Atheism, Christianity, and Science: Three Mysteries That Elude Explanation
It would seem atheism has made a comeback in the past decade. Books like God is not Great, The God Delusion, and Faith Vs. Fact by rock star status atheists have climbed the best seller lists, especially among millennials. Aside from the fact that these books have received plenty of criticism (see here, here, and here) many are happy to embrace their arguments as cut and dry proof of a universe void of ultimate meaning, truth, and purpose. Authors of the "new atheist" ilk such as the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris present a single-minded, black and white assault against religion, often refusing to tolerate its legacy or respect its legitimacy for the majority of people who identify with some kind of religious belief.
Science? Or Philosophy?
One of the frustrations I have with these books and their authors is their habit of invoking science as a deal breaker against theism - Christianity in particular. I find this confusing and frustrating for a number of reasons. As a Christian, I feel comfortable with science, and also recognize that the biblical worldview lays the foundation for the scientific method. God has created a world that is stable, predictable, able to be explored and tested, and even more - a world that is worth discovering, since every new valid scientific insight gives us another glimpse of God's glory in creation. Also, as Robert Barron notes, the mythical war between faith and science is more or less a conjured illusion. And yet, the new atheists rehearse this narrative to the point that it's assumed by many - even by some Christians. Additionally, I would argue that much of what passes for scientific argument in these books is really just philosophical arguments instead. All science requires interpretation, and claiming that science proves there is no God is a very philosophically informed interpretation of data that others interpret as evidence for God.
One of the claims common to the new atheists is that science will eventually be able to solve some of the greatest mysteries that have plagued thinking minds. This is nothing new. The confident scientific progress of the early 20th century aimed to explain mysteries that have long plagued humanity. But many of these mysteries are fiendishly elusive - especially the following three: 1) How did the universe begin? 2) How did life begin? 3) What is consciousness? Writing during the early 20th century, G.K. Chesteron described the mystery of these three questions well:
No philosopher denies that a mystery attaches itself to the two great transitions: the origin of the universe itself and the origin of the principle of life itself. Most philosophers have the enlightenment to add that a third mystery attaches to the origin of man himself. In other words, a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable when there came into the world what we call reason and what we call will - The Everlasting Man, pg. 27.
Great transitions and abysses. Those words describe these three mysteries well. Even during Chesterton's day these questions perplexed scientists and thinkers. The narrative of scientific progress held by many would suggest that given more time, these mysteries will become... less mysterious. However, the opposite has happened. The more we've been able to peer into these three mysteries, the more questions arise and solid answers elude.
How Did It All Begin?
The question of why anything exists at all is in itself a perplexing problem. And the problem is only exacerbated when we realize that the organ we're using to figure our where matter came from is composed of the same matter about whose origin we're curious. During Chesterton's writing career, most scientists assumed that the universe was eternal. Matter had always been and would always be. But Einstein and relativity introduced what Thomas Kuhn has called a scientific paradigm shift. The prevailing dogma of an eternal universe was gradually undermined as relativity suggested that the universe had a very sudden beginning, popularly know as the big bang. As would be expected in any paradigm shift, resistance from some in the scientific community continued, often for philosophical rather than scientific reasons. Take, for instance, Sir Arthur Eddington:
Philosophically, the notion of a beginning to the present order of Nature is repugnant... I should like to find a genuine loophole. We must allow evolution infinite time to get started...
Many atheists understood the theistic implications of a universe erupting from a seemingly ex nihilo state, and understandably objected. But eventually the evidence was overwhelming. The Hubble Space Telescope confirmed the theoretical aspect of the theory, showing that the universe is expanding, and scientists have measured the background echo of the event.
While the event itself seems clear enough to religious and irreligious alike, what looms behind the big bang is a very mysterious set of questions: Who/what pulled the trigger? And how is it that the four fundamental forces of nature - the weak/strong nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces- all align in such a way that a life-supporting universe is possible? Doesn't the universe, as random as it can seem at times, appear fine-tuned upon closer investigation? Or, as some have wondered, doesn't it seem like the universe knew we were coming?
Atheism may attempt to solve the mystery of the universe through science alone, but the best science we have about its origins open up questions that science may never be able to answer. The Christian belief in an all-eternal, all-powerful personality called God does not ultimately solve the mystery of how the universe began (for God as he is, in himself, is eternally mysterious), however, God does ultimately account for its origin. As Paul says in Romans 11, "From him and through him and to him are all things." Atheists may accuse Christians of abandoning science for a deus ex machina move. But the claim is not grounded, for eventually science reaches its limits and explanation falls apart. The mystery behind the origin of the universe demonstrates this well.
Where Did We Come From?
I still have memories of the 1953 Stanely Miller experiment from my high school biology textbook. By recreating the conditions of the early earth in the lab, the resulting congealed amino acids seemed to confirm that organic life, given the right conditions and amount of time, can arise from inorganic matter. Others, such as Russian scientist Alexander Oparin, had suggested this before Miller, but his groundbreaking experiment led to widespread confidence that the transition from inorganic to organic may not be as impassible or mysterious as previously thought. It would seem that the mystery of life was becoming less mysterious.
Around the same time, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the biological code for all living things - DNA. While the discovery of DNA has certainly removed much of the mystery behind the unique characteristics of this world's diverse tree of life, DNA has also deepened the mystery of how such an information dense structure can arise naturally. In his book The Signature in the Cell, philosopher of science Dr. Stephen Meyer explains that the biological information in DNA is not simply information, but functional information that relies upon a myriad of other sub-cellular contingencies to bring about even the simplest functions necessary for life. Meyer also carefully catalogues the long litany of attempts to account for the spontaneous development of DNA through the process of chemical evolution. His careful analysis of origin of life research reveals that the random development of DNA by natural causes alone defies probability. After going through the calculations of numerous researchers, he concludes:
The complexity of the events that origin-of-life researchers need to explain exceeds the probabilistic resources of the entire universe. In other words, the universe itself does not possess the probabilistic resources necessary to render probable the origin of biological information by chance alone - pg. 219.
Furthermore, one after another, purely naturalistic explanations for DNA have proved insufficient, whether they be Miller's congealed amino acids, theories of self-organization, outside forces, or biochemical predestination. And even progress made with programs such as Avida (a computer program that aims to show biological complexity arising from chance and necessity) still rely upon the intelligent design of human minds to account for their existence. Both probability and known causes stand against the random formation of DNA - let alone the remaining intricate web of necessary components required for a single cell to exist. It would seem the transition from inorganic to organic is for now an impassible chasm, and thus a profound mystery.
Science looks for known causes to account for natural phenomena. And rightly so. This fits with the biblical view of reality (miracles are not God's normal modus operandi in the world). However, as Meyer and others have pointed out, the only known cause that accounts for information is intelligence, and this is why the Christian belief in God as the intelligent author of life makes the best sense. Atheists may respond, "But God is not subject to empirical observation, and so he can't be a cause!" OK, fine. But if God is really who he says he is (transcendent and not part of creation), then his existence and intervention would not be subject to empirical observation - especially in a non-repeating event like abiogenesis. And furthermore, belief in God as the cause of life seems far more reasonable than some of the theories floating around, such as panspermia, the speculation of Francis Crick and others that perhaps an alien intelligence seeded life on earth in ages past. This sounds more like science fiction than reality, pushes the problem further back (where did the alien life come from?!), and makes one wonder why alien intelligence passes as a theory among some scientists and not an almighty, transcendent Creator?
Finally... How is it that inanimate matter achieves the ability to comprehend itself? The mystery of consciousness is incredibly hard to grasp, quite simply because we use consciousness to grapple with the nature of consciousness. While Christians are equally mystified as atheists by the gift of human reason, will, and consciousness, these are also considered a gift from the Creator himself, infused into human beings as marks of the imago dei (image of God) that make knowledge and worship of God possible. Many skeptics, however, are uneasy with the question of consciousness. Consider these honest words from Ron Rosenbaum in Slate:
Consider, for instance, the problem of the origin and nature of consciousness. The failure to solve it without resorting to religion or quasi-religious "intelligent design"... strikes many observers as dangerous. Dangerous because it threatens the foundation of scientific rationalism and materialism. Dangerous because it disrupts one's sense of any order in the universe and opens the floodgates of chaos.
Even atheist Jerry Coyne admits in his book Faith Vs. Fact that science may never have the solid answers to the question:
Ultimately, it’s solution may evade us for one reason: we’re using our limited cognitive abilities to tackle a research project that is hard even to frame… we’re forced to use an organ that evolved for other reasons to study how that organ makes us feel - pg. 158.
(What Coyne misses here, but others, such as Tim Keller and Alvin Platinga have picked up on, is that if our brains are purely the result of natural selection and traits that enhance survival, then our brains did not evolve for the purpose of the scientific method either, which serves to undermine our confidence in the relationship between our senses and reality - but that remains for another post).
The Christian faith locates the mystery of human consciousness in the even greater consciousness of God, who perceives all things past and present, even beholding the universe in all its created glory before sentient life was able to look up and say, "The heavens declare the glory of God!" (Ps. 19:1).
What Lies Behind These Mysteries
Apart from God, consciousness seems arbitrary - an adaptive glitch without any meaning beyond the anxious meaning we assess to it, and ultimately meaningless once we die. If the writer of Ecclesiastes was an atheist, I suppose he would have said consciousness itself is "an unhappy business that nature has given to the children of man to be busy with." Perhaps, as some have suggested, our consciousness is just an illusion. And if this is true to any degree, then the mysteries of the origin of the universe and life are ultimately an illusion, meaningless, and destined to fade into nothingness. But... if these mysteries point to the even greater mystery of God, then doctrines like the resurrection and the renewal of all things open up endless possibilities for meaning, enjoyment, and even empirical exploration.
Rev. John W. Rasmussen, Our Savior Lutheran Church