Okay, so I resisted commenting on this article as long as I could, but after the 27th friend tagged me to see if I had read it, I decided I had to go ahead and read it. I clicked on the click-baitey title to access the text of the article and lo and behold the article is behind a pay wall (or it was when I first tried to access it). No problem, I’ll just message the 27 friends who tagged me to read it and ask them to copy and paste the text of the article into a message for me so I could read it for myself and respond. That’s when I discovered that almost none of the 27 people who had posted about the article actually read it. They just saw the title and had to say something. Ordinarily my friends are good about not forwarding stuff they haven’t actually read, but this time it would have required paying a subscription to access the content and most of my friends are like me and just don’t have the loose change to throw at stuff they can usually find for free anyways. The article is provocatively entitled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” You can click on that link and send the Wall Street Journal your money if you like. But in this case I wouldn’t do it.
When I first read that title I thought: Okay, fair enough. The WSJ probably found a legit scientist to talk about the ways in which he feels science points toward…something…I’m not sure what, since methodologically speaking science only deals in naturalistic causes and effects. It would really be something if an enterprise founded upon empirical observation would actively, on its own, “make the case for God.” I mean, really. That’s a bold claim. But if science is really stepping out into that direction then I’d like to hear what it has to say. And then I looked at the name of the author: Eric Metaxas.
Wait a second. He’s not a scientist. He’s not even a philosopher of science. He’s a Christian writer/entertainer. That’s the guy who used to write for the children’s cartoon series Veggie Tales (although for the record, Lyle the Kindly Viking was always my favorite episode, so there’s that). He’s the guy who now hosts a Christian talk show, the impeccably dressed one who always looked to me like the love child of Aaron Sorkin and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This is the guy who’s speaking on behalf of science, telling us that science is now actively “making the case for God?” Gee, I wonder which god science has picked out of the thousands which are available? By any coincidence would it be his? What are the odds?
Jumping to Conclusions
The first argument which Metaxas puts forward is astoundingly half-witted for a former editor of the Yale Record. I expected him to lead off with something much more thoughtful than this. Boiled down to its essence, his first argument says (and I’m paraphrasing):
The U.S. government funded a search for life on other planets from the 60’s to the 90’s, and they didn’t find any, so we must be alone in the universe.
Are you kidding me with this? Is this a joke? As a byproduct of the cold war we develop a space program aimed primarily at developing “a bigger stick” than the Russians, and then we lose complete interest and conclude there cannot be life in any other solar systems or in any other galaxies in the universe? There are likely trillions of other planets in the universe and we haven’t even developed the tools for looking at them, much less visiting them. But this guy is ready to conclude that we’re done? Game over? Back in the 70’s we sent a probe out into the galaxy in an effort to make contact with life on other planets and it has only just recently made it to the edge of our own solar system. Is this guy seriously going to sit there and declare that we’ve now seen all there is to see, and we are alone in the universe, which means God made us special (and he loves us very much)? Come on.
The second argument Metaxas puts forward sticks closer to the standard Intelligent Design argument that emerged in the 90’s after the original iterations of creation science had collapsed upon the weight of its own pretensions. This revitalized version of the argument from fine tuning initially impresses you with the sheer magnitude of the numbers involved. “Gee whiz, that’s a lotta zeroes!” It argues that the four known physical forces of the universe (gravitational, electromagnetic, and the strong and weak nuclear) are precisely balanced in such a way that matter itself can exist, and therefore also stars and planets and galaxies and ice cream.
Yes, those numbers are mind-boggling. I remember being impressed with them back when I was a Christian and I was pushing the Intelligent Design mantras myself. Until later when I wasn’t, because I came to realize I was thinking backwards about the whole thing. I was starting with me, and my tiny planet, reasoning out from myself to how everything seems to have come together “just so” in order to make it possible for me and my species to be here on this pale blue dot in the Cosmos.
You’re Thinking Backwards
Douglas Adams once handily exposed the error in this thinking along with the consequences of remaining under the delusion of our own importance:
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.
I’ve since discovered that arguing about this topic with people who believe in gods goes nowhere because it’s not a matter of simply presenting new facts or corrected statistics, it’s a problem of thinking backwards in the first place. Until people can learn to think differently, removing themselves from the causal center of the universe, the “fine tuning” story will always be the last word for them.
Incidentally I find this highly ironic since as a Christian I was taught to see humanists as self-centered, imagining themselves to be gods unto themselves. Now that I am one of those (a humanist, not a god), I see how that was yet another case of projection. In reality, despite our name, humanists don’t privilege our own species above all others and we don’t see any reason to imagine that the universe has been specially designed with us in mind at all. We are the product of all that has happened before us, yes, but not the telos—not the end purpose. Usually it’s the theists who think such things. In reality, most of the universe seems to be quite hostile to life, which is kind of the opposite of intelligent design, unless you mean to indicate a malevolent intelligence.
What’s Wrong with the Argument from Fine Tuning?
I see three main problems with the argument from a “finely tuned universe.”
1) Statistical models need controls in order to be meaningful. Put simply, the mind-boggling scale of the odds is misleading because we have nothing to compare them to. We have no way of knowing if countless other universes have failed to coalesce in the past, or if they came together differently, because we only have ways of knowing how this one came together. We can build mathematical models to reason backwards through time to the beginning of this universe but outside of that model we can only profess ignorance. We can’t even say for certain that multiple universes and multiple dimensions don’t exist simultaneously, each one different from the other.
Sometimes Christians snicker at such suggestions, but in a way they argue for this all the time, stating that alongside our universe there exists an entirely other realm which is invisible and yet somehow intersects with our own in ways which only they can see. At least we’re admitting our ignorance and owning the fact that these are only hypotheses. Theists go a step further and claim positive knowledge of this other realm (hey, I was taught to do that, too), then they go on to make their claims unfalsifiable by saying that divine activity is “beyond the scope of science.” When they do this they fail to acknowledge that the moment they claim one world comes to bear on the other, they have stepped into the territory of empirical observation. The second you say that God “does things” in the world, it behooves you to support that claim with observable evidence. Simply stating “but we don’t understand how X happens, do we?” isn’t really putting forth an argument.
2) The mind-boggling nature of the statistics we read is also misleading because we ourselves are assigning a subjective meaning to the outcome which the circumstances themselves don’t dictate. The best way I have ever heard this illustrated comes from The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins, which uses a deck of cards to illustrate probability:
Suppose the dealer shuffles the pack and deals them out to four players, so that they each have 13 cards. I pick up my hand and gasp in astonishment. I have a complete hand of 13 spades! All the spades. I am too startled to go on with the game and I show my hand to the other three players, knowing they will be as amazed as I am. But then, one by one, each of the other players lays his cards on the table, and the gasps of astonishment grow with each hand. Every one of them has a ‘perfect’ hand: one has 13 hearts, another has 13 diamonds, and the last one has 13 clubs.
Would this be supernatural magic? We might be tempted to think so. Mathematicians can calculate the chance of such a remarkable deal happening purely by chance. it turns out to be almost impossibly small: 1 in 536,447,737,765,488,792,839,237,440,000…If you sat down and played cards for a trillion years, you might on one occasion get a perfect deal like that. But — and here’s the thing — this deal is no more unlikely than every other deal of cards that has ever happened! The chance of any particular deal of 52 cards is 1 in 536,447,737,765,488,792,839,237,440,000 because that is the total number of all possible deals. It is just that we don’t notice any particular pattern in the vast majority of deals that are made, so they don’t strike us as anything out of the ordinary. We only notice the deals that happen to stand out in some way. (pp.26-27)
This aptly illustrates how patterns which have no statistical significance in themselves can still stand out to us because of our own preferences. Clearly our existence is a preferable outcome for us, but nothing says that no other outcomes have ever occurred. We would only be around to witness those scenarios in which we do exist, so there’s clearly a selection bias built into this whole discussion.
3) Impossible and improbable are two totally different things. They are universes apart, in fact. We have become accustomed as a species to label anything which favorably defies expectations as “a miracle.” But that logical leap is not necessary, and it represents a failure to maintain a crucial distinction between what is impossible and what is highly improbable, no matter how remote the chances.
One of the best illustrations of this distinction was slipped into the script of Men in Black III, which incidentally was written by the one of the writers for the movie Idiocracy. An enigmatic character named Griffin is able to see multiple dimensions at once, which dramatically alters the way he sees the relationships between causes and their effects. It also voids the meaning of the word “miracle” for him and he explains what I mean in this scene (pardon the Greek subtitles):
“A miracle is what seems impossible but happens anyway.” –Griffin
This movie whimsically illustrates how we conflate the terms improbable and impossible. In the end the limitations of our own imaginations lead us to see magic where there is none, and that to me is the fundamental flaw of the argument from fine tuning. Ultimately it boils down to an argument from ignorance. “I don’t understand how X happened, so a Giant Invisible Man must have done it.” Of course people would assume that behind everything there must be a person. That’s exactly what I would expect people to think, which is precisely why I suspected it needs further scrutiny. It’s entirely too convenient.
One final movie clip needs to be put in here to make a point. I was taught that the entire universe was created for the sole purpose of producing humans. Granted, the more intellectually oriented denominations will insist this is “for God’s glory” and not our own, but in either case human beings must always be at the center of what’s going on. That may satisfy Eric Metaxas’s way of seeing things, but I don’t think it accounts for how things really are at all. This first came home to me watching the opening scene to the movie Contact, which remains to me the most mind-altering opening scene I’ve ever encountered. If you haven’t seen it before, take a minute and watch what happens to our pale blue dot as the scene draws away from our tiny world. Ask yourself as you watch: Was this all designed just for me and my people?
I honestly don’t think so. And in retrospect, it’s hard to believe I ever did. We should be past talking like this now. What’s the hold up?