Jason Rosenhouse spent some time last week sitting in a Knoxville, Tenn. auditorium and listening to Intelligent Design creationists Lee Strobel (really more of a standard Biblical creationist), Jay Richards, and Stephen Meyer sling hokum and buncombe around.
Jason is detailing his madcap adventures in a series of posts, and apparently, the irrationally gleaming stars of the show were unusually focused on the “universe is too well suited for life to have been an accident” line of crap. I’ll spend some time explaining why this romantically alluring tactic is, in fact, crap — trivially inane, when you get right down to it.
What creationists claim is this: If certain physical constants such as the gravitational constant G, c (the speed of light) and others were even fractionally different, and that if certain astronomical parameters (e.g., the distance of the earth from the sun) were just slightly altered, life as we know it could never have arisen. Therefore, the God of the Bible must have created the universe.
Response 1: Without knowing anything else, it is obvious that the only life forms that exist are those suited for life in this universe, with all its constraints. Specifically, life on Earth must be suited for…conditions on Earth. Would we expect to see life that cannot survive here? Such forms have existed transiently on different portions of the globe and at different times, and they didn’t last because they were not suited for the environments in which they found themselves and were unable to adapt. Why is this supposed to be profound?
Response 2: When babbleyaps like Meyer and Strobel solemnly speak of how mathematically unlikely it is to have been “granted” a universe featuring the physical laws it does, they are appealing to the sense of wonder of people already slathered in gerin oil. In order for anyone to find it truly incredible that the universe — and specifically our earth — permits the flourishing of intelligent life, one would have to assume that humanity and all its biological needs and vicissitudes was conceptualized first and that the universe thenceforth unfolded magically around us in a way that allowed us to thrive and conquer. That would be incredible, akin to my clothes arranging themselves spatially in such a way that I happen to find myself within them, filling them perfectly (by my standards at least). But only the theistically minded explicitly or implicitly see this as the order of things.
Think of how unlikely it is that you’re reading this post, given the range of possible outcomes beginning even just one week ago, let alone decades or millions of years. Not only did I have to make a series of conscious and incidental choices in order to write it, but you had to click on this site at the proper time when you could have done any number of other things with your mouse, or gone to the store, or stood outside and yelled at passing cars, or whatever. The range of reasonable behaviors you might have indulged in starting one week ago that would have led you distinctly away from reading this post right now is nearly infinite. Yet here you are! Amazing. What are the odds? Incalculably great.
Now consider the difference between this retrospective “analysis” and someone predicting in advance that it would happen. Had someone slipped a folded piece of paper into your shirt pocket a week ago that said, “At x:xx on March YY, you will read the words bibble babble fiddle hoo ha on the Chimpanzee Refuge,” and you pulled that out and read it now, you would be floored. But regarding it all after all the hard odds work has already been done is not nearly so marvelous. To oversimplify: Something had to happen.
This is the anthropic principle (or fallacy, when it’s used to support creationist conclusions): We’re the ones who happen to already be here making observations about the universe, so for us to ooh and aah over the odds of being here thanks to whatever remarkable series of events allowed us to be here doesn’t contribute anything useful.
Of course, there’s the additional unjustified step taken by creationists — using God to fill perceived gaps, in this case the explanation of why our corner of the universe is so manifestly friendly toward carbon-based life forms. They operate on the patently irrational idea that if something is extremely unlikely, supernatural beings lie at the root of it. It is understandable why the theistically inclined would swallow this; the entire reason we created intelligent gods in the first place was to explain the seemingly inexplicable, and in more recent times we use them to rationalize the presence of anything that strikes us as extremely unlikely. Our minds seem much better equipped to put things into human or anthropic contexts than to confront numbers with scads of zeroes in them, which makes sense in light of what invariably has more immediate survival value or meshes with day-to-day experience as fairly advanced apes.
We don’t know a lot about the creation of the universe; there is no more reason to abandon the idea of material origins here than there is in less inscrutable realms, but creationists are ever fond of stubbornly trying to seat this or that god in the default artist’s chair. The universe, they say, had to have an intelligent designer. Yet ask them who designed the designer and they frankly behave as if you’ve asked a stupid question. By their own reason the designer had to have been designed, either by some entity which arose de novo or by some other intelligent entity. One can engage in an infinite regress here or, admitting that we know little, simply posit that because at some point something had to “just be,” simple parsimony suggests we assume material forces created the universe until evidence to the contrary is provided.
Beyond that, even if one assumes that the universe came into play via a conscious force of some sort, the leap from this hypothesis to the idea that the Christian or any other textual god was responsible is ludicrously large. Too many of the Bible’s claims about the physical world have proven wrong for it to be regarded as anything other than an interesting anthropological relic and popular piece of ancient literature, but the power that the high priests of yore fought so hard to secure and maintain continues to leave its mark thanks to the near-ingenious way in which religious memes are instilled in subsequent generations.
People like Lee Strobel and the members of the DI traveling circus are doing nothing more than fomenting mysticism in the presence of God-happy, scientifically illiterate or naive audiences, attaching sober-sounding but intrarectally contrived and meaningless probabilites to our world, and using this garbage in an attempt to protect age-old superstitious ideas whose collective number was up a long time ago. If humanity survives for a few hundred more years, such people will be no more capable of attracting a mainstream audience prepared to believe what they here than today’s bands of gypsy fortune-tellers or pockets of Holocaust deniers.