Possibilianism (Are You a Possibilian without Knowing It?)

I’ve recently re-viewed Dr. David Eagleman’s terrific TED talk on science and religion. Some of his comments tie into the series of posts I’ve recently completed about the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence.

Eagleman sees problems with both traditional theism and the New Atheism. We know too much, he suggests, to commit to a particular religious story. And agnosticism seems “weak” to him. Because the number of possible theories of Reality is so enormous, we should not limit ourselves to saying that either traditional religion is true, or the current scientific world-view is true. I appreciate his open-mindedness and his willingness to explore.

See: https://www.yhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LENqnjZGX0A

Roger Christan Schriner

For my main web site, click http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com

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The Fine-Tuning Argument for God’s Existence, Part Four

Today I’ll conclude my series on “fine-tuning.” Some scientists claim that if the basic physical laws of the universe had been just slightly different, intelligent life could never have existed. Does this show that the universe was designed by God as a home for humans? In my previous post I quoted an imaginary conversation from my book, Bridging the God Gap. Theodore, a theist, Althea, an atheist, and Agnes, an agnostic, are debating this issue, and Theodore has said:

The idea of a godless cosmos offends my intelligence. … [A]n alarm goes off in my mind when people claim that all this wonderment happened for no reason at all.

The conversation continues:

Althea: Theodore, my nonsense-detector is ringing so loud it hurts my ears. You are forgetting what is completely obvious. SOMETHING basic and wondrous did have to happen for no reason we can ever know, whether it was the universe itself or a hidden reality which gave birth to the universe.

Agnes: People who say God made the universe don’t ask where God came from, because they don’t know how to even begin thinking about something so far beyond their own experience. They just shrug their shoulders and change the subject. As Steven Wright says, “A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.”

Theodore: Nevertheless there are brilliant scientists and philosophers who say that it looks like the whole shebang was set up as a home for creatures like us.

Agnes: This is all speculation on top of speculation. Sure, some scientists say the universe seems to have been designed to enable life to exist, but other scientists disagree. It’s easy to go on TV and proclaim that “researchers believe Blah Blah Blah,” but there is no clear consensus about this issue. I have a sneaking suspicion that in ten years, or ten thousand years, a bunch of sheepish physicists will publish an apologetic news release: “Sorry, everyone. We now realize that there are an unbelievably large number of ways that a universe could support intelligent life. For one thing, ‘intelligent life’ doesn’t need to be anything at all like us. Please disregard our previous statements about this matter.”

Althea: Besides, if a super-duper mind created the universe, why would it resemble our traditional concepts of God? It would have to be an incredible information-processing system with the power to shape matter, but look at all the ways that a matter-shaping mind might not be godlike. It might not be conscious. It might have no emotions, and no sense of right and wrong. It might be unaware of (or uninterested in) Homo sapiens. It might not be eternal, and in fact it might not even exist anymore. “It” might be several different entities, working together. Its attention might even be focused on some other universe, and our cosmos might be an accidental by-product of what it’s doing “over there.”

Theodore: Regardless, when I try to think about the universe reasonably, I reject the idea of existence without an intelligent cause. To me that is nonsense, pure and simple. If I am going to use my own reason, I can’t ignore what my reason is telling me.

Agnes: Theodore, I agree with you that there is evidence of intelligent design. I do find that intriguing, and I’d like to believe that it proves there is a god. But I agree with Althea that if we claim that the world had a cause, and call that cause God, we are only substituting one puzzle for another. Why not just assume that the world has no cause? Some physicists, such as Stephen Hawking, say that a causeless cosmos makes excellent sense. It seems backwards to drag in a mysterious extra entity in order to solve a mystery. Something must exist for no reason, either God or the cosmos.

Reviewing this discussion, which statements felt right to you? Which ones seemed far-fetched? What comments sounded reasonable even though they contradicted what you tend to believe? The controversy about how the cosmos began is a classic example of the way people can look at similar data and reach diametrically opposite conclusions. (From Bridging the God Gap, pp. 108-110, boldface type added.)

Roger Christan Schriner

For my main web site, click http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com

The Fine-Tuning Argument for God’s Existence, Part Three

The fine-tuning argument says that if the laws of our universe had been just slightly different, intelligent life could never have existed. Some say this shows that the cosmos was carefully designed by a supreme intelligence as a home for people like us.

I have explored this question in a fictional conversation in my book, Bridging the God Gap. In this discussion, Theodore is a theist; Althea is an atheist, and Agnes is an agnostic. Obviously I do not agree with everything these three people say, and some of their arguments are persuasive but fallacious. Here are excerpts from the book, pp. 106-108:

To get the most out of these dialogues pay particular attention to what the “other side” says. Notice what happens when you encounter a good idea that disturbs your preconceptions. What emotions do you feel? What impulses do you experience? At such uncomfortable moments it’s only human to look for an exit: “I’d better catch up on my emails.”

Ancient peoples tended to assume that there were only two possible explanations for the existence of heaven and Earth. Either “everything just happened” or “God(s) did it,” and the latter seemed far more likely. Although they realized there was a lot they didn’t know, it did not occur to them that their limited understanding also limited their awareness of alternatives.

Physics and biology have already given us another candidate: The universe radiated outward from the Big Bang and life-forms evolved through natural selection. Some of us agree with these theories and some do not, but at least they offer a conceivable alternative. So now we have at least four options rather than two: “it just happened,” “a Creator made it,” “Big Bang plus evolution,” or a combination in which God caused the Big Bang and included evolution in the divine plan. Importantly, future scientists and philosophers may develop other credible theories about how the cosmos could be “a watch without a watchmaker.” And of course, even if we had a million legitimate options, the right answer might still be, “God did it.”

Let’s see what our three friends have to say about this topic. Theodore leads off.

Theodore: Even if I try to convince myself that the universe could have appeared out of nowhere, it just doesn’t seem plausible. Everywhere I look I find intricate order and regularity. Unbelievably complicated systems have to work with finicky precision for me to stay alive a single second. To me all of this just screams “intelligent design!” Don’t either of you ever feel that way?

Althea: Of course it’s hard to imagine how everything could function without an invisible guiding hand. But it’s hard for me to imagine a great many things that have been well-established. I am only a moderately intelligent mammal living on a little planet near a smallish sun. Why should I be able to comprehend how the whole universe works?

Agnes: We’re just a bunch of curious little critters trying to grasp infinite subtlety and complexity. Even so, I prick up my ears when I hear that physicists have found evidence of creative intelligence. Remember that YouTube video of the debate between Daniel Dennett and Dinesh D’Souza? D’Souza claimed that if certain cosmic laws had been infinitesimally different, “we would have no universe. We would have no life.” He concludes that a creative intelligence wanted us to be here, and some scientists agree with him. This is one reason I’m an agnostic instead of an atheist. …

Althea: Right, but Dennett pointed out [in Part Seven] that there may be  lots of other universes which operate according to laws that prevent life from occurring. Some cosmologists even say there could be an infinite number of universes. Life might be impossible in almost all of these systems, but some of them might be suitable homes for living creatures. If these creatures didn’t know about all the other universes, it would seem as if “the” universe was specifically designed for their benefit. “Wow, how come everything is arranged so precisely? I guess there must be a God!” …

Theodore: The idea of a godless cosmos offends my intelligence. I had a logic teacher in college who often spotted a fallacious argument just by noticing that it sounded fishy. He relied more on hunches than on tight little syllogisms. His mind was equipped with a built-in nonsense-detector that sounded an alarm, and an alarm goes off in my mind when people claim that all this wonderment happened for no reason at all. [End of excerpt from Bridging the God Gap.]

So – which statements felt right to you? Which ones upset you? Which ones made you squirm because you didn’t agree but you weren’t sure how to reply? We’ll finish this conversation in my next posting.

Roger Christan Schriner

For my main web site, click http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com/

The Fine-Tuning Argument for God’s Existence, Part Two

“The Closet Atheist” has received several comments about her recent post on fine-tuning. The basic idea is that the laws of our universe might have been quite different from the way they actually are. But if they had been even a tiny bit different, life as we know it could never have existed. So perhaps the cosmos was carefully designed as a home for living creatures, including humans. That implies a designer – a god.

This theory is actually controversial, and the Closet Atheist herself rejects it. But a fellow named Zane replied: “I’m not a physicist, … but I think there are better motivations for positing a multiverse than the fine-tuning problem …”

Zane points out that there are several different concepts of the multiverse. For example, if the universe is infinite, “everything possible is bound to happen,” so … “there are regions within that space that will never influence one another, making them functionally separate universes.”

In addition, a many-universes theory might help explain “some of the weirdness in quantum mechanics.” Some interpretations of quantum theory suggest that every single instant gives birth to a great many futures. “So at each point where multiple things could happen, everything possible thing happens, resulting in an infinite budding of minutely differing universes.”

Question: Why would the manifold futures that are perhaps implied by quantum theory result in futures with new sets of fundamental laws? Any comments?

Next time I’ll mention some ideas about the multiverse from my book, Bridging the God Gap.

Roger Christan Schriner

For my main web site, click http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com/

The Fine-Tuning Argument for God’s Existence, Part One

A while back on this web site I posted a series in which I debated with myself about the existence of God. “Pastor Chris” and “Dr. Schriner” argued about various aspects of this topic, including the claim that the laws of the universe are fine-tuned for intelligent life. Continue reading

Arguing about God’s Existence: Which Side Won the Debate?

This is an updated summary of a debate about the existence of God in which I took both sides of the argument. For the full text of the debate, see the previous several posts.

If someone cannot argue for both sides of a controversial issue, that person probably does not understand the issue. So “debating with myself” is always a useful exercise. I began the debate by assuming the role of a Christian minister, “Pastor Chris,” and I responded to the pastor as the atheist, “Dr. Schriner.” Pastor Chris quoted atheist Daniel Dennett as saying that religion helps people deal with challenging life issues. Later he returned to this theme:

“Schriner never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support, for centuries, all over the world. The overwhelming testimony of this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism.”

Dr Schriner then strode to the lectern:

“That great cloud of witnesses is a whole lot smaller than Pastor Chris thinks. I realize that the vast majority of Americans say they believe in God. However in Canada around 20 or 30% are atheists or agnostics. In the U.K. it’s 30-45%, and 65% in Japan.”

Dr. Schriner then critiqued the claim that the universe is “fine-tuned” for intelligent life: “My opponent never responded to the idea that there could be an infinite number of universes, many of which could not support life.” And he added: “I admit that religion does some people some good, and probably belief in leprechauns was helpful to some of the ancient Irish. But if religious people were in touch with a supreme goodness, they would tend, as a general rule, to be morally superior to us ‘heathens,’ and they are not. Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg’s comment rings true: Without religion ‘you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.’

Pastor Chris had the last word:

“As a religious person I get laughed at for believing in fairy-tale mythologies. But when scientists dream up wild stories about there being an infinite number of undetectable universes, all the secular humanists solemnly nod and agree. There is only one reason these bizarre multiple-universe scenarios get any press. People see that if this is actually the only universe, then it looks like the universe was fine-tuned for our benefit. Some great creative power intended for us to be here.

Looking back at this debate about deity, ask yourself what you experienced when you heard something plausible that pushed against your own opinions. What did you feel inside? If you discover what happens when a good argument disturbs your belief-systems, then you can learn to notice your own mind closing, and perhaps learn to prop it open.

And here is an idea that is obviously true but difficult to fully accept: There is no objective place where we can stand and say, “Now I can see who is right about deity.”

Many people believe they have attained The Truth about God. Some say it is quite clear that God is real. Others find it equally clear that atheism is correct. But there is no “tie-breaker,” no super-objective vantage point that settles this dispute.

It would be more comfortable if we had certainty about this important subject, so that all people who are good, smart, and well-informed would agree, but that is not where we find ourselves. We cannot dismiss either the testimony of intelligent and well-informed believers or intelligent and well-informed unbelievers.

Both theists and atheists are speculating, and that is unavoidable. But theists, atheists, and agnostics who understand that life is deeply mysterious and who sincerely search for greater truth are kindred spirits in spite of their differences.

Roger Christan Schriner

P.S. I would be happy to debate the existence of God in any public setting. I’ll take either side. Contact me by commenting on this posting.

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