Argument by DesignThe universe is an immensely complex system. This makes many people believe that it must have been designed. The main theory goes that complexity cannot arise spontaneously, but requires a “designer”.
Second, the argument contradicts itself. If complexity can arise only from complexity, then the designer must be complex as well. If it is complex, then it must have arisen from some other complexity. This is the question of “who designed the designer”. Here, it is usually argued that the designer is an exception to the rule. This, however, is an arbitrary claim. We can equally well claim that the universe itself is an exception to the rule. There is no need to add one more entity to the story.
Finally, the claim suffers from the typical problems of the “God of the Gaps” argument, which are shared among all its variations. We discuss these problems at the end of this chapter: the theory cannot be falsified, and thus it does not make predictions; it does not provide an explanation in the technical sense of the word; it does not prove that it was really that particular god who did the job, and not some other deity or force; it assumes that the world has a beginning; it encourages us to stop searching for a scientific answer to the question; and it wrongly assumes that theology would deliver better answers than science.
Simple molecules combine to make powerful chemicals...
Simple cells combine to make powerful life-forms...
All things are created by a combination of simpler, less capable components.
Therefore, a supreme being must be our future, not our origin.
Intelligent DesignThe argument of Intelligent Design goes as follows: Whenever we see something smartly arranged (such as a piece of art, a rose garden, or a city), we know it has been created by some intelligent being (humans). Since the world itself is also smartly arranged, it follows that there must be some intelligent being who created it.
We first note that the theory is false. As we have seen in the Chapter on the Universe, there are plenty of things that are arranged smartly, and that were created by purely natural processes: Snowflakes, swarm behavior, hands, or indeed the Earth. Therefore, the theory is to be rejected.
Apart from that, there are plenty of things that are not designed intelligently:
- Some species, such as the Neanderthal man or dinosaurs, came into existence, but then went extinct. If the design of the world were perfect, then a species would not have been created only to disappear. Some of these creatures were particularly odd: the Opabinia had 5 eyes (see picture). It had a mouth that faced backwards. No wonder it died out, one may think.
- The recurrent laryngeal nerve connects the brain to the larynx. Both brain and larynx are in the head. Yet, the nerve passes down the neck to the heart, then back up through the neck into the larynx. In a giraffe, this leads to several meters of nerves to connect two organs that are just a few centimeters apart (see illustration).
- Dolphins and whales live underwater, but cannot breathe underwater 1.
- Humans have their digestive tract and respiratory tract cross, so that they are at constant risk of choking (ibid).
- Bats have solid bones, which are difficult to fly with, and emus have hollow bones, which are easier to fly with — which is the opposite of what is required [ibid].
- During copulation, the penis of the male honey bee explodes, leaving part of the penis inside the female (ibid).
- Bonobo apes engage in sex for pleasure (ibid) — between males and females, males and males, and females and females. A god such as the one imagined by the proponents of intelligent design would never have allowed this species to exist.
- Nature is full of vestigial structures, i.e. structures that may have served a purpose earlier in evolution, but are now completely useless. The mole rat, e.g., has eyes, but these are completely covered by a layer of skin, so that the animal is blind.
- Humans exhibit optional vestigial structures. These are structures that are present in some people, but that do not serve a purpose — as proven by those humans who do not have this structure but do not note its absence. The Occipitalis Minor muscle, e.g., in the back of the head, serves no purpose. While all Malays have it, only 36% of Europeans have it — without suffering from its absence. Similar examples are the palmaris longus muscle, the pyramidalis muscle, the plantaris muscle, and supplementary nipples in males and females.
- People have a natural disposition to love fat and sugar. While this was useful for cavemen, it leads to obesity today. Obesity is one of the main health problems in rich and poor countries alike 2.
- If a baby’s head is significantly larger than the pelvic opening of the mother, the baby cannot be born naturally. Prior to the development of caesarean section, such a complication would lead to the death of the mother, the baby or both. This is hardly a perfect design.
- The human spinal cord is often malformed, leading to scoliosis, sciatica and congenital misalignment of the vertebrae.
- People suffer from all kinds of congenital diseases and genetic disorders such as Huntington’s Disease.
- Myopia, the common cold, and allergies cause large discomfort for people all over the world.
- Humans have an extra pair of teeth, which serve no purpose and are prone to produce medical complications — the wisdom teeth.
If I were granted omnipotence, and millions of years to experiment in, I should not think Man much to boast of as the final result of all my efforts.
We need a first cause!The scientific view of the universe can explain quite a number of things, but it cannot explain how the universe started. So the big question is what happened before the Big Bang. Adherents of the Abrahamic Religions argue as follows: everything is caused by something. Thus, also the universe was caused by something. This first cause of the universe is God.
The problem with this argument is that it contradicts itself: If everything needs a cause, then so does God. Believers commonly reject this, and postulate that God does not need a cause. Then, however, we can equally well argue that the Universe does not need a cause. The addition of a god is of no help here. On the contrary: The argument first creates an artificial problem (by postulating that there must be a first cause), and then creates an artificial solution for that problem (God).
In reality, there is no reason to postulate a first cause. That postulation is just an assumption. Quite possibly, there is no such first cause. Maybe the universe has always existed. As unthinkable as that appears to Abrahamic believers, this is how Indian religions see the world. Jainism, for example, holds (quite plausibly) that it is impossible to create something from nothing. It then draws the only logical conclusion, which is that the Universe must have always existed. Even science has not excluded the possibility that the Universe expands and contracts continuously.
It is also possible that time started only with the existence of the universe. Then, the question of what was “before the universe” would not make any sense. The search for the “first cause” would be no different from the search for the ultimate support of the Earth that bothered the ancient people: Man stands on his feet, his feet stand on the floor, the floor is laid on the ground, the ground is held by the rocks underneath and so on — so what is the “first support” on which everything rests? The Chinese thought it was a giant turtle. Today, we know that this question does not make any sense, because there is no “ultimate support”. It may well be the same with the universe. In the same way that the “ultimate support of the Earth” turned out to be the Earth itself, there may be answers to the question of what was before the Big Bang that we cannot currently even imagine. Postulating that there must be a first cause that happens to be God is of no use in this endeavor.
If we were really interested in finding out what was “before the universe”, we would not sit on a sofa and develop theories about a first cause. Rather, we would study what current scientific theories have to say, read books about physics, support the scientific development, or even become a physicist ourselves. This is how knowledge about the universe is acquired. The fact that believers rarely do that shows that their main interest is not to find out what happened with the universe, but to find a spot where their god can be placed in the picture. This, however, already limits our thinking: it entices us to find that first cause — rather than to investigate the Universe in an unbiased manner. Thereby, the postulation does more harm than good in the search for truth.
You cannot solve a mystery by using a bigger mystery as the answer
Everything from nothing?A frequent critique in the scientific model is that it seems to say that the entire universe basically came from nothing. How can everything come from nothing?
As the attentive reader will have noticed, science makes no such claim. Nowhere does this book or a scientist say that the universe came from nothing. Science says that we do not know so far where it came from (if that question makes sense at all). And as long as we do not have validated evidence for a theory that explains where the universe comes from, we keep searching. That’s all.
Concerning the question of where the universe came from,
science says nothing, not “nothing”.
Watchmaker analogyThe so-called watchmaker analogy goes as follows: Imagine you walked on the beach and found a watch. Would you assume that the watch evolved naturally or that it was created by a watchmaker? Surely, you assume the watchmaker. In the same way, assume God as the creator of the universe.
We can continue this argument: Assume that we continue our walk on the beach and that we find a watchmaker lying on the beach. Would we assume that the watchmaker had no cause and that he was born without parents? No. Surely, we would assume he has parents. In the same way, we should then conclude that God has parents. This, however, is not typically a conclusion that a believer would draw. We continue our walk and we find an atomic power plant. Would you assume that the watchmaker made it? Probably not. Most likely, the power plant was built by a large number of unrelated people. Therefore, we should conclude that there is not one god, but a large number of them. Again, this is not a conclusion that Abrahamic believers are willing to draw. All of this shows that the analogy does not hold water. In particular, it cannot be used to deduce the existence of a god. Even less so, it can be used to deduce the existence of the unique, omniscient, all-powerful, and loving god that Abrahamic believers would like to quarter.
The analogy also shows a problem in the approach to truth: Believers are happy to find the watch, and to start believing in the watchmaker. They are also ready to believe all kinds of stories about the watchmaker that they are being told — without ever having met the watchmaker. Very funny consequences of this are discussed in 3. The scientific approach, in contrast, does not postulate anything upfront, but continues to investigate until it finds evidence. It will not make any claim until it has reason to do so.
Apart from this, the watch did actually come into existence by pretty random processes, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb noted 4. Let us elaborate this idea: It took humanity hundreds of thousands of years to make use of bronze. The metal was not found by some designer, but most likely because someone accidentally used rocks that contained copper and tin to build campfire rings. When the fire heated the stones, the metals melted and mixed, yielding bronze. When the people realized this, they started to heat these stones on purpose, and to identify those stones that yielded the best bronze — they performed a kind of “natural selection”. From there, it took humanity thousands of years to arrive at the metals that we actually make watches of. Titanium (the material that the watch in the picture is made of) was found by serendipity in 1791. The clergyman and amateur geologist William Gregor realized that black sand was attracted by a magnet. He investigated, and found that the sand contained a hitherto unknown material — which was later called Titanium. Again, it was not some designer sitting down and creating some hard material, but rather someone stumbling upon the material by chance. As so many discoveries, it was first of little use, because it could not be extracted from the sand. In 1910, Matthew A. Hunter proposed a process that heats the sand to 1000°C, and then adds hydrochloric acid. In 1940, William J. Kroll had the idea to use sodium gas, which finally gave humanity a way to industralize titanium. The solar cell that powers the watch was again not designed by an omniscient being, but rather discovered by chance when Alexandre Edmond Becquerel realized in 1839 that some conductive solution produced an electrical current when exposed to light. It took humanity 150 years of more or less systematic trial and error to stumble upon the configuration that can power watches. Thus, the watch did actually come into existence by evolution: Large-scale, distributed trials led to some interesting results by chance. The good results were kept, and submitted to the same process. Iterating this for several thousand years led to the watch that you see in the picture. Seen this way, the watchmaker argument is actually an example of an evolutionary process.
Can you produce, from your hypothesis, to prove the unity of the deity? A great number of men, join in building a house and a ship, in rearing a city, in framing a commonwealth. Why not several deities combine in contriving and forming a world?
God is simpler!The theories presented here (and scientific theories in general) are very complex. So then it can be argued that “God exists” is a very simple theory that explains everything by assuming only a single entity. For example, to explain why life is here, we can just say “God created life”. Thus, the theory “God dit it” would have an extraordinary capacity of compression.
However, the theory “God created life” makes exactly the same predictions as “Life is there”. There is no prediction that the first theory makes and that the second one does not make. Adding “God” does not add any new predictions. Thus, the theory is actually simpler without the god.
This is the essence of explanations that involve God: They tell us only the predictions what we knew anyway, and nothing more. Besides, the theory “God did it” is unfalsifiable. This entails that we can equally well claim that any other entity is the reason for some phenomenon. For example, we can claim that “Gayatri did it”. We discuss the other problems of the theory at the end of this chapter.
“I don’t know” does not mean that you can fill in the blanks with your favorite fairy tale.
Nobody knows the origin!Believers do not know how to explain where God came from. Atheists can’t explain where the universe came from. So, aren’t both views equally unsupported?
The answer is no. We know that the universe exists, and hence it makes sense to search for its origins. However, we do not even know whether God exists. Thus, before venturing into where God came from, we should prove that he exists in the first place. Believers are still stuck at that stage of the process.
Atheists are one step ahead: they know at least that the thing whose origin they search exists.
How do atheists explain the origin of the Universe when even science has no concrete theory about it?
A hundred years ago, someone would have asked: “How do you explain the origin of lightings and thunderstorms when science has no concrete theory about it?”. The only honest answer that an atheist could give at the time would be: “I don’t know”. And the theist would reply: “The explanation is God!”. Today, science has advanced. Theistic thinking has not.
Made for usIt seems that the world is so tailored for us that it must have been made for us. If that is so, would it not allow us to deduce that there was a “maker”?
However, the belief that the world was “made for us” is just an artifact of our self-centered thinking. If the world were made for us, we would not have evolved together with several other humanoid species, and even mated with them before they died out. We would not live on the 4th of 8 planets, orbiting around a star that is in every aspect like thousands of others, moving in a galaxy that is a random place in a universe that contains billions of them.
Apart from that, the world is not really “made for us”. On the contrary, it is a rather hostile environment. It took nature billions of years to create life. It took millions of years to come up with humans. And it took humanity hundreds of thousands of years to tame the threats of nature, such as wild animals, the cold, the heat, or the drought. Many threats still remain. Every year, millions of us perish in illnesses, floods, famines, or natural disasters. That is not “made for us”.
The world is not made for us, but we were made for the world — in the sense that all organisms that did not fit that environment well were filtered out by natural selection. Assuming a god is just a consequence of our inability to understand this. Maybe Douglas Adams phrased it best when he told the following story:
Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking “This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in. It fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well. It must have been made to have me in it!
The probability is so small!The scientific theory of the universe relies on chance: Molecules happened to be aligned in the right way for life to emerge, cells happened to have a nucleus, and mutations happened to create eyes, wings, and feathers. Isn’t the chance that all of this happens too small to be real? As Fred Hoyle suggested in his Junkyard Tornado argument: “The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.”
We first observe that the chances have to be put in the context of the universe: Nature runs billions of experiments in parallel. If the chance for life to emerge on one planet is one in a billion, this still means that there will be life on one billion planets — because the universe just has so many planets5. Furthermore, nature runs her parallel experiments for billions of years. If the chance that some configuration of molecules appears during a given year on a given planet is one in a billion, then it is near-certain that this configuration will appear — just because the universe is several billion years old. The fact that this happens to be the planet on which we find ourselves is just the consequence of the anthropic principle.
Apart from this, most processes in nature are actually not guided by chance. Rather, they are guided by natural selection. It’s not like a monkey is created from scratch by a random meeting of atoms. Rather, nature tried out thousands of different models of primitive life forms first. In each generation, thousands of models were sorted out by natural selection. Only the survivors got a chance to continue. Again, thousands of different variations of these were tried out. This process continued for hundreds of thousands of generations.
To illustrate this process, Richard Dawkins suggested 5 to think of it as a combination lock with 5 number wheels. Finding the right combination requires trying out all possible numbers: 10,000. However, evolution does not try out all possible numbers. Rather, it first tries the first wheel. When the right number is found (i.e., when a species survives), it proceeds to the second wheel. It is as if, at each wheel, there is a little click when we found the right number. If we proceed to left from right in this way, we actually need only 50 steps.
Attacking competing explanations doesn’t prove your favorite one right.
Even if you could disprove evolution, you'd still need to prove your god did it.
The Fine-Tuned UniverseThere are a number of physical constants that govern the processes in our universe: the gravity constant, the strength of the nuclear force, and so on. If any of these constants had a different value, then the universe would not have come into existence the way it did. If we vary the values by tiny amounts, there would probably never be life. This begs the question of why these constants have exactly these values — and not any of the other myriad possible values.
Science has not yet settled on an explanation for this phenomenon. One possibility is that our universe is just one out of millions 6. All these universes would have different values for the natural constants. Only in one of them would life have emerged — and this is of course the one in which we live. Or there could be some yet undiscovered physical laws that constrain the constants, so that they cannot have any other values.
However, even if the question is open, this does not mean that God must be the answer. First, it could be any other god instead of the Abrahamic God (for example Gayatri), or even several gods. More likely, though, there could be a purely natural explanation. History shows us that many phenomena that were once ascribed to the gods (such as the rain, the movement of the sun, the seasons, lightenings, etc.) are nowadays explained by science. That should make us careful when we postulate gods behind the unknown.
Science says: We don’t know, but we’re trying to shed light on it.
What are you doing to shed light on it?
Where does beauty come from?There are many questions in life that we cannot (yet) answer by science alone. Examples (taken from a pamphlet) include: Why do cats have pretty stripes on them? Why do the millions of insect species have such startling beauty? Why does man feel guilty when he sins? Why does anyone have a will? Where did personality come from?
Faith in God, goes the argument, can give answers to these questions: The reason is God. Cats have pretty stripes because God wants them to have stripes.
Unfortunately, this theory has a number of problems. First, the Christian explanation for the stripes of animals is false. It can be found in the Bible in Genesis 30:37-39: “Jacob took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted.” This explanation is obviously false. Animals do not get stripes when they mate in front of almond trees.
Second, the argument that “God did it”, is commonly applied to all the beautiful things in life. Yet, there are many more ugly, dangerous, and brutal things in life. Tapeworms, e.g., are worms that are several meters long and live in the intestines of animals and humans. Much less theological effort has been devoted to explain the existence of these.
Finally, the claim suffers from the typical problems of the “God of the Gaps” argument, which we discuss at the end of this chapter: The theory that “God did it” cannot be falsified, and thus it does not make predictions; it does not provide an explanation in the technical sense; it does not prove that it was really that particular god who did the job, and not some other deity or force; it encourages us to stop searching for a scientific answer to the question; and it wrongly assumes that theology would deliver better answers than science.
If you accept the explanation that God did it,
then your curiosity has been sedated rather than nourished.
What makes the world go round?This book harps on about the fact that the existence of God is unfalsifiable. There is nothing that could happen in the present or future that would show that God does not exist. Now what if we say that God raises the sun every day? Isn’t that falsifiable? If the sun does not rise tomorrow, then this shows that God does not exist.
The theory is indeed falsifiable. However, it falls into the same class of arguments as the Greek myth of Persephone, which goes as follows: The goddess Persephone makes spring come every year. If there were no spring, then Persephone would not exist. This theory is falsifiable — just like the theory that God makes the sun rise.
However, falsifiability alone does not make a story true. A story is true only if all of its hypotheses are true. A hypothesis is true if it is either a perception statement or supported by evidence. So then, what is the evidence for the fact that God raises the sun everyday? And what is the evidence that it was not Gayatri? There is none... In fact, there is evidence against either.
If someone tells you that you do not understand the world and that therefore you should follow his religion, he’s obviously playing a cheap trick on you. If he really wanted your good, he’d encourage you to understand the world first.
Why do things happen?It is one of the fascinating (and sometimes frightening) facts of life that some things are outside our control. A loved one may suffer an accident, a friend may fall terminally ill, or you may win a million dollars in a lottery. These events are beyond our understanding, let alone our influence.
Thus, believers assume that there must be some kind of superior being, who makes these things happen. This is an understandable conjecture. Let us make this hypothesis more formal: “There is a higher power that coordinates the events on Earth”. Is there any way we could prove this hypothesis false? That is, can we imagine any event that would show that life is not coordinated by a supreme being? It turns out that there is no such event. Whatever happens is the will of the higher power. This means that our hypothesis is unfalsifiable.
As the reader knows off pat by now, the unfalsifiability has two consequences: First, the hypothesis “There is a higher power that coordinates the events on Earth” has no implication whatsoever for our lives on Earth. There is nothing that this hypothesis tells us about what will happen or what will not happen. Thus, a believer is unable to predict the future just like the atheist is unable to predict the future — both are victims of the same random processes. It does not help at all to assume that there is a higher power. Technically, the hypothesis “There is a higher power” does not imply any perception statements. It is thus literally meaningless.
There is a second consequence of the unfalsifiability. It is that we can invent any other unfalsifiable hypothesis that contradicts it. For example, we can claim that “There are two higher powers, who work together to coordinate the events on Earth in alternation. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it is mainly the first power, and on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, it is mainly the other power. Sunday is actually uncoordinated, real randomness.” This hypothesis contradicts the original hypothesis, but it cannot be proven false either. This shows that we can come up with an arbitrary number of contradictory hypotheses, which each also “explain” the events of life, but can never be proven false. And this is what people do indeed. They call it “religions”.
Unfalsifiable as it may be, the belief that everything must happen for a reason is not just some harmless erring. It has very concrete consequences. It entails that when bad things happen (such as an accident, a disease, a famine, or poverty), people will try to find the agent who wanted them to happen 7. Throughout history, people have readily blamed ethnic minorities, religious groups, witches, magicians, or other unfortunate individuals for disasters — often with dreadful consequences. If no such target can be fingered, people believed that the misfortune was a collective punishment, and that they had to adapt their behavior. They would also be ready to follow some leader who claims to please the higher power — often to that leader’s advantage.
Nowadays, such explanations are less popular. However, another one still is: If a benevolent higher power such as the Abrahamic God dishes out some misfortune, then a plausible interpretation is that the receiving party deserves this misfortune. This thinking is called the Just World Hypothesis (JWH), and it can lead people to blame the victim of a misfortune. For example, people can come to believe that the victim of a crime is herself/himself responsible for the suffering, that poverty is self-inflicted, and that people are responsible for the illnesses they suffer. Revolting as this thinking may be from a Humanist standpoint, it is only a logical consequence of the belief in a higher benevolent power.
Look, I understand that religion makes it easier to deal with all of the random shitty things that happen to us. And I wish I could get on that ride, I'm sure I would be happier. But I can’t . Feelings aren’t enough. I need it to be real.
Where does moral law come from?This argument, the Argument from Morality, goes back to Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that there exists a universal sense of moral obligation. This sense of “ought”, which Kant termed the “categorical imperative”, points towards an objective moral law, whose source can be only the supreme being or God.
However, ancient cultures had moral rules long before the Christian God appeared. Babylonian and Sumerian laws, e.g., date from the year 2000 BCE. These law systems predate the major world religions by several hundreds, if not thousands of years. The laws codified family laws, punishments, property laws, leasing, debt, warranty, and the presumption of innocence. These laws were invented long before the Abrahamic God, let alone Jesus or Mohammed, entered the scene. Ancient Romans and Greeks, too, had sophisticated legal systems without any idea of God. Today, people of all regions of the world have basic moral rules, even if they never heard of the 10 Commandments — just like Christians have basic moral rules even if they never heard of Hinduism’s legal framework. And the reason is that moral systems arise spontaneously in any human society. Humans have a self-interest in protecting their own life and limb, and moral rules are a means to that end. There is nothing divine in that.
We could argue that God gave humans at least some basic moral standards. However, moral standards are not absolute. They change over time. Slavery, e.g., was widely considered normal in the Medieval Ages (and is approved in the Bible and the Quran). Nowadays, it is shunned. Polygamy is illegal in Christian countries, but legal in Muslim ones. The death penalty is in force in some countries, but considered immoral in the others. This defies the idea that moral standards would come from God.
Even if there were some basic common moral standards, this would not prove that they would come from a god, let alone from the Abrahamic God. Our moral standards are way above the moral standards that the gods supposedly gave us.
Did people really not know that they should not kill before Moses told them?
Why should people behave morally?This book has argued that moral laws do not come from God. No matter where the laws came from, we are left to wonder why we should actually follow the laws. The theistic response is: We should follow the law because God commands us to. In case this is not sufficient: We should follow the law because otherwise God burns us in hell for eternity.
Believers sometimes ask “If there is no god, then what prevents you from raping as many women as you want?”. The answer is simple: Atheists do rape as many women as they want. In most cases, that number is zero. Turning the question around, we may ask the believer: So if there were no god, would you rape women and kill children? Is the only reason why you don’t rape women your fear of hell? If that is the case, then you are a horrible person. Now, if you have any other reason not to rape women, then how does your question prove the existence of God?
Fortunately, there is a rather simple explanation for why we should behave morally: Would you, the reader, like to live in a lawless society, where people can kill and plunder as they wish? Probably not. The majority of your compatriots think the same. Therefore, the majority of your compatriots, as well as presumably yourself, behave morally. That is all that is needed for the explanation of moral behavior.
It is often argued that religion is valuable because it makes men good,
but even if it were true, it would not be a proof that religion is true.
Santa Claus makes children good in precisely the same way,
and yet that doesn’t prove his existence.
How do you explain the soul?In the common understanding of the word, the soul is the non-physical essence of a human being. In many religions, the soul can live on when the body has died. What is the soul in an atheist world?
The soul is basically what makes a human different from a machine. However, in the naturalistic view of the world that this book promotes, humans are not so different from complex machines. There is thus no space for a soul in this world view.
As Marshall Brain has argued 89, this is just a consequence of the evolutionary theory: Every species derived from simple, single-cell organisms over the course of hundreds of millions of years. There is no part of the scientific explanation of evolution that says “a mythical supernatural being reaches in right here and installs a soul”. The same goes for the development of a baby: An embryo is at first just a single cell (a zygote). It then develops into a small human. From a biological perspective, there is no moment in the process where a soul is inserted into the body.
From a naturalistic perspective, what we call the soul is just an auxiliary notion for the mental abilities of a human: reasoning, feeling, consciousness, qualia, memory, perception, thinking, etc. These abilities, however, are nothing mystical or supernatural. They are processes that happen in the brain. When the human dies, these processes stop.
The idea that there is a soul that eludes the body when the human dies is, from this perspective, a fabrication. It helps people come to terms with their own death, but it is an invention. We discuss later what made people come up with this idea, and why they believe in it.
Whatever we make of the question of consciousness, positing an immaterial soul is of no help at all. It just tries to solve one mystery with an even bigger mystery.
So many questions remain!Science has found out an extraordinary amount of things about life, the universe, and humanity. And still, it is obvious that science is nowhere close to answering all of humanity’s questions — and quite possibly never will. Does this not make the idea of a universal answer (God) plausible?
No. To see this, take again the question of what happened to the Air Malaysia flight MH370. Up to now, nobody knows where that airplane disappeared. So doesn’t that make the answer “The Russians shot it down” plausible? Of course not! Just because we do not know the answer, this does not entitle us to invent one. In fact, it is much better to admit that we do not know the answer, rather than inventing one and believing in it. This is for several reasons: First, if we conclude that the Russians shot down the plane, we will stop searching for the real reason for the disappearance of the plane. But we should not stop searching until we have conclusive evidence for what happened. The same goes for the origin of the universe or in fact any other question. Second, if one person says (without reason) that the Russians shot down the plane, then another one could say (also without reason) that the Chinese did it. The analogy to religious conflict is obvious here.
The Atheist position is that it’s not intellectually respectable to pull an explanation out of one’s butt and confidently assert that it’s the truth about reality.
Why are believers wrong?Atheists don’t know the answer to many of humanity’s conundrums. If they do not know the answer, then what entitles them to say that the theistic answers are false?
In the majority of cases, the theistic answers are not actually false. They are unfalsifiable, and hence nonsensical, but not false. In order to be false, they would have to make a concrete prediction — which they usually don’t.
However, there are a number of cases where an atheist can say with confidence that the theistic answer is false. Cory Radebaugh made the point as follows:
For example, if the problem is 765769×29310, you don’t know the answer. But you know that -3 is not the answer. This is because two positive numbers multiplied cannot yield a negative number.
But even if the theistic answers are not outright false, we are entitled to doubt: Assume that someone tells you that the answer to the above computation is 65762898798. Would you believe this person? Or would you still want to see the steps of the calculation? And if the calculation involves a step that says that you should not ask how it works? And if someone else comes, and tells you that the answer is 5345365498? At this point, you would almost certainly want to see the steps of the calculation. And what if you asked a different question, but the answer would always be the same number? Then you would probably start to seriously doubt that your interlocutor is right. And it is the same with atheists when they hear the “God of the Gap” argument.
How naive to believe there might be a single answer to every question. Every mystery. That there exists a lone divine light which rules over all. They say it is a light that brings truth and love. I say it is a light that blinds us — and forces us to stumble about in ignorance.
The God is just Raps
Problems with the God of the GapsMany open questions in science, metaphysics, and philosophy can be answered if we assume a god. This includes the question of how the universe came into existence, where beauty comes from, and why people behave morally. Adherents of the Abrahamic religions often answer these questions by assuming their God, and adherents of other religions use their own gods, spirits, or extraterrestrials. This line of reasoning is known as “the God of the Gaps”.
In the sections above, we have argued that the assumption of a god does not actually answer the questions. Here, we summarize the problems with the “God of the Gaps” argument:
- Logical problems
- Problems with science
- Problems with God
Apart from this, the God of the Gap argument suffers from the problems that unsubstantiated theories suffer from in general. It is also pretentious to assume that one’s own god would be the solution to all of mankind’s conundrums, as we will argue in the Chapter on Criticism of Religion.
Whom do atheists turn to when faced with a situation that logic cannot explain?
I do not turn to anything. There are some things we don’t know, and making up answers to fill the holes, and then believing that the made-up answers are true is completely idiotic.
No EvidenceThe “God of the Gaps” argument says that God created the universe (and also accomplished a number of other things — basically everything to which we have no scientific explanation at this point of time).
It is indeed possible that God created the universe. The rule “If God created the universe, then the universe exists” is a specialization of the more general rule “If someone creates something, then that thing exists” — and that is generally true.
The problem is that the rule works only in one direction: If God created the universe, then it exists. This does not mean that, vice versa, if the universe exists, God necessarily created it. Anything else could have created the universe. The universe could even not have been created at all. Using the rule the other way round is a reasoning called abduction. As we have seen before, this way of reasoning generally does not lead to correct conclusions.
The only way to deduce that “God did it” is to use evidence for that hypothesis. Evidence for a hypothesis is a true theory that predicts the hypothesis. That is: we need a true rule that has “God did it” not in the premise, but in the conclusion. Up to now, no such rule has been found (as we have argued in the Chapter on Proofs for God). Therefore, the idea that “God did it” is just a hypothesis that hangs in the air.
Absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
UnfalsifiabilityMany questions in life could be answered by assuming a god. For example: Where does the universe come from? God created it! Or: Why do cats have pretty stripes on them? Cats have pretty stripes because God wants them to have stripes!
Interestingly, we can never prove such theories false. There is nothing that could happen in the present or future that the believer would accept as a proof that God was not the ultimate cause. For example, even if we found one day why animals have stripes, the believer can still argue that God caused whatever was the reason. There is no way to show that God did not ultimately do it.
By now, the reader is well-versed in the concept of falsifiability. Thus, the reader will have spotted immediately that the claim “God ultimately did it” is unfalsifiable: It cannot be proven false, even hypothetically. As always, this has two consequences: First, we can come up with arbitrary many contradictory theories, which also explain why cats have stripes. We discuss the range of these theories further down. Second, the claim makes no predictions. By assuming that “God did it”, we are no wiser than before. A believer knows nothing more about this world than an non-believer. Not a single concrete prediction about how the world is, or how the world is not, can be derived from the statement “God did it”. And this is why religious people fare no better in the randomness of this world than non-religious ones (they fare worse, actually). No religious book told us how many species there are, how to make electricity, or how to cure Covid-19. A religion always just summarizes the knowledge of the era when it was created — despite claims to the contrary.
What was it God revealed to man? He did not reveal science. The whole structure of physical science was built up very gradually and tentatively by man. He did not teach man geology, or astronomy, or chemistry, or biology. He did not teach him how to overcome disease, or its nature and cure. He did not teach him agriculture, or how to develop a wild grass into a life-nourishing wheat. He did not teach man how to drain a marsh or how to dig a canal so that it might carry water where it was needed. He did not teach him arithmetic or mathematics. He taught him none of the arts and sciences. Man had no revelation that taught him how to build the steam engine, or the aeroplane, or the submarine, the telegraph or the wireless. All these and a thousand other things which we regard as indispensable, and without which civilization would be impossible, man had to discover for himself.
Not an ExplanationMany things in life could be explained by assuming that a god did them. For example, by saying “God created the universe”, we learn where the universe came from. This looks like a very simple explanation.
Let us look into this more closely. Assume the following facts:
Next Friday, the sun shines, it rains, and there is a rainbow.
Next Saturday, the sun shines, it rains, and there is a rainbow.
Next Sunday, the sun shines, it rains, and there is a rainbow
God wants that next Friday, the sun shines, it rains, and there is a rainbow.
God wants that next Saturday, the sun shines, it rains, and there is a rainbow.
God wants that next Sunday, the sun shines, it rains, and there is a rainbow
A scientific explanation, in contrast, goes as follows:
Next Friday, the sun shines and it rains.
Next Saturday, the sun shines and it rains.
Next Sunday, the sun shines and it rains.
Whenever it rains and the sun shines, there is a rainbow.
In other words, the theory with God just adds a layer of complexity. To illustrate this, consider an example: Small children like playing the game of “Why”. They simply always ask “Why?”. Each answer entails again a “Why?” and the game continues until the unnerved parent finally says “Because it’s like that”. A theist can answer many questions that an atheist cannot answer, because the theist say “Because God did it”, or “Because God wants it that way”. However, when the child asks the next “Why” (namely why does God want that?), the theist will have to say “It’s like that” as well. Thus, the “It’s like that” is only postponed, but not avoided. On the contrary, the hypothesis of a god entails many other questions: “Where is god?”, “How does he interact with the world if he is not physical?”, “How do we know there only one god and not many?”, etc. Thus, instead of answering the original question, the assumption of gods just adds plenty of new questions. For this reason, Ibn Abi-l-Awja, an 8th century critic of Islam, reportedly refused to accept any answer that implied that something was done by God. In his view, this merely pushed the question farther back to someone who was not present 10. Of course, he was executed swiftly.
A claim does not automatically become an explanation if it uses the word “because”. It also has to capture a general pattern in what we have seen that allows for predictions in what we have not seen.
The “beginning” of the universeThe question of how the universe began is one of the most exciting questions in philosophy, theology, and physics. Yet, it might be an ill-posed question.
All our thinking goes that the universe must somehow have “started”. That might be a wrong assumption in the first place. As Bertrand Russell observed: “There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our thoughts.” 11. There are several alternatives to the assumption that the universe “started”. Summer and winter, for example, come and go. In the same way, the universe could come and go and come and go. In such a scenario, as David Hume wrote, the “first cause” has as much meaning as the “largest positive number”.
Buddhism holds a similar view: The beginning of this world and of life is inconceivable since they have neither beginning nor end. Buddhism never claimed that the world, sun, moon, stars, wind, water, days and nights were created by a powerful god or by a Buddha. Buddhists believe that the world was not created once upon a time, but that the world has been created millions of times every second and will continue to do so by itself and will break away by itself. According to Buddhism, world systems always appear and disappear in the universe. In the eyes of the Buddha, the world is nothing but Samsara — the cycle of repeated births and deaths. To him, the beginning of the world and the end of the world is within this Samsara. Since elements and energies are relative and inter-dependent, it is meaningless to single out anything as the beginning.11
Jains do not believe in a creator either. According to Jain doctrine, it is not possible to create something from nothing. The only logical consequence is then the universe and its constituents (soul, matter, space, time, and principles of motion) must have always existed. The Piraña, a society in the Amazon forest, likewise have no concept of the “beginning” 12.
Science, too, may yet point us to something that is not a “beginning” in the proper sense. The reason is that time runs slower in the vicinity of large masses. Since the nucleus of the Big Bang had a practically infinite mass in a single spot, time may just have stopped. Science is also considering the possibility that the universe oscillates between expansion and contraction.
With all this, the question of the “beginning of the universe” may be simply ill-defined.
Asking what was before the Big Bang is like asking what is North of the North Pole.
The recordThere are many things in life that we do not understand. Hence, we have a tendency to assume that a god did these things. Thus, we build the theory:
Science, in contrast, has made an extraordinary series of revelations. Chemistry has explained the nature of the elements, and how they react with each other. Biology has explained the working of the cells, the multitude of species, their behavior, and their evolution. Physics has explained the growth of the universe up to the very first milliseconds. Social science has given us models for human behavior. Psychology has taught us how humans react to different stimuli. Technology has given us printed books, computers, and airplanes. All of these discoveries are consistent with each other, confirmed by repeated evaluation, and very useful. This gives science a good history of reliability. If we have to choose who should answer the fundamental questions about the universe, it is clearly science that deserves our trust, not faith.
So what has science told us about the conundrums of life? Quite something, as we discussed in the Chapter on the Universe. However, science has been mute so far on the origin of the universe. We do not yet know the answer to the origin of the universe (if there is one at all). Most notably, science has not claimed that there would be “nothing” at the beginning of the universe. Science has just not yet found an answer, and maybe never will. This leaves us with the answer that we should give in all modesty to the yet unexplained conundrums of life: We do not yet know. But we will do our best to find out. Meanwhile, there is no use in inventing supernatural entities.
I would challenge anyone here to think of a question upon which we once had a scientific answer, however inadequate, but for which now the best answer is a religious one.
DisinterestMany people answer the big questions of life by their religion. They hypothesize that there must be a first cause for the universe, that the universe must have been fine-tuned, or that life must have been designed intelligently. That shows, however, that they are not really interested in answering such questions. Let us illustrate this by a small story (inspired by a Quora answer):
But most religious people do none if this. They limit themselves to claiming that the answers to these questions are provided by their religion. Thereby, they demonstrate that they are not really interested in the questions. That is fine of course. However, then they should not claim to have an answer to these questions. Such a claim can only be made when one is interested in answering the question in the first place.
We do not even know the question,
and some people already claim to have an answer.
Inhibiting scienceGods can be used to explain many things in life. With gods, we can explain natural phenomena, such as the birth of our universe, the working of the human mind, or the nature of ethics. The problem is that if we assume a supernatural explanation for these phenomena, we inhibit the scientific enquiry of the question.
This obstacle appears first in our mind: If we assume that God created the world, for example, we have a hard time even to imagine that this was not the case. We are so fixed on the idea that the universe must have started, that we cannot even consider alternative ways of thought. This hinders us to come up with and explore different ideas about the universe — such as the idea that it oscillates, or that its mass slows down time. The same goes for other phenomena: If we assume that God gave us a soul, we keep searching for that soul, without giving room to alternative views of the human mind. The same is true for the question of morality: If we assume that moral laws are given by God, then it takes 5000 years to come up with the idea that humans themselves should create their laws.
But the obstacles are not just of psychological nature. If God is the answer to one particular question, then it follows that any other answer is a denial of God’s power and hence blasphemy. In Christianity, this has led to the inhibition, prosecution, and even execution of some of the great thinkers of mankind. Islam is often assumed to have an easier relationship with science. And yet, many variants of Islam punish apostasy by death. Thus, it is impossible in these variants of Islam to investigate a world model without God.
Science, in contrast, has no such constraints. Nobody is put to death if she or he questions the principle of gravity. In science, a theory is valid if it makes true predictions. If it ever makes a false prediction, it is abandoned. If we assume supernatural gap-fillers instead, which do not succumb to these conditions, then we inhibit the scientific analysis of the questions of life. Only if we acknowledge that we do not have an answer, we will be able to find one.
If you don’t know, and you think you know,
you will never know.
God or other godsThe “God of the Gaps” argument says that anything that is not currently known was caused by some supernatural being. To a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim believer, it is obvious that there is only one possible deity who could achieve the creation of the world: their God. However, the “God of the Gaps” argument does not actually prove that it was the Abrahamic God who created the world. It could also be a very different god. In Hinduism, for example, Brahma, the Hindu deva of creation, emerges from a lotus risen from the navel of Visnu, who lies with Lakshmi on the serpent Ananta Shesha. Interestingly, this Hindu story also tells us where the creator came from (he emerged from a lotus) — a question to which the Abrahamic religions still owe us an answer. In the present book, the universe was created by the goddess Gayatri. She deliberately created different religions with convincing characteristics in order to confuse mankind.
As we have seen before, there could also be several creators of the world. In Raëlism, Earth is a big scientific experiment by extraterrestrials. Other religions know of a male and a female deity instead. The so-called world parents are commonly identified with the sky (usually male) and the earth (usually female). Creation is then the result of a sexual union, and serve as genealogical record of the deities born from it. The Wicca faith, e.g., holds that the universe was created by the female Moon Goddess and the male Horned God.
This diversity of supernatural creators is possible because the theory “God created the universe” is unfalsifiable. This entails that we can create arbitrarily many alternative (and also unfalsifiable) theories about how the universe came into existence. Atheists have taken this occasion to add some more creation stories. Bobby Henderson started the religion of Pastafarianism. In this religion, the world was not created by God, but by a creature called the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). Henderson claims that all arguments that can be brought for God as the creator can equally well support the FSM as the creator. Consequently, he wrote a letter to the Kansas State Board of Education to demand that Pastafarianism be taught, along with the Christian theory of Intelligent Design and evolution, in school classrooms as a theory of the origin of the world. Today, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has thousands of (atheist) adherents, who claim that their creation story is as true as any other.
At the same time, the focus on gods as the origin of the universe is mainly due to a lack of imagination. There are much more philosophical and colorful explanations of how the world came to existence. Buddhists, for example, assume no creation at all. In their view, the universe has always existed. The Daoist creation story, in contrast, goes as follows: “The Way gave birth to unity, Unity gave birth to duality, Duality gave birth to trinity, Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures. The myriad creatures bear yin on their back and embrace yang in their bosoms. They neutralize these vapors and thereby achieve harmony” (by Daodejing, 4th century BCE). This may sound highly philosophical, but that is, from a Daoist perspective, more than adequate for something as foundational as the creation of the universe. It would be implausible for a Daoist to assume that the universe is like a watch, just bigger. There are plenty of other creation stories, which we discuss later.
These theories cannot all be true at the same time. They contradict each other. And yet, none of them can be proven false. This is the dilemma that comes with unfalsifiability. Unfortunately, the adherents of these theories cannot understand that unfalsifiability is the problem, because if they did, they would have to abandon their own theory as well.
Ignorance is of a peculiar nature. Once dispelled, it is impossible to re-establish it. Though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant.
Pushing God awayMany conundrums in life can be answered by assuming a god. This is apparently an Abrahamic tradition, as Buddhism has no such aspirations. As a Buddhist Web site explains: The explanation of the origin of the universe is not the concern of religion. Such theorizing is not necessary for living a righteous way of life and for shaping our future life. However, if one insists on studying this subject, then one must investigate the sciences, astronomy, geology, biology and anthropology. These sciences can offer more reliable and tested information on this subject than can be supplied by any religion.11
This is a very reasonable statement in Humanist eyes. It is also reasonable from a believer’s perspective: In the past, gods or God were assumed behind a great number of conundrums of life. But nowadays, gods are no longer necessary to explain the rising of the sun, the design of animals, or the provenance of man. All of these questions have been answered by science. Thus, the explanatory space allocated for the supernatural has steadily shrunk. If human knowledge continues to progress as it does, the room for gods as explanations for the unknown will become smaller and smaller. If believers bind their god to what is scientifically unknown, they risk abolishing the god on the long run. It may be more reasonable to stop using the god as an explanation for physical conundrums, and to focus instead on the non-physical aspects of religion — on moral values such as generosity and charity, on hope in the afterlife, and on a positive view on life in general.
This observation was maybe best phrased by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor:
How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.
- Rationalwiki: “List of mistakes made by God”, 2021
- The Economist: “The caveman’s curse”, 2012-12-15
- WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com: “Intelligent Design Made Mankind?”, 2017
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2007
- Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion, 2006
- The Economist: “A numbers game”, 2017-07-15
- Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018
- GodIsImaginary.com: “Understand evolution and abiogenesis”, 2021
- GodIsImaginary.com: “Think about life after death”, 2021
- Ibn Warraq: Why I am not a Muslim, 1995
- Budsas.org: “The Origin of the World”, 2021
- The Guardian: “The power of speech”, 2008-11-08