Atheism before the firing squad?

Atheism before the firing squad? April 29, 2023


BYU-Idaho Rexburg Gardens
The Thomas E. Ricks Memorial Gardens at Brigham Young University-Idaho, where Brent Schmidt teaches   (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


The estimable Jeff Lindsay has penned an enthusiastic book recommendation:  “Relational Faith: An Essential Book for Understanding “Faith” as Used in New Testament Times and for Appreciating the Restoration”  Here’s an excerpt from what he has to say:

There’s a new book, Brent Schmidt’s Relational Faith, that may be one of the best resources around to help Latter-day Saints and perhaps many other Christians understand and explain what the Bible means when it talks about faith in Christ. Not only does this book help us cut through the clouds of confusion around issues like salvation by faith in Christ vs. “works,” it also helps us better appreciate and better be able to teach the ancient, biblical nature of the covenant path that is emphasized in the Church. In fact, the remarkable scholarship in this resource provides thorough and intricate support for the fundamental reality of a divine Restoration of the ancient basic principles of the Gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Relational Faith: The Transformation and Restoration of Pistis as Knowledge, Trust, Confidence, and Covenantal Faithfulness by Dr. Brent J. Schmidt (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2022) is an essential resource that Latter-day Saints should at least know about if not have on their shelves.


A joint UCLA/NASA/JPL/Caltech image
The Heart and Soul Nebulae   (NASA/JPL/Caltech/UCLA)

Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow, Is God Just a Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010), 96, give a couple of examples of apparent cosmic fine-tuning:

First, the expansion rate of the universe after the big bang had to be just right to support life.  “If the balance between gravity and the expansion rate were altered by one part in one million, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion,” claim scientists Mark Whorton and Hill Roberts, “there would be no galaxies, stars, planets, or life.”  How precise is this?  If the initial mass of the universe differed by as little as one grain of salt, there would be no universe.  Add one grain of salt and the universe would not have expanded; take one grain away and the universe would have expanded too quickly to form galaxies, solar systems, and habitable planets.

Second, each of the four fundamental forces of nature had to be carefully fine-tuned for life: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force.  In particular, the ratio of the electromagnetic force to the gravitational force must be delicately balanced to one part in 10^40 (that’s one part in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000).  If the ratio varied even slightly, then our universe would not have small and large stars, which are both necessary for a planet to sustain life.  How delicate a balance is this?  Imagine covering one billion continents the size of North America with coins.  Stack the coins in columns that reach to the moon.  Paint one coin red and place it in one of the columns.  Blindfold a friend an have her attempt to pick it out.  The odds are roughly 1 in 10^40 that she will.

And those are just two — or, depending upon how you count them, five — of the many examples of apparent fine-tuning that might be cited here.  McDowell and Morrow cite a British mathematician and physicist (who, after the publication of their book, won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics) in order to show the magnitude of the fine-tuning issue:

What happens when we try to assign a probability to the fine-tuning of all the known constants of nature?  Oxford physicist Roger Penrose concluded that such a task would be impossible, since the necessary digits would be greater than the number of elementary particles in the universe.

Now I append to Professor Leslie’s analogy another one that I’ve come across, in McDowell and Morrow, Is God Just a Human Invention?, 98-99:

Imagine you go to a professional football game and find out the two people seated next to you have last names alphabetically close to yours.  You probe further and find out the entire stadium is seated in alphabetical order.  What would you think?  Suppose the person sitting next to you says, “Everybody’s gotta be seated somewhere.  So you shouldn’t be surprised that we all happen to be seated in alphabetical order.”  Would you accept such a claim?  Obviously not!  The reason is that you do not need to know why each person needs to be seated somewhere.  You need to know why each person is seated particularly in alphabetical order.  The fact that people need to be seated somewhere does nothing to explain how we came to be seated in alphabetical order.  Yes, we need a seat somewhere in the stadium, and there are many possibilities.  But being seated in alphabetical order conforms to a deeper pattern that demands justification.  Claiming that we have to sit somewhere doesn’t explain our particularly surprising arrangement.  The same is true for the universe.  Given all the possible variations of the constants, why do we happen to find ourselves in a universe capable of supporting life?  Merely claiming that we could not observe ourselves in any other universe offers no explanation for why we are actually in a fine-tuned universe in the first place.

Philosopher John Leslie expands on this need for explanation in his famous “firing squad” analogy.  Suppose fifty trained sharp-shooters are lined up to take your life, and they all miss.  You could hardly dismiss this occurrence by saying, “If they hadn’t all missed me, then I shouldn’t be contemplating the matter so I mustn’t be surprised that they missed.”  You should still be surprised that you are alive given the enormous unlikelihood of all the sharpshooters missing their mark.  Your survival demands an explanation.  And so does the fine-tuning of the laws of the universe.


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