Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Fine Tuned Universe

A frequent argument used to prove the existence of God (or some form of God, at least) is the so-called “Fine Tuned Universe” argument.  In a nutshell, the argument is that the universe is so perfectly and improbably “tuned” to support life (human life in particular) that there’s no way it could have happened just by chance.  Some have phrased the argument more particularly as follows:

The entire universe is governed by 6 mathematical constants:
1.      The ratio of electromagnetic force to gravitational force between two electrons
2.      The structural constant that determines how various atoms are formed from hydrogen
3.      The cosmological constant
4.      The cosmic anti-gravity force
5.      The value that determines how tightly clusters of galaxies are bound together
6.      The number of spatial dimensions in the universe

If the value of any of these constants had been off by even an almost infinitesimal degree, a universe like ours, that’s capable of supporting life, would not exist.  The odds of each of these constants just happening to all be exactly what is needed to support life, purely by coincidence, is infinitesimally small.  Therefore, they must have all be set on purpose by an intelligent being who wanted them to be that way.

There are (at least) four huge problems with the "fine tuning" argument that I can come up with:

1.      The argument assumes that the values of the various constants supposedly required for the universe to be capable of supporting life could, in fact, have possibly been different than what they actually are. It's not "fine tuning" if there were no other options available.

2.      There's a huge difference between "capable of sustaining life" and "capable of sustaining life as we know it." Even if the various constants could have had some other values, who is to say that some other form of life wouldn't have arisen instead?  In other words, it’s more accurate to say that life evolved to fit the way the universe is rather than saying the universe was designed to support the life that would eventually evolve within it.

3.      For a universe that is supposedly "finely tuned" to support life, it seems awfully strange that the vast majority of said universe is not, in fact, capable of sustaining life.  Even here on Earth, there are plenty of regions totally inhospitable to life.  And what about all the other planets in the solar system?  And the vast emptiness of interstellar space?  What about planets near supernovas and black holes?

4.      What makes life so special? Why not say the universe has been finely tuned to support the existence of diamonds? Or black holes? Or the rings around Saturn?  All of these things (let alone the vast multitude of non-human life on this planet such as insects) are also only possible because the universe is exactly the way it is.

I like to compare the fine tuning argument to the odds of my own existence given the vagaries of my ancestry. In order for me to be here in exactly the way I am, every one of my ancestors over the entire course of human history must have met and mated with the exact right person. If my great-great-grandmother on my father's side had married the boy her parents had forbidden her to marry instead of the man they approved of, I might have a different shaped nose, no genetic disposition to diabetes, bigger feet, etc. Or I might not have been born at all. In fact, given the size of the human population throughout time and the size of the mating pool, the odds of every single one of my ancestors mating with the exact person they did is so ridiculously low that it can't have happened by chance.

No, it's crystal clear that some external force must have been guiding each and every ancestor from the dawn of time until my mother met my father, ensuring that they met and mated exactly on schedule (did I mention the two miscarriages my mother had before having me?) In fact, given the fact that many of my ancestors traveled across the globe before meeting each other due to various political upheavals, I think it's fair to say that the majority of human history was manipulated by this external force in order to ensure that I would be born exactly the way I was, small feet, diabetes and all.

Except, of course, that had anything been different in the past then the outcome would have been different and I wouldn't be here discussing it.  If you tried to estimate in advance (say, 10,000 years ago) the odds of me coming out exactly the way I did, the odds would be ridiculously, impossibly small.  But if you try to estimate the odds now of me turning out the way I did based on my past ancestry, the odds are exactly 1:1.

Another analogy I have heard compares the improbability of the universe turning out just the way it did to the improbability of someone dealing out a shuffled deck of cards and just happening to lay down a complete suit (e.g., all clubs, all hearts, etc.).  From a purely mathematical standpoint, the odds of doing this from a shuffled deck of cards are 635,013,559,600 to one.  Which is, of course, incredibly improbable and you would be right to suspect that the dealer had somehow rigged the deck in his favor.

Except… let’s say I deal out thirteen cards from a shuffled deck and get a totally random mixture of hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades.  What are the odds that I laid down the exact combination of cards that I did?  Still 635,013,559,600 to one.  How can this happen? Well, it's all because 635 billion to 1 against was the chance of getting it right before the cards were dealt. In fact, now they've been dealt, the probability is actually 1. Talking about how improbable something was that has actually happened already is not helpful.

Similarly, one can look at a lottery where the odds of any one person winning may be 250,000,000 to 1, but the probability of somebody winning the lottery is pretty close to 1 before the drawing and exactly 1 after somebody actually does win it.

In terms of the universe, nobody was around before it began to estimate the probability that things would be as they are today. Had there been someone, then they'd have calculated a very, very slim probability indeed. But here's a universe and here we are in it. The probability of this having occurred is exactly 1.

Again, there are two possibilities. Either the universe was made just to suit life, or else life evolved to fit the way the universe is.


One other point to consider...  Let's assume that the "fine tuned universe" argument  is actually correct and that the odds of the universe turning out the way it did by chance are mind-bogglingly, infinitesimally small (further assuming that it did, in fact, happen by chance and not because of some immutable laws of nature).  How can you say that the odds are any better of it being created by some timeless, immaterial being whose very nature would contradict all we know about existence?  How would you even go about calculating those odds?  Regardless of how unlikely a naturally caused universe is, you have to first show that a supernatural cause is even possible before you can argue that it is plausible (let alone more probable than a naturally cased universe).

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Absence of Evidence IS Evidence of Absence

It has often been said that there is no way to prove a negative and therefore it is impossible to ever prove that God does not exist.  Or, as it is often phrased, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  In fact, however, as an atheist I am not trying to prove the non-existence of God.  At most, I am trying to disprove his existence, which is a whole other kettle of fish as far as I’m concerned.  Or, to put it another way, absence of evidence is evidence of absence when the evidence required to prove something is missing.

Let’s say, for example, I claim that a full-size adult African elephant is living in my backyard tool shed.  If such a thing were true, there would necessarily be certain evidence of the fact.  I would need to have, for example, an unusually large tool shed at the very least.  You would expect to hear the occasional trumpeting sounds at odd hours of the day and night.  There would be some indication that large quantities of hay were being delivered and that copious amounts of waste products were being removed on a regular basis.  A certain elephanty smell would be unmistakable as it wafted through the air.  And, above all, you would expect to actually see the elephant if you opened the door and looked in.

Keeping all that in mind, the fact that my tool shed is barely five feet wide would be an indication that maybe I don’t have a full-size elephant there after all.  The fact that nobody has ever heard, smelled or seen the elephant would be telling, as would be the fact that there is no indication of any hay deliveries or waste removal going on.  In sum, the lack of all the evidence of an elephant that should be there is conclusive proof that I do not, in fact, have an elephant in my shed.  Unless, of course, I want to argue that my elephant is a magical, invisible, shape-changing elephant that subsists only on air, excretes only sunshine, is very shy and hides in another dimension whenever anybody opens the door.  In which case, the only proper response is that the creature I have described can’t even properly be called an elephant in the first place assuming it even exists.

The same logic applies with regard to disproving the existence of God.  If God exists – at least the God as described in various scriptures and actually worshiped by those who claim to be religious – then there would necessarily be specific evidence of his existence.  All prayers offered to God in faith would be granted, for example, since this is what the Bible explicitly promises (granted, mind you, and not just “answered”).  Prophecies made in God’s name would unequivocally and unerringly come to pass in exactly the way they were prophesied to occur.  Miraculous events performed by God, including the creation of the entire universe in six days, the flood in Noah’s time, etc., would all be verifiable by modern science instead of being completely contradicted.  And yet, time and again, every place where there should be evidence to support the existence of God, it is mysteriously lacking.

Of course, some would argue that God’s existence requires no evidence because God is an immaterial being that exists wholly outside space and time and that once he created the universe he has had no interaction with it or us ever since and doesn’t expect us to worship or fear or obey or even acknowledge it in any way.  And that’s perfectly true if you want to define God that way, except that it’s most definitely NOT the way God is actually described in the scriptures and is not a God that is actually worshiped by anybody.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why I Am an Atheist

The glib answer to the question of “why I am an atheist” is to say it’s for the same reason I don’t believe in the existence of invisible pink unicorns or teapots orbiting the planet Jupiter. In other words, since there’s no good reason why I should believe in these things, I shouldn’t need to justify my lack of belief in them. And this answer is perfectly valid and true insofar as it goes.

One problem with this answer, however, is that – unlike invisible pink unicorns and interplanetary teapots – a lot of people currently believe in God (or at least some form of being that can be called “God”). Which is to say that it’s not blindingly obvious to most people that there is no good reason to believe in God, and so my answer as to why I am in the minority probably does deserve a bit of fleshing out.

I will say that, in a sense, I have been an atheist all my life, despite having been raised in a fundamentalist Christian faith by my parents. [As an aside, I know that many people will object to my characterization of Mormonism as a “fundamentalist Christian” faith, but doctrinal differences aside, the important thing is that I was raised to believe in the existence of a personal God and the literal truth of the Bible (and other scriptures).] The thing is, despite being taught from an early age to believe in God, I was never able to wholly internalize that belief. I mean, I accepted that it “must” be true because it’s what my parents believed and it’s what I was taught at church, but there’s a difference between accepting something must be true and actually believing it to be true. As I grew older and learned more about the world around me, I became very good at compartmentalizing my acceptance that God “must” exist to protect it from the lack of any empirical evidence for his existence and the increasing evidence that actually contradicted his existence.

Majoring in philosophy (even at a religious school like Brigham Young University) really opened my eyes in a number of ways. It taught me both about logical thinking in general and about the many different worldviews held by different cultures throughout history. And it made it harder and harder for me to accept that there “must” be a God simply because of what I was taught by my parents and teachers. Since that time, I have continued to use the tools I learned in my philosophy studies to analyze the various reasons why somebody might believe in God and all the reasons why such belief is not justified.

For me personally, it comes down to the realization of just how ridiculous it is to believe that this entire vast universe was created just for our benefit.  It made much more sense thousands of years ago when people thought that stars were just lights in the sky and that the Earth really was all there was.  Now that we know just how many billions of galaxies there are, each with their own billions of stars, it's pretty obvious that the notion of a personal God who created us and watches over us and pays attention to us and cares about us is just wishful thinking.

On top of that, of course, is all the scientific evidence that has been gathered over the years that directly contradicts almost everything stated in the scriptures, whether it be the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Koran, etc.  At most, you can look to scriptures as allegorical stories that (hopefully) tell you how to live a good life, but if they're not based on facts then there's really no need to worship anything described therein.

Think about Santa Claus.  When you're a little kid with no knowledge of science, it makes perfect sense for there to be magical flying reindeer that can travel all over the entire world in a single evening carrying a magical sled filled with billions of toys.  After all, that's what your parents told you and how else could those toys mysteriously appear under the tree?  As an adult, however, it's hard to imagine that anybody (let alone you) could have ever been so naive and gullible.  Not only is everything about the Santa Claus story impossible, but there are much more plausible explanations available for the gifts.

The final piece of the puzzle for me was the realization that people are very good at self-deception and that plenty of folks are probably 100% sincere when they claim to have had a conversion experience or "felt the spirit" or what have you.  That's why so many people cling to so many different faiths.

So yes, the short answer is that I am an atheist because there’s no good reason not to be one. The longer answer, which I’m still working on, is what I hope to express through the posts I make to this blog.