Monday, September 2, 2013

Evidence for God

Our sermon suggestion this week is another one about which one could write a book: “What can we say to non-believers who say '[There is] no scientific evidence of God or the soul' in a kind & loving manner to make them think?” That is a huge topic and so to make it manageable, I'm just going to concentrate on the evidence for God. And obviously we are not going to treat the subject in anything like an exhaustive fashion. There is however considerable evidence for the existence of God.

Before we start, let's lay some groundwork. First off, you'll notice that I am not talking about proof of God. Proof, logically speaking, is a series of steps that lead to a valid conclusion. Done properly it results in an inescapable assertion; ie, that all the angles in a triangles add up to 180 degrees. In fact it is only in mathematics and in branches of science where math dominates that one can actually prove something. In most sciences, like, say, biology, geology, astronomy, etc, you don't so much prove things as accumulate evidence and make interpretations of the data and generate hypotheses that you hope to, not prove, but demonstrate with experiments or further evidence. The difference is if I prove something using valid logic or correct math, it cannot be overturned. 2 + 2 will always equal 4. But if I unearth the oldest human skeleton ever found, that can be invalidated if someone finds one older. And the scientific family tree of humans, built on my find, will have to be revised. The Leakeys, a dynasty of paleontologists, kept doing that, in fact, overturning previous scientific reconstructions of the evolution of hominids.

So we can speak of evidence for God but not proof because God is not a math theorem. I cannot mathematically prove that a meteorite hit the earth and killed off the dinosaurs. I can show you the geologic evidence, however, that a big meteorite struck earth in the area of the Yucatan 65 million years ago, that it threw up a layer of iridium that coated the earth at that point in time, and that it coincided with a massive extinction of all kinds of species, including those we call collectively the dinosaurs. The meteor is indisputable, though you can, as scientists have, debate the connections. 

And here's another thing about science. You will always be able to find scientists who disagree with the current consensus on some matter. It took decades for the scientists who proposed the meteorite strike to convince most of their colleagues that they were right. But some still quibble about whether it caused the extinctions. Those in the minority might just be stubborn or they may be the ones who eventually come up with a new interpretation of the evidence or with actual evidence that makes us rethink the old consensus. Because science is always a work in progress. So we must be careful not to invest too much in any particular scientific evidence of God. The evidence may shift and send both scientists and theists scrambling to re-evaluate what we think we know.

Another thing you must understand is how numbers in science work. Science is useless without measurements. It is all about precision. But numbers can, if not lie, then deceive. Let's say 2 people take a test. One person makes a score of 100 and the other gets a 0. Yet the average of the 2 scores is 50. Neither person got anything close to that, nor, indeed, were the scores of the 2 people anywhere close to each other. Because of the small size of the sample and the widely disparate results, the average tells us nothing and actually leaves a false impression. Recently a study came out that said, on average, atheists have higher I.Q.s than religious people. But nowhere in the news article did it say what the gap was. I had to go find the abstract of the scientific paper, find the difference and then do some math to find out the gap amounts to between 4 and 5 points, less that a third of a standard deviation. Not much. Only 1 or 2 points above the margin of error.

Plus we are not told what the actual I.Q.s were. If they were 140 and 145 respectively, in other words, in the genius range, it would merely mean that on average atheists tended to display slightly more genius than the otherwise genius theists. Or, if everyone studied was average to begin with, the atheists might have scored 105 to the theists' 100. Hardly something to write home about. And let's not even get started on which of the 3 main I.Q. tests were used or the controversy over just what precisely I.Q.s measure.

And, remember it is an average. So it levels out the achievements of undeniably brilliant believers like John Polkinghorne, one of the discoverers of the quark and an Anglican priest; Francis Collins, discoverer of the gene that causes cystic fibrosis and head of the Human Genome Project; Robert Bakker, pre-eminent paleontologist, expert of dinosaurs and Pentecostal Christian, and many more. Including Sir Isaac Newton, widely regarded as the greatest scientist ever, who published books on the Bible and theology. If you just read the article on religion and I.Q., you might get the impression that people who believe in God are all idiots or that atheists were a lot smarter. No. Get a big enough number together and you'll find an average of merely 1 to 2 points difference, over the margin of error.

One last caveat: There is a big difference between the results of an experiment and the interpretation of the results. For instance, recently a study came out that looked at the brain activity of 9 rats as they were euthanized. The researchers found a lot of brain activity as they died. That's the result. They then went on to say that they thought they found the cause of Near Death Experiences. That was their interpretation. The problem is, unless they revived the rats and interviewed them as to what they experienced, we have no idea if they saw a tunnel, encountered a being of light, reviewed their lives or met up with deceased relatives, all frequent features of Near Death Experiences among humans. What they found was that there was a lot of firing of the neurons in the brains of these 9 rats. Whether this is analogous to what humans experience or not is quite a leap. And 9 rats is a pretty small sample. Also while a lot of people die hooked up to heart monitors, few patients are hooked up to EEGs at the time of death. Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, was, though, when he went into a week long coma during a severe bout of meningitis. And it was while he had no higher brain activity that he had his Near Death Experience. So it wasn't an hallucination caused by the firing of his neurons. The medical records confirm that. It doesn't amount to proof but it is an brain expert's testimony and not to be lightly dismissed. 

It is wise when you read an article about a new study, to look for all the “maybe”s and “possibly”s and “could be”s and “might be”s in the interpretation of the results. That indicates that the scientists or possibly the reporters are aware of the limits of what was actually demonstrated.

So, given the tricky nature of making scientific pronouncements, what can we put forward as evidence for God?

There is the argument from mathematics. This is what convinced Sir Anthony Flew. He attended C. S. Lewis' Socratic Club, and while he personally admired Lewis, he was an atheist. He framed the main modern arguments for atheism. He said that he went where the evidence took him. And eventually he encountered these facts. There are approximately 10 to 78th power atoms in the universe. The universe approximately 14 billion years old. The problem is that there has not been not enough time for all of those atoms to have configured themselves into the present arrangement we find in the universe through sheer chance alone.  It's rather like saying that if you put the parts of a computer in a box and shook them long enough, they would eventually come together as a functioning computer. This is not only highly unlikely but it would take a tremendous amount of time and that much time simply doesn't exist yet.

And in particular Flew pointed to self-replicating organic matter. It is not enough that by random chance some inorganic chemicals might become alive. They would also have to contain DNA, coded instructions that tell the now organic molecules how to reproduce themselves. If they didn't, then when the first accidental life died, that would be it. No further life would continue. And for the emergence of life coded to create new life to take place entirely by random accident would take more time that has yet elapsed in the universe.

DNA itself is a highly improbable product of random forces. DNA has a language and it carries information, akin to an instruction manual for building a living being. But language is the product of intelligence. A bird sings, and its message is either “This is my territory; you rival guys stay away” or “Here I am, girls, ready to mate.” Bird's brains aren't very big but they are using them to communicate. And bird song is individual, not a predetermined repetition of what every other member of their species does. 

DNA communicates information, and a heck of a lot more than found in bird song. But what intelligence created the language? Who came up with the message that the language is used to communicate? Random chance? This is analogous to the computer that comes together in the shaken box of parts being already programmed! By whom? Oh, and the programming is the code for making another computer—complete with the ability of the first computer to physically make the second. The science of probability would put the chance of this happening by itself at practically nil. And, again, certainly not within the time allotted.

Anthony Flew did not die a Christian. The evidence led him only so far as the kind of god Aristotle arrived at: a first cause, an uncaused cause. But the man who created the modern arguments for atheism could not believe in that idea anymore. Atheism was too unbelievable.

If there is a god who caused all things and who especially directed the universe to create life, there should be evidence of that. There is.

In 1973, at a scientific conference celebrating the 500th birthday of Copernicus, the father of modern astronomy, astrophysicist Brandon Carter of Cambridge presented a paper that pointed out something startling to his fellow scientists. As Patrick Glynn puts it, “...all the seemingly arbitrary and unrelated constants in physics have one strange thing in common—these are precisely the values you need if you want to have a universe capable of producing life.” Gravity's relationship with electromagnetism or with the nuclear weak force, the nuclear strong force's hold on atoms, its relationship with electromagnetism, the difference in mass between the proton and neutron, or the fact that water is, unique among the molecules, lighter in its solid form (ice) than in its liquid form--if any of these universal constants were even the slightest bit different, by even a few decimal points, life would not be possible. It appears that the universe is fine-tuned to support the emergence and maintenance of life. 

This is so mind-blowing and points so strongly to an intelligence behind the universe that scientists have been trying to come up with alternate explanations. The best they can do is the idea of parallel universes. There are so many universes out there that we just happen to be in the one that's just right for life. The problem is that there is zero evidence that other universes exist and no way to test to see if they are. All the universes are supposedly separated by membranes. Which make these alternate universes a great tool for science fiction and comic books but not very useful for science, except to desperately explain away the fact that this universe, the only universe we know exists, seems to be set up specifically to support life.

Well, if some intelligence created this universe to allow it to produce life, then shouldn't there be evidence that our lives have a relationship to that intelligence? Yes, there is.

Just a word about scientific methodology before we answer this question. Scientists cannot directly measure how religious someone is. What they can do is find out how often they attend worship, how often they pray, how often they read the scriptures of their faith. They conclude, with good reason, that people who participate more frequently in such things have a higher level of religious commitment than those who do so infrequently or not at all. That last group includes those non-church attenders who say they are spiritual but not religious. Sorry. Science can't measure that.

Turning to Dr. Dave Matthew's book The Faith Factor and once again to Patrick Glynn's God: The Evidence, we find that in general people who attend church weekly are less likely to commit suicide, less likely to get involved in drug or alcohol abuse, less prone to depression and stress, report higher satisfaction in their marriage and sex life, and have greater overall happiness and satisfaction in life. In other words, religious commitment correlates closely with better mental health. 

Ah, but that could be the result of deluding oneself! How well do religious people do when it comes to physical health? Laying aside the fact that we now know mental health is in fact based in the brain, and therefore to a large part physical, let us note that study after study shows that people with higher religious commitment tend to be physically healthier as well, recover from sickness faster and with less complications, have lower incidence of serious diseases like heart disease and many types of cancer, have lower blood pressures, and live longer by an average of 3 years.

Ah, you may say, they are healthier because their religion encourages them to avoid drinking and drugs and tobacco. Researchers have thought of that. And they found smokers who attended church weekly had lower blood pressure than smokers who didn't. They found out that if you matched up people of the same age, the same history of heart disease and bronchitis, even the same degree of impairment of breathing based on tests, religious people still live longer.

Now think of the implications of this. If there is no God, then you have to believe that we evolved so that acting on a delusion is physically healthier than acting on what should be a true perception of the universe. If you are a hunter gatherer who falsely perceives a living presence or thinks he is receiving communications from an unseen being, you will waste a lot of time, energy and effort trying to find or avoid that presence. But somehow this delusion was so widespread and beneficial that it became the default setting of most of humanity. Now add to that the fact that those mental illnesses which result in people hallucinating beings or voices are invariably destructive and disabling, not helpful as you often see in movies. So you have to either posit a unique form of positive psychosis or that there may be something to this perception of and communication with an unseen creator.

Now we cannot from these facts alone reason all the way to Jesus Christ. That takes a detailed examination of the documents and history surrounding him. But what you can do is invalidate the assertion that there is no evidence for God. There is the mathematical improbability of this specific universe existing, the staggering fact that 11 or more constants in this universe are fine-tuned to permit and even encourage the existence of life, and the fact that being committed to worshiping God significantly increases the odds of being mentally and physically a healthier human being. To not believe there is a God means to believe that we are the winners of a vastly improbable chain of events, but that to fully benefit from this you must get this fact completely wrong and act as if it was set up this way on purpose by an intelligent being. Atheism is the equivalent of finding yourself in a nice sturdy house stocked with everything you need for your physical and mental well-being and believing that the arrangement of wood and nails and concrete and plumbing are the result of a natural process and not the work of a builder. More importantly an atheist must believe that the mind that tells him this is the result of random biological mutations somehow shaped by environmental forces and the need to survive and reproduce. And yet it is somehow able to correctly discern and think about stuff that evolution never prepared it for, like quantum physics, much less the question of whether there is a God or not. Whereas all I have to believe is that God created the universe and created us in his image, so that understanding the products of the mind of God are possible. If you hold to Occam's Razor, the principle that the simplest explanation that covers all the facts is more likely the truth, it seems that theism fits that principle better.

Delivering such arguments in a kind and loving manner is up to you. It really depends on the nature of the person you are talking to. A non-dogmatic atheist, one who is open to discussion, may be sincerely interested in discussing these things. But an emotionally-involved anti-theist, one who is enraged merely by the assertion that there is any evidence whatsoever for a position other than theirs, may not be amenable even to consider your arguments, regardless of how kindly you present them. I once saw Madelyn Murray O'Hair on a talk show where the host was going through the audience with a mic. When a priest stood up to ask a question, before he uttered a syllable, O'Hair unleashed a torrent of invective that went on for what seemed like a minute or so. Finally the priest turned to the host, said it didn't look like he would get to ask his question and to let others have a chance. Then he sat down. And I knew that, despite what she said about her rejection of God being based on intellectual grounds, she had a deep-seated emotional reason for her animus. And sure enough, when her surviving son, a Christian, came out with his memoir, his mother's early life was a sad tale of being unwanted and unloved from childhood. 

If you get an emotional reaction all out of proportion to what and how you present these arguments, then the person is probably the victim of bad treatment by someone in a church. In which case, the Christian thing is not to continue to argue but to listen and show compassion. It's not about winning or scoring points; it's about reflecting the love of God in Christ. 

I'd like to close with what Martin Luther King Jr. said on the subject: “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.” Wisdom from a man of faith who made the world better.

No comments:

Post a Comment