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/

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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/

Wrapping Up a Case for Atheism

For the past few weeks I’ve been sharing the text of a presentation in which I debate with myself about whether a personal God exists. In the previous installment, the theist, “Pastor Chris,” concluded by saying that “Dr. Schriner”

“never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support [theistic religion]. The overwhelming testimony of this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism.”

Now the atheist, Dr. Schriner, replies:

That “great cloud of witnesses” is a whole lot smaller than Pastor Chris thinks. I realize that the vast majority of Americans 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.* Besides, he is supposed to prove there’s a personal God. But in a survey of sixty countries, only 45% thought a personal God exists, so those who believe in a personal deity are actually in the minority.** Continue reading

More from the Atheist

This is the third post in a series in which I debate with myself about whether God exists. Skeptical “Dr. Schriner” has just spoken, and now the atheist gets to speak again. Why? Because in a debate, the negative side has an inherent advantage. It’s almost always easier to poke holes in some theory than to prove that this theory is true. To compensate for this handicap, the affirmative side needs some compensating advantage. One way to do this is to let the affirmative begin and end the contest. It’s very helpful to have both the first word and the last word on some topic. To make this possible, Dr. Schriner, who denies the existence of deity, makes his initial presentation and his first rebuttal in sequence, one after the other.

Returning to the lectern, Dr. R. C. Schriner will offer his first negative rebuttal:

Pastor Chris thinks the laws of the universe are “fine-tuned” to support intelligent life. But physicists say there may be other universes, perhaps even an infinite number of universes. Only a few of these systems might happen to 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 for dear little me? I guess there must be a God!” These creatures would be very lucky to live in a cosmos that supports life, but someone has to live there and be amazed at their good fortune. Besides, the fine-tuning argument is speculation on top of speculation, because we still have so much to learn about cosmology. Continue reading

Pastor Chris Makes His Case for Deity

I recently made a presentation in which I argued with myself about whether God exists, and I’m posting it here, one speech at a time. For details, see my previous entry. As you read, notice what you think and feel when you are reading statements by the “other side.”

This talk was set up on a modified college debate format. The master of ceremonies begins:

And now, ladies and gentlemen, speaking for the affirmative on the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe, here is Pastor Chris. (Pastor Chris steps to the lectern.)

Good morning and thank you for attending this important debate, in which I will show that a personal deity exists and created the universe. By a personal deity, I mean a God who does things persons do, such as thinking, feeling, making judgments, and communicating with us.

Obviously God is not literally a person, with arms and legs, and fingernails that need trimming once a week. But calling God a person conveys more truth than any other way of describing our Creator. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, we speak about God “indirectly, through analogy.” “The Lord is my shepherd,” means that God’s relationship to me is analogous to a shepherd’s relationship with sheep, even though God doesn’t actually walk around carrying a shepherd’s crook. So in saying that a personal God exists, I mean that God is like a human being in many ways, and also far beyond us.

One thing persons do is communicate, and countless individuals testify that they have clearly experienced the presence of God, listening to them and speaking to them. Some communications are subtle, as when Elijah heard the still, small voice. Others are dramatic, as when Paul was struck blind while hearing the voice of Jesus.

And here’s what’s really important. This sense of communication with deity is extremely common. I do not believe that so many people, in all cultures, in all periods of history, and at all levels of education, could be so deeply mistaken. Continue reading

Concluding the Debate: Which One of Me Won?

Today I’ll finish reporting on a debate about the existence of God, in which I took both sides of the argument. I have become convinced that, in general, if a person cannot persuasively argue for both sides of a controversial issue, then he or she does not adequately understand that issue. So I tried to practice that principle a few weeks ago at a Unitarian Universalist church, and I had some fun in the process. When you read my posts quoting the debate, remember that debates tend to be feisty, so these entries are different in tone from most of my other blogs.

I began my presentation by assuming the role of a Christian minister, “Pastor Chris” (Chris is my nickname), and I responded to the pastor as the atheist, “Dr. Schriner.” In last week’s post, Pastor Chris quoted atheist Daniel Dennett as saying that religion gives people “sturdy support” in dealing with challenging life issues. The pastor concluded:

“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. (See The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, p. 109.) Besides, he is supposed to prove there’s a personal God. But in a survey of sixty countries, only 45% thought a personal God exists, so those who believe in a personal deity are actually in the minority.” (See http://www.gallup-international.com/survey15.htm.)

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. His claim that God created the universe is based on flimsy speculation and taking the word of assorted mystics about highly ambiguous religious experiences. It’s ironic that mystics often say they can’t even begin to put their spiritual experiences into words, and then they turn around and draw all sorts of theological conclusions from those experiences.

“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.’

“Thank you for listening. I hope you will agree with me that there is very little evidence that a personal God created the universe.”

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.” (For the context of this discussion of fine-tuning, see my October 14 and 20 posts.)

“When I try to think about the universe reasonably, I reject the idea of existence without any deliberate cause. This is not a faith-based argument. The idea of a godless cosmos offends my intelligence.

“When Dr. Schriner presents evidence that believers are no more moral than non-believers, it makes me sad but it is completely beside the point. Perhaps the human tendency to be selfish and unloving is so strong that religion has not overcome these faults in most people. But those who truly open themselves to God’s presence are changed for the better. I’ll again quote the atheist, Daniel Dennett, who says that from a sincere theist’s point of view, ‘God is the greatest thing that could ever enter our lives. It isn’t like accepting a conclusion; it’s like falling in love” (Breaking the Spell, p. 250).

Those who are open to God’s love do become better persons. The tragedy is that so few of us fully accept this boundless grace. But we always have the freedom to open our hearts to redemption, and perhaps some who are here today will embrace this possibility. At least I hope you will agree, based on a preponderance of the evidence, a personal deity did create the universe.”

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. Honestly admitting that no one knows the truth about god is likely to make us squirm (unless we happen to be agnostics).

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.

Does ultimate reality have personal qualities, or should we think of it impersonally, in terms of an It rather than a Thou? Each of us makes our choice – yes, there is an invisible person hidden in the darkness, or no, there is not. 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 despite 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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Making the Case for Atheism

In my posts of October 6 and 14, I described a recent presentation in which I argued for both sides of the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe. “Personal deity” was defined as a God who does things persons do, such as thinking, feeling, and communicating.

I began by assuming the role of Pastor Chris (Chris is my nickname) and in last week’s blog I quoted some of the Pastor’s remarks. I responded to them in the role of the atheist, Dr. Schriner. Here’s what he said:

This morning I will show that there are no sound reasons for believing in an invisible cosmos-creator, and that there are good reasons to reject this theory. And my first argument is simple. The concept of God is superfluous. People used to explain everything they didn’t understand by saying God did it, but this gives us a “god of the gaps.” As the gaps in our knowledge keep getting smaller, there is less and less reason for the God-hypothesis.

But even beyond this obvious point, I want to make a more daring claim. We can tell that there is no personal God by looking at the behavior of those who believe in God.

Pastor Chris based a lot of his case on the testimony of those who say they talk with God. So consider the possibility that God does communicate with us. If that’s so, then presumably this communication would be helpful to those who receive it. They would become wiser and better human beings than atheists and others who do not receive God’s messages. But that’s not so.

Are Christians, for example, wiser than atheists? Christians say God has revealed hidden truths to them which they could never have discovered by themselves. But Christianity has fragmented into over 30,000 denominations, repeatedly splitting over – guess what? – disagreements about what God is telling them! Rather than hearing clear messages, theists are projecting their own fantasies and prejudices onto a great blank screen in the sky.

What’s worse, these alleged communications do not make believers better persons. Of course some religious people are saintly, but so are some atheists. And church history reveals the wickedness of religious organizations – church leaders burning heretics alive, stirring up witch-hunts, and fomenting “holy” wars. Even today religion fans the flames of inter-group conflict.

You’d think that those who give their whole lives to religion would become especially good people, but we now know that the priesthood of a prominent American denomination was for many years a haven for sexual predators. I trust that those priests were praying every day, but they kept right on abusing children.

Here’s another shocking discovery. According to psychologist of religion David Wulff, researchers have found a correlation between membership in Christian churches and “ethno-centrism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, … rigidity, intolerance of ambiguity, and … prejudice, especially against Jews and blacks.” (Cited by William R. Murry, Reason and Reverence, p. 118.) The more traditionally religious you are, the more prejudiced you are likely to be! Stanford chaplain Scotty McLennan offers “evidence that religion is itself a root cause of conflict and violence.” In giving us a sense of identity, it divides us into in-groups and out-groups, so it intensifies people’s viciousness instead of reforming them.

If churchgoers show no evidence that their spiritual life is making them better persons, how can we believe their testimony that God is speaking to them? Suppose I tell you that I exercise every day in an invisible gymnasium in my house. Even if I managed to convince you that a gym could be invisible, wouldn’t you be skeptical of my claim if you noticed that I was getting weaker instead of stronger?

If God doesn’t communicate with us, God probably does not exist. But if people do receive divine communications, that should make them wiser and better, and it does not. Closely examining the claim that God communicates actually undermines the case for deity.

Another point: My worthy opponent thinks the laws of nature are “fine-tuned” to support the presence of intelligent life. But physicists say there may be other universes, perhaps even an infinite number of universes. Only a few of these systems might happen to 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 for me? I guess there must be a God!”

Furthermore, this claim that even tiny changes in the laws of nature would eliminate all life is actually controversial. Maybe natural laws could vary a lot and still support life. In his book, Seeking God in Science, Philosopher Bradley Monton reports that physicists disagree about fine-tuning. We have no idea whether most of them would agree with the fine-tuning theory or disagree.

In saying we need God, the Reverend resorted to a flippant comment about atheism having no explanation for how matter “magically rearranged itself … into dinosaurs.” Well obviously SOMETHING basic and wondrous did happen for no reason. Either matter exists for no reason, or God exists for no reason. People who say God made the universe don’t ask where God came from. They just shrug their shoulders and change the subject. As Steven Wright says, “A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.”

People may get tired of thinking, but science never grows weary of seeking new truth, shrinking gaps in our knowledge, whittling away at the need for the archaic God-hypothesis.

 

What will Pastor Chris say in response? Tune in next week. And what would you say, if you are a theist? Post a comment and let me know.

Roger Christan Schriner

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