This blog entry is an answer to the following 3 minute Sam Harris video from Big Think:
1. God’s Existence is Not A Testable Hypothesis
Dr. Harris’ first point is that the notion of a Creator or a God is “unfalsifiable.” He means there is no possible evidence for it so how can it be intelligently discussed? We may as well believe that we are brains in a scientist’s lab and all we experience is a result of his poking and prodding with electric impulses. Such a scenario is basically to be taken “on faith” and cannot be tested. Harris claims belief in God is just as frivolous.
Harris assumes that the Universe’s existence is self explanatory and does not require any further investigation to figure out how it got here. Before the theory of the Big Bang model for the Universe arose, the prevailing thought about our cosmos was that it had always been here (i.e.: Steady State model). It was not created and had no beginning. As the famous Carl Sagan said “the Cosmos is all there is, all there was and all there ever will be.” If this were true, it would be indeed unnecessary to invoke a Creator God.
Yet many thinkers — including Plato, Socrates and Aristotle — have reasoned that the Universe can no more explain its own existence than could a machine we came across in a field. Muslim scholars — as well as Christian and Greek philosophers — pointed out that anything that exists in a Time-Space continuum cannot be eternal. They used the concept of infinity to illustrate their point. If, they said, you tried to count to infinity, you would never achieve your goal. After all, no matter what number you were at, the very next number you would count would not be “infinity.” It would simply be the next number in line. Without end. So the concept of eternity or infinity is not an achievable goal, it is a process that never ends. Not something you can complete. And if the Universe was eternal, there would be an infinity… in our past. Yet it is impossible to have an infinite number of anything. Including years in the past.
Furthermore, because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics we know that any closed system (such as the Universe) eventually runs out of usable energy. If you left your car running you would eventually run out of gas. So the fact that there is still energy available in our cosmos for the making and breaking of stars and galaxies and solar systems means it could not have been here eternally. A Universe with no more usable energy is one in which atoms don’t even move anymore and nothing is occurring. Obviously this has not yet happened. Therefore we know with absolute certainty that our Universe has not been around forever.
So if our Universe had a beginning, it requires something outside itself to explain its existence and is therefore not self-explained. Secular scientists like Sam Harris will say that the Multiverse gave birth to our Universe, so no God is needed to account for it. However there is no physical proof of a Multiverse. Further, if a huge bubble bath of other universes (i.e.: a Multiverse) exists, it is also part of a Space-Time continuum and will also suffer from the problem of infinity and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics as much as a single Universe does. So something outside a Space-Time continuum will be necessary to break the cycle of illogical explanations for the Space-Time continuum. Now we are describing something akin to a God. Non?
We could also point out that our Universe is so finely adjusted that if any one of the many laws of physics known as Constants were tweaked even a little bit, no part of our Cosmos would survive. A system that is so precisely balanced suggests that it is not a hap hazardly constructed blurp. Imagine a machine with a panel of about a hundred adjustable dials. Now if you were warned harshly that if you moved any one dial by even one one-hundreth of a notch, the machine would break down. It would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that very precise engineering was at play and not a randomized hodge podge of parts.
Many other aspects of life also challenge the notion that life can be explained without a Creator. Information-rich cells with DNA and the micro machines that read and copy genes. Human consciousness and the need for objective purpose and meaning. We will not go into these in this blog entry but as you can hopefully appreciate at this point, Sam Harris’ first point is not without its significant challenges.
2. There Are Many “Holy Books” in Human Culture
Muslims have the Qur’an, Mormons have their “Book of Mormon,” Hindus have their vedas and Christians tout their bibles. All these books contradict many of each other’s principles. Seems odd that we would be left to live in so much confusion. If God exists, surely He would make His chosen Holy Book the only game in town. Yet Harris, being a scientist, has no qualms with the thousands of contradictory scientific papers in the world of research and academics. It appears good science can still be sifted out from bad science. In the tension-filled world of competing theories — the good, the bad and the ugly — a general climb towards clarity is still possible. Otherwise we would never have created antibiotics, MRIs or combustible engines. A world in which complex people are free and powerful is a world in which confusion and deception will exist. Yes, we live in a hot mess. Atheists will claim this is proof that a loving God is not present or else He would surely clean things up. Yet this point seems to ignore the fact that Christianity has spread like wildfire and created the Western world which has blessed the planet with a society so scientifically and economically advance that the rest of the world is scrambling to move here. Christ is the single most well known and influential figure in all of human history and the Bible the best selling piece of literature of all time. Not very subtle if you ask my humble opinion. God may permit more confusion than Harris is comfortable with yet He still manifests a clear and decipherable message that can — and has — spread world wide.
Also, not all “holy books” are created equal. Just like not all Universities or research papers are equal. Some have merit while others do not. To quickly wash over the differences between the Biblical texts and those of Zoroastrianism or Buddhism makes for an effective 4 second sound bite, but is it accurate? The bible was written by at least 40 different authors over a 1,400 year period. It is filled with details of people, places and events. Archaeology has surprised itself by corroborating the history of the Old and New Testament.
Joseph Smith’s “The Book of Mormon” in contrast was written by him alone. And when it tried its hand at history it signed its own death warrant. Unlike the ever growing trend of support enjoyed by biblical scripts, molecular anthropology and archaeology have been devastating to the claims of Joseph Smith’s “holy book.” It appears harder than it looks to invent history. The Qur’an on the other hand avoids long lists of ancestries and history, making it impossible to test. It is also authored by a single man, Mohamed and in the span of his single lifetime. It avoids the burden of its authorship being spread over a millennia like the judeochristian Bible. Yet there is more thematic symmetry in the Bible than the Qur’an.
We could wax on and on about the differences between the Judeochristian Bible and other faith books. One could point out that the Christian “infection” turned barbaric Rome into Western Civilization and inspired unprecedented human rights, economic prosperity and scientific advancements. It appears the precepts of the bible are useful and fruitful. In real time. In the real world. Just like the scientific method clears the air in the lab, a biblical view of reality seems to produce knowledge and advancements in all directions. In fact, the modern university is a Christian gift to humanity and most of the heavy weights in the ranks of academics (e.g.: Ockham, Kepler, Boyle, Pascal, Descartes, Newton, Pasteur, Mendel, etc) were profoundly devout Christians. The world crafted by Christians happens to be head and shoulders above the remainder of earth’s other civilizations. I would ask Harris what is more likely, that this happened accidentally? Or that something in the Judeochristian worldview is “dead on” about how things work and what makes reality tick?
3. If Christianity is True, Why Would God Allow So Many to Live and Die in Countries that Never Heard of Jesus?
Here Harris assumes that if someone is born in China in 1300 BC they will go to Hell without hope. Heck, even an Arab Muslim in the 21st century is most likely to be forced into Islam under pain of death. Yet Romans 1:20 says that Nature itself gives everyone proof of God’s existence. And seeing as nearly 100% of societies in all history have believed in a Creator (or Creators) it seems God’s flashing billboard advertising His Presence is the very fabric of reality which, of course, no one escapes. No one is out of reach. Yes, if Jesus was God’s Son and gave His followers unprecedented details about God’s character, those who’ve heard of His teachings will be enriched. Yet this does not mean that a human living outside the scope of Christian evangelism is damned. Before there was a bible, God approached Abraham directly and led him throughout his life. God has not lost that ability. Anyone, anywhere at any time can be reached. Credible stories exist of men and women in countries shut off from the Christian world — which is remarkably few — having dreams in which Christ presents Himself in no uncertain terms. And many Christian theologians agree that God can decipher who would follow Him if they were presented with greater details. In short, someone trapped in another religious system could still be on the Christian God’s team without having officially converted.
Certainly we are influenced by our culture. A boy raised in India is likely to be either a Muslim or a Hindu. The same can be said of atheists like Harris. It is more likely that a person like him and his New Atheist colleagues are from a Western European country and come from a line of secular families. Exceptions exist, but there is a pattern for atheists as much as there is for Mormons or Buddhists. Interestingly, of all worldviews, Christianity has been the most flexible compared to its competitors. Having started as a Jewish movement, it quickly spread to Africa, Europe and Asia. In the past 50 years revivals in South America and China have grown the Church demographic to its historically biggest numbers. Today, most Christians speak a non-European language and are not white. Atheism is a rare cultural trait of middle class Westerners. This does not invalidate it, but it burdens it with the same criticisms Harris leveled at other world views.
As C.S. Lewis pointed out, most tribes, nations and societies in history adhere to a code of ethics that are remarkably similar to each other and all etch out a supernatural worldview. As Socrates and Plato argued for a supernatural worldview (which they called metaphysical – i.e.: beyond physics or matter) they used ethics as examples of things humans routinely discovered and studied that were not material. In short, the supernatural worldview is by far the most common conclusion of human beings, including most of our planets best and brightest. It is not the strange quirks of warring tribes but the earnest conclusion of the 99%. After all, before Robert Boyle penned “The Skeptical Chymist” in 1661 and birthed modern chemistry, a long line of alchemists erroneously toyed with boiling liquids and melted metals in hopes of creating gold and youth potions. As spectacularly wrong as their hypotheses were, they were on to something. They knew from experience that matter could be toyed with and transformed. They lacked sophistication but were more correct than the non-alchemists in their towns. A theist may be of the Muslim variety but his beliefs (i.e.: Creator, judgement, demons, souls, after life, etc) are in the same groping vein as the American Indian and the Christian. The atheist is akin to the skeptics who turned their noses up at a long line of alchemists. But it was the ever-experimenting and hopeful liquid bubblers who birthed blood pressure medication, x-ray technology and asthma puffers. They were the crude but correct. Could it not be the same with the non-Christian religious masses?
Also of interest is that Muslims, Jews and Christians make up over half of the world’s population. Many fail to see the connection of the world’s biggest faiths. Muslims draw their history back to Abraham and accept the first 5 books of the Old Testament as Scripture. They believe they are the true followers of the Biblical God. Christians claim Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. In short, Judaism is the trunk from which both Christianity and Islam sprout and all three encompass nearly 60% of the human population. Harris’ point that if God exists He has been too subtle may not be accurate after all.
The false dichotomy presented by Harris is that Christianity — or any other religious worldview — is to be accepted blindly and in an eenie-meenie-miny-mo fashion. No such demands is placed by Christianity on anyone. We are to test our worldview with reason and evidence. Something universally available to all mankind for all of time. A Japanese island Ainu native living in the 13th century most likely never heard the name Jesus Christ, let alone read a bible. Yet, their lives were not simply naturalistic. They would pray and seek communication with the spirits. These “spiritual alchemists” were not “Christian chemists” by any means. Yet reality obviously was pointing them in the right direction. God was calling out to them and could save any one of them even without the presence of a missionary.
Yes, God allows a certain amount of chaos and messiness in this world. Yet not a maximum amount. Perhaps just enough to allow our freedom and to call us to Him. If He landed as a gigantic lightning God on the Arctic and stomped throughout the earth, all knees would certainly bow. Yet out of fear, not love. By masking Himself to some degree He is allowing men and women’s hearts to naturally and freely gravitate to what they ultimately love: God or their own appetities. Without coercion.
In the end, Harris’ points are cleverly articulated but fail the scrutiny of heavy reason. I conclude that his case can be dismissed.