Was the universe designed for life?

One of the themes I've been hammering recently is the idea of evidence of absence. It's the idea that if God exists, there ought to be some kind of evidence that he does, and if there isn't evidence consistent with how God is conceptualized then the lack of evidence is evidence that God does not exist. This is an important concept to understand to see why atheists are agnostic about the existence of God, but that this agnosticism should not be misconstrued as a middling view that the odds for and against God's existence are equiprobable. We define ourselves as atheists not just because we don't think there's evidence for God's existence, but because the absence of evidence where there should be evidence suggests that God's existence is either highly unlikely or unknowable to the point of irrelevance.

The apparent life-supporting design of the universe is all too often touted as tautological proof that God exists. I discussed the fallacy of our apparent "privilege" in a post called Earth: the privileged planet, and the lottery fallacy, so I'm not going to rehash that here. Instead I want to expand on that post: if the universe was designed for life by an all-powerful, perfect being, there ought to be observable evidence consistent with a being possessing such qualities.

Unfortunately, the universe is rife with inefficiencies and dangers that run starkly counter to divine design. The overwhelming majority of the known universe is extraordinarily hostile to life – it's mostly a freezing, lifeless vacuum dotted by the occasional star which may or may not be surrounded by hospitable planets. Most planets we've observed are far from hospital themselves – hot pressure cookers like Venus, the freezing surface and carbon-dioxide rich atmosphere of Mars, and lifeless gas giants like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the vast majority of extra-solar planets we have discovered. I'm reminded of the line from the movie Contact: "Seems like an awful waste of space!"

Life probably exists elsewhere in the universe, but we only know of life existing here on Earth. It took 10 billion years of the universe's evolution before life arose, and it's taken another 3.5 billion years for highly intelligent life to evolve. But it gets worse! Highly intelligent life can only survive on some of the Earth's surface some of the time. Billions of humans have died of exposure, famine, disease, and predation. Our species' story of survival is one not because of the Earth's hospitality, but in spite of its lack of hospitality. We faced near extinction some 150,000 years ago before migrating out of Africa some 60,000 years ago. The revolutions in agriculture, literacy and science have only occurred within the last few thousand years – with the bulk of scientific advances only within the last century! Through science, we've been able to overcome the things that killed many of our ancestors – disease, famine, exposure, and predation. We live in air-conditioned homes in sprawling urban centers, take vaccinations when we're kids, and use a sophisticated system of agriculture to sustain ourselves. Human ingenuity has been working for 200,000 years to overcome our world's inhospitable nature – we've never just plucked grapes from Eden while lions lay with lambs.

All of these qualities of our world strike me as starkly in contrast with the idea that a perfect, all-powerful loving being created the universe with us as an important part of its destiny. God could have done away with extinction events, predation, evolution, and 99.9999% of the universe. Primitive cosmology – where stars were just twinkles in the sky, Earth was the center of the universe, and where no one knew what an incomprehensibly long and difficult road it was to humanity's dominion – seems far more consistent with a perfect designer than the universe we observe today. It's undeniable: if God did make the universe with the intention of spawning intelligent life, his design is terribly inefficient and counterproductive. And such an inefficient, counterproductive design is inconsistent with the concept of a perfect, omnipotent creator – it's evidence that such a being does not exist.


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