Implications of Science to Philosophy
The Question of the Existence of God
A lecture given at the 26th National Convention of American Atheists in San Francisco, Saturday, 22 April 2000.
It’s really a pleasure to be here with such a distinguished group of intellectual freethinkers as the Atheists - fellow Atheists - here on this very distinguished weekend - the day of the rising of our savior. I refer of course to none other than the great environmentalist David Brower, because this is the thirtieth anniversary of Earth Day. This also happens to be my birthday. The first earth day was actually my twenty-first birthday. The official day when you become a man was the first Earth Day for me. I was actually born in Berkeley - on my front porch. My father delivered me. He said that I would have hit the porch if he hadn’t caught me.
So, every year, at the Atheist solstice party, I tell a few jokes. I thought I’d lead off with just a couple of them.
I was not raised to be very religious, but my brother and I had a very religious, fundamentalist uncle. We visited him one weekend. In the morning, my uncle asked my brother what he wanted to eat. My brother said, “I’ll have some of them god-damned corn flakes.” Well my religious uncle led him into the bathroom, whipped him with his belt thirty times, and said “you’re going to be locked in the bathroom the whole day, no breakfast, no lunch, no dinner.” He came back to me and said, “What would you like to have for breakfast?” I said, “I don’t know, but I sure don’t want any of them god-damned corn flakes!”
A guy came to a Catholic priest’s confessional and said, “Father, forgive me, I made love to three different women last night.” The priest said, “Well say a hundred Hail Marys and wash yourself in the holy-water.”
The guy says, “No, I don’t have to do that, I’m not Catholic.”
The priest says, “Why are you telling me for?” The guy says, “I’m telling everyone!” And then there was this guy who was going golfing, He was an Atheist, and he was golfing with a very religious friend. He was a terrible golfer. He kept missing the ball, and he’d thrown one off into the rough and said “God-damn it, missed!” His religious friend said, “You better watch your tongue, because the Lord can strike you down with a bolt of lightening if you talk like that.” The Atheist, on the next hole missed a really easy putt and he said “God-damn it, missed!” And his religious friend admonished him again, “Don’t do that, the Lord will strike you down with a bolt of lightening.” The Atheist, again on the next hole, swung at the ball and missed it completely. “God-damn it! Missed!” This time, this was enough. Out from the sky a bolt of lightening comes down, striking down the religious guy. Then there is a big voice from the sky: “God-damn it! Missed!”
At any rate, I’m here to talk to you about science and what science really has to say. I think there’s too much emphasis on science’s utility - that is, technology and what it can do for us in terms of allowing us live longer and go places that we don’t normally go. But there’s another side to science that is often not looked at enough: science has very strong implications for that branch of philosophy which is metaphysics. It says something to us, and it even addresses the question of “god.”
It does not provide us a proof that there is not a god, because science has limits and to prove a negative is a very difficult thing. But I will explain to you why I am an Atheist - given a combination of science and logic, but without any proof to be presented.
Science has a number of very key, fundamental, important ideas that were worked out over the years. They are some of the biggest, most fundamental break-throughs in science. Among them are the idea of evolution by means of natural selection, which is credited not only to Charles Darwin, but also to Alfred Russel Wallace who worked it out independently, when he was in the Malay Archipelago. And evolution is the most unique, I think, of scientific breakthroughs in that it has two philosophical implications, whereas all the other major breakthroughs have just one.
Evolution is our Number One: it delineates a relationship between humans and plants and other animals. In other words it says that there is a common origin to all life - if you go back far enough in time, when life first began on earth - the first cells or set of cells. If we didn’t only evolve from one common cell, at least we evolved from a small population - and therefore we have common ancestry with all viruses, bacteria, plants, animals, fungi, everything. So in short the wolf is our brother and we have this common relationship with all living things through the evolutionary process.
The second thing that evolution says is that it talks about what you might call a materialistic, mechanistic, or godless origin. That is to say our origin came originally from what is called chemical evolution involving a set of chemicals in the earth’s early original atmosphere - which would be ammonia, methane, water, and some carbon compounds, but very simple and mostly reduced compounds - that is lots of hydrogen, including hydrogen itself in the form of H2. With electricity (or the current thinking now is perhaps that in a deep sea vent the source of energy could have been heat) these very simple molecules would have come together to react chemically.
Experimental evidence shows that when these do have an input, a source of energy, heat, electricity, or some other source of energy, you get amino acids and nucleic acid bases. Amino acids are the building blocks to life, because it’s amino acids from which your proteins are built. Nucleic acid bases are the informational components of your DNA and your RNA. Your genetic material in the form of RNA would be the material that transports the information from the DNA over to the part of the cell where the protein is made. And it’s your proteins that determine all of your structure and chemistry. Basically what’s been worked out - and I’m going to make a very long story short - is that the origin of life on earth was the result of physical and chemical processes, until you get to the first cell. After the first cell, it’s natural selection, Darwinian evolution through a process of very slow and gradual change over billions of years.
Now there have been many arguments presented by self-styled “creation scientists” - I call them pseudoscientists - who claim that evolution does not work. For example, they give the argument that because of the second law of thermodynamics - which states that entropy, which is disorder, must always increase in any reaction - evolution is impossible. In other words we’re going from a state of greater order to less order in any system that doesn’t have an outside input of energy. A simple example of this second law of thermodynamics would be if you have heat in one corner of a room - a heater - that heat will dissipate and spread evenly throughout the room given enough time, so that it’s a more ordered system when the heat is in one area; when things are uniform, it’s less order.
The aging process is another example of the second law of thermodynamics. Another example is the fact that when you drive a car you don’t get a free ride from the car. You end up polluting the air, and so the energy is dispersed into a less usable form, a form that’s less able to do work. So the argument that the creationists use is how can you - given the second law of thermodynamics - get from less complex to more complex forms? And the answer to this is simply that we do have an external source of input of energy coming to the earth - the sun.
So it would be a very good argument by the creationists, except they forgot about the sun. A minor detail.
The Process of Evolution It has been suggested by the critics, that evolution was done with a god directing it. They argue, “How can you get certain changes without the help of a god pushing it along?” The example they cite is the evolution of fish from the sea or freshwater onto land, into amphibians.
I’m just going to take this as one example - of which there are many - to illustrate how this can be done without any divine intervention, involving purely Darwinian natural selection. You all understand what natural selection is. It’s just a very simple process - I mean the concept is rather simple - in that it’s simply saying that those plants or animals that are better adapted, better to fit to the environment, for whatever reason, are more likely to survive and reproduce. It might be they have a color that hides them from predators better, so they’re better camouflaged. Those are the ones that on a statistical average tend to survive longer and have more offspring, so that those characteristics then are passed on to the next generation. That’s natural selection; and through that process, through many generations, you can get evolutionary change.
The argument that you have to have a teleological process, that is some kind of divine intervention directing things to a goal - to get for example from fish to amphibians - is answered by science in the following way. Suppose you have freshwater fish being caught in a situation of ponds that would dry up during the dry season. So the fish would be trapped when things are drying up. The fish would be in a situation where they were either going to die from a dried up pond or die from lack of oxygen - because when the pond is hot and drying up, even if it doesn’t run out of water, there is a lower oxygen content in the pond. So there would be selection for any fish that could develop a capacity to obtain oxygen other than by solely relying on gills - fish that could rely on lungs and be able to breath air. There would further be selection for those fish which have developed their pectoral and pelvic fins, their paired fins, into something that could assist in walking to another pond when their pond is drying up. So those would be two adaptations that would be selected for by the drying up of the ponds.
This story does have a problem with it: we don’t know for sure that amphibians evolved from freshwater fish. It might be that amphibians evolved from fish in the sea. In fact there are today - even though there are lung fish still living which are possible links to freshwater origins - there are also mudskippers in Indonesia - little fish that actually can come out and hop around on the shore and hunt for insects. They have little flipper-type fins that are used almost like legs. So there is some evidence that it may have happened from the sea. But fish in the sea also could have been subjected to a kind of selection pressure - a different kind of pressure - which would be the pressure from predators on the fish. In-shore fish would have an advantage if they could get out on the land. And remember, on the land at the time the first amphibians came out there would have been no predators - they would have been the first vertebrates. They would also have the advantage in that by that time insects were out on land, so there would be plenty to eat.
So if you proceed with the story of evolution throughout, there are many examples where at first it appears that you need some kind of divine intervention, but further scientific analysis shows that evolution could proceed without a god - godlessly.
Relativity and Quantum Theory
Now I want to talk about some of the bigger ideas in science other than evolution, and I want to talk for a minute about relativity theory. It is interesting in the following way: It’s saying that time and space can be bent by gravitational force. They are actually bendable entities - both space and time. This means that if you’re in a great enough gravitational field time changes, you actually age more slowly. Of course, if you’re in a greater gravitational field when that happens to you it’s going to kill you from the force. But a clock would slow down. Also space can be bent by mass. Mass is the source of gravity. The greater the mass - for example, something like the sun - the more bending of space. This means that time and space are actually physical entities. Now this is a very important and interesting thing to look at. It means number one, that we’re all interconnected, that the whole universe is one interconnected system connected by time and space which are things. Its not just an empty nothing and it’s not only that space isn’t an empty nothing, its actually time itself is an entity that’s subject to bending. That’s a pretty profound interconnectedness. So science here is saying that there’s a deep interconnectedness between things. Very interesting.
In quantum physics, what we see is something very interesting: we have phenomena which are referred to in science as non-objective and non-local. And what this means is that a quantum particle such as an electron or a photon can actually, when it makes a change “over here,” simultaneously affect another particle “over here.” And that’s not that it makes a change and then a really, really small amount of time later there’s an effect somewhere else: it’s actually simultaneous. So that’s what they mean by non-local effects: they’re fundamentally interconnected. The other part of this is the non-objective phenomenon, which means the observer himself can affect the outcome of an experiment. So at the quantum level things are very, very bizarre and weird and much different than they are at the macroscopic level in that there’s this really, really profound interconnectedness.
Now a lot of people have written books about this like Fritjof Capra has this thing called the Tao of Physics. They say “Oh, this really proves that these Eastern mystics are completely right.” I disagree with that interpretation, because it’s only true at the quantum level. Eastern Gurus and Yogis are, to my understanding, saying that we’re all one, even at the macro level, the large-scale level. All we have to do is look behind the illusion - we’re in a state of illusion - and behind it we’ll see that profoundly, literally we’re all one. But what quantum physics really says is: “Yes it’s literally one, but it only works at the very small level, the very, very small level.” Still its a very profound and interesting phenomenon.
Now bear this in mind as we start to look at the origin of the universe. Where did we all come from? How did it start? Well the leading scientific theory posits a so-called “big bang,” which happened probably about fifteen billion years ago. The universe started at a very sudden point - one unique point in time. The universe originated with this explosion that got things started and ever since everything has been moving out further and further apart. This is interesting to think about in terms of the idea that I gave earlier - relativity theory, where space and time are actual entities. The reason this is interesting - and it also has implications for the idea of god - is because people who are believers say well “Uh-huh, so science says there is a unique point at which the universe originated in time. That’s what we’ve always said. God created things all at once. So here’s a point for us.”
The problem is, if time and space are actual entities and not nothing, space and nothing are not synonyms; “nothing” means nothing at all. Space is a something, even though you can’t see it, but you need space for the universe to exist, just as you need time. The way Hawking says this big bang, this origin of the universe, happened is that there was no space and no time. No entity at all at the beginning of things. That it “was” - just all at once. So the problem with the god thing is - for the god interpretation, there would be no space or time in which to have a god, prior to the big bang, to get things started. So you would have to posit that the god also created himself and the origin of the big bang as well.
This also gets to the point where I said I’m not going to give you proof of no god because science has its limitations too here. Because at the beginning of things, we don’t know the real details of how it all started. There is an idea of a quantum vacuum fluctuation that began the big bang. But that’s sort of beyond the realm of this lecture. That’s very complicated science, and also it’s already in the realm of metaphysics and speculation, not testable science. So we’re not at a point where we can say we know how it happened. The interesting point is that from the big bang forward till now - the last approximately fifteen billion years - science can explain everything without a god. And that’s basically why as a scientist I, and many other scientists, are Atheists. That’s the actual bottom line of why we say that science tends to lead to a godless interpretation or Atheistic or materialistic interpretation of the universe. It’s based not on faith, it is based on evidence and the scientific method. It is not a direct disproof of god. It’s simply that we can explain things in a very plausible way. Not that we have all the details worked out, but the main ideas of the big bang and then evolution of the galaxies, and solar systems, and then chemical evolution, and Darwinian evolution until now. Scientific explanations all can be done without a god.
The Anthropic Principle
Now there is an interesting twist on this. Because I like to be very objective and very fair, I don’t think its scientific to set out to try to eliminate god. The conclusion has to come from the evidence. And here’s the interesting twist: the laws of the universe seem to be set up very well to have life evolve in the universe somewhere, not everywhere. Most planets probably don’t have life. By the way, they’ve now discovered somewhere around twenty-plus planets on stars outside our solar system. None of them are in the right conditions like earth to have life. But I think it’s only a matter of time before they’ll find that the right planets and the right conditions to have life.
There’s something like 1024 stars in the universe. That’s a one with 24 zeros added after it, the number of stars in the universe. So the chances that earth is the only one with the right conditions to have evolved intelligent life is very low. It is very likely that we have a number of other planets in the universe with intelligent life. It wouldn’t be exactly human. It wouldn’t be the same species as us. The probability of evolving life that’s exactly human is incredibly, incredibly small. However, you would have some kind of intelligent life. It might be similar to us in some ways. It might be bipedal and have opposable thumbs, eyes with stereo vision - but even that’s not sure. Maybe it’s dolphin-like, we don’t know.
At any rate, the laws of the universe seem to be set up in a way that life will evolve given the right conditions. The right conditions, although they won’t occur around most star systems, will occur around enough of them so that it should be plentiful in the universe. Intelligent life should be very plentiful in the universe. This is an interesting argument because, on the one hand, this means that you don’t need a god at all. It’s easy to get intelligent life and you don’t need a god. But the other side of this argument is this: if the laws are so well set up to get intelligent, life and if you accept the premise that life is a unique thing, and not just any phenomenon in the universe, and that intelligent life is really an important unique thing, then how come the laws are so good? Therefore, the argument would go, there must be a god to have set it up so nicely. So this would be an argument for Deism.
Deists like Thomas Jefferson believed in a god who just got things going and then just stepped back and got out of the way. He just wound things up, started things out. No longer needed, he stepped back. But then you have this paradox: it seems kind of silly to have no use for a god for fifteen billion years, but yet he set things up just right. He must be awfully bored, with nothing to do for fifteen billion years.
The Anthropic Principle
So how do we resolve this? We could be Deists I guess. But hardly anyone is a Deist anymore, even though some great minds were Deists. A suggested answer currently is called the Anthropic Principle. There are many versions of the Anthropic Principle, but the most relevant answer to this one is that there is not just one universe. There are multiple universes, and we try to account for the origin of the Big Bang by saying that a black hole in another universe lost mass and actually got us started by banging through to our universe. So that’s how we could account for the Big Bang. But of these many universes - it’s just like Darwinian natural selection - many many of these just didn’t come out with the right laws. It was just the right conditions that set the laws, and then the laws, when they were the right laws came out with life. So this posits there are millions and millions of universes, only a few of which have life. It’s the same process on the laws as Darwinian natural selection. And the Anthropic Principle says that in all those millions of universes that don’t have life, there’s no one around to ask the questions “How did we get here? Is there a god?” It’s only in those few such as our universe that you are able to look back and say “Gee, isn’t that strange that we have the laws just right to get us here? There must be a god - unless there’s an Anthropic principle.”
So, that’s sort of the answer to that. But what I want to leave you with on that subject is that that’s not science. That’s all logic and speculation and kind of good speculation based on the science we know, but not the kind of science that is really the testable science that gives you the answer. So what I would say is that the gist of my argument is based on the science that shows you can explain the universe without a god. Then I do an analysis of these other arguments which aren’t as obvious and aren’t proved, and go with the most reasonable position.
So I would say, it’s not that we have proof. It’s just the most logical, reasonable position. Going beyond science - and we are speculating here, let’s face it - when we’re talking about multiple universes, this is not a scientific theory because it’s not testable. To be a scientific theory, it has to be testable. Using what appears to be the best logic, I say it is the most reasonable interpretation of the data to say that there’s not a god, and the Anthropic Principle is the best thing we have going - although it might not be the best thing we have going tomorrow. But it certainly isn’t logical to say that there is a universe that can exist and be here without a god for fifteen billion years, but then say that there is a god just because the laws are so good. To me that’s not the most logical interpretation.
We need yet to consider several scientific breakthroughs. One was the discovery of the structure of the solar system. It was originally thought during the pre-Copernicus era that the earth was the center of the solar system, and this was preached by the church. Then Copernicus proposed that the sun was the center of the solar system, and Galileo came and proved it. You know the story of how he went in front of the church, had to say that he was wrong, and then he left and muttered “No, I was right, I just said that so you wouldn’t torture me.”
This discovery is significant in that it shows that humans - instead of being in the center of things in the center of the universe - are just one more thing on a speck of dust in a huge universe. We’re not in the center of even our solar system. Actually we’re two-thirds of the way out of the Milky Way galaxy. So we’re not anywhere near the center of that. The milky way galaxy has nothing special about it, and within our solar system we are simply one planet going around. In our galaxy there are many, many such planets - and probably many with life. There is nothing special about us, and that’s something that evolution also tells us. Even though we are uniquely adapted in that we’re the most intelligent species on earth, we’re not in any particular way a species that’s favored, say, over a rain forest frog or a snake in the desert.
Any species is as good as any other. There’s no soul to the human and nothing that sets us divinely apart. So evolution, in the same way that the Copernican view of the universe knocked humans off of the pedestal, has shown we are not the goal of some cosmic process. It has put us in no special place. At the same time, it has been a blow to the god idea, because it’s also saying there’s nothing divine or nothing special about us. So, we have this history through scientific discovery from Copernicus and Galileo down through Darwin of dethroning humans and dethroning their god.
This leads us to Freud’s idea of the subconscious mind, which has the same dethroning effect. Not only are we not in the center of the universe, not only are we not any special species that was ordained by a god and created in the garden of Eden and set apart from the animals, we simply evolved as one more species with adaptations that are very special but really no more special than that of a frog which has its unique adaptations to its environment. As if that weren’t enough, Freud told us that even our minds are 90% something that we are not even conscious of - a further dethroning of the uniqueness of humans, a further dethroning of their god.
So there are really three trends in science that we’ve seen as science has progressed. First, is the taking away of humans from the center of things, with us becoming just one more thing on a speck of dust in a large universe. Second, is the taking away of the idea of a god or a teleological divine purpose in the universe. No particular purpose or god driving the universe and no purpose for the universe can be discerned. Third, when you look at relativity theory, evolution, and quantum physics, you seem to find a very interesting interrelatedness of things in the universe - so that we’re all interrelated to the rest of the system, to each other, and to the ecosystem. And of course, the science of ecology further underscores this idea, and systems theory further demonstrates this idea of interrelationships. So those are the three basic take-home ideas of science that we have seen and are seeing illustrated more and more as science has progressed.
Enemies of Earth?
This brings me to a theme I want to touch on as well here on Earth Day, because these ideas of science are not totally devoid of political or social content - especially in today’s world. Science has arrived at a consensus opinion that we have tremendous environmental problems because of what we’re doing to the ecosystem. It’s interesting to me as a scientist to look at what the general public understands about environmental issues and what the press relates to the general public - which is that there are environmental problems, they’re serious, and something has to be done. In fact polls show that the public supports work on environmental issues even if they have to pay more money for that. But, environmental issues are considered low priority. They’re supported by the public and most people consider themselves environmentalists, but they don’t rate them as high as crime prevention or education.
What about the press’ coverage of environmental issues? In the last month, there’s been this talk about Elian Gonzalez - whether he should go to Cuba or stay in the United States. We get that on the nightly news. In a half-hour news show, maybe five minutes every night is devoted to Elian Gonzalez and whether this one child should be in Cuba or the United States. Meanwhile, we have neglect of news stories dealing with global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer. On the one hand, we have what you hear on the news and what the public thinks. On the other hand are views about environmental issues such as I as a scientist have developed from reading the scientific literature and talking to other biologists in my field. There is now a consensus that we are destroying the planet at such a rate that there won’t be any human beings left if we continue this trend for, say, another fifty years. There’s a consensus now that we’re already changing the climate through global warming. This is already starting to take effect. We’ve already started the greatest mass extinction in the history of the earth. The 600 million years of multicellular life on earth has had mass extinctions - at least five mass extinctions actually - and if the trends continue we are going to have the biggest mass extinction in the history of the planet. Furthermore there’s scientific consensus that the ozone layer is being destroyed, and that this is very serious. So the scientific consensus is that we will have a major catastrophe - possibly the end of the human race and of all higher life in about fifty years unless we make some drastic changes.
Now how is this relevant to religion? This is relevant to religion in the following way. One of the roots - not the only root, but one of the roots of this problem - is over-population: too many people. Solutions to the over-population problem include the empowerment of women, sex education in schools, availability of birth-control devices, support from the US (which has a lot of money to do it) through the UN for family planning and abortion services worldwide, to enfranchise poor women around the world, and maintain free and legal abortion in the United States. We need these things because we need to control the population that’s now at six billion, with a doubling time of about forty years. So if you can imagine right now the environmental impact of global warming already destroying life on the planet to a large extent and endangering our existence, you can just imagine what things will be like in forty years: two Chinas, two Indias, two Chicagos, two New Yorks, two United States of America, and so on. Twice as many people.
And so there is the religious relevance of this. I don’t have to tell you more about the position of the religious right on this, and their powerful lobbies in congress, and the fights going on constantly in congress and with the white house. The election is coming up. So we need to elect pro-choice candidates. It’s not limited of course to population, I mean we have too many cars, we need to switch our industry from fossil fuel-based to solar-based economy and wind-based renewable energy, and so on. And of course global warming just to give an example. I don’t want to belabor the point too much, but I just want to make the point that it’s not simply the heating of the earth’s atmosphere, and nothing more. It means that we’re going to have increased droughts and floods, because the hydrological cycle is altered. We already are having tornadoes and hurricanes increasing in both intensity and number, and increased outbreaks of insects and forest fires because of the drying of the forests. Last year, because of global warming, for the first time in history we had burning of rain forests in Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and Africa. Of course this is interrelated to other problems. We’re losing rain forests at a hundred acres a minute. We’re losing rain forest through human destructive activity - burning and cutting half the area of the state of California per year. Of course, when you lose the forest, you loose the ability of the plants to photo-synthesize and take CO2 out of the atmosphere and alleviate the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas. When you cut a tree, it decomposes and puts the carbon dioxide - the main green house - gas back in the air. When you burn trees - as with burning of the rain forests, you also put the carbon back in the air and make the problem ever more dangerous.
I’m afraid my time is up. I’m sorry this has been such a very general lecture. All these points need to be gone into in much, much more detail.
David Seaborg is an environmental biologist who is the founder and president of the World Rainforest Fund and the Seaborg Open Space Fund. He is a well-known public speaker on issues related to science and the environment. He is also an award-winning poet and nature photographer. He is the son of Glenn T. Seaborg, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist for whom element 106, Seaborgium, is named.
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