Apologist Greg Koukl is the gift that keeps on giving. In his “Is Consciousness an Illusion?” podcast, he talked about Daniel Dennett’s 2006 book Breaking the Spell.
Let me first seize the opportunity to agree with something. Koukl says, “Reality is the kind of thing … that will injure you if you don’t take it seriously.” It’s good to see us sharing the goal of seeing reality clearly.
Unanswered questions within science
But we don’t agree on everything. Koukl said:
[Dennett has] made a claim in this book about something that is very, very difficult for a materialist to deal with that makes sense completely within a Christian worldview.
The “something” is consciousness. So Koukl says that the scientist has a tough time explaining consciousness, but it’s easy for the Christian.
While it’s true that science has much to discover about consciousness and how it works, I don’t see anything in particular that ought to keep the naturalist up at night. Science has an unanswered question—big deal. Science has lots of unanswered questions. It also has a marvelous track record for answering them.
But what trips me up here is the idea that the Christian worldview adds to the discussion. How does God explain anything?
Let me make clear that I can never prove that God didn’t do something. For example, let’s consider a few claims about God by Pat Robertson. He said that God is “lifting His protection from this nation” to allow terrorist attacks (2001). And that Hurricane Katrina might be God’s doing (2005). And that the people of Haiti made a pact with the devil, in response to which God allowed the earthquake that killed 300,000 (2010). These are assertions without evidence (and, in the case of Haiti in particular, of much contrary evidence), but I can’t prove that “God did it” is false.
The uselessness of the Christian’s ultimate explanation
The fact is, “God did it” can explain everything. As a result, it explains nothing.
“God did it” is simply a repackaging of “I don’t know.” It tells us nothing new. I’m no smarter after hearing “God did it” than before. It tamps down one set of questions, but others pop up: Who is God and how does he act in the world? Is he one of the thousands of gods that humans have already formed religions around or someone new? Why did God do what he did? What natural laws did God use to do it, and what laws did he suspend? How can we communicate with him? And, most importantly: how do we know that there was a supernatural cause and not a natural one?
The Christian must ask: What would falsify my position? If it’s unattainable or if you’ve so protected your belief that nothing could perturb it, you’ve left the domain of evidence. When your God belief is supported no matter what happens, be honest with yourself and admit that you just believe and drop the pretense that you’re following evidence or being scientific.
Contrast that with this observation from Marvin Minksy:
As scientists, we like to make our theories as delicate and fragile as possible. We like to arrange things so that if the slightest thing goes wrong, everything will collapse at once!
Not all claims are equal
Think about the size of various claims. The claim “1 + 1 = 2” is not controversial. The claim “I had a sandwich for lunch” is unsurprising, and thorough evidence could be provided to back it up. But the claim “There is a being that created the universe” is without scientific precedent—that is, science knows of no supernatural anything, let alone a being that could create the universe. I can think of no bolder claim than “God did it.” It’s baffling to me how apologists can toss out that immense claim and simply let it hang there, supported by nothing more than wishful thinking and tradition.
“God did it” doesn’t do it. It satisfies only those who want their preconceptions affirmed.
But let me take a step back for a moment. I’m treating this claim with the dignity due those that make testable pronouncements about reality. Perhaps that’s my mistake—if it’s simply a theological claim divorced from reality, fine. In that case, it’s a claim to be taken simply on faith, with no pretense of evidence or verifiability, and I have no use for it.
Supernatural vs. natural explanations
Let me end with a song, “Tell Me Why” by Pat Benatar*, which nicely makes the “God did it” claim.
Tell me why the stars do shine,
Tell me why the ivy twines,
Tell me what makes skies so blue,
And I’ll tell you why I love you.
Because God made the ivy twine.
Because God made the stars to shine.
Because God made the sky so blue.
Because God made you, that’s why I love you.
This Christian explanation is poetic, but for those of us who prefer to actually understand the world, Isaac Asimov has a new and improved refrain:
Nuclear fusion makes stars to shine,
Tropisms make the ivy twine,
Rayleigh scattering make skies so blue,
Testicular hormones are why I love you.
I’ll stick with the discipline with the track record for explaining reality.
The man who prays
is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong,
but who also thinks
that he can instruct god how to put them right.
― Christopher Hitchens
(This is a modified version of a post that originally appeared 12/28/11.)
Photo credit: Wikipedia
*Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, EMI Music Publishing.