In a recent article titled, God is not a scientific hypothesis, philosopher and author Francis Beckwith critiques Eric Metaxas’ stimulating essay, Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God, in the Wall Street Journal. Professor Beckwith views scientific arguments for God as philosophically problematic, for several reasons:
But is this the right way to think about God as Creator? Is the rational basis for believing in His existence really dependent on the deliverances of modern science? Should one calibrate the depth of one’s faith on the basis of what researchers tell us about the plausibility of the “God hypothesis” in recent issues of the leading peer-reviewed science journals? The answer to all three question is no, since God is not a scientific hypothesis. For this reason, it is equally true that advances in our scientific knowledge cannot in principle count against the existence of God.
This is because God – as understood by the Catholic Church and by most other theistic traditions – is not a being in the universe, a superior agent whose existence we postulate in order to explain some natural phenomenon, but rather, Being Itself, that which all contingent reality depends for its existence.
In order to appreciate how this understanding differs from Metaxas’ Watchmaker God, suppose in a few years scientists tell us, after further research, new discoveries, and confirmed theories, that the arising of life in the universe is not that improbable after all. What then happens to Metaxas’ God?
I will respond to Professor Beckwith’s arguments below. But first, I’d like to ask Professor Beckwith if he has read an address given by Pope Pius XII (pictured above, courtesy of Wikipedia) to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on November 22, 1951, titled “The Proofs For The Existence Of God In The Light Of Modern Natural Science”. In this speech, Pius XII, who was commenting on recent scientific discoveries indicating that the universe had a beginning, boldly proclaimed that true science can indeed lead us to God:
2. In fact, according to the measure of its progress, and contrary to affirmations advanced in the past, true science discovers God in an ever-increasing degree – as though God were waiting behind every door opened by science. We would even say that from this progressive discovery of God, which is realized in the increase of knowledge, there flow benefits not only for the scientist himself when he reflects as a philosopher – and how can he escape such reflection?-but also for those who share in these new discoveries or make them the object of their own considerations. Genuine philosophers profit from these discoveries in a very special way, because when they take these scientific conquests as the basis for their rational speculations, their conclusions thereby acquire greater certainty, while they are provided with clearer illustrations in the midst of possible shadows and more convincing assistance in establishing an ever more satisfying response to difficulties and objections…
44. It is undeniable that when a mind enlightened and enriched with modern scientific knowledge weighs this problem calmly, it feels drawn to break through the circle of completely independent or autochthonous matter, whether uncreated or self-created, and to ascend to a creating Spirit. With the same clear and critical look with which it examines and passes judgment on facts, it perceives and recognizes the work of creative omnipotence, whose power, set in motion by the mighty “Fiat” pronounced billions of years ago by the Creating Spirit, spread out over the universe, calling into existence with a gesture of generous love matter busting with energy. In fact, it would seem that present-day science, with one sweeping step back across millions of centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to that primordial “Fiat lux” uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chemical elements split and formed into millions of galaxies…
49. What, then, is the importance of modern science for the argument for the existence of God based on the mutability of the cosmos? By means of exact and detailed research into the macrocosm and the microcosm, it has considerably broadened and deepened the empirical foundation on which this argument rests, and from which it concludes to the existence of an Ens a se, immutable by His very nature.
50. It has, besides, followed the course and the direction of cosmic developments, and, just as it was able to get a glimpse of the term toward which these developments were inexorably leading, so also has it pointed to their beginning in time some five billion years ago. Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, it has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the cosmos came forth from the hands of the Creator.
51. Hence, creation took place in time. Therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists! Although it is neither explicit nor complete, this is the reply we were awaiting from science, and which the present human generation is awaiting from it. It is a reply which bursts forth from nature and calm consideration of only one aspect of the universe; namely, its mutability. But this is already enough to make the entire human race, which is the peak and the rational expression of both the macrocosm and the microcosm, become conscious of its exalted Maker, realize that it belongs to Him in space and in time and then, falling on its knees before His sovereign majesty, begin to invoke His name: Rerum, Deus, tenax vigor,-Immotus in te permanens, — Lucis diurnae tempora successibus determinans (Hymn for None).
(A free English translation is: “O God, creation’s secret force/Thyself unmoved, yet motion’s source/Who from the morn till evening’s ray/Through every change dost guide the day.”)
52. The knowledge of God as sole Creator, now shared by many modern scientists, is indeed, the extreme limit to which human reason can attain. Nevertheless, as you are well aware, it does not constitute the last frontier of truth. In harmonious cooperation, because all three are instruments of truth, like rays of the same sun, science, philosophy, and, with still greater reason, Revelation, contemplate the substance of this Creator whom science has met along its path unveil His outlines and point out His features. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Perceptive readers will note the strong resemblance between the Pope’s words – “contrary to affirmations advanced in the past, true science discovers God in an ever-increasing degree – as though God were waiting behind every door opened by science” – and the language used by Eric Metaxas, in his essay in the Wall Street Journal:
…[I]t turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature. More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place – science itself.”
Now, Professor Beckwith is perfectly free to disagree with Pope Pius XII if he wishes to do so. But if he does, then he should be candid enough to admit as much, and he should refrain from describing Eric Metaxas’ opinion as if it were a theologically objectionable one. Clearly, it is not.
God: Being or ‘a being’?
I’d now like to address Professor Beckwith’s arguments. First, he contends that God “is not a being in the universe, a superior agent whose existence we postulate in order to explain some natural phenomenon, but rather, Being Itself, that [on] which all contingent reality depends for its existence.” Excuse me, Professor, but where in Eric Metaxas’s essay does he claim that God is a being in the universe? Indeed, he explicitly claims the contrary when he writes:
The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all…
Theoretical physicist Paul Davies has said that “the appearance of design is overwhelming” and Oxford professor Dr. John Lennox has said “the more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator . . . gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.”…
The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe. It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something — or Someone — beyond itself.
Metaxas clearly believes that the parameters which define the universe we live in are a contingent choice, made by the Creator of the cosmos, and that the Creator is therefore not a being in the universe but beyond it. Why, then, does Beckwith write as if Metaxas opposed the traditional religious claim that God is “that [on] which all contingent reality depends for its existence”? And how does he explain the fact that Pope Pius XII, when presenting his scientific argument for God’s existence, also explicitly declared that science “has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the cosmos came forth from the hands of the Creator”? Beckwith’s logic at this point is very confused. He cannot criticize Metaxas’ theology without also criticizing that of Pope Pius.
And finally, what of Professor Beckwith’s contentious claim that “God is not a being”? He’d better be very careful, if he is making that argument. St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was undeniably a classical theist. Yet in his Proslogion, St. Anselm very clearly refers to God as a being:
And indeed, we believe that you are a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. (Chapter II)
In a similar vein, Blessed John Duns Scotus, in his work, A Treatise on God as First Principle, writes:
Nothing however is more perfect than a being having necessary existence of itself. (3.25)
Later in the same work, Scotus approvingly quotes St. Anselm’s description of God, which he endeavors to make more precise: “God is a being conceived without contradiction who is so great that it would be a contradiction if a greater being could be conceived” (4.65).
There’s more. St. Thomas Aquinas himself, in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, Chapter 43, paragraph 8, states that “God is a necessary being through Himself.” In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, Chapter 52, paragraph 9, he adds that “God is a cause.” In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, Chapter 6, paragraph 4, he declares that “God is a being in act, as was shown in Book I,” and in Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, Chapter 16, paragraph 6, he writes that “God is a being in act, not through anything inherent in Him, but through His whole substance, as was proved above.” In Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, Chapter 24, paragraph 2, Aquinas even contends that “God is a voluntary agent.”
So when Professor Beckwith writes that God is not a being, he is going against his own philosophical hero, St. Thomas Aquinas.
Nevertheless, there is a sense in which “God is not a being” is true. I addressed this subject in my Uncommon Descent article, Why the best arguments for the existence of God are not stupid (January 28, 2014), where I quoted from Fr. Robert Barron’s review of theologian David Bentley Hart’s recent book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, :
(St.) Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual — however supreme — among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.
It might be helpful here to distinguish God from the [pagan] gods… They were impressive denizens of the natural world, but they were not, strictly speaking, supernatural. But God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists…
[T]he physical sciences, no matter how advanced they might become, can never eliminate God, for God is not a being within the natural order. Instead, he is the reason why there is that nexus of conditioned causes that we call nature — at all. (Italics mine – VJT.)
I then concluded:
While most religious believers would indeed be shocked if you told them that “God is not a being,” they would not be at all shocked if you qualified this remark by saying: “God is not a being within the natural order,” as Fr. Barron does.
Nowhere in his article for the Wall Street Journal does author Eric Metaxas question the traditional claim that God is Being Itself, so it is puzzling that Professor Beckwith seems to regard him as being opposed to the claims of classical theism.
Does the fine-tuning argument make belief in God dependent on the findings of modern science?
Next, Professor Beckwith mockingly asks: “Should one calibrate the depth of one’s faith on the basis of what researchers tell us about the plausibility of the ‘God hypothesis’ in recent issues of the leading peer-reviewed science journals?” This is a loaded question, for it gratuitously assumes that Eric Metaxas believes that the only good arguments for God’s existence are scientific ones. Once again, nowhere in Metaxas’ article does he say any such thing. If there are indeed powerful metaphysical arguments for God’s existence (as Beckwith maintains, and as I have repeatedly argued on this blog – see here and here), then the scientific arguments put forward by Metaxas simply lend further weight to an already convincing case. They are, as it were, the icing on the cake: take it away and the cake will still be an excellent one.
But, it will be asked, if the metaphysical arguments for God’s existence are so good, what need have we of scientific arguments as well? The short answer is that the scientific arguments are easier for many modern people to understand: not everyone can grasp metaphysical arguments.
To illustrate my point, consider Professor Beckwith’s remark that “the philosophical case for God – as St. Thomas Aquinas and his followers have argued – starts from the contingency of the universe, which is a metaphysical claim and not a scientific one.” I have just one question for Professor Beckwith: how do you define contingency – and for that matter, how do you define necessity? You know as well as I do that these terms are quite tricky to define: there’s logical necessity, metaphysical necessity, nomological necessity, temporal necessity, and epistemic necessity, to name just a few varieties. So I hope you can forgive Joe and Jane Average if they find the design argument more straightforward and easier to comprehend.
Nervous Nellies: what if the fine-tuning argument is wrong?
Finally, Beckwith poses a rhetorical objection to Metaxas’ argument:
In order to appreciate how this understanding differs from Metaxas’ Watchmaker God, suppose in a few years scientists tell us, after further research, new discoveries, and confirmed theories, that the arising of life in the universe is not that improbable after all. What then happens to Metaxas’ God?
Beckwith’s snide reference to “Metaxas’ Watchmaker God” is below the belt: nowhere in his article does Metaxas say that he believes God wound the universe up like a watch and then left it to itself. Nor did Pope Pius XII make any such claim, in his speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on November 22, 1951. I’m sure that Beckwith wouldn’t accuse Pope Pius XII of deism; why, then, is he unwilling to give Metaxas the benefit of the doubt?
I should also add that Beckwith appears not to have read Metaxas’ essay beyond the first paragraph. Later in his essay, Metaxas writes:
There’s more. The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all.…
For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction — by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000 — then no stars could have ever formed at all. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
Here, in anticipation of Beckwith’s question, Metaxas plainly declares that even if the evidence for the fine-tuning of life were discredited, the arguments for the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist would still stand.
To answer Beckwith’s question: either there are good independent metaphysical arguments for God’s existence or there aren’t. If there are, then any discrediting of the scientific arguments for God’s existence in no way undermines the metaphysical arguments, which are independent of science. But if there aren’t, then wouldn’t it be rational to revise one’s opinion of the probability of God’s existence?
In his excellent article, A Christmas Gift that Keeps Giving: Lawrence Krauss on Eric Metaxas on Science, on God over at Evolution News and Views, David Klinghoffer quotes from ENV’s Daniel Bakken, author of its current series “Exoplanets”:
Of the many fine-tuned features of our universe, just one, the mass density of the universe, which is set by the expansion rate of the universe, must be fine-tuned to the order of one part in 10^60. This is an incredibly small number. The diameter of the observable universe is 27.6 billion light years. That is about 2.6X10^29 millimeters. One millimeter compared to the diameter of the universe is still incomprehensibly larger than this one fine-tuned parameter, of one part in 10^60! So, yes, the fine-tuning of the universe is unbelievable, and this drives those who are non-theists to the imagined safety of a multiverse with a near infinite number of universes, against the direct evidence of only our own.
Commenting on physicist Lawrence Krauss’s recent critique of Eric Metaxas article, Kakken concludes: “When one knows the data, his response is pretty weak, but the best possible. It shows the hallmarks of defending a losing argument.”
For my part, as soon as I looked Professor Lawrence Krauss’s article attempting to debunk Metaxas’ claims, I knew that it was complete and utter rubbish. How did I know that? Simple: it contained no numbers.
Take for instance the following passage:
We have discovered many more planets around stars in our galaxy than we previously imagined, and many more forms of life existing in extreme environments in our planet than were known when early estimates of the frequency of life in the universe were first made. If anything, the odds have increased, not decreased.
There are about 10^24 planets in the universe. If the odds of a universe with parameters like ours are much less than 1 in 10^24, then the fine-tuning argument stands. It’s as simple as that.
The quote from Daniel Bakken listed above mentioned the mass density of the universe, which needs to be fine-tuned to the order of one part in 10^60. 10^24 planets won’t cut it against fine-tuning like that. And as Bakken points out, “Even with the most generous reading of Lawrence [Krauss]’s point here, there are only an extremely small fraction of conceivable universes that could allow complex molecules, especially ones as capable as our carbon-based molecules in this universe, compared to the theoretical number of possible universes.”
But there’s more. Even within a life-friendly cosmos like our own, the odds of life originating from non-living matter are very low indeed – less than 1 in 1 followed by 1,000 zeroes!
The Case for Fine-Tuning: it’s a lot stronger than you think
Dr. Eugene V. Koonin is a Senior Investigator at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which is part of the National Library of Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. Dr. Koonin is also a recognized authority in the field of evolutionary and computational biology. Recently, he authored a book, titled, The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution (Upper Saddle River: FT Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-13-262317-9). I think we can fairly assume that when it comes to origin-of-life scenarios, he knows what he’s talking about.
In Appendix B of his book, The Logic of Chance, Dr. Koonin argues that the origin of life is such a remarkable event that we need to postulate a multiverse, containing a very large (and perhaps infinite) number of universes, in order to explain the emergence of life on Earth. (I’ll explain below why Koonin’s multiverse proposal won’t work, as a way of avoiding the need for God.)
The reason why Dr. Koonin believes we need to postulate a multiverse in order to solve the riddle of the origin of life on Earth is that all life is dependent on replication and translation systems which are fiendishly complex. As Koonin puts it:
The origin of the translation system is, arguably, the central and the hardest problem in the study of the origin of life, and one of the hardest in all evolutionary biology. The problem has a clear catch-22 aspect: high translation fidelity hardly can be achieved without a complex, highly evolved set of RNAs and proteins but an elaborate protein machinery could not evolve without an accurate translation system.
Dr. Koonin claims that the emergence of even a basic replication-translation system on the primordial Earth is such an astronomically unlikely event that we would need to postulate a vast number of universes, in which all possible scenarios are played out, in order to make its emergence likely.
To justify this claim, Dr. Koonin provides what he calls “a rough, toy calculation of the upper bound of the probability of the emergence of a coupled replication-translation system in an O-region.” (That’s an observable universe, such as the one we live in.) The calculations on pages 434-435 in Appendix B of Dr. Koonin’s book, The Logic of Chance, are adapted from his peer-reviewed article, The Cosmological Model of Eternal Inflation and the Transition from Chance to Biological Evolution in the History of Life, Biology Direct 2 (2007): 15, doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15. As readers can verify for themselves, the wording is virtually identical in the 2007 article. I shall reproduce the relevant passage below (bold emphases are mine – VJT):
Probabilities of the emergence, by chance, of different versions of the breakthrough system in an O-region: a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the upper bounds
…A ribozyme replicase consisting of ~100 nucleotides is conceivable, so, in principle, spontaneous origin of such an entity in a finite universe consisting of a single O-region cannot be ruled out in this toy model (again, the rate of RNA synthesis considered here is a deliberate, gross over-estimate).
The requirements for the emergence of a primitive, coupled replication-translation system, which is considered a candidate for the breakthrough stage in this paper, are much greater. At a minimum, spontaneous formation of the following is required:
– Two rRNAs with a total size of at least 1000 nucleotides
– Approximately 10 primitive adaptors of about 30 nucleotides each, for a total of approximately 300 nucleotides
– At least one RNA encoding a replicase, about 500 nucleotides (low bound)is required. Under the notation used here, n = 1800, resulting in E <10-1018.
In other words, even in this toy model that assumes a deliberately inflated rate of RNA production, the probability that a coupled translation-replication emerges by chance in a single O-region is P < 10-1018. Obviously, this version of the breakthrough stage can be considered only in the context of a universe with an infinite (or, at the very least, extremely vast) number of O-regions.
The model considered here is not supposed to be realistic by any account. It only serves to illustrate the difference in the demands on chance for the origin of different versions of the breakthrough system and, hence, the connections between these versions and different cosmological models of the universe.
Dr. Koonin’s 2007 paper, which contained the above calculations, passed a panel of four reviewers, including one from Harvard University, who wrote:
In this work, Eugene Koonin estimates the probability of arriving at a system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution and comes to a cosmologically small number… He cites recent work in cosmology that highlights the vastness of the universe, where any series of events is necessarily played out an infinite number of times. This so-called “many-worlds in one” model essentially reconceives any chance event as a necessary one, where its (absolute) abundance is proportional to its chance of occurring.
The context of this article is framed by the current lack of a complete and plausible scenario for the origin of life. Koonin specifically addresses the front-runner model, that of the RNA-world, where self-replicating RNA molecules precede a translation system. He notes that in addition to the difficulties involved in achieving such a system is the paradox of attaining a translation system through Darwinian selection. That this is indeed a bona-fide paradox is appreciated by the fact that, without a shortage [of] effort, a plausible scenario for translation evolution has not been proposed to date. There have been other models for the origin of life, including the ground-breaking Lipid-world model advanced by Segrè, Lancet and colleagues (reviewed in EMBO Reports (2000), 1(3), 217–222), but despite much ingenuity and effort, it is fair to say that all origin of life models suffer from astoundingly low probabilities of actually occurring…
…[F]uture work may show that starting from just a simple assembly of molecules, non-anthropic principles can account for each step along the rise to the threshold of Darwinian evolution. Based upon the new perspective afforded to us by Koonin this now appears unlikely. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
I am very pleased to see that the argument presented in Koonin’s peer-reviewed paper was republished in his recent book, The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution (Upper Saddle River: FT Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-13-262317-9). It is encouraging to see that the experts within the field of origin-of-life studies are finally starting to speak the truth in a public forum: the origin of life on Earth, by any naturalistic scenario, must have been an astronomically improbable event.
Why the multiverse won’t help explain the origin of life or the cosmos
But for all its ingenuity, Dr. Koonin’s multiverse won’t work. The multiverse hypothesis is plagued by two problems: first, it merely shifts the fine-tuning problem up one level, as a multiverse capable of generating any life-supporting universes at all would still need to be fine-tuned; and second, even the multiverse hypothesis implies that a sizable proportion of universes (including perhaps our own) were intelligently designed. Once again, the articles arguing for these conclusions are written by highly respected authorities in the field.
Dr. Robin Collins is a Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Dr. Collins also spent two years in a Ph.D. program in Physics at the University of Texas at Austin before transferring to the University of Notre Dame where he received a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1993. In an influential essay entitled, The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe (in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, edited by William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, 2009, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.), Dr. Robin Collins offers a scientific explanation of why even a “multiverse-generator” would still fail to eliminate the need for fine-tuning:
…[A]s a test case, consider the inflationary type multiverse generator. In order for it to explain the fine-tuning of the constants, it must hypothesize one or more “mechanisms” for laws that will do the following [four] things: (i) cause the expansion of a small region of space into a very large region; (ii) generate the very large amount of mass-energy needed for that region to contain matter instead of merely empty space; (iii) convert the mass-energy of inflated space to the sort of mass-energy we find in our universe; and (iv) cause sufficient variations among the constants of physics to explain their fine-tuning.
[T]o achieve (i)–(ii), we effectively have a sort of “conspiracy” between at least two different factors: the inflaton field that gives empty space a positive energy density, and Einstein’s equation… of General Relativity, which dictates that space expand at an enormous rate in the presence of a large near-homogenous positive energy density… Without either factor, there would neither be regions of space that inflate nor would those regions have the mass-energy necessary for a universe to exist.…
In addition to the four factors listed, the fundamental physical laws underlying a multiverse generator – whether of the inflationary type or some other – must be just right in order for it to produce life-permitting universes, instead of merely dead universes. Specifically, these fundamental laws must be such as to allow the conversion of the mass-energy into material forms that allow for the sort of stable complexity needed for complex intelligent life…
In sum, even if an inflationary-superstring multiverse generator exists, it must have just the right combination of laws and fields for the production of life-permitting universes: if one of the components were missing or different, such as Einstein’s equation or the Pauli Exclusion Principle, it is unlikely that any life-permitting universes could be produced. Consequently, at most, this highly speculative scenario would explain the fine-tuning of the constants of physics, but at the cost of postulating additional fine-tuning of the laws of nature.
There’s another problem with the multiverse hypothesis, too. Physicist Paul Davies has argued that the multiverse hypothesis is just as “theological” as the hypothesis that there is a God, since it implies the existence of intelligently designed universes:
Among the myriad universes similar to ours will be some in which technological civilizations advance to the point of being able to simulate consciousness. Eventually, entire virtual worlds will be created inside computers, their conscious inhabitants unaware that they are the simulated products of somebody else’s technology. For every original world, there will be a stupendous number of available virtual worlds – some of which would even include machines simulating virtual worlds of their own, and so on ad infinitum.
Taking the multiverse theory at face value, therefore, means accepting that virtual worlds are more numerous than “real” ones. There is no reason to expect our world – the one in which you are reading this right now – to be real as opposed to a simulation. And the simulated inhabitants of a virtual world stand in the same relationship to the simulating system as human beings stand in relation to the traditional Creator.
Far from doing away with a transcendent Creator, the multiverse theory actually injects that very concept at almost every level of its logical structure. Gods and worlds, creators and creatures, lie embedded in each other, forming an infinite regress in unbounded space.
— Paul Davies, A Brief History of the Multiverse, New York Times, 12 April 2003.
The universe: fine-tuned for us or for cockroaches?
In an article in the Huffington Post titled, Sorry, Science Doesn’t Make a Case for God. But That’s OK, Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman cites a warning from scientists Francis Collins and Karl Giberson (who are both Christians) about using fine-tuning as an argument for God:
… [T]he fine-tuning argument must not be too quickly fashioned into an argument for the existence of God. Like all apologetic arguments, it can be undermined by new discoveries and weakened by broad theological conversations. In the latter category we note that the fine-tuning of the universe is just as necessary to produce cockroaches as humans. Here we would add insights from theology that humans are made in the image of God and are a far more reasonable goal of cosmic fine-tuning than are cockroaches. But this goes beyond the science. (The Language of Science and Faith, 195)
One reply to this argument is that Dr. Robin Collins’ argument in his essay, “The Teleological Argument” was simply intended to show that the universe was fine-tuned to support the existence of life – without any claim that it was specifically fine-tuned for intelligent life. The ability to support life would itself be a worthy goal for any Fine-Tuner to aim at. But in a recent essay, Dr. Collins goes further, mounting a powerful argument that the universe was fine-tuned for intelligent life, after all. In the essay, titled, The Fine-Tuning for Discoverability, which I blogged about here, Dr. Collins develops a new fine-tuning argument for the existence of God, to the effect that some of the laws, initial conditions, and the fundamental parameters of physics were set in order to make the existence of an Intelligent Designer of the cosmos more easily discoverable by the embodied conscious agents (such as human beings) living in the cosmos. Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards first drew attention to a striking correlation between habitability and measurability in their book, The Privileged Planet, back in 2004. As Richards put it in a conversation with lawyer and apologist Lee Strobel: “What’s mysterious is that the same conditions that give us a habitable planet also make our location so wonderful for scientific measurement and discovery” (The Case for a Creator, Zondervan, 2004, Chapter 4, p. 231). However, Dr. Collins’ new paper goes further, arguing that the laws, fundamental parameters, and initial conditions of the universe as a whole must be just right in order for the fine-tuning of the universe to be discovered by agents like us. Dr. Collins also addresses specific topics, such as the fine-structure constant (alpha), radiometric dating, the low entropy of the early universe, the cosmic microwave background radiation and dark energy, and he makes a strong case that their values can be scientifically explained in terms of their being fine-tuned for discoverability. The following brief quote conveys the flavor of Collins’ paper:
Here I primarily want to explore another kind of fine-tuning and its implications for this debate: the fine-tuning of the universe for being discovered. By this fine-tuning, I mean that the laws, fundamental parameters, and initial conditions of the universe must be just right for the universe to be as discoverable as ours. After presenting examples to illustrate this kind of this fine-tuning, I will argue that if this kind of fine-tuning exists, in general it cannot be explained by a multiverse hypothesis – by far the leading non-theistic explanation for anthropic fine-tuning. Further, I will show how the idea that the universe is fine-tuned for discovery answers some other commonly raised objections against the fine-tuning argument, and finally I will look at its potential predictive and explanatory power.
Belief in God is scientifically falsifiable – and what’s wrong with that?
I’d like to conclude by asking Professor Beckwith a straight question: does he think that belief in God is scientifically falsifiable, or is there no discovery in principle that would cause him to give up his faith in God?
For my part, I’m squarely in the “Faith is falsifiable” camp. A few years ago, I wrote a post I wrote for Uncommon Descent in which I listed seven discoveries that would cause me to abandon belief in God:
1. The discovery of a naked singularity – a point in space which could literally spew forth anything “out of the blue” – chairs, pizzas, computers, works of literature, or whatever.
2. The discovery that it was possible for intelligent agents (such as human beings) to go back in time and alter the past.
3. The invention of a machine that could read the propositional content of my thoughts – or those of any other human being who is currently capable of exercising their faculty of reason.
4. A scientific demonstration that our thoughts, words and actions are completely determined by external circumstances beyond our control (heredity plus environment).
5. The invention of a machine that could control the propositional content of my thoughts, and make me believe anything that the machine’s programmer wanted me to believe – or do the same to any other human being who is currently capable of exercising their faculty of reason.
6. The invention of a machine that could control my actions, without impairing my ability to reason and without impairing the link between my beliefs/thoughts/judgments and my actions – or do the same to any other human being who is currently capable of exercising their faculty of reason. Which brings me to…
7. The invention of a machine that could turn me into a person who would willingly perpetrate atrocities like those those committed by the Nazis, without impairing my ability to reason and without impairing the link between my beliefs/thoughts/judgments and my actions – or do the same to any other human being who is currently capable of exercising their faculty of reason. In answer to your question about the Holocaust, Jerry [Coyne]: Nazis wouldn’t destroy my faith in God, but a machine that could turn me (or anyone else) into a willing Nazi, would.
Now, I certainly don’t expect any of these discoveries to occur – indeed, I think the available evidence points very much against their ever occurring. But if they did occur, then I’d be intellectually compelled to abandon theism.
On a more fundamental level, suppose that the laws of Nature stopped working – not all at once, but gradually, one at a time, over a period of about one week, say. Suppose that this breakdown was observed to occur both in the heavens and on earth, and suppose that the lawless behavior that was observed slowly spread from small regions to larger ones, eating up everything in its path and eventually eating up our bodies as well? Would it not be rational to conclude, in one’s final moments as one’s body was disintegrating: “It looks like Empedocles was right, and there are no laws of Nature after all: chaos reigns supreme”? And would not the total breakdown of law in the cosmos automatically render invalid any metaphysical argument for the existence of God which was based on the fact that there are laws of Nature? If the answer to the last two questions is “Yes,” then Professor Beckwith has to concede that scientific discoveries – in this case, the shocking discovery that there are no laws of Nature, after all – could, in principle, falsify theism.
In response to Professor Beckwith’s question: although God is not a scientific hypothesis, it seems that any rational theist must acknowledge that there are scientific discoveries which could count against the existence of God. And there are certainly scientific discoveries that lend support to belief in God.
Rabbi Mitelman’s muddled thinking
In his article, Sorry, Science Doesn’t Make a Case for God. But That’s OK, Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman contends that religious claims are not about truth but meaning, and that religious claims are in principle incapable of being scientifically verified or falsified:
Using science to prove God’s existence confuses two very different ways of thinking. Science progresses as new hypotheses get tested, questioned, refuted, expanded upon, discarded, and revised.
Religion, on the other hand, is a way to make sense of the world. It is an appreciation of awe and mystery, justice and compassion.
In other words, science is a search for truth, while religion is a search for meaning…
In other words, religion doesn’t need science to prove God’s existence, because the question of God is not a scientific one.
Science is the best method we have for understanding how we got here. But religion isn’t science. It is not (or at least should not) be about provable or disprovable claims, because that’s not its purpose. Instead, it should be designed to help us improve ourselves and our world, here and now.
The rabbi’s thinking appears to be very muddled on several points. He writes that science is about truth, while religion is about meaning. But how can religion be meaningful for anyone if it is not true? Or does the rabbi think of religion as a consoling myth? I sincerely hope not, for his sake.
The rabbi writes that religion “is not (or at least should not) be about provable or disprovable claims.” Both Judaism and Christianity commemorate the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, under the leadership of Moses. What if it turned out that Moses never existed, and that the Exodus never happened? Or what if there never was a king called David? Does the rabbi seriously wish to maintain that true religion would (or should) be not one whit discomfited by these discoveries?
But it’s not the God of the Bible!
Finally, author Damon Linker, in an article titled, Intelligent Design 2.0 does not prove the existence of God (The Week, January 5, 2015), contends that even if Eric Metaxas’ argument were valid, it doesn’t prove the existence of a God Who loves us, let alone the God of the Bible:
…[N]atural theology doesn’t demonstrate the existence of the God of the Bible…
Even if we consider it reasonable to speculate about the possible, mysterious role played by some form of divine intelligence on the origin of life, that provides not one ounce of support for the detailed, specific stories of divine revelation laid out in the pages of scripture.
The God of the philosophers (and the scientists) is not the God of the Bible. At least not obviously or inevitably. And no new piece of scientific evidence is likely to change that.
Linker is right, of course. But Pope Pius XII had the perfect answer to Linker’s argument when he wrote:
The knowledge of God as sole Creator, now shared by many modern scientists, is indeed, the extreme limit to which human reason can attain. Nevertheless, as you are well aware, it does not constitute the last frontier of truth. In harmonious cooperation, because all three are instruments of truth, like rays of the same sun, science, philosophy, and, with still greater reason, Revelation, contemplate the substance of this Creator whom science has met along its path unveil His outlines and point out His features.
Scientific discoveries haven’t proved the existence of the God of the Bible. But they do at least point to a universe that was created by a Transcendent Intelligence. And that’s a giant step along the road to religious belief.
I’d like to conclude by thanking Eric Metaxas for his role in sparking a new debate about the reasonability of believing in God, based on scientific discoveries.