The self-sufficiency of nature and the case for atheism
The discussion in the Comment section of the previous showed that there are some ambiguities in the use of the terms God, Atheism, consciousness, and Being. I will continue to work on clarifying my take on these words, but in the meantime I will continue to post the ideas that I have been working on, knowing that some improvements will be called for. I have purchased and begun to study Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture,” at Ted Drange’s suggestion. This will also lead to some further development of my thinking.
But in the next several posts I am going to use the name “God” to mean Creator, knowing that there is a lot I don’t know about the meaning of Creator and creation. My assumption is that a Creator is conscious and purposeful. Let us continue.
The case for no Creator:
The first argument, mentioned in the previous post, that evolution renders the need for a Creator superfluous, rests on the premise that, in the vastness of time and space, anything that could happen will happen somewhere at some time.
Advocates of this idea depict biological evolution on earth as just one small instance of physical evolution by which the universe takes on the structure of elements and molecules following patterns that we call laws. When writers such as Daniel Dennett speak of “vastness”, they do not limit themselves to the 13.7 billion years or so that mark the progress of our universe since the big bang. Rather they posit a vast if not infinite number of alternate universes that may have no spatial temporal or gravitational relationship with our universe. Every universe that could exist probably does exist and we are part of one that happens to have a structure that supports life and consciousness.
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow offer an atheist explanation of reality in their 2010 book, The Grand Design. The title is ironic, I assume deliberately so, because theists have traditionally argued that design implies an Intelligent Designer.
But Hawking and Mlodinow posit a design without the need for a designer. They contend that the laws of physics can create new universes out of nothing. As Hawking and Mlodinow describe the universe producing laws:
Any set of laws that describes a continuous world such as ours will have a concept of energy, which is a constant quantity, meaning it does not change in time…One requirement any law of nature must satisfy is that it dictates that the energy of an isolated body surrounded by empty space is positive, which means that one has to do work to assemble the body.
It is not clear whether these laws and concepts, which dictate what energy must do, are aspects of reality or “merely” the brain products of very intelligent physicists, at this stage of human evolution. In the first chapter of The Grand Design, the authors stipulate that they are employing a “model dependent realism,” which means that our brains must employ a model to interpret the sensory data received by our senses from whatever is real. So there will always be a gap between what even our best physicists know and what really exists.
For Hawking and Mlodinow, and perhaps for all atheistic scientists, the laws constitute an uncaused cause, and given the vastness of time and space, there is no limit to the number of universes that exist, have existed, or will exist. In the view of self-creating universes, each universe may have its own local laws. We are lucky to live in a universe whose laws allow for planets like earth to exist and for life and a degree of intelligence to evolve.
But the process that provides for a countless number of universes requires a basic law of energy and gravity that creates from nothing. The nothingness consists of negative energy. Neither atheists nor theists can imagine or think of nothing, so we all posit a kind of reality that enables something to come from “nothing.”
For theists, the reality is a conscious Creator, for atheists the “creative” reality consists of unconscious laws. (No one can think of nothingness, because if there were nothing, there would be no thinking. We may not be able to go as far as Descartes and posit a thinking substance, but we could not deny that there is thinking.)
Not only do materialists believe that, in a universe such as ours, 13.7 billion years allows for random events to produce life and consciousness, but also that the enormity of time supports the belief that the evolutionary process occurs randomly. The slowness of the process is compatible with randomness, but not with a purposeful Creator.
Atheists see the ten billion years from the big bang to the beginning of life on earth, and the 3.5 billion years from the beginning of life to the emergence of human scientists, as a prodigal waste of time. The god in whom atheists do not believe would have been much quicker and more efficient.
Musings on theism, atheism and consciousness.
My next planned post is going to continue the discussion of theism and atheism.
But my friend Ted Drange pointed out in comment section (please read these and jump in if you like) that my use of the terms theism and atheism may involve some equivocation – using the same term to mean two different things.
The term “God” is sometimes used to refer to a being who thinks and performs actions. Others use the term “God” to refer to “some aspect of reality like creativity or the essence of love, or ‘the ground of being.’ ”
A person who believes in God in the first sense is clearly a theist.
A person who rejects the reality of god in both senses, is clearly an atheist.
But how do we describe the person who believes in God in the second sense but not the first?
The influential Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich used the term “ground of being” to denote “God beyond the God of theism.” This statement reminds me of Plato who wrote in The Republic that “The Good” is beyond being.”
When we push these ultimate questions, we get so far from ordinary experience that our language becomes inadequate. I think the key question is whether or not fundamental reality is conscious and purposive and hence whether there is purpose in the universe. I am striving to contrast a materialist view with one that is purposeful or teleological. I am not looking to construct a dualism, but rather a view of reality that is infused with purpose as its essential constituent.
I am going on the premise that consciousness constitutes what we mean by “Being,” what Aristotle and St. Thomas meant by “God,” and what is the source of what scientist mean by natural laws. When we write about that which stands beyond our experience, we can use analogies, that is, we can compare things that are not exactly alike but have something in common.
I don’t know if “consciousness” is the best word that we have to describe the most fundamental reality, but it is the best one that I can think of.
The Pitilessness of Nature and the Problem of Good
Facing the Facts of Evolution
Any view of reality worthy of belief takes account of the facts that confront human beings in every aspect of our individual and communal lives, aspects such as those studied by natural science, social science, and history. These disciplines do not tell us where we should go from here, or how to get there, but they form the basis for understanding how we arrived at our present state of reality.
The present discussion will focus on the facts revealed by science. Since 1859, when Darwin published his Origin of Species, the notion of evolution has impacted not only biology, but also philosophy, theology, politics, and economics. Nothing in our intellectual life has been the same.
What does evolution reveal about reality?
“Our materialistic age” in the title of this series of posts flows from the prevailing interpretation of Darwin. In this interpretation, there is no longer a need to deal with the problem of evil, a problem that vexed those who believed in a good and almighty Creator. Now, the things that we call evil are seen as simply things that we do not like, as an animal in the jungle does not like being eaten up by a predator.
But the plight of the prey and our plight constitute the same process of evolution, which is blind and indifferent to the fate of all of us beasts. The problem that we must encounter is “the problem of good,” beginning with whether there is such a thing as good, beyond the enjoyment that an animal or human predator takes in eating its meal, finding its mate, or other such pleasures. This investigation must be undertaken in the context of Darwinian evolution.
Is anything really good?
The question that defines these posts is whether the term “good” refers to an objective reality rather than to merely a subjective point of view as when a big fish eats a little fish – The big fish likes it, the little fish doesn’t.
Theologians use the term theodicy, which literally means the justification of God, to describe the problem of believing in a good God in an evil universe. Our question is whether we can maintain the reality of good in a Darwinian world.
The two questions, of God and of good, are closely linked since both theists and atheists, who disagree on the reality of God, generally agree that if God is real, He She, or It is the source of goodness. If God is real how do we explain evil? If God is not real, how do we explain good?
Can a modern person believe in God and the reality of the good?
This investigation proceeds with an examination of whether a Darwinian understanding of biological evolution and its application to the genesis of the cosmos, forces an atheist conclusion.
Some religious believers agree with the hypothetical connection, “If Darwin is right then God does not exist,” and conclude that Darwin therefore must be wrong. Materialists, of course, take the opposite position – “Darwin is right, therefore God does not exist.” But I will take up the premise that Darwin is in principle correct, and ask whether atheism necessarily follows.
The case for atheism in summary.
The atheist argument has three main premises: First, evolution stands as a sufficient explanation of the present world, and so any appeal to a Creator is superfluous. Second, the randomness, waste, and slow pace of evolution exclude the presence of a purpose that would be the signature of a Creator. Third, and most powerful, the violence, pain and suffering of evolving life are incompatible with belief in a decent, much less an all good, Creator.