Contra Atheism

Refuting the arguments of atheists can be difficult, since in many cases they do not acknowledge some of the most basic truths taken for granted by Catholics, such as the existence of objective truth and man's capacity for true knowledge, for example. As Aquinas reminds us, fruitful debate presupposes some common ground of truth upon which both sides can agree (STh. I, Q. 1, art. 8).

Nevertheless, true dialogue with atheists is possible. The Second Vatican Council teaches that atheism "is among the most serious problems of our age...deserving closer examination" (GS, 19). It is our hope that this repository of articles on the subject will be of some benefit to you in examining the anthropological, philosophical, theological and psychological elements of the many faceted edifice of modern atheism.

 

Featured Articles

Stephen Hawking: Heaven a "Fairy Story": Is the human brain really just a complex computer with no hope of a future life after the computer "crash" that is death? Even granting this flawed analogy, it doesn't make sense.

Alien Civilizations

Written by Boniface

In June 2016, an article appeared in the New York Times entitled "Yes, There Have Been Aliens." The article was written by University of Rochester astrophysicist Dr. Adam Frank. In this article, Dr. Frank promotes a hypothesis arguing conclusively that advanced alien civilizations have definitely existed in the universe, even if none exist at this moment. The basis of this argument is not any empirical evidence of any such advanced civilization, but rather an exercise in statistics derived from the probable number of exoplanets outside our solar system. Using this calculus, Dr. Frank and his associate argue that over a trillion - yes, trillion - advanced civilizations have existed in the universe. Dr. Frank does not mean a trillion planets featuring life, but a trillion advanced, technological civilizations (where "advanced technological civilization" is defined as one capable of emitting a radio signal).

The Question of Alien Life

The question of alien life draws varied responses from Christians. Some insist that divine revelation necessitates that the human race be the only sentient civilization in the universe, usually based on issues relating to original sin, the Incarnation, and the redemption won by Christ. Other Christians have argued that alien life, even intelligent alien life, could certainly exist and have even put together interesting theories and thought experiments of how the truths of Christianity would apply to intelligent alien races. C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy is a classic example of a Christian thinker taking seriously the idea that alien life is possible.

Personally, this question has never bothered me. I am open to the idea that alien life could exist within a Christian dispensation, and I am open to the idea that we are totally alone. It has always remained an empirical question; if there is there is, and if there isn't there isn't, but I have no dogmatic position on the matter.

I offer this to show that the objection I will proffer to Dr. Frank's theory is not based on his assertion of advanced alien life. Rather, my objection is based on the ease with which Dr. Frank believes advanced life can come into existence and the unwarranted leap he makes between the mere existence of habitable planets and the development of an advanced civilization.

The Drake Equation

Dr. Frank begins his article by noting that the plausibility of life on other planets has typically been discussed in the context of something called the "Drake Equation." The Drake Equation is a kind of calculus that

Among scientists, the probability of the existence of an alien society with which we might make contact is discussed in terms of something called the Drake equation. In 1961, the National Academy of Sciences asked the astronomer Frank Drake to host a scientific meeting on the possibilities of “interstellar communication.” Since the odds of contact with alien life depended on how many advanced extraterrestrial civilizations existed in the galaxy, Drake identified seven factors on which that number would depend, and incorporated them into an equation.

The first factor was the number of stars born each year. The second was the fraction of stars that had planets. After that came the number of planets per star that traveled in orbits in the right locations for life to form (assuming life requires liquid water). The next factor was the fraction of such planets where life actually got started. Then came factors for the fraction of life-bearing planets on which intelligence and advanced civilizations (meaning radio signal-emitting) evolved. The final factor was the average lifetime of a technological civilization [1].


Starting with a hypothesis of how many stars are born each year, then moving on to how many of those stars would have planets statistically, Dr. Frank comes to the conclusion that a trillion civilizations should have existed throughout the universe since its creation. Dr. Frank is so confident of the raw math here that he states:

In other words, given what we know about the number and orbital positions of the galaxy's planets, the degree of pessimism required to doubt the existence, at some point in time, of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization borders on the irrational [2].


Thus, based on the data we now have, the Drake Equation makes the pessimism required to doubt the existence of some advanced civilization almost irrational.

Factor Four

Problems have been noted with the Drake Equation before: that it includes too many unknowns and too much conjecture; we could also note that, despite acknowledging that Drake's Equation "was not a statement of universal law. It was a mechanism for fostering organized discussion" [3], Dr. Frank goes on to insist on the outcomes of his calculus with absolute certainty, as if we were dealing with absolute law.

Even so, the big problem comes with the fourth factor in Drake's Equation, which is calculating the number of planets where life actually got started. This is a huge issue, because Dr. Frank's article papers over the tremendous amount of factors that need to come into play for life to begin, even hypothetically.

What is necessary for life to begin? Carl Sagan famously said only two factors were necessary. But by 2006, the famous SETI project (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) admitted that close to 200 factors were necessary, all of which needed to be present in the proper proportions. The odds of these factors coming together without any intelligent Creator are astonishingly low; for example, the probability that just 50 factors can all arrange themselves in the proper order and proportions is 1:3.0414093 x 1064, a number greater than all of the atoms in the universe. [4]

According to the most recent estimate in 2006, 200 independent factors must come together for life to come into being on a planet. The probability that 200 factors can arrange themselves properly such that life can arise is 1 in the following number:


788,657,867,364,790,503,552,363,213,932,185,062,295,135,977,687,173,263,294,742,533,244,359,449,963,403,342,920,

304,284,011,984,623,904,177,212,138,919,638,830,257,642,790,242,637,105,061,926,624,952,829,931,113,462,857,270,
763,317,237,396,988,943,922,445,621,451,664,240,254,033,291,864,131,227,428,294,853,277,524,242,407,573,903,240,
321,257,405,579,568,660,226,031,904,170,324,062,351,700,858,796,178,922,222,789,623,703,897,374,720,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000


This number, whatever you want to call it, has 375 places; there are 49 zeros on the end. Please note that we come to the trillions place when we come to the 16th digit from the end. And there are 49 zeros before we even get to the meat of the number.

The probability that factor four of Drake's Equation could happen on even one single planet is one in that number. This is a classic instance of statistical impossibility.
Statistical impossibility refers to a situation where, although there remains a mathematical "chance" that something could occur, its probability is so low - and the odds against it so enormously high - that it really cannot be admitted as a possibility in any rational argument. Practically speaking, it is impossible.

Ten Billion Trillion

Does Dr. Frank admit that statistics could dampen his optimistic assertion of trillions of civilizations? He does. He and his colleague have calculated a statistical barrier upon which the Drake Calculus would break. Specifically, he says, "Unless the probability for evolving a civilization on a habitable zone planet is less than one in 10 billion trillion, then we are not the first." The implication being that if the probability is less than one in 10 billion trillion, then we are the first. One in 10 billion trillion is the odds the universe needs to beat in order for it to have produced at least one other advanced civilization prior to ours.

What does 10 billion trillion look like? Another name for 10 billion trillion is ten sextillion. It looks like this:

10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

It is a 1 followed by 22 zeros. Remember, Dr. Frank says any probability less than 1 in 10 billion trillion means we are probably the first advanced civilization. This is important, because this is the statistical threshold for factor five in the Drake Equation - the emergence of intelligent civilization.

That is all well and good, but Dr. Frank assumes we have successfully passed the fourth factor, the creation of life. And if we recall, the probability of passing the fourth factor was 1 in that number with 375 digits and 49 zeros. The one that was statistically impossible.

Yes, Dr. Drake argues that the amount of pessimism required to doubt that advanced civilizations have emerged in the universe besides us borders on irrationality; perhaps, but only if we have chosen to ignore the grave statistical impossibility of life emerging to begin with. Reaching factors five, six, and seven are no problem once we get past four. The problem is getting past four is impossible statistically speaking. Even in merely one instance, let alone trillions.

Conclusion

Again, this essay is not meant to attack the idea that there could be life on other planets. Rather, it is to protest against the common assumption of scientists that the emergence of life is something easier than it is. It is not something akin to a star being born or a volcano erupting, things that are uncommon but can be predicted with some sort of reliable statistic. Rather, it is something of a whole different order, fundamentally different in a qualitative sense. It is more akin to a miracle than a statistic, and explanations for the origin of life that rely exclusively on the arrangement of chemical factors without reference to a supernatural agent need to understand this. It must be taken into account before positing "trillions" of advanced civilizations across the universe.

For more on this question, please see our article "Probability and Statistical Impossibility."

NOTES

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/opinion/sunday/yes-there-have-been-aliens.html?_r=0
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] Much of the information in this section comes from works cited in our article "Probability and Statistical Impossibility"

 

Rethinking the Appendix

Written by Boniface

Since the dawn of the science of human biology in the modern age, it has been taken for granted that the internal organ known as the "appendix" was vestigial. A structure that is "vestigial" is so-called because it is believed to be a "vestige" of the organism at an earlier stage in its evolutionary biology. Vestigial organs or vestigial body parts no longer have any practical function, but they have not yet disappeared from the organism's biology. Another common example is the human tail bone, which is said to be a vestigial remnant of the days when homo sapiens had tails. Thus, vestigiality goes hand in hand with evolutionary biology. The "useless" appendix has always been explained as an organ left over from the days when the human diet consisted mainly in vegetation; this hypothesis was proposed by Charles Darwin himself and had been a staple in scientific assumptions about the appendix for over a century.

Read more: Rethinking the Appendix
 

Probability and Statistical Impossibility

Written by Boniface

Late last year, Wall Street Journal columnist Eric Metaxas published an interesting piece titled "Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God". The article argues that recent scientific discoveries about the universe increase the likelihood that the cosmos is the result of an intelligent designer. Though the article is brief, we recommend a studious reading of it, as it brings to the fore several essential problems with purely materialist theories of the origin of the universe. In this essay, we will examine the issue of probability and the concept of "statistical impossibility" and how it undermines the materialist assumption that given enough time, anything is possible.

Read more: Probability and Statistical Impossibility
 

Contradictions in the Bible (part 3)

Written by Boniface

 

Today we present our final installment in our long series on contradictions in the New Testament with refutations for 63 allegedly contradictory statements from the writings of the Gospels, Acts and the letters of St. Paul. Since it has been awhile since I last posted in this series, let me remind the reader that these alleged "contradictions" are taken from the atheist website Skeptically.org, where they presume to catalog 194 different contradictions in the New Testament. In our previous two installments in this series (Part 1 and Part 2), we demonstrated how the criteria these skeptics employ for what constitutes a "contradiction" is extraordinarily loose. It would behoove the reader to review the introduction to Part 1 in this series where we review what exactly is and is not a real contradiction in the logical sense. It would be better to describe these biblical "contradictions" as misunderstandings, incorrect exegesis, and plain willful ignorance than anything close to a contradiction.

Read more: Contradictions in the Bible (part 3)
 

Deus ex Machina or Fons Entis?

Written by Boniface

In the ancient Greek plays, it was not uncommon for a protagonist to be saved from a dangerous situation or relieved from an impossible dilemma by the emergence of a deus ex machina ("god from the machine"), a plot device whereby the seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event or character, usually a god or hero. This was usually resorted to when the playwright had painted himself into a corner, so to speak, and could find no other way to resolve his contorted plot than by having some god emerge to miraculously set everything right. The deus ex machina was soundly criticized by the ancients as evidence of poor writing. In the history of modern thought, religion has been similarly criticized as a kind of philosophical deus ex machina, a device that is used to satisfactorily resolve the mysteries of the universe. Where does rain come from? God makes it. Where do earthquakes come from? God makes them. How does gravity work? God does it. Relying on religion to explain the physical properties of the universe in terms of direct acts of God is also known as a "God of the Gaps" theory.

Read more: Deus ex Machina or Fons Entis?
 

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