Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

12/01/2008 (3:54 pm)

I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist: Does God Exist, Part II

In previous installments, I’ve established

  • that there’s a need for explaining why Christianity is the most reasonable position for an educated, skeptical individual to take (see the post here);
  • that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here).
  • that using the Cosmological Argument, the scientific fact that our universe had a beginning establishes that something like a Theistic God must exist (see the post here).

Today’s post focuses on the Teleological argument, which goes like this:

  1. Every design has a designer.
  2. The universe has a very complex design.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a designer.

This basic argument was offered by a philosopher named William Paley in his book Natural Philosophy, published in 1802. His discussion included how we would react differently to accidentally kicking a rock in a field, and accidentally kicking a watch in the same field. The rock, we would assume was there because of the operation of natural laws; the world is full of rocks, and most of them don’t need men to throw them around. If we found a watch, however, we would assume that some person had dropped it; we know the purpose of a watch, we understand it’s design, and we know there had to have been a designer at some point. Paley argued that we can make the same assertions about the universe; if there are evidences of design in the universe, then we can infer a universal designer.

It was to Paley’s argument that biologist Richard Dawkins was referring in his highly regarded book, The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins began his book with the admission that the biosphere has the look of a designed system — and then spent the rest of the book explaining why this particular system needs no designer.

I suppose I could take on Prof. Dawkins over this if I wanted to; it’s a highly controversial topic and fun to write about. I won’t, though, for several reasons including that I haven’t read that particular book. I don’t feel as though I have to, though; there are plenty of places in the universe where design is evident outside of our biosphere.

The Anthropic Principle — from “anthropos,” man — is one of those “duh” sorts of observations that seems self-evident, only nobody made it until recently. It’s the somewhat whimsical observation that when trying to determine characteristics of the universe, what we observe must be limited to those characteristics that make our own existence possible. We know that we’re here; therefore, we know that whatever happened, it has to have been something that made it possible for us to be here. That doesn’t sound like much of a discovery, but it turns out to be profound.

The Anthropic Principle was first named by astronomer Brandon Carter at a meeting in 1973 celebrating Copernicus’ 500th birthday. It was offered to combat the Copernican principle that stated that the earth does not occupy a special place in the universe. Carter, busily disputing the steady-state mathematics that suggested that the universe was statistically distributed, argued that earth’s position had to be privileged in some ways.

What’s happened since is that scientists have spent the ensuing decades observing how many characteristics of our universe must be exactly as they are in order for life like ours to be possible. It’s an astonishing collection of coincidences, so vastly improbable that one cannot escape the conclusion that our universe looks like it was designed specifically to produce carbon-based life forms exactly like ourselves, at this point in time, at this location. I keep hearing different numbers, depending on who’s reporting and when, but the last I heard, there are 128 different physical constants that have to have been precisely as they are in order for human life to have been possible.

Let’s examine one of those, the ratio between the electromagnetic force constant and the gravitational force constant. If the ratio between these two forces had been any larger than it is, then no stars would have formed with mass less than 1.4 times the mass of the sun. These more massive stars burn too quickly and unevenly for habitable planets like the earth to be possible. If the ratio between these two forces had been any smaller than it is, though, there would be no stars with mass greater than 0.8 solar mass. Since all the elements heavier than helium were formed in stars with greater solar mass, this means that there would be nothing in the universe but hydrogen and helium. So, the ratio between the electromagnetic force and the gravitational force has to have been exactly what it is for us to exist.

How precise did that ratio have to be? The answer is that if the ratio had been different in either direction by one part in 10 to the 40th power, no life would be possible. That’s a number that’s so small it’s impossible for us to imagine, so allow me to illustrate. Imagine that I have an infinite supply of dimes, and I created a stack dimes from the ground up to the moon. Then, I did it again, and again, and again, until I’d covered the entire North American continent with dimes in stacks clear up to the moon. Then, imagine that I had a trillion North American continents to cover with dimes. If, after stacking all those dimes, I removed ONE dime from ONE stack, I’d have reduced my count of dimes by 1 part in 10 to the 40th power.

That’s pretty precise. And that’s just one constant.

Let’s take another. This is one that I like: the particular privilege of our own planet. Dr. Hugh Ross took the trouble to list 41 parameters for our planet that had to be as they were for life to exist(1). It would have to have occurred in a spiral galaxy, one with enough supernovas to produce the heavy elements necessary for a rocky planet, but with enough white dwarf stars to produce flouride. That galaxy would have to have the right density of stars so that competing gravitational forces would not interfere with planetary orbits, but there would be enough elements to form the planet. The planet would have to be orbiting the right sort of star, and orbiting at the right distance so temperatures would be acceptable and stable. The planet would have to have the right rotational speed, the right axial tilt, the right sorts of planetary companions (for instance, if Jupiter were not nearby with its gravity sucking down space debris, we’d have long since been wiped out by a meteor strike), and so on. His calculation suggests that the likelihood of a single planet occurring with all these characteristics is 1 in 10 to the 53rd power.

Dr. Ross also points out that the theoretical maximum number of planets in the universe, given our current understanding of the singular explosion, is 10 to the 22nd power. If I’m doing the math correctly, this means that the likelihood of a second planet with all the characteristics necessary to support human life anywhere else in the entire universe is 1 over 10 to the 31st power. That is to say, virtually impossible. In fact, our own planet is virtually impossible — unless it was intended.

Unless it was intended. There’s the key. The most likely explanation, in our universe, for a vastly improbable event taking place is that somebody with a will decided to make it happen. If you’re just dropping dice to see where they land, a dozen sixes is pretty unlikely; but if you decide you want to see nothing but sixes, it’s a simple matter to arrange twelve dice with the sixes facing up. Or, to return to Brother Paley, if we discover a designed object in the field, we infer a designer; and if the universe appears to have been designed, then it must have a designer, too.

It’s the incredible improbability of these constants, revealed by the study of the Anthropic Principle, that drive many cosmologists to posit multiverses. If there exist an infinite number of universes, then the vast improbability of our own universe is explainable without a designer designing the universe with life in mind. There are two problems with this explanation that I can see. First, there’s no observable evidence that any universes exist apart from our own. Cosmologists examining the various multiverse theories have been consistent about attempting to find empirical tests that could plausibly demonstrate the existence of their proposed multiverses, but so far nothing has yielded any evidence.

The second problem I have, though, is that nobody believes that our universe is improbable in that manner. This is similar to my objection to relativism that I addressed back in the second installment of this series; one can argue whatever theory one likes, but when push comes to shove, we all live as though facts are knowable. Even those who claim there are no truths, use truths to make their arguments, and in fact it’s not possible to think without using truth-based thinking. By a similar token, one can argue multiverses all day long, but when push comes to shove, even those arguing for multiverses believe that highly improbable events only occur in our universe when somebody chooses to make them happen.

Imagine I’m playing poker with five physicists, all of whom believe there must be an infinite number of universes to explain the improbability of our own. And suppose I win a hand from these five physicists with four natural aces. Then, suppose I win the very next hand with four natural aces; and the next, and the next, and the next. By the end of the fifth hand, all five of them are glaring at me, wrapping their knuckles, finding objects to beat me with. Suppose I say to them, “Look, fellas, I’m not cheating; we just happen to live in the one universe out of all of them in which I manage to get dealt four natural aces five times in a row.” On the logic supporting multiverses, that’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. Will that explanation save me from the beating I’m likely to receive? I think not.

If there are an infinite number of finite universes, then an infinite number of people are winning five hands of poker in a row with four natural aces at some place in some of those universes (actually, at some places in an infinite number of universes). However, the guys who play poker in this universe understand how random events behave, and strings of five four-ace hands being dealt to the same player don’t happen. Wilfull cheating, on the other hand, does happen, and so do beatings by angry, cheated card-players. The point is, you can argue multiverses all you like, but we all live and believe that the best explanation for the occurrence of fantastically improbable events, when they occur, is that somebody with a will chose to make them happen.

I don’t have enough faith to believe, without a single shred of evidence, that ours is one of an infinite number of universes. I find it a great deal more plausible that the design of our universe was consciously and intelligently chosen to produce us. That means that our universe must have been designed by something fantastically intelligent, immensely powerful, and sentient. It’s the explanation that fits the facts.

Next time, the Moral Argument, unless I decide to take a detour into an explanation of DNA as a second source of evidence of design. I’ll let you all know.

(1) Ross, Hugh, PhD, The Creator and the Cosmos, Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress, 1995 revised edition.

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