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Beyond the Death of God - Scientific Challenges to Atheism

Patrick Glynn

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First published in 1996.

While our attention has been riveted on the momentous political and ideological realignments that mark the century's end, we have all but overlooked a quiet revolution in scientific understanding with far more radical implications for the modern world view.

At issue here is the central premise of the great atheistic modern creeds, whether one speaks of Communism, Fascism, Existentialism, Positivism, or even Freudianism. All these doctrines took as their point of departure the so-called “death of God.” More particularly, all rested fundamentally on the conviction — once thought to be scientifically demonstrated — that human life arose in the universe as a chance event. Whatever their important divergences from one another, all were essentially responses to, or elaborations of, the central modern idea of the “random universe.” The overthrow of the “random universe” by contemporary science is the great unnoticed revolution of late-twentieth-century thought.

The revolution in our vision of the cosmos effected by physics and scientific cosmology over the past quarter-century has been profound — as far-reaching in its implications for philosophy and human understanding as the Copernician and Darwinian revolutions before it. The remarkable thing is that it has gone largely unheralded. At the philosophical crux of this revolution is a conception known as “the Anthropic Principle” — from the Greek anthropos, “man.” The Anthropic Principle rests on a series of technical observations about the evolution of the universe since the Big Bang. But its upshot is that, far from being an “accident,” the existence of human life is something for which the entire universe appears to have been intricately fine-tuned from the start.

The principle was first promulgated by cosmologist Brandon Carter in a now-famous lecture to the International Astronomic Union in 1974. Carter pointed to what he called a number of astonishing “coincidences” among the universal constants — values such as Planck's constant, h, or the gravitational constant, G. It turns out that infinitesimal changes in the values of any of these constants would have resulted in a universe profoundly different from our own and radically inhospitable to life.

Since Carter first gave a name to this class of observations, the list of such “coincidences” or “lucky accidents” has vastly expanded. The relative masses of subatomic particles, the precise rate of expansion of the universe in the tiny fractions of a second after the Big Bang, the precise strengths of the nuclear weak force, the nuclear strong force, and electromagnetism — scientists now understand that minuscule alterations (often as little as one part per million) in these values and relationships, or in scores of others, would have caused catastrophic derailments in the series of events following the universe's beginning. Depending on how one tinkered with these values, one could have emerged with a starless universe or no “universe” at all. And even the slightest tinkering with a single one of these values, most scientists now agree, would have foreclosed the possibility of life.

The philosophical implications of these seemingly highly technical observations are far more radical than most adherents of the modern philosophical vision, many scientists included, have yet been prepared to admit. For if it is valid, the Anthropic Principle overturns the central cosmological assumption — the assumption of the random universe — on which the modern atheistic philosophies were based.

To appreciate the shift in scientific understanding, one need go back no further than Bertrand Russell's classic 1935 volume, Religion and Science, a concise rendition of the then-mainstream modernist vision of the cosmos. In that book, Russell set out to demonstrate how science had successively refuted all the main tenets of religion. The crux of his argument was cosmological.

The modern scientific understanding of the universe, Russell explained, was the product of two major scientific revolutions: the Copernican and the Darwinian. With the sun-centered model of the solar system, Copernicus showed that humanity was not in any sense, as the Bible taught, at the “center” of the universe. Centuries later, Darwin demonstrated that it was no longer necessary to posit an act of divine creation to explain even the origins of human life; rather, the existence of all life, including human life, could be explained entirely by chance mechanisms. Science, Russell explained, had rigorously shown life to be the product not of design, but of pure contingency. In the light of these discoveries, he suggested, it was no longer reasonable to regard humanity as central to the universe or as the creature of some Creator-God. Rather, humanity had become “intelligible,” as he put it, only as a “curious accident in a backwater.”

“A curious accident in a backwater” — one would be hard put to find a more succinct encapsulation of the dominant modernist understanding of the human condition, the ice-cold core and anger-ridden leitmotif of the atheistic modernist vision. A host of major late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century thinkers and writers measured their own intellectual honesty and courage by their willingness to stare unflinchingly into this particular metaphysical abyss. Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, the early T.S. Eliot, Sartre, Camus, even cool-headed positivists such as A.J. Ayer — all the great shapers of the modernist sensibility — took the random, godless universe as their starting point, their master premise. Sigmund Freud, another famous atheist, spoke glowingly of the two “revolutions” in terms almost identical to Russell's — grandly nominating his own discovery of the “unconscious” as yet a third “revolution” completing the radical dethronement of both God and man. And it was almost certainly Darwin's seeming confirmation of the universe as pure contingency that gave Friedrich Nietzsche the confidence in 1885 to proclaim categorically what so many of his intellectual contemporaries were already saying aloud in other words: “God is dead.”

Darwin's vision of life and the human species as the product of pure contingency was not by any means the only source of modern atheism — which had been gaining ground in Western philosophy, under the inspiration of the scientific vision, at least since the Enlightenment. But it was Darwin's seemingly unimpeachable discoveries that, in many minds, closed the question, that gave the modern death-of-God vision its unassailable authority.

When we understand how important the myth of the “two revolutions” was to shaping the modern picture of the universe — and the theology that followed from it — we can begin to grasp the radical implications of Carter's observation. Carter himself proposed the Anthropic Principle as merely a limit to the Copernican Principle, since, as he put it, “our location in the Universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers.” In reality, that understated the case. In effect, the Anthropic Principle reversed the longstanding interpretation of the two revolutions, since it suggested that, far from being some curious sideshow or accident, humanity, or life at least, appeared to be the goal toward which the entire universe had been intricately orchestrated, the logical center around which a host of physical values and relations had been exquisitely and precisely arranged.

I say “appeared to be” advisedly. It would obviously be rash, and logically unjustifiable, to argue that the Anthropic Principle somehow constituted a proof of the existence of God. Indeed, one can contentedly accept Immanuel Kant's longstanding philosophical verdict to the effect that questions such as the existence of God are beyond the reach of science or reason. But scientific investigation of nature has always prompted a surmise about what might lie beyond or above it. Such surmises have powerfully shaped human thought and action, fostering whole philosophical movements, indeed at times influencing the life of whole nations. Darwin's theory powerfully inspired one kind of surmise, the surmise of atheism and the random universe; modern cosmology and the Anthropic Principle would appear to prompt a very different one. The least we can say is that the modernist surmise of atheism — which quickly became the modernist conclusion and the modernist dogma, the basis for a host of twentieth-century creeds from Communism to Existentialism to Logical Positivism — was unwarranted and premature.

Scientists have hardly been oblivious to these issues, of course, and some have approached them with an open mind. Of special note have been the writings of the British-born physicist Paul Davies, who has laid out the larger questions raised by the Anthropic Principle in a series of books, without attempting to draw firm conclusions (and who was rewarded with the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1995). Tulane University physicist Frank J. Tipler, together with astrophysicist and cosmologist John D. Barrow, produced a massive volume on the Anthropic Principle, meditating at length on its scientific, philosophical, and theological implications. Since then, in a 1994 book called The Physics of Immortality, Tipler has tried to effect his own new synthesis — offering a scientific “proof” of God, complete with complex equations. Most readers tend to agree that Tipler's effort crashes on the shoals of philosophical incoherence (he argues, for example, there is no ontological distinction between an automobile and human being — both are simply “machines”), but his attempt merits admiration as an honest effort to take the stunning implications of the Anthropic Revolution seriously. Finally, a number of astute theologians, including such prominent figures as Ted Peters, Arthur Peacocke, and John Polkinghorne (the latter two fully credentialed as natural scientists), have drawn the obvious inferences from Carter's observation, showing how it decisively strengthens the traditional “argument from design” for the existence of God.

But the response of the mainstream scientific and philosophical communities to the challenge posed by the Anthropic Revolution has been oddly grudging and sophistical — indeed, something of an intellectual scandal. Time and again scientists have sought to explain away this new understanding of the universe, sometimes with the most contorted and preposterous arguments, while the atheistic professional philosophers of contemporary academe — somehow oblivious to the fact that the metaphysical foundation of their doctrines has been challenged, if not shattered — have almost universally ignored it.

If Bertrand Russell was free to draw such sweeping cosmological and theological conclusions from Darwin and Copernicus, with the general blessing of the Western scientific elite, how is it that Carter's radical conceptual challenge to these conclusions — based, unlike Russell's free-form speculations, on a detailed scientific account of the universe's evolution — has been so widely disparaged? After indoctrinating generations of students into the myth of the two revolutions (who among us was not exposed to this hackneyed version of modern scientific history in our secondary and college educations?), the scientific community as a whole might be expected to pause and carefully assess whether Carter's simple observation had not exploded the whole concept. But the a priori commitment to the atheist notion of the random universe has proved so powerful in our time as to send many scientists scurrying to find logical, and sometimes illogical, arguments to explain away the massive evidence that threatens to refute it.

The first line of defense has been logical hair-splitting. The Anthropic Principle has been said to be a tautology, since we could not expect to observe a universe that was not capable of producing us. This is the purest sophistry, since it pretends to ignore the surprise we register at stumbling upon such a multitude of coincidences. It evades the question rather than attempting to answer it. It is as if to say, We would not be observing the elephant we see standing in our living room if the elephant had not gotten there in the first place. True, but nonsense. This essentially tautological formulation sometimes has been called the “weak Anthropic Principle.” It is “weak” in more ways than one.

Coincidences do not prove, but they suggest, sometimes powerfully. Indeed, our ability to detect and infer from coincidences plays a critical role in our basic capacity to interpret and find our way in the world around us. Without such ability, life would be for us a tale told by an idiot. If a detective investigating a crime, for example, stumbles on a series of mysterious coincidences, he will look for a human hand behind them. The hand may not be there, or may not be found. But the presumption will favor the existence of such human intervention, and a good detective will follow the trail of evidence until the supposition is disproved or proved. He will not take refuge in platitudes to the effect that “coincidences are a part of life.”

The second line of defense has been a resort to imagination or fantasy. Our universe has been said to be simply one of billions of universes existing either in sequence or in parallel — none of which, of course, save our own, we can detect. Given the supposed existence of these billions of universes, the fact that one (ours) happened to hit on the precise combination of values and relationships to produce life would not be surprising. This is actually a very old, pre-scientific argument, a traditional mainstay of the atheist case — invoked by Diderot and Hume and dating back to the Epicureans of Roman times — that, given an infinite duration, nature, acting randomly, would eventually assemble the order we see around us. A monkey at a word processor, over infinity, would eventually type the works of Shakespeare, or so it is supposed.

Each of these proposals is a grand balloon of speculation anchored to a tiny grain of scientific hypothesis. To be sure, scientists are not yet certain whether the present universe is a one-time event or whether, at a certain point, it collapses back in on itself, only to begin the cycle of expansion anew. That there is an oscillating sequence of universes remains at least theoretically possible, thought the present evidence suggests otherwise. The somewhat different “parallel universes” idea rests on a highly theoretical proposal advanced by Hugh Everett in 1957 to solve the “problem of measurement” in quantum mechanics. Everett proposed that all the possibilities implicit in matter before it is actually observed — before, for example, light in its fuzzy “wave” state is observed and collapses into a photon particle — actually exist in reality. Everett imagined that, at each observation, reality was infinitely branching out. My eye would observe one photon with certain properties in this universe, while, in effect, copies of “me” would be observing photons with the other possible properties in a series of parallel universes ad infinitum. It is a powerful speculation, and a theoretically interesting way of posing the genuine paradoxes implicit in the quantum theory — but it is just that, a speculation. There appears to be no way that such parallel universes could be detected, even in theory; certainly, no one has stumbled on them so far.

Davies writes that “many” scientists find the “parallel universes” idea “a preferable hypothesis to the belief in a supernatural design.” But it is no more than a preference, and a very odd one, given what scientists so often preach in advertisement of their own profession. Praising science at the expense of religion in 1935, Russell boasted: “The scientific temper of mind is cautious, tentative, and piecemeal.” the way in which science arrives at its beliefs is quite different,” he wrote, “from that of medieval theology....Science starts, not from large assumptions, but from particular facts discovered by observation or experiment.” That so many members of a profession which prides itself above all on the dictum, “Just the facts, ma'am,” would show a “preference” for wild speculations about unseen universes for which not a shred of observational evidence exists suggests something about both the power of the modern atheistic ideology and the cultural agenda of many in the scientific profession. By embracing the “parallel universes” as a last bulwark against the all-too-threatening suggestion of “supernatural design,” the mainstream scientific community has in effect shown its attachment to the atheistic ideology of the random universe to be in some respects more powerful than its commitment to the scientific method itself. The modern scientific mind — which contentedly believed it had refuted the religious world view on the basis of pure observation and fact — has been scandalously unwilling to admit that the facts on which it based its presumptive conclusions were not, in reality, what they appeared to be.

The final line of defense against the Anthropic Revolution has been a kind of scientific legalism. The Anthropic Principle is said to fail the test of falsifiability (a contention which, in fact, remains in technical dispute). Since, it is argued, no observation or set of observations could prove or disprove the Anthropic Principle as a theory, it is not properly “scientific.” On such grounds, Heinz R. Pagels, executive director of the New York Academy of Sciences, in 1987 urged dismissal of the Anthropic Principle as “needless clutter in the conceptual repertoire of science.” But this is the moral equivalent of the courts' exclusionary rule — throwing out the entire murder case on the basis of a minor legal technicality. Whether the Anthropic Principle meets the technical qualifications of a formal scientific theory is irrelevant to what it suggests about the fundamental nature of the universe. Scientists may not “need” the Anthropic Principle as a theory for narrow purposes of scientific investigation (though in fact it has spurred a host of interesting discoveries); but the moment they begin to speculate — as they so often freely do — about what scientific discovery tells us about the nature of the universe at large, this elephant in the living room can hardly be overlooked. The double standard of work here is breathtaking: a host of scientists, from Russell to Richard Dawkins to Carl Sagan, are free to use loose surmises based on Darwin's theory to buttress the public case fir atheism; but the moment scientists begin marshalling rather considerable and persuasive evidence for the opposite case, their speculation risks being branded by colleagues as “unscientific.”

The Anthropic Principle does not settle the question; it is not a proof of God. But it alters the presumption; it shifts the burden of proof. One cannot help wondering, if the nineteenth century's understanding of the universe had been as broad and deep as our own, whether the long and miserable “death-of-God” phase of Western history would have taken shape at all. Had Carter been around to offer his observations, say, a year or two after Darwin's The Origin of Species, would Western minds have so readily accepted Darwin's picture of a universe based on pure contingency as the final word? Would the notion of the cosmos as a blind, impersonal mechanism, throwing up human existence as a bad joke or “a curious accident in a backwater,” have achieved its stranglehold on the modern philosophical, political, and literary imagination? Would we have had to endure the special horrors perpetrated on humanity by unprecedentedly ruthless political ideologies — e.g., Communism, Nazism, Fascism — that are centrally founded on the philosophical idea of the “death of God”?

Even if one took the Anthropic Principle as definitive proof of the “argument by design” for God's existence, it would not exhaust the “God question.” To argue that there is a guiding intelligence behind, above, or within the universe is not the same as arguing for a benign, personal Deity. To echo Pascal, the God of the Anthropic Principle is not yet the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There remain other thorny questions, perhaps most obviously the problem of evil, for theologians and philosophers to sort out. But had the Anthropic Principle been part of the nineteenth-century scientific and philosophical world view, the starting-point of twentieth-century philosophical debate might have been very different. It should certainly be different today.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Glynn, Patrick. “Beyond The Death of God” National Review (May 6, 1996): 28-32.

Reprinted with permission of the National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.

THE AUTHOR

Patrick Glynn, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of God: The Evidence: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular World published in 1997 by Prima publishing.

Copyright 1996 National Review

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Posted: 26-May-08



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