Why atheism cannot be true (part 1)

There is some debate about the definition of the word ‘atheism’. The term has been used in a variety of different ways encompassing agnosticism and even specific forms of belief in God / gods (for example, under Roman rule Christians were often term ‘atheists’). Fundamentally (and etymologically) ‘atheism’ is the negation of ‘theism’. According to a dictionary of philosophy edited by the celebrated atheist Anthony Flew (who late in life converted to a form of theism), ‘theism’ is defined as: “Belief in God, where God is understood to be the single omnipotent and omniscient creator of everything that exists. He is regarded as a Being distinct from his creation though manifesting himself through it, and also essentially personal, caring for and communicating with mankind, and infinitely worthy of human worship and obedience.” (A Dictionary of Philosophy, Pan Books Ltd, London: 1979).

For the purpose of the argument in this essay, atheism is defined in accordance with the above dictionary definition. Fundamentally it is a rejection of belief in a personal, intelligent Supreme Being, who is the creator of the universe. In place of this creator, atheism posits an impersonal reality (however that is defined), which is regarded as the origin and basis of all that exists.

The foundation of reality: personal or impersonal?
On the assumption that logic possesses genuine validity and authority as a tool for discovering truth, we need to consider the implications of different theories of ultimate causation. (If logic is not absolutely and objectively valid, then we can say nothing at all, and, in fact, even this very statement becomes incomprehensible, constructed as it is by recourse to logic! Therefore any attempt at the discovery of truth requires a commitment to the absolute and universal authority of logic).

Concerning the ultimate origin of the universe (which includes any hypothetical extension of the universe, such as the multiverse), we have four options:

1. The universe has always existed and had no beginning.

2. The universe popped into existence from absolutely nothing.

3. The chain of cause and effect, which we know to be our universe, began at a certain point in time, but it did not arise from nothing, but from a pre-existing impersonal timeless state.

4. The universe had a beginning, and was brought into being by a personal reality (usually known as ‘God’) outside itself.

Let us consider the logical coherence of each of these theories:

1. The idea that the universe has always existed as a chain of cause and effect presents us with the problem of infinite regress. A sequence of events spread over a period of time without beginning defies logic. Every event in the sequence would be preceded by an infinite – that is, unending – number of events. Since this series of unending events could not, by definition, end, then the event this sequence precedes could never be reached, and therefore could never occur. And this is true of every event in the entire sequence, and thus no event in this sequence could ever occur. Thus an infinite regress is impossible.

2. The popular theory that the universe just popped into existence from ‘nothing’ defies everything we know about science and logic. In a recent debate with an atheist on this subject, I was informed that… “The universe can, will, and does come from nothing. This has been observed.” Well, of course, this is absurd. ‘Nothing’ – by definition – cannot be observed, so therefore it is impossible to ‘observe’ the universe coming into being from nothing. Certainly it could be the case that certain parts of the universe (certain particles) could arise from a non-observed state, but we have no way of knowing whether that ‘non-observed state’ is ‘nothing’ or simply a dimension of reality which we cannot directly observe. Science gives itself the liberty to infer the existence of non-observed entities, such as dark matter, so it is entirely proper that science should apply the same rule to the apparent appearance of particles from ‘nothing’.

If it is really the case that matter can just pop into existence from ‘nothing’ (and remember ‘nothing’ means “not anything” – there is not a ‘something’ called ‘nothing’!), then the fundamental principle of the conservation of energy and mass is undermined along with the scientific method which relies on it. No conclusion could ever be drawn from any scientific experiment if we allow matter to arise from ‘nothing’. No reliable inference can be made from any experiment if the principle of causation ex nihilo is true: we would have no idea whether in another place, where we would expect the same experiment to work, some factor would not arise “from nothing” that would interact with and therefore skew the result. Scientific reasoning can only function if the principle of the conservation of mass holds true. Therefore we can dismiss this theory of “the universe from nothing”.

3. In an attempt to overcome the difficulties of “infinite regress” and “the universe from nothing” we could perhaps speculate that the universe had a definite beginning in time (which would release us from the infinite regress problem), but that this chain of cause and effect arose out of an impersonal primordial state of ‘something’ (thus preserving the principle of the conservation of mass).

The problem with this idea is that there would have been a change in this primordial state from a timeless condition to the activation of a chain of cause and effect. How did this change come about? An impersonal state or system cannot effect change from within its own resources, but has to be acted upon by something else. A machine, for example, which stands inert cannot suddenly start working unless something external to it causes it to begin functioning. An impersonal entity is, by definition, blind, unconscious and lacking free will. An unconscious entity does nothing unless acted on by something else. It cannot therefore act entirely on its own initiative powered only by its own resources. There is no factor within it that could effect change without an external influence programming it or acting directly on it. If such a state changes then an external influence brought this about, and if that external influence is itself impersonal, then it itself would have been acted upon by another impersonal influence. And so on ad infinitum. Thus we are back to the problem of infinite regress.

4. What about the “personal creator” theory? Can this idea overcome the difficulties outlined above? I affirm that it can, for the following reasons…

There is no infinite regress, because the creator brought the universe into being, and thus the universe had a definite beginning. There is also no concept of “the universe popping into existence from nothing”, because we have an agent who pre-existed the universe and drew on his own resources to bring the universe into being (I am well aware of the difficulty of tacking an agent onto “creation ex nihilo”, as if this solves the problem of matter being brought into being from absolutely nothing. Many theists sincerely believe that God created the universe “from nothing”. Unfortunately, an agent working with ‘nothing’ can no more bring something into being than something can come into being from ‘nothing’ without an agent. A potter needs clay. Do we really know what matter is at the most fundamental level? Certainly the Bible affirms that God did not create the universe “ex nihilo” but ‘spoke’ the universe into being. In other words, he formed it from information. Interestingly this idea is not lost on physics. The renowned Austrian quantum physicist, Anton Zeilinger, made the following statement: “In conclusion it may very well be said that information is the irreducible kernel from which everything else flows. Then the question why nature appears quantized is simply a consequence of the fact that information itself is quantized by necessity. It might even be fair to observe that the concept that information is fundamental is very old knowledge of humanity, witness for example the beginning of gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word”.”)

But in what sense does the personal “primordial state” (God) differ from the impersonal primordial state described in hypothesis 3 above? The fundamental difference is that this first cause is personal, and therefore possesses free will and consciousness. Therefore this creator can bring about change without needing to rely on any external factor. He can make a conscious, free will decision relying on his own resources. Free will involves, of course, the freedom to act in a certain way or not to act, irrespective of any external influence or factor. Free will cannot function without consciousness and consciousness determines whether an entity is personal or not. This is why the first cause of the universe has to be personal. An impersonal, unconscious and therefore unfree, first cause cannot rely on its own resources to bring about change, but must rely on some external influence. And thus it can never be a genuine first cause.

God of the gaps?
It is clear that the idea of a personal first cause is the only logical explanation for the origin of the universe. Some may argue that this is a case of “God of the gaps”. If this is the case, then we can equally argue that the other hypotheses are “gaps explanations”: “infinite regress of the gaps”, “nothing of the gaps”, “multiverse of the gaps” and so on… Any idea can be appealed to as a method of “filling a gap” in our knowledge. I have not resorted to the “personal creator hypothesis” as a gaps explanation, but have argued the case on the basis of logic and necessity.

Part 2 of “Why atheism cannot be true” will look at the epistemological arguments against the philosophy of naturalism, on which atheism relies. This will be published soon…