Tag Archives: God

William Lane Craig debates Peter Atkins: Does God Exist?

Apologetics 315 posted the video of a debate from the Reasonable Faith speaking tour in the UK:

This is a must-see debate. It was extremely fun to watch.


On Wednesday 26th October 2011 William Lane Craig debated Peter Atkins on the topic: Does God Exist? This debate took place at the University of Manchester  as part of the UK Reasonable Faith Tour with William Lane Craig. The debate was chaired by Christopher Whitehead, Head of Chemistry School at the University. Post-debate discussion was moderated by Peter S Williams, Philosopher in Residence at the Damaris Trust, UK.

Dr. William Lane Craig:

William Lane Craig (born August 23, 1949) is an American analytic philosopher, philosophical theologian, and Christian apologist. He is known for his work on the philosophy of time and the philosophy of religion, specifically the existence of God and the defense of Christian theism. He has authored or edited over 30 books including The Kalam Cosmological Argument (1979), Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology(co-authored with Quentin Smith, 1993), Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (2001), and Einstein, Relativity and Absolute Simultaneity (co-edited with Quentin Smith, 2007).

Craig received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Wheaton College, Illinois, in 1971 and two summa cum laudemaster’s degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, in 1975, in philosophy of religion and ecclesiastical history. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy under John Hick at the University of Birmingham, England in 1977 and a Th.D. underWolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich in 1984.

Dr. Peter Atkins:

Peter William Atkins (born 10 August 1940) is a British chemist and former Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Lincoln College. He is a prolific writer of popular chemistry textbooks, including Physical ChemistryInorganic Chemistry, and Molecular Quantum Mechanics. Atkins is also the author of a number of science books for the general public, including Atkins’ Molecules and Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science.

Atkins studied chemistry at the University of Leicester, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and – in 1964 – a PhD for research into electron spin resonance spectroscopy, and other aspects of theoretical chemistry. Atkins then took a postdoctoral position at the UCLA as aHarkness Fellow of the Commonwealth fund. He returned to Oxford in 1965 as fellow and tutor of Lincoln College, and lecturer in physical chemistry (later, professor of physical chemistry).

You can get the audio of the debate here, along with links to their previous debate from 1998. This debate is accessible and understandable to novice-level Christians.

I am happy when debates like this come out. I have friends who are Christians who doubt the importance of apologetics in evangelism, because they don’t think that apologists can prove anything or win arguments. I have friends who are skeptical of using arguments that assume a 14-billion year old universe, because they think that the Big Bang is compatible with atheism (!). I have friends who think that philosophical arguments have no persuasive force. I have friends who think that nothing can be proven from history, beyond a reasonable doubt. I have co-workers who ask me whether anyone wins these debates. I think that this debate answers all of those questions.

This debate clearly shows why Christians should not shy away from studying science, philosophy and history. We will not discover anything that harms Christian theism by thinking logically and by looking at the evidence. To the contrary, it is the atheist who makes war on the progress of science, and who is forced to resist the clear experimental evidence, and to resort to baseless speculations and blind faith. If you want to see a good debate with an intelligent atheist, I recommend watching the debate between William Lane Craig and Peter Millican instead. But if you want to see a really, really overwhelming defeat for atheism, watch this debate. It is very clear at the end of this debate why Richard Dawkins refused to debate William Lane Craig at Oxford.


I only had time to summarize the first two speeches. Keep in mind that Dr. Craig always shines in his rebuttals, and this debate is no different. So you’ll want to watch those rebuttals. Dr. Atkins literally says in this debate in his first rebuttal “There was nothing here originally. There is nothing here now. But it is an interesting form of nothing which seems to be something.” And the audience laughs nervously. This debate is like that. You will see a clear winner and clear loser in this debate. This fight is decided by knockout.

William Lane Craig opening speech:

1. the origin of the universe
2. the moral argument
3. the resurrection of Jesus

Peter Atkins opening speech:

1. Dr. Craig is stupid, lazy and evil:
– Dr. Craig’s arguments are old: from the 11th century! Old arguments can’t be true
– Dr. Craig is just asserting that “God did it” because he is lazy
– Dr. Craig feels pressured to agree with the theistic majority
– Dr. Craig needs a psychological crutch to comfort him
– Dr. Craig is fearful of death
– Dr. Craig is just wishing for an eternal life of bliss
– Dr. Craig is driven by his heart, and not by his head

2. Origin of the universe:
– Maybe the universe is eternal and has no beginning – we don’t know
– Maybe mommy universes can give birth to daughter universes
– It is naive to think that a cause is needed to cause the creation of the universe from nothing
– Science is just about to show how it is possible that something appears out of nothing without cause
– Some scientists have already begun to speculate about about how something can come into being out of nothing
– Maybe nothing is not really nothing, but it is actually something
– It would be admitting defeat to say that God created the universe out of nothing

3. Fine-Tuning:
– It could be the case that the fundamental constants are not variable
– It could be the case that the fine-tuning of the cosmic constants is a happy accident
– It could be the case that there are billions of billions of unobservable universes that are not fine tuned
– It could be the case that the cosmic constants in these billions and billions of unobservable universes are all random so that some are fine-tuned
– Anyone who infers that an intelligence is the best explanation of a finely-tuned set of life-permitting cosmic constants is lazy

4. Purpose:
– Philosophers and theologians are stupid
– I don’t think that there is purpose in the universe
– I think that the universe is more grand if there is no purpose, so there is no purpose

5. Miracles:
– I don’t think that miracles happen
– The resurrection is a fabrication
– It could be the case that Jesus didn’t exist
– It could be the case that Jesus wasn’t really crucified
– It could be the case that Jesus didn’t  really die after being crucified
– It could be the case that the disciples stole his body
– It could be the case that the women went to the wrong hole in the ground
– the gospels are political propaganda written long after the events they are reporting on

6. Theodicy:
– God has no morally sufficient reason for allowing humans to perform actions that result in suffering
– God has no morally sufficient reason for allowing nature to cause suffering

7. Morality:
–  customs and conventions emerges arbitrarily in different times and places based on an awareness of the consequences of actions, as well as various anecdotes and experiences
–  these customs and conventions are decided based on the goal for survival, in much the same way as politeness and manners emerge for decorum and to avoid offense
– it is childish to presume that there is an umpire God who decides moral values and duties

8. Religious believers are stupid, lazy and evil:
– the notion of God has arisen because people are stupid and want to be comforted
– there are no arguments or evidences for belief in God
– people who believe in God do not think, but instead take refuge in incomprehensible nonsense

Luke Barnes reviews Victor Stenger’s critique of cosmic fine-tuning

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Victor Stenger is a famous “Internet Infidel” atheist, but what makes him different is that he is has a PhD in physics. He wrote a book published by the atheist publisher Prometheus Press where he explains why he thinks that the universe is not fine-tuned for embodied sentient life.

An Australian physicist named Luke Barnes decided to write a response to his book, and the response is summarized (without the math!) on Uncommon Descent. Barnes has a PhD in Astronomy from Cambridge. He did postdoctoral research in Switzerland at the Institute for Astonomy, and now he is doing more postdoctoral research at the University of Sydney . The response that he wrote does not talk about God, or explanations of why the fine-tuning happened. I have no idea where his convictions are on any of that, because his response just talks about the fine-tuning itself from a scientific point of view.

Here’s how Uncommon Descent explains Barnes’ response.


Professor Victor Stenger is an American particle physicist and a noted atheist, who popularized the phrase, “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings”. Professor Stenger is also the author of several books, including his recent best-seller, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Humanity (Prometheus Books, 2011). Stenger’s latest book has been received with great acclaim by atheists: “Stenger has demolished the fine-tuning proponents,” writes one enthusiastic Amazon reviewer, adding that the book tells us “how science is able to demonstrate the non-existence of god.”

Well, it seems that the great Stenger has finally met his match. Dr. Luke A. Barnes, a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Astronomy, ETH Zurich, Switzerland, has written a scathing critique of Stenger’s book. I’ve read refutations in my time, but I have to say, this one is devastating.

In his paper, Dr. Barnes takes care to avoid drawing any metaphysical conclusions from the fact of fine-tuning. He has no religious axe to grind. His main concern is simply to establish that the fine-tuning of the universe is real, contrary to the claims of Professor Stenger, who asserts that all of the alleged examples of fine-tuning in our universe can be explained without the need for a multiverse.

Dr. Barnes’ ARXIV paper, The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life (Version 1, December 21, 2011), is available online, and I shall be quoting from it below. Since the paper is quite technical at times, I’ve omitted mathematical equations and kept the references to physical parameters to a minimum, since I simply wish to give readers an overview of what Dr. Barnes perceives as the key flaws in Professor Stenger’s book.

First, the abstract:

The fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life has received a great deal of attention in recent years, both in the philosophical and scientific literature. The claim is that in the space of possible physical laws, parameters and initial conditions, the set that permits the evolution of intelligent life is very small. I present here a review of the scientific literature, outlining cases of fine-tuning in the classic works of Carter, Carr and Rees, and Barrow and Tipler, as well as more recent work. To sharpen the discussion, the role of the antagonist will be played by Victor Stenger’s recent book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us. Stenger claims that all known fine-tuning cases can be explained without the need for a multiverse. Many of Stenger’s claims will be found to be highly problematic. We will touch on such issues as the logical necessity of the laws of nature; objectivity, invariance and symmetry; theoretical physics and possible universes; entropy in cosmology; cosmic inflation and initial conditions; galaxy formation; the cosmological constant; stars and their formation; the properties of elementary particles and their effect on chemistry and the macroscopic world; the origin of mass; grand unified theories; and the dimensionality of space and time. I also provide an assessment of the multiverse, noting the significant challenges that it must face. I do not attempt to defend any conclusion based on the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. This paper can be viewed as a critique of Stenger’s book, or read independently.

Here’s a quote that I wanted to put out there from the paper about how widely accepted fine-tuning is among scientists:

There are a great many scientists, of varying religious persuasions, who accept that the universe is fine-tuned for life, e.g. Barrow, Carr, Carter, Davies, Dawkins, Deutsch, Ellis, Greene, Guth, Harrison, Hawking, Linde, Page, Penrose, Polkinghorne, Rees, Sandage, Smolin, Susskind, Tegmark, Tipler, Vilenkin, Weinberg, Wheeler, Wilczek. They differ, of course, on what conclusion we should draw from this fact. Stenger, on the other hand, claims that the universe is not fine-tuned.

That is a very diverse list. I know that Sandage, Ellis, Page, Tipler and Polkinghorne are theists. But I also know that Weinberg, Rees, Hawking, Greene, and Dawkins are atheists. So scientists all across the spectrum of worldview admit that the fine-tuning is real.

Now, let’s look at Barnes’ paper and see why Victor Stenger disagrees with the view of those scientists.

1) Stenger doesn’t show why the entropy at the beginning of the universe isn’t a case of fine-tuning:


We turn now to cosmology. The problem of the apparently low entropy of the universe is one of the oldest problems of cosmology. The fact that the entropy of the universe is not at its theoretical maximum, coupled with the fact that entropy cannot decrease, means that the universe must have started in a very special, low entropy state. (p. 23)

Let’s return to Stenger’s proposed solution… Stenger takes it for granted that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic. We can see this also in his use of the Friedmann equation, which assumes that space-time is homogeneous and isotropic. Not surprisingly, once homogeneity and isotropy have been assumed, Stenger finds that the solution to the entropy problem is remarkably easy.

We conclude that Stenger has not only failed to solve the entropy problem; he has failed to comprehend it. He has presented the problem itself as its solution. Homogeneous, isotropic expansion cannot solve the entropy problem – it is the entropy problem. Stenger’s assertion that “the universe starts out with maximum entropy or complete disorder” is false. A homogeneous, isotropic spacetime is an incredibly low entropy state. Penrose (1989) warned of precisely this brand of failed solution two decades ago… (p. 26)

2) Stenger responds to calculations showing the need for fine-tuning by speculating that future calculations will overturn the ones we have now:

The Cosmological Constant, Lambda

The cosmological constant problem is described in the textbook of Burgess & Moore (2006) as “arguably the most severe theoretical problem in high-energy physics today, as measured by both the difference between observations and theoretical predictions, and by the lack of convincing theoretical ideas which address it”. A well-understood and well-tested theory of fundamental physics (Quantum Field Theory – QFT) predicts contributions to the vacuum energy of the universe that are [approx.] 10^120 times greater than the observed total value. Stenger’s reply is guided by the following principle:

Any calculation that disagrees with the data by 50 or 120 orders of magnitude is simply wrong and should not be taken seriously. We just have to await the correct calculation. [FOFT p. 219]

This seems indistinguishable from reasoning that the calculation must be wrong since otherwise the cosmological constant would have to be fine-tuned. One could not hope for a more perfect example of begging the question. More importantly, there is a misunderstanding in Stenger’s account of the cosmological constant problem. The problem is not that physicists have made an incorrect prediction. We can use the term dark energy for any form of energy that causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate, including a “bare” cosmological constant (see Barnes et al., 2005, for an introduction to dark energy). Cosmological observations constrain the total dark energy. QFT [quantum field theory – VJT] allows us to calculate a number of contributions to the total dark energy from matter fields in the universe. Each of these contributions turns out to be 10^120 times larger than the total. There is no direct theory-vs.-observation contradiction as one is calculating and measuring different things. The fine-tuning problem is that these different independent contributions, including perhaps some that we don’t know about, manage to cancel each other to such an alarming, life-permitting degree. This is not a straightforward case of Popperian falsification. (pp. 34-35)

3) Stenger doesn’t consider the full range of values when deciding if something is fine-tuned or not:

Protons, Neutrons, Electrons

We turn now to the relative masses of the three most important particles in our universe: the proton, neutron and electron, from which atoms are made. Consider first the ratio of the electron to the proton mass, … of which Stenger says: “…we can argue that the electron mass is going to be much smaller than the proton mass in any universe even remotely like ours.” [FOFT p. 164] (p. 50)

The fact that Stenger is comparing the electron mass in our universe with the electron mass in universes “like ours” is all the evidence one needs to conclude that Stenger doesn’t understand fine-tuning. The fact that universes like ours turn out to be rather similar to our universe isn’t particularly enlightening. (p. 50)

Finally, and most importantly, note carefully Stenger’s conclusion. He states that no fine-tuning is needed for the neutron-proton mass difference in our universe to be approximately equal to the up quark-down quark mass difference in our universe. Stenger has compared our universe with our universe and found no evidence of fine-tuning. There is no discussion of the life-permitting range, no discussion of the possible range of [mass(neutron) – mass(proton)] (or its relation to the possible range of [mass(down quark) – mass(up quark)], and thus no relevance to fine-tuning whatsoever. (p. 51)

Those are just a few of the examples in the paper, highlighted in the Uncommon Descent article (emphasis theirs).

Barnes’ paper has now been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The journal is published by Cambridge University.

Stephen C. Meyer and Peter Atkins debate intelligent design

This dialog occurred in 2010 on the Unbelievable radio show.

I made a rough transcript, so please see below for that.

The MP3 file is here. (60 minutes)


The documentary film “Expelled” is presented by US Actor Ben Stein and makes the case that scientists who question Darwinian orthodoxy and support Intelligent Design are being “expelled” from academia.

As the UK edition of the DVD is released we ask “Is freedom of thought at stake or is Intelligent Design out of bounds when it comes to biological science?”

Stephen C Meyer is co founder of the Discovery Institute in the USA and a major proponent of Intelligent Design.

Peter Atkins is Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University and an outspoken atheist.

They both feature in “Expelled” and join Justin to debate the pros and cons of Intelligent Design theory.

Mark Haville who is bringing the film to the UK also joins the discussion.

Note: The transcript below is quite snarky and may include paraphrases of Dr. Atkins for the sake of humor.

My rough transcript of the Meyer-Atkins debate

Stephen Meyer:
– started researching on ID while doing his PhD at Cambridge
– the question is whether the information-bearing properties in DNA require a designer
– what cause is adequate to explain the digital code that in the simplest living cell
– alternative explanations like self-organization and RNA-first have failed
– so the best explanation for functional sequences of parts is an intelligent designer
– Darwinists have responded to this argument with insults and suppression of dissent

Peter Atkins:
– intelligent design is creationism
– there is no science at all in it
– information can emerge without an intelligent designer
– structures emerge spontaneously, no agent is needed to generate the structure
– information in DNA is also a structure

Stephen Meyer:
– structure and information are two different things
– many structures emerge spontaneously
– structure may be like the vortex that occurs when water goes down a drain

Peter Atkins:
– the vortex is information

Stephen Meyer:
– structures are different from functionally-specified digital information
– in DNA, there is a 4-digit alphabet that is used to create code sequences
– the thing to be explained is where do the functional sequences come from

Peter Atkins:
– information can grow without an agent
– the second law of thermodynamics
– the universe is falling into disorder
– but there are local abatements of chaos that create information
– evolution can cause the amount of information to grow

Stephen Meyer:
– that’s just an assertion
– I agree that energy flow through a system can produce spontaneous order
– but spontaneous order is not the same thing as information

Peter Atkins:
– spontaneous order is the same as information

Stephen Meyer:
– it’s not order that needs to be explained it’s specified complexity

Peter Atkins:
– what do you mean by specified complexity?

Stephen Meyer:
– the chemical bonds that connect to each letter do not determine the letter
– the chemical bonding sites will accept any letter as easily as any other
– any one of the 4 bases (letters) can attach at any place along the backbone

Peter Atkins:
– the selection of which letter comes next is determined by evolution

Stephen Meyer:
– that is just an assertion
– there is no physical process that sequences the letters to have a function

Peter Atkins:
– do you believe in evolution? YES OR NO!

Mark Haville:
– for him to answer the question you have to define the word
– do you mean macro or micro? biological or stellar? directed or undirected?

Peter Atkins:
– undirected molecules to man evolution by natural processes

Stephen Meyer:
– but even Dawkins doesn’t believe in evolution then
– you’re including the origin of life from non-living matter in evolution
– Dawkins says that there is no known naturalistic explanation for that

Mark Haville:
– you need to define your terms

[They discuss of the movie Expelled and the case of Richard Sternberg]

Stephen Meyer:
– the problem is people don’t want to talk about the science
– they denounce dissent as unscientific
– they will not debate about whther natural causes can explain the information
– I want to talk about the science

Peter Atkins:
– ID people raise interesting questions for naturalists to work on
– but you want to tell us what the answer is (intelligence) before we begin
– you start from the idea that an intelligence was involved

Justin Brierley:
– but you start with the idea that natural mechanisms can explain everything!

Stephen Meyer:
– for Dr. Atkins, only explanations based on material processes are valid

Peter Atkins:
– that is correct

Stephen Meyer:
– but we think that the activities of mind can explain some effects
– e.g. – the best explanation of the Rosetta stone is a mind

Peter Atkins:
– but we naturalists think of minds as material as well

Stephen Meyer:
– that’s a materialist pre-supposition on your part
– we would have to have a debate about mind and body

Mark Haville:
– I think that the materialist position is socially dangerous
– the problem with naturalism is that it is an ideology
– the ideology pushes absurdities, e.g. – the universe came from nothing uncaused
– and naturalists exert power over others to force them to believe nonsense

Stephen Meyer:
– science progresses as the result of scientists disagreeing
– both sides agree to the facts
– the debate is about the interpretation of those facts
– and one side is being ruled out a priori based on the pre-supposition of materialism

Peter Atkins:
– why do you say that an intelligence is involved in DNA but not general relativity

Stephen Meyer:
– it is always logically possible that intelligence can be invlved in any effect
– the main thing is that explanations based on intelligence should not be ruled out

Peter Atkins:
= well you can’t appeal to any non-material process in expaining anything
– those are the rules

– what does intelligent design have to do with religion?

Stephen Meyer:
– creationism is about understanding the istory of life using the Bible
– intelligent design is about using the same method of inquiry as Darwin
– we know that information arises from intelligent causes
– humans create information all the time by using intelligence to sequence parts

– are intelligent design proponents disreputable?

Stephen Meyer:
– what’s disreputable is shutting down debate by setting arbitrary rules

Peter Atkins:
– we are both interested in the same questions

– why won’t you let Stephen publish his papers then?

Peter Atkins:
– because it breaks the pre-suppositions of naturalism and materialism

Stephen Meyer:
– you’re shutting down inquiry by using an arbitrary definition of science

Mark Haville:
– we need to define the word science
– science should be based on what we can observe empirically
– we can observe micro-evolution empirically
– but Darwinism goes beyond what is observable to postulate macro-evolution

Peter Atkins:
– but paleobiology is replete with evidence

Stephen Meyer:
– paleobiology uses a method of inference that I think is valid
– but intelligent design uses the same mode of reasoning which is also valid

Peter Atkins:
= you’re intellectually lazy
– we’re smart, we’re using our brains

– you’re saying that appeals to intelligent causes ends science?
– is ID the view that some things are too complex to be explained with naturalism?

Peter Atkins:
– yes, and to teach children that materialism is false is child abuse

Stephen Meyer:
– let’s drop the insults and the rhetoric and focus on the arguments
– the ID argument is not based on what we don’t know, it’s based on what we DO know
– first, we can ask what undirected natural processes can and cannot do
– second, we can ask what we know about intelligent causes from our own experience
– what we do know seems to me to require an intelligent agent as a cause

Peter Atkins:
– GOD! Do you mean God!? Do you mean God!?

Stephen Meyer:
– I personally mean God, but all that the arguments proves is a generic intelligent cause
– and I am using the same method of investigation that Darwin used to get there
– what we know from our experience is that a mind is needed to create information

Peter Atkins:

Stephen Meyer:
– in my book, I list 10 predictions made by ID, so it’s not a science-stopper
– furthermore, the enterprise of science began with th goal of understanding God
– consider the earliest scientists, people like James Boyler and Johannes Kepler

Peter Atkins:
– that was 300 years ago, we’ve moved on

Mark Haville:
– what about Max Planck then?

Stephen Meyer:
– how about James Clark Maxwell?

Mark Haville:
– we need to focus on the facts

Peter Atkins:
– what do you mean by the facts?

Mark Haville:
– well the fact is that Darwinism has no mechanism to produce new information

Peter Atkins:
– well copying errors introduces beneficial mutations

Stephen Meyer:
– let’s focus on where we get the first information from the simplest organism
– you can’t account for the first organism by appealing to copying errors
– to add functionality to a program, you need new lines codes from an intelligence
– once you have life, you can generate some new information
– but you can’t generate macro-evolution either

Peter Atkins:
– if we give you your explanation for teh origin of life, will you give this up

Stephen Meyer:
– of course! I’m a former theistic evolutionist
– but right now the evidence is not there for it
– we have to decide these questions based on what we see with our own eyes today

Peter Atkins:
– but I pre-suppose materialism as the starting point of all explanations
– you’re just intellectually lazy to abandon my pre-supposition

Stephen Meyer:
– why is it is less intellectually lazy to insist that materialism is true
– we are making plenty of predictions, and isn’t that what science is about?
– consider Junk DNA – you guys said it had no use
– now we know it has a use

Peter Atkins:
– naturalists were open to the idea that junk DNA might have a use before ID

– Dr. Meyer, what about the wall that locks out intelligence as an explanation?

Stephen Meyer:
– if these are interesting questions, then we should allow freedom of inquiry
– that’s how science advances

Peter Atkins:
– for all their science-talk really they are just saying God did it
– people who don’t agree with me are not using their brains, like I do
– to give up on my pre-supposition of materialism is a denial of humanity

Mark Haville:
– there are important issues that are affected by our view of origins
– everyone who hasn’t seen Expelled movie should definitely see it

Greg Koukl debates Michael Shermer on God, atheism, meaning and morality

The full transcript of a debate between Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, and Greg Koukl, president of Stand to Reason. This debate occurred on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, and was moderated by Hugh Hewitt.

HH = Hugh Hewitt
GK = Greg Koukl
MS = Michael Shermer

Here is a 32-page PDF with the full debate transcript.

And here’s an excerpt:

GK: Right. Actually, the big question here, Hugh, is whether it’s possible to be good without God. Now I’m not talking about whether it’s possible to be good without a belief in God. I certainly think that’s possible, but be good without God. And the answer to that question hinges entirely on precisely what you mean by good. And so I was going to give an illustration. So a man drags a young girl into the alley, he sexually abuses her, strangles here, and tosses her into the dustbin. Is that act wrong? Now I think everybody listening is going to admit it is wrong. But here is the real question. What do we mean when we say that that act of rape and abuse and murder is wrong? Are we describing the action itself, the object? Are we saying that the object, the rape, the murder, has a quality of being wrong, and therefore, wherever that rape goes, the wrongness follows it, just like your height, 6’ 2”, or whatever it is, is an objective quality of you. Wherever you go, your height follows you in the same way. Does the wrongness follow the rape? Well, if it’s a quality of the rape, if it’s an objective quality of the rape, then it does. And it doesn’t matter what people think about it, or what cultures decides, or what your evolutionary conditioning is. The rape is still wrong. The other alternative is that you’re not talking about the rape. You’re talking about yourself. You’re talking about your genetic conditioning. You’re talking about your culture’s decision about that kind of thing. And if that’s the case, then the truth of the wrongness of the rape is simply in the individual or the subject. And this is why philosophers distinguish between ethical objectivism and ethical subjectivism. Now there’s lots of different subjectivisms in ethics. But simply put, if you’re an ethical subjectivist, you’re a relativist. And actual ethics don’t exist. Ethics are an illusion. If you conclude that ethics are an illusion, there’s lots of different ways to explain it. Michael’s written a really great book, I think, called The Science Of Good And Evil. I’ve read most of it, and it’s well written, and it’s very compelling. But it’s a description about how the illusion of ethics has taken place. If you want to go that route, you’re welcome to go that route. But what you can’t do is you can’t then talk about morality as if it’s objective when your explanations are subjective. So this is a problem that I think all atheists, including Michael, have to solve. Are ethics objective or relative? And if they’re relative, then how can we make moral judgments that are meaningful on other people?

HH: Michael Shermer?

MS: Wow, let’s just get right into it. Well, I don’t think it’s quite so black and white. That is to say I think there are provisional moral truths that exist whether there’s a God or not. In other words, it’s wrong, morally, absolutely morally wrong to rape and murder. And that would be true whether there was a God or not. In other words, if…is God saying that it’s wrong because it’s really wrong, and He’s instructing us in his Holy Scripture that it’s wrong? Or is it only wrong because He said so? And if it turned out there wasn’t a God, would that make it okay? And my answer is no, it really is wrong, whether God says it’s wrong or not. That is to say I think it really exists, a real, moral standard like that. Why? Well, because first, you could ask the person who is being affected, we should always ask the moral recipient of the act, how do you feel about being raped or murdered or stolen from or lied to. And the moral actor will tell you, it doesn’t matter whether, if I could use a current example, I haven’t any idea if Tiger Woods and his wife are religious or not. But you can just ask his wife whether it was morally right or wrong, and she’ll tell you. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a God or not. It’s wrong. And so that’s the first principle. Just ask. Ask the moral recipient of whether it’s right or wrong. But I think Greg’s after something deeper, that is to say is there something even deeper still behind the moral actor’s feelings about how they’re treated. And the answer is yes, I think so. We’re a social species. We don’t live in isolation. We live as members of a group. And as such, there’s no possible way our group could survive, be cohesive, be a unit of any kind of solidarity against other groups, or against a harsh environment. If there were too much violations of social norms, that is if there were constant lying and cheating and raping and murdering, there’s no way a social group could hang together. And as such, as we all know, we’re very tribal. We’re tribal against other groups, but within our groups, we’re very pro-social, altruistic, cooperative. We have a good and evil in our nature. So to this extent, I find myself interesting often in agreement with my conservative friends on most of the things they consider morally, moral truths. That is, we share the same moral values, even though I come at it from a different perspective.

HH: Greg?

GK: Yeah, I’m actually not after something deeper here, Michael. At least to start out the discussion, I’m trying to be as simple and clear and precise as possible, because it’s very easy to weave together a bunch of things that sound persuasive, but turn out to be different things. Like for example, Darwinian evolution, which is a materialistic process, and here I mean the blind watchmaker thesis, the neo-Darwinian synthesis, natural selection working on mutations, and a kind of a cultural evolution that Michael has just referred to as we work together as a group to survive as a group. Those are two entirely different things. One is materialistic, Darwinian, the other one is intelligent design, quite frankly, where the group gets together and makes some determinations to encourage some behavior and discourage others. What I’m trying to do is to be able to answer the question that came up initially, is God necessary for morality, which Michael denies. It’s to say well, what is it that morality, that we’re trying to describe? It is either objective, and therefore an immaterial obligation that applies to certain behaviors, or it is subjective. The things that Michael described were variously subjective, evolutionary elements, subjective cultural elements, but then he affirmed that we all have good and evil in our nature, or an awareness of that. I agree with that entirely. We all are aware of those things. That’s why even if we don’t believe in God, we can still know morality and follow it. The question is what accounts for real, genuine objective morality?

HH: One minute to the break, Michael Shermer.

MS: I’m not arguing for cultural evolution. I’m actually arguing as part of our, what you described as materialistic, natural selection, Darwinian evolution, that it’s not enough to just pretend or fake being a good group member. You actually have to believe it, feel it, and live it. So what I’m arguing is that natural selected certain moral sentiments, as Adam Smith called them, moral feelings, an actual empathy, Adam Smith talked about, we actually empathize with somebody else, we can put ourselves into their shoes and feel their pain, I’m arguing that’s very real. It’s every bit as real a part of our evolutionary heritage as our eyes and our hands.

– – – –

HH: Michael Shermer, when we went to break, you were saying that evolutionary biology has produced a real morality.

MS: Yeah, I think really, Adam Smith had it right in his very first book, The Theory Of Moral Sentiments, long before Darwin, that we actually have in our biological nature, our human nature, the capacity to feel other people’s pain. He called it empathy, we think of it often either as empathy or sympathy. That is, we really do connect to other people. A lot of good research on this now, brain scans, you can show somebody a little video of somebody they know, or have feelings for, getting pricked with a pin, and the same areas of their brain light up, the pain receptors, as in the person getting the pin prick. In other words, we have an evolved tendency to really be deeply, emotionally connected to our fellow group members. And that’s why I say groups like World Vision, where you want to adopt a child, it doesn’t help to show a picture of 10,000 starving African kids. What does affect us is one child, a picture of one child with a little biography. That’s how you get people to adopt a child to donate. The reason for that is because essentially they’re tricking the brain, our brains into making that stranger an honorary family member, an honorary within group member, which is why I argue that free trade is one of the best ways of defusing normal tribal tensions between people. It makes them honorary friends, honorary members. Well, what’s going on there is we’re tricking the brain into sort of this evolutionary rule of thumb – be nice to people that are like you and that are related to you, and that you know, and that are fellow group members, and don’t do what our natural tendency is, is to be tribal and xenophobic against those other guys. And free trade is one of the best things you can do for that. So I’m arguing that’s actually tapping something deep within us.

HH: Greg Koukl?

GK: Yeah, basically, I agree with Mike completely here. We do have this tendency, and it seems to be universal among humankind. The question is, what is that tendency, actually? And what is the best way to explain it? And I see like a handful of significant problems with using evolution to explain morality. The first one is that evolution is a materialistic process. And here, I’m going back to an original point, and I don’t want people to lose it. There is no way that you can take molecules, and reorganize them in any fashion, over any length of time, and have pop out of the mixture an objective moral principle that’s immaterial, and that applies to human beings. All you’re going to get is a reorganization of the molecules. And what they can produce, and this is what Mike has done in his book, and he mentioned just s few moments ago, they can produce sentiments. They can produce feelings. They can produce behavior. But this leads us to the second problem of using evolution to explain morality, is that morality is more than sentiments, feelings and behavior. Morality entails things like motive and intention. I mean, you could have a guy walk into a garage, walk out with a hose, and is that wrong? Well, it depends. Is it his hose or somebody else’s hose? Did he intend to take the other person’s hose? Is he borrowing the hose? So we can see here are elements that are part of the moral thing that needs to be explained, that are immaterial, and therefore the Darwinian explanation can’t even in principle go there. It can’t do that job. But here’s the worst problem. Regardless of what our sentiments happen to be regarding moral actions, we can feel good or feel bad or whatever, the problem is that morality is prescriptive, not merely descriptive. That is it tells us not just what we did, but what we ought to have done in the past, and what we ought to do in the future. That is not something that any Darwinian mechanism can describe, because nothing about my biology can inveigh upon me to act a certain way for moral reasons in the future. It doesn’t tell me why I should be good tomorrow. This is a huge difference between these two views, the descriptive and the prescriptive. Prescriptive is part of morality, and can’t even, in principle, be explained by an evolutionary materialistic system.

HH: Michael Shermer, I’ll give you a start on that. We have about 45 seconds to the break, so you may want to…we’ll come back after the break and pick up. But what’s your start to that?

MS: Well, the start would be that again, let’s not think of evolution just as nature red and tooth and claw, and it’s nasty, brutish and short, but that in fact, we have this whole other social evolution. And I’m not talking about cultural evolution where we consciously make decisions, but subconsciously, because it’s in part of our nature to actually, seriously, deeply feel for other people and their actions, and the consequences of our actions, so that we actually have a sense of right and wrong that we’re born with, but then culture taps into and tweaks, one way or the other.

– – – –

HH: Michael Shermer, when we went to break, Greg had made the argument that the Darwinian model simply cannot explain immaterial concepts like morality, that there’s just no way you can rearrange the molecules to get there. You’re saying well, yes you can.

MS: Yeah, I think so, because if we think of morality as another suite of emotions that are involved with other people’s behaviors, the consequences of our actions, how we feel about them, how people feel about us when we do these things, that’s as every bit as important a biological part of our nature as anything else we talk about. So let’s take a real simple emotion. When you’re hungry, nobody does any calculations about the caloric input/output ratios of eating an apple versus an ice cream, although now it’s posted on the walls for us to see. But we just feel hungry, and we feel hungry for certain kinds of foods. The feeling of hunger is a proxy for something else. Evolution’s done the calculating for us. You need food, so we’re going to, your hypothalamus is going to secrete these certain chemicals that causes your stomach to rumble and so on. When you’re attracted to somebody else, a member of the opposite sex, nobody does the calculation by, let’s say, a man finds a woman attractive who has a .67 hip to waist ratio, and an hourglass figure, although that is pretty much universal. Nobody walks about with calipers taking measurements of who they’re going to want to date or ask out. You just look around, and you just go wow, I really find this woman attractive. It’s a feeling you have, okay? So those are kind of simple emotions, but sliding up the scale, the moral emotions are really no different. When I lie to somebody, I’ve violated a social norm, and they respond in a very angry, hostile way. So those emotions that we both share, guilt, shame, anger, disgust, involved a social relationship that whether it was a norm violation, those are the kinds of emotions that are just like hunger and sexual attraction that are built into us by nature, by evolution. Or, if you wish, this is how God created the moral sentiments, just like He created everything else in the universe, through a process of nature. I think that’s equally reasonable to argue. So I don’t see that it has to be an atheistic viewpoint versus a theistic viewpoint to get to our moral sentiments. Why couldn’t God have used evolution to create the moral sentiments as I’ve described them?

GK: Yeah, well, you don’t actually believe that, I know, Mike, so this is kind of like adding God to the soup, you know, if it makes people feel better. But the basic argument is that evolution all by itself can do the trick. And I think if your listeners are listening carefully, what they’re going to hear is Mike has just described, and if I’m being unfair to your assessment here, let me know, Mike, that moral feelings are simply that. They are sophisticated emotions that do some work for us for survival, and even on a group level. Now there’s a name for this. It’s called emotivism. A.J. Ayer, the famous atheist, offered this description of morality. It’s a relativistic scheme of morality. Morality doesn’t actually exist, Ayer argued. There is no objective right or wrong. Rape isn’t wrong itself. What happens is, we have feelings about it, and we express it in moral language, but rape isn’t really wrong. So your listeners are going to have to ask themselves the questions. When they just survey their own moral senses, and we all have access to this, do we want to believe that scientists have figured out that really what we’re doing is feeling sophisticated, complicated emotions, and that the emotions are in us, and we are not seeing anything about the action? Or does it seem like rape is wrong? Look, when I say rape is wrong, I’m talking about the rape. When I say liver is awful, I’m talking about me. I’m talking about my own tastes and preferences. It’s interesting, as Michael has given his explanation, though, that he’s doing, and I don’t know if you are aware of this, Michael, but you’re doing the very thing that I kind of warned against. You give a description of the foundations of morality that turn out to be relativistic, but then there’s a smuggling of a more objectivistic morality in the back door, like when Michael says you don’t have to do what your nature tells you to do, in other words, what you’ve been programmed by evolution to do. You can kind of rise above that. Well, now we’re talking about a morality that isn’t dictated by evolution, but a morality that we can employ through our acts of will, to rise above this kind of brutish evolutionary morality. And that sounds suspiciously like the very thing that I’m talking about here.

MS: But I don’t mean, there’s nothing to rise above by itself. Yes, we have to say rise above our tribal instincts to be xenophobic when we meet somebody who’s a stranger, who’s different from us. We all struggle against that, particularly in a black and white America, where there’s always been this underlying tension. Indeed, so culture helps us do that – education, travel, diversity of exposure to different people. That makes you a little more tolerant. Okay, but I’m not talking about that. What I’m talking about is tapping into the good part of our nature, the fact that in addition to that xenophobic tribalism we have, we also have this other side that almost never gets discussed in evolutionary…even in evolutionary circles, you’ll still hear evolutionary biologists talking about, in a way that Huxley did, and Herbert Spencer did in Darwin’s own time, that we have to somehow struggle mightily against our genes to overcome that nasty tendency we have to want to rape, kill, pillage and destroy. Well no, actually, we have this whole other side that’s just as genetically programmed into our nature. And the point of culture – education, politics, economics and so on, is to tap into the better angels of our nature as Lincoln said.

GK: Okay, here’s the question I have for you, Michael, then. You’ve identified that really, we have good and we have bad. That’s part of, under your terms, that’s part of our genetic nature, and we can choose to tap into what you call the good side. Why ever should we do such a thing if there is not a higher standard that directs our action to the better side, your words, than the bad side, your words, if really, ultimately, they are both the result of a genetic evolution, and from outside terms, neither is better than the other. Why should we do that, Michael?

MS: Yeah, well I don’t see how entering God into the equation changes that problem at all.

GK: Well, that’s the next step. What I’m trying to show is that the should comes from the outside, and if we can demonstrate that, then we can ask…

Read the rest by click here to get the PDF.

Why is the universe so big, and why is so much of it hostile to life?

Chris Kyle, Navy SEAL
Chris Kyle, Navy SEAL, can hit a very small target from a mile away – very improbable

Review: In case you need a refresher on the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments, as presented by a professor of particle physics at Stanford University, then click this link and watch the lecture.

If you already know about the standard arguments for theism from cosmology, then take a look at this post on Uncommon Descent.


In my previous post, I highlighted three common atheistic objections to to the cosmological fine-tuning argument. In that post, I made no attempt to answer these objections. My aim was simply to show that the objections were weak and inconclusive.

Let’s go back to the original three objections:

1. If the universe was designed to support life, then why does it have to be so BIG, and why is it nearly everywhere hostile to life? Why are there so many stars, and why are so few orbited by life-bearing planets? (Let’s call this the size problem.)

2. If the universe was designed to support life, then why does it have to be so OLD, and why was it devoid of life throughout most of its history? For instance, why did life on Earth only appear after 70% of the cosmos’s 13.7-billion-year history had already elapsed? And Why did human beings (genus Homo) only appear after 99.98% of the cosmos’s 13.7-billion-year history had already elapsed? (Let’s call this the age problem.)

3. If the universe was designed to support life, then why does Nature have to be so CRUEL? Why did so many animals have to die – and why did so many species of animals have to go extinct (99% is the commonly quoted figure), in order to generate the world as we see it today? What a waste! And what about predation, parasitism, and animals that engage in practices such as serial murder and infant cannibalism? (Let’s call this the death and suffering problem.)

In today’s post, I’m going to try to provide some positive answers to the first two questions: the size problem and the age problem.

Here’s an excerpt for the size argument:

(a) The main reason why the universe is as big as it currently is that in the first place, the universe had to contain sufficient matter to form galaxies and stars, without which life would not have appeared; and in the second place, the density of matter in the cosmos is incredibly fine-tuned, due to the fine-tuning of gravity. To appreciate this point, let’s go back to the earliest time in the history of the cosmos that we can meaningfully talk about: the Planck time, when the universe was 10^-43 seconds old. If the density of matter at the Planck time had differed from the critical density by as little as one part in 10^60, the universe would have either exploded so rapidly that galaxies wouldn’t have formed, or collapsed so quickly that life would never have appeared. In practical terms: if our universe, which contains 10^80 protons and neutrons, had even one more grain of sand in it – or one grain less – we wouldn’t be here.

If you mess with the size of the universe, you screw up the mass density fine-tuning. We need that to have a universe that expands at the right speed in order to form galaxies, stars and planets. You need planets to have a place to form life – a place with liquid water at the surface.

And an excerpt for the age argument:

(a) One reason why we need an old universe is that billions of years were required for Population I stars (such as our sun) to evolve. These stars are more likely to harbor planets such as our Earth, because they contain lots of “metals” (astronomer-speak for elements heavier than helium), produced by the supernovae of the previous generation of Population II stars. According to currently accepted models of Big Bang nucleosynthesis, this whole process was absolutely vital, because the Big Bang doesn’t make enough “metals”, including those necessary for life: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and so on.

Basically, you need heavy elements to make stars that burn slow and steady, as well as to make PEOPLE! And heavy elements have to be built up slowly through several iterations of the stellar lifecycle, including the right kinds of stellar death: supernovae.

Read the rest! These arguments come up all the time in debates with village atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. It’s a smokescreen they put up, but you’ve got to be able to answer it using the scientific evidence we have today. They always want to dismiss God with their personal preferences about what God should or should not do. But the real issue is the design of the cosmological constants that allow life to anywhere. That’s the part that’s designed. And that’s not a matter of personal preference, it’s a matter of mathematics and experimental science.

One last parting shot. If God made the universe have life everywhere, the first thing atheists would say is “See? Life evolves fine by itself without any God!” The only way to recognize a marksman is when he hits a narrow target (not hostile to life) from a wide range of possibilities that have no value (hostile to life). We don’t credit Chris Kyle for hitting the wall above an Islamic terrorist from a mile away, we credit Chris Kyle for hitting an Islamic terrorist a mile away. The design is not how much of the universe is hospitable to life versus how much is hostile to life. The design is in the cosmological constants – where we are in the narrow band that is hospitable to life and not in the huge regions that are hostile to life.

You can read the best explanation of the design argument in this lecture featuring Robin Collins. That link goes to my post which has a summary of the lecture. He has a new lecture that I also blogged about where he extends the fine-tuning argument down to the level of particle physics. I have a summary of that one as well.