I have some friends who are atheists. They seem like normal intelligent people most of the time, so it baffles me that they can accept so bizarre and irrational a belief system. Of course, most of them would be thoroughly confused by that statement. “We’re not saying we believe in anything,” they might say. “We are just saying we don’t believe in something, namely, God. What’s irrational about that?”
But that is not good enough. God explains stuff. Like Life, The Universe and Everything. If you remove God as the explanation, you have to come up with another one. If you want your theory to be convincing, it has to explain the evidence better than God. “What evidence?” atheists might ask. “I don’t see anything that needs explaining.”
To be clear, I am not talking about the impact of religion on society and history and individual lives, and whether it has been positive or negative; that is interesting, but it is another discussion. Nor am I talking about the content of other belief systems. Theravada Buddhism, for example, doesn’t believe in a damn thing, including God, except that there is not a damn thing to believe in, including yourself. Others believe in a variety of gods or spirits. Some people like the idea of angels, but have no idea where angels come from or what they do. I am not (at the moment) interested in any of those things, but only in the question of whether everything we see and experience is better explained by belief in God, or by some other theory.
Nor am I talking about the fact that atheism means that human life, art, suffering, work, families; the whole of human effort and endeavour, is pointless. In the end everything we do and feel will amount to nothing, mean nothing. Or that atheism means there is no objective morality. Morality, right and wrong, is simply whatever we believe it to be. There is no good or bad, just differing opinions. Societies can agree on some things and make them into laws, other societies can agree on different things and make them into laws. They can even call each other names because they disagree. It doesn’t matter. There are no objective standards, so outside your own culture’s view, it is meaningless to talk about right and wrong.
Many if not most atheists simply ignore these corollaries of their beliefs. Most of them still try to do what is right, and act as if their lives and lives of the people they care about had some meaning. That is interesting, but it is not why atheism is irrational. Atheism is irrational because it is not a reasonable explanation of the facts.
Let’s think about the tooth fairy for a moment. The tooth fairy explains something; that from time to time teeth disappear from under a pillow and are replaced with money. If you decline to believe in the tooth fairy, then you need to offer a credible and economical theory which also explains this phenomenon. By economical I mean a theory which does not require the invention of some other unseen entity or entities for which there is otherwise no evidence. This is a rephrasing of William of Ockham’s famous “razor”: when trying to explain something, do not multiply entities beyond necessity. Or, don’t make up more stuff than you need to. Or, the simplest explanation is often the best.
For example, an alternative explanation which required the existence of an entirely new class of supernatural beings would not be acceptable. For example, OK, there are no tooth fairies. What is actually happening is that there is an alternative universe inhabited by creatures called Morbongs. There is a serious deficiency of calcium in their universe, and they have invented machinery which can detect loose teeth in ours. When they find a tooth under a pillow they open a portal between their universe and ours, take the tooth, and leave something in exchange. Usually money, but sometimes a button or a bit of cat hair. The appropriate response to this explanation, even though it explains the phenomenon completely, is to suggest its proposer has had a bit more bong than is good for him.
The tooth fairy is trivial. That is, believing or not believing in the tooth fairy won’t affect your life much at all. Belief in God is not trivial. Theism or atheism is not a choice people can ignore. No, let me refine that. It is not a choice a thoughtful person can ignore. Nothing can make more difference to your understanding of what your life, and life in general, is about, than whether you believe in God or not. Either there is a God who has created the universe for some purpose and (at least in the Christian and Jewish view) invited you to share in that purpose both now and for all eternity; or we make our own way, nothing is objectively right or wrong, and nothing we do or decide matters anyway. This a bigger difference than between living in Antarctica and living in North Queensland. Your daily life would be different, your sense of the world around you would be different, even little choices, how far can I walk or cycle, what clothes do I wear, what food is available, are vastly different. The difference between believing the universe has a purpose which you can be part of, and believing the universe has no purpose, couldn’t care less about you, and you are not ultimately part of anything, is orders of magnitude greater. Thoughtful consideration of the evidence for theism and atheism is incumbent upon every intelligent adult.
Atheists need to be able to offer a credible and economical theory which explains:
Why there is anything rather than nothing?
Given that there is something, why is the universe so finely tuned for life?
Why is there such abundant life on earth and in so many forms?
To limit the extent of this discussion, I am not going to discuss the first. Atheists can decide for themselves whether they believe in an infinite regression of causes, or if they don’t like that idea, that some things just happen, with no preceding energy or matter or cause at all. Nor am I going to discuss the third. It is clear the earth is very old – billions of years old. I have no argument with that. But it is also clear that neo-Darwinism (the combination of evolution through natural selection and Mendelian genetics) has none of the explanatory power high-school textbooks ascribe to it, and is in serious trouble. That is a (very long) discussion for another time.
So let’s focus on this one question: How and why is the universe we inhabit so finely tuned for life?
The theist’s answer is simple; God made it that way. What do atheists have to say?
How finely tuned is it? What does that even mean anyway?
I will review the ruminations of Martin Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow, OM, FRS, FREng, FMedSci, a British cosmologist and astrophysicist. He has been Astronomer Royal since 1995, and was President of the Royal Society between 2005 and 2010.
In his book Just Six Numbers, Professor Rees notes the extraordinary extent to which the values of six key variables mean the universe conforms to just those requirements which enable the formation of stable atomic structures and other factors without which galaxies, stars and life itself would be impossible.
This is there merest flick through each of those six numbers (you don’t have to understand all of these, so skip this section if you want):
N, the ratio of the strength of electromagnetism to the strength of gravity for a pair of protons, is approximately 1036. According to Rees, if it were significantly smaller, only a small and short-lived universe could exist.
Epsilon, a measure of the nuclear efficiency of fusion from hydrogen to helium, is 0.007: when four nucleons fuse into helium, 0.007 (0.7%) of their mass is converted to energy. The value of Îµ is in part determined by the strength of the strong nuclear force. If Îµ were 0.006, only hydrogen could exist, and complex chemistry would be impossible. According to Rees, if it were above 0.008, no hydrogen would exist, as all the hydrogen would have been fused shortly after the big bang. Other physicists disagree, calculating that substantial hydrogen remains as long as the strong force coupling constant increases by less than about 50%.
Omega, the density parameter, is the relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the Universe. It is the ratio of the mass density of the Universe to the “critical density” and is approximately 1. If gravity were too strong compared with dark energy and the initial metric expansion, the universe would have collapsed before life could have evolved. On the other side, if gravity were too weak, no stars would have formed.
Lambda, commonly known as the cosmological constant, describes the ratio of the density of dark energy to the critical energy density of the universe, given certain reasonable assumptions such as positing that dark energy density is a constant. In terms of Planck units, and as a natural dimensionless value, the cosmological constant is on the order of 10-122. This is so small that it has no significant effect on cosmic structures that are smaller than a billion light-years across. If the cosmological constant were not extremely small, stars and other astronomical structures would not be able to form.
Q, the ratio of the gravitational energy required to pull a large galaxy apart to the energy equivalent of its mass, is around 10-5. If it is too small, no stars can form. If it is too large, no stars can survive because the universe is too violent.
D, the number of spatial dimensions in spacetime, is 3. Rees claims that life could not exist if there were 2 or 4 dimensions of spacetime nor if any other than 1 time dimension existed in spacetime.
Simply put, while the possible settings are calculated in different ways, the odds of the universe having just the variables it has are less than 10-120. To get a (very rough) idea of just how unlikely this, imagine covering the whole of mainland Australia with 5c pieces. One has been painted red. Then imagine a blind man tossing a dart out of an orbiting space station and hitting just that 5c piece. Then imagine the space station circling round again, another blind man tossing a dart out at random and again hitting the only red 5c piece. Then imagine this happening ten times in a row. Would it be rational to believe this “just happened” or happened by chance?
Professor Michael Turner, astrophysicist at the University of Chicago and Fermilab and President of the American Physical Society in 2013, said “The precision (of the fine-tuning of the universe) is as if one could throw a dart across the entire universe and hit a bulls eye one millimeter in diameter on the other side.”
Atheists are in the position of having to say this is just co-incidence. Co-incidences happen all the time. A guy buys a lotto ticket for the first time, using his and his wife’s birthdays as the numbers, and wins. Two sisters with blonde hair are playing golf on different sides of the world. They are both struck by lightning at the same time. But the unlikeliness of these events vanishes into insignificance compared with the unlikeness of our universe.
Fred Hoyle, another famous British astrophysicist, said: “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”
Another quote from Fred Hoyle: “The chance of obtaining even a single functioning protein by chance combination of amino acids is similar to the chances of a star system full of blind men solving Rubik’s Cube simultaneously.”
And from a few others (these are just for reference. It’s not important to read all of them if you don’t want to; just the first few and the last few will do):
George Ellis (British astrophysicist): “Amazing fine tuning occurs in the laws that make this [complexity] possible. Realization of the complexity of what is accomplished makes it very difficult not to use the word ‘miraculous’ without taking a stand as to the ontological status of the word.”
Paul Davies (British astrophysicist): “There is for me powerful evidence that there is something going on behind it all….It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature’s numbers to make the Universe….The impression of design is overwhelming.”
Paul Davies: “The laws [of physics] … seem to be the product of exceedingly ingenious design… The universe must have a purpose.”
Alan Sandage (winner of the Crawford prize in astronomy): “I find it quite improbable that such order came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery but is the explanation for the miracle of existence, why there is something instead of nothing.”
John O’Keefe (astronomer at NASA): “We are, by astronomical standards, a pampered, cosseted, cherished group of creatures.. .. If the Universe had not been made with the most exacting precision we could never have come into existence. It is my view that these circumstances indicate the universe was created for man to live in.”
George Greenstein (astronomer): “As we survey all the evidence, the thought insistently arises that some supernatural agency – or, rather, Agency – must be involved. Is it possible that suddenly, without intending to, we have stumbled upon scientific proof of the existence of a Supreme Being? Was it God who stepped in and so providentially crafted the cosmos for our benefit?”
Arthur Eddington (astrophysicist): “The idea of a universal mind or Logos would be, I think, a fairly plausible inference from the present state of scientific theory.”
Arno Penzias (Nobel prize in physics): “Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.”
Roger Penrose (mathematical physicist, Professor of Mathematics, Mathematical Institute, Oxford): “I would say the universe has a purpose. It’s not there just somehow by chance.”
Tony Rothman (physicist): “When confronted with the order and beauty of the universe and the strange coincidences of nature, it’s very tempting to take the leap of faith from science into religion. I am sure many physicists want to. I only wish they would admit it.”
Vera Kistiakowsky (MIT physicist): “The exquisite order displayed by our scientific understanding of the physical world calls for the divine.”
Frank Tipler (Professor of Mathematical Physics): “When I began my career as a cosmologist some twenty years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.” Since he wrote this, Tipler since has converted to Christianity, see his latest book, The Physics of Christianity.
Ed Harrison (cosmologist): “Here is the cosmological proof of the existence of God “the design argument of Paley” updated and refurbished. The fine tuning of the universe provides prima facie evidence of deistic design. Take your choice: blind chance that requires multitudes of universes or design that requires only one…. Many scientists, when they admit their views, incline toward the teleological or design argument.”
Edward Milne (British cosmologist): “As to the cause of the Universe, in context of expansion, that is left for the reader to insert, but our picture is incomplete without Him [God].”
Barry Parker (cosmologist): “Who created these laws? There is no question but that a God will always be needed.”
Drs Zehavi and Dekel (cosmologists): “This type of universe, however, seems to require a degree of fine tuning of the initial conditions that is in apparent conflict with ‘common wisdom’.”
Arthur L. Schawlow (Professor of Physics at Stanford University, 1981 Nobel Prize in physics): “It seems to me that when confronted with the marvels of life and the universe, one must ask why and not just how. The only possible answers are religious. . . . I find a need for God in the universe and in my own life.”
Henry “Fritz” Schaefer (Graham Perdue Professor of Chemistry and director of the Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry at the University of Georgia): “The significance and joy in my science comes in those occasional moments of discovering something new and saying to myself, ‘So that’s how God did it.’ My goal is to understand a little corner of God’s plan.”
Wernher von Braun (Pioneer rocket engineer) “I find it as difficult to understand a scientist who does not acknowledge the presence of a superior rationality behind the existence of the universe as it is to comprehend a theologian who would deny the advances of science.”
Carl Woese (microbiologist from the University of Illinois) “Life in Universe – rare or unique? I walk both sides of that street. One day I can say that given the 100 billion stars in our galaxy and the 100 billion or more galaxies, there have to be some planets that formed and evolved in ways very, very like the Earth has, and so would contain microbial life at least. There are other days when I say that the anthropic principal, which makes this universe a special one out of an uncountably large number of universes, may not apply only to that aspect of nature we define in the realm of physics, but may extend to chemistry and biology. In that case life on Earth could be entirely unique.”
Antony Flew (Professor of Philosophy, former atheist, author, and debater) “It now seems to me that the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design.”
See Flew’s book There is a God, in which he describes (in lengthy detail) how both science and philosophy finally convinced him God was the best and only complete explanation of real world and rational evidence.
Frank Tipler (Professor of Mathematical Physics): “From the perspective of the latest physical theories, Christianity is not a mere religion, but an experimentally testable science.”
Robert Jastrow (astrophysicist): “Astronomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation to which you can trace the seeds of every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on the earth. And they have found that all this happened as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover. That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact.”
Of course there are still some who cling, kicking and screaming, to their bizarre and outdated atheism. Stephen Hawking is one. He and some others agree that it is simply impossible that the universe we inhabit is a product of chance. There is no arguing with that. Their alternative is to posit the existence of an infinite number of universes. The argument goes like this: our universe is ridiculously unlikely. The number of alternate configurations which would not give rise to stable structures or life is greater than the number of atoms in the universe. Therefore there must be an infinite number of universes, so that for anything that is possible, there is a universe in which that possibility is realised. This theory is called the multiverse, or sometimes, the Landscape.
In inventing an infinite number of universes, physicists like Hawking are in the same position as our earlier friend who invented the Morbong and their calcium-deficient universe to explain the disappearance of teeth from under pillows. The amusing thing is, if Hawking and his chums are right, a calcium-deficient universe populated by intelligent Morbongs who steal teeth from a neighbouring universe really does exist. So do tooth fairies. There is a universe, in fact millions of them, in which Morbongs and tooth fairies compete for dwindling tooth supplies. It is not those who believe in God who believe in the tooth fairy, but atheists like Hawking. Their own theory requires them to.
If they don’t want to believe in God, atheists have to believe one of these two things:
* We live in a universe which, quite by chance, has exactly the variable settings needed for complex life to develop, even though the chances of that are less than one in a number billions of times more than the number of atoms in the universe; or
* We live in one of an infinite number of universes for which there is no evidence whatever, including one in which desperate Morbongs open inter-universal portals to hunt for lost teeth, one in which everything else is the same except you got up ten seconds earlier this morning, one in which the lump of snot you blew into your handkerchief yesterday was a hundredth of a gram lighter, one in which … Well, you get the idea. Enough universes so that everything that possibly could happen, happens.
The first choice is irrational. The second choice is free of any evidence, and so bizarrely uneconomical that William of Ockham would have thought you were mocking him.
Neither of those choices makes sense. There is only one that does.