religion? That is he who repelleth the orphan, and urgeth not the feeding of the needy. Ah, woe unto worshippers who are heedless of their prayer; who would be seen (at worship) yet refuse small kindnesses! — Qur’an, Surih 107:1-7
As it was, I did have the words of Christ who, after describing the behavior of those who followed Him, noted that “many shall arise in that day, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men”. More painful yet, He foresaw a time when those who considered themselves believers would say to Him “Lord, Lord” and He would reply, “I never knew you.” Here’s the irony: If Chris Hitchens had applied the test of reason to his experiences with professing Christians (as Christ suggested in one of His most oft-quoted talks), he might have noticed that those Christians who caused him to reject faith had already turned away from it themselves. That is the nature of hypocrisy, after all; a person’s behavior belies what they claim to believe. What I have yet to work out, logically, is how reason would lead one to call faith itself into question rather than the hypocritical behavior. Next time: A Trip Down the Rabbit Hole