Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reasons for My Belief

An atheist friend has asked me to lay out my evidence for theism. I am happy herewith to comply. Many “theistic proofs” have been forwarded over the centuries. Typically, they are oversold, stated in language too bold. In the following post, I humbly submit five of the most convincing lines of evidence for me, some related to long-standing arguments for God’s existence, some unique to my own thinking. They are modest claims, and may convince no one else. My purpose here is not to persuade a skeptic, but rather to show why my mind (which also tends toward skepticism!) is convinced of an unseen, supernatural Creator/God. I have chosen to disallow comments on this full essay. Soon, I will post a series of bite-sized sections of the essay and invite comments. In this way, the ensuing discussions can be more focused.


Four disclaimers at the outset:

1) I am merely offering
evidence, and I propose to do no more than that. “Evidence” is a word with a spectrum of meanings ranging from “proof” to “hints”. Somewhere between those two extremes would be “indications”. My presentation of evidence here could be described as an offering of indications. The first three arguments are based upon standard teleological arguments, (argument from design). But they explore three variations upon that theme, and each is a stand alone argument, not dependent upon the others. In my opinion, these arguments are often abused by theists, their significance exaggerated. I do not view them, nor do I present them as “theistic proofs”. They are modest indicators, bits of inconclusive evidence which, when viewed together, form a strong basis to suspect a Creator.

2) I am not a defender of “Intelligent Design”, à la Dembski, Behe, Johnson, et. al. I hope it will be clear that the arguments presented here do not presume an interventionist God. The cosmos is subject, and quite obedient, to natural laws. It seems to work amazingly well without the constant supervision or intervention of Divine influence. But this in no way precludes a teleological view of the cosmos, with “design” set in place at the outset of Creation, and perhaps at the outset of life itself (abiogenesis). This view of a noninterventionist God in no way diminishes his ultimate influence; rather, it greatly enhances his wisdom and his creative genius.

3) I am not herewith offering evidence for the Christian God versus other god beliefs. Atheists often throw into these discussions the “many gods” argument. Richard Dawkins famously points out that “atheists disbelieve in just one more god than the countless gods that theists disbelieve in.” True enough. But the discussion of comparative religions is best left for another day, after the question of whether a God exists at all is settled. I am happy then to explain why I reject Zeus, Wotan, and Buddha in favor of the God Jesus came to reveal.

4) Some readers may be disappointed at missing citations or end-notes. It is not my purpose here to produce an academic paper. I am simply offering some of my personal reasons for belief. If a reader asks, I will attempt to source any of the quotes.

1) the finely-tuned cosmos

There exists in our universe approximately 30 distinct physical and chemical conditions each of which must be finely tuned within very narrow parameters in order for life to develop and prosper. These conditions have been noted by many authors. Those unfamiliar with this line of evidence may wish to reveiw the Wikipedia article on fine tuning
here, and further descriptions of the argument here or here.

One such condition involves the synthesis of carbon, a process which takes place inside stars. The renown English astronomer, Fred Hoyle, spent much of his career analyzing the nuclear reactions which have taken place inside stars over the course of the history of our cosmos. It is well understood that these nuclear reactions are responsible for the bountiful supply of carbon in our universe, an element that one might not expect to find in abundance, but which is absolutely essential for carbon-based life. Hoyle discovered that unique characteristics in the nucleus of the carbon atom make it possible for these atoms to be produced in such abundance; he then calculated the likelihood that these characteristics should be present, and learned that they are statistically unlikely in the extreme. He went on to make this oft-cited observation:
“Would you not say to yourself, ‘Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule.’ Of course you would ... A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” ("The Universe: Past and Present Reflections." Engineering and Science, November, 1981. p 8-12)
Australian biochemist Michael Denton has studied many such elements of fine tuning, and has declared, "All the evidence available in the biological sciences supports the core proposition of traditional natural theology – that the cosmos is a specially designed whole with life and mankind as its fundamental goal and purpose, a whole in which all facets of reality, from the size of galaxies to the thermal capacity of water, have their meaning and explanation in this central fact." (Nature’s Destiny, p. 389).

While many of these evidences of fine tuning will be studied for many years to come, and we may find natural explanations for some, I am convinced that most will continue to point back to Holye’s “superintellect”, and Denton’s “special designer”. But not conclusively; it should be noted that other explanations have been suggested which might account for fine tuning. The most common of these are various multiverse scenarios. We are told that perhaps ours is just one in a chain of billions or trillions of universes; if so, the chances that one such universe would result in conditions favorable to life ultimately rise to one in one; and voilà, here we are!

Thus, the arguments from fine-tuning, no matter how intuitively they point to a Creator, can never prove the existence of God. For me and many others, however,
Occam’s razor (the logical construct which says, “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best”) leads us to a strong likelihood of a “superintellect” First Cause. The alternate explanations, while plausible, are complex and lack evidence. It is my view that the simplest solution is to credit fine tuning to the hand of the Designer, Planner, and Creator of the universe.

It is interesting to note that fine tuning, which may be the best of all theistic arguments, is rarely invoked by Creationists, even by Intelligent Design proponents like Philip Johnson and Michael Behe. The reason is that the fine tuning argument presumes naturalistic evolution. Fine tuning thus works bests for those theists who fully embrace Darwinism, as I do. And for me, an intelligent Creator is the simplest, most intuitive, and thus most likely explanation of the life-friendly cosmos in which we find ourselves.

2) the ordered universe

“God does not play dice.” Whatever Albert Einstein meant when he referred to “God”, there can be no mistaking the import of this well-known quote. The universe which Einstein studied, the universe which amazed him with its endless mysteries, the universe which he, more than any other human, helped to explain, this universe could simply not be ruled by chance alone. Someone, or something, must be providing certainty, order, predictability. Without that someone or something, our universe could only be subject to the whim of chance, a chaotic and unpredictable reality which could never submit to the inquiries of physicist or mathematician.

What set men like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler apart from the great majority of their contemporaries? Why did they suspect the true nature of the universe while others persisted in their primitive superstitions? What led them to explore the solar system as they did, and discover its governing principles? They were led by their undying conviction that their investigations would prove fruitful because of their strong belief in the Creator. They were armed with an expectation that they would find an orderly universe, one governed by mathematical principles and physical laws written by a Creator. Einstein tips his hat to these pioneers of science: “[T]hose individuals to whom we owe the great creative achievements of science were all of them imbued with the truly religious conviction that this universe of ours is something perfect and susceptible to the rational striving for knowledge” (Ideas and Opinions). To the 21st century mind, this expectation seems self-evident. Of course, we know the universe obeys the laws of physics. Of course mathematics is consistent. Of course the universe is orderly.

Ah, but not so fast! When Einstein confirmed these phenomena, he found them utterly remarkable! Einstein refers to this order as an “unexpected event”, and also declared that it should be regarded as a miracle: 
“Well, a priori [reasoning from cause to effect] one should expect that the world would be rendered lawful [obedient to law and order] only to the extent that we [human beings] intervene with our ordering intelligence... [But instead we find] in the objective world a high degree of order that we were a priori in no way authorized to expect. This is the ‘miracle’ that is strengthened more and more with the development of our knowledge.”
We take this ordered, law-abiding universe quite for granted. We regard it as expected, unremarkable. Does this confidence reveal how much we’ve learned, or how little we actually perceive? Is Einstein passé? Was he naive? Or did he see more deeply into the mystery of the universe than we are able, or willing, to look? Is the 21st century skeptic afraid to acknowledge that the order of the universe demands the existence of an “Orderer”?

I find a fascinating juxtaposition in the nature of our cosmos. The same universe governed by law and order is also subject to wild and unpredictable randomness. Clearly, this randomness plays a central role in the progress and development of the universe, and in the evolution of life on our planet. Such randomness is all we should expect in a universe of the materialist’s imaginings. But randomness is not all we have. And randomness, Dawkin’s “blind watchmaker” if you will, can only be productive and meaningful in a context provided by an orderly universe governed by unbending laws. When I consider these remarkable realities, I am compelled to acknowledge the wise and wonderful hand of the Creator.

3) markers of intelligence (in the origin of life)

Hume was right! When the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume argued so effectively against the arguments of design, he did so by suggesting that nature designs itself! And ever since Hume, science has been confirming that to be the case on many fronts. Matter is marvelously capable of self-organization. We understand the principles by which the universe structured itself, how matter coalesced following the big bang into stable star systems and galaxies, etc. Built into the chemistry and physics of the universe is an uncanny capacity to bring organization out of chaos, despite the laws of entropy which might predict otherwise. Built into life itself is a principle of self-design. Darwin helped us to see how random processes have resulted in variations subject to natural selection giving rise to the marvelous diversity of life forms on our planet today. Dawkin’s “blind watchmaker” is truly stunning in his ability to generate both diversity and functional complexity. But all these
natural explanations for the amazing design and beauty we observe fail to answer the ultimate question: Why would a universe possess these remarkable characteristics in the first place? Why is the universe so full of the capacity to self-design, to self-organize? Why is it that everywhere we look, we find a cosmos busy crafting itself?

The skeptics, in their zealousness to write God out of the script, may have inadvertently stumbled upon the very genius of the Creator. The stronger the argument for a self-organizing universe, the more cogently is the case made:
this universe has the fingerprints of intelligence all over it. In the self-designing attributes of the cosmos, I see not an argument against God, but the most compelling argument for a greater Creator than we imagined, one whose intelligence and wisdom are seen in these very built-in processes. The intuitive sensibility of Paley’s argument has never been fully dispelled; it has only been pushed back in time, relegated to the deep mysteries of the Mastermind who first set it all into motion.

Nowhere is this proclivity toward self-organization more spectacular and compelling than inside the living cell. Michael Denton speaks to the design implicit in the living cell in his book, Nature’s Destiny:
“From the knowledge we now have of the molecular machinery that underlies some of their extraordinary abilities, it is clear that cells are immensely complex entities. On any count the average cell must utilize close to a million unique adaptive structures and processes—more than the number in a jumbo jet. In this the cell seems to represent the ultimate expression in material form of compacted adaptive complexity—the complexity of a jumbo jet packed into a speck of dust invisible to the human eye. It is hardly conceivable that anything more complex could be compacted into such a small volume. Moreover, it is a speck-sized jumbo jet which can duplicate itself quite effortlessly.

“The fitness of the cell for its biological role in the assembly and functioning of the multicellular life gives every indication, as with so many of life’s constituents, of being unique. In the case of many of their key properties and abilities, it is difficult to imagine how these properties and abilities could be actualized except in a material form with the precise characteristics of the living cell. In other words, if we were to design from the first principles a tiny nanoerector about 30 microns in diameter with the capabilities of the cell—with the ability to measure the chemical concentration of substances in its surrounding medium; with the ability to measure time, to move, to feel its way around in a complex molecular environment, to change its form; with the ability to communicate with fellow nanoerectors using electrical and chemical messages and to act together in vast companies to create macroscopic structures—we would end up redesigning the cell.”
Denton uses the term “directed evolution” to help answer the inevitable questions about how complexity of such staggering proportions could ever come to self-organize. Mike Gene suggests another term, which I prefer:
front loaded evolution. Both of these theorists have proposed that the incredibly elaborate machinery inside the cell, machinery composed of variously shaped protein molecules specified by RNA blueprints, demand a designer. Not the designer of the Intelligent Design theorists who propose a designer for complex organisms. Rather, the designer of the DNA process which is capable of building such organisms over time through the processes Darwin described. Denton writes, "the evolutionary process of tracing out the tree of life becomes a perfectly natural phenomenon; the inevitable unfolding of a preordained pattern, written into the laws of nature from the beginning." (Nature’s Destiny, 282)

Some will reject this argument on the grounds that it lacks the full array of material evidence. Denton sees the evidence coming in small bits, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle:
"Because the validity of the argument [biocentric design of the universe] depends on so many independent lines of evidence, the conclusion is not materially threatened because the whole picture is not yet complete or because this or that phenomenon such as the origin of life or the mechanism of evolution is not understood. Just as the meaning of a jigsaw puzzle may be obvious long before all the pieces are perfectly placed, so too my argument does not necessitate that everything be explained." (Nature’s Destiny, p xvi.)
Others will object that this argument merely proposes another god-of-the-gaps. I reject god-of-the-gaps approaches because I am convinced that gaps in natural evolution are diminishing as our understanding grows. It may be helpful to distinguish between the “gaps” which are temporary empty spots in our current knowledge, and “gaps” which extend beyond the reasonable limits of science. Abiogenesis may be just such a gap. Far from slowly closing, the gap of abiogenesis becomes more and more daunting as our understanding grows. The more we know about evolution, the more we know about DNA, the greater becomes the mystery of the first cell, and of the DNA alphabet itself. It is this widening gap which I believe is unlikely ever to be filled. In this regard, I am in alignment with Denish D’Souza who has said, “I'm not making a god-of-the-gaps argument arguing that because evolution can't account for it, therefore God did it. But neither should we submit to the atheism-of-the-gaps, that holds since science explains some things, it can surely explain everything.”

These first three arguments rely heavily upon the testimony of three scientists. Some skeptics will disregard such “appeals to authority” as not constituting hard evidence. True enough. And yet, 90% or more of what I know, I know because someone told me, and I accept their testimony. And I have little trouble accepting the testimony of Fred Hoyle regarding the chemistry of the universe, nor Albert Einstein’s descriptions of its physics, nor Michael Denton’s evaluation of the biochemistry inside the cell. It should be noted that I have not built this case upon the testimony of theists. Rather, I have appealed to the testimony of an atheist (Hoyle), and agnostic/atheist (Denton), and a deistic pantheist (Einstein). None of them profess belief in the personal God I proclaim. And yet, when considered as a whole, these mysteries of origins leave me with more than a suspicion of a rational designer in back of it all.

4) the transcendent nature of human love

My dictionary defines transcendence as “that which is beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience.” The Latin root suggests the twin ideas of climbing and crossing. As I use the word here, it speaks of a level of reality that is above us and beyond us crossing our physical, empirical reality. Our experiences intersect this “transcendent” reality when no material causation can be found for them. In my experience of human love, I find just such a transcendent quality.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called mutual affection, which, among all living things, he found unique in humans, “the highest achievement they can aspire to.” Human love has inspired poets and artists through the ages. Plato told us why: “At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet.” Even Einstein chimed in on the transcendence of human love when he said, “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” (Okay, that one was just for fun. But he did say that!)

Perhaps one of the best know quotes on love came from the physicist/philosopher, Blaise Pascal: “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.” This scientist who spent a lifetime in the realm of reason found in human love something that reason could never explain.

I agree. Some biologists will insist that they can find evolutionary paths that lead to the ineffable wonder of human love. But I doubt their accounting. Something so indescribably sublime cries out for an explanation beyond a few molecules bouncing around in the brain. Emotions and sensations on a much lower plane would have sufficed to ensure the propagation of the species. So whence the high joys of human love, especially marital love? These highest of human joys cross over into the realm of eternity, and give the human soul a sense of connectedness to something, or Someone who transcends the physical. That is my experience.

5) the existence of evil

On a recent visit to Phnom Penh, my wife and I toured Tuong Sleng Prison, where Pol Pot held his recent arrestees before they were sent off to the killing fields. At Tuong Sleng, these prisoners were systematically tortured by the Khmer Rouge in an effort to extract more names of resisters. The prison, and its artifacts, were grim reminders of how utterly evil human beings can become.

Many consider the
Problem of Evil to be the strongest argument opposing faith, particularly Christian faith. I have discussed this at length in earlier posts (see the sidebar Main Post Series for links to the Theodicy posts #7 through #11). However, as I reflect upon the meaning of evil, I have found it to be one of the strongest validations of my faith. This is indeed a 180° inversion of “the Problem of Evil”.

Evil, in its various inhuman permutations, takes on a life of its own at times. Without doubt, much man-on-man evil can (sadly) find its logical source in adaptive evolution. Evolutionary psychology seeks to define all evil in terms of biology. Dawkins appeals to the “selfish gene” for which our minds and bodies are mere survival machines. But not all evil readily fits the pattern we would expect from evolution. It is these horrifying and monstrous examples of evil which lead me to conclude that evil indeed does have a life outside of our natural, material world; evil goes beyond biological impulse. And if this is so, if evil is at times the manifestation of a supernatural force or personality, the mere existence of such an evil is an indication to me of a countering supernatural, personal source of good.

I do not subscribe to philosophical or religious
dualism. The existence of a good God is not dependent upon a balancing force of evil. However, supernatural malevolence, if it exists at all, powerfully indicates supernatural goodness. And for this reason, every instance of inexplicable evil we encounter (one need not look long in the annals of history) is one more piece of tangible evidence for a good Creator/God who is, I believe, locked in a cosmic war with evil. In my view, this cosmic battle dates back at least to the creation moment, and is the major theme playing out in our universe. This conflict forms the basis for much of my own theology.

Some might fail to follow this logic. Some will deny any logic exists in this argument at all! However, my skeptic friend asked for
my reasons for believing; and though this one may seem strange to some, and is certainly subjective, it has for decades been a lynchpin for my own faith.


In these five lines of evidence, you may note a trend from objective toward subjective. I could add many additional evidences, but they would continue to be more and more subjective, more personal, more experiential. In truth, these experiences of a personal God who is involved in my life serve to verify my belief more than the objective evidences offered here. But I recognize that they will have less value as evidence for my readers, and hence I omit them. I sometimes appeal to the following analogy: I could never prove to a doubter that my wife loves me. I can offer no objective evidence. There is nothing in our relationship that could qualify as empirical proof of her love. And yet, I am as certain of her love as I am of almost anything else. Likewise, for myself and many other believers, God has made himself so real that our certainty approaches absolute knowledge, though we could never bring this certainty to bear upon another.

Nevertheless, these subjective, personal evidences are fortified in my mind when I consider the more objective evidences such as the finely tuned cosmos, the ordered universe, and the markers of intelligence. Indeed, the Bible appeals often to the testimony of creation (e.g. Romans 1:20, Psalm 19:1-4). I do not pretend that the evidence offered here should persuade a skeptic to alter his worldview. But I do believe that the nature of our cosmos provides ample ground to justify a serious exploration for an open-minded seeker of truth. For such a seeker, the ultimate proof will not be found in the words of a blog-post, but in the inscriptions of the heart.
Comments have been disabled on this post. I look forward to your comments as each of the five evidences are posted individually. If you have a general comment, my email (which can be accessed at my profile–just click on the picture below "About the Host") is always open to readers.