Attacking Reason is Bad Theology

Chesterton in 1905

My friend, crime novelist James Scott Bell, author of Try Dying and Try Fear, brought to my attention a passage from a G. K. Chesterton story, “The Blue Cross,” featuring Chesterton’s famed priest-sleuth Father Brown. In the story, Father Brown has identified the culprit as a fake priest named Flambeau.

When Flambeau demands to know how Father Brown outsmarted him, Father Brown replies: “Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose. . . . Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil? But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren’t a priest.”“What?” the dumbfounded thief asks.

“You attacked reason,” Father Brown repies. “It’s bad theology.”

It’s true. We find truth—whether scientific truth or theological truth—through reason and evidence. Those who attack reason, or argue unreasonably, have stopped seeking the truth.

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Answering a Reader’s Objection . . . and Answering Richard Dawkins

On May 5, 2012, reader Thopter raised an objection to my earlier blog entry, “The Big Bang Is Happening Now.” Thopter wrote:

The Big BangThere is another option: That the only reason the universe *appears* to be fine-tuned to support life is because if any of those things were different, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. We don’t know if other universes exist, with different force strengths, which are incapable of accommodating life, so we cannot rule out the possibility that we just happened to hit the jackpot and develop inside a rare universe that has the right balances to harbour life. There is no evidence either way just yet, so neither scenario can be dismissed.

To restate, Thopter suggests that the seeming fine-tuning of the universe could simply be an incredible fluke, and if we hadn’t “hit the jackpot,” we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it. I addressed this objection in my book God and Soul, so to save time, I decided to simply plunk down an excerpt from my book. In that excerpt, I also critique Richard Dawkins’ discussion of these questions in The God Delusion.  Dawkins’ discussion is, in my view, extremely misleading. The excerpt follows. I’d be eager to know what you think . . .

BEGIN EXCERPT:

Richard Dawkins takes an odd approach when discussing the anthropic principle in his 2006 book The God Delusion. He writes:

It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence. I think the confusion arises in the religious mind because the anthropic principle is only ever mentioned in the context of the problem that it solves, namely the fact that we live in a life-friendly place. What the religious mind then fails to grasp is that two candidate solutions are offered to the problem. God is one. The anthropic principle is the other. They are alternatives.

I don’t know if Richard Dawkins is engaging in sly disinformation or if he simply hasn’t done his homework. In either case, he’s simply wrong. There are not just “two candidate solutions” to the question of origins, either God or the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle comes in assorted flavors, including a weak and strong version.

The weak anthropic principle is essentially a circular statement or tautology: The universe appears to be fine-tuned for life because if it wasn’t we wouldn’t be here to observe it. This weak form is apparently the flavor of anthropic principle Dawkins refers to above.

The strong anthropic principle goes a step further and says (according to Brandon Carter) that the universe and its constants, forces, and parameters “must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage” in order for the universe to exist. Why must the universe and its parameters be fine-tuned so as to admit the creation of observers? In The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986), John Barrow and Frank Tipler offer three possible answers to that question:

(A) There exists one possible Universe ‘designed’ with the goal of generating and sustaining ‘observers.’ 

(B) Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being.

(C) An ensemble of other different universes is necessary for the existence of our Universe.

Option A is the God hypothesis, the Cosmic Designer. It suggests that perhaps the universe is able to produce and sustain living observers because it was deliberately designed to do so. That is the goal and purpose of the universe, and the parameters necessary to achieve that goal and carry out that purpose were laid down at the moment of the Big Bang. This is the view I present throughout this book.

Option B, “Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being,” is known as the participatory anthropic principle. Physicist John Wheeler entertained this view. George Greenstein’s “symbiotic universe” is also a version of this view. According to Greenstein, observers need a universe to live in, and a universe needs observers in order to exist, so the universe and its observers participate symbiotically in bringing each other into existence. Fred Hoyle also considered this view when he wrote:

A further possibility … [is that our existence] forces the nuclear details to be the way they are, which is essentially the common religious position taken backwards. Before ridiculing this last possibility, as quite a few scientists tend to do, it is necessary … to explain the condensation of the universal wave function through the intervention of human consciousness. While this could be seen as a matter for philosophical discussion, I suspect its resolution will eventually come from exact science.

Option C, an “ensemble of other different universes,” is the multiverse concept, which we will examine in Chapter 4.

Scientists such as Paul Davies, George Greenstein, John Wheeler, and others all acknowledge the validity of Option A, the God implications of the anthropic principle. I can’t explain why Dawkins misstates the case. Is it because he’s a biologist, not an astrophysicist, and simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Doubtful. He could certainly have done his homework, as I have done. His misrepresentation of the anthropic evidence is inexplicable coming from a scientist of Dawkins’ calibre.

The anthropic principle is not an alternative to the God hypothesis. It doesn’t solve the problem of human existence. Rather, the anthropic principle IS the problem. The question posed by the anthropic evidence is the most important question facing science, philosophy, religion, and humanity as a whole. It’s a question that doesn’t merely cry out for an answer — it shouts to us and shakes us and demands that we answer it. The question is: WHY is the universe so incredibly, unbelievably fine-tuned to produce life?

Theistic philosopher William Lane Craig stated the problem in a 2003 debate with then-atheist philosopher Antony Flew (not long after this debate, Flew announced his conversion to a theistic world view):

The chances that the universe should be life-permitting are so infinitesimal as to be incomprehensible and incalculable. For example, Stephen Hawking has estimated that if the rate of the universe’s expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed into a hot fireball. P.C.W. Davies has calculated that the odds against the initial conditions’ being suitable for later star formation (without which planets could not exist) is one followed by a thousand billion billion zeros, at least. Davies also estimates that a change in the strength of gravity or of the weak force by one part in 10100 would have prevented a life-permitting universe. There are around fifty such quantities and constants present in the Big Bang which must be fine-tuned in this way if the universe is to permit life. And it’s not just each quantity which must be finely tuned. Their ratios to one another must also be exquisitely fine-tuned. …

Paul Davies comments, “Through my scientific work, I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact.”

Now, this is knowledge that Dawkins seems to suppress in his allusion to the anthropic principle. In fact, the above statement by William Lane Craig scarcely begins to convey the real enormity of the problem posed by anthropic principle. What kind of analogy could I use to convey the astounding odds against a life-giving universe? I could say: Imagine flipping a coin trillions and trillions of times and every single time it comes up heads — what are the odds of such an event? Or I could say: Imagine selecting the one winning lottery ticket out of trillions and trillions of lottery tickets sold — what are your odds of winning that lottery?

Yet even those analogies don’t come anywhere close to conveying the odds against our finely tuned, just-so, life-giving universe arising by sheer chance. If Richard Dawkins understands the true implications of the anthropic principle, he should have presented them honestly, as his fellow atheist, George Greenstein, did in The Symbiotic Universe. Or as I have done in this book.

It pains me to say this because, on the whole, I admire Dawkins as a fine writer and science popularizer. I enjoy his writing in The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. I agree with Dawkins’ statement that natural selection is a “consciousness-raiser” because it makes us aware of “the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without deliberate guidance.”

But Dawkins fails to understand that the anthropic principle is an equally powerful consciousness-raiser. The anthropic evidence forces us to squarely face (if we have the courage and intellectual honesty) the riddle of our existence — and the riddle of our life-giving universe.

From God and Soul: The Truth and the Proof by Jim Denney, copyright 2012 by Jim Denney.

David Brin Looks at Government, Society, and the Future


Some excellent, forward-thinking ideas from one of my favorite authors, David Brin. I do not endorse everything he says, but it’s worth a listen and some serious consideration.