Sean Carroll: Does the universe need God?

I mentioned this in passing the other day (Jerry Coyne linked to it on WEIT), but since then I've had more time to peruse Carroll's essay in full. It's going to be part of the upcoming Blackwell Companion to Science and Theology, and I have to commend the editors for inviting a dissenting opinion. There is some really great stuff in there about the issues we face in modern cosmology, problems with theological assertions about cosmology, and the inherent conflict between faith-based beliefs and evidence-derived understanding.

Much of it is stuff I've touched on in past blog posts (though I'm clearly not a physicist, so it's nice to have a pro weigh in), but there was something in particular, toward the end, that I hadn't really pondered before.

We often challenge theists to provide falsifiable evidence for the God hypothesis. Carroll correctly states,
... accounting for the natural world is certainly a traditional role for God, and arguably a foundational one.  How we think about other religious practices depends upon whether our understanding of the world around us gives us a reason to believe in God.  And insofar as it attempts to provide an explanation for empirical phenomena, the God hypothesis should be judged by the standards of any other scientific theory.
Absolutely. He then takes theology to task for its inability to reliably increase our understanding of the universe:

... the apparent precision of the God hypothesis evaporates when it comes to connecting to the messy workings of reality.  To put it crudely, God is not described in equations, as are other theories of fundamental physics.  Consequently, it is difficult or impossible to make predictions.  Instead, one looks at what has already been discovered, and agrees that that's the way God would have done it.  Theistic evolutionists argue that God uses natural selection to develop life on Earth; but religious thinkers before Darwin were unable to predict that such a mechanism would be God's preferred choice.
Ambitious approaches to contemporary cosmological questions, such as quantum cosmology, the multiverse, and the anthropic principle, have not yet been developed into mature scientific theories.  But the advocates of these schemes are working hard to derive testable predictions on the basis of their ideas: for the amplitude of cosmological perturbations,[29] signals of colliding pocket universes in the cosmic microwave background,[30] and the mass of the Higgs boson and other particles.[31]  For the God hypothesis, it is unclear where one would start.  Why does God favor three generations of elementary particles, with a wide spectrum of masses?  Would God use supersymmetry or strong dynamics to stabilize the hierarchy between the weak scale and the Planck scale, or simply set it that way by hand?  What would God's favorite dark matter particle be?
These are perfectly reasonable questions. The believer will simply examine the evidence reported by science and agree, retroactively, "Well of course that's precisely how God would do it!" But for all its purported ability to answer the "why" of our existence, theology not only cannot predict any such properties, but it cannot even answer perfectly sensible questions about the nature of world.

Why, for example, would God create the universe using the Big Bang? If he designed the universe for intelligent life (as many a theologian claims), why would he create a universe in which life does not even appear for over 14 billion years, and – when it finally does – takes another 3.5 billion years for organisms intelligent enough to ponder God's existence to arise? Why would he create a universe in which the vast majority of its volume is cold, dead, and utterly hostile to life? Why would the process of evolution be so wasteful, inefficient, and indifferent to suffering? The universe we observe got along just fine for 14 billion years and would continue unabated regardless of our existence – or the existence of any other life, for that matter. While the inability of theology to answer these types of questions certainly don't disprove God's existence, it leaves us bereft of any reason to affirm it. Carroll concludes:
This is a venerable problem, reaching far beyond natural theology.  In numerous ways, the world around us is more like what we would expect from a dysteleological set of uncaring laws of nature than from a higher power with an interest in our welfare.
The full essay can be found here.


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