ABSTRACT. Ravi Zacharias wrote a book. Good for him. It’s called The End of Reason, and it is aptly named. For those looking for logic and reason in believing in a God, I suggest looking elsewhere. No one but those seeking to entrench their bias will find anything other than tired, old and debunked arguments filled with logic fallacies that no grade schooler would be fooled by. Arguments from consequences and false dichotomies abound. It is supposedly an answer to the New Atheist books. In particular, to Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. If so, it is an answer to a question no atheist asked…
In this first of two parts, I go over some of the bad reasoning up to and including his discussion of cosmological arguments.
I tried reading Ravi Zacharias’s The End of Reason. I really did. But I simply couldn’t get past the half-way point and keep down what I had eaten shortly before. The End of Reason is filled with standard logic fallacies and in some places is factually wrong. It is wholly based on emotional arguments. But at least I now understand a bit why it is difficult for logic and reason – the weapons of freethinkers – to penetrate into the reasoning parts of a believer’s brain.
Lee Strobel wrote the foreword and makes a great deal of Sam Harris’s statement that given a choice between abolishing religion or rape he would choose religion. Believers find this incredible, because (as they are blinded to the damage their belief does to societies) they think that Harris makes light of rape. Au contraire. In point of fact, Harris believes rape to be abominable, but as abominable as it may be, religion is worse. I agree. Strobel, like many believers, completely misunderstands what Harris was trying to get across and seems proud of his ignorance.
Zacharias doesn’t start out any better. He begins with a fictitious story (he couldn’t find a real-world example, apparently) about a prodigle son who has read some of the latest literature from the New Atheists while at a university and announces to his devout family that he no longer believes. The family attempts to pressure him back into the fold. Failing this, the mother commits suicide. The end.
Zacharias seems to think that the fault lies with atheism. I beg to differ. His framing is ridiculous. It seems to me that parents such as these are neither loving nor caring. Instead of trying to apply pressure to get their son back in line with their beliefs, perhaps they should have thought to ask why he has changed? In my view, loving parents would accept their son’s independence of thought and try to understand it, not recoil in horror that he thinks differently from them (how dare he!).
In fact, this ‘poignant’ story is completely in line with the ideas contained within Darrell Ray’s The God Virus, which I am currently reading. I think Ray may be taking the analogy of the god meme as a virus or parasite a bit far, and he does tend to anthropomorphize evolution. While we do talk of ‘survival strategies’, these are describing evolutionary paths. Organisms don’t consciously apply strategies to their own ends – they just do what they do, and those that do it better than others are more successful. But Ray makes some good points. The god memes which work best are those which actively spread throughout families and are so virulent that they can’t conceive of any family member trying to claw their way out.
Personally, I think it a horrible story. I don’t think it portrays atheism in a bad light at all. If anything, it shows how intolerant and destructive Christianity can be. A child is a person in their own right and as such is not only capable of independence of thought, it should be celebrated! But Zacharias doesn’t see it that way.
But my favorite part of the book is the section entitled “Atheism caused my suicide attempt”. Wow. That’s quite a statement to make. Zacharias has taken all of the drives and emotions that define his psyche and distilled his suicide attempt down to a single cause: atheism. I highly doubt this. Just what is he trying to say here? That atheists kill themselves and not Christians? That he was so focused on the fact that at the end of this life there is nothing, then tries to end it? Does it make sense that from understanding that this one life we know we have is the only one we get and is hence the most precious thing we have, he should try to end it? That boggles my mind. But then, not much in the book makes sense to me. I’m sorry if his previous lack of belief upset him, but atheists go about their lives believing that life is precious precisely because we believe (and have no reason to believe otherwise) that this is our only shot. Even if I were to agree that his atheism sent his psyche on a self-destructive path, does that lend one iota of credence to the truth value (the only thing which I am concerned with) of any religion? Does Zacharias really think that this is somehow a reason for me to start believing? Because it isn’t. Even if I were to grant him that his newfound faith stopped his inner torment, that only goes to the utility of it, not its truth value. This is the logic fallacy known as the Argument from Consequences. If Zacharias was indeed an atheist at one time as he claims, he was of a type that is completely unknown to me.
This nonsense is immediately followed by the typical bad ‘philosophical’ agruments (I use the term very loosely here). He writes:
Big Bang cosmology, along with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, implies that there is indeed an “in the beginning”. All the data indicates that a universe that is exploding outward from a point of infinite density. We know quite well that this singularity is not really a point; it is the whole of three-dimensional space compressed to zero size [pg. 31]
This is factually wrong on three points, one for each sentence in the above quote. First, Einstein’s relativity equations break down prior to the Planck time (about 10-43 sec after space began expanding), so we do not, in point of fact, know what happened prior to this point. Second, the universe did not ‘explode’ – space began expanding. It’s not the same thing. Third, inclusion of quantum mechanics demonstrates that the universe was not and could not have began as a singularity. I wonder if Zacharias just read this off of William Lane Craig’s website rather than talk to a cosmologist, since Craig disingenuously says the same thing (Craig knows damn well that the universe was not a singularity, yet still promotes this falsehood on his website).
We then get the usual “but nothing can’t produce something” nonsense. What he really means, is that he doesn’t know how something can come from nothing. But not knowing how something comes about doesn’t mean you can validly insert whatever fairy tale happens to strike your fancy. As Vic Stenger points out in God: The Failed Hypothesis,
…In principle, the creation hypothesis could be confirmed by the direct observation or theoretical requirement that conservation of energy was violated 13.7 billion years ago at the start of the big bang.
However, neither observations nor theory indicates this to have been the case. The first law [of thermodynamics] allows energy to convert from one type to another as long as the total for a closed system remains fixed. Remarkably, the total energy of the universe appears to be zero….
In short, the existence of matter and energy did not require the violation of energy conservation at the assumed creation. In fact, the data strongly support the hypothesis that no such miracle occurred. [pg. 116]
In other words, that “something” is itself in fact “nothing”.
Or how about the “the odds of random life” argument? Zacharias cites a calculation by Donald Page that “the odds against our universe randomly taking a form suitable for life as one out of 10,000,000,000124.” Wow. That’s a big number. But there’s a fly in the ointment – who says that universal constants are randomly valued? My presumption is that this calculation used a whole battery of universal constants (correct me if I’m wrong…). The problem with doing that is that many constants are secondary. That is, they are determined by values of truly fundamental constants and are thus not independently variable. In fact, the number of such fundamental constants is very low and are essentially summed up in the speed of light, Planck’s constant, the gravitational constant and the hyperfine constant. Pretty much every other constant is determined by these four. Nor is varying the values at all meaningfull. As Vic Stenger points out, it is only dimensionless constants – those that do not depend on the units of measurement, such as the ratio of gravity to electromagnetism – matter. Big bang simulations involving the variance of these values still produces universes in which stars and galaxies (a requirement for life to arise) form about 40% of the time.
And while Page’s odds calculation produces an astronomically high number, who is to say that calculating the odds for the existence of a god isn’t even higher? Page’s calculation is meaningless when there is nothing to compare it to.
But the assumption that universal constants are randomly generated is probably itself incorrect. Lee Smolin has noticed something strange about our universe – it isn’t fine-tuned for life at all. Think about it – how many locations in the universe are there where life is known to have arisen? Well, one. I don’t have any real doubt that life exists elsewhere, but I have no data to work from. And if the universe was indeed fine-tuned for life, then it should be teeming with it. At the moment we are forced to say that it is not (subject to revision as new data is collected).
But Smolin noticed that the universe is indeed fine-tuned for something: black holes. These horrors are thrive everywhere in our universe, including a moderately sized one (about 3,000,000 solar masses.) at the centre of our own galaxy. We can see them indirectly all over the visible universe as matter falling into each is shredded and gamma ray bursts are emitted in the process. The universe prior to its expansion was itself a giant black hole, and Chaotic Inflation predicts that with the creation of a new black hole a new universe is spawned. According to Smolin Selection Theory, universes better at producing black holes survive to produce new universes and those that don’t do not produce black holes are evolutionary dead ends. Life, as we know it, is barely possible in such black hole-friendly universes.
Next is the Argument from Morality and his claim that atheism takes away “hope” and “love”. That’s about as much as I could stand.