Preposterous Universe

Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Flying the coop

First from Majikthise, later from Julian Sanchez, Grammar.police, and Matthew Yglesias, we hear about Antony Flew's theistic waverings. Flew, a philosopher well-known for his atheism, has apparently "converted" to a kind of deism, where he acknowledges the possibility of an Aristotelian Unmoved Mover, although he explicitly rejects the idea of a caring, interventionist God.

Two disclaimers. First, I had barely heard of Flew before the current dust-up, so I'm certainly not an expert on his views. Second, who cares? A change of heart on the part of any single individual doesn't change the status of an argument. If a religious leader like John Paul II, or Pat Robertson, or Ayatollah al-Sistani were to suddenly embrace atheism, it would be interesting on a personal-history, People-magazine kind of level, but I wouldn't hold it up as a reason for anyone else to become an atheist. I'm more interested in good arguments on either side.

Sadly, Flew's arguments seem really bad, even back when he was an avowed atheist. Here is an interview he did a few years back, trying to put to rest previous rumors that he had found God. In the interview he draws a conventional distinction between "positive atheism" and "negative atheism" -- the former being the claim that God does not exist, and the latter (which is [was] Flew's position) simply holding that there is no evidence for God, but there also aren't any disproofs of His existence, so we can't be sure one way or another. I have to say, even though this is an extremely common position (some of my best friends are negative atheists), it makes no sense. Is there any other question about the universe for which we say, "Well, there's no evidence for it, but I can't absolutely rule it out, so I'll keep an open mind"? Bertrand Russell raised the question of the existence of an exquisite tiny china teapot in orbit around the planet Saturn. We have no firm evidence that there is no such teapot, you see, even though there is also no reason to believe in it. Should we really keep an open mind? (Hint: no. When there is no need for something, no evidence for it, and it unnecessarily complicates our description of the universe, it's okay to simply not believe in it.)

The reasons for Flew's recent change of heart are even worse. Essentially, he has bought into the modern, cosmology-based argument from design. (Here's a recent interview with Gary Habermas, and a short essay by Richard Carrier at the Secular Web.) Despite the fact that the big news here is Flew's change of mind on the existence of God, the interview doesn't go into details about his reasoning, preferring to jump right to some theological implications; but it's a fairly common argument. There are basically two pieces of evidence from modern cosmology that purportedly provide reasons to believe in God: the mysterious creation event at the Big Bang, and the fine-tuning of parameters of nature in order to allow for intelligent life. The idea is that invoking an omnipotent Creator helps to explain these otherwise puzzling features of our universe.

Which is just ridiculous. For one thing, it doesn't "explain" anything; if I tell you ahead of time that there exists an omnipotent Creator, but you didn't know anything about our actual universe, you wouldn't be able to use that "theory" to say anything useful about how the universe would work. You couldn't derive the existence of the Big Bang, much less the particle content of the Standard Model.

Second, there isn't anything that needs explaining. The Big Bang event is something that we don't yet claim to understand, but that's just how science works; we understand more and more, but not everything at once. There is no reason to believe that the Big Bang won't eventually be understood as part of a comprehensive bigger picture. (I mean, if even I can come up with scenarios like that, it can't be that hard.)

And the fine-tuning argument isn't any better. The claim is that we find laws of physics that seem delicately arranged to allow for the existence of life. Of course, it is quite unclear that there is anything here to explain, even in principle; if conditions in our universe didn't allow for the existence of life, we wouldn't be around to argue about it. But one might still argue that the God hypothesis provides a greater economy of explanation than simply listing the numbers that describe our universe, despite the fact that it requires the introduction of an entirely new metaphysical category. One would be wrong. For one thing, it is far from obvious that there is any significant amount of fine-tuning going on. It's true that small changes in physical parameters would result in a very different universe; but nobody really knows what that universe would look like, or if it would be able to support some form of intelligent life. (People occasionally claim to know, but don't believe them.) And if someday the state of the art allows us to quantify a significant degree of fine-tuning, there are perfectly naturalistic explanations available, in the context of the anthropic principle. We might not like the anthropic principle, but our distaste is based on the fact that it's more fun for scientists if there is a unique kind of universe in which we can live, not because it isn't a plausible explanation.

Finally, if God really did provide an explanation for the parameters we observe, we should be able to use this explanation ("God arranges the universe in the simplest possible form consistent with our existence") as a good old-fashioned scientific theory, and start making predictions. What would God have chosen as the mass of the Higgs boson, for example? Would God make use of low-energy supersymmetry breaking? Why are there three generations of fermions? Why is the proton lifetime so long, and why are flavor-changing neutral currents so small? If you're going to claim explanatory power, you'd better be able to explain things.

In reality, the temptation to believe in God arises from a combination of wishful thinking and a loss of nerve -- the fear that there are some features of reality that will never admit of a conventional scientific explanation, despite the historical reality that such fears have always proven groundless. Just as Darwin killed off the biological argument from design, physicists will eventually kill off the cosmological one. The universe we actually observe is elegant, preposterous, extravagant, and generally quite thrilling; no need to sully it with superfluous pieces of pseudo-explanatory baggage.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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