Saturday, May 7, 2011

God, Science and Atheism

William West at Mercatornet reviews a book by Oxford mathematician John Lennox. Lennox's book, God’s Undertaker – Has Science Buried God?, is, evidently, a powerful summation of why modern atheism has degenerated into an intellectual zombie. It's still walking around scaring people, but for all intents and purposes, the life is gone out of it. In every arena of public debate atheism is showing itself bereft of the philosophical vigor, vitality and conviction it enjoyed during its prime in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Despite the great success of books written by the New Atheists - or maybe because of that success - more people are experiencing a dawning awareness that atheism simply has few good arguments left in its arsenal and has none that are actually compelling. Atheism has become the naked emperor of modern intellectual life.

Here are a few paragraphs from the first half of West's review:
While “new atheists” Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have been grabbing headlines with their bold claims that modern science has killed off God, an Oxford professor has been quietly chipping away at the ground they stand on. John C Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Fellow in the Philosophy of Science at Oxford’s Green Templeton College, has been popping up at debates around the globe to take issue with the most prominent new atheists.

Lennox’s arguments are outlined in his book, God’s Undertaker – Has Science Buried God? As The Spectator’s Melanie Phillips has written, Lennox’s book provides an “excoriating demolition of Dawkins’s overreach from biology into religion”.

The brilliance of Lennox’s approach is that it does not just concentrate on one academic discipline, like biology. It spans all of the most relevant fields, including cosmology, physics, philosophy, theology and mathematics, offering a compelling case for the view that scientific knowledge, rather than killing God off, actually makes a divine creator necessary.

Drawing on his own discipline, mathematics, Lennox calculates the odds of life arising by chance and concludes that anyone who would bet on those odds must be either deluded or just plain mad. Of course, in the best academic traditions, Dawkins refrains from using such colourful language, but the force of his arguments leaves no room for any other conclusion.

Beginning with the big picture of the universe and planet earth’s place in it, he notes that the ruling view in science is that the universe is not eternal but began with the “big bang” – a view that had not always been accepted by the scientific community.

“The remarkable picture that is gradually emerging from modern physics and cosmology is one of a universe whose fundamental forces are amazingly, intricately, and delicately balanced or ‘fine tuned’ in order for the universe to be able to sustain life,” he writes. “Recent research has shown that many of the fundamental constants of nature, from the energy levels in the carbon atom to the rate at which the universe is expanding, have just the right values for life to exist. Change any of them just a little, and the universe would become hostile to life and incapable of supporting it.”
Here are a few examples Lennox gives of the exquisite precision of the universe's physical structure:
As theoretical physicist Paul Davies confirms, if the ratio of the nuclear strong force to the electromagnetic force had been different by one part in 1016 (that's ten to the sixteenth power) no stars could have formed.

The ratio of the electromagnetic force-constant to the gravitational force-constant must be equally delicately balanced to produce the right size of star to sustain a planet with life. A variation here of only 1 part in 1040 and life becomes impossible. (Davies has commented that this feat is akin to a marksman hitting a coin at the far side of the observable universe, 20 billion light years away.)

An alteration in the ratio of the expansion and contraction forces of the big bang by as little as one part in 1055 at the Planck time (just 10-43 seconds after the origin of the universe) would have led to either too rapid an expansion of the universe with no galaxies forming or to too slow an expansion with consequent rapid collapse.

Lennox goes on to list even more mind-boggling examples of precision-tuning in the universe. Such features of cosmic design were what led Sir Fred Hoyle to state that “there are no blind forces in nature worth talking about”, and Paul Davies to conclude, simply, “ the impression of design is overwhelming”.
Of course, an atheist could abandon his commitment to science and posit the existence of an infinitude of different universes among which, the laws of probability tell us, there'd have to be at least one just like ours, but then the atheist would have to explain why believing in an infinitude of other universes for which there's no real evidence is not an irrational leap of faith. He'd have to explain why his belief is not more irrational, in fact, than believing that there's an intelligent mind which has engineered the cosmos, a belief for which there is considerable evidence.

It's a whole lot easier to just pretend the problem doesn't exist or to obscure it by going on, as the New Atheists like to do, about the horrors of religious fanaticism, as if that had anything at all to do with the question of whether God exists.