Almost Overwhelming?

This draft article for The Times was part of the process leading to the Beale Howson debate published in Prospect on the existence of God.  It continues on the web here.

"The philosophical and scientific arguments for the existence of God are now almost overwhelming." I ventured. Howls of outrage. A flurry of EMails. Letters, indeed, to The Times. What can he mean?

Most theists believe in a Loving Ultimate Creator, most rational atheists believe in Quantum Uncaused Stuff, tracing matter/energy/everything to the Big Bang (or more speculatively to a Quantum Seed) but no further. Some adherents are not even willing to consider the possibility of the other view being right. But if we are open to argument, we can use accepted standards for testing hypotheses: simplicity of statement; explanatory power and likelihood of observed facts. Let's try to look at these views anew without our pre-conceptions, by calling them Red and Green respectively.

As to simplicity: almost everyone has concepts of love and of creating, but the quantum world-view depends on abstruse mathematics, the basic interpretation of which is far from agreed. Red offers explanations of the existence of Quantum Stuff, of why the universe should be comprehensible and of an objective basis to morality, so has greater 'power' than Green. Testing against 'observed facts' is more difficult: anything involving love is intensely personal. However in dialogue with intelligent and thoughtful atheists, five areas have emerged with some agreement on the evidence, although not on the conclusions.

The first is that scientists now appreciate that the universe appears to be very finely 'tuned' to produce life. For example, if the balance between expansion and contraction of the Universe, or the ratio of the mass of the electron and proton were minutely different from their present values, it seems that intelligent life could not exist. Crude estimates of the likelihood that a random universe could support life give values less than 1 in 1020 and although various somewhat speculative schemes increase this there is no evidence that under Green the odds against life are better than a million to one. Some believers in Green suggest that there may be millions of other universes, but such a device could 'explain' any unlikely observation. Others retort that "if it were not so we would not be here to observe it" which is true of many other facts (that we have brains, for example) but does not render the evidence inadmissible.

The second area is the extraordinary accuracy of mathematical predictions and the strange fact that our perceptions of mathematical beauty turn out to be a reliable guide to physics. As a great physicist remarked "the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible". Green explains why we might evolve the mathematics needed to hunt and avoid predators, but offers no explanation of why this sort of mathematics can predict the movements of binary pulsars.

Is torturing babies for fun always wrong, or is this just a matter of opinion? Many believers in Green accept the existence of objective morality, explaining this by adding some additional basic moral axioms. But unless you are a complete moral relativist, holding that for some people torturing babies for fun could be OK, the existence, at least sometimes, of objective morality is a fact. Under Red this is grounded on the reality of God's love, under Green it is another unexplained 'brute fact'.

Fourthly, there is the Phenomenon of Jesus. Most believers in Red find his life, teaching, death and resurrection utterly compelling. Believers in Green generally agree that he was a great moral teacher, and accept that something must have happened around the first Easter to give the disciples the utter conviction that they had seen, touched and spoken with their risen Master. The disciples didn't fake the resurrection because no-one would die for something they knew to be a lie. If the authorities had produced Jesus' dead body it would have killed Christianity at birth. So, under Green, what are the alternatives? If Jesus did die, we have an unknown grave-robber, who then did not earn an enormous reward from the authorities by producing the body, and large-scale mass hallucination. Not impossible, but there is no reason to put the likelihood of this careless robber higher than 1%, and such strong mass hallucinations are very rare. So maybe Jesus survived, and then deliberately deceived the disciples into believing in the resurrection? The odds against surviving crucifixion must have been at least 1,000:1 and would a great moral teacher lie to his friends in a way that would clearly cause their deaths? The believer in Green holds that one of these, or something like them, must have happened because God is even more improbable. Freak coincidences do occur, but under the normal rules of weighting evidence this is strong evidence for Red.

The main evidence offered against Red is suffering. It is wrong not to prevent serious human suffering without sufficient reason when you are able to do so, so an omnipotent good God must have sufficient reasons for not preventing every piece of serious human suffering that actually occurs. We could not expect to understand an ultimate creator fully, but what kind of reasons might be involved? If the purpose of the universe is to bring into being persons who are free to love, then there must be freedom to inflict suffering on others and to alleviate their suffering. Suffering may be an essential part of learning to love. Suffering not caused by persons is caused by the processes that drive the physics and biology which are a vital part of our coming into being. No-one has explained how to estimate the likelihood, under Red (or Green) of the suffering we observe. It is clearly not zero, but sometimes looks rather low. Christians do not forget the warning that "a sword will pierce your heart" or the cry "my God, my God, why have your forsaken me?" But they also see a God that takes suffering onto Himself and transforms it into hope through resurrection.

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