Peter Atkins’ Opening and Closing Statements for the Craig-Atkins Debate (2011)

(Posted with the permission of Peter Atkins.)

Opening Statement

My immediate task is to set out my stall, not to respond to Dr Craig’s arguments at this stage: that will come later. It is, in fact, my task to bring you forward from the eleventh century, where you have been immersed with considerable erudition for the past 20 minutes, to the twenty-first century, and to present arguments based on a thousand years of increasing knowledge about the world. Dr Craig would have been a wonderful medieval apologist, and it is a pleasure to hear his erudite reprise, with a few elaborations, of what could have been said a thousand years ago. I do not say that scornfully: Dr Craig has touched on arguments that have long troubled thinkers, believers and disbelievers alike, and their longevity underlines their importance to mankind.

But, first, an admission. I cannot prove that God does not exist. Everything there is could be the creation of an extraordinary entity that surpasses our understanding. It could be that the universe was created only a millisecond ago, with all our memories suddenly but falsely in place. It could be, as God is outside time (whatever that meaningless phrase means) that He hasn’t decided to make us yet. It is just conceivable that God did indeed create the universe 13.7 billion years ago. I cannot prove that He did not. All I can do is to assemble evidence that leads to the conclusion that God is not necessary for any aspect of the current world and that there is a far simpler explanation for everything than the assertion of the existence of an omnipotent God.

I have to say, of course, that many hold that the assertion that ‘God made it’ is far, far simpler as an explanation of everything than a more pedestrian account in terms of physical laws. ‘God’, they say, is surely a simpler explanation than complex mechanism. Don’t be seduced by that view. The assertion that God did anything is simplistic rather than simple, and it is lazy. It is simplistic because an entity as functionally unbounded as a God must be of extraordinary complexity. It is lazy because it avoids becoming involved in untangling the web of events that have led to us. Any argument that simply asserts that ‘God did it’ is a sign of a lazy mind, a mind that is content to wallow in assertion rather than embark upon climbing the intellectual Everest of comprehension. 

My argument against God is that there is nothing in the universe that cannot be explained, in prospect at least, without invoking that complex hypothesis. In other words, there are simpler explanations, or at least the prospect of simpler explanations, for everything. Because there are simpler explanations, or the prospect of them, there is no need to burden our understanding with the assertion that there is something more, namely an incomprehensible God.

That billions of people believe the contrary is of no consequence. Truth is not arrived at by majority vote. There are clearly huge psychological and cultural pressures imposed on people from an early age, and belief has been honed by the powerful into a potent weapon of crowd control. In the nasty, brutish brevity of an impoverished life, great comfort comes from the belief that there is better to come. There is also satisfaction that wrong-doers, wealthy perhaps on Earth, will get their come-uppance in the afterlife. Even the meek are in with a chance. Angst and hope, angst at the prospect of one’s own annihilation, and hope for unbounded ecstasy to come, are potent drivers into the jaws of belief. But the potency of the drivers and the huge majority of the hopers does not mean that the belief is correct.

* * *

I have made a strong but carefully worded claim: that there is nothing in the universe that cannot be explained, or has the prospect of being explained, without invoking a God. I need to justify that claim. If you accept my argument, that a God is unnecessary, then your only recourse if you insist on believing that there is a God is to admit that you are driven by your heart rather than your head. But hearts are unreliable organs of knowledge.

I shall deal with six points: contingency, fitness, purpose, miracles (including resurrections), theodicy, and morality. Obviously, and perhaps mercifully, I don’t have time to be thorough in any of these topics, but perhaps by setting out the ground we can return to finer arguments later. In each case I shall argue that modern science, the agent of the new enlightenment, promises—I can offer no more than that—to elucidate what theology has long obscured.

1. Contingency.  Science currently doesn’t have the slightest clue about how a universe can come into existence out of absolutely nothing without intervention. I will leave aside whether the universe is eternal in some sense, without a beginning. That is something to be determined by observation not by the ruminations of philosophy. We simply don’t know. To make it harder for myself, I shall suppose for the sake of argument that there was a beginning. There are two kinds of beginning, and it is important to distinguish them. One type of beginning is when an already existing universe gives rise to a daughter universe. Another type of beginning is when absolutely nothing turns into a universe. I shall call that universe an original universe.

Now, some assert that a universe can spring from a quantum fluctuation; that may be true for a daughter universe, for an already existing mother universe has physical laws and a richly propertied vacuum. But when there is absolutely nothing, there are no physical laws so a ‘quantum fluctuation’ is an empty term for the emergence of an original universe. To make things harder for myself, but with an eye on trying to answer and not evading a deeply important question, I shall set aside the simpler problem of a daughter universe and consider the formation of an original universe.

Did that ancestor universe, although perhaps contingent, have to be caused? You have to realise that physical laws, which are summaries of observed behaviour, come into existence as a universe comes into existence. That includes issues of causality. It is naïve in the extreme to extrapolate our experience of causality, which is essentially the working out of the consequences of physical laws, to an era before those laws existed. It is entirely possible that the unique event that marked the inception of the physical laws was itself an uncaused event.

What science has to do, in due course, is to discover how absolutely nothing can tumble There is no doubt that it is edging towards that goal by burrowing back into time to discover what there was immediately after the creation event. Look how far it has come in the past 100 years. We are starting to be confident about what first appeared, and we are certainly becoming aware of what needs to be known, such as refinements and replacements of general relativity and quantum theory. Once we know the nature of the newly formed universe we can begin to speculate, as some already have, about the nature of the events that has given us the impression that there is something here in place of absolutely nothing. To say that we now have any knowledge at all about how it could happen would be a lie. But to say at this stage, and after so much progress, that ‘God did it’ would be a premature admission of defeat. There is currently no need for a creator God.

2. Fitness< /b>. One role for God it is argued, is to choose the values of the fundamental constants so that we images of Him can emerge. I will discount the evidence that God has an apparently greater interest in ensuring the presence of gas and rocks than of organisms, and concede the fact that this universe has properties that allow the emergence of life.

There are two principal arguments that throw into doubt that a thoughtful God was involved in the design of the universe. First, it could be the case that only a certain mix of fundamental constants would come into existence in a viable universe, and the fact that they allow life is just a happy accident. Second, it could be the case, and theoretical models give some credence to it, that ours is not the only universe, and if there is more than one universe, then there is no obvious reason why there is not an infinite number of universes. Why stop at 2? Why stop at 42? It could be that all those universes have the same mix of fundamental constants, each one allowing life. Or it could be that the fundamental constants take random values, and it is inevitable that one (or even an infinity) of them permit the emergence of life. No design appears to be necessary, and an argument that posits an essential designer God is lazy rather than convincing. There is currently no need for a designer God.

3. Purpose. Philosophers and their obfuscating cousins the theologians have puzzled for centuries about the purpose of the universe. Why did God make it? Boredom with absolutely nothing? Anxious for admirers? Keen that we should have the pleasures and pains of existence? The trouble is, there is absolutely no evidence that the universe has any purpose whatsoever. This, like causality, is an extrapolation of puny human experience to an inappropriate cosmic scale. Each of us has purposes of various kinds, and so surely the universe has one too?  Science proceeds to elucidate the workings of the world without invoking purpose and finds not one jot of evidence for it. In fact, in my view there is grandeur in an entity as great as a universe just hanging there, wholly without purpose. And if there is no purpose, then there is no need to posit a purposeful God.

4. Miracles. I shall adopt the perhaps naïve but common view that a miracle involves the suspension of natural law.  Miracles of that kind have never been observed. There is not one atom of reliable evidence that God ever intervened in the world to suspend His laws. That the path to canonization requires physicians to certify that an event cannot be explained except by God responding to intercession by a candidate saint should result in the physicians being struck off for incompetence if they aver that a cure has no natural explanation. Even that great pivotal, purported miracle the Resurrection is a total fabrication, with other explanations far more cogent than anything divine. Even given that Jesus existed and was crucified, was he merely in a coma? Was His disappearance a cover up for political reasons—was it Golgotha-gate? Did the women forget which of many post-crucifixion holes in the ground He was buried in? The gospels are wholly unreliable, being politically motivated propaganda manifestos written long after the events they purport to report. As no miracle has ever occurred, to assert that miracles are evidence for God is an empty argument.

5. Theodicy. That an all-loving God permits evil to stalk the world, including that unconscious evil of evolution by natural selection, has puzzled theologians since the beginning of time, and all manner of convoluted explanations have been proposed. There is, of course, an extraordinarily simple explanation: there is no all-loving God. Indeed, to anyone with an open mind, the existence of evil, the torment accident and neighbour visit upon the innocent, is in fact evidence against the existence of God.

6.  Morality.  God is commonly presumed to be the fountainhead of love and as such the source of the distinction between good and evil. In my view, the distinction has emerged in the course of our evolutionary history. But morality is not only the consequence of red in tooth and claw. It is red in tooth and claw coated in the milk of human kindness in the form of our emerging ability to consider the consequences of our actions. To discover the roots of ethics we might consult the so-called holy books for a variety of anecdotes and experiences that might match our own. But to understand the source of the distinction we need to examine our ethological history, perhaps history itself, and certainly anthropology and psychology.  Just as good manners have emerged for the sake of decorum and the avoidance of offence, so good behaviour has emerged for the sake of survival. It is childish to presume that there is an umpire God, and adult to consider how our actions stabilize society.

* * *

I have considered some of the arguments that purport to establish the existence of God, and have shown that they carry little force. In every case there is a more cogent, or at least the likelihood of a more cogent, explanation. I can understand why the notion of God has arisen and persisted, for it provides a simple purported explanation of great matters, is a comfort blanket for the anxious and deprived, and is a powerful weapon of control. You have a choice, to accept on faith that there is a God and lie back luxuriating in the foam of satisfaction that there is no longer any need to think, for why pursue the incomprehensible further than comforting assertion? Or you can take delight in the power of the collective human intellect, an intellect that burrows into experiences, is in hot pursuit of comprehension on this side of the grave, and adds to life the delight of true understanding.

Closing Statement

Dr Craig has presented arguments that would have enthralled and convinced his audience a thousand years ago, but now seem tired. His arguments are of three kinds. One argument is logic. But logic is a process of deducing consequences from an initial assertion: it has nothing to say about the validity of that assertion and indeed adds nothing to the assertion. Of course, if it turns out that observations support the consequences, then there is reason to believe in the validity of the original assertion, but you cannot proceed, as Dr Craig attempts to do, by logic alone: it must be supported by evidence. Dr Craig presented no such evidence. A second argument is apparently scientific, and boils down to the investigation of causality and the inference that there must be a first cause. This is a powerful, classical argument that has survived for a thousand years. Yet it is empty, for it is merely an extrapolation of the current properties of the universe into an era when it did not exist. The third type of evidence is personal, involving the acceptance of unlikely, indeed impossible, events and the ascription of the springs of morality to authority rather than seeking a deeper explanation in terms of our evolutionary and cerebral history. Dr Craig favours anecdote over evidence and assertion over reflection. Neither seems to me to be a basis for the rest of us believing in God.

I argued that:

1. There is no need for a creator God.
2. There is no need for a designer God.
3. There is no need, or at least no evidence, for a purposeful God.
4. There is no need, or at least no evidence, for an interventionist God.
5. There is no need, or at least no evidence, for an all-loving God.
6. There is no need for an umpire God.

Dr Craig ignored three of my points and merely reasserted his own three.

Let me take you back to beyond Dr Craig’s favoured milieu of a thousand years ago, into an imagined era that did not exist when there was no belief in God, no religion, but when science had

become established and had succeeded to the point that it has today. Not all questions of great import had been answered but enormous knowledge had been assembled about the workings of the world. Dr Craig then enters in a blaze of glory and offers his answer to the questions that still puzzled the scientists of the day. “Forget your struggles,” he would say: “there is a very simple answer: God did it.” Quite frankly, no one would have taken him seriously and would see his assertion as intellectually empty.

A thousand years ago Dr Craig’s arguments would have fallen on ready ears. Today they also fall on ready ears: but they are the ears that are determined not to revise their prejudices and are fixed to brains that are too lazy to struggle with more complicated explanations. We should be enormously thankful to the religious of the past for showing that the human brain was adept at identifying and struggling with deeply important questions;  but we should be enormously proud of the fact that the collective human mind, through the scientific method of collecting evidence, is now in the process of arriving at a deep, true, understanding of all there is. And all there is does not include God.