Let’s dive into chapter one.
First, I’m not going to hide my disdain for what I’ve read so far. I’m not an expert in physics by any stretch. For that reason I expected, or at least hoped, to be challenged by Sproul’s presentation.
Sadly, that is not the case.
In this first chapter, Sproul attempts to completely redefine chance to serve his preconceptions, then disparage science and scientists based on those preconceptions, though perhaps misconceptions is a better word.
In starting out, Sproul immediately
paints himself into a corner sets his parameters regarding the concept of chance. He makes no bones about it – the existence of chance negates the entire Christian definition of god. Period.
“The mere existence of chance is enough to rip God from his cosmic throne.”
So it’s clear that he stages this conversation as an all-or-nothing proposition. If there is such a thing as chance, then there are things that are out of God’s control. (And when we say God in reference to this book, we always mean the paradoxical triune God: YHWH/Jesus/Holy Spirit, unless otherwise specified.) The very idea, the very instance of chance deprives him of his omniscient and omnipotent sovereignty over the entire universe, down to its smallest element.
So Sproul has a lot riding on winning this argument. By his standard, any Christian who witnesses a true and confirmed random occurrence should wholly reject his or her entire faith.
Having defined the stakes, he proceeds to define the word “chance.”
Unfortunately, he doesn’t do very well. He begins this section by warning against equivocation – shifting the meaning of a key word in the argument that the logic therein is thwarted – then he proceeds to do just that. His definition is inaccurate and becomes the straw man that I’ll wager he’ll spend the rest of the book trying to shred.
He starts off okay, stating:
“On the one hand the word chance refers to mathematical possibilities. Here chance is merely a formal word with no material content. It is a pure abstraction.
That’s close enough to the case, I suppose. He then illustrates the nature of chance and probability with the simple example of a series of coin flips. Which leads him to his pile of straw, and he starts building:
“Our next question is crucial. How much influence or effect does chance have on the coin’s turning up heads? My answer is categorically, “None whatsoever.”
Well, technically, he’s still correct. Being correct, he then begins his own equivocation. Mind, this equivocation is necessary, as it is the glue that will give his strawman shape.
“Chance is not an entity. It is not a thing that has power to affect other things. It is no thing. To be more precise, it is nothing. Nothing can not do something. Nothing is not… What are the chances that chance can do anything? Not a chance. It has no more chance to do something than nothing has to do something.”
After beating that horse, he then points out the equivocation. I know this is a lot of quoting, but it’s all for good reason, because what he says next is the height of gall:
“It is precisely at this point that equivocation creeps (or rushes) into the use of the word chance. The shift from a formal probability concept to a real force is usually slipped in by the addition of another seemingly harmless word, by… Suddenly chance is given instrumental power. It is the means by which things come to pass.”
So I’ll ask you, reader, who made chance an entity here? Who made it a force? Sproul, of course. It is he who is forcing the equivocation, who is now trying to imbue the word by with the power to turn the word chance from a mathematical concept into an agency that affects outcomes.
But that is not what chance is. This is purely Sproul’s assertion. No reputable scientist, working with mathematical probabilities, thinks of chance that way. They do not treat chance as an agency that affects outcomes. Sproul was right earlier that the word chance is a concept. In a moment of what seems to be intellectual dishonesty, he mischaracterizes the common use of the word by when discussing the nature of causality and probability.
Perhaps it is a filter that comes from belief in God. In the Christian economy, God is a supernatural agent who controls all outcomes, who chooses which side of coin lands up on every flip. So perhaps that preconception drives the need to view outcomes as having a specific determinant agent.
What Sproul is missing is that there is no need to replace the assumption of a determining agent with another agent. When a scientist says that an outcome happened by chance, what is meant is that the outcome was a result of natural processes without the intervention an intentional agent. It didn’t happen because a magical chance being determined an outcome. It happened because natural process took place without an specific intelligence determining the outcome for some purpose, known or unknown.
Indulge me while I put it slightly differently. The word chance doesn’t describe an intentional agent. It is a conceptual term that describes the unintentional nature of the process that brings about a range of results that are, to the extent they can be, determined randomly, solely by the nature of the elements involved in the process.
As we get further into the book, my guess is that Sproul will take this sense of agency and try to make the case that because, in his view, scientists treat chance as an agent, that an agent is therefore necessary to create and to determine outcomes, and that since a thing that is not cannot be an agent, we have to postulate another agent, that being Sproul’s God.
We shall see.
I bet it sounds like we’re at the end of the chapter. But no, it gets even better. Sproul takes his strawman and begins to use it to run down some of the biggest, most accomplished names in physics. And I mean he runs them down. It would be one thing if his case was airtight, but it’s a mess, and it’s almost embarrassing the manner in which he insults and slings mud, using words like magic and dogmatic, cherry picking comments made in order to bolster his assertion that physicists are somehow just making shit up, showing zero respect for the actual work and accomplishments of these giants.
“When scientists attribute instrumental power to chance, they have left the domain of physics and resorted to magic.”
No, Mr. Sproul, that was you. That was your equivocation. That is not the way chance works, and that is not how scientists conceptualize chance. He’s riding this horse all the way into town and buying a new saddle for it.
For his last trick, Sproul tries to transition the discussion from chance to the concept of nothing.
Having claimed the high ground on chance (which I think we’ve at least deflated, if not negated by this point) he then tries to rely on logic by asserting that scientists are transgressing the law of noncontradiction by conflating logic with magic (chance as agent.) But of course they haven’t, and his assertion is false.
He uses this same claim of contradiction when he dives into the nothing discussion. He makes the following statement:
“For something to come from nothing it must, in effect, create itself.”
There are two glaring errors here. First, again, we see the preconception of the necessity of intentional agency. Second, and perhaps more egregious, Sproul trots out a very tired misconception of the inception of the universe and its prior state. It’s actually difficult to talk about a prior state, as time itself is an artifact of the “Big Bang,” so simply talking about what came before almost doesn’t make sense. That’s a book in itself, and in fact one has been written by Lawrence Krauss: A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.
Sproul shows a complete disregard for the actual science behind this. Nothing is a word Christians like to use as if it’s a foregone conclusion that there was absolutely nothing – a vacuum, no matter, no singularity, no nothing. From that nothing, they believe God created something, that being all matter in the universe.
But what physicists have recently learned is that nothing is unstable, and that particles pop in and out of existence, spontaneously, all the time. From Lawrence Krauss:
“And in fact the question why is there something rather than nothing then becomes sort of trite because nothing is unstable. It will always produce something. The more interesting or surprising question might be why is there nothing.”
We do know some things about nothing. Yet trying to explain those things falls on deaf ears for Sproul. For instance, he says:
“Usually the concept of self-creation is elliptical or camouflaged by obfuscatory language.”
No again, Mr. Sproul. Usually scientists try not to use words that don’t accurately represent what they hypothesize is happening. Instead they use terminology that better describes it. That’s why you don’t see scientists going on about self-creation. They don’t assert that anything is creating itself. That’s made-up terminology proffered by Christian apologists to try and obscure the actual theory and artificially prop up their preconception of intentional creation by God.
Sproul’s equivocation isn’t over:
“In a world where a miracle working God is deemed an anachronism, he is replaced by an even greater miracle worker: time or chance. I say these twin miracle workers are greater than God because they produce the same result with so much less, indeed infinitely less, to work with.”
This is simply egregious. But he’s already decided that he’s right about chance and nothing, so why not double down? Having demonstrated his (willful?) misunderstanding of chance, and his ignorance of the nature of nothing, he pops out this statement of value that is nothing more than an attempt to minimize the role time plays in natural processes, and the fact that they are non-intentional inasfar as there is no particular agency applying design decisions to their occurrence, as Sproul would have us believe.
He takes a few more pages to run down the inestimable Neils Bohr, then finishes up with a rant that includes the following:
“Empirical scientists may disparage philosophy, ontology, and epistemology, but they cannot escape them.”
I rather suspect most scientists aren’t disparaging ontology, epistemology, and philosophy so much as they’re disparaging Sproul’s very poor mastery of these concepts.
The long and short is that, so far, Sproul has shown a rather distinct inclination to play fast and loose with definitions, altering them to line up with his assertions (yes, we’re back to equivocation) and utilize his ignorance of physical realities as a shield against truly understanding them.
I almost can’t believe I committed to read this entire book, but we’ll be into chapter two in the next couple days.