An Atheist Reads I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist
Chapter 4: Divine Design
- In this chapter, Geisler and Turek turn their attention to the Teleological Argument, which, stated formally, says:
- Every design had a designer.
- The universe has highly complex design.
- Therefore, the universe had a Designer. (Normal L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FAITH TO BE AN ATHEIST, p. 95)
Houston, We Have a Problem!
- “Isaac Newton (1642-1727) implicitly confirmed the validity of the Teleological Argument when he marveled at the design of our solar system. He wrote, ‘This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.’” (p. 95)
- I feel I have to point out, the Newton quotation is only evidence for Newton’s opinion, not evidence for any facts about the nature or history of the universe. Isaac Newton was a giant of the early days of science, one of the most important minds ever, and rightly celebrated. But would we be better off basing our opinions on the supposed design of the universe on the body of scientific knowledge as it exists today, or as it existed during Newton’s lifetime, 300 years ago?
- From Newton, they move on to Paley, and his “every watch needs a watchmaker” argument, which asks us to imagine discovering a watch on the ground. Is the watch the result of natural forces, or was it designed by an intelligence?
- Geisler and Turek claim that the universe is even more precise in its design than a watch — in fact, the universe is designed specifically with life on Earth in mind. This, they inform us, is the Anthropic Principle.
- “The Anthropic Principle is just a fancy title for the mounting evidence that has many scientists believing that the universe is extremely fine-turned (designed) to support human life here on earth.” (p. 96)
- There are those weasel words again. “Many scientists.” Which scientists? Where can I read the work of some of these many scientists who have found evidence that the universe is fine-tuned — or more than that, intelligently designed?
- Geisler and Turek use the Apollo 13 mission as a metaphor for the precarious circumstance in which life in the universe finds itself. Just as those astronauts stood on the brink of death in their crippled spacecraft, so is life in the universe balanced on a razor’s edge.
- Using the story of Apollo 13, Geisler and Turek illustrate five anthropic constants:
- Anthropic Constant 1: Oxygen Level. Earth’s oxygen level, 21% of the atmosphere, is necessary for life. A bit more oxygen and things would spontaneously burst into flames; a bit less, and there wouldn’t be enough for us to breathe.
- Anthropic Constant 2: Atmospheric Transparency. The Earth’s atmosphere provides enough protection for life to survive solar radiation, but allows enough solar radiation through to provide necessary light and heat.
- Anthropic Constant 3: Moon-Earth Gravitational Interaction. Earth’s gravitational relationship with the Moon is strong enough that the Moon acts as a stabilizing influence on Earth’s rotation, but not so strong that the Moon’s gravity can have a catastrophic effect on Earth’s oceans or atmosphere.
- Anthropic Constant 4: Carbon Dioxide Level. A higher CO2 level would mean a severe greenhouse effect (you don’t say?), while a lower CO2 level would make photosynthesis impossible.
- Anthropic Constant 5: Gravity. If the gravitational force were stronger or weaker by only a very tiny degree, stars like the Sun would not have formed.
- These factors I’ve just summarized are covered over the course of several pages in the book, but the descriptions of the actual factors aren’t any more detailed than what I’ve just said about them. Geisler and Turek spend most of their time describing the ordeal of the Apollo 13 astronauts, even reprinting lengthy blocks from the mission transcript. Is the survival of the Apollo 13 astronauts proof of divine design, too? I love the story of Apollo 13, but its connection to the arguments being made here is so tenuous, it feels more like Geisler and Turek are stretching a short chapter rather than illustrating important points in their argument.
- One other thing about those five anthropic constants: four of them aren’t constants. The gravitational force is a constant. But the other four — oxygen level, atmospheric transparency, Moon-Earth interaction, CO2 level — they merely describe present conditions. Go back far enough into Earth’s past and none of these factors were the same as now. Go far enough into Earth’s future, and none of them will be the same as now.
- That’s the most glaring flaw in this argument: Earth was not always capable of supporting life. And it will not always be capable of supporting life in the future. We exist during an interval in the history of our planet when its conditions are capable of supporting us. If this means that God designed Earth for us to be here, then it also means you designed your aquarium to be a home for algae.
The Anthropic Principle: The Design Is in the Details
1. The balance of centrifugal planetary motion with gravity, allowing planets to remain in orbit around the Sun.
- Geisler and Turek reiterate how small changes in the nature of the universe would preclude the existence of life as we know it.
- “The extent of the universe’s fine-tuning makes the Anthropic Principle perhaps the most powerful argument for the existence of God.” (p. 105)
- In the last video in this series, I said I felt the Cosmological Argument was the strongest of these classic apologist arguments. Unlike Geisler and Turek, I find the argument from design, including this anthropic argument, to be one of the weakest and least convincing. I’ll get to why in a moment. First, Geisler and Turek list ten more constants that they claim point to a divine designer:
2. The rate of the universe’s expansion — fast enough to avoid immediate collapse, slow enough to allow formation of stars and galaxies.
3. The speed of light, through which all other laws of physics can be described.
4. Levels of water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere creating the ideal temperature for life.
5. Jupiter’s gravity acting as a “cosmic vacuum cleaner,” pulling in asteroids and other objects that might pose a danger to Earth.
6. The thickness of Earth’s crust — thick enough to stabilize volcanic and tectonic activity, not so thick that it traps too much oxygen from the atmosphere.
7. The rotational rate of Earth, which is fast enough to prevent drastic temperature differences between night and day, but not so fast that wind velocities would be too great.
8. Earth’s degree of axial tilt, which allows for livable temperatures over most of Earth’s surface.
9. Rate of atmospheric discharge on Earth, allowing for enough nitrogen in the soil, but not too much fire.
10. Rate of seismic activity — enough to cycle ocean nutrients to continents through tectonic uplift, not so much that life is seriously disrupted. (pp. 105-106)
- Again, only two of these factors — the speed of light and the expansion rate of the universe (a.k.a. the Hubble constant) — are actually constants. The others merely describe momentary conditions, most of which are extremely local. The fact that these conditions are mostly local and temporary kind of takes the starch out of this next quote:
- “Astrophysicist Hugh Ross has calculated the probability that these and other constants — 122 in all — would exist today for any planet in the universe by chance (i.e., without divine design). Assuming there are 1022 planets in the universe . . . his answer is shocking: one chance in 10138 — that’s one chance in one with 138 zeros after it! In effect, there is zero chance that any planet in the universe would have the life-supporting conditions we have, unless there is an intelligent Designer behind it all.” (p. 106)
- They neglect to mention that Hugh Ross is an apologist, and a creationist who rejects evolution.
- Then there’s the problem of how exactly Ross was able to calculate the odds of the various factors having the values they have when he doesn’t know how many possible values there are for each one. The only values we know constants like the speed of light are able to have are the values they actually have — that’s what makes them constants. Ross seems to be treating the constants as variables. But unless you know what other potential values a variable can have, you can’t calculate the odds of the variable being of one particular value.
- They also miss the crucial point that Ross’s calculation assumes that life as we know is the only form of life possible. Without that assumption, Ross’s “one chance in 10138” is meaningless — it’s like dealing yourself a hand in a game of FreeCell and saying “My God, do you know what the odds must have been?!” We don’t know that the hand Earth has been dealt is the only winning hand, so you can point to “10138” and insist on its significance all day long — it proves nothing.
- And, again, these life-sustaining conditions on Earth are temporary. To carry through the FreeCell metaphor, eventually the cat is going to jump up on the table and fuck up all our cards.
Proof for God! How do Atheists Respond?
- Geisler and Turek group atheist responses into two broad categories: those who believe there is a Designer, but don’t know who or what; and those who believe in a design without a designer. In order to explain how the universe became designed without a designer, Geisler and Turek say, atheists resort to speculation like the Multiple Universe Theory:
- “There are multiple problems with this multiple-universe explanation. First, and most significantly, there’s no evidence for it!” (p. 107)
- That sort of thing never seemed to bother you guys before.
- “Second, as we discussed in the last chapter, an infinite number of finite things . . . is an actual impossibility. There can’t be an unlimited number of limited universes.” (p. 107)
- Are we assuming that the rules of our universe apply outside of our universe again? Why?
- Also, the number of multiple universes doesn’t have to be infinite. It could be finite but unlimited, meaning new universes are being created all the time, without no limit to how many universes there could potentially be, but always with a finite number of universes actually existing.
- “Third, even if other universes could exist, they would need fine-tuning to get started just as our universe did. . . . So positing multiple universes doesn’t eliminate the need for a Designer — it multiplies the need for a Designer!” (p. 107)
- Let’s apply this rationale to something other than the universe and see if it comes out sounding stupid. Let’s talk this way about snowflakes. Let’s say I have a snowflake, and it is of a very particular, intricate, beautiful design. I say this snowflake could only look like this if it were intelligently designed by someone who wanted it to look just the way it does. Now, other people might say that there are countless other snowflakes in existence, countless more that used to exist but exist no longer, and an unlimited number of snowflakes that will exist in the future but have yet to be created, and therefore there is nothing extraordinary about the existence or the particular features of my snowflake, because there are so many other ones, each with their own equally unique features, and I just happened to pick this one. But don’t you see that each of those snowflakes must have been designed, too? Appealing to the number of snowflakes doesn’t eliminate the need for a designer — it multiplies the need for a designer!
- Have I convinced you snowflakes are intelligently designed? I hope not.
- “Fourth, the Multiple Universe Theory is so broad that any event can be explained away by it.” (p. 107)
- Again, this sort of thing doesn’t bother Geisler and Turek about God, who can also be used to explain anything, and therefore is useful for explaining nothing. But they go on:
- “For example, if we ask ‘Why did the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?’ we need not blame Muslim terrorists: the theory lets us say that we just happen to be in the universe where those planes — though they appeared to be flown deliberately into those buildings — actually hit the buildings by accident.” (p. 108)
- They go on to claim that the Multiple Universe Theory also absolves Hitler of responsibility for the Holocaust because it allows us to believe that we just happen to live in a universe where the Holocaust appeared to be an act of genocide, but where the Jews secretly sent themselves to the ovens — which is a very, very strange thing to say in any context.
- Weird anti-Semitic fantasies aside, this is one of the most offensively stupid arguments in the book so far. The existence of infinite possibilities in infinite universes has nothing to do with either causality or morality in this universe. You can’t absolve people of crimes by saying “well, this just happened to be the universe where this happened.” Multiple universes or not, in this universe, the 9/11 attacks were not an accident. We know this because we have evidence that they were a deliberate act. The fact that maybe, hypothetically, there exists a universe where they were an accident is irrelevant. We know what happens in our universe because we can gather evidence and interpret it using reason and the scientific method. And we can hold each other morally responsible for our choices because, regardless of the limitless possibilities of multiple universes, here, in this universe, we actually made those choices and are liable to face the consequences of them.
- “In the end, the Multiple Universe Theory is simply a desperate attempt to avoid the implications of design. It doesn’t multiply chances, it multiplies absurdities. . . . Such a theory is, of course, nonsense, and its obvious absurdity reveals how strong the evidence for design really is. Extreme evidence calls for extreme theories to explain it away.” (p. 108)
- There’s one more section in the chapter, “God? Look to the Heavens”. But it’s mostly a prolonged appeal to the Bible, with Geisler and Turek quoting scripture and claiming that the heavens themselves are evidence for the existence and the glory of their God. Let’s skip that and talk about why the Teleological Argument is so unconvincing.
- Do we actually need “extreme evidence” to reject the notion of Earth, or indeed of the entire universe, being intelligently designed with us in mind? I don’t think so. I think there’s a very simple explanation for why the universe appears to be fine-tuned to allow for our existence.
- I made an entire video on the fine-tuning argument. It’s elsewhere on my channel, part of my “Creationist Arguments I’m Tired of Hearing” series. I’ll link to it in the description box, and I invite you to have a look at it, if you want a more detailed examination of this argument.
- The short version is this: Geisler and Turek have it backwards. They reason starting with us, then notice how well the universe seems to fit around us. But the universe existed for billions and billions of years before the origin of our Sun and our planet. And Earth existed for billions of years more before the first humans appeared. To me, it’s far, far more plausible to assume that it’s not the universe which fits around us, but us who fit into the universe.
- As I’m maybe a little too fond of saying, we aren’t in the universe, we’re of the universe. When we examine things like the gravitational constant, the Hubble constant, the speed of light, the strength of the electromagnetic force, etc., we find that the values of all these factors to be just what they need to be in order to allow for the existence of not only ourselves and other forms of life, but also planets, stars, and galaxies. But what else should we expect to find? These things exist in a universe that allows for their existence. Is this really such a mystery?
- I’m always reminded, when I think of the fine-tuning argument, of Douglas Adams’s puddle theory, which imagines a rain puddle noticing how well it fits into its hole, and concluding that the hole must have been made especially for it.
- That’s it. No extreme theories necessary. No sweat worked up. The universe wasn’t made to fit us — the universe came first. And we — along with everything else — evolved to fit it.
Next: Chapter 5: The First Life: Natural Law or Divine Awe?