In our last episode, Robin had discovered the location of the secret underground lab where Commissioner Gordon has been held prisoner. Meanwhile, Woodstock played an elaborate prank on Snoopy involving Linus’s security blanket, some Elmer’s Glue, and a feather pillow, and Andy and Opie had finally found Barney Fife passed out at the fishing hole after enjoying a little too much of the whiskey he’d been ordered to confiscate from Otis. Finally, philosopher Paul Copan had contributed a sincere but naive two-part question to Lee Strobel’s list, prompting Martin once again to fire up the old Mac.
Philosopher Paul Copan: Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?
Copan is a little wide of the mark in terms of what is scientifically supported about the universe’s origins. From my layman’s standpoint, let me relate my own understanding of where science is right now on that subject. Yes, the universe as we know it has a finite history, but of what came before, we know nothing. The Big Bang theory is not a creation ex nihilo theory, but simply one that describes the event that caused our universe to expand into its present form. The concept I find most plausible is that the pre-BB universe existed in a quantum state, with the BB itself a quantum event. Causal explanations are nicely disposed of here, since causality itself — indeed, most of physics if I understand it correctly — is a non-issue at the quantum level.
In short, there was never a state of nonexistence preceding the Big Bang. And quantum mechanics dispenses with the need to think of the universe as “ontologically haunted,” Copan’s poetic $20 way of saying “created by God.”
There is hardly any kind of scientific consensus on the universe being “fine-tuned for life,” a common mantra of the scientifically-minded apologist. As a scientific layman, I’d have to say, if this were in fact the case, where is all the life? That we know of, there is but one planet in all the universe bearing life (although really earnest efforts to find those elusive Martian microbes continue). I think it would be far more accurate to say that life has been fine-tuned for its environment on Earth, and that fine-tuning mechanism is evolution by natural selection.
Moreover, as physicist Victor Stenger has pointed out, if the universe were indeed created by the God of Christianity for the purpose of containing life to worship him, why would God need to “fine tune” it? For Pete’s sake, he’s supposed to be omnipotent. If all it took was an act of will in Genesis 1 to get the ball rolling, why should any “fine tuning” need to be done? I mean, they can’t even claim that this one is scripturally supported. It’s not as if Genesis says, “And finally on the seventh day, God rested, having pulled two all-nighters in a row to get the fine-tuning right.” The whole “fine tuning” argument from apologists makes it sound as if God really worked his ass off to get this darn universe just so. Again, it seems Christianity’s God is omnipotent when it’s convenient for him to be. But once science begins taking a close look at his alleged “creation,” he’s a dedicated if imperfect hard worker who’s just done the very best he can, and all of his “bad” design is in fact really “elegant” design that we puny humans are too dim to comprehend. (I’ve actually heard Hugh Ross make a pitch very like that one.)
I’d suggest Copan go off and read Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis, which addresses these matters with real expertise.
And, second, granted that the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil, does the concept of evil itself not suggest a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate, so that if things ought to be a certain way (rather than just happening to be the way they are in nature), don’t such ‘injustices’ or ‘evils’ seem to suggest a moral/design plan independent of nature?
First off, the problem of evil is a major (not necessarily the major) objection to belief in God. The major objection continues to be that whole “complete and utter absence of evidence” thing.
Certainly the concept of evil implies a concept of good. Duh. One must have a frame of reference to compare one to the other. But who came up with this concept? People, that’s who.
There is nothing in nature called “right” or “wrong.” If a rock on Mars falls off a cliff and breaks another rock, the falling rock has not done a bad thing. These are concepts that exist only in a social context, and then, only among a social species (like our own) who develop the concepts as a helpful way to ensure species survival. Throughout the millennia that civilization has been developing, humans have found it useful to codify certain behaviors as either right or wrong, based upon whether the observable consequences of those behaviors are harmful or not. And we can judge what is harmful or not by our innate empathic qualities. Seeing a person hurting triggers a hardwired response in us, because we can understand what it would be like for us to be in the same situation. And studies have shown that a tendency towards cooperative, altruistic behavior is innate in children. We’ve also observed that some of our close cousins among primates have developed ethical heirarchies themselves.
We don’t need magic men in the sky to explain why we can tell right from wrong. The development of human morality has been a stochastic process, and not always a consistent one. There are many things people one did in the past — hold slaves, marry underage girls, round up Jews and burn them alive (not talking about Nazis here, but medieval Christians) — that were considered perfectly morally acceptible, which today we’d find appalling. The idea of a single “moral/design plan” existing outside of nature that has informed our morality is simply not backed up by any understanding of history or cultural anthropology. If such a thing did exist, you’d expect not to see moral precepts radically changing from age to age and culture to culture, as they have done. While some precepts have remained consistent, many have changed and continue to change. Fifty years ago they were still lynching black men in this country, and now we’ve put one in the White House. We’re always learning.
Finally, your implications about divine “moral/design plans” not only fail to get God off the hook where the problem of evil is concerned, they merely highlight the problem. If right and wrong are in fact God-ordained concepts, then — once more with feeling — why does he allow children to get raped, thousands to die in tsunamis and earthquakes, and so on ad infinitum? Accepting the idea you want me to consider, that God is a necessary precondition for moral understanding, makes his own moral insouciance (let alone his outright evil — remember, this is a guy who will send even a child down the trapdoor to eternal Hell for not joining the Official Jesus Fan Club) a thoroughly intractible problem for the Christian to address. And we haven’t even gotten to the Euthyphro Dillemma yet.
Frank Pastore just reiterates some of Copan’s points, just in a way that accentuates his ignorance, so I’ll address him quickly.
Radio host Frank Pastore: “Please explain how something can come from nothing, how life can come from death, how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source.”
1) Nothing in science says something came from nothing. You believe a God poofed it all into place via an act of will, so could you please gi
ve a detailed description of the physical processes set in motion when God said “Let there be light”; please discuss in particular how those processes were initiated, in other words, how exactly the sound of God’s voice instantiated the matter that became our universe; and finally, the nature of the realm in which God exists, how that realm came to be, and how and when God came to be, and by what process.
Take your time.
2) Nothing in science says life came from death. Again, you are the one who believes a man was resurrected from the dead. Perhaps you can give a more coherent explanation of how this occurred than your fellow “resurrection expert” Ken Habermas.
As for life coming from non-life, that subject is abiogenesis, and you can probably Google up what actual scientists are thinking about it.
3) I believe the development of the mind is one of the many ongoing fields of study in evolutionary biology. I would not claim to know if they have all the answers in yet (and I doubt they do). But Christians all too often use that fact as an opportunity to launch the Argument from Ignorance fallacy: science hasn’t got the answers, so Goddidit. No, God doesn’t get to win by default whenever there isn’t a better scientific answer at hand (though the fact Christians so often think he does really underscores the fact that “God,” when you get right down to it, is merely a placeholder for ignorance).
How our minds evolved is not really that perplexing a mystery. Steven Pinker has an interesting interview here on the topic. We know homo sapiens had just plain bigger brains than other hominids, including those we at one point shared the planet with, like Neanderthals and homo erectus. The latter guy was a huge strapping brute, over six feet on average and built like a linebacker. But he had an itty bitty brain, and never learned, the way H. sapiens did, how to hunt together in teams to bring down the big game. In short, how our minds developed is another amazing story in our evolutionary history, and one — like all factual, scientific alternatives to religious myth — far more glorious and astonishing than the simplistic all-in-one “Goddidit” non-answer, that far too many people seem to prefer to experiencing the real wonder of our world.
4) For our moral development, see my answer to Copan above. Our morality, like everything else, evolved. It didn’t just spring wholly made from nothingness. In Pastore’s question, you really see the Either/Or Fallacy so commonly at work in Christians’ thinking. It’s like Behe’s irreducible complexity nonsense, applied to all of existence. Either God gave us morals, or somehow morals just poofed out of nothingness all by themselves (and who coould believe that?). Either God developed our minds, or they just poofed into existence from nothingness all by themselves (and who could believe that?). And so on. Questions like Pastore’s come front-loaded with their lack of understanding and misinformation, tainting the question’s very premise with errors that you have to correct before you can even address the question itself.
Okay, so that wasn’t a quick reply after all. Maybe I’ll do better with our final question.
Apologist Greg Koukl: Why is something here rather than nothing here? Clearly, the physical universe is not eternal (Second Law of Thermodynamics, Big Bang cosmology). Either everything came from something outside the material universe, or everything came from nothing (Law of Excluded Middle). Which of those two is the most reasonable alternative? As an atheist, you seem to have opted for the latter. Why?
Okay, this one will go quickly. Talk about your Either/Or Fallacies! Koukl even uses the words themselves in describing what he incorrectly thinks the only explanations are for the existence of the universe. (And indeed, what he mistakenly refers to as the “Law of Excluded Middle” is in fact another classical fallacy.)
See my answer to Copan for my thinking on the pre-Big Bang universe. It’s a reasonably well scientifically supported hypothesis that doesn’t involve either of Koukl’s alternatives, and metaphysically, it’s more sound as well. Many Christian apologists work from what Dawson Bethrick — an erudite atheist blogger I occasionally read, though I’m not an Objectivist as he is — calls a “primacy of nonexistence” metaphysics. In other words, they start from the presupposition that before the universe there had to be nothing, and since nothing can come from nothing, a God was therefore needed to create the universe. Conversely, an atheist can reasonably employ a “primacy of existence” metaphysics that takes into account the notion that there was never a period of nothingness, that there has in fact always been a universe, and that universe was in a quantum state prior to the Big Bang. Thus, existence itself becomes a causal primary. There’s no need to prove that “existence exists,” because, well, you know, here we are and all. (Unless you end up talking to a solipsist, that is, and frankly I think your time would be more productively spent tweezing your ass hairs.) And it works better with Occam’s Razor, too. It is indeed the more parsimonious explanation to think that existence exists, rather than having to come up with whole speculative realms of meta-existence — and I’d include gods in heavens alongside bubble multiverses here — just to concoct tortuous explanations for our own existence.
Okay. I think that about wraps it up for me. If anyone else has answers for Lee’s list of questioners, or corrections and enhancements to any of the answers I gave, well, that’s what comment threads are for.