This is the ninth post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In this post, I intend to review his fifth chapter, The uncongenial universe. This chapter discusses two topics. The first was the fine tuning argument for theism, which was the topic of my previous post. The second part of the chapter presents an argument for atheism. Was God wasteful by creating a universe where so much of it is unsuitable for life?
Is the universe wasteful?
Professor Stenger summarises his argument in the following paragraph
If God created a universe with at least one major purpose being the development of human life, then it is reasonable to suggest that the universe should be congenial to human life. Now you might say that God may have had other purposes besides humanity. As has been noted several times in this book, apologists can always invent a god who is consistent with the data. One certainly can imagine a god for whom humanity is not very high on the agenda and put us off in a minuscule, observable corner of the universe. However, this is not the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, who places great value on the human being, and supposedly created us in his image. Why would God send his only son to die an agonising death to redeem an insignificant bit of carbon?
Before discussing his main point, there are, of course, a couple of details in this paragraph worth highlighting.
Apologists can always invent a god who is consistent with the data. Let's start by turning this sentence around. Scientists can always invent a theory which is consistent with the data. I'm sure that, aside from the use of the word invent rather than discover, Professor Stenger would consider this as a compliment to scientists. Scientists (as a whole) do test their theories, and modify them when the tests fail, with the goal of finding one that matches all the data. That is the strength of science. But when he turns it on theologians, is taking into account all the data, and refining your theology in accordance with it, now something to be condemned?
Of course, "all the data" for the theologian includes the relevant religious texts and teachings, as well as the latest understanding from history, natural philosophy and science. The theologian will also, like the scientist, claim to be on a journey of discovery rather than invention. The religious texts, which remain constant, play the most important part of that discovery. They give a broad understanding of God. Thus the core features of the theology must remain constant and unchanged, or the religion rejected. But many of the finer details are left ambiguous in the texts, and here the theologian has to do the best job he can in line with the other data. If the natural philosophy favours one possibility over the other, then the theologian will bear that in mind. If new scientific data comes along, then he might change his mind. If there is an inconsistency which (seemingly) cannot be resolved, then the theologian has to decide which piece of data is more secure, or whether there might be some means of resolving the apparent inconsistency, of which he is unaware. In that case, the theologian will tentatively keep to both models, acknowledging the tension, until the resolution is suggested or it is proved that there can be no resolution to the tension.
Is it a criticism of the theologian that there are some beliefs on which he will not budge? It ought not to be. The scientist too has his core, unchangeable, data. For example it is clear that there is a force of attraction (or something that works in the same way) between massive objects. One may discuss the details of that claim. Newton's, Einstein's and quantum gravity all make slightly different predictions. The scientist is free to invent and modify new theories so as to be consistent with the latest data concerning the tiniest corrections to planetary orbits. But none of that will change the broad observation that massive objects attract one another. That is, for the scientist, an unchangeable core belief just as much as the resurrection of Christ is an unchangeable core belief for the Christian. The scientist might find that there is an apparent inconsistency between two theories or sets of data. In that case, he is perfectly entitled to keep his faith in the rationality of the universe, and expect there to be a resolution which he is not yet aware of.
And, I am glad that Professor Stenger acknowledges that there is a theological construction consistent with the data. Although that does lead me to question why he feels that the "God hypothesis" is a failure.
The second issue to highlight in this passage is the false dichotomy. There is a difference between saying God may have had other purposes besides humanity. and the claim that humanity is just an insignificant piece of carbon and therefore of no interest to God at all. There is a clear middle ground. For example, suppose that this planet is not the only place in the universe with intelligent (after a fashion) life. I don't know whether that is true or not. Given the size of the universe, it is quite likely to be the case, but (to my knowledge) we have no good evidence one way or the other. Would the fact that we are not alone in any way reduce our significance to God? Not in the slightest. There would just be other species in the universe with (presumably) equally important significance to God. If we are just one of God's many purposes in creating the universe, then that still means that we are important enough to visit, redeem and perfect.
But obviously, Professor Stenger's main argument does not depend on these quibbles. He, quite correctly, spends a few pages pointing out that the universe is really big, and we are just a tiny speck in it. He spends further pages pointing out that it is, for all practical purposes, impossible for us to travel to other stars or life-supporting planets. He goes on to state that the vast majority of the matter in the universe is not the sort of thing that life is built from (including dark matter); that the complexity we see on this planet is not mirrored across space; that even most of the energy in the solar system let alone the universe as a whole bypasses this meagre planet of ours as though it wasn't there. His conclusion is that humanity is only able to exist on this small speck in the universe. The overwhelming vastness of space is hostile and impenetrable to us.
None of this is, of course, in any way controversial. Although Professor Stenger outlines it in terms of contemporary cosmology, the basic case could have been made in the classical era based on what was then known. For example, Ptolemy, the leading authority in astronomy for over a thousand years until the time of Galileo, wrote,
And so, in general, we have to state that the heavens are spherical and move spherically; that the earth, in figure, is sensibly spherical also when taken as a whole; in position, lies right in the middle of the heavens, like a geometrical centre; in magnitude and distance, has the ratio of a point with respect to the sphere of the fixed stars, having itself no local motion at all.
He went on to argue that the earth is in magnitude a point compared to the heavens in chapter 6 of the first book of the Algamest. Obviously, we now know that these theorems are somewhat hit and miss; there is much here to dispute. But, whatever Ptolemy got wrong, he did get right the idea that the universe is vastly larger than the earth. (If anything he understated the case since a point is of zero magnitude, but that's to be understood as hyperbole.) All that modern science has done is put in the exact scale.
Equally, in Aristotle's and Ptolemy's system, the overwhelming majority of matter is not supportive of life (at least, as we know it). Life depends on the element of earth. Earth gravitates to the centre of the universe. Therefore, the only place which could support life is this insignificant point.
Obviously, there are differences between Ptolemy's system and what the universe is actually like, and some of those differences are theologically significant. But on the issue of scale, which Professor Stenger's argument is based on, the differences are not important enough to worry about. [One could, I suppose, argue that in Ptolemy's system the earth is significant because it is at the centre of the universe. But that is unrelated to the argument which Professor Stenger is making; one deduces that God was wasteful in creation from the ratio of the earth in comparison to the size of the universe.]
Thus the dominant astronomy while Christianity was being forged was one which acknowledged the vastness of the universe. It is one of the pieces of data that orthodox Christianity already took into account, before the rise of modern science. So an objection that our knowledge of the universe has presented us with something new forcing theists to make major changes to their theology fails. Firstly, because any changes that might be required are not major. Cosmology plays only a minor role in Christian theology: it is one of those details about which the Biblical revelation is ambiguous (more on this when I discuss the next chapter of Professor Stenger's work), and thus which Christians are free to debate over and decide on the basis of natural philosophy. Secondly, no changes to Christian theology are needed. The vastness of the universe was acknowledged from the beginning. True, the furthest object the ancients were aware of was the Andromeda galaxy, and there is a difference between a universe 2.5 million light years across and one 14 billion light years in extent. But this criticism would be equally valid or invalid whichever of those universe sizes is correct.
So what of Professor Stenger's challenge? If God's goal was to create humanity, then why create so much else in the universe?
Firstly, there is the response which he mentioned himself. Just because God has a purpose here, that does not mean that there are not also other purposes which might entail the need for a large universe. There is no obvious reason that we should know what those purposes are. All we know about God's intentions is what was revealed to us; which is limited to what is important for us.
Secondly, why not? God is not limited by time and space. His goal was to create a universe with humanity in it, and here we are, in a universe with humanity in it. I would call that mission accomplished. Is this the only way that God could have accomplished the mission? Perhaps not, but that is of little importance. If you are travelling from London to Exeter, you can catch a train from either Paddington or Waterloo. As far as getting to the destination is concerned, both will do the job, and if that is the only concern then you can't be criticised for taking one route rather than the other. Is the universe we observe the best way in which God could have accomplished the mission of creating humanity? We don't know enough to judge; both because our knowledge is insufficient to map out all options in enough detail, and because we only know some but not all of God's purposes. If you wanted to travel to Exeter in the fastest time, you would, unless the line was closed, go via Paddington. If you wanted to avoid passing through Reading (and who would blame you?) but didn't care how long it took, the Waterloo train would best serve your needs. It is not for those of us on the outside who don't know the full purposes to criticise.
True, humanity is a relative latecomer to the universe. But why does that concern a timeless God? Could God have created the universe in six days with as little effort as fourteen billion years? Maybe, but it is no extra effort for God one way or the other. We try to make efficient use of our resources, and limit waste as much as possible. (Or at least we ought to.) From that we deduce that efficient use of resources is good and wasteful use of resources is bad. But that is because we only have finite materials and finite time to do the work, so we ought to make the best use of them. None of that applies to God. Thus we cannot argue in analogy that it is bad for God to be "inefficient". If God wants to be "wasteful," then that is just as much a reasonable choice for Him as being efficient and only doing the minimum necessary.
Thirdly, omnipotence does not entail that anything is possible; there is still the need for logical consistency. I have argued that the laws of physics are a description of God's activity in sustaining the universe. I have also argued that they are restricted by God's timelessness and omnipresence. God relates to every point in the universe in the same way, and this leads to the symmetries that underlie physics. The work done on the anthropic principle, as discussed in the previous post, shows that change those laws a little bit, and humanity would not be able to survive (except by constant miracles; which, if they were constant, would not be miracles but part of the laws of nature). Obviously, not all of those restrictions would be in play if we had a small universe little bigger than earth's orbit, but many of them would be. So between fine tuning and consistency with God's nature, we can say that the laws of physics, aside from the size of the universe, would have to be more or less as they are. But then, if we lived in such a small cosmos, what would the boundary of that universe consist of? If there was a sharp boundary, then that would affect the topology of or lead to a discontinuity in the space time metric, which would affect gravity, possibly making the solar system unstable. If the universe spread out to infinity with nothing in it except our solar system, then that could be considered even more of a waste than our existent multitude of stars and galaxies. So there is the question of whether the small universe Professor Stenger suggests would be more in line with theism is logically consistent, consistent with God's nature, or solves the problem he has raised.
Fourthly, as the Psalmist wrote,
Psalm 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
The vastness of the universe is a reflection of God's immeasurable greatness. We are told in another Psalm,
Psalm 108:4 For your steadfast love is great above the heavens;
Psalm 103:11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
It is precisely the vastness of the universe which makes this point. If the universe were small, then we might only need a small God who only has (according to these Psalms, anyway) a small love towards His people. The vastness of the universe is an illustration to us of the greatness and majesty of God. Now we know that the universe is even bigger than the Psalmist or even Ptolemy could have believed. That just makes the theological point even stronger.
We need to recognise that next to God, and next to the universe, we are insignificant. If we were important, we wouldn't need God's favour. But recognising that we are insignificant on the cosmic scale puts us in the right frame of mind to appreciate God's grace in paying attention to us.
Psalm 8:3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.
Professor Stenger concludes his section by saying that it is hard to conclude that the universe was created with a special, cosmic, purpose for humanity. It seems inconceivable that a creator exists who has a special love for humanity and then just relegates it to a tiny point in space and time. I imagine that most theologians would reject the use of the word cosmic to describe God's purpose for humanity, with its implication of spanning universes. The Bible records that we are significant on this planet (which is surely true, whether one regards the activity of our species as good, bad or indifferent); but I don't recall any passage indicating our significance in the heavens (in the sense of the atmosphere and everything beyond it). Nonetheless, Professor Stenger's argument is, I think, the same argument made by the writer of Psalm 8 in verses 3 and 4. In comparison to the heavens, we are nothing. But David knew something that Professor Stenger didn't. David had personal knowledge of a God who, despite our cosmic insignificance, nonetheless reaches out to us in love. For the theologian, it is only God's love for us (realised both by granting us a semblance of His likeness in our creation, and in His actions since that time), in spite of our cosmic insignificance, which gives our species and planet importance in God's eyes; nothing to do with what we are in ourselves. It is only because of that love that we remain significant. Professor Stenger's conclusion is drawn from only one side of the story, the scientific side (excluding the religious data), what we are in ourselves in the absence of God's love (of which he takes no account). And no orthodox theologian would disagree with his conclusion. This attitude of personal humility sits at the foundation of the Christian life.
A tiny pocket of complexity?
Paul Davis writes that there is a life principle built into the laws of physics. He is referring to the fine tuning of the physical parameters. I would perhaps agree that this is perhaps not the best way of phrasing the idea. But Professor Stenger mistakes this for belief in some vital energy, which is clearly not what Professor Davies and other like-minded people were arguing for. Just a straw man. Professor Stenger notes that any life principle must naturally arise from known physical law. I would agree with him. Where I disagree with him is that he does not regard this as teleological. I suspect that this is because he misunderstands teleology to mean design rather than end or consequence. The emergence of living organisms from the basic laws of fundamental physics is a good example of teleology, if we use the correct definition of the word.
The universe contains no information. Professor Stenger equates this with having no structure, which is, of course, false. Granite or even a hydrogen plasma does not store information in the same way that DNA does, but has structure. He suggests that the information content we perceive results from our subjective viewpoint. To back this up, he calls upon the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, where the universe is a supposition of possibilities until it is observed. But he suggests that any huge random universe will naturally develop a few tiny pockets of complexity.
There are a few objections to make here. Firstly, he relies on the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, which is not the only one available. Secondly, the idea that the universe is random is misleading, because the word "random" can mean different things to different people, or in different contexts. For example, it might be interpreted to mean that anything logically possible can happen, or there is no connection between past and future. There is quantum indeterminacy, but that is not the same as randomness as I have just described it. It merely means that knowledge of all physical causes is insufficient to predict which of a limited number of physical effects will occur. The possible effects are still limited to what is allowed by physical law given the present state of the universe, which is smaller than the set of all logically possible things. This is both because not everything which is logically possible is possible given the particular physical law we have, and not everything that is possible given physical law is reachable from the present state of the universe. It is not the case that anything can happen. This means that it is not true that in general a quantum universe will always generate a few pockets of complexity. The generation of complexity is only possible if the laws and initial conditions of the universe are tuned to allow for it.
Equally, is the structure we deduce from the universe (in the form of physical representations) merely our own subjective viewpoint? Here Professor Stenger's empiricism is once again affecting his writing. But it is not a view which makes much sense. Physical theory would only be successful if our representations correspond to at least part of reality. We expect the universe to operate in the same way in the absence of humanity and human observations; indeed when cosmologists extrapolate back to the big bang they rely on that assumption. It is far more reasonable to say that there is a layer inherent within matter which is capable of being represented abstractly, and our own physical understanding would, if it were perfectly accurate and to within the best available precision, reflect that layer. Science discovers human-independent features of the physical world. It does not subjectively invent them.
Professor Stenger concludes this chapter with these words:
It is rather amusing that theists make two contradictory arguments for life requiring a creator. Sometimes you hear these from the same people. In the fine tuning argument, the universe is so congenial to life that the universe had to be created with life in mind. But, if it is so congenial, then we should expect life to evolve by natural processes and a sustaining God is unnecessary. In the second argument, the universe is so uncongenial to life that life could not have occurred by natural processes and so must have been created and sustained by the constant actions of God.
Professor Stenger's way out of this dilemma is to suppose that we are just the product of circumstance and chance. That, of course, leaves open the question of whether "circumstance" and "chance" can be the cause of anything. Since I use the fine tuning argument (to the extent it can be used) and believe that the universe has to be constantly sustained by God, I would imagine that I am one of the people that Professor Stenger is accusing. However, there is an easy way out of it. Professor Stenger bases his argument on the assumption on a supposed dichotomy between natural processes or physical law and God's action. We can avoid the dilemma by rejecting that dichotomy, by proposing that physical law is a description of God's constant sustaining of the universe. After all, if God does sustain the universe, that would have all the appearance of a regular law. When we say that life evolved by natural processes, that is just shorthand for saying that "God did it in this particular way," clearly consistent with the idea that God is a sustaining cause and inconsistent with the idea that God is unnecessary. And this is, I think, a much better solution than relying on such ephemeral explanations as circumstance and chance.
In this chapter, Professor Stenger has attempted to
- Rebut fine-tuning arguments for God by showing that there is no fine tuning.
- Construct an argument against God on the basis that so much of the universe is inhospitable to life.
On both counts he fails. In the first case, because he has (largely) got the science wrong. In the second case, because he has (almost entirely) got the theology wrong. He is trying to put God into his own interpretation of the universe rather than asking what theists actually believe.
So next time, I start on chapter 6, where Professor Stenger discusses the supposed failures of revelation. I'm going to take my time over this next chapter, because it is a topic about which I have written far less than I would have liked to. So I plan to make up for it in the next sequence of posts.
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