Updated: Jul 4
Debating cosmology with Christians always rubs me the wrong way. Socrates used to talk about the daemon on his shoulder, a spirit or interlocutor that would whisper in his ear when he was rhetorically off the mark and let him know that he was being disingenuous. I might suggest there are two, a little duo of daemons on all of our shoulders: one to admonish us when we aren’t arguing fair, and one to tickle us when our opponent is doing the same. This tickling becomes almost unbearable when the topic of cosmology and first causes comes up because, essentially, the conversation is always impossible. The atheist and the Christian argue from two irreconcilable premises. The former does not and cannot know, and is comfortable in their ignorance, and the latter does and must know, because their religiosity is dependent on their knowing. The matter of quite how they know is also an insuperable obstacle, because their knowledge is based on faith. Thus you invariably encounter the ever-growing tautology of God’s mysterious ways which, like the universe itself, is always expanding and accelerating in its expansion. It is a black hole that grows larger the more you feed it.
The ”knowing-on-faith” conceit is a double-proof against scepticism because a) it is unfalsifiable (both a fatal weakness and an invincible strength) and b) it is actively encouraged by the faithful. According to theists it is a more virtuous, more honest, more resilient kind of knowledge. So you argue, the tickle slowly growing into a kind of cerebral rash, as you each chase the other’s tail in endless rhetorical circles and ultimately say nothing, or at least nothing new. Of course, logically, the Big Bang should have a cause. Common sense tells us it must be so. But science is based on evidence not on what seems logical and, like the children that we are, we do not yet have the data to explain everything. Perhaps a time will come when we do: when we no longer see through a glass, darkly, but see face to face; when what now we know in part, we will know in full. Maybe this will happen soon. But the important thing is that we should not claim to know, because we cannot. It would be absurd to do otherwise. A recent encounter with someone who claimed to know might illuminate this further. One mildly cloudy mid-afternoon in April the present authors stumbled upon Speakers’ Corner near Marble Arch. Lenin, Marx and Orwell used to debate there. Quite quickly we were accosted by a balding, middle-aged man who posed us the title question in no uncertain terms: God or Evolution? Take your pick.
The tickling began. There’s something weird about this problem and its phrasing. The first thing that occurred to us was that the two positions are not mutually exclusive. Nevertheless we both responded in the latter camp, and were instantly subjected to a vigorous, lengthy diatribe against scientific indoctrination and the irreducible complexity of DNA. This man had debated pesky atheists for years, don’t you know, and he’d read On the Origin of Species and its lesser-known prequel. Gesticulating with the well-thumbed Bible in his right hand, he made it clear to us that only an empty-headed fool could believe (“on faith”) that the majestic, God-breathed homo sapiens was related to a baboon. The question that always springs to mind when confronted with this line of reasoning is simple and unanswerable. You claim to know, and that’s all well and good: but how do you know that it’s God? The unlikelihood of one hypothesis is not a case for the alternate hypothesis. The only real case for anything is hard evidence. We asked him to present this evidence. You can argue yourself breathless over the implausibility of man’s evolution or of something being created out of nothing, but all that hole-poking is empty air unless you provide a viable alternative grounded in real data. It’s also logically fallacious, because the low probability of an event that has already occurred is entirely beside the point. Mathematically, my birth was a very low probability event: that does not necessarily entail that therefore I must have been conceived and delivered through divine intervention. So, why God? How could you possibly know that he’s behind all this? Do you have sources not available to everyone else? Has new information been unearthed? Have you seen him? Spoken to him? Of course not, the belligerent theist said, but he weighed up the evidence and did his research and decided it must be God. So we asked him again: what evidence? What research? Unsurprisingly, a proper answer was not forthcoming.
The irony here is that this form of religiosity rejects belief by revelation and claims to be evidential, yet all religions without fail originate with an intermediator who says they have received a revelation. No one else was around to corroborate it, unfortunately, but you’ll have to just take them at their word. Thus Muhammad met Gabriel and received the Koran in a cave somewhere in Arabia, conveniently removed from any potential bystanders, and Siddhartha Gautama was enlightened under the Mahabodhi Tree with no-one to witness his apotheosis. Joseph Smith discovered the Book of Mormon on golden plates buried in the middle of nowhere in New York state and claimed the angel Moroni had forbidden him to show them to anyone until they had been translated… by Smith himself. Christ struggled with Satan alone in the desert and suffered his agony under the olive trees of Gethsemane while his apostles soundly slept nearby. And he rose from death in the darkness of the tomb, though hundreds stood around the cross on Calvary and saw him die. Belief cannot function without this revelatory element, and the revelation is never televised. Asking yourself why this is the case is the first and last step of religious scepticism.
There is a quote by Andrew Carnegie that summarised this attitude. ‘He that cannot reason is a fool, he that will not is a bigot’. I must admit that during his ranting I realised the limitations to my own open-mindedness. I cannot countenance the idea of creationism. While in theory no argument is futile having, that particular idea is too thoroughly discredited to now entertain with dignity. It has been over, at the very earliest date, since the debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce in 1860. It was a relief to be free of his invective. That freedom was offered by the invitation to another discussion with two Muslims, who were thankfully much more respectful. Yet the more we talked, the more we noticed that they shared the same blindness of faith that was more blatant in our previous interlocutor.
It is always nice to think that those who claim to know for certain what it is impossible to know might have some evidence to support their extraordinary assertions. Indeed, this is how they tried to advance their belief in a prime mover, or first cause. The deistic case, as it is commonly known, is the more innocent one and perhaps the easiest to brook. Yet it is their assuredness in the existence of such an entity that is the great weakness of the proposition. In asking us for an alternative explanation for the origin of the cosmos, they subtly but crucially misrepresented the atheist position. To disbelieve the notion of a supernatural creator is not an active ideology, in that it merely reflects a recognition that no firm evidence exists for that being. Atheists admit that there is no conclusive means by which they can disprove such an existence. Even Richard Dawkins notes that on a scale of 1 to 7 from utter religious conviction to utter atheistic conviction, he would be a 6. The only 7 I can think of is Victor J. Stenger, the American physicist whose book ‘God: The Failed Hypothesis’ argues that science can now refute this possibility with some confidence, yet he is remarkable in that respect. I hastened to note to our friends that to assume an omnipotent creator should not be the a priori stance. The atheist feels the same about the concept of God as everyone else does about Santa-Claus, or fairies. Bertrand Russell provided the analogy of an invisible teapot flying somewhere in the universe to illustrate that the philosophical burden of proof lies upon a person making unfalsifiable statements. He could not expect anyone to believe this assertion just because they couldn’t disprove it. ‘What can be proven without evidence can be disproved without evidence’. It is a foolish thing to ascribe a supernatural cause for lack of a better explanation. The credibility of religious doctrine on the natural world relies upon scientific obscurity. Indeed, when we didn’t know any better it was our first recourse. A volcano in Sicily erupts- the fire-breathing monster Typhon must be under it. A geyser spurts out huge jets of brine- surely a hydra head. The Egyptians used to consider tsunamis a punishment for sodomy, and there are still evangelical bigots today who consider natural disasters payment for the commitment of ‘sin’. Over 2000 years ago, Lucretius highlighted this logical fallacy, noting that religion’s strength lies in men’s tendency to ‘see many things happen that they cannot determine by any known law, so their occurrence they ascribe to supernatural power’. We must, in short, not settle for a bad explanation when we don’t have one yet. We may yet figure out a definitive cause for the creation of the universe. True genius lies in creative inquiry, posing questions for posterity to solve.
A quick detour to my own opinion: If the laws of physics were created by the Big Bang, then the creation of the Big Bang needn’t conform to the very laws it established. The truism that every effect must have a cause needn’t necessarily apply. The universe thus could, in theory, be simply something out of nothing. This aside, we should apply Ockham’s razor in the matter- do not make assumptions that cannot be tested. When Laplace made his first orrery and presented it to Napoleon, the Emperor asked where the figure of God was. ‘Sir, there is no need for this hypothesis’ was the astronomer’s admirable response.
The conversation quickly exposed that science in fact was not really the true concern of our companions. This revelation came when they expressed a preference for trusting history over science when forming their opinions. This is very vague, but further prodding illuminated what my friend and I were already thinking. ‘Science changes, history does not’ was the general idea. Their argument was that since our scientific beliefs adapt but history does not, we should place more confidence in the truth of historical records. There is an obvious misunderstanding here. Science itself never changes, only our knowledge of it does. That knowledge in turn changes only for the better, improving in a linear progression the more we investigate. Trying to relativise the notion of ‘science’ to historical epochs was a cheap attempt to undermine its value. Yet more tawdry was their attempts to locate in the Quran verses that correspond accurately to what we now take to be scientific truths. When religious people employ this technique, they prove only their own hypocrisy. These men disavowed evolution for creationism and even the validity of the scientific discipline, yet they tried to use it to their advantage. In other words, evidence is only an occasional convenience when it can be made to fit with scripture. These men were not ‘evidentialists’, the subset of believers who claim to believe on the basis of evidence. However much they veiled it, they were ‘presuppositionalists’, in that they took the truth of Islam for granted and then used that to dictate their other beliefs. It is impossible to actually debate with someone when reason is not their guiding principle. An extreme example: a university professor named Kurt Wise has a pHD in Paleantology at Harvard, yet is a young earth creationist. He said that if all the evidence in the world contradicted his views, he would be the first to know it but the last to accept it. It is impossible to reason one out of something they weren’t reasoned into, and minds such as these are, in my honest submission, hopelessly lost.
The idea of Islam as a scientific reflection stimulated further alarm. This was cherry picking at the extreme- a hadith here or there mentioning that humans had 360 limbs, or Adam’s birth from a ‘clot of blood’ actually symbolising a real process. I would like to add that nothing was said of the numerous inconsistencies and falsehoods that littered these works. If the odd statement is correct, it is correct by sheer coincidence. The compilers of the Quran, and indeed Muhammad himself, an illiterate merchant, were not enlightened on biology. Nor indeed were our friends. This struck us as a shame given how, during the Middle Ages, the Arabic world teemed with scientific investigation. Of course, these advances were sought for the sake of understanding God’s creation better. The God aspect was still the prime focus. Yet it was still a fantastically fertile period for human discovery. When academics note that Trinity College Cambridge has more Nobel prize winners than the whole Muslim population today, it is less a criticism than a lament. Based on history, it should really not be the case.
But what exactly did ‘history’ mean to these guys? The specifics of it were never really explored. Presumably however it alluded to a belief in the historical truth of the Islamic story, and all of it. Muhammad really was visited by the Angel Gabriel in a cave. He genuinely heard the final, perfect revelation of divine truth- in Arabic. He genuinely ascended to heaven on a unicorn, and a snake really did talk in human tongues. There was no impetus to distinguish between historical fact and fiction. It was a shame that we didn’t have time to ask them why they believed their scripture represented historical reality while the texts of other religions did not. Why not believe that Perseus was conceived from Zeus’ light beam? Or in Jesus’ divinity and miracles? Or in any of the other 10,000 gods and prophets that have been recorded? Their conviction in the exclusive historical validity of Islam only showed that again they were deploying not reason but a preferential bias. If they had been born in Ancient Egypt this bias would have argued for Ra and Osiris; in Classical Persia, for Ahura Mazda and Mithra. In general, choice of religion is determined by one’s time and location of birth. Hence it is so rare to hear of someone converting from one faith to another, as critical reasoning is not a major factor in developing religiosity. It is not as if one suddenly finds it more convincing that God talked through a burning bush than that a man walked on water. Here again, our friends’ explanations were not extraordinary enough to satisfy their extraordinary views.
This experience was at least far more enjoyable than the first. The two men were engaging, highly articulate and above all nice people. Surrounded by Muslims, Jews and Christians, we saw a snapshot of multicultural monotheism in full flow. If it was stimulating enough to provoke writing, then it must have been worthwhile. But enlightening it was not.