Why belief in unicorns is more logical than atheism
Comparison of belief in God to belief in unicorns is pervasive in the atheist blogosphere. But the history of belief in unicorns has an extremely interesting lesson to teach, in regards to atheism. Bo Jinn brilliantly explains in Illogical Atheism how belief in unicorns is actually significantly less superstitious than atheism:
It is not enough to refuse the evidence given in support of the hypothesis, the atheist must substitute a hypothesis of his own and give evidence for it as well. To illustrate this point, let us assume the case of an atheist favorite; the unicorn:
…The myth of the unicorn first came about when ancient nomadic people of Europe discovered strange objects washed up along their shores. These objects were long, pointed, conical and had the weight and texture of bone. So, the nomads inferred that they must have been the horn of some kind of animal. The only animals they knew of with horns were land animals like the antelope and the elk. But these horns looked like they could not belong to either. The ancient nomads would have proposed the best possible explanation for what animal the horns might have belonged to by observing their own surroundings and reasoning things out.
So, they concluded that the best explanation was that the horns must have belonged to a large and powerful species of horse that roamed some far away land. If one considers the position of the ancient nomad, one might appreciate that this is hardly an illogical explanation. A horse was a land creature, it was large enough and strong enough to bare the weight of the big horn and since the horns were found washed up on shore one may assume the nomads would have thought that these large horses died at sea, their bodies were devoured by sea beasts and that the horns floated to their coastal waters. And that is how the myth of the unicorn came about.
Now, it is entirely beside the point whether this theory is actually true or not. We only need notice two things: First; the unicorn was not thought up randomly by the nomads to fulfill some secret natural inclination to believe in mythological creatures. The unicorn was an explanatory hypothesis for a set of facts. Secondly, the unicorn hypothesis was not refuted simply by saying “I need more evidence that these unicorns exist.” Rather, the unicorn hypothesis was refuted, because many years later it was discovered that the horns were not horns, but tusks; belonging to a small whale we know today as the ‘narwhal’. The more evidence was brought against the unicorn hypothesis, the more the unicorn myth faded into obscurity. Notice, also, that the nomads were not completely wrong with their hypothesis. The horns did belong to an animal, also a mammal, which died at sea, just as they had thought! It just so happens that the animal was not precisely the kind of animal they had imagined.
Rational intuition never completely succeeds, but it seldom completely fails either. The point of the metaphor is that atheists have yet to find their narwhal. They do not have a substitute explanation for the existence of the universe which removes from any of the attributes by which theists have traditionally come to understand God. There has been no evidence that some other possible explanation exists.
Jinn continues by pointing out that the atheist has only two alternatives to the unicorn hypothesis, which are particularly bad, and more superstitious by far than belief in unicorns:
- The horns popped out of nothing.
- The horns exist eternally.
Where in our experience do we have examples of material things which have existed eternally? And where in our experience do we witness material things just popping into existence from nothing? And if our universe just popped into existence, why don’t we experience other material things (such as giraffes, refrigerators, or rocks) popping into existence from nothing? Why would only universes pop into existence from nothing? A modern-day person has no more logical justification to propose either of the two above explanations than an ancient nomadic European trying to explain mysterious horns lying on the beach.
However, according to atheist physicists such as Laurence Krauss, simpletons like myself just don’t get it: Krauss argues in his book A Universe from Nothing that a universe CAN just pop into existence out of nothing. Since particles pop into existence all the time in what is known as a quantum vacuum state, a universe, too, can pop into existence from nothing. But as David Albert, who holds a PhD in theoretical physics, points out in his New York Times book review of A Universe from Nothing, this is an absurd equivocation on the term nothing. (As an aside, please read my post about equivocation fallacies). A quantum vacuum state is not nothing, and it is an open-and-shut equivocation fallacy to suggest otherwise. Rather, a quantum vacuum state consists of space replete with energy fields. Suggesting that a particle can pop into existence from nothing in a quantum vacuum is philosophically equivalent to suggesting that a person can cause his fist to pop into existence from nothing by rearranging his fingers, as Albert sardonically explains:
Krauss seems to be thinking that these vacuum states amount to the relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical version of there not being any physical stuff at all. And he has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing.
But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.
Krauss, mind you, has heard this kind of talk before, and it makes him crazy. A century ago, it seems to him, nobody would have made so much as a peep about referring to a stretch of space without any material particles in it as “nothing.” And now that he and his colleagues think they have a way of showing how everything there is could imaginably have emerged from a stretch of space like that, the nut cases are moving the goal posts. He complains that “some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” and that “now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing,’ but rather as a ‘quantum vacuum,’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized ‘nothing,’” and he does a good deal of railing about “the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy.” But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right.
Atheist physicists such as Krauss haven’t found their “narwhal” by boldly redefining nothing as space replete with energy fields (a quantum vacuum). Rather, they have engaged in what amounts to superstition gleaned from amateurish philosophy. Like Krauss, atheist physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s equivocation on the concept of nothing is PAINFULLY evident in their interview regarding their book The Grand Design with Larry King on Larry King Live as William Lane Craig points out:
Hawking: “Gravity and quantum theory cause universes to be created spontaneously out of nothing.”
King: “Who created the nothing? Where did the nothing come from?”
Mlodinow: “According to quantum theory, there is no such thing as nothingness.”
WLC notes that, in this utterly ridiculous exchange, Hawking is using “nothing” to refer to the quantum vacuum, whereas Mlodinow uses “nothing” in the traditional definition of nothing as non-being (no time, space, matter, or energy, etc).
So maybe option 2 above, the universe existing eternally, does away with the need for God. But, as Jinn points out above, the atheist must produce evidence that the universe has existed eternally, not just a bald and unsupported assertion. Unfortunately for the atheist who leans on an eternal universe as his “narwhal,” all of the evidence points to a universe that is NOT eternal. For example, the fact that our universe is continually expanding (as verified by telescopic observation) implies that it began with a “Big Bang”, as this post describes.
The natural universe (which includes the properties of space, time, matter, and energy) came into being at the cosmological event known as the Big Bang. Because it is a logical absurdity to suggest that something can cause itself, the cause of the universe must necessarily be spaceless, timeless, immaterial, and energy-less. Indeed, it would every bit as absurd to suggest that a person could give birth to himself as it would be to suggest that something within the natural universe could be the cause of the natural universe.
Scientific confirmation of the universe’s beginning has caused much sorrow among scientists ideologically committed to atheism because, for centuries, most atheists have hung their hat on belief in an eternally existing universe in order to do away with God….no beginning, therefore no Beginner. Robert Jastrow is an astronomer, physicist, and the founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. As a self-described agnostic, Jastrow found the theistic implications of the Big Bang distasteful, yet inescapable. He therefore describes his realization of these theistic implications as “like a bad dream” in his book God and the Astronomers:
“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.’
And it is actually more than just theologians who have postulated God as the spaceless, timeless, immaterial, and energy-less cause for the universe. Physicist George Stanciu and philosopher Robert Augros provide an excellent nutshell explanation of why a mind (read: God) is the cause for the natural universe in their book The New Story of Science:
“In the New Story of science the whole universe–including matter, energy, space, and time–is a one-time event and had a definite beginning. But something must have always existed; for if ever absolutely nothing existed, then nothing would exist now, since nothing comes from nothing. The material universe cannot be the thing that always existed because matter had a beginning. It is 12 to 20 billion years old. This means that whatever has always existed is non-material. The only non-material reality seems to be mind. If mind is what has always existed, then matter must have been brought into existence by a mind that always was. This points to an intelligent, eternal being who created all things. Such a being is what we mean by the term God.”
Some readers may be inclined to think that a mind which exists independent of time, space, matter, and energy is just an ad hoc explanation, arbitrarily cooked up in the heads of religious folks. But such readers would be greatly mistaken. An immaterial conscious mind is required to explain the famous observer effect in physics. The observer effect refers to the conclusion of modern physics that, prior to observation by a conscious observer, particles exist only in an immaterial form known as a possibility wave (or probability wave). It is only after an observation is made by a conscious observer that these possibilities “collapse into actuality,” thereby taking on material form. Readers who find this bizarre or difficult to understand are in good company. Even the world’s most elite physicists are amazed and puzzled by the observer effect. But it has been repeatedly scientifically verified. (Please read Johns Hopkins University physicist Richard Conn Henry’s article The Mental Universe, and University of California, Berkeley physicist Henry Stapp’s book Mindful Universe for a more thorough exploration of this subject). Physicist Richard Conn Henry explains how people with atheistic leanings recoil at the clear theistic implications of modern physics :
“Why do people cling with such ferocity to belief in a mind-independent reality? It is surely because if there is no such reality, then ultimately (as far as we can know) mind alone exists. And if mind is not a product of real matter, but rather is the creator of the illusion of material reality (which has, in fact, despite the materialists, been known to be the case since the discovery of quantum mechanics in 1925), then a theistic view of our existence becomes the only rational alternative to solipsism.” [“Solipsism” is defined as “the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist.”]
Indeed, the founder of quantum physics himself, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck, was referring to a mind which exists independent of (and serves as the cause for) space, time, matter, and energy, when he wrote:
“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
Planck also wrote:
“As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.”
An atheist is free to cook up alternative explanations for a “mind [which] is the matrix of all matter,” in the above words of the founder of quantum physics. But, unless such an atheist can produce evidence, and a logical argument to support such an alternative, he has not found his narwhal.