3. The Heavens Do Not “Declare the Glory of God”
3. The Heavens Do Not “Declare The Glory of God.”
This post is my ongoing discussion of the third set of answers to 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. These arguments generally stem from Psalm 19:1, in which Christians 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. The Problem of Natural Evil
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. The Universe and The Total Perspective Vortex
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.”
i. The Universe
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.
ii. The Earth
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.
After posting this, I found this great post on the enormity of the Universe by the “Naked Man in the Tree.” It’s worth a read.
C. Intelligent Design/Creationist Arguments
i. The Appearance of Design
One of the most common creationist arguments is that the world appears to be designed. This stems back at least as far as the famous Watchmaker argument made by 18-century theologian and philosopher William Paley. Famously, Paley suggested that if you happen to discover a watch in the woods, you would instantly recognize the watch as having been “designed” due to its complexity — in contrast to an undesigned rock, for example. From there, Paley argued that living things are far more complex than the watch and by principle of analogy must also have been designed. This argument continues to be popular among Christians today, but it has several conceptual flaws.
(a) First, the Christian asserts that there is evidence “of design” in all of creation, which is inherently contradictory. Paley’s analogy works — if at all — only by comparing the designed watch to the undesigned rock. But Christians believe that both the rock and the watch are themselves designed; that in fact the entire universe is designed! This renders the analogy inapt and the argument null.
(b) Second, the design argument rests on the false assumption that anything that looks designed for a purpose necessarily requires an intelligent creator. This is plainly not so: beavers build dams, spiders spin webs, potter wasps build tiny little pots to trap water, and so on. These things not only look designed, they serve the exact same function as human-intelligently-designed dams, nets, and pots. But the beaver’s dam, the spider’s web and the wasp’s pot are obviously not intelligently designed (unless we want to strain the definition of intelligence to the breaking point). The sandbar is “designed” to provide a break in the current and facilitate access to the water; that’s why beaches have lots of artificial ones — but, of course, sandbars form naturally as well. And so on.
We also need to be extremely careful about inferring teleology by observation. Famously, Percival Lowell thought he saw canals on Mars, and immediately inferred the existence of an intelligent alien civilization. Lowell lovingly reproduced details “maps” of the Martian canals, arguing that the perfect straightness of his observed lines was proof of intelligent creative agency. Further observation disproved Lowell’s beliefs and intelligent design inference. It’s an important object lesson in how we tend to impose our own beliefs on observable data.
(c) Paley’s argument — and related claims, like Fred Hoyle’s famous “tornado in a junkyard” also rest on the unfounded notion that life evolved “by accident.” This is a basic misunderstanding of evolutionary theory.
Another common argument among ID creationists is that “information requires a designer.” Pinning down ID advocates on a definition of the word “information” is generally pretty tricky. Certainly, information in the colloquial sense does indeed appear “by itself” all the time; for example, tree rings convey information to us (how old a tree is) through an entirely naturalistic process. Similarly, in the northern hemisphere, moss generally grows only on the north side of trees, thus providing critical information to lost hikers. None of this information has to be “designed” by some external agency.
iii. Origin of the Big Bang
Creationists also frequently ask what “caused the Big Bang.” The best, most honest answer to this question — as is the case with virtually all cutting-edge theoretical physics — is “I don’t know.” However, people like physicist Victor Stenger hypothesize on possible naturalistic origins, showing that in the realm of quantum mechanics, “nothing” is less stable than “something,” making a Big Bang inevitable. Stenger thus concludes that “the universe can have formed from nothing, in complete chaos (maximum entropy), and have order form spontaneously, without violating any known principles of physics.” Stenger’s “quantum tunnelling” model is a single-universe model, and thus does not posit the controversial “multiverse” hypothesis — which is nevertheless popular among some quantum physicists.
Moreover, most physicists believe that the nature of the universe itself is fundamentally unknowable even in principle prior to what they call the “Planck time,” 1.61 x 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang, via an application of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. If that turns out to be correct, then the question “what caused the Big Bang?” may be inherently unanswerable.
D. Rejecting the “God of the Gaps”
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.