Apologist Joel Furches explores one of the most Googled questions
In daily living, people probably don’t spend a great deal of time pondering the reality or not of some divine force, but it is something all people have considered at one point in their lives. Frequently it is assumed that the existence of God is a matter reserved for the arena of faith and that one chooses to believe or not as a personal matter. Because how could such a thing possibly be discovered or proven?
As surprising as it may seem, this question of whether or not God exists is relatively new in human history. Whereas the nature of God or gods has been disputed – sometimes quite violently – throughout the millennia, to question if God even exists at all is quite a modern phenomenon. This is so modern, in fact, that a 2013 study by Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais attempted to answer the question, “where did religious disbelief come from?” It was taken as a given that humans were inherently religious believers, so much so that where religious disbelievers came from was still a mystery.
To no small degree, this near-universal belief in God is related to individual experience. Followers of God will almost always report deep, profound and significant personal experiences which have contributed to both their belief in God and their beliefs about God. This is, paradoxically, both the strongest and weakest evidence of God’s existence.
It is strongest, because personal experience is more meaningful to humans than any sort of indirect information. It is far different, for instance, to stare up at the Victoria Falls and marvel at their beauty than it is to read the measurements and history of the Falls. It takes no great intellect or sophistication to experience the Falls, but the impact is profound and lasting. Just so with religious experiences. Weak or strong, young or old, foolish or wise; everyone can have such experiences, making the knowledge of God a very inclusive prospect.
Equally, personal experience is a convincing way to report on one’s beliefs. One is more likely to be convinced to visit Victoria Falls when told about their grandeur from an eyewitness than when one reads about them in a book. This is why personal testimony has been such an effective means of religious evangelism throughout history. Reports of personal experiences of God have an emotional power which cannot be matched by academic evidence. However, such reports are also weak evidence insofar as one cannot prove that one’s experience is genuine to someone else. One cannot demonstrate an inner feeling. And if a person happens to be a sceptic, it is as easy to dismiss a report of an unseen and unseeable personal experience as it is to dismiss ghost-sightings and UFOs.
No grounds for God?
The ancients would look at the world around them and see the beauty, intelligibility and apparent design, and could only believe that this must all come from a beautiful, intelligent designer. However, as history progressed and the universe was explored, catalogued and explained, the necessity for a designer became less and less apparent.
“Over the past few centuries, science can be said to have gradually chipped away at the traditional grounds for believing in God. Much of what once seemed mysterious — the existence of humanity, the life-bearing perfection of Earth, the workings of the universe — can now be explained by biology, astronomy, physics and other domains of science.
Although cosmic mysteries remain, Sean Carroll, a theoretical cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, says there’s good reason to think science will ultimately arrive at a complete understanding of the universe that leaves no grounds for God whatsoever.”
Notice the reasoning here: if one can somehow gain a complete understanding of how every cog in the universe turns, one has explained away the need for God. This operates off an idea sometimes called ‘the God of the Gaps’. This idea essentially states that God is invented to explain things people do not otherwise understand. Once everything is understood, God is no longer needed.
Indeed, there was a time in history when gods and heroes were used to explain everything from the rising of the sun to the sprouting of grass and the roll of thunder. Humans, in their modern wisdom, have more or less done away with these mythical beings by defining how the universe works.
Now imagine coming across a smartphone lying on the ground. With the press of a button it lights up. With a touch the screen responds. How does it do all of these remarkable things? An easy and quick explanation would be that the phone is a living thing or has a spirit within it that causes it to respond intelligently. As the device is studied and dissected, however, one comes to understand that it is an accumulation of circuitry and processors and everything it does can be explained without needing the proverbial ‘ghost in the machine’.
Does this new understanding of how the mobile phone works eliminate the need for an intelligence behind it? Not remotely. Knowing how it works is not the same as knowing why it works. Nor does it explain where it came from to begin with. What is true of a phone is true of the universe. The universe is far more complicated than a phone, but like a phone, it came from somewhere and it very likely works the way it does for some reason.
Imagine, for instance, that a child asks her father why the sun shines. He could tell her that thermonuclear forces within the core of the star lead to a process called nuclear fusion that creates the light. Or he could tell her that it shines to give the Earth light to see, warmth for comfort and to help plants grow and animals live. Both answers are true, but the second implies that the sun was put there for that purpose, rather than just a happy accident.
But, of course, remove God and that is what the universe is: a happy accident.
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The physical universe
Evidence suggests that the universe had a beginning in time and space. It is difficult to deny that the universe is expanding away from a point and that it started to expand at a very specific time in history. Things like smartphones and universes do not simply pop into existence without some kind of cause. And whatever caused the universe to exist cannot be part of the universe. It must be separate from the universe.
This is an important point because it works against Sean Carroll’s idea that explaining the functioning of every inch of the universe does away with the need for a divine intelligence. No matter how well the universe is understood, the universe cannot be self-caused. One needs to look outside of the universe for a cause. A universe has certain limitations. It is restricted to three dimensions, changes over time and gradually winds down. Whatever causes the universe cannot have these same limitations. This leaves us with a spaceless, timeless and unchanging cause.
In fact, even if the universe did not begin to exist, these limitations still do exist. The universe moves, changes and deteriorates. The universe is quite clearly a thing which doesn’t have to exist. One can easily imagine some force that has to exist which does not change or deteriorate.
This addresses an important objection which asks, “if the universe needs a cause, wouldn’t God need a cause as well?” The only reason the universe requires a cause is that it began to exist, has limitations and changes over time. If the universe were changeless, limitless and timeless, it would require no explanation. And nor does God.
Every year a new smartphone hits the market. The new phone is faster, has a more attractive screen, takes better pictures and holds a charge longer. As time goes on, phones are more and more finely tuned.
The universe is similarly finely tuned. There are about 40 specific forces and numbers with which the universe was birthed that had to take exactly the value they do for life to be possible in the cosmos. These include phenomena such as the ratio of electrons to protons in the universe, the weak and strong nuclear forces and the force of electromagnetism.
For instance, the force of gravity takes a very specific value which, if it were even fractionally weaker, would mean that matter, stars, planets and galaxies could not coalesce and form. But had it been just a fraction stronger, matter would collapse back in on itself - resulting in no stars, or galaxies to harbour life either. In fact, physicists predict that if the force of gravity had differed from its actual value by any more than 1 part in 1060 (that is a 1 with 60 zeros after it!) then we would not have a life-permitting universe. Many of the values are exponentially more finely-tuned than even these numbers.
And then those atoms and molecules had to discreetly form individual stars. It is still unknown how specific clumps of stars came together to form galaxies that rotate like pinwheels without tearing themselves apart or collapsing inward with the vast gravitational forces they maintain.
The core of a star is a delicate nuclear furnace, which is the only force capable of forging the heavy elements out of which living things are constructed. Had these atoms and molecules not danced about one another in a very specific way, these stars would never have formed.
Stars are, in fact, very stable machines. They operate on a balance of energetic processes so exact that it is a wonder that a single star formed, let alone trillions of trillions. It is impossible to exaggerate how specifically fine tuned the universe is to allow for life to develop.
This is no ‘God of the gaps’ appeal. A great deal is known about the formation of the universe from its earliest expansion to its modern state. It is because so much is known that it becomes apparent how unlikely – nigh impossible – that these exact processes could have taken place in the precise manner that allowed for the stable and beautiful canvass that spreads across the sky – let alone the building blocks of life itself.
Just as the formation of the universe is mind-bogglingly precise, the same can be said of life. Even if it was known how raw matter somehow turned into living, reproducing organisms – which is a mystery not yet solved – the amazing complexity and exactitude of even the simplest life forms still has the power to amaze.
The most surprising thing about life is the amount of information it holds. In its microscopic code, a single strand of DNA holds more information than all the libraries in the world. This is not just any kind of information, either. This is a code – a language – which holds the blueprints for an entire organism in each individual cell. There exists no known source of code or language that comes from anything other than intelligence.
Just like the creator of a universe cannot be part of the universe it creates, the writer of the code cannot be contained within the code.
Beyond matter and energy
People rarely think of this, but the universe is more than just matter and energy. There are things that exist that cannot be explained by way of physics or chemistry. Science is one of the great human achievements, but so are art, poetry, music and literature. The beauty contained within these objects can be explored, studied and explained, but not in terms of science. Where do standards of beauty come from if not a mind?
The same could be said of things such as maths, logic and language, but possibly most important is the issue of right and wrong. Does an understanding of matter and energy give insight into the wrong-ness of murder or the right-ness of love?
Morality always boils down to personal value. Human beings have rights and value, and when those rights are violated or that value is demeaned, a wrong has been done. But what gives humans their value? The only thing that could give humans value is a personal being that values them. This is why a man cannot be taken to court for squashing a bug or shooting a wild bird, but could be sued for killing a pet dog. The dog has value because it is valued by someone.
Historically, civilisations have fought for the human worth of the enslaved and the disabled because they eventually come to understand that these human beings have value built into them. Just because a homeless man has no family or friends who care about him does not make him worthless. He has, we say, human dignity. This dignity is in-built, a product of design. And design suggests a designer.
Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.