Sooty and the universe
An edited extract from Edgar Andrews’ forthcoming book Who made God?to be published by EP Books in September.
In an interview for the London Times, the novelist and science-fiction writer Iain Banks declared himself as follows: ‘I’m an evangelical atheist; religions are cultural artefacts. We make God, not the other way round … Religion is one way to explain the universe, but eventually science comes along and explains it…’
He continued: ‘I can remember walking down the street in May 1963 … trying to work out how the world had been formed. I thought that Sooty must have magicked it with his wand. Then I wondered what Sooty could have been standing on in this unformed Universe in order to create it. And who made Sooty? That’s when atheism came thundering through me’.
No doubt the young Iain Banks didn’t give the matter the full consideration it deserved, but his whimsical observation sums up the opinions of a surprisingly large number of people in our 21st century Western world. And, of course, ‘Who made Sooty?’ readily translates into adult-speak as ‘Who made God?’
It’s a question commonly posed by those who would banish the very ideas of God and ‘creation’. Richard Dawkins asks it repeatedly, in various ways, in his best-selling book The God delusion. The logic runs something like this.
If God exists, then presumably he created everything (why else would we need him?). But if God exists, who made him? And since no one can answer that question, it does nothing to solve the riddle of the universe to say, ‘God made it’. We simply push the mystery one step further back and that is a pointless exercise.
No one can doubt that atheists regard their ‘unanswerable question’ – ‘Who made God?’ – as a formidable weapon in their war against faith, but there is more to the question than meets the eye and it crops up in a surprising variety of philosophical contexts.
So let’s look briefly at three such contexts – the ‘we made God’ hypothesis, the ‘improbability of God’ calculation, and the ‘unanswerable question’ dilemma.
Did man make God?
There is one answer that atheists are happy to accept – the answer ‘We made God’. As Banks might say, religion has it back to front – we are not God’s creation; he is ours. God is a mental construction that mankind once needed to ‘explain’ its existence but which is no longer required because science explains everything instead.
As this book develops we shall see that attempts to make science explain everything are doomed to failure, but for the moment let me point out three small problems with the ‘We made God’ hypothesis.
First, it falls into the very same trap that the atheist cunningly sets when he asks, ‘If God made everything, who made God?’ Because when he confidently declares that we made God it must then be asked, ‘If we made God, who made us?’
Since the answer ‘God made us’ is obviously excluded, the question ‘Who made us?’ is no more answerable than ‘Who made God?’ Just to reply, ‘Evolution made us’ simply will not do. As Scott Adams has observed: ‘Evolution isn’t a cause of anything; it’s an observation, a way of putting things in categories. Evolution says nothing about causes’. Or to put it more simply, if evolution made us, who made evolution?
The atheist will no doubt reply that evolution is simply the way nature works; it is just part of the ‘everything’ that theists wrongly attribute to God. But such logic leads us in an unexpected direction – and I’ve written a diminutive one-act play to prove it.
[On stage, three people: ‘theist’, ‘first atheist’ and ‘second atheist’ engaged in an argument. Enter left: ‘enquirer’ wearing a duffle coat and a puzzled expression.]
Enquirer: Excuse me interrupting, but can you tell me who made everything?
Theist: Yes; God made everything.
First atheist: Oh? So who made God?
Second atheist: We made God.
Theist: Then who made us?
First atheist: Evolution made us.
Theist: Who made evolution?
Second atheist: It’s part of everything; ‘everything’ made evolution.
Enquirer: Excuse me interrupting … but who made everything? Oh, never mind.[Enquirer exits the way he came in, wearing an even more puzzled expression.]
When the M25 ring-road around London was finally completed in 1986, a number of motorists I knew drove around the whole 117-mile circuit just for the fun of it. Since they finished up exactly where they started, you may feel it was a pointless exercise. But a philosophical argument that ends up where it started is even more pointless – and such, as our little drama indicates, is the contention that ‘We made God’.
The problem of probability
‘Who made God?’ crops up less obviously in a probability argument presented by Richard Dawkins in The God delusion. And here we must begin with a note of caution. Probability theory is a branch of mathematics which can, of course, be applied to the real world. But there is nothing of the real world built into the theory itself.
A famous example is Sir Fred Hoyle’s calculation of the probability of spontaneously forming a protein molecule from its amino-acid constituents – which he likened to the probability that a whirlwind in a junk yard would assemble a Boeing 747.
Good fun, of course, but it’s just number-juggling and takes no account of physical and chemical realities – such as the presence or absence of water, catalysts and competing chemical reactions. In the absence of a realistic chemical scenario, there is no way of knowing whether such abstract calculations have any meaning.
Equally, however, the claim that anything (like the origin of life) must happen by chance if you wait long enough is also fallacious. Again, this claim is based on the idea that no mathematically possible event has zero probability. But what is mathematically possible may be physically impossible.
Consider the claim that 100 monkeys banging the keys of 100 typewriters (with no lunch breaks) will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. Not true. The well-established chemical theory of rate processes tells us that all real-world processes are reversible – they can go backwards as well as forwards, and the net result is the balance between forward steps and backward steps.
For a process to go forward on average requires a payback of free energy. If there is no such payback, each forward step will sooner or later be cancelled out by a backward step and the system will remain in stasis.
Applying this to the monkeys, we see that progress towards a Shakespeare folio would actually go backwards, not forwards, since the likelihood of the next keystroke being an error is much greater than the likelihood of it being correct (there being 26 letters in the alphabet, one would be correct but 25 would be mistakes).
So if you started the monkeys with a typescript lacking just a single sonnet but otherwise complete and correct, it wouldn’t be long before The Merchant of Venice was in total disarray – let alone Much ado about nothing.
In order to apply mathematical probability theory to the real world, therefore, requires us to build the real world into the scenario. In physics and chemistry the result is called ‘statistical mechanics’, which is one approach to the science of thermodynamics.
The mathematical theory of probability can only be applied correctly to the real world through the filter of thermodynamics, and this has implications when we consider the ‘probability’ of God.
The probability of God
The argument for the improbability of God, as advanced by Dawkins, seems to boil down to the following reasoning: (1) By common consent, the world is a highly improbable and complex system; (2) if God created the world he must be more complex than the world he created; therefore (3) God is less probable than the world; indeed, he is fantastically improbable; so (4) God probably doesn’t exist.
Although produced with a flourish, the argument holds no more water than a sieve. Firstly we have to accept the dubious assumption that the science of thermodynamics – which was developed to describe the behaviour of matter and energy – applies to theology and God. You might just as well apply it to love, music or politics, but I promise you it won’t work.
Having agreed, presumably, that the world does exist in spite of its extreme complexity and organisation (high improbability), the argument goes on to say that God is unlikely to exist because he is … well, er, highly improbable.
OK, so God is arguably more complex and thus less probable than the physical universe. But by what logic must we accept that one highly improbable entity exists (the universe) while another highly improbable entity (God) does not exist – simply because he is too complex or organised to do so?
Through the maze without cheating
The third context in which ‘Who made God?’ appears is the most obvious one. The question is deemed unanswerable because the only realistic reply is ‘No one made God’. And if no one made God, then he can’t be there, can he? After all, for every effect there must be a cause. An effect that has no cause must be imaginary.
Once again, in their enthusiasm to prove their point, the proponents of this argument entangle physics with metaphysics. Cause and effect do indeed reign supreme in the physical realm – both science and normal life would be impossible unless they did. But why should they operate in the same manner in a spiritual realm (if such exists)?
We have a choice. Firstly, we can assert a priori that there is no such thing as a spiritual realm – that nothing exists that is not physical and open to scientific investigation. On this basis we can proceed to claim, with some logical justification, that every possible effect must have a cause, because that is how the physical world works.
But what we cannot do is use this claim to disprove the existence of God on the grounds that he doesn’t have a cause! Why not? Because our argument would be completely circular. We begin by assuming that no spiritual realm exists and conclude by ‘proving’ our initial assumption. Big deal.
So let’s try to find a different route through the maze, this time without cheating. To avoid assuming at the outset what we want to prove, we must start by allowing that there might indeed be a spiritual realm.
Because cause and effect is only proven for the physical world, we can no longer insist that they are relevant to the origin of a spiritual entity like God. Therefore God doesn’t have to have a cause – he can be the ultimate uncaused cause, a being whom no one made.
© 2008 Professor Edgar H. Andrews
BSc, PhD, DSc, FInstP, FIMMM, CEng, CPhys