And God created the universe

My old mate Will Durant once wrote "it is unwise of an author to prove his point too thoroughly; his conclusions pass into the currency of all educated minds".

Like many of the brilliant ideas mentioned in last week's post, Ancient echoes, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is one of those concepts so widely accepted it's almost become intellectual wallpaper.

In fact, evolution is still massively misunderstood and misrepresented by popular culture and, as philosopher Cori Wong wrote recently in Australian Rationalist, can be used to "deflect moral accountability for just about any atrocity" with an argument that runs - "Don't blame me. Blame nature! Blame evolution!"

However, that's another topic for another day.

What's fair to say is despite the delusions of creationists, evolution by natural selection currently gives us the most elegant, fulfilling and scientifically-grounded explanation as to how the complexities of the natural world developed.

Atheists like myself love this because it provides a far more satisfying solution to our creation than "God did it".

To be fair, though, the answer to the deeper question of the origin of life still eludes us, as does an explanation for the jump from prokaryotic cells (bacteria) to eukaryotic cells (like the ones in our bodies containing a nucleus and mitochondria) as well as an account of the origin of consciousness.

Pulling back from these teeny, tiny, earthly concerns, there is also the even greater and more vexing question of how our universe was formed.

Richard Dawkins tackles this at length in his book The God Delusion, where he describes what are known as the cosmological or physical constants that allowed our universe and planet to form.

"Physicists have calculated that, if the laws and constants of physics had been even slightly different, the universe would have developed in such a way that life would have been impossible," writes Dawkins.

"Different physicists put it in different ways, but the conclusion is always much the same. Martin Rees, in Just Six Numbers, lists six fundamental constants, which are believed to hold all around the universe. Each of these six numbers is finely tuned in the sense that, if it were slightly different, the universe would be comprehensively different and presumably unfriendly to life."

I'm currently doing (very poorly) in a MOOC (massive open online course) run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology via the edX website titled 'Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness', in which head lecturer Caspar Hare covers the same ground.

"They're curious things these physical constants because they seem to float relatively free of the fundamental laws of physics," says Hare.

"You couldn't, just by looking at the laws of physics and not looking at the constants, guess what values the constants would have. You're not able to predict from the rest of the apparatus of physics what particular values the physical constant should have.

"And the other curious feature of them is that we're very lucky they have the values they do. So it's been said, with some plausibility, if these physical constants - which seemingly could have been different - if they had been different in almost any way, then the universe would not have been the kind of place in which life could exist and so we would not have existed."

To illustrate this, Hare, uses a comparison known as "White's Analogy" which you can watch here, developed by well-regarded MIT philosopher Roger White.

Hare explains the analogy like this:

Imagine the studio I'm in has been wired with explosives. Imagine the explosives, if they had gone off any time in the recent past, would have pulverized the studio, annihilated everything inside it. Imagine the explosives were all set to go off 10 minutes ago. And the only thing that could prevent them going off was the proper setting on some dials outside.

The explosives are wired to dials outside the studio. There are nine of them and they've all got numbers, one through nine on them. And these dials, like tumblers, are just sort of whirring around on an axle in the wind, going brrr, brrr, brrr, brrr. Had the dials not read 4, 8, 3, 2, 1, 6, 9, 3, 5, ten minutes ago, then the bombs would have gone off.

Now, suppose I learn all this. What do I think? Well firstly, I'm very happy I'm alive. And I conclude from the fact that I'm alive those dials must have been set at exactly those values. They must have had exactly those values 10 minutes ago. What am I going to think about how that came to happen?

I might think it just came about by chance, that it was just very lucky. I think phew, just by chance, the wind happens to blow the dials into just the right position 10 minutes ago. It was just an incredible fluke. It was extremely likely I was going to be dead. In fact, I'm alive. Gosh, I'm lucky.

Another thing I might think is probably what's happened here is somebody has interfered with the dials. Somebody was out there. Either the person who set the bombs or some sort of heroic intervenor got in the way, set those dials so as to ensure I would be alive now. And we might think that that is a reasonable thing to think in my circumstances.

Of course the "heroic intervenor" or "knob twiddler" - in the case of the physical constants - is often assumed to be God, or some sort of higher intelligence.

Dawkins argues, however, that a god capable of calculating the exact values for these numbers "would have to be at least as improbable as the finely tuned combination of numbers itself, and that's very improbable indeed".

One of the current vogue theories to explain the physical constants is our universe is just one of many universes in a "multiverse", like bubbles in foam, and in each of these other universes, other physical constants hold sway.

Some argue this account is as extravagant and unsatisfactory as saying "God did it".

Dawkins writes: "The key difference between the genuinely extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis is one of statistical improbability. The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple. God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain.

"The multiverse may seem extravagant in sheer number of universes. But if each one of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable. The very opposite has to be said of any kind of intelligence."

Your thoughts?

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