[Moderator's note: Prof. Victor J. Stenger is Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy, Department of Physics and Astronomy and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, University of Colorado; and President of the Colorado Citizens for Science. He has had also a parallel career as an author of critically well-received popular level books that interface between physics and cosmology and philosophy, religion, and pseudoscience. These include: Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe (1988); Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (1990); The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (1995); Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes (2000). His latest book, "Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe", is now available in the market.
Dr. Stenger gave his kind permission to publish his seminar series for the Mukto-mona members. These seminars were held in Denver and Colorado Springs in early 2002. It has been excerpted from his popular site: http://spot.colorado.edu/~vstenger/ and will be published in our forum in six parts. ]
A seminar series for atheists and freethinkers
By Victor J. Stenger
"Science does not accept things on faith, if by faith you mean the acceptance of a belief despite the absence of evidence."
"I am a scientist and will go whatever way the data lead me. So far, the data lead me to the conclusion that no effect has been demonstrated. When the data say otherwise, then I will change my mind."
- Vic Stenger
A seminar series for atheists, freethinkers and their guests sponsored by the Boulder Atheists, Atheists and Freethinkers of Denver, Freeethinkers of Colorado Springs, and Atheists of Northern Colorado is now complete. The goal of the series was to provide nonbelievers with arguments, on a high intellectual plane, that can be use to counter the standard arguments of believers. These counter arguments could be used in personal conversations with theists or in writing thoughtful letters to the editor.
This is not meant to be a course in the Philosophy of Religion. I am an experimental physicist by training and experience and think like an experimental physicist. For reasons I will explain, scientific responses to theist arguments can be among the most powerful. Furthermore, theists themselves are relying increasingly on science to make their case. They have discovered a receptive audience among laypeople who usually lack the training to examine scientific claims critically but have a deep respect for scientific authority. Recasting traditional beliefs in scientific language gives them greater credibility in the minds of many,
In books on the Philosophy of Religion you will find discussions on the arguments for the existence of God that go back to Plato and Aristotle. If you want a short, clear introduction, I recommend The God of Philosophy by Ray Jackson, a paperback that can be ordered from www.philosophers.co.uk/religion. This site has much useful material on the subject. I also recommend the Secular Web at www.infidels.org for many links to philosophical arguments against theism. Other useful links are given below.
The arguments you will hear from theist acquaintances or read in letters to the editor were more likely learned from church sermons and religious media than in a secular university class room. They are based more on "common sense" than deep logic and objective scholarship and usually presented as obvious conclusions--"self-evident" truths. However, sometimes they may also be based on the more sophisticated argments of theistic philosophers and theologians. We will cover those one hears most often these days, where science play a much larger role in the discussion than it has in the past.
Theist arguments are usually presented in logical form. Initial statements are made that constitute the premises. Then, conclusions are deduced from these premises. We may question both the premises and the deductions made from those premises. The deductive process, in this case, is usually simple logic that anyone can follow and, by itself, is often not in error. However, even when the logic is impeccable, the conclusions rise or fall on the premises. Pure logic cannot say anything about the world outside our heads, and not much about what's inside either. Many of the tradition arguments for the existence of God, like the ontological argument, are ostensibly based on logic alone. But they still have premises that can be and have been challenged.
Even well-trained theistic philosophers will often declare their premises to be self-evidently true. However, if an argument is meant to support a statement about reality, then the premise must be based on some knowledge of that reality. Traditionally, revelation via scriptures or direct religious experience is asserted as the source of such knowledge. Science, on the other hand, while not denying revelation outright, uses only observations and measurements as its base of knowledge. While it may be argued whether the scientific theories that are developed from its empirical knowledge base have anything to do with ultimate reality, the great success of science makes a strong case that science does indeed deal with reality. Furthermore, since religion does make claims that have observational implications, such as the power of prayer, scientific method can be used to test these claims.
I will not present the arguments and responses in a formal way. Rather, I will envisage dialogues between a theist (T) and antitheist (A) which summarizes in a few words the essence of each's position. I will try not to use the theist as a strawperson, but present his arguments as they are fequently heard. During the seminar sessions we will analyze and expand upon these dialogues. If new arguments arise, or better responses to these arguments are generated, these will be incorporated on this Web page.
Note on the burden of proof: A common debating ploy used by theists to try to cast the burden of proof of the antitheist, asking her to "prove" that God does not exist or to "prove" that the universe is purely material. When that happens, be sure to cast the burden back on the theist. Remember that he is making the more extraordinary claim--that an unseen power exists that created the universe and responds to human needs.
Comments invited. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Design in the Cosmos
Theist (T): Where did the universe come from?
antitheist (A): Why did it have to come from anything?
T: Everything has to come from something.
A: Then, you tell me. Where did the universe came from?
T: The universe came from God.
A: Where did God come from?
T: God did not have to come from anything. He always was.
A: Then everything does not have to come from something after all. Perhaps the universe always was.
T: Philosopher William Lane Craig has argued that the universe had a beginning, therefore it must have had a cause. That cause is God.
A: Quantum events can happen without cause. Perhaps our universe was a quantum event in a larger universe that always was.
T: You have no evidence for this.
A: You have no evidence against it. Current physics and cosmology allow for such a scenario.
T: How could this happen? Where did the matter and energy of the universe come from?
A: Matter was created from energy in the early universe. Observations indicate that the positive energy of matter is exactly balanced by negative gravitational potential energy. Thus, the total energy of the universe is zero and no energy (or very little--just the amount allowed by quantum mechanics) was required to produce the universe.
T: Where did the order of the universe come from?
A: It could have been produced spontaneously by natural processes of a type that are now beginning to be understood in physics. One such process is called "spontaneous symmetry breaking." It's like the formation of a snowflake.
T: Still, the second law of thermodynamics says that disorder, or entropy, must increase with time. It must have started out more orderly than it is now, as created by God.
A: An expanding universe allows increasing room for order to form. The universe could have started as a tiny black hole with maximum entropy, produced by a quantum fluctuation, and then exploded in the big bang.
T: You can't prove that. No one was there to see it.
A: You can't disprove it. Such a scenario is allowed by current scientific knowledge.
T: Many prominent scientists don't think the big bang happened. What does that do to your scenario?
A: The data from cosmological observ ations, which has improved enormously in just the last few years, has left no doubt among current working cosmologists that the big bang happened. The remaining holdouts are a few older astronomers who are gradually dying out. They are like some nineteenth century chemists and physicists who refused to accept the atomic theory to their dying days. Furthermore, the big bang is used by theists such as Craig and Hugh Ross to support their theologies. It does not, but I caution atheists not to argue against theism by saying the big bang did not occur. It very definitely did.
T: But isn't the universe fine tuned for life? Isn't it true that the slightest change of any one of a number of physics constants would make life impossible? Is this not evidence for a universe intelligently designed for life?
A: The universe is not fine tuned for life. Life is fine tuned for the universe. If we had a universe with different constants, we might have a different kind of life.
T : Doesn't life require carbon, which would not exist without a delicate balance of nuclear parameters?
A: Our kind of life, yes. We do not know about other kinds of life.
T: You can't prove that life is possible without carbon.
A: I do not have the burden of proof here. You are making the claim that only one kind of life is possible, carbon-based life. You have to prove that. I am simply saying that we do not know and so cannot say the universe is designed for life as we know it. It could have been an accident. Nothing in current science says that is impossible,
T: So, even if everything that happens is natural, as you claim, where did the laws of nature come from?
A: The laws of nature are misnamed. They are not necessarily rules that govern the universe, that sit out there in some kind of Platonic reality. They could just as well simply be human inventions, descriptions we have made of observations.
T: Then they are subjective. We can all make our own laws.
A: Not quite. We can make up different laws if we want, but they are not scientific unless they agree with observations. The laws of physics can be written in many different ways, but they agree so well with the data that we are confident they describe aspects of reality.
T: Well, then where did those aspects of reality come from, if not from God?
A: Why did they have to come from anything? But, that's how we started this discussion.
T: Still, you have to explain why there is something rather than nothing.
A: Define nothing.
T: Nothing. No thing. No matter, no energy, no space, no time, no laws of physics.
A: No God?
T: God is a separate entity who created matter, energy, space, time and the laws of physics from nothing.
A: I won't ask you again who created God. Rather, why was it necessary for the universe to have come from nothing?
T: It had to come from something.
A: But you just said it came from nothing!
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