5: God Can’t Be Found In The Numbers

Just before New Year, this newspaper reprinted a column from The Wall Street Journal headed ‘Science turns to God as universe appears to be ultimate miracle’. The author was one Eric Metaxas, an American religious writer, who has written a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He argued that there is increasing evidence that the probability of the universe existing at all and in such a way that intelligent life can have evolved is so astronomically small that these things cannot have happened by chance, but must be the work of an intelligent designer – ‘God’.

Clearly, Metaxas badly wants to believe that something he calls ‘God’ both exists and is responsible for creating the universe and the conditions for intelligent life. His argument is flawed in several quite fundamental ways, however, like all older arguments from intelligent design. If he had not been so eager to find support for his belief in God, he might have paused to think things through a little more clearly, both in terms of the available evidence and the inference he wants to draw from it. 

He claims that in very recent years, as the number of factors needed to make life (never mind intelligent life) possible kept growing ‘the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one’. He adds that if the value of any one of the four fundamental forces that govern the physical cosmos was only slightly different, then the universe as we know it could not have come into existence and that the odds of them all having exactly the right value are so enormous that only the presence of an intentional designer (God) can have made it possible.

The search for extra-terrestrial life has made for fascinating debates, of course, and there has been a very wide spectrum of opinions or estimates about the probability of finding it. Amir Aczel’s Probability 1: Why There Must Be Intelligent Life in the Universe (1998), Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee’s Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (2000) and Paul Davies’ The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe? (2010) are indicative of that spectrum of opinion. Only in the past decade or so, however, have our instruments begun to actually detect significant numbers of planets elsewhere even in our own galaxy and the real search, therefore, has only just begun.

In the January 2015 issue of Scientific American, Canadian astrobiologist Rene Heller points out that there is growing evidence for large numbers of habitable planets in the Milky Way and that our Earth ‘may not be anywhere close to the pinnacle of habitability’. Our Sun is a perfectly ordinary, mid-range yellow star and our proximity to it places us, for the time being, in a ‘Goldilocks Zone’ in terms of heat and habitability. But there are many candidates for what Heller calls ‘super-habitability’.

These are planets larger than the Earth orbiting what are called K dwarf stars, which are more stable and burn longer without exhausting their hydrogen fuel than our Sun will do. It turns out that we are finding more and more such stars and most of the planets we have started detecting are of the ‘super-Earth’ kind. In other words, it is far from clear that the odds are against the existence of extra-terrestrial life.

Suppose, however, for the sake of argument, that Metaxas was right about the odds being overwhelmingly against the existence of the ‘fine-tuned’ cosmos and the existence of life anywhere. Would it follow from this that we must infer the existence of ‘God’? It would not, actually. As Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize winner in the field, put it at the turn of the century, the more plausible, if daunting, hypothesis is that we are part not of a ‘universe’, but of a ‘multiverse’, in which universes come and go with infinite variations. We just happen to be in one in which things worked out this particular way.

Metaxas makes no mention of the multiverse hypothesis and one suspects it is because he is so eager to embrace the old theological ‘answer’ to the conundrum of existence. Yet suppose – also for the sake of argument – that it made sense to infer the existence of a ‘designer’ of the cosmos and a ‘creator’ of life. We would then be left with more questions than we started with. For one thing, if ‘God’ had wanted to create a universe with intelligent life in it, why would he have created a universe in which the odds were still overwhelmingly against life and immense stretches of space consisted of superfluous and sterile stars and dark matter?

Why would he have made life struggle through billions of years of biological evolution and have had intelligence emerge through the brain of a primate with many flaws, instead of simply – like his Biblical avatar Yahweh – just plonking a more ideal form of intelligent life into an ideally formed biosphere? Why would he, as David Hume famously asked two centuries ago, have created mosquitoes – or, one might add, infectious microbes or ferocious predatory beasts? All these things make sense within an evolutionary frame of reference, but the notion of an ‘intelligent designer’ makes them quite inexplicable.

Finally, although, like most ‘intelligent design’ advocates, he does not own up to this in his article, Metaxas almost certainly wants to be able to infer from his argument about probability that not only is there a ‘God’, but that it is his God. That is to say, a God he and others can pray to, who meddles in his creation in arbitrary ways. That God sent his only begotten son to ‘save’ from their ‘sins’ a species of intelligent primates that had evolved over billions of years on a remote planet way out on the periphery of an ordinary galaxy in the middle of nowhere. None of that, however, has the slightest connection with scientific fact or the new cosmology.