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 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/

Oversimplifying Theism: An Example from Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, has suggested one reason it’s so hard for theists and atheists to talk with each other: “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”

I have a lot of respect for Dennett. As I wrote in Your Living Mind, I have “sheepishly” come to realize that some of his radical ideas about consciousness are more insightful than they seemed at first. And in Bridging the God Gap I give him credit for being more open-minded about religion than many prominent freethinkers. I think he’s on to something very important in his comment about telling people they’ve lived for an illusion, but I would put the point somewhat differently:

“IF you assume that belief in God is all there is to someone’s religion, then questioning that belief means challenging their whole way of life.”

But that’s a false assumption. Religion is far more than a list of theological doctrines. It involves an incredibly complex array of spoken and written statements and countless hours of worship and fellowship, as well as art and music, moral principles, spiritual practices, spiritual experiences, personal relationships, and involvement with religious institutions.

One can revise or reject theological tenets without invalidating everything else. Atheist Sam Harris, for example, follows many Buddhist teachings without accepting the Buddha’s 2500-year-old worldview. And there are who atheists belong to religious organizations because they value the fellowship, the rituals, and/or their congregation’s ethical commitments (Bridging the God Gap, p. 160).

Because we are drawn to simple stereotypes, we often speak as if we could summarize entire worldviews in a word or a phrase. That makes it very hard to critique someone’s life-stance without seeming to insult and invalidate that person. Our simplistic minds make nuanced dialogue difficult.

Life is strange and our minds are limited. It may be that both religious and secular worldviews are partially right but radically incomplete. I may be correct in claiming that someone is in the grip of illusions. But perhaps my own follies are just as foolish.

Roger Christan Schriner

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

Also posted at http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com. For the Dennett quotation see:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/30/books/daniel-dennett-author-of-intuition-pumps-and-other-tools-for-thinking.html?_r=0

“Total Consolation in the Face of Death”

Today I’ll say a little more about Sam Harris’ lecture on death and religion, which is available on YouTube. According to Harris, one reason theists are uncomfortable with atheists is that atheism denies the afterlife. Atheism seems like a “death cult,” he says, because it’s the only view that admits death is real.

I believe the contradiction between theism and atheism is overdrawn, and this is one example. Many naturalistic theists and impersonal theists, as well as some who espouse process theology, deny that our individual consciousness survives death. And I’ve talked with atheists who believe in reincarnation! What’s more, many who believe in a personal God are open to doubt and a sense of mystery. “Yes,” they may say, “I expect that I will survive the grave. But nobody knows for sure, and I realize that this life on Earth may be all that I have.” (See Bridging the God Gap, Chapter Eleven, “God and Mortality.”)

But even if Sam is a bit off base, he’s in the right ball park. In America the vast majority of those who believe in a supreme being also say that this deity will preserve us after death (for better or worse, if you believe in heaven and hell). And Harris is spot-on in maintaining that “the thing for which there is no substitute is total consolation in the face of death.” He does not look to science to provide such consolation, except insofar as science can influence human psychology. We won’t learn to accept death by getting more information. “The answer is a change in attitude.”

To bring about this attitudinal shift, Harris has explored spiritual disciplines with more commitment than most churchgoers. He has gone on Buddhist retreats for months at a time. In his presentation on death and religion, he guides an audience of atheists through a meditation that involves learning “to pay attention to the present moment … not doing anything with it,” just noticing what you experience now … now … now.

[Added on March 1:] How does becoming aware of the present moment produce an attitudinal shift about mortality? The YouTube lecture doesn’t spell this out, but poets have given us some clues:

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.” – William Blake

“Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length.” – Robert Frost

Also, my thanks to “Levi” for calling my attention to a 27-minute guided meditation by Harris:

For Levi’s comments on Harris’ book, Waking Up, see:

https://leviathanbound.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/waking-up/ [end of March 1 addition.]

On Monday I’ll be another year older. Changing my attitude about time and mortality becomes increasingly important. I appreciate Harris’ reflections on this issue. For his talk see:

Roger Christan Schriner

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

Sam Harris on the Value and Limits of Atheism

My previous post mentions Sam Harris’ UTube talk on death and religion. In that lecture, Harris admitted that atheism offers no positive agenda. Atheism has various positive and negative aspects, of course, but denying the reality of deity does not in itself say how we should live or even how we should conceptualize the universe. And in reality, there are probably as many ways of being an atheist as there are of being a theist.

Harris’ key point is that even though atheism does not affirm any particular life-stance, it is a way of “clearing the space for better conversations.” Rather than discussing metaphysical speculations about invisible realms beyond this cosmos, we can focus on this life that we know. We are who we are. The world is what it is. So what shall we do?

I’ll offer one quibble. People should not have to abandon all talk of deity to engage in this “better conversation.” Harris says that “to not believe in God is to know that it falls to us to make the world a better place.” But those who see God as part of nature instead of as something over and above the physical universe can agree with Sam – we shouldn’t depend on a supernatural bailout. And even those who believe that God helps us can join in this discussion, if they also believe that humans are responsible for making this a better world.

On the other hand, as I point out in Bridging the God Gap, some theists say life on Earth is trivial. An old hymn by Albert E. Brumley claims that “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.” And in God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism, Anthony Freeman quotes a standard funeral prayer: “‘We give thee hearty thanks, for that it hath pleased thee to deliver this our brother out of the miseries of this sinful world’ . . . The whole theme of the service is summed up in one of its sentences: ‘Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery’” (pp. 52-53).

This sentiment can affect people’s opinions about public policy issues. Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury, stated that “The hydrogen bomb is not the greatest danger of our time. After all, the most it could do would be to transfer vast numbers of human beings from this world to another and more vital one into which they would some day go anyway.” By this logic it’s really no big deal if we all blow ourselves up, obliterating humanity in a thousand Hiroshimas. (See http://www.hillmanweb.com/reason/piousquotes.html.)

I am drawn to Harris’ idea of clearing a space for a better conversation. Many atheists are good at that. But we need not exclude every person who uses theistic language. Look beyond words and labels, and widen the circle.

Roger Christan Schriner

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I’ll Be Back

I’ve been taking a break from this blog which has lasted longer than I anticipated. I’m completing my new book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. I’ve also been distracted by extraneous factors, such as glitches in setting up a new computer. Your Living Mind should be out later this summer, and then I’ll return to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground.

In the meantime I encourage interested readers to explore this site. This is my 118th post, and I’m happy to respond to comments about any of my previous entries.

Roger Christan Schriner

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

The Theist-Atheist Continuum

At this point I’ve made over 30 presentations focusing on communication and common ground among theists, atheists, and agnostics. In lecturing or leading workshops on this theme I try to sense what people find interesting and meaningful. One item that often strikes a responsive chord is a spectrum from very traditional theism to emphatic atheism, from Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics.

In the book I emphasize that in thinking and talking about God, there is no clear dividing line between literal and metaphorical language. Poetry and factual description shade off into each other. With that in mind, here’s the continuum:

God is a person who looks like us . . .
      God is a person but does not have a human body . . .
            Calling God a person is a human way of speaking
            about something far beyond our understanding . . .
                  The Ground of All Being is trans-personal,
                  but we can metaphorically think of it as a Thou . . .
                        The universe is physical but it has personal qualities . . .
                               The universe does not actually have such qualities, but
                               we can speak poetically as if it does . . .
                                      The universe, and whatever caused or created it,
                                      should never be thought of as personal.

People often shift and drift among these levels, sliding up or down this continuum as their moods change or when they move among their various social circles. Furthermore, there are also subtle gradations between these seven levels.

I want to emphasize the inevitable vagueness of our beliefs about all-that-is. Each person’s belief-complex is a pastiche of factual information, informed and uninformed speculation, and poetic imagery. A theist, for example, might believe that a person-like God exists, realize that in at least some respects “person” is a metaphor, but be unable to say in what ways and to what extent God is literally a person. Similarly, some atheists see the universe as a mixture of personal and non-personal features.

How many theists have carefully thought about whether and in what respects God is “really” a person? And how many atheists and agnostics have carefully considered whether the cosmos (or whatever gave rise to the cosmos) has personal qualities? I suspect the answer to both questions is “very, very few.” If they did contemplate these questions in depth, how often would believers and non-believers come to similar conclusions? I don’t know, nor does anyone else, and that is the point. We simply have no idea how much similarity is hidden by divisive theological labels. Without in-depth dialogue about religion, we can never hope to understand each other.

Roger Christan Schriner

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