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Atheism in modern science

/ 12:06 AM November 17, 2014

The following words were one day found scribbled on a wall: “God is dead—Nietzsche.” The response came quickly the next day: “Nietzsche is dead—God.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, to whom the statement “God is dead” is attributed, was a German philosopher who lived in the 19th century. The most famous of his work was a series of discourses. In one of these, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” he kills the idea of God by attacking as antiscientific the basic Christian belief in His existence. In this sense, he adhered to a new wave of atheism that was starting to sweep the intellectual community in his time.

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This was scientific naturalism, the worldview that assumes that nature is all there is and that science is the only definitive way to know it. Scientific naturalism owes its influence to an English naturalist named Charles Darwin, whose theory of natural selection sparked one of the most spirited controversies in philosophy—whether the order we find in the natural world is proof of an intelligent design and, hence, of the existence of a designer we call God; or there is a purely natural explanation of how the world came to be.

Pope Francis says that the basic evolutionary theory of Darwin does not contradict the doctrine of creation. That is not what the naturalists intended to show.

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The whole question proceeds from the difficulty men had in believing that we are all here by pure chance. If chance does not explain our existence, what can? Darwinism is an attempt to provide a completely natural answer to this. It teaches a gradual progression of elementary life forms into the more complex through the process of adaptation to the environment. It is thoroughly empirical in that it establishes, in large measure through science alone, how life evolved; but it is incomplete because it does not explain how it started in the first place.

The problem of origins has spilled over to cosmology. It is a question for which, like the question of life, scientific knowledge has no answer.

We know that the cosmos is expanding. But our knowledge stops short by several billionth second of the beginning. We do not know how the universe came to be. But if it is expanding, it must have been in a smaller state before than now. The unavoidable conclusion is that since we exist, after billions of years, it must be expanding at just the right speed to allow the conditions that make our present existence possible. If the velocity is too slow, the universe would have long collapsed on itself by virtue of the gravitational force; or if it is too fast, the matter in the universe would have sped away making it impossible for planets to form. It has been calculated that for the universe to expand at the right rate, the force of gravity must be fine-tuned to within one part in 1060, a stunning accuracy that boggles the mind.

The expansion of the universe is just one among many coincidences that have no scientific explanation and yet are necessary in making life possible. Since these events cannot be due to chance, it would be difficult to explain why the universe could have proceeded in this way unless it is the product of a design by God.

The last refuge of the naturalists is the argument from improbability. They theorize that if there are enough earth-like worlds out there, the statistics will support the view that a similar environment in one of those worlds will replicate life on earth. Similarly, our universe could have started as one of an infinity of universes. This idea is called the multiverse theory. It is presumed that a very large number of universes are out there, and the odds are that some of them will have the right conditions for life to exist.

In a debate conducted by Time Magazine, Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor famous for his polemics against religion, argued that the idea of a God fine-tuning the universe to His specifications is unsatisfying, because it leaves His existence unexplained. What he was saying was that God is an even more improbable being than the one He is supposed to create. So, Francis Collins, the head of the monumental project that mapped the human genome says: Everything comes down to a choice of whether there is an infinity of worlds which we cannot observe, or there is a God who has planned or designed the creation of the world. We should apply a rule of logic, the Occam’s razor, to cut out all explanations except that which is most simple and straightforward, one which leads us to believe in God rather than in an infinity of universes. To Dawkins’ riposte that God is improbable, Collins says bluntly: “My God is not improbable to me.”

Collins seems to say ultimately that one’s predisposition toward the issue actually conditions his response to the evidence around him. If one refuses to acknowledge the appropriateness of questions such as, Why am I here? What happens after we die?

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Is there a God? he ends up with a zero-probability of God after examining the actual world because it would not convince him on the basis of the empirical proof. But if he is open to whether God might exist, he can point to aspects of the universe that are consistent with that conclusion.

We do not and may never have the evidence to prove the origin of the universe, but what is important to know is that what facts we have do not preclude the belief that the universe was created by God. Mortimer Adler argues that we do have a rational basis for concluding that God exists.

It should be enough for one who believes in God to be satisfied that his belief is not borne out of ignorance or superstition. His faith will do the rest.

God is not dead. Nietzsche is.

Mario Guariña III is a former associate justice of the Court of Appeals.

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