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Quentin Smith Atheism

Two Ways to Prove Atheism (1996)

Quentin Smith


[This speech was delivered before the Atheist Alliance convention in Minneapolis, MN on April 6, 1996.]

Today I will discuss two ways to prove atheism: that scientific cosmology can prove atheism and that the existence of gratuitous evil proves atheism. I’ll begin with scientific cosmology.

Scientific Cosmology

Since the mid-1960s, scientifically-informed theists have been ecstatic because of Big bang cosmology. Theists believe the best scientific evidence that God exists is the evidence that the universe began to exist in an explosion about fifteen billion years ago. It began in an explosion called the Big Bang. Theists think it obvious that the universe could not have begun to exist uncaused. They argue that the most reasonable hypothesis is that the cause of the universe is God. This theory hinges on the assumption that it is obviously true that whatever begins to exist has a cause. The most recent statement of this theist theory is in William Lane Craig’s 1994 book Reasonable Faith [1]. Now there is a very interesting quote from this book which I will read to you at length because, at the end of this quote, Craig mentions me as one of the perverse atheists who deny the obviousness of the theistic principle. So let me quote to you how Craig states his argument [2]:


The argument may be formulated in three simple steps:


1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

He goes on:


The first step is so intuitively obvious that I think scarcely anyone could sincerely believe it to be false. I therefore think it somewhat unwise to argue in favor of it, for any proof of the principle is likely to be less obvious than the principle itself. And as Aristotle remarked, one ought not to try to prove the obvious via the less obvious. The old axiom that "out of nothing, nothing comes" remains as obvious today as ever. When I first wrote The Kalam Cosmological Argument, I remarked that I found it an attractive feature of this argument that it allows the atheist as a way of escape: he can always deny the first premiss and assert the universe sprang into existence uncaused out of nothing. I figured that few would take this option, since I believed they would thereby expose themselves as persons interested only in academic refutation of the argument and not in really discovering the truth about the universe. To my surprise, however, atheists seem to be increasingly taking this route. For example, Quentin Smith, commenting that philosophers are too often adversely affected by Heidegger’s dread of "the nothing," concludes that "the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing" — a nice ending to a sort of Gettysburg address of atheism, perhaps. [3]

I’m going to criticize this argument from scientific cosmology which is the most popular argument that scientifically-informed theists and philosophers are now using to argue that God exists.

Let’s consider the premiss of the argument. The premiss is that whatever has a beginning to its existence must have a cause. What reason is there to believe this causal principle is true? It’s not self-evident; something is self-evident if and only if everyone who understands it automatically believes it. But many people, including leading theists such as Richard Swinburne, understand this principle very well but think it’s false. Many philosophers, scientists, and indeed the majority of graduate and undergraduate students I’ve had in my classes think this principle is false. This principle is not self-evident, nor can this principle be deduced from any self-evident proposition. Therefore there’s no reason to think it’s true. It is either false or it has the status of a statement we do not know if it’s true or false. At the very least, it is clear that we do not know that it is true.

Now suppose the theist retreats to a weaker version of this principle. Suppose the theist says that a weaker version of this principle is, "whatever has a beginning to its existence has a cause." Now this does not say that whatever has a beginning to its existence must have a cause; it allows that it is possible that some things begin to exist without a cause. So we don’t need to consider it as a self-evident, necessary truth. Rather, we can consider it to be an empirical generalization based on observation, according to the theists. But there is a decisive problem with this line of thinking. There’s absolutely no evidence that it is true. All of the observations we have are of changes in things — of something changing from one state to another. Things move, come to a rest, get larger, get smaller, combine with other things, divide in half, and so on. But we have no observation of things coming into existence. For example, we have no observations of people coming into existence. Here again, you merely have a change of things. An egg cell and a sperm cell change their state by combining together. The combination divides, enlarges, and eventually evolves into an adult human being. Therefore I conclude that we have no evidence at all that the empirical version of Craig’s statement, "Whatever begins to exist has a cause," is true. All of the causes we are aware of are changes in pre-existing materials. In Craig’s and other theist’s causal principle, "cause" means something entirely different: it means creating material from nothingness. It is pure speculation that such a strange sort of causation is even possible, let alone even supported in our observations in our daily lives.

But the more important point is this: not only is there no evidence for the theist’s case, there’s evidence against it. The claim that the beginning of our universe has a cause conflicts with current scientific theory. The scientific theory is called the wave function of the universe. It has been developed in the past ten years or so by Stephen Hawking, Andre Vilenkin, Alex Linde, and many others. Their theory is that there is a scientific law of nature called the Wave Function of the Universe that implies that it is highly probable that a universe with our characteristics will come into existence without a cause. Hawking’s theory is based on assigning numbers to all possible universes. All of the numbers cancel out except for a universe with features our universe possesses. For example, contains intelligent organisms such as humans. This remaining universe has a certain probability very high — near to a hundred percent — of coming into existence uncaused.

Hawking’s theory is confirmed by observational evidence. This theory predicts our universe has evenly-distributed matter on a large scale, which would be on scales of super-clusters of galaxies. It predicts that the expansion rate of our universe — our universe has been expanding ever since — would be almost exactly between the rate of the universe expanding forever and the rate where it expands and then collapses. It also predicts the very early area of rapid expansion near the beginning of the universe called inflation. Hawking’s theory exactly predicted what the COBE satellite discovered about the irregularities of the background radiation in the universe. So a scientific theory that is confirmed by observational evidence tells us that the universe began without being caused. So if you want to be a rational person and accepts the results of rational inquiry into nature, then we must accept the fact that God did not cause the universe to exist. The universe exists because of this wave-function law.

Now Stephen Hawking’s theory dissolves any worries about how the universe could begin to exist uncaused. He supposes that there is a timeless space, a four-dimensional hypersphere, near the beginning of the universe. It is smaller than the nucleus of an atom. It is smaller than 10^-33 centimeters in radius. Since it was timeless, it no more needs a cause than the timeless god of theism. This timeless hypersphere is connected to our expanding universe. Our universe begins smaller than an atom and explodes in a Big Bang and here we are today in a universe that is still expanding. Is it nonetheless possible that God could have caused this universe? No. For the wave function of the universe implies there is a 95% probability that the universe came into existence uncaused. If God created the universe, he would contradict this scientific law in two ways. First, the scientific law says that the universe would come into existence because of its natural, mathematical properties, not because of any supernatural forces. Second, the scientific law says the probability is only 95% that the universe would come into existence. But if God created the universe, the probability would be 100% that it would come into existence because God is all-powerful. If God wills the universe to come into existence, his will is guaranteed to be 100% effective.

So in conclusion, contemporary scientific cosmology is not only not supported by any theistic theory, it is actually logically inconsistent with theism. So I think that is the strongest scientific argument there is against theism. I think it’s even stronger than Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Gratuitous Evil

I think there’s a second, separate argument that decisively refutes theism, based on the ordinary logic of induction that we use in our every day lives. The famous British philosopher John Mackie said that if there’s any miracle in the world, it’s that so many people actually believe God exists. One of the reasons Mackie thought that this is the case is that Mackie found it obvious that if there’s evil in the world, no all-powerful and perfectly good being could have created the world. Consider, for example, the Spanish influenza. In World War I (1914-1918), ten million people died. But in three months, from September to November of 1919, twenty million people died — just as many as in the plague in the fourteenth century — from Spanish influenza. Then suddenly, this virus that caused this deadly flu disappeared, and no one has seen it again. So how could this possibly have occurred if God exists? Is God not powerful enough to kill this virus or prevent it from growing? If so, then He’s not all-powerful and is not really the god of the Judeo-Christian tradition. He’s just a sort of extraterrestrial intelligence. He’s just more powerful than us by degrees, just as we are more powerful than ants by degrees. But that is no god; that is a finite being. You would no more worship this being than you would worship ET.

Suppose God is all-powerful and is capable of killing the Spanish influenza virus before it killed off twenty million people. Why didn’t He? Is it because He’s not perfectly good? Because He does not care enough about human beings? That is no god. Sounds like more an evil being governs our universe. So that’s just one example of many gratuitous evils in the universe.

So how do theists respond to arguments like this? They say there is a reason for evil, but it is a mystery. Well, let me tell you this: I’m actually one hundred feet tall even though I only appear to be six feet tall. You ask me for proof of this. I have a simply answer: it’s a mystery. Just accept my word for it on faith. And that’s just the logic theists use in their discussions of evil.

In fact, there’s a strict disproof of theism that uses the ordinary logic of induction we employ in our everyday lives. If we have evidence that something exists, we say it probably exists. If we see dark clouds approaching, we say it will probably rain. But if we no evidence for something, we admit that it’s merely possible that it exists, even though it probably does not exist.

If God exists, a being who is all-powerful and perfectly good, then this being must somehow ensure our world is perfectly good. The only way He can do this is to make all of the apparent evils we see in the world into means to a greater good. For example, the pain of a vaccination is in itself bad, but is a means to a greater good. Thus, if God exists, we must have evidence that all of the evils we see are means to a greater good. But even theists admit there is no evidence. That is why they must resort to talking about the mysterious ways in which God works. There’s no evidence at all, for example, that twenty million people dying from Spanish influenza is for a greater good. The conclusion follows that God probably does not exist.

Now the theist might respond that there may be some greater good we don’t know about. But notice the theist says, "there may be some greater good we don’t know about." Well sure there may be some greater good we don’t know about. Anything is possible. It is possible there is an elephant stomping through my house. It is possible that Elvis Presley is alive and is doing the twist on the dark side of the moon. But the fact that something is possible does not show it is the least bit probable. So the fact that it is possible that God exists does not show it is the least bit probable that there is a God who created these unknown greater goods. So if someone asks me to accept on faith that there is all these greater goods which explains all evil in the world and therefore that God exists, I respond that I’ll accept that on faith if you accept on faith that Elvis Presley is now swiveling his hips on the moon.


So, in conclusion, I would say that science does actually disprove God’s existence. And secondly, the ordinary inductive logic we use in everyday life, when applied to all the evils we see, that in itself disproves God’s existence. So I think there really is no case at all for theism and a compelling case for atheism.


[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994).

[2] Ibid., p. 92.

[3] Ibid.

Quentin Smith has published five books by Oxford University Press and Yale University Press and has published over 80 articles in professional journals. He is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Western Michigan. He debates theists on college campuses.

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