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Does Science Increasingly Make the Case for God?

Monday, 2 February 2015  | James Garth


On Christmas Day 2014, the Wall Street Journal published a provocative piece by Christian thinker Eric Metaxas , arguing that the extraordinary odds against life existing on another planet supports an inference to intelligent design. The article has since gone viral on social media and provoked considerable discussion and criticism. Aerospace engineer and Fellow of ISCAST James Garth weighs into the debate.


I’m grateful that the Wall Street Journal elected to publish Eric Metaxas’ contrarian article, even if I have some quibbles about the line of argument that he has taken. Given that our world produces enough stories of brutality or banality to fill a newspaper on any given day, sometimes it pays to take stock and have a fresh look at ‘big picture’ questions of life, the universe, and everything.

To begin with, let’s deal with the article’s clickbait headline: “Does Science Increasingly Make the Case for God?” [ 1 ]. Despite this bold tagline, it needs to be honestly said that there have been no fresh scientific publications that are proposing a reliable, repeatable experiment that could adjudicate on the question of God’s existence. Nor has there been a sudden upsurge in theistic belief amongst practising scientists (this proportion has remained relatively unchanged since the early 1900s).

Instead, what Metaxas is proposing is that, based on certain scientific observations, one can make an inference to the best explanation that an Intelligence has been involved in setting up certain parameters in our universe in order to create conditions which are hospitable to life.

In his brief article, Metaxas’ submits two arguments: the “Rare Earth Hypothesis” and the “Fine-Tuning Argument”. Let’s examine how each of these stack up.

Is our planet rare or medium-rare?

Metaxas suggests that there are “more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart”.

This is the Rare Earth Hypothesis, an intriguing idea that has some heavyweight defenders including Peter Ward, John Barrow and Simon Conway Morris. There’s an equation, which Metaxas is perhaps alluding to, which was proposed to calculate N, the number of planets in our galaxy (or in the universe) with the right conditions to support life:

N = N* × ne x fg × fp × fpm x fi × fc × fl × fm × fj × fme

(where fg is the fraction of stars in the galactic habitable zone, fp is the fraction of stars with planets, fpm is the fraction of planets that are rocky rather than gaseous, and so on) [ 2 ].

So here we have a scientifically tractable question: if we knew these parameters, we would know the value of N. Metaxas continues;

“Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being?”

Here Metaxas invokes a design inference: perhaps a supremely powerful being created our planet in-situ, or perhaps this being nudged various bits of matter and energy into place so that it would form more gradually, or perhaps this being tweaked the initial conditions of the universe so that a planet with just the right parameters would come together at just the right time.

From what I can see, there are a few weaknesses with this argument. Firstly, it’s not exactly clear at which value of N a design inference becomes the best explanation.

Suppose N << 1. One might perhaps then legitimately invoke an agent as a way to beat the odds. But the problem here, as astronomers are quick to point out, is that we don’t know N to anywhere near this level of accuracy. The actual values of the parameters which feed into the Rare Earth Equation are not known with precision and have fluctuated significantly as further data has come to hand. For just one example, consider the parameter fp, the fraction of stars with planets.  A few decades ago, pundits believed this value was about 0.4, possibly as low as 0.2. But then along came the Kepler space telescope, which was custom designed to hunt for exoplanets. To date Kepler has found 1004 confirmed (and 3171 unconfirmed) planets in about 440 stellar systems [ 3 ]. Now, it’s looking more likely that fp is much closer to 1.  Some of the other parameters are even more uncertain.

So when it comes to nailing down these parameters, I think we need less speculation and more quality instruments like the Kepler. As the famous aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun once quipped: “One good test is worth a thousand expert opinions.”

And even if we could nail down the rest of the parameters – which is doubtful – suppose we concluded that N was exactly equal to 1. Could a skeptic still claim that this result was merely another fluke? Or if N were 1.5, could one retort that it would be odd for a Creator to build-in a value that wasn’t an integer?

And what if N turned out to be larger, perhaps 100, or 1000, or in the millions? Would this discovery then jeopardize the notion of a Creator? This is where I see an inherent theological assumption buried within this argument that makes me uneasy. To invoke intelligent design as an explanation for a Rare Earth, one must assume that the Creator is only interested in carving out a tiny hospitable space for a single sentient species but is content for the rest of the universe to remain either hostile or benign.  But this is a presupposition. The Bible is silent on the question of whether or not God has made it possible for life on other worlds, limiting its scope to the human drama and the interaction between God and our own species. And a theist could quite persuasively argue that a more fecund universe was actually better designed than one with fewer habitable areas. Perhaps, as Fox Mulder remarked; “God made Heaven and Earth, but he didn’t bother to tell anybody about His side projects.”  So much of this topic is speculative, but I think it might be wise to at least be wary of limiting God’s creative potential when it comes to the question of life elsewhere in the universe.

Finally, we need to consider the potential tension between the Rare Earth Hypothesis and the Fine-Tuning Argument, which Metaxas later introduces. In his under-read, iconoclastic book Nature’s Destiny, Michael Denton makes the compelling point that:

“In large measure… the teleological argument … and the special creationist worldview are mutually exclusive accounts of the world. In the last analysis, evidence for one is evidence against the other. Put simply, the more convincing is the evidence for believing that the world is prefabricated to the end of life, that the design is built into the laws of nature, the less credible becomes the special creationist worldview.” [4]

Denton here is speaking about fine-tuning versus special creation in the biochemical and biological realms, but I think his comments are equally applicable to certain “gap-ish” arguments like the Rare Earth Hypothesis. The very example of fine-tuning which Metaxas mentions that so impressed Fred Hoyle (i.e. the extraordinary tuning of the energy resonances in the triple-alpha process which produces carbon in the hearts of stars), is a case in point. It seems curious to argue that this process was intentionally fine-tuned to enable carbon to form and proliferate all throughout the cosmos, but that a special act of deliberate intervention was required to finish the job since no similar process was fine-tuned to enable suitable life-sustaining planets to form. If a divine being decided to make a deliberate intervention in the causal order to make a planet, why bother fine-tuning the carbon production process so that carbon would be spread throughout the cosmos? The Creator’s intentions come across as somewhat conflicted, a case of one step forward, two steps back.

So, given these theological questions, and given the uncertainty regarding the parameters themselves, I would be wary of making the Rare Earth Hypothesis the lynchpin of any defence of theism. I also predict these uncertainties will mean any design inference to explain a “Rare Earth” (if, indeed, we are rare) won’t gain too much traction with those who are well-versed in astronomy and otherwise finds theism unconvincing.

The fine art of fine-tuning

Let’s turn now to the fine-tuning argument. This argument has been articulated in greater detail elsewhere (see here[5] and here [6], and nearly all cosmologists acknowledge that the laws and constants of our universe are put together in an exceptionally well-balanced manner which allows little room for alteration without rendering the universe incapable of sustaining life. Whether it is the precise value of the cosmological constant, the inhomogeneities in the early universe, the relative strengths of the strong nuclear and electromagnetic forces, or a range of other “coincidences”, the precision is striking. Metaxas is essentially ‘on the money’:

“For example, astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces—gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces—were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction—by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000—then no stars could have ever formed at all. Feel free to gulp.”

To my mind this is a much more intriguing and resilient argument which, instead of postulating God to explain the gaps in our knowledge, begins with the well-established knowledge that we already have from physics and cosmology regarding our universe. If you like, instead of asking the question, “Do we need an agent to explain how this intricate, clever Lego model came together?” it’s asking, “Why are there even Lego blocks that can click together to begin with?”

I think the strength of the fine-tuning argument lies in the ease with which we can intuitively visualise how even a small change in a given constant could result in a universe that would hold together perfectly well, but within which complex life would be impossible.

Consider Hoyle’s discovery of the finely-tuned carbon generation process. If the resonance levels were only minutely different, we can easily conceive of a universe filled with lots of stars, plenty of hydrogen and helium, and a bit of lithium and beryllium, but no carbon, and consequently no means by which long, complex molecules could form. So while this universe might be pretty to look at it would have a rather boring periodic table and would be utterly devoid of sentient life.  The laws and constants in our universe seem to be contingent – i.e. they could have been otherwise.

So how can we best explain these intricately arranged constants, laws and initial conditions? Enter the inference: a Mind that designed the universe so that it would be stable and produce the building blocks required for life.

“But, wait - not so fast!” cry some cosmologists. There is of course, another possibility; one which is often uttered in very same breath as the one that acknowledges the fine-tuning: the multiverse. Steven Hawking explains:

“That multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine-tuning. It is a consequence of the no-boundary condition as well as many other theories of modern cosmology. But if it is true, then the strong anthropic principle can be considered effectively equivalent to the weak one, putting the fine-tunings of physical law on the same footing as the environmental factors, for it means that our cosmic habitat—now the entire observable universe—is only one of many, just as our solar system is one of many. That means that in the same way that the environmental coincidences of our solar system were rendered unremarkable by the realization that billions of such systems exist, the fine-tunings in the laws of nature can be explained by the existence of multiple universes.” [7]

Is Hawking right? Is the fine tuning of our universe undermined by the existence of billions of universes in the same way that a specially designed Rare Earth might be undermined by billions of other planetary systems?

Not necessarily. The analogy isn’t watertight. We know for a fact that there are other planets in our universe: we have tested for and observed them. But we don’t know for certain whether there are other universes beyond our own. There may even be hard epistemological boundaries which make it impossible to test for and observe them. There is tension in the scientific community on this issue. The distinguished cosmologist George Ellis has recently mounted a stinging criticism of multiverses [ 8 ]; even going so far as to say that attempts to weaken the requirements for observability, testability, and falsification in order to put multiverse explanations on the table undermines the very integrity of physics and the scientific method itself [ 9 ].

The other issue with Hawking’s generalisation is that there are a range of different multiverse contenders that could potentially do the job. Hawking argues for a string-theory/M-theory type, however other multiverse types have been proposed including cyclic types and quantum types based on many-worlds interpretations right through to the ultimate ensemble of Max Tegmark, where any and all universes which can be mathematically described are all considered equally real. As Rodney Holder quips, “On the making of many universes there is no end”!

Some of these multiverses are extravagant and unparsimonious, others are rather limited in the possible universes they could potentially contain. The question may still arise: “Why this multiverse?” Perhaps the multiverse contains complicated universe generation mechanisms which are themselves finely tuned!

So, when all is said and done, which option warrants our acceptance? Is the choice, as John Leslie and John Polkinghorne have said, “six of one and half a dozen of the other”? [ 10 ]. In a sense, yes. Both God and certain forms of the multiverse can do the explanatory job. Fine-tuning won’t rationally compel everyone to believe in God. Serious scientists will continue to propose alternate hypotheses, including various incarnations of the multiverse, or suggesting (seriously) that the universe was created by aliens, or that it is a simulation, or that highly evolved human beings reached back to the beginning in some sort of Interstellar-like time loop in order to tweak the universe to enable them to exist in the future [ 11 ].  When we hear these seemingly ad hoc explanations, we need to remember that these scientists are not making scientific statements, they are expressing personal opinions that are often highly speculative. And here lies the true value of the fine-tuning phenomena: it is extremely helpful in forcing us to realise where we bump up against the limits of our knowledge and it brings many of the tacit assumptions of science out into the open.

My conclusion is this: a theist commits no logical error by invoking design, it is a perfectly permissible option. Her worldview requires no modification, theism has the resources already built-in to accommodate the phenomena of fine-tuning.  A naturalistic worldview, however, requires additional resources to plausibly explain the fine-tuning. And while a naturalist can legitimately invoke a multiverse, this entails an intellectual cost: accepting a plenitude of unobserved (and potentially unobservable) entities. In short, her worldview must venture well beyond science into highly speculative metaphysics.

A final word on ‘miracles’

Finally, Metaxas concludes by stating that our universe is the greatest miracle of all time. Here I certainly agree with him, but I think the deeper sense of the word miracle as being ‘that which invokes wonder’ is an even better description. The universe’s mathematical elegance, its deep rational tractability, its amenability to inquiry and discovery, and its sheer awe-inspiring beauty constitutes, in my mind, a sort of aesthetic argument which sits above and complements the arguments we’ve already discussed.

It’s interesting to note when reading the Bible that one won’t find an articulation of design arguments like fine-tuning (unsurprising, given that the original audiences didn’t yet have the formidable scientific vocabulary required to truly appreciate it). But one will find many and varied appeals to wonder and beauty spread throughout the Psalms, the prophets and wisdom books like Job. We are invited to see the universe as something that points beyond itself to an uncaused reality, to something deeply beautiful and mysterious and quite plausibly personal that transcends space and time. At times we may glimpse this deeper reality in experiences like those the distinguished anthropologist Jane Goodall writes about:

“I have described elsewhere the experience I had when I first visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. When, as I gazed at the great rose window, glowing in the morning sun, the air was suddenly filled with the glorious sound of an organ playing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. It filled me with joy, brought tears to my eyes. How could I believe that blind chance had led to that moment in time–the cathedral, the collective faith of those who had prayed and worshiped within, the genius of Bach, the emergence of a conscious mind that could, as mine did then, question the purpose of life on Earth. Was all the wonder and beauty simply the result of purposeless gyrations of bits of cosmic dust at the beginning of time? If not, then there must be some extra-cosmic power, the creator of the big bang. A purpose in the universe. Perhaps, one day, that purpose will be revealed.” [12]

Perhaps the most powerful argument of all is made not by the scientist but by the artist.


James Garth is a practising aerospace engineer with experience in the design of military, commercial and unmanned aircraft. He is a Fellow of ISCAST and is an active contributor to the dialogue on science-faith issues, practical apologetics and culture. He is on Twitter at @jgarth22


[1]  Eric Metaxas, “Does science increasingly makes the case for God?” Wall Street Journal, 25 December 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/eric-metaxas-science-increasingly-makes-the-case-for-god-1419544568

[2]  “Rare Earth hypothesis,” Wikipedia (accessed 10 January 2015), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare_Earth_hypothesis

[3] “NASA’s Kepler Marks 1,000th Exoplanet Discovery, Uncovers More Small Worlds in Habitable Zones,” NASA, 6 January 2015, http://www.nasa.gov/press/2015/january/nasa-s-kepler-marks-1000th-exoplanet-discovery-uncovers-more-small-worlds-in/#.VL8MfkeUfTQ

[4]  Michael Denton, Nature’s Destiny (Free Press, 1998).

[5] Rodney Holder, “Is the Universe Designed?” The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, April 2007, https://www.faraday.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/Papers.php

[6] Rodney Holder, Big Bang, Big God: A Universe Designed for Life? (Lion Hudson, 2013).

[7] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Bantam, 2012).

[8] George Ellis, “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?” Scientific American (August 2011), http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-the-multiverse-really-exist/

[9] George Ellis & Joe Silk, “Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics,” Nature 16 (December 2014), http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-defend-the-integrity-of-physics-1.16535

[10] John Polkinghorne, “Does the ‘Fine-Tuning’ of the Universe Lead Us to God?” The BioLogos Forum, 9 January 2015, http://biologos.org/blog/does-the-fine-tuning-of-the-universe-lead-us-to-god

[11] “Custom Universe – Finetuned for Us?” Catalyst, ABC, 29 August 2013, http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/3836881.htm

[12] Jane Goodall, “Does the Universe Have Purpose?” Big Questions Essay Series, John Templeton Foundation.

 


Comments

Peter Dixon
February 3, 2015, 4:30PM
I do not agree that the Bible is silent on the goal of God's design for the Universe. In Colossians 1 : 16 the Universe is created for Christ - in context God embodied in human form. And redeemed humanity is placed as the completion of Him who completes all things everywhere in Ephesians 1 : 23.
Nor am I compelled by the quoted argument of Denton (who has very often persuaded me) that arguments for a prefabricated universe work against arguments for special creation. That would only be compelling on the presupposition that prefabrication was designed and intended to "automatically" produce life etc in and of itself. The Bible artistry to my mind allows the idea of a prefabricated environment to cater for special creations.
James Garth
February 3, 2015, 8:34PM
Hi Peter, thanks for your feedback!

I agree with you that the scriptures mention the centrality of Christ in creation (Col. ch1 and John ch1). Christian theology is clear that the same One who formed the universe also became incarnate in Jesus. Where I think we have less information from the scriptures is on the question of whether or not God may have elected to become incarnate elsewhere in the universe for other beings or civilisations; whether he may have made them, made himself known to them and redeemed them. Humanity was certainly made in the image of God, but perhaps other beings could also be made in the image of God, too. As I said, this topic is a very speculative one, so I'm treading carefully here. Keeping the option open seems prudent for now.

As for Denton, I agree that there's a presupposition there about God's intentions regarding laws which could "automatically" generate life. But given that we have made the observation that the carbon generation process IS very remarkably tuned, it's not too far-fetched to then be open to the prospect of a planetary formation process also being prefabricated by the Creator to complement it.

That said, I ultimately hold to a similar view to that of astronomer Owen Gingerich, who makes the point that "Science will not collapse if some practitioners are convinced that occasionally there has been creative input in the long chain of being." The prospect of direct intervention doesn't have to be forced off the table as though it were anathema. For now, I simply make the point that if God did choose to bring about planets and life through prefabricated laws, then that wouldn't compromise the doctrine of creation; it would merely be a particular description of the mechanisms that God chose to use to create.

cheers,
James
Jim Rawson
February 4, 2015, 2:38PM
A helpful contribution. Thanks.
John Roelofs
June 3, 2016, 2:44PM
To use an analogy from the Bible, namely the potter (God) and the clay (creation), all of these arguments presented by scientists all smack of the pottery wondering how it came into existence without wanting to acknowledge the work of the potter, speculating on whether the clay spontaneously mixed itself with water shaped itself and fired itself in an oven.

Scientists are trying to find the source of heat that fired the clay but stubbornly ignoring the oven made by the potter and looking at other pots and saying this is proof that a potter does not exist. Speculating on the purpose of the potter making the pot without understanding the potters plan and claiming if a potter exists what he has done makes no sense, only science makes sense.

God created all the laws of the universe, physical and natural, new scientific discoveries about things we previously did not understand does not further "prove" God does not exist. So much science has provided unproven theories and so much work is being done around these unproven theories and is based on unproven theories, but a scientifically "unproven" God is unacceptable? Speculation on Gods purpose 'not making any sense based on xy&z assumptions and therefore must mean his nonexistence', is also presumptuous considering that those who make these statements are in no position to speculate on Gods greater purpose for his universe. It is after all Gods universe not the universe of arrogant scientists who fail to have an open mind when it comes to the subject of God but expect all people to listen to them as if they are the ultimate authority.

Science as a religion or philosophy (which it tends to be, rather than a study of the 'natural world') has failed to prove God does not exist, yet nature itself prove his existence, Gods word says "the stars declare Gods Handiwork" and Gods fingerprint is on all of his creation. You can see it if you care to look instead of looking for some supernatural proof of his existence.

Faith is not a belief in an unproven existence. When you are faithful to your wife it means you do not betray her trust, being faithful to God means you follow him and having faith in God means you have trust that he has told us and promised us in his word will come to pass. "Believing" in God the bible means you believe what he has said, not that you believe in something unproven. He proved himself to the Israelites when he brought them out of Egypt, it was recorded for posterity and for our learning. Why should God have to prove himself to each succeeding generation? We are to learn from history, yet we chose to disbelieve history that was written down for us to learn from. We have enemies of God and Gods people, devoting their lives to finding ways to discredit the Bible, yet they do not even understand what the Bible teaches although they will convince those who are not given "the eyes to see and the ears to hear" from their heavenly father. Understanding the bible comes from God only, not from 'learned' theologians and seminaries who constantly get it wrong or from just reading the bible so you can discredit it. Everyday I read comments or discussions by people on the Bible or on God, about what they think the Bible has to say or why a God that does 'such and so' is wrong and they are so wrong about what they are talking about.

Trying to match God to unproven theories of beginning or existence is also ridiculous, the presumptions of why the universe came about such as the big bang theory an unproven event, no matter how much space noise they record or expansion they measure, this is no proof of an unwitnessed theory. Basing beliefs on unwitnessed unprovable theories seems to be a scientific method and not one that I am going to engage in.

All of truth will not be known and neither will Gods ultimate purpose until Jesus Christ returns to restore his kingdom unto Himself. Science that studies the natural world without God will never come to a complete understanding either. "Professing themselves to be wise they became fools."

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