February 10, 2009

The Earth, the Universe and You

Posted in Atheism, The Universe tagged , , , , , at 6:40 pm by Andrew

3. The Heavens Do Not “Declare The Glory of God.”

This post summarizes the third set of answers to potential objections to my Summary Case for Atheism, in which some Christians argue that God is a necessary explanation for the world (and by extension, the universe) around us. The longer, updated page is permalinked to the right and can be found here. The argument to which these pages respond stems from Psalm 19:1, in which we are told that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands”).

I contend that the exact opposite is the case — the Heavens declare that the God of the Bible probably doesn’t exist and certainly did not create this universe with humans in mind. Indeed, the world and the universe appear to me to be precisely the kind of world and universe that is utterly indifferent to human life, as opposed to specially created for it.

a) This intuition begins with what philosophers call the Problem of Natural Evil: that large amounts of seemingly pointless suffering abounds around us every day. If there is a God, why would he send (or, in the sanitized language of some Christians, “permit”) a tsunami to kill 250,000 people? Why do thousands of little babies drop dead every year in the U.S. alone for no apparent reason — what we call (but cannot explain) SIDS or crib death?

I don’t mean to suggest that there are no Christian efforts to answer these sorts of questions, just that I personally find those answers unpersuasive. When Christians tell us that we have no right to expect God to “create the world for our comfort,” or that we “deserve natural evils as a punishment for sin,” that doesn’t seem to mesh with day-old babies dying for no reason. Nor does the “free will defense” seem to apply to tsunamis and little babies. Simply put: the world looks indifferent, even hostile, to us.

b) This intuition is strengthened when we look to the world and the Universe around us. Douglas Adams amusingly called this the “Total Perspective Vortex; the idea that if you really understood how insignificant you are in comparison to the universe, the shock would “completely annihilate your brain.”

At the risk of brain annihilation, let us press on. The universe, as Wikipedia helpfully tells us, is 93 billion light-years in diameter and constantly expanding, meaning that virtually all of it is permanently inaccessible to (and even unobservable by) humanity. Scientists currently believe that 96% of the universe is either dark matter or dark energy, meaning that a scant 4% of the universe is even conceptually accessible by us. Of that 4%, virtually all of it is comprised of empty space some two degrees above absolute zero, which is (of course) instantly lethal to living beings. So essentially: the universe is almost entirely off-limits to humanity, and of that which is not off-limits, almost all of that is trying to kill us.

Let’s try this another way. We occupy one planet orbiting our star. It would be difficult to precisely measure the boundaries of what constitutes our solar system, but it includes, at minimum, the orbit of the dwarf planet Eris, which spins out to approximately 100 Astronomical Units (AUs) from the Sun. Each AU is 150 million kilometers, so if we consider the Solar System to be a sphere — I know it isn’t, but bear with me here — with a radius of 100 AU, we get a volume of approximately fourteen million, million, million million (1.4 x 10^26) cubic kilometers, or enough space for more than ten trillion (10,000,000,000,000) Earths. We thus occupy, in rough, back-of-the-envelope terms, one ten-trillionth of our Solar System.

Now, consider that our galaxy contains at least two hundred billion stars and accompanying solar systems (200,000,000,000), all of which are inaccessible to us unless we engage in science-fiction make-believe and postulate some way to travel at or above the speed of light. Our galaxy, in turn is one of more than a hundred billion galaxies (100,000,000,000) in the observable universe, none of which are accessible even with science-fiction make-believe — the closest galaxy to us, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light-years away. With a little quick math, we can see that we occupy just one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1 x  10 ^-38 ) of the conceptual “real estate” of the universe, not counting the vast empty space between each solar system. So 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999% of the universe is basically off-limits to humans.

It gets worse.

On our infinitesimal speck of the universe, most of our planet is also inaccessible to us. Over 70% of the Earth is covered in salt-water oceans that we cannot stand on, live in, or breathe or drink from. Of the remaining land, half of that is taken up by uninhabitable mountains, glaciers, deserts, or other unlivable terrain. On the tiny slice of land that is habitable, we are subject to the uncontrollable whims of nature, such as the vicious tsunami I describe above.

Keep in mind, too, that we are newcomers on the scene. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and for virtually all of that time period, the Earth’s climate has been inhospitable to human life. Meanwhile, the Sun is slowly expanding and growing hotter, such that will no longer even conceptually support life within the next billion to two billion years.

So the argument that God created this world, and this Universe, for us runs against the mountain of evidence to the contrary. At most, we have a few percent of this globe for a tiny fraction of its history, which is in turn an infinitesimal fraction of the universe. On the Christian view, God created the entire universe, allowed it to expand for 10 billion years, then crafted the Earth, then allowed it to run for 4.5 billion years, before poofing human beings into existence a few thousands of years ago, and yet somehow did all of that “for” our benefit. Worse, God poofed us into existence on a planet that is constantly trying to kill us with natural disasters, deadly viruses and bacteria, poisonous insects, and so on and so on.

I could run through the same exercise with the development of life; in fact, I think this intuitive disconnect explains why so many Christians go to such lengths to reject contemporary evolutionary biology. It just doesn’t seem compatible with Christian theology when you realize that the crocodile and the coelocanth have been around 10,000 times longer than we have.

Finally, I do concede, of course, that there are things about the Earth and about the Universe that we can’t explain. But I don’t think these unexplained phenomena are sufficient to give rise to an inference of supernatural causation. Just 500 years ago, we couldn’t explain lightning, or why maggots seemed to form spontaneously on rotting meat, or why the other planets seemed to zigzag across the sky, or why human beings have a coccyx, or countless other everyday phenomena. And 500 years ago, people ascribed those events to God or to gods.

Since then, however, we’ve developed really good explanations for these things, and, by extension, I’m not ready to go with a “god of the gaps” for the remaining things we don’t understand today. I don’t see anything conceptually that *requires* a god for explanation.

The bottom line is that this simply does not look like the kind of world, in the kind of universe, which was created and is watched over by an all-loving God for the benefit of his special creation. I thus conclude that the third line of objections to my general case for atheism does not warrant belief in God as a necessary explanation for the existence of this universe. See also my ongoing, in-depth treatment of this issue.