Atheist Assumptions Equate Possibility with Fact

"You haven't proved anything," my friend snorted. "All you've done is to present an old hokey argument dressed up in ignorance." This statement is one that I hear with regularity over e-mail and in lectures as skeptics and atheists try to debunk the arguments we have made for the existence of God. The idea is that cosmological arguments for God's existence that deal with first cause are invalid because God's origin cannot, in their view, be explained. They also maintain that quantum mechanics offers solutions to these questions and denies many of the conservation laws vital to first cause arguments. In the skeptics' views, teleological arguments are not valid because they are rooted in man's failure to understand how design mechanisms arise in nature. Given enough time, atheists maintain, evolution and the mechanistic forces of nature will offer solutions to how these characteristics develop.

We would like to counter these arguments with a suggestion that those who make them are making some very superficial statements without looking at what is being said. There are a number of points that need to be made about these questions, and we would like to break them down into three headings.

The Nature of Proof. When someone says "you haven't proven anything," they are probably correct-no matter what the subject is. The problem is that the word proof means different things to different people. The philosophers are fond of arguing about absolute proof. I would totally agree that you cannot absolutely prove the existence of God. If you could, there would be no such thing as faith. The problem with this kind of position, however, is that if it were followed rigorously, nothing could really be proven to exist. I would suggest to you that the way most atheists and skeptics use the word proof, it is not possible to prove that you exist! If you say, "Look at me," I can say, "Well, how do I know that you aren't a hologram or just an interesting illusion?" In a magic show, we might see many things that do not really exist. In a similar way, it is very possible to deceive touch, sound, smell, and taste.

When we accept something as proven, we do so on the basis of the fact that there is enough evidence available that we are able to believe in something to the point of acting on it. You drive down the street in your car with proof that the car is going to go where you steer it. You know deep in your mind that there is a possibility that the car's steering may malfunction and that you will not be able to control where the car is going; but you have proof that such a situation is not going to develop in your trip. You have proof that gravity works. You do not go around white knuckled because you fear you may float off the earth. The fact of the matter is that there are some good reasons to question the universality of gravity, but you have proof that as far as your life is concerned, gravity is going to function.

The existence of God is very similar to the existence of subatomic particles. When we talk about neutrinos or hyperons in physics, we are not talking about things that lend themselves to our five senses. No human has ever seen a neutrino. We have never heard one, tasted one, smelled one, or touched one. To prove the existence of a neutrino requires a variety of tests that can only be conducted in the right set of circumstances. The proof that neutrinos exist has come about by experimental evidence. It is not absolute, but it is good enough that a wide range of experiments have been conducted and are still being run to help us better understand what neutrinos are all about. Over the 30 years that this journal has existed, we have frequently discussed properties of God which can be studied and analyzed. Just as we do not understand everything there is to know about neutrinos, we do not understand everything there is to know about God. As more scientific data becomes available, our picture of God gets better and better. Those willing to search out the evidence have made great progress. Our understandings may change and our perspective may change because of changes in these understandings, but that does not weaken the argument for God's existence.

This same type of discussion of proof applies to all sciences. Engineering would be impossible if absolute proof was required of every concept. We gather evidence and ask for the best interpretation of evidence. This is true of all of science, and it is true of the existence of God. Our argument is that there is so much evidence for the existence of God that a person who looks at all the evidence will consider God's existence to be a very sure thing. That is the way we all really use proof in our daily lives.

Possible Is Not Proven. We live in a time when understandings are changing at an incredible rate. Sometimes these understandings are so unusual and bazaar that they defy imagination. In the last 100 years, our understanding of what light is has gone through some real contortions. We thought it was a wave, then we thought it was a particle, and now we essentially consider it to be both. We have not disproven the existence of light, but we have shown it to be very different than what we thought it was. All of this rapid change has left people feeling that nothing is solid or concrete in science.

We would suggest that a more accurate understanding is to say that in science our understandings get refined and expanded, not eliminated. When Albert Einstein discovered his theory of relativity, he did not eliminate all known physics. He simply made it possible for physics to be better understood and more accurately used. Newton has said that gravity was a function of mass. Einstein helped us understand that gravity is more a function of space. We did not throw out Newton nor did we throw out his laws, but we do use the laws more accurately and we better understand what all the laws of physics describe and what they do not describe.

When an argument for the existence of God is put forward, there is a tendency to try to argue it away by appealing to new ideas which supposedly dispel old ideas. The Christian viewpoint of cosmology is that there was a beginning, that it was caused, and that the cause was God-a being whose attributes make this a reasonable scenario. The atheist viewpoint as expressed in the Humanist Declaration is that matter is eternal, uncaused, and not created.

The first point that needs to be made about this kind of suggestion is that, no matter what the proposal is, the origin of it remains the key issue. Parallel universes do not explain their own origin. They simply show how matter/energy may move from one condition to another within the system. The creation of the system and whatever attractors may work within the system still remains unaddressed.

The second point is that being able to develop a model does not mean the model is true. It is possible to prove that 1 = 2 (Mathematical Wrinkles by Samuel I. Jones):

          Let x = 1
          Then x2 = x
          x2 - 1 = x - 1
          Factoring (x + 1) (x - 1) = x - 1
          Dividing x + 1 = 1
          But x = 1
          Therefore 1 = 2
Do you see what assumption made this proof work?

By changing the normal meaning of the word vacuum so that it means an entity where energy exists but no matter exists, it is possible to set up a hypothetical condition called vacuum fluctuations. If you assume a vacuum has energy, it is possible to construct a way that matter/energy could be eternally fluctuating from positive to zero to negative to zero, etc., forever. Being able to produce something that looks possible seems to be equated to proof in the minds of many people-and this obviously is not true.

Evidence Is The Key. The only possible way to resolve an issue of this kind is to find evidence to support or to deny a claim. The nature of science is that, if evidence is found that conflicts with a proposed theory, the theory is either amended or discarded. If evidence is found that supports a theory, more experiments are conducted and proposed that enables the theory to be further tested. Many people on both sides of the science and religion question seem to want to skip this process.

In recent months, the discovery of the acceleration of the cosmos, the discovery that neutrinos come in different varieties, and new questions about the nature of gravity have all raised serious objections to the fluctuating vacuum idea. It will be interesting to see how many skeptics use good science in this rapidly changing field of study and how many turn fluctuating vacuum into a religion.

There is nothing wrong with making arguments about what may be possible. What is wrong is being unable or unwilling to change your belief system when evidence shows it is necessary to do so. This is true of the religious believer as well as the scientific theorist.-JNC

--John N. Clayton

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