02 December 2016

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — the review, part 5

There's been a story making the rounds recently that NASA was apparently way off in estimating the number of galaxies in the observable universe; previous estimates were around 100 billion; it's more like 1 to 2 trillion. That raises the number of stars in the observable universe to a mind-shattering 700 sextillion. It's literally an inconceivable number.

This observation carries with it some thought-provoking implications. Most of the observable universe is just an incomprehensible vast void. There are hundreds of known planets in our corner of the galaxy, but Earth is the only one we know for certain to be hospitable to life (though some others could be). Here's another thought: there are more black holes in the universe—those massive destroyers of worlds—than humans that have ever existed.

Most of the universe is cold, empty, and inhospitable for life. One amusing video from Fraser Cain of Universe Today asks "Where can I take off my space helmet?" The answer is that unless you're on Earth, you probably should keep it on. Another video from famed astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson asks how long we could survive on each planet in the solar system. The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not very long at all unless you're on certain parts of the Earth's surface. Appearing on conservative talk show Hannity's America, the late Christopher Hitchens opined,
[You] want your god to take responsibility for the huge number of collapsing stars and imploding galaxies and destroyed universes and failed solar systems that have left us in this tiny corner on the one planet in this petty solar system that can support life some of the time on some of its surface. And you want a creator who filled this earth with species, since life began 99% of which are now extinct already...and this is some design, isn't it?
The universe, by and large, is inhospitable to life—especially intelligent life like our own. Is this something we ought to expect to be true on theism? Is it consistent with a maximally loving, all-knowing creator? Or does the evidence favor atheism—that is, we should expect an indifferent, mostly deadly universe if there is no God? Schieber's thesis is as follows: "Given that there are many more ways for a universe to be, in general, hostile to life than for a universe to be, in general, friendly to life, generally hostile universes make up a much larger slice of possibility pie than do friendly universes." After a bit of back and forth, Rauser summarizes his reply as, "A mind-numbingly large universe that is almost completely hostile to sentient life may not serve our immediate interests, but that's quite different from claiming it doesn't serve God's."

Unpacking a familiar argument


Rauser is using a line of argumentation that we have seen earlier in the book (with regard to "massive theological disagreement"), and one we'll see again with regard to the problem of suffering later on. The core concept underpinning his argumentation (and, I'm truly trying to by as charitable and accurate as possible here) is that an evidential argument like Schieber's underdetermines the existence and/or character of God. Rauser speculates that God could create the universe "out of love", or even to "provide the human species [...] an extraordinary challenge to explore and discover"; but he qualifies these statements by saying, "I wouldn't be surprised if the universe was created for many reasons. But my rebuttal to you doesn't depend on me knowing those reasons."

In part 3 of this review, I talked about the difficulties I have with conceptualizing God having "motivations" or "reasons". Whatever those terms mean to us, it seems clear to me that they cannot possibly mean the same thing when describing a perfect, timeless, changeless, omnipotent, omniscient, unembodied mind (whatever that is). Our motivations and reasoning reflect subconscious desires (does God have those?), uncertainty, risk, sacrifice, and many other such things that would seem queer to ascribe to an omni-being. The notion that God would want to create a vast, empty universe to provide us with a "challenge", or because it gives us a neat view (provided humans take a hundred thousand years before developing the technology to observe it) seems like a trivially anthropomorphic conceptualization of a being whose qualities could never be described using such mundane language. It's also ironic to hear this argument from Rauser, given that by this point in the book, he's chided Schieber several times for hastily anthropomorpizing God. To his credit, Schieber seems to press Rauser on this front, calling Rauser's explanations ad hoc and insisting that if "the reason(s) for which the universe was created are not available to us, we are not entitled to posit it as a serious explanation for the observations under consideration".

The contention can be summarized as follows: Schieber wants to start with a set of assumptions about God's identity, motivations, qualities, etc., and extrapolate observable predictions. Rauser's counter is that God's motivations are essentially ineffable, but that God could have any number of reasons for creating the universe as it is.

My complaint with Rauser's approach—in addition to the conceptual problems outlined above—is that it tells us nothing about what we should expect if the God of classical theism exists. Because God can have essentially any arbitrary reason to do anything, the observable universe can never tell us anything about God at all. No matter what universe we found ourselves in, the evidence would always underdetermine the existence and/or character of God. Rauser unwittingly applies an undercutting defeater to related arguments regarding the apparent design or "fine-tuning" of the universe. If the observable state of the universe underdetermines God's existence or motivations, then complexity or beauty cannot be—as they often are—used to argue that God must have designed the universe.

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