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Dan Matthews
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The trouble with dumb luck

05 June 2014, 12:10

In my last article, I looked at the approach of certain atheists towards those who believe in a god. It stirred up a good debate and there were a number of self-confessed Angry Atheists who certainly didn't pull their punches towards me (even though I never stated any theological position) and those who believed in a god. One thing I observed was a frequent sentiment surfacing where an Angry Atheist excused their attitude towards theists because "your views don't deserve respect". The accompanying language referred to theists as 'stupid', 'ignorant', 'deluded', 'godtards' and the concept of there being some kind of supreme being as a 'joke'.

I have no interest in trying to prove the existence or otherwise of a supreme being (or beings). Such a thing would, by definition, be impossible. Atheists at this point would therefore say that, given the absence of evidence, god does not exist. However, I feel that this is doing a disservice to the billions of theists in the world. This article is an attempt to redress that imbalance and, if possible, reassure the theists that whether they are right or wrong, their views are still worthy of respect in our modern world.

Before I start, allow me to lay out the ground rules that I set myself for this article.

  1. I am going to take no particular theological position myself.
  2. I am not going to prefer or align with any religion.
  3. For the sake of clarity (and with no disrespect intended to pantheists, polytheists etc.) I will refer to a supreme being as 'God'.
  4. I will not debate the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) position - discussing the age of the earth, while interesting, is not directly relevant to this debate.
  5. I will not debate about the ills or crimes attributed to any particular religion - this article is not about what man does in the name of religion, it is about whether the belief in a God is at all rational.
  6. Every statement I make must be easily referenced on the internet by peer-reviewed articles. (I won't reference all the articles myself, it would take too long and bloat the article, but even the most basic of Google searches will provide the information you need.)

Now we have set the stage, let us begin.

In the beginning...

Theists believe that before there was something, there was God, and from God all things came. This requires faith. After all, no-one was there. The postulation is simple, but atheists feel this 'get out clause' is unsatisfactory.

Atheists believe that before there was something, there was some kind of nothing, and from that some kind of nothing all things came. This also requires faith, and for the same reason. Atheists at this point will try to argue evidence for this based on the writing of Hawking and others, who postulate the idea of the Big Bang and other such suggestions. There's actually a plethora of different suggestions on how exactly this could have happened - a singularity, a 'big bounce', other dimensions. The very fact that there are so many suggestions should show just how little idea we have about where it all came from.

What all this tells us though is this... we simply don't know. We're coming up with new ideas all the time, but our best theories are still no more than that; ideas. In fact, this is not something we'll ever be able to prove using empirical evidence. We can't create an entire universe, and so all we can do is come up with ideas that hopefully explain a bit of what we see in the Universe.

There of course theists who hold with the theory of the Big Bang, or one of the alternatives. In their judgement, these purely naturalistic explanations alone are insufficient, and so they believe that God 'lit the blue touch paper'. Essentially, in this regard they fall in the same category as all theists because they all believe that before there was something, there was God.

Against this backdrop, the accusation that everything came from God is a 'joke' is a bit farcical, because the alternative is to say that it all came from a some kind of philosophical suggestion of a nothing. Theists could argue that's just as much of a 'joke'. Ultimately, it boils down to a simple choice of belief - everything from God, or everything from nothing.

And then there was life...

Theists believe that God created life supernaturally. Again, theists fall into one of two camps - some believe in a miraculous 'in situ' creation, others believe that God initiated live via supernatural intervention in naturalistic processes. Addressing the first of these, it is again an 'easy' explanation, yet requires faith. For that reason, there is a great desire from other parties to find a purely naturalistic explanation for the origin of life, otherwise called 'abiogenesis'.

Atheists would hold this view - that inanimate natural processes themselves can spontaneously create life. This has not yet been demonstrated - we have only been able to create life from other life (such as cloning). However, atheists would suggest that if we can even create the building blocks necessary for life, we are part of the way towards proving such a thing is possible. Probably the most famous of these experiments is the Miller-Urey attempts to create amino acids (one of the many building blocks of life) from a laboratory replica of 'primordial soup'. This experiment did produce amino acids, but unfortunately for the proponents of biogenesis, they were the wrong kind. Or, at least, a mixture of the right kind and wrong kind. Life requires exclusively left-handed amino acids, but the experiment produced a mixture. In addition, the conditions for creating these short-lived amino acids required a great deal of laboratory intervention over and above that which would be found in a 'primordial soup'. In fact, what these experiments proved is that even given a huge amount of creative and clever intervention, even the correct form of one of the most basic building blocks of life could not be artificially created in this manner.

We could then move on to the other multitude of objects required for life... sugars, enzymes, DNA/RNA, fats. We still have no credible explanation of how all these could have miraculously and spontaneously 'happened' in one place and combined perfectly to form life. Many scientists are now looking to other explanations for abiogenesis based on other theories other than the primordial soup - but currently it's pure conjecture.

I would stress that none of this says that some as-yet undiscovered processes did not make all of this happen. We simply don't know. But from where we stand right now, again saying that life came from God is a 'joke' is not really sensible, because we actually have no idea whatsoever and have no credible explanation to hold up as an alternative.

And then a circle sort of straightened out and became a square...

Theists believe that everything we see around us is the result of intelligent design, including the laws of science and all living things. Some would believe that living things were created again 'in situ' according to parent species (although over the years breeding has diluted the gene pool and created the multitudes of specialisation we see today). Some would believe that species evolved over time, with God intervening to 'direct' the evolution as required.

Atheists would claim that natural selection combined with pure dumb luck is responsible for all of the life we see on the planet today. However, this raises a problem if we look at empirical evidence and observable science. It is pretty much universally accepted that information can only come from information, and embedded within every living thing is the most incredibly precise and complex set of information that could ever be conceived. Mankind is only beginning to start to unravel the complexities of DNA/RNA, and the more we learn about it the more amazing it is. We are then faced with a scientific paradox - how can complexity and order come from simplicity and chaos? We can try and suggest mechanisms for it, and can even demonstrate some. However, those we demonstrate involve intelligent exchange of existing information. We have never demonstrated spontaneous increase of information. Where information does increase, we find that the organism already contained the information-generating information (such as that in many viruses). Even the mechanisms we suggest for spontaneous information generation such as genetic mutation seem to resist the kind of changes that would be required and end up tending back towards the original information set.

And so we fall back onto as-yet-unknown processes and pure dumb luck. We can create mathematical models with predefined routines and specific parameters that may suggest ways to reduce the amount of luck or to attain a predefined target, but all we've done is add intelligence to this mix. We aren't dealing purely with chance any more, and so our basic premise is compromised.

Of course, this is no way proves it did not happen this way, but it requires faith - faith that something which apparently breaks the laws of observable science will someone redefine science as we understand it.

Against this backdrop, it is disingenuous to suggest that God is a 'joke' that played no part in the existence of all the complexity we see around us. We simply have no other credible and comprehensive explanation, only suggestions that don't really stand up under closer scrutiny. Maybe some day we will have a full answer, but until that time, we need to recognise the limits of what we understand.


A theist believes that God provides all the input necessary to bring the universe into existence, commence life and bring about complexity. An atheist believes that purely naturalistic processes can achieve all of this. What this brief article may hopefully show is that both approaches require faith. Neither can claim superiority to a rational person as nether can be proved - any indeed may never be proved.

Certainly theists cannot, with any reasonableness, be labelled 'ignorant' or 'stupid'. If that is the case, then all of us are equally ignorant and stupid. None of us have the answers. Theists, take heart. Whether you are right or wrong, you are entitled to your opinion and never allow false accusations to wear you down. If you abandon your faith in God, then do so for a reason other than because you feel shamed unfairly into it. Atheists, take note - every time you sling an unfair accusation at a theist, you are actually doing so at yourself as well!

If you wish to respond to this article, I respectfully ask that - as I have set myself ground rules - you follow some yourself. Please do not resort to the logical fallacy of criticising the article without reasoning. For example, I have often seen comments such as 'I can't even begin to explain why you are so wrong' or 'What a load of utter rubbish'. It may make the commenter feel empowered, and may add negative 'noise' which is what they hope to attain, but it is poor debating. I have laid out some thoughts here, and if you disagree with them then it would help us all if you could explain what exactly you disagree with, and why. That way, we can all benefit from your wisdom!

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