Am I Being Dishonest About Fine-Tuning?

In recent discussions with atheists on Twitter, I’ve encountered objections to the term “fine-tuning.” This term refers to the fact that, according to physics and cosmology, the fundamental physical constants and forces of the universe (the strength of gravity, the strength of electromagnetism, the cosmological constant, the number of spatial dimensions, and so forth) all appear to be precisely “tuned” within an extremely narrow range—an incredibly delicate balance that permits the existence of life in the universe. There are dozens of these constants and forces, and if just one of them had a slightly different value—if it were altered by as little as one part in billions or even trillions—life could not exist.

I find that most of the atheists I encounter have never heard of fine-tuning or the anthropic principle. When I explain it to them, they are aghast and refuse to believe what I’m saying. They frequently accuse me of lying or ignorance.

Those who are more astute and well-read will frequently object to the term “fine-tuning” because they think that even using that term is stacking the deck. “‘Fine-tuning’ requires a Fine-Tuner,” wrote one. “The term ‘fine tuning’ is a conclusion disguised as a premise: the argument is truly, technically circular.”

To his thinking, the term “fine-tuning” implies intentional tinkering with the laws of physics by a deity. That’s not how the term is commonly used and understood within the scientific community. “Fine-tuning” is actually a values-neutral, secular, scientific term that describes the nature of the constants and forces of the universe. Physicists, cosmologists, and astronomers actually do observe the universe to be “fine-tuned” without regard to how it got that way. It’s a description of the state of the universe, and does not presuppose how the universe got that way.

Whether or not there was a “Fine-Tuner” (i.e., God), the universe is fine-tuned. It is certainly conceivable that the universe could have come into existence by random-chance processes—with all of its physical constants and forces balanced within that incredibly narrow range, and without the intentional intervention of a “Fine-Tuner.”

Let me say that again for emphasis: Even if there was no intelligent “Fine-Tuner,” the universe is undeniably fine-tuned.

Atheists who wrongly accuse me of trying to bias the discussion with the term “fine-tuning” are themselves guilty of trying to force the discussion toward their conclusion by taking a perfectly common, descriptive, and neutral term, and trying to rule it out of bounds. If you read the literature on cosmic fine-tuning and the anthropic principle, it becomes clear that the term is used by scientists as the best way to describe the condition of the universe, and without any hint or suggestion of theistic propaganda. Some examples:

In The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, physicists John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler write:

Hoyle realized that this remarkable chain of coincidences—the unusual longevity of beryllium, the existence of an advantageous resonance level in C12 and the nonexistence of a disadvantageous level in O16— were necessary, and remarkably fine-tuned, conditions for our own existence and indeed the existence of any carbon-based life in the universe.

These coincidences could, in principle, be traced back to their roots where they would reveal a meticulous fine-tuning between the strengths of the nuclear and electromagnetic interactions along with the relative masses of electrons and nucleons.

—John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (New York: Oxford, 1988) 253.

Barrow and Tipler aren’t using “fine-tuning” to promote theism. They are simply describing some of the fine-tuned conditions in the cosmos that make life possible. Similarly, cosmologist Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal (and definitely not a theist), also uses “fine-tuning” in a purely objective, scientific fashion:

These six numbers constitute a “recipe” for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be “untuned,” there would be no stars and no life. Is this tuning just a brute fact, a coincidence? Or is it the providence of a benign Creator? I take the view that it is neither. An infinity of other universes may well exist where the numbers are different. Most would be stillborn or sterile. We could only have emerged (and therefore we naturally now find ourselves) in a universe with the “right” combination. This realization offers a radically new perspective on our universe, on our place in it, and on the nature of physical laws. . . . If you imagine setting up a universe by adjusting six dials, then the tuning must be precise in order to yield a universe that could harbour life.

—Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 4 and 22.

In The First Three Minutes, Nobel-winning physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg writes about the fine-tuned nature of the cosmological constant:

There may be a cosmological constant in the field equations whose value just cancels the effects of the vacuum mass density produced by quantum fluctuations. But to avoid conflict with astronomical observation, this cancellation would have to be accurate to at least 120 decimal places. Why in the world should the cosmological constant be so precisely fine-tuned?

—Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 186-187.

In The Grand Design, physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow also write about the fine-tuning of the cosmological constant in Einstein’s general relativity equations, calling it “the most impressive fine-tuning coincidence” in cosmology. They go on to describe other fine-tuning problems in cosmology:

Most of the fundamental constants in our theories appear fine-tuned in the sense that if they were altered by only modest amounts, the universe would be qualitatively different, and in many cases unsuitable for the development of life. . . . The emergence of the complex structures capable of supporting intelligent observers seems to be very fragile. The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned, and very little in physical law can be altered without destroying the possibility of the development of life as we know it. Were it not for a series of startling coincidences in the precise details of physical law, it seems, humans and similar life-forms would never have come into being.

—Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2012), 160-161.

So, to answer the question “Am I being dishonest about fine-tuning?,” the answer is no. I’m using the term “fine-tuning” in exactly the same way physicists and cosmologists Barrow, Tipler, Rees, Weinberg, Hawking and Mlodinow use it. I’m not playing word games to force a preordained conclusion. I lay out the evidence, I tell you what I think it means, and you are free to draw a different conclusion.

One of the most annoying experiences I have on Twitter is when atheists who don’t understand my views accuse me of lying. Why would I lie? For one thing, I’m morally and ethically committed to the truth. For another thing, I’m convinced that the evidence stacks up on my side. I believe that if I honestly present the evidence, including the sources and footnotes, the evidence will speak for itself.

I hope you’ll examine the evidence rationally and skeptically. If you are intellectually honest, you’ll at least see that I have valid reasons for my views. You may not be persuaded. You may not agree with me. You may have some counter-arguments to toss my way. Please do. All I ask is that you think critically, challenge everything, demand evidence—then be willing to follow that evidence wherever it leads.

Why the Universe is Fine-Tuned for LIFE—Not Just “Life As We Know It”

God and Soul by Jim Denney“If we did not know of the existence of life (assuming we were something else), no one would have guessed that it was possible.” —HEINZ R. PAGELS, The Dreams of Reason (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 318.

I had a conversation today with someone on Twitter about the evidence for the fine-tuned universe (the anthropic principle). This person was unconvinced when I said that if just one of the many forces or constants of the universe were altered by one part in billions or trillions, then life in the universe would be impossible. He tweeted back: “Of course you’re only talking about Earth-based life, because that’s the only kind of life we know about.” No, I replied, not just life on Earth, not just life as we know it, but any remotely conceivable definition of life becomes impossible if the universe is not exquisitely fine-tuned. Here is an excerpt from my book God and Soul to explain why:

_________________________________________

The following excerpt from God and Soul
is copyright 2012 by Jim Denney, and may not
be reproduced without permission.

You need carbon to make diamonds, pencil leads, petroleum, and people. You even need carbon to make alien life forms. Where does carbon come from? It is manufactured over billions of years in the hearts of stars. As in the words of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” — “We are stardust, billion year-old carbon.”

Carbon is the basic building material for all life on Planet Earth. It takes carbon to build the complex molecules that make up the cells, proteins, and other substances of living plants, animals, and people. Why carbon? It’s simply because a carbon atom, with its four valence (outer) electrons, is uniquely suited for bonding with other elements (especially oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen) to create the complex molecules that support the processes of life.

You might say, “Well, carbon is fine for creatures from Planet Earth — but couldn’t there be alien lifeforms based on some element besides carbon?” Yes, life could conceivably be based on silicon or some other element. After all, silicon also has four valence electrons — but there’s a huge drawback to silicon.

Atoms of silicon form covalent bonds and generally crystallize into stable lattices instead of the chains that carbon atoms tend to form. Carbon chains can easily break down and recombine into various compounds to form life-giving substances. Silicon lattices form hard, rigid, nonliving matter.

For example, join one carbon atom with two oxygen atoms and you have carbon dioxide, a life-giving chemical compound that animals breathe out and plants breathe in . But join one silicon atom with two oxygen atoms and you have silicon dioxide — which is quartz, a hard, inert mineral. The difference between carbon dioxide and silicon dioxide is the reason silicon-based life is highly unlikely.

And even if silicon-based life did arise somewhere in the universe, it could not live without carbon. As Richard Meisner observes, the most exotic and unearthly lifeform imaginable (even one that would use, say, liquid ammonia instead of water in its cells and bloodstream) “still requires carbon in its alternate forms of fats, lipids, amino acids, carbohydrates, proteins, and nucleic acids.”21

Fortunately, there is plenty of carbon in the universe. But why is that so? For decades, scientists pondered the fact that carbon should not exist — yet it does. As it turns out, the creation of carbon depends on an unlikely and delicately balanced condition in the laws of physics.

The problem that confronted physicists was that there was no known mechanism by which three helium nuclei could simultaneously collide inside a star and fuse to form a carbon nucleus and produce the abundance of carbon in our universe. In 1952, American astrophysicist Ed Salpeter suggested that perhaps carbon is formed in a rapid two-step process: two helium nuclei could collide, forming an unstable beryllium nucleus — so unstable, in fact, that it could only exist for less than a trillionth of a second. During that trillionth of a second, and before the unstable beryllium nucleus could decay into a pair of helium nuclei, a third helium nucleus just might collide with the beryllium nucleus and form a carbon nucleus.

But Salpeter’s calculations showed that this process could never yield the vast quantities of carbon that exist in the universe. Why? Because the unstable beryllium nucleus was much more likely to be split by the third helium nucleus instead of fusing with it. Physicists were stumped. The existence of carbon (and carbon-based lifeforms like ourselves) was a riddle.

According to Hoyle

Then English astronomer Fred Hoyle entered the fray. He took Salpeter’s idea and added a new wrinkle: nuclear resonance. The nucleus of an atom can exist in a number of discrete states, depending on its energy level. Expose that nucleus to just the right amount of energy and it will resonate at a specific frequency. The resonance, Hoyle suggested, might make it easier for atoms to fuse and form new elements.

Hoyle knew that the energy level of helium and beryllium inside a hot star was about 7.4 million electron volts (MeV). So he predicted that an unknown resonance level for carbon was waiting to be discovered at just above that level. Hoyle pegged the resonance level at 7.65 MeV. But how could he test his hypothesis?

In the early 1950s, Hoyle came over from England and spent several years as a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. A refugee from the staid atmosphere of Cambridge, Hoyle reveled in the freewheeling, intellectually stimulating environment at Caltech. He gave a weekly lecture course called “Experimental Cosmology,” in which he discussed how the elements in the universe might have been cooked within stars. His ideas were unconventional and his audiences (which included Caltech profs) were frequently contentious. They tried to trip him up with tough questions. Hoyle thrived on the verbal jousting and enjoyed defending his ideas under cross-examination.

Fred Hoyle could not have picked a better time to be at Caltech. He arrived soon after the university’s Kellogg Radiation Laboratory had acquired a new particle accelerator that was well suited to probing the carbon nucleus. The director of the laboratory was physicist William “Willy” Fowler.

When the two men met for the first time, Fowler found Hoyle brash and off-putting. Hoyle, however, knew that Willy Fowler was the gatekeeper at Kellogg. If Hoyle wanted to test his ideas on the particle accelerator, he had to go through Fowler. One day, Hoyle barged unannounced into Fowler’s office and began talking nonstop about his obsession with the energy states of carbon-12.

Fowler thought Hoyle was a lunatic for insisting there was an unknown resonance level just above 7.4 MeV. Experiments at Cornell in the 1930s seemed to prove that no such resonance existed. Fowler thought Hoyle suffered from delusions of grandeur, and he refused to give Hoyle access to the particle accelerator. Besides, the accelerator was booked solid for months to come. Fowler had no intention of interrupting other important projects merely to check out the harebrained hypothesis of this mad Englishman.

Hoyle saw he was getting nowhere with Willy Fowler, so he pestered Fowler’s assistants. Finally, Hoyle was able to win one of those assistants, Ward Whaling, to his side. Whaling persuaded Willy Fowler to reconsider — and Fowler reluctantly agreed.

In order to measure the energy of particles generated within the accelerator, Hoyle needed a spectrometer. But the only spectrometer at the lab was attached to the old particle accelerator at the far end of the building from the new accelerator. The spectrometer’s giant magnet weighed several tons and would have to be moved through narrow hallways and around two corners. It was quite an engineering problem — and the solution was sheer genius.

Lab workers placed the magnet on a steel plate that rested on a cushion of hundreds of tennis balls. When the team of physicists and grad students pushed the magnet down the hallway, the balls rolled. When balls rolled out from under the trailing edge of the steel plate, grad students would pick them up and toss them to other students at the front of the magnet who would feed them back under the steel plate. In this slow, tedious way, they moved the multi-ton magnet from one end of the building to the other.

Ward Whaling and his assistants set up the spectrometer and fired up the particle accelerator — a complex arrangement of power transformers, vacuum pumps, and steel chambers in which atomic nuclei were flung together. The team of physicists and grad students proceeded to bombard nitrogen-14 with deuterons. The bombardment stimulated the emission of alpha particles, leaving behind carbon-12 nuclei. The experiment performed a kind of alchemy known as “nucleosynthesis,” transmuting existing elements (in this case, nitrogen and hydrogen) into a new and different element (carbon). By measuring the energy level of the alpha particles, Whaling and his team could determine the energy level of the carbon-12 —

And they found the resonance level exactly where Fred Hoyle predicted it would be.

The carbon connection

Because the carbon bottleneck is overcome by a fine-tuned nuclear resonance, stars are able to synthesize vast quantities of carbon. Once large amounts of carbon have been synthesized, it’s a simple matter for stars to concoct the rest of the elements on the periodic table — nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine, neon, sodium, and so on.

When Fred Hoyle made his universe-shaking prediction, he was an obscure astronomy professor from England. Soon after Hoyle’s idea was confirmed, Ward Whaling delivered a paper on the experiment before the American Physical Society. The paper listed Fred Hoyle as the lead author — and the English astronomer gained instant fame throughout the global astrophysics community.

Willy Fowler — who had once scoffed at Hoyle’s ideas — became one of Hoyle’s biggest fans. He later recalled, “We then took Hoyle very seriously, because of his triumph … in predicting the existence of a nuclear state from astrophysical arguments…. After Whaling’s confirmation of Hoyle’s ideas I became a believer.”22

Hoyle’s finding is incredibly important. The carbon resonance level is precisely adjusted to permit lifeforms to arise. Any energy level other than the precise level of 7.65 MeV would make carbon a rare trace element — and life in the universe would be impossible.

This finding was personally significant for Fred Hoyle himself. In a 1981 article in Caltech’s quarterly magazine Engineering and Science, Hoyle wrote: “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.”23

From his youth, Hoyle had been a confirmed atheist. But the discovery of the lifegiving carbon resonance level shook his atheist world view and persuaded him that the universe was, as he phrased it, “a put-up, artificial job.”24

Fred Hoyle’s discovery of the fine-tuning of the nucleosynthesis of carbon is especially significant because Hoyle actually devised a testable hypothesis that affirms the validity of the anthropic principle. He realized that in order for human beings to exist, the resonance level for carbon had to be located at a specific energy level, and he predicted precisely where that energy level would be found.

In other words, Fred Hoyle had to think the Cosmic Designer’s own thoughts in order to solve the mystery of carbon. In so doing, Hoyle solved one of the great mysteries of life.

_______________________

Notes:

21. Richard D. Meisner, “Universe — the Ultimate Artifact?,” Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Vol. 107, No. 4, April 1987, 59.

22. Simon Mitton, Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 209, 210.

23. Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Engineering & Science, November 1981, 12, http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/3312/1/Hoyle.pdf.

24. Ibid.

(Notes are numbered 21 to 24 because that is the original numbering in this section of the book.)

God Bless Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury passed away on Tuesday, June 5, 2012. I only met him once, in the spring of 2007, plus we exchanged a few letters and a phone call over the years. But his impact on my life was immense. I would probably not be a writer today if not for the influence of Ray Bradbury. I have spent countless hours, from my boyhood to the present day, reading his stories and exploring his imagination.

One of the themes of my life and my writing is that science and religion are fully compatible fields of inquiry. They are NOT (as Stephen Jay Gould has called them) “non-overlapping magisteria,” mutually exclusive domains. Science and religion should support and empower each other in the search for truth, knowledge, meaning, and an understanding of who we are, where we came from, and why we exist in this universe. Many of my favorite writers have written on this theme (from a wide variety of viewpoints), including C. S. Lewis, Walter M. Miller, Jr., James Blish, Madeleine L’Engle, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert J. Sawyer, David Brin—

And, of course, Ray Bradbury. Here’s a brief passage from my favorite Bradbury novel, The Martian Chronicles:

The captain nodded. “Tell me about [the Martian civilization],” he said, waving his hand at the mountain towns.

[Spender replied:] “They knew how to live with nature and get along with nature. They didn’t try too hard to be all men and no animal. That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.

“We succeeded pretty well. We lost our faith and went around wondering what life was for. If art was no more than a frustrated outflinging of desire, if religion was no more than self-delusion, what good was life? Faith had always given us answers to all things. But it all went down the drain with Freud and Darwin. We were and still are a lost people.”

“And these Martians are a found people?” inquired the captain.

“Yes. They knew how to combine science and religion so the two worked side by side, neither denying the other, each enriching the other.”

Beautiful thoughts, profound insight. I agree with Ray’s Martians, of course. Here’s something else Ray Bradbury once said—and though I don’t know that he intended this particular interpretation, I take these words as Ray’s intuitive affirmation of the fine-tuning (anthropic) argument for the existence of God:

“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”

Yes we are. We live our impossible lives inside a universe that defies explanation. Every human life is a miracle of rare device—and Ray’s life was more miraculous than most. It’s going to be a lot harder living on this planet now that Ray Bradbury is no longer on it. A lot harder.

Thank you, Ray, and God bless you.

Christopher Hitchens’ Startling Admission

Here is an incredible two-minute video clip from the end of the documentary Collision, featuring Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great) and Reformed pastor Douglas James Wilson (Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho). The video was recorded during their promotional tour for the book Is Christianity Good for the World?, based on their series of debates.

In my previous posts about Christopher Hitchens (Lament for an Atheist Part I” and Part II”), I made note of the strange fact that Hitchens, in God is Not Great, devotes an entire chapter to “Arguments from Design,” yet he doesn’t make even the slightest reference to the “fine-tuning” or “anthropic” evidence.

(For a thorough presentation of that evidence, see my book God and Soul: The Truthand the Proof; for a brief introduction, see my blog piece “Is Our Universe ‘the Ultimate Artifact’?”)

Ever since reading God is Not Great, I’ve wondered if Hitchens was completely unaware of the fine-tuning evidence or if he simply avoided the subject because it posed an insoluble problem for him. Here’s what I wrote:

Though Chapter 6 of God is Not Great is entitled “Arguments from Design,” he doesn’t devote even one word to the cosmological case for God. The evidence is hardly new or difficult to research. This concept has been around since 1973, when physicist Brandon Carter introduced an idea he called “the anthropic principle.” It has been explored extensively by such writers as Paul Davies, John Barrow, Frank Tipler, John Gribbin, Martin Rees, and others. I devoted an extensive section of my 2001 book Answers to Satisfy the Soul to the subject.

Why, then, does Hitchens completely ignore the subject in God is Not Great? As I read Hitchens and his fellow “New Atheists,” I’m struck by the fact that they don’t seem merely unpersuaded by the evidence. They seem to either misunderstand the evidence—or worse, they seem altogether ignorant of it. Writing a chapter called “Arguments from Design” without even one mention of the cosmological evidence is like writing a book on the history of Apple Computers without any mention of Steve Jobs. It’s downright bizarre.

Well, now we know that Hitchens did know about the fine-tuning argument—and what he says about fine-tuning in this video stunned me. It will shock anyone who truly groks the implications of Hitchens’ statement. Click “play” and hear it for yourself:

Here’s a transcript of the first part of the conversation between Hitchens and Wilson:

Hitchens: At some point, certainly, we are all asked which is the best argument you come up against from the other side. I think every one of us picks the fine-tuning one as the most intriguing.

Wilson: The Goldilocks idea. Yeah, okay.

Hitchens: Yeah. The fine-tuning, that one degree, well, one degree, one hair different of nothing—that even though it doesn’t prove design, doesn’t prove a Designer, [the fine-tuning] could have all happened without [God]— You have to spend time thinking about it, working on it. It’s not a trivial [argument]. We all say that.

(By the way, when Hitchens says, “We all say that,” he refers to himself, to Richard Dawkins, and to the rest of the New Atheists. And Wilson’s reference to “the Goldilocks idea” refers to the fact that our fine-tuned universe is “just right” for life.)

In this brief clip, Christopher Hitchens has given us all—theists, skeptics, agnostics, atheists, and anti-theists—a lot to think about. And the biggest question on my mind is this: If Hitchens and the other New Atheists know that fine-tuning is not a trivial argument, that you have to spend time thinking about it, why do they omit it or misrepresent it in their books? What are they afraid of?

____________________________

Addendum — Sunday, October 14, 2012 — “NO PROOF!”

Yesterday on Twitter, I sent out some tweets regarding the anthropic (fine-tuned universe) case for God. An atheist tweeted back two words in all caps: “NO PROOF!” I looked up the atheist tweeter’s profile and found that his profile consisted of a single quotation by Christopher Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence” (from page 150 of God is Not Great).

Perfect! I love that quote, because (a) it cuts both ways, and applies with equal force to atheist assertions, and (b) because the anthropic case for the theistic worldview consists of a mountain of irrefutable evidence. I also love that quote because (c) Hitchens HID that mountain of evidence from his readers when he wrote God is Not Great.

So I replied to my atheist friend (in a multi-part tweet):

Hi. Your profile quotes Hitchens, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” But Hitchens acknowledged that there IS evidence for the existence of God, that the evidence is “not trivial” and cannot be dismissed. See the Hitchens video at: [LINK].

This morning, I checked Twitter to see if my atheist friend had replied. In a way, he had. He had BLOCKED me.

Clearly, some atheists can’t handle the truth.

An Atheist’s Admiration for the Sermon on the Mount

I’m convinced that if everyone in the world practiced the Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7), 95 percent of the world’s problems would be solved. It might surprise you to know that even atheist extraordinaire Richard Dawkins shares my admiration for the Sermon on the Mount. In The God Delusion, Dawkins writes:

“Jesus, if he existed . . . was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His ‘turn the other cheek’ anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 283.

_________________________

Addendum, September 30, 2012:

I recently discovered a blogpage written by Richard Dawkins entitled “Atheists for Jesus” (April 10, 2006). At the top of the page is a photo of Dawkins wearing a T-shirt that reads “Atheists for Jesus.” In the article, Dawkins explains in greater depth his admiration for Jesus as an ethical teacher, while dismissing the theistic worldview of Jesus. Here’s an excerpt:

Of course Jesus was a theist, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He was a theist because, in his time, everybody was. Atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh’s vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so. To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” . . .

I am no memetic engineer, and I have very little idea how to increase the numbers of the super nice and spread their memes through the meme pool. The best I can offer is what I hope may be a catchy slogan. “Atheists for Jesus” would grace a T-shirt. There is no strong reason to choose Jesus as icon, rather than some other role model from the ranks of the super nice such as Mahatma Gandhi (not the odiously self-righteous Mother Teresa, heavens no). I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense which he inevitably espoused as a man of his time. And perhaps the oxymoronic impact of “Atheists for Jesus” might be just what is needed to kick-start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right—could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?

I think a reborn Jesus would wear the T-shirt. It has become a commonplace that, were he to return today, he would be appalled at what is being done in his name, by Christians ranging from the Catholic Church to the fundamentalist Religious Right. Less obviously but still plausibly, in the light of modern scientific knowledge I think he would see through supernaturalist obscurantism. But of course, modesty would compel him to turn his T-shirt around: Jesus for Atheists.

Dawkins is wrong, of course, when he claims that a “reborn Jesus” would not be a theist. Jesus would know all about the anthropic, fine-tuned universe—a body of evidence that Dawkins actively misleads his readers about in The God Delusion. In fact, I think it is likely that Jesus, being the absolute exemplar of intellectual honesty, would connect his ethical teachings to the evidence for a Cosmic Designer that permeates our growing understanding of cosmology and quantum mechanics.

But I do agree with Dawkins on this: Jesus might well wear a “Jesus for Atheists” T-shirt, because Jesus is for all people, weak and strong, young and old, male and female, believer and nonbeliever. The one who said “Love your enemies,” the one who forgave those who crucified him, would certainly be for atheists. He would not be for atheism, of course, because atheism doesn’t square with reality. He would want everyone to know the truth.

But Jesus welcomed the Samaritan woman at the well, the Roman centurion, the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector, the rich and the poor, the drunks and prostitutes. So why wouldn’t he welcome an atheist as well?

Read Richard Dawkins’ “Atheists for Jesus” in its entirety at RichardDawkins.net.

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.

The Puzzle of Existence and a Puddle of Doubt

A very smart man once wrote a very stupid thing in a book.His name was Douglas Adams, and the book was his posthumously published The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time (New York: Ballantine, 2002; pages 131-132). Adams died of a heart attack in Santa Barbara in May 2001; he was only 49. I’m a longtime fan of Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. But in this instance, Adams’ analogy—known as The Puddle Analogy—is far less profound than he supposed.

Adams’ Puddle Analogy has been cited many times by various writers as a satirical demonstration of the “fallacy” of the “fine-tuned universe” argument. The Wikipedia article “Fine-Tuned Universe” quotes the Puddle Analogy and notes that the fine-tuned universe argument has been called “puddle thinking” by some critics. Richard Dawkins quotes The Puddle Analogy in A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (page 169), adding that he had heard the Adams analogy numerous times and “thought it was more brilliant every time.”

Here is the stupid thing Douglas Adams wrote:

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.

Here’s why The Puddle Analogy is stupid:

Adams begins: “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking…” He doesn’t seem to realize that, in order for a puddle to wake up and think its first thought, a vast number of interconnected and incredibly unlikely coincidences have to occur.

The Big Bang had to happen, and the Big Bang had to explode with just the right amount of force to allow matter to disperse evenly and smoothly and allow galaxies to form. Had the Big Bang not been precisely fine-tuned, our universe might consist of nothing but tenuous hydrogen gas—or a single supermassive black hole. The laws of nature had to be laid down at the instant of the Big Bang, and had to be fine-tuned to an accuracy of one part in the trillions before the universe itself could exist, much less a contemplative puddle.

The electromagnetic force, the gravitational force, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force all had to be perfectly balanced in order for stars to form and begin cooking up the elements needed to make planets—silicon, nickel, iron, oxygen, magnesium, and so forth. Adams’ pensive puddle could not find itself sitting in “an interesting hole” unless the hole was situated on a planet orbiting a star that was part of a galaxy that was created by the incredibly fine-tuned forces and conditions of the Big Bang.

And in order for that puddle to wake up one morning and think at all, it would need to be a lot more complex than a mere puddle of water. A thinking puddle would be a very complex puddle indeed. Even if that puddle were comprised of exotic alien nerve cells suspended in a matrix of liquid ammonia, it would certainly need something like lipid molecules and protein structures and nucleic acids in order to become sufficiently evolved as to wake up and contemplate its own existence.

Such components require the existence of carbon. And if you know anything about where carbon comes from, you know that carbon doesn’t grow on trees. It is formed in an amazingly fine-tuned process involving the precise placement of a nuclear resonance level in a beryllium atom. Any enlightened plashet would have to conclude that a superintellect had monkeyed with physics, chemistry, and the biological composition of pools and puddles.

The rest of Douglas Adams’ scenario, in which “the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and … the puddle gets smaller and smaller” is meaningless in view of the fact that thousands of events, forces, and conditions have to interact in a fine-tuned way in order for the sun to exist, the air to exist, the sky to exist, and the hole in the ground to exist, so that a puddle can wake up one morning and wonder about its place in the cosmic order.

No analogy is perfect, of course, but The Puddle Analogy is downright misleading. It misrepresents the essence of the fine-tuning argument. An analogy should simplify, but not over-simplify.

And that’s why The Puddle Analogy that Richard Dawkins thinks is so brilliant is actually incredibly dumb.