Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Elusive Fingerprints of God

The story of humans is the story of ideas, that shine light into dark corners.

-Jill Tarter, Astronomer.

Science is one long thread of human inquiry that always replaces supernatural claims with natural ones. An ongoing legacy that spans generations with discoveries of today overturning the “common sense” and intuitive beliefs of yesterday. We are lucky that we are alive at a time when we know so much about the origins of ourselves, our planet and our universe.

Despite this track record, many people would rather cling to irrational beliefs than revise them when the state of our knowledge improves. It is for that reason that I am not writing these posts on the “God hypothesis” to change anyone’s mind. After all,  when a person forms beliefs from emotions it is tough to argue them out of those beliefs with reason and logic alone.

As Greek historian Thucydides said:

When a man finds a conclusion agreeable, he accepts it without argument, but when he finds it disagreeable, he will bring against it all the forces of logic and reason.

God hypothesis

Arguments for supernatural causes are irrelevant in many instances because there is no way to falsify them. If you can’t falsify a claim then by extension you can’t validate it. What grounds then do we have for belief in such ideas? We could, however, conceivably make a case for a supernatural entity without definitively proving its existence.

So let’s take the God hypothesis seriously and run it through the scientific method. By doing this, we can see whether natural phenomena have a “supernatural signature” or “fingerprint” as Ian Wishart claims. We can also check whether the following statement by Jeff Tallon carries any weight:

There is just the faintest possibility that we are here by chance, although the odds are stacked hugely against it. Yet here we are. The conclusion is clear – if our world is unlikely to be the product of chance there is quite probably a creator.

Hypothesis: There exists a supernatural intelligence that exists outside of time and space that created the universe and everything within it.

Null hypothesis: Natural processes are sufficient to account for the emergence of the universe.

There are certain features we would expect to see if there was more going on than just natural processes. Intelligent design would be one feature – as theologian William Paley pointed out, there is an overwhelming difference between the intricacy of a watch and the seemingly undesigned rock sitting next to it. But to find this design, we need to look at what nature actually reveals, and hence we step into the realm of science to answer those questions. *(Most design arguments are weak because they are arguments from analogy rather than arguments from scientific reasoning – well-formed analogies are good for explaining ideas but not useful for establishing evidence-based conclusions).

So, if there are plausible natural explanations for observed phenomenon then the person making the supernatural claim has more work on their hands – they must also rule out the natural claims first. As Carl Sagan said: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and a supernatural claim is by definition an extraordinary claim.

Where a plausible natural mechanism can be found, this will take favour over a supernatural claim. This may sound like a bias but because we know nature exists, natural claims are reasonable and can be observed.

If we put supernature forward as the cause, we’re saying something we can’t explain was caused by a thing we can’t know anything about and for all we know doesn’t even exist. – Tracie H, The Atheist Experience blog.

 In science we are only interested in mechanisms that are testable and therefore can be known to some degree. So let’s test the God hypothesis.

Falsifiable evidence against the God hypothesis

So what do we find when we look at the natural world and collect data? Here is a small sample of what we know:

  • The universe emerged from a Big Bang and at that point, the universe was in a maximum state of entropy (disorder). This means that any design from a creator cannot be determined at the actual creation event. There was no apparent design at that time and if a god had done it, his or her handiwork had been destroyed.We can glimpse back in time to 300,000 odd years after the big bang by observing the cosmic microwave background. In this “afterglow of creation” we see nothing but radiation. This is exactly what we’d expect if a the big bang theory were correct. The further back we look in time the simpler and more incomplete the universe appears.
  • Cosmology definitively shows that the universe evolved naturally with natural forces at work.
  • The total energy of the universe is zero. No violation of energy conservation was necessary to produce the universe.
  • Evolution from simple to complex organisms took place over geological time.
  • The probability of the initial chemistry required for life arising is surprisingly good given the makeup of the Earth all those billions of years ago and the enormous amount of time that these chemical processes had to work with. Improbability as claimed by Tallon is a misnomer when the consideration of time comes into the picture.
  • Natural mechanisms have since been sought to thoroughly dismiss the primitive, superstitious intuitions of ancient human beings. Lightning, as just one example, is not the result of an angry God – we can see the forces involved working to produce lightning and therefore can predict it to a large extent. Such phenomena are the result of chaotic natural systems.

And so forth.

Looking at things as they exist now and claiming “chance” could never have produced such features is an argument from ignorance and personal incredulity. Jeff Tallon cannot see the obvious flaw in his argument – “We’re here, therefore God exists” as if no other explanation could possibly account for our existence. This is a logical fallacy known as Affirming the Consequent – which takes the following form: “If God exists then we would expect to complexity and design; we do see complexity and design, therefore God exists”. This is equivalent to saying: “If it rains the pavement is wet; the pavement is wet, therefore it rained”.

Chance?

Let’s examine Jeff Tallon’s chance argument. How does Tallon know that the probability we are here by chance is improbable? He doesn’t say, but leaves clues that the real reason is that he himself cannot fathom a natural explanation for the complexity we see, so he posits an even more unlikely scenario – a supernatural force (by definition extra and requiring explanation).

There are two aspects to the probability argument that Tallon overlooks (1) The time involved for complexity to emerge from natural processes and (2) the enormity of the universe. If we take the evolution of complex chemistry required for complex organisms, the time we’re dealing with is billions of years. Something improbable as the evolution of a cell becomes very probable given a long time period. In marvelling at how complex and improbable we are, Tallon neglects the fact that the chemistry required for life obviously exists and that given billions of (known) galaxies and the billions of stars within those galaxies, there will be planets suited to this form of organic life emerging. Of course, there could be many other chemical pathways to life which we currently do not know.

Ultimately, the probability argument suffers because it is a reflection of the claimants ignorance, not what we know.

Conclusion: There is insufficient evidence to move from the null hypothesis. The universe looks exactly as would look if it weren’t designed but emerged from natural processes. From science, there is no evidence that God exists.

Information and further reading

Fortunately, we can glimpse back in time to 300,000 odd years after the big bang by observing the cosmic microwave background. In this “afterglow of creation” we see nothing but radiation. This is exactly what we’d expect if a the big bang theory were correct. The further back we look in time the simpler and more incomplete the universe appears.

Wishart has no clue

There are reasonable Christians who realise the limitations of their knowledge and freely admit this. They claim faith, yet have the good sense to realise science has given humanity the sight to discover the secrets of nature and how it works. Christian fundamentalist crusader Ian Wishart is not one of those people.

Ian wishart is so certain he is right about his interpretation of the bible and the world at large that he writes articles for his magazine Investigate to that effect and a number of books exposing “the real truth”. He comes across as the investigative journalist yet when you read his work you have to duck to avoid an assault of conspiracy theories, logical fallacies and fiction dressed up as science. For a more investigative look at Wishart and the weird shit he really believes, visit the Silly Beliefs website entry on him.

Wishart’s brand of sophistry

A great example of how misguided Wishart really is (and how Christian fundamentalists think) can be seen in his attempt to refute claims made by Richard Dawkins. Professor Dawkins made his way down to New Zealand recently and of course is famous for his book The God Delusion among others.

Dawkins states that God cannot be used as an explanation for complexity because he would have to be more complex than that which he is supposed to explain.

Wishart’s nugget in response to this: “Dawkins claims there is no god yet seems to be an expert in the complexity of God”.

This shows how naive Wishart really is. Dawkins assertion is both Philosophically and experientially sound. Firstly, adding an unobserved entity to any explanation is unjustified as the entity too requires an explanation. Apologists seem to use God as a get out of jail free card – by making the God claim they can then duck for cover and claim they have no need to explain further. This is special pleading in action.

What Wishart doesn’t grasp is that for everything we have an observed scientific explanation for emerged from simpler factors via natural processes or was created by something of greater complexity. Stars, galaxies, planets and life evolved from simpler origins. Living things evolved and everything created by these organisms is observed to be simpler. In other words, the creator in these cases was always more complex.

It therefore violates experience and logic to posit a creator that is less complex than the creation he is credited with. To say God is simple is, again, special pleading.

Besides that, God cannot escape the infinite regress – God’s arrival on the scene must also be explained – yet the apologetic mind simply asks for more wiggle room by saying “well, he exists outside of time and space and therefore didn’t have a beginning”. Vague pseudo-philosophical musings such as these just reveal how unintelligible the entire “God exists, honest” argument has become. Any claim of an unobserved entity existing for eternity can equally be applied to the universe – the advantage being we know with a high degree of certainty the universe actually exists.

The Divinity Code

It is evident that Ian Wishart has a very tenuous relationship with the truth. This is hardly surprising given the conservative Christian bias he applies to all topics. His love-hate affair with Richard Dawkins is clear – he wrote an entire book – The Divinity Code – as a response to Dawkins’ God Delusion, yet despite the tag line “the explosive new evidence” The Divinity Code treads over tired old creationist arguments with a thin veneer of science to make it sound academic.

The approach Wishart takes in the book is to prove god’s existence by looking into the natural world for “the fingerprints of God”. This is termed natural theology – a philosophy continually eroded by scientific inquiry. For, if we cannot prove or disprove supernatural entities, Wishart claims that we should at least be able to see evidence of his work in the natural world.

The bedrock of natural theology is thus:

  • alternative explanations for natural phenomenon as explained by science (typified by science denial)
  • speculative explanations where science currently has no answer (argument from ignorance)
  • selective examination of the evidence, e.g. trying to prove a designed universe by looking only at examples that seem to prove the hypothesis and avoiding inconvenient examples that falsify the design hypothesis (observation selection bias)

Alternative explanations to nature often requires the denial of established scientific theories (evolution/big bang cosmology are the two most targeted by Christian fundamentalists) and  Wishart injects his arguments with a healthy dose of denial, selection bias and speculation, because, as he points out, the supernatural cannot be definitively proven or disproven.

Evidence of the supernatural?

The problem with looking for evidence of the supernatural is that the evidence always has a subjective, non-scientific element. This is where speculation often enters the room – apologists posit supernatural causes at the point where the natural explanation has stopped. You can go that extra distance and say that “we don’t know what causes X, therefore God [or enter alternative supernatural explanation here] did it” but this is trivial and ultimately adds nothing. Besides that, it seems a little premature to invent a cause that hasn’t been observed because this is a natural human tendency with a long record of being trumped by science.

In principle, there could be evidence that we can consider consistent with a supernatural agency* (or an agency external to the universe). Natural theologists comb through nature looking for examples that could be considered evidence, but where they veer away from science is that they cannot rule out plausible natural explanations first. Occam’s razor doesn’t favour explanations that go beyond the testable evidence so natural theology cannot escape the injection of faith to complete the circle.

Our current ignorance (or incredulity) on a subject is never a valid reason to inject an imagined explanation, unless one is seeking to confirm their own prejudice. I wish Mr Wishart luck, but I fear his arguments in their present form aren’t new and aren’t likely to overturn explanations for the natural world based on observation and sound logic. Nice try though Ian.

* The next post will tie this post and the previous one on the arguments of Jeff Tallon by looking at what science has to say about the “fingerprints of God” in nature.