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

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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

Philosophers Face the Problem of Evil

I’ve read a lot of philosophy in the past 20 years, and recently I’ve been reflecting on what makes philosophical thinking special. What came to mind was tenacity. In pondering life’s big questions, most people grapple with these issues until they reach a level of confusion that seems fairly satisfying, and then they stop. As Steven Wright has quipped, “A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.” But philosophers are trained to push tenaciously for deeper insights even after they think they’ve found a solution.

Dealing with the problem of evil is a fine example. In the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God is commonly said to be all-powerful and perfectly good. That forces theologians to reconcile these three ideas:

(1) God is omnipotent.
(2) God is perfectly loving and just.
(3) The world is filled with tragedy and suffering.

It is notoriously difficult to reconcile an all-powerful God’s love with the horrors experienced by countless living creatures. Many people think about this trilemma just long enough to grasp some straw that offers an easy resolution. Some say, for example, that God refrains from using divine power in order to leave room for human freedom. But this does not address the dreadful suffering that results from the existence of animals that can only survive by killing and eating other animals. In thinking about evil, theologians often ignore the distress of non-human creatures.

Another common response is to say it’s beyond human ken. We are simply incapable of understanding why evil pervades our world. Even though this might be correct, it’s a terribly dangerous gambit. Overlooking an enormous theological problem because there may be some solution we cannot grasp could lead us to rationalize almost any belief system.

Last week I posted some comments about Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life. Several of these scholars would identify with editor Louise Antony’s comment that hearing the “argument from evil” literally changed her life (p. 49).

Antony was troubled by a tragedy that supposedly was divinely ordained – the existence of limbo. “As the Catholic Encyclopedia certifies: ‘Limbus Infantium’ is ‘the permanent place or state of those unbaptized children and others who, dying without grievous personal sin, are excluded from the beatific vision on account of original sin alone’” (p. 288). “We are all born carrying the stain of original sin on our souls, and unless the stain is washed away through baptism, we are unfit to be in the presence of God.” This doctrine, and the whole concept of inherited guilt, made no sense to her. “This ‘fitness’ sounded almost aesthetic – as if the unbaptized righteous had body odor, or weren’t dressed properly” (p. 41). The Roman Catholic Church has evidently revised its cosmological map and eliminated Limbo, but I’m sure many have found this doctrine perplexing. Dr. Antony was not content with standard explanations, and concluded that Limbo was just wrong.

Stewart Shapiro also reports experiencing a seismic theological shift, this time in response to one particular tragedy: “I still remember the moment when the last remnants of my religious faith died. One day in February of 1984, I was driving and listening to a radio news story about David Vetter, otherwise known as the ‘bubble-boy.’” Born with severe combined immunodeficiency, David had lived for years in a plastic bubble, totally cut off from direct physical contact. When he was 12 he became ill and had to leave the chamber. “David then hugged his mother for the first time….” and he died two weeks later. “When I heard that story something in me snapped, and I have not had a sustained religious thought since” (p. 3).

On the whole I agree with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong that “every response to the problem of evil has glaring defects” (p. 75). But what do you think? Is there a way to reconcile perfect love, absolute power, and the undeserved misery of countless creatures? I’ll share my own thoughts later on.

Roger Christan Schriner

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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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