Photo of a distant galaxy (NASA)
While “new atheists” Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have been grabbing headlines with their bold claims that modern science has killed off God, an Oxford professor has been quietly chipping away at the ground they stand on. John C Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Fellow in the Philosophy of Science at Oxford’s Green Templeton College, has been popping up at debates around the globe to take issue with the most prominent new atheists.
Lennox’s arguments are outlined in his book, God’s Undertaker – Has Science Buried God? As The Spectator’s Melanie Phillips has written, Lennox’s book provides an “excoriating demolition of Dawkins’s overreach from biology into religion”.
The brilliance of Lennox’s approach is that it does not just concentrate on one academic discipline, like biology. It spans all of the most relevant fields, including cosmology, physics, philosophy, theology and mathematics, offering a compelling case for the view that scientific knowledge, rather than killing God off, actually makes a divine creator necessary.
Drawing on his own discipline, mathematics, Lennox calculates the odds of life arising by chance and concludes that anyone who would bet on those odds must be either deluded or just plain mad. Of course, in the best academic traditions, he refrains from using such colourful language, but the force of his arguments leaves no room for any other conclusion.
Unlike biblical creationists, Lennox is not hampered by the need to take the Bible, or any other religious text, literally. He simply shows that the most recent advances in science make it plain that there must be a mind behind the genesis of life.
The big picture
Beginning with the big picture of the universe and planet earth’s place in it, he notes that the ruling view in science is that the universe is not eternal but began with the “big bang” – a view that had not always been accepted by the scientific community.
“The remarkable picture that is gradually emerging from modern physics and cosmology is one of a universe whose fundamental forces are amazingly, intricately, and delicately balanced or ‘fine tuned’ in order for the universe to be able to sustain life,” he writes. “Recent research has shown that many of the fundamental constants of nature, from the energy levels in the carbon atom to the rate at which the universe is expanding, have just the right values for life to exist. Change any of them just a little, and the universe would become hostile to life and incapable of supporting it.”
For a start, an abundant supply of carbon is needed on earth to support life and, as eminent mathematician and astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle discovered, “the nuclear ground state energy levels have to be fine-tuned with respect to each other… if the variation were more than 1 per cent either way, the universe could not sustain life.”
Lennox comments: “Hoyle later confessed that nothing had shaken his atheism as much as this discovery. Even this degree of fine-tuning was enough to persuade him that it looked as if ‘a super intellect has monkeyed with physics as well as with chemistry and biology’.”
But, in terms of the tolerance permitted, Lennox believes that even this example “pales into insignificance” in comparison with the fine tuning of some of the other parameters in nature. They include:
- As theoretical physicist Paul Davies confirms, if the ratio of the nuclear strong force to the electromagnetic force had been different by one part in 1016 no stars could have formed.
- The ratio of the electromagnetic force-constant to the gravitational force-constant must be equally delicately balanced to produce the right size of star to sustain a planet with life. A variation here of only 1 part in 1040 and life becomes impossible. (Davies has commented that this feat is akin to a marksman hitting a coin at the far side of the observable universe, 20 billion light years away.)
- An alteration in the ratio of the expansion and contraction forces of the big bang by as little as one part in 1055 at the Planck time (just 1043 seconds after the origin of the universe) would have led to either too rapid an expansion of the universe with no galaxies forming or to too slow an expansion with consequent rapid collapse.
Lennox goes on to list even more mind-boggling examples of precision-tuning in the universe. Such features of cosmic design were what led Sir Fred Hoyle to state that “there are no blind forces in nature worth talking about”, and Paul Davies to conclude, simply, “ the impression of design is overwhelming”.
Biology: the living cell
Moving on to biology, Lennox notes that there seems to be less certainty about the need for a “God” among today’s academics than there is in physics, but after reviewing the evidence he wonders why this is so. He says: “From the time of the great thinkers of the ancient world, such as Aristotle and Plato, to that of modern biologists, the living world has been a source of never-ending wonder. And the more that science uncovers, the more the wonder grows.”
Lennox says that one reason biologists are not so impressed by the design hypothesis is that according to neo-Darwinism the engine for evolution – the process of mutation, genetic drift and natural selection – is adequate to account for the growth and variation of all the species on earth. He distinguishes between microevolution within a species and macroevolution(allegedly between species) and notes problems with current evolutionary theory, including the shortage of examples of mutation bringing about biological advances, gaps in the fossil record and so on.
But he does not dwell on these problems, noting that any serious scientist who questions the dogma of neo-Darwinism is usually branded as either a heretic, a lunatic, or both. He accordingly directs most of his attention to the question of the origin of life, rather than its progress.
Quoting geneticist Michael Denton, he points out that the break between the non-living and the living world represents the most dramatic and fundamental of the “discontinuities in nature”: “Between a living cell and the most highly ordered non-biological systems, such as a crystal or a snowflake, there is a chasm as vast and absolute as it is possible to conceive.”
Denton has said that even the simplest cell of all, a bacterial cell, is “a veritable micro-miniaturised factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up altogether of 100 thousand million atoms, far more complicated than any machine built by man and absolutely without parallel in the non-living world.”
He also points out that there is little evidence of evolution among cells: “Molecular biology has also shown us that the basic design of the cell system is essentially the same in all living systems on earth from bacteria to mammals. In all organisms the roles of DNA, mRNA and protein are identical. The meaning of the genetic code is also virtually identical in all cells.”
In summary, he says there is not “the slightest empirical hint” of an evolutionary sequence among all the incredibly diverse cells on earth.
This view was echoed by Nobel Prize-winning biologist Jacques Monod: “The simplest cells available to us for study have nothing ‘primitive’ about them.”
The plot thickens: from proteins to DNA
Lennox adds that it is hard to get any kind of picture of the “seething, dizzyingly complex activity” in a living cell, which contains around 100 million proteins of 20,000 different types. The existence of proteins alone is a mystery, given that each one represents an intricate construction of amino-acids in a very specific order necessary for them to function. There is no way, he says, in which proteins could have formed simply from raw matter and energy.
As Paul Davies puts it: “Making a protein simply by injecting energy is rather like exploding a stick of dynamite under a pile of bricks and expecting it to form a house.”
The odds of getting a simple protein to form by chance has been put at 1 in 10130.
But this is only the probability of getting a single protein. The most basic forms of life require hundreds of thousands of proteins. Sir Fred Hoyle famously calculated the odds of this happening by chance at more than 1040,000. This is a very big number indeed. The number of grains of sand in the world has been calculated at 1020, the number of stars in the known universe at 1022, and the number of particles in the universe at 1080. Sir Fred confessed that this fact alone had challenged his atheism. He said that the idea of the spontaneous formation of life was akin to a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and producing a Boeing 747 jet aircraft.
When you move on from proteins to an even more complex part of a cell, the DNA which acts as the blueprint for all living things, the picture becomes even more astonishing. The DNA of bacteria can be around four million characters long – enough to fill about 1000 pages. Human DNA is around 3.5 billion characters – enough to fill a whole library.
Lennox and other scientists compare DNA to a computer language and say that the cell’s information processing capacity far outstrips anything present-day computers can do. As Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates, has pointed out, “DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.”
It was this very fact which led atheist philosopher Antony Flew to change his mind about God: “What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together. It’s the enormous complexity of the number of elements and the enormous subtlety of the ways they work together. The meeting of these two parts at the right time by chance is simply minute. It is all a matter of the enormous complexity by which the results were achieved, which looked to me like the work of intelligence.”
(There have been claims that Flew’s views on the need for a God were misrepresented, but Flew himself denied this.)
A mind behind it all
Lennox goes through all the theories put forward to give credence to the idea that all of this could have happened by chance and, as a mathematician, indicates that such scenarios are basically laughable. He says that the conclusion that a super intellect is at work in the creation of life may not be verified by scientific “induction” or experiment, but it is a valid inference to the best explanation (“abduction”).
He points out that the probability of a purely random origin for any sequence of even the most basic biological significance is “so small as to be negligible”: “It could therefore be argued that the molecular biology of the cell shows the same order of fine-tuning that we saw in connection with physics and cosmology.”
He also warns against any attempt to try to write off the clear implications of a mind behind the design of living things as an analogy from something like a watch. “We are not arguing from analogy, but we are making an inference to the best explanation,” he notes.
Lennox points out that the obvious conclusion that arises from reflecting on the reality that sciences like physics and biology have uncovered is that “information and intelligence are fundamental to the existence of the universe and life and, far from being the end products of an unguided natural process starting with energy and matter, they are involved from the very beginning”. In other words, the whole universe has the unmistakeable signature of monumental design about it.
So, what if you take all of the probabilities unearthed by science together? What are the chances of life developing without a super-mind to guide it? The answer, clearly, is as close to zero as anyone could imagine. In fact, the figures involved are so profound, so enormous, that no human mind could possibly imagine them in any real sense.
Despite all this, there still appears to be room for atheists to cling to their faith in a merely mechanistic universe that arose from nothing more than chance. In other words, there is room for the operation of free choice in the matter.
But the real riddle in it all is: how has it come about that so many people in the modern world still think that in the God v Chance debate, science has somehow proven that everything has happened according to a series of blind accidents? And why is it that the media are more than happy to allow that status quo to continue?
William West is a Sydney-based freelance journalist and Editor of Perspective magazine.