Anti-God philosophies and science
An historical survey
I. The beginnings of philosophy
The early Greek philosophers were known as ‘The people who were trying to understand the world,’ and we might add, ‘ … seeking to understand it purely by the use of human reason.’ They were people who searched to establish an understanding based on human freedom, human autonomy, i.e. man, a free-thinking being not dependent on anything outside himself.
In the philosophy books, the first name generally is that of a man Thales, who lived at Miletus about 600 BC. One story about him records his prediction of an eclipse of the sun. Fortunately for him, the day this eclipse was to occur, a great battle was about to begin. Noticing the sun suddenly disappear and thinking the gods to be angry, both armies abandoned the battle and went home!
Thales is also credited with the discovery of calculating distance for ships at sea. Weather forecasting was another science on which he worked. Of course he had his opponents who challenged his findings. ‘Philosophy is a waste of time,’ they said, ‘and philosophers as a race of people would do better to do something more practical.’ So Thales did. Predicting that the following year conditions would be extremely good for the olive crop, he took out an option on all the olive presses on the Island of Chios. When autumn came, there was indeed a bumper crop. However, he did not harvest or sell his crop. He simply observed that philosophers could earn lots of money if they wished, but were not interested in gaining wealth. Later, early Christian writers reported on his death. Supposedly, he was walking along staring up at the stars, and fell.
To consider Thales seriously, it should be noted firstly that he tried to explain things around him in fairly natural terms. ‘Everything is under water,’ he maintained. ‘In fact, everything is made of water.’ This puzzling assertion came from one who was perhaps the first person, or among the first persons to actually ask the question ‘What is everything made of?’ Traditionally, the Greeks believed the gods on Mt Olympus caused the many events in the world by their volition, yet here was a philosopher who dared go beyond the myths, the legends, the stories of the gods, by asking the question in terms of human reason, ‘what is everything made of?’
His answer sounds reasonable. He thought of the waters of the River Meander (close to Miletus) running down from the limestone hills above. Taking water from that river, he put it in a pan and boiled it till it was gone, correctly concluding that most of it had turned into air. Then he observed that what was left was only white residue which remains when water boils away, and some appeared to be dirt. Since the rest had turned into air, therefore everything must be made of water. Furthermore, Thales observed that when dry soil was placed on a hot stone by a fireplace, moisture gradually seeped from it. Ice and water he recognized as the same thing, and likewise snow and fog. He considered a rock to be something like ice, only more compressed. Perhaps something could be done to it to reconvert it to water again?
His deductions may not be as foolish as they sound, but the point is, it was a natural explanation and one which appealed, because it referred to things which could be seen on an elementary level. The basic principle in asking such questions was to seek for answers which a reasonable person could accept as reasonable.
Protagoras, one of the wandering Greek teachers of the 5th Century BC, aptly summed up his findings in the statement, ‘Man is the measure of all things’ (human reason is the ultimate test). This became the basic assumption running through philosophy from that time till now. Any proposition, any system of beliefs, any ideas, must be subjected to reason—human reason being the judge in all things.
Unfortunately, however, at the very beginning of philosophy, a puzzle presented itself. ‘What happens if two apparently reasonable people come up with two opposite points of view on a subject? Who will be the judge as to which human reason is the more reasonable?’ Basically, that was the problem which could not be settled—and which has kept philosophers in a job ever since!
In contrast, the Biblical position is that man is a creature responsible to a Creator, to whom the Creator has given His Word of direction. In his letter to the Romans, (chapter 1) Paul presents very graphically an account of the consequences of human rebellion against the Creator. Mankind knows God is God but will not submit to Him and this refusal to recognize Him as God appears to be a basic element throughout the thinking of philosophy.
II. The rise of modern science
At the time of the rise of modern science, (around the beginning of the 17th Century), a tremendous explosion of scientific discovery took place. This was the age of Galileo, and a little later, of Newton.
By 1600,the circulation of the blood was not understood. It was generally thought that it was pumped in and out like a tide. Aristotle had said, ‘If an artery is cut, does not the blood flow in spurts, rather than evenly? Therefore it must be going out and back.’ No one at that time had been able to solve Aristotle’s problem in physics, ‘How does an arrow work?’ He had a simple theory about the fundamentals of mechanics, based on the fact that if something is dragged from place to place, the harder it is dragged, the faster it goes, and when the person pulling it stops, it stops. He argued, ‘Imagine dragging a stone up the Acropolis in Athens to build a new temple. You pull it and the stone moves. You stop and the stone stops.’ So a basic principle must be that velocity is proportional to force.
Any slave who dragged a stone up the Acropolis was well aware of that principle.
And what happened to the arrow? When it was fixed on the bowstring and pulled back, the arrow left the string with nothing pushing it. Aristotle could not solve that problem. Finally, he arrived at an explanation. He decided that the air which the tip of the arrow displaced, fanned around the back and pushed it from behind. That was not a bad theory except that according to that, the arrow should have gone on forever. In medieval Europe, the best understanding on this subject was reached by the French philosopher/scientist/clergyman Jean Buridan (1300–1358). His idea was that when the string was pulled back and let go, an invisible force with weightless fluid called impetus ran from the string into the arrow and as the arrow sped along, the impetus slowly leaked away. Only when it was all gone did the arrow fall. That may sound funny now, but it was not so different from the idea of kinetic energy, except that it was called impetus and thought to be a fluid.
But with the new science of the 17th Century, progress was much more rapid. By 1700, Kepler had worked out in detail the orbit of Mars; Galileo had drastically revised Aristotle’s theory of mechanics; and Newton had reworked the entire field of astronomy and mechanics, using the powerful tool of his new techniques of Calculus. Also by 1700, Gierech in Germany performed his experiments with air pumps, and demonstrated work with vacuums and the evacuated sphere, which teams of horses could not pull apart; and in France, Pascal had discovered what is known as Pascal’s Principle. (When next your foot touches the brake of your car, be thankful that his principle still works for it is the basis of any hydraulic system.) In Italy, Torricelli did research which led to developing the barometer and the measure of air pressure. Soon afterwards in England, Boyle discovered what is known as Boyle’s Law, which is one of the basic principles of gases: the volume/pressure relationship. And Hooke (a rival of Newton’s) ascertained the basic laws of elasticity, which meant that thereafter a spring balance could be used with confidence because this law could estimate the proportionality of spring and balance. Halley, another associate of Hooke and Newton, became involved in identifying the recurrent appearances of comets. Halley’s Comet was named after him because he identified and predicted its return.
Isaac Newton was a very complex figure who believed he would be remembered for his books on prophecy and his work in inventing milled edges for coins (to prevent dishonest people from filing edges from sovereigns to make illegal money). But instead, he is remembered as a scientist and for entirely different reasons. Firstly, to Newton is ascribed the ability to explain the complex in terms of very simple forces. The story is widely known of Newton sitting under an apple tree (during the Great Plague when he had fled Cambridge for safety). Did a falling apple just hit him on the head and evoke in him the sudden awareness of gravity? I suspect not, but he deduced something relating to the forces operating on falling apples and from that concluded that those forces were the same as the ones causing many other occurrences. Perhaps there was a wind blowing and the apple missed his head and veered sideways because of the force of the wind. The question would arise, ‘What happens if a stronger wind blows, or a howling hurricane? Would the apple’s fall be affected by the curvature of the earth, even to the extent of falling around the earth?’ Newton was able to show by precise calculation that basically that is what the moon does. It has been given a push, as it were, and is falling round the earth.
That is what happens to satellites. A rocket is sent up, pointed in the right direction. It fires the satellite out and off it goes—always falling round and never hitting the ground.
Newton, the scientist, tied all those things together—the moon moving round the earth, the earth moving round the sun, the pull of the tides, the apple falling from the tree—explaining all in terms of very basic principles.
By the end of the 17th Century a new kind of world had arrived. What was this new world of scientific thinking like? It was a world in which there was growing confidence in the capacity of human beings to understand. Knowledge was starting to divide into two branches, that of subjects hard to comprehend—such as theology—and the sciences, where experiments could be carried out without any presuppositions, where ‘real’ discoveries could be made by human minds.
The 18th Century was in many ways a period of optimism, particularly in France, where it is often referred to as the Age of Enlightenment (‘Enlightenment’ meaning: ‘Now we can think as free human beings!’). Voltaire, the French philosopher and literary critic, is an example of the thinkers of that Age. He said, ‘Let us be reasonable and rational and let us not commit ourselves to anything other than that.’ A few years later, at the time of the French Revolution, Robespierre actually tried to install an official worship of the Goddess of Reason.
Voltaire’s attitude towards traditional theism is interesting to note. He neither believed in God, nor in what the theologians had to say, and considering what some of them were saying in the early part of the 18th Century, it is understandable he couldn’t believe them. On the other hand, however, if one looks at the cynical comments he made, it is astounding that this ‘autonomous’ man could look God in the face, as it were, and laugh. For instance, consider Voltaire’s statement on prayer, ‘I have made but one prayer to God. It was a simple one: “Lord, make all my enemies look ridiculous,â€? God answered my prayer.’
Also in France Diderot published his massive Encyclopaedia. It recorded what Diderot considered to be real knowledge—primarily, knowledge derived from sense experience and reason—i.e. the new knowledge of the sciences. The Age of Enlightenment was an age in which reason was well and truly enthroned as the ultimate.
Two things happened as a result of the explanations offered by Newton and others. Firstly, there was produced a tremendous confidence in the power of human reason. The poem, ‘Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said, “Let Newton be!”? then there was light,’ may sound extreme but it describes the magnitude of Newton’s impact.
Secondly, Newton himself was theist, although he denied the Trinity [not so—see this note—Ed.]. He believed that God had created the universe, for who else could have given the moon its sideways push? However, as a scientist he concentrated on developing explanations based on calculation and observation. As a scientist, Newton never went beyond that. In a way his philosophy said, ‘God created it. I describe how it happens.’ In fact, he took as one of his mottos, ‘Hypotheses non fingo’—i.e. ‘I do not make hypotheses, I just think God’s thoughts after Him.’ God was the great watchmaker, as it were, and Newton had the task of finding out how the watch ran.
Within a century of Newton’s day, science had taken a step further. By 1800 there were people who were trying to explain the universe without appeal to an outside Creator. The French mathematician Pierre Laplace worked out what is known as the Nebular Hypothesis, i.e. that a mass of hot gas swirled in a circle till the planets spun from it and cooled, forming the solar system. This became accepted as an explanation for the largest object, the sun, being in the middle with smaller ones close to it and some farther out. It seemed a reasonable explanation [but it actually has insoluble problems—see Solar system origin: Nebular hypothesis—Ed.].
When Laplace was introduced to Napoleon, who also was interested in mathematics, the French Emperor was fascinated with the hypothesis. Napoleon asked, ‘But where does God fit in?’ Laplace replied, ‘Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.’ Yet Laplace was not an atheist, but as a scientist he explained things solely in terms of what he could see happening around him. With the known laws of physics he tried to explain the unknown universe. Although he believed God had created the universe, to his mind the two worlds were quite divorced. The science of Newton and of those who followed him, encouraged this opposition by explaining as much as possible in terms of known laws currently being observed.
III. The new geology
Towards the end of the 18th Century a farmer from Berwick in Scotland, James Hutton, who became known as a successful geologist, developed the principle we know today as the Principle of Uniformitarianism. This means that what made the earth like it is now geologically, must be the result of forces similar to the ones we see in operation today. The unknown is explained in terms of the known and the world is understood in the light of presently operating forces. Scientists asked ‘What geologic forces were operating when the earth was made?’ and one answer they discovered went something like this. ‘Take erosion and a winding river. Look at weathered rocks. Note the slow upheaval of the coastlines of continents. These things will explain everything that has happened in the past. That is how the world became the way it is now. The past can be explained in terms of present forces.’
Towards the end of his life, Hutton came under attack from those who realized where such thinking would lead. Several groups, including the Royal Irish Academy, accused him of what they called ‘practical atheism.’ It seems Hutton honestly had no idea where his presuppositions were taking him and the poor man grew so distraught he suffered a nervous breakdown and died. What Hutton had been saying was this—‘Human reason can think this thing through. These are the forces operating now so let us see how they have made the world the way it is.’
To illustrate, imagine a billiard table with balls lying in a certain position. It is assumed somebody has been playing billiards and the reaction is, ‘what a strange position those balls are in! The cue must have hit this ball from here and it has gone across there and in behind there! That is the only possible way that ball could have got to that corner!’ The assumption is made that someone has been playing a game. It is possible however, that the balls were deliberately set out like that to puzzle an intruder, or a child had been playing with them, knowing nothing about the game. It is assumed that the force that is known, (which is a normal game of billiards or snooker) has resulted in what is seen on the table, but there is no guarantee of this assumption being correct.
Hutton’s work was further developed by Charles Lyell. In 1830 his Principles of Geology was published. This book is still to some extent a useful text because of its outlook. When Lyell wrote, he simply assumed the Principle of Uniformity. He referred to sediment 125 cm thick made of fine mud, and attempted to calculate how fast mud could be deposited in a lake. At the rate of 1 mm a year, it would have taken about 1000 years per meter.
In the 19th Century other scientists attempted similar calculations. Lord Rayleigh tried to estimate the age of the earth. He asserted, ‘The sea would have started as fresh water. The salt in the sea has come by erosion of the rocks.’ He tried to measure the amount of salt being carried out to sea by a few rivers. Then he estimated the total volume of river flow around the earth and from that calculation arrived at the age of the earth. He estimated a figure somewhere between 30 and 50 million years. Such a figure was not big enough for the evolutionists to play with, but that was the kind of figure he reached.
[NB: This would have been an upper limit for the age, not its actual age. If God had created the Earth with a somewhat salty ocean for the benefit of saltwater fish, the maximum possible age would be even less. Of course, the Flood would have dissolved much salt, meaning that the maximum age would be lower still. – Editor]
Another method of estimating the age of the earth was to find a deposit of uranium that had turned into lead and which could be presumed to have decayed at a certain rate. It was assumed that it all would have started as uranium and as there was a certain amount of lead there now, so it must have taken a certain length of time to decay. The principle operates all the time but the potential fallacy is, ‘How does one know that only presently observable forces were operating?’ By present evidence there is no way of knowing that something different did not happen in the past.
Imagine a new ‘boom’ mining town. Driving through such a town on a busy morning, it would be difficult to believe that there was nothing there a few short years before, that what was now bustling activity had so recently been quiet countryside. It could be said, ‘It took many years for such a prosperous town to grow. Those trees and shrubs flowering over there have taken years to grow so tall.’ How surprised a visitor would be to learn that the shrub had been bought in a tub and planted there as a two meter high tree. Or to estimate the age of a friend’s home by the age of the lawn could end in embarrassment when one is told that the lawn was set out as rolled turf. Many such illustrations could be drawn.
In the mid-19th Century Darwin did for biology what Hutton and Lyell had done for geology, and what Newton had done for physics, i.e. he explained certain things in terms of presently known forces. In The Beagle he made his famous voyage around the world observing islands, finches, etc. Back home in England he grew a garden of weeds and saw which weeds choked others and counted population changes amongst weeds. Darwin’s evolutionary model rested on two key elements. Firstly, there are changes and variations in a population, and secondly, the fact that there is some kind of a survival of the fittest going on. Now, there is no question about it, populations do vary within themselves. It is true there is a survival of the fittest of things. If survival of the fittest is understood as being the ability to reproduce well, of course that is true.
Darwin’s theory then was yet another which sought to explain in terms of presently observable forces operating, and like the others, it rested on the assumption that human reason aided by present observation can give an ultimate explanation.
The consequences of Darwin’s theory are interesting and rather like Newton’s, though Newton’s impact was not quite the same in reinforcing certain views about man and his place in nature.
Three consequences of Darwin’s theory are areas of great concern and influence. The first is his effect on beliefs about origins. There is no question that Darwin had a great impact on people’s understanding of the origins of life, of the world, and the universe. Today many are apt to forget that in 1859 most people were willing to accept Genesis Chapter one as a literal account of how the universe came into being. After 1859, however, the number of those who held to the validity of the early chapters of Genesis dwindled rapidly. It could be argued that few people up till that time had not taken it literally but rather saw it as an allegory or poem, or a general oral statement of principle that God had created like that.
Secondly, and more significantly Darwin provided a view of man. His book, The Origin of Species, did not really come to grips with the origin of man, but Darwin took up that question in later works. In his view, man has continuity in a sense, not only with the apes, but with all living things. There is not some vast gap between the animals and man.
Many are not aware later in his life, Darwin wrote another book, The Expression at the Emotions in Animal and Man. That volume in many ways was just as significant as The Origin of Species. In it he considered, not so much physical structure but behavior in terms of its survival value. In his original theory of origins, Darwin attempted to explain how physical structures had adaptability advantages. In The Expressions of the Emotions in Animal and Man he moves on to the expression of certain behavior types. Why does man have certain behavior traits? Are these of some evolutionary advantage? Do they give man some adaptability he could not otherwise have? For example, why do human beings have the ability to scowl and pull horrible faces? Now the question has been asked in terms of his previous theory, ‘What would be the use of such ability?’ Perhaps that is easily explained. Image a sabretoothed tiger entering a caveman’s dwelling, wouldn’t the person able to growl most effectively have the best chance of survival?
In this book Charles Darwin also relates the expression of emotions in man to emotions in animals such as the ape, which grimaces and snarls. Baboon colonies have been filmed throwing dirt and sticks and tossing garbage at anybody or anything coming near their colony. This is but the activating of the animal’s defense mechanism. It could be noted that many members of the human race have passed the stage of throwing dirt and sticks, but still scowl occasionally. The argument used to explain human facial expression is that of continuity. One behavior trait can be explained by another and this does seem to lead to a further understanding of man. Scientists conclude that a lot of experimentation and psychological discoveries about animals will be relevant to psychological discoveries about the human being. This greatly concerns some educators involved in teacher training, when it is learned that much evidence regarding classroom behavior and management is based upon experiments conducted on rats and pigeons. (I don’t think these educators can be blamed for thinking something very strange is happening!)
B.F. Skinner of Harvard University, who developed behavior modification techniques, put a rat in a box with a button in one comer. To teach the rat to learn to press the button, the animal first was taught to look in the right direction where a grain of wheat or a piece of cheese was thrown. So it looked that way again and again until eventually it was conditioned to looking in that direction. The animal was fed, not for looking, but after taking a step towards the button and thus become conditioned. Next, a bit of food was dropped—the rat was rewarded and led to the point where every time it wanted something to eat, it turned and ran to the button and eventually pressed it. With very careful use of rewards, i e. intermittently, randomly, the poor thing eventually was addicted to pressing the button. In fact, it would press it all day long. Scientists succeeded in experiments with pigeons to the point that when they stopped rewarding the birds, they were so conditioned they pecked until their beaks grew sore and they had to be taken from the cages.
It is possible to generalize very quickly to human beings, particularly in the area of sport or entertainment. ‘The one-armed bandit,’ the poker machine, is a startling example of this. Experiments have been conducted in which a person became so conditioned to playing the machine, that with the pay mechanisms turned off, some 800 10-cent coins were fed into the machine before the person stopped playing. Notice the interpretation given to that example. If it applied to the rat, it applied to the man. And it has also been applied to principles of classroom management. A teacher enters a classroom full of noisy, riotous children with a handful of jelly beans. The moment a child is quiet for a second, a jelly bean is presented to him. That reinforces his quietness, and subsequently that of the other children, till finally the whole class is brought under control! The theory is that if the children can be hushed to a certain extent, the teacher then may be able to speak and maintain some kind of order.
Today, application of behavior modification techniques in working with psychiatric patients, or retarded children, are varied, and widely accepted, and discoveries made in research with rats or pigeons are included in lecture material for trainee teachers. In some cases of behavior there are similarities, but the assumption of almost total continuity is a strange assumption to make because we well know that if we think about it long enough, there are great differences between rats and human beings.
The students have a joke about the rats in the Skinner box. One rat says to another, ‘Boy, have I got Skinner conditioned! Every time I press the button he feeds me!’ What makes that joke so funny is that people don’t normally think of rats as ‘thinking’ creatures. It is indeed interesting to see how quickly the animal model is used in thinking about humans and the question ought to be loudly asked, ‘How far should these applications be taken within reason?’
Within the framework of a conscious or an unconscious anti-God philosophy of science, no answer is possible to this question, for there is no longer any definition of ‘reason’ which can be agreed upon. Only when man recognizes and accepts God as Creator and Sustainer, and Christ as Savior, is any viable conclusion possible, about what does or does not constitute reason.