Professor Peter Atkins on Cosmology - Excerpt

This is an excerpt from the opening statement of Oxford Professor Peter Atkins' 2011 debate at the University of Manchester:

"My immediate task is to set out my stall, not to respond to Dr Craig’s arguments at this stage: that will come later. It is, in fact, my task to bring you forward from the eleventh century, where you have been immersed with considerable erudition for the past 20 minutes, to the twenty-first century, and to present arguments based on a thousand years of increasing knowledge about the world. Dr Craig would have been a wonderful medieval apologist, and it is a pleasure to hear his erudite reprise, with a few elaborations, of what could have been said a thousand years ago. I do not say that scornfully: Dr Craig has touched on arguments that have long troubled thinkers, believers and disbelievers alike, and their longevity underlines their importance to mankind.

But, first, an admission. I cannot prove that God does not exist. Everything there is could be the creation of an extraordinary entity that surpasses our understanding. It could be that the universe was created only a millisecond ago, with all our memories suddenly but falsely in place. It could be, as God is outside time (whatever that meaningless phrase means) that He hasn’t decided to make us yet. It is just conceivable that God did indeed create the universe 13.7 billion years ago. I cannot prove that He did not. All I can do is to assemble evidence that leads to the conclusion that God is not necessary for any aspect of the current world and that there is a far simpler explanation for everything than the assertion of the existence of an omnipotent God.

I have to say, of course, that many hold that the assertion that ‘God made it’ is far, far simpler as an explanation of everything than a more pedestrian account in terms of physical laws. ‘God’, they say, is surely a simpler explanation than complex mechanism. Don’t be seduced by that view. The assertion that God did anything is simplistic rather than simple, and it is lazy. It is simplistic because an entity as functionally unbounded as a God must be of extraordinary complexity. It is lazy because it avoids becoming involved in untangling the web of events that have led to us. Any argument that simply asserts that ‘God did it’ is a sign of a lazy mind, a mind that is content to wallow in assertion rather than embark upon climbing the intellectual Everest of comprehension. 

My argument against God is that there is nothing in the universe that cannot be explained, in prospect at least, without invoking that complex hypothesis. In other words, there are simpler explanations, or at least the prospect of simpler explanations, for everything. Because there are simpler explanations, or the prospect of them, there is no need to burden our understanding with the assertion that there is something more, namely an incomprehensible God.

That billions of people believe the contrary is of no consequence. Truth is not arrived at by majority vote. There are clearly huge psychological and cultural pressures imposed on people from an early age, and belief has been honed by the powerful into a potent weapon of crowd control. In the nasty, brutish brevity of an impoverished life, great comfort comes from the belief that there is better to come. There is also satisfaction that wrong-doers, wealthy perhaps on Earth, will get their come-uppance in the afterlife. Even the meek are in with a chance. Angst and hope, angst at the prospect of one’s own annihilation, and hope for unbounded ecstasy to come, are potent drivers into the jaws of belief. But the potency of the drivers and the huge majority of the hopers does not mean that the belief is correct.

* * *

I have made a strong but carefully worded claim: that there is nothing in the universe that cannot be explained, or has the prospect of being explained, without invoking a God. I need to justify that claim. If you accept my argument, that a God is unnecessary, then your only recourse if you insist on believing that there is a God is to admit that you are driven by your heart rather than your head. But hearts are unreliable organs of knowledge." (Professor Peter Atkins, 2011)

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