New Atheists often claim there is no evidence of God. Are they confusing evidence and proof?
New Atheists often claim that there is no evidence of God. Yet many leading scientists have recognised that cosmic fine tuning point towards a creator. People who deny this may be confusing evidence and proof. We recognise intentional design wherever there is a situation of low probability combined with an independently specified outcome. Cosmic fine tuning does provide a case for God that has to be answered. It is not adequate simply to claim that there is no evidence.
I feel some sympathy for Richard Dawkins.
In his book, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’ he describes his frustration at debating – or trying to debate – a creationist who denied that there is any evidence for evolution. When Dawkins tried to point her to the fossil evidence in museums around the world, she simply repeated the mantra she had been taught: ‘there is no evidence.’
Some people are like that about cosmic fine-tuning as a pointer towards God. They simply repeat the mantra that ‘there is no evidence.’
Of course, this isn’t an argument of any kind. It’s simply a claim – a claim that is not usually supported by any arguments or any evidence.
Many people have recognised that, at least on the face of it, cosmic fine tuning does provide some sort of evidence that points towards a creator. These include
- Richard Dawkins
- Stephen Hawking
- Paul Davies
- Martin Rees
- Fred Hoyle
- Steven Weinberg
- Victor Stenger
- John Polkinghorne
- John Leslie
- Ian Morison
- Robin Collins
Of course I am not saying that all these people think that cosmic fine-tuning implies that there is a God. Clearly quite a lot of them do not think that at all. But they all accept that, at least on the face of it, cosmic fine tuning presents a case that needs to be answered. (Otherwise they would not bother to try to answer it.) Surely they can't all be wrong?
Evidence or Proof?
So why would anyone claim that there is no evidence? Maybe they are confusing evidence and proof:
There are many things in life which we believe on the basis of evidence that falls short of absolute proof. In fact, there is hardly anything for which we have absolute proof - except perhaps in mathematics.
Atheists often demand a standard of proof for God’s existence which they would not attempt to apply to anything else. When they say ‘there is no evidence,’ what they mean often seems to be ‘there is no proof.’
If they tried to apply the same standard to their personal relationships or to their business dealings, their lives would quickly grind to a complete halt.
They certainly don’t apply this standard to their own atheism, which often appears to be taken on faith in a very naïve kind of way. But even Richard Dawkins admits that he can’t provide the kind of proof for atheism that atheists ask believers to provide for their theism. So there is a double standard at work here.
The claim we are making is not that cosmic fine tuning provides the kind of ‘proof’ that the atheists are demanding, but that it does provide evidence.
Why would anyone think that cosmic fine tuning is a pointer towards God? Because it seems to indicate intentional design – creation for a purpose.
It’s sometimes claimed either that science cannot include, does not allow for, or has no way to recognise, intentionality. This is nonsense. We regularly recognise intentionality in all kinds of situations.
The face on Mars
Some years ago, astronomers saw what looked like a face in the rocks of Mars. (This became the basis for the 2000 movie ‘Mission to Mars’ starring Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins).
It turned out on closer inspection that the ‘face’ was just a random arrangement of rocks. But here’s the important point: if it had been a real face, everyone would have agreed that it was the result of intentional design. No-one would have thought it got there by accident.
There are whole areas of science (such as forensic science and archaeology) which are based on our ability to recognise intentionality.
So how do we recognise it? How would we know that a face on Mars had been deliberately created, rather than just being a random arrangement of rocks? It needs two things:
First, it needs an arrangement that has a low probability - something that, in its nature, could be arranged in many different ways. There are many different possible arrangements of rocks on the face of Mars. (This isn’t to say that only low-probability arrangements can be intentionally designed, but that it’s only with low probability arrangements that we can know that they’ve been designed.)
Second, there needs to be a specific outcome which isn’t built in to the arrangement itself. The specific outcome for the face on Mars is an arrangement that looks like a human face.
The numbers on my car plate are a specific, highly improbable combination. (In fact, if the letters and numbers were chosen completely at random, the probability of the particular arrangement on my plate would be about one in 8 x 1010.) In itself, this doesn’t point to intentional choice, because any random combination of numbers is just as improbable as any other. But if you see a plate that says LADY GAGA 1 on it, you don’t assume that this is just a random combination. You suspect that design is involved.
People on the station
Imagine standing on a railway platform waiting to catch a train. The combination of people all around you is highly unlikely. But so what? It is just a random low probability arrangement.
But suppose that next time you go to the station, everyone around you is wearing a yellow tee-shirt. You don’t assume this is just a random event. ‘Well, these things happen. What’s there to be surprised about?’ You immediately recognise that some kind of intention must lie behind this low probability event.
So we recognise intentional design in events that have low probability, and that produce an outcome that we can specify independently in some way that does not relate to the nature of the events themselves.
There are a number of key parameters and starting conditions which describe the physical universe. These have to be finely tuned for any kind of complex life to be possible. There is no reason why they should take the values that they do. Thus there is a low probability arrangement in place. To take one example, Stephen Hawking says:
‘If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present state.’
There is no physical reason why the rate of expansion should have taken just the value it did. It has an intrinsically low probability. And there is an independently specified outcome - that you are here today to read this web page.
To take another example, speaking about the value of the cosmological constant, Professor Felix Bloch says:
‘The fact that we are just on the knife-edge of existence, if the dark energy were very much bigger we wouldn’t be here – that’s the mystery.’
Again, there is no physical reason why the value of dark energy should be just what it is - but if it were different, you and I would not be here.
This is why cosmic fine-tuning is a pointer towards intentional design. Of course this argument is open to being challenged (just as many atheist arguments are open to being challenged). For example, multiverse arguments attempt to say that the probability is not low. But any challenge has to tackle the argument itself. Just to chant the mantra ‘there is no evidence’ isn't good enough.
David Couchman MA MSc MMin FRAS, August 2011