Selling the faith of unbelievers

Richard Dawkins' new film, The Unbelievers, peddles an increasingly unlikely worldview.
William West | Jan 16 2014 | comment  



 

After spending much of 2013 trying to stitch up a film distribution deal, two of the world’s most outspoken atheists, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, have announced that their documentary, The Unbelievers, will receive worldwide distribution this year through Content Media Corporation Ltd, a London and LA-based film, television and digital sales company. The documentary on the globetrotting English biologist and American physicist as they take their views to the masses includes interviews with glitterati like Ricky Gervais, Woody Allen, Cameron Diaz, Tim Minchin, and James Morrison.

The attempt to popularise atheism is very much a marketing exercise, rather than an attempt to expand the frontiers of rational discussion on “the God question”. As Gary Goldstein pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, few opposing viewpoints are formally solicited in the film which he describes as a “high-minded love fest between two deeply committed intellectuals and the scads of atheists, secularists, free-thinkers, skeptics and activists who make up their rock star-like fan base".

The irony of the exercise is that it is taking place at a time when science itself has been providing more reasons than ever to believe in an intelligent creator. Science can change of course, but despite claims to the contrary, the current scientific picture strongly supports traditional philosophical arguments for the existence of a God. For instance, biology and physics have been confirming for some time now the astonishing level of fine tuning that suggests a designing mind. In biology, the focus has been on the amazing complexity of the most basic living cells that appear to have powered evolution. And in physics there has been a steady stream of discoveries about the beginning and apparent design behind our universe.

The concept of fine-tuning goes back centuries to the time when physicists first recognised that many aspects of planet Earth and its place in the cosmos were just right for supporting life. For instance, if the Earth had been a little smaller, or bigger, or if it had been a little closer or further from the sun, life would never have got started. At this level it might have seemed reasonable to conclude that humanity was just a bit lucky  -- after all, there are many planets in the universe.

But then atheist scientist, mathematician and astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle found that the necessary “nuclear ground state energy levels” have to be very finely tuned with respect to each other for life to have any chance of developing. A variation of as little as 1 per cent either way, he found, would have prevented the entire universe from sustaining any life at all. Hoyle said nothing had shaken his atheism so much and he went on to declare himself a theist.

But this was only a taste of what was to come. More recent evidence does not just indicate fine tuning, but fine tuning on a staggering scale -- an infinitesimal, mind-bending level of tuning. In short, if the values for any of a range of fundamental physical constants, like gravity or fundamental particles, had been different by one part in trillions upon trillions there would be no stars, planets or life. One example given by physicist Paul Davies is the ratio of the electromagnetic force to the gravitational force which he says had to be out by only one part in 10 to the power of 40 for the whole thing to come unstuck. That is the equivalent of being out by a single grain of sand in all the grains of sand on 20 billion earths. Another example  of fine tuning is the ratio of the expansion and contraction forces of the Big Bang. If they were different by only one part in 10 to the power of 55 life could never have happened.

There are dozens of such examples, but one that has captured the imagination of many prominent physicists, including atheists and agnostics, is the value of the “cosmological constant” (also known as the anti-gravity force or “dark energy”) which requires an order of accuracy of one part in 10 to the power of 120. Compared to this number, the number of atoms in the observable universe (10 to the power of 80) is puny. It is a number that has forced many non-believing physicists to search desperately for alternatives to the existence of an intelligent designer. As Paul Davies (a non-believer in the religious sense) comments: “The cliché that ‘life is balanced on a knife-edge’ is a staggering understatement in this case: no knife in the universe could have an edge that fine.”

But there is one even more astonishing number. English mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose has calculated the “exceedingly high improbability” of our “low entropy universe” (the rate at which the universe moves from order to disorder), something that was an essential feature for life to develop. Penrose found that the probability for a pure chance occurrence of such a low-entropy universe is one in 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 123 (that is, a figure with two exponents). To get an idea of how big a number that is, consider that if you were to try to write it by placing digits on each particle in the observable universe (particle, not atom!), you would run out of particles.

Even skeptic Stephen Hawking acknowledges fine tuning. In his book, The Grand Design, he concedes: “The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned, and very little in physical law can be altered without destroying the possibility of the development of life as we know it. Were it not for a series of startling coincidences in the precise details of physical law, it seems, humans and similar life-forms would never have come into being.” Or, as Nobel laureate physicist Arno Penzias summed up: “This universe is so perfectly tuned for life, it is unbelievable. The laws of physics could all be slightly different in a zillion different ways, and (yet) every one of them is finely tuned for life.”

In short, fine tuning has created a real headache for materialists who were more comfortable with the old picture of the universe -- the steady-state model in which the universe was thought to be eternal. They were forced to abandon this model when evidence for the Big Bang model became overwhelming and indicated not only that the universe had a beginning, but a very impressive one indeed. Prominent physicist Stephen M. Barr speaks of the “elegance and beauty in the mathematics behind the physical world” and scientific discoveries that “confound the materialist’s expectations and confirm those of the believer in God”.

“We have arrived at the point,” says Barr, “where we see that science can by no means explain away the rich design of nature and its laws. Science has only shown that design to be more magnificent than anyone had ever dreamt. Therefore, the Cosmic Design Argument for the existence of God still stands. Indeed, it is stronger than ever before.”

A similar view was expressed by one of the great mathematicians and mathematical physicists of the 20th Century, Hermann Weyl: “In our knowledge of physical nature we have penetrated so far that we can obtain a vision of the flawless harmony which is in conformity with sublime reason.” And another leading physicist of the 20th century, Sir James Jeans, agreed. Science, he said, had revealed a universe that no longer looks like a machine, but “like a great thought”.

Even Paul Davies points out how impressive is the picture now painted by modern science in his recent book, The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life: “If I were an omnipotent being who wanted to make an inhabited universe like ours, and I could achieve this simply by conjuring up what I wanted when I wanted it, I wouldn’t regard my activities as very clever. But to select a set of laws that, without any periodic fixing up and micro-management, can bring a universe into being and bring about self-organization, self-complexification and self-assembly of life and consciousness -- well, that looks very clever indeed!”

So, funnily enough, it is not the religious scientists who seem to be marvelling most over the signs of design, but agnostics like Davies. They struggle to explain how such a minutely fine-tuned universe could occur by accident. The most popular alternative at present to an intelligent creator is the speculation that there might be many universes beyond our horizon -- a “multiverse” which spits out universes endlessly. Each universe, it is argued, may have different natural laws and constants and we just happen to have lucked on one, against all the seemingly impossible odds, that has the right laws and constants for stars, planets and life to unfold. And, ultimately, it all comes from, well, nothing!

The proposals for a multiverse, particularly those that suggest an infinite number of universes, are clearly highly speculative and have so many problems that many physicists, including prominent atheists, refuse to even entertain them. And even if you were to entertain them, there would still be the fact that a multiverse would not eliminate God from the picture -- many theologians and philosophers have argued for centuries that an infinite creation would be a more fitting expression of the infinite powers of an infinite being. And many scientists confirm that a multiverse would only push the problem of fine tuning up a level.

It would seem that the only compelling aspect of the concept of a multiverse is that it gets atheists and agnostics out of the impossible position they find themselves in when faced with the overwhelming signs of design in the only universe we can see and are ever likely to see.

The bottom line is that existing science is, at the very least, completely compatible with the traditional philosophical arguments for God, as outlined by Thomas Aquinas and others. This is particularly true of the arguments from design. In fact, many scientists, philosophers and theologians insist that these arguments have never been so relevant or so strong.

Despite all of this, materialists continue to insist that science has buried God. In order to substantiate such a claim, they would need to show that science has rendered the arguments for a God not only unconvincing -- which is clearly not the case -- but untenable. That claim is clearly nonsense.

Meanwhile the unbelievers’ travelling show rolls on, powered by an impressive faith in an unproveable proposition -- that there is no mind behind this stupendously ordered universe. No wonder Dawkins and Co have resorted to hoopla and hullabaloo to sell their message.

William West is a Sydney based journalist and the Editor of Perspective magazine.



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