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

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Pastor Chris Has the Last Word

This is the next-to-last installment of a series in which I debate with myself about the topic, Resolved: That a Personal God Created the Universe. When I make this presentation I wear an ecclesiastical stole as “Pastor Chris.” As the atheist “Dr. Schriner” I doff the stole and put on glasses. Dr. Schriner has just offered his final remarks, so here is the pastor once again. He begins by commenting on the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God. (For more on fine-tuning, see the October 2 post.)

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 some great creative power intended for us to be here. Continue reading

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

Unitarian Universalist Humanism

Recently I’ve been following a discussion thread about how Unitarian Universalist humanists should relate to their UU congregations, and to the Unitarian Universalist Association as a whole. Unitarian Universalism is a denomination that accepts people of all faiths and philosophies. It seeks unity by supporting common values rather than a common theological or philosophical creed.

Some of our churches contain sub-groups that focus specifically on one sort of lifestance, such as liberal Christianity, neo-Paganism, or non-theistic humanism. The Humanist Roots group that I sometimes attend at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto is an example. But there are those who favor the formation of local UU congregations that are explicitly non-theistic.

Some discussants have been enthusiastic about this possibility, while others have been disappointed at the suggestion that our local congregations should be philosophically homogenous.

What do you think? Is there value in groups that include theists, atheists, and agnostics, and focus on common values? Or is it better for theists and atheists to attend different congregations?

Roger Christan Schriner

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Trey Medley on NOMA

I have appreciated Trey Medley’s blog, Whytheology. His latest post is called “Why NOMA is inadequate.”

(http://whytheology.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/why-noma-is-inadequate/)

NOMA is Stephen Jay Gould’s acronym for “Non-overlapping magisteria.” A magisterium is “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” Gould said the scientific tools of empirical observation work well in dealing with facts, whereas the tools of religion are suitable for non-empirical areas such as meaning and value. “The two are entirely distinct according to Gould. … There is no conflict because the two are talking about fundamentally different things, and thus the two can’t even be in dialogue, much less disagreement.”

Trey Medley thinks Gould is mistaken. I’ll second the motion, but for slightly different reasons. For one thing, I want to encourage theist-atheist dialogue. NOMA undermines the possibility that believers and unbelievers could fruitfully discuss factual matters.

I agree with Trey that Christianity typically sees the Bible as making lots of claims about the physical universe. Some of these assertions, such as the notion that Earth is just a few thousand years old, can be ignored without undermining core Christian doctrines. The same could be said about demon possession, which Medley mentions. Many church-goers agree with psychologists who say that all serious mental illnesses are due to brain malfunctions. But other Biblical claims are more essential to traditional Christianity, such as the idea that God interacts with the universe and even suspends natural law to perform miracles.

Trey also points out that acceptance of the empirical method can’t be justified by using the empirical method. He’s right to say that would be circular. But of course choosing a method for understanding reality is a prelude to actually using that method. When we decide to try using science to understand the universe we are not at that moment using science.

Medley’s essay states that when science makes claims about events that are non-observable, those “are, by their very nature, more than empirical claims.” I’d analyze that issue a bit differently. ANY scientific claim must go beyond empirical findings. A report which asserts facts based on scientific findings has already gone beyond the data. Typically data are fitted into theories which are considered well-grounded. Based on theory + data, we draw conclusions.

Suppose I observe that every time a one-ton boulder falls on someone’s head, that person dies. That is an empirical finding. To claim that the boulder killed those people, I have to go beyond this datum, although in this case not by very much! By using a widely-accepted theory of physical causation I can assert that the fatal results were more than mere coincidence.

I think Trey may be suggesting that claims about events in the very distant past or future are not scientific claims, because such events are not observable. But they are empirically-based claims, if research data is combined with scientific theories.

Without theory, science is mute.

Note, however, that sometimes scientists speculate about the cosmos in ways that seem to be based more upon their personal world-views than on well-proven facts. I’m thinking, for example, of some statements made by Stephen Hawking. Such speculations may be brilliant or misguided, but they are theology or philosophy, not science.

Medley is planning to say more about NOMA, and I’m looking forward to reading his next post.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Reflections on Faitheist, by Chris Stedman

“What is most personal is most universal.” So said the great psychotherapist, Carl Rogers. I saw this principle confirmed years ago in my personal growth workshops. When people who were feeling lonely and isolated told their personal stories, they were often surprised by the way other group members empathized, identified, and responded.

Today I finished reading a highly personal memoir that will speak to a great many people – Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. The author, Chris Stedman, is smart and passionate. He is also ruthlessly honest, even about his own faults. With this combination of brains, intensity, and candor, it’s not surprising that he sometimes takes unusual risks. During a high school retreat, for example, he got up the nerve to tell his classmates why he’d taken course-work at a community college that year: Because of being gay, he said, “I didn’t feel safe here.” He received a standing ovation, led by a fellow named Nate, a popular athlete that Chris had assumed would look down on him. Afterward Nate “approached me and gave me a hug. ‘I’m not sure I agree with you, dude, but that was brave’” (pp. 80-81).

Even when we don’t identify with someone’s actions or ideas, we may admire that person’s courage.

It also takes courage to criticize both religious and non-religious viewpoints, running the risk of being sniped at from both directions. A religion teacher said to Stedman, “‘When I talk about God, I mean love and justice and reconciliation, not a man in the sky. You talk about love and justice and reconciliation — why can’t you just call that God?’” Chris replied, ‘Why must you call that God? Why not just call it what it is: love and justice and reconciliation?’” (P. 123)

Chris has also critiqued prominent atheists and atheist organizations. At his first atheist conference he heard “speeches comparing religion to sexually transmitted diseases. It was, for me, a nightmare. … I called friends of mine back home — atheists, no less — and recalled what I’d seen. They were shocked and appalled. One friend said to me: ‘You see, this is why I don’t want to call myself an atheist” (p. 145).

Stedman wrote an article suggesting that organized atheism often talks about religion in ways that deepen divisions. After it appeared in the Washington Post, he got “unexpected feedback. ‘This is exactly what I think, but I didn’t know anyone else agreed with me,’ wrote one reader” (p. 138).

Faitheist contains several other remarkable stories of risk and (mostly) reward. It’s a moving and readable memoir, highly recommended for theists, atheists, agnostics alike.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

A Song for the Holidays

To get yourself in the mood for holiday gatherings with your theist or atheist friends and relatives, check out this humorous and yet insightful parody of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “I Am Sixteen”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rgQmZK_ASo

Enjoy!

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.