I read an article in London Free Press’s online “Comment” section that I found upsetting. Not exceedingly so, but enough to prompt me to be here, pecking away at my MacBook. The author of this work is a man named Tom Harpur, who appears to have a website and some other writing to his credit. In it, he decided to criticize the late Christopher Hitchens specifically, and all atheists generally, with his grand pronouncement that god exists. I shall analyze his premise and demonstrate its flaws, but first I’d like to address his commentary about Mr. Hitchens.
Harpur points out that Hitch’s bestseller, “God is not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything,” is wrong in its central thesis. Not just wrong, but greatly mistaken. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know it is about religion, which makes it hard to understand why Mr. Harpur selected it as the opening volley for his little article. Of course Mr. Hitchens discusses God in his book, but he discusses the specific God of the monotheisms, as well as the various other gods man has invented. Mr. Harpur’s piece, as I will elaborate upon in a moment, is not about the Biblical God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims, nor the gods of the Hindus or any other faith. In fact, he says as much when he states how he’s come by his knowledge that a god exists: “My reason for believing that atheism is today a wholly untenable position is not because of something I read in the Bible or in the other religiously inspired books I have read in my lifetime.” He goes on to state that it is science that has proven to him that there is a god. If so, then why not choose one of the books of Stephen Hawking, or of physicist Victor Stenger who address his points quite directly? It would appear it’s because Hitch is no longer with us and unable to defend himself, which strikes me as an act of cowardice.
The argument Mr. Harpur puts forth is not a new one. It’s commonly referred to as the “finely tuned universe” argument that in short, states that the laws of physics that allow the universe to exist are so exacting, so finely tuned, that if even one were off by the slightest amount, life as we know it wouldn’t exist. This is of course, correct. If gravity for instance, were not what it was, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it. The argument then states that these finely tuned mathematical constants must have been programmed by an entity of some sort, they could scarcely have happened on their own.
First of all, the universe is unfolding exactly as it is or it wouldn’t be here. The measurements of the forces of gravity, the strong nuclear force, the speed of light, etc. are measurements made by man upon observation of the natural universe. In other words, this is how the universe operates and we’ve observed it to operate consistently in this way and have mathematically calculated the measurements.
Mr. Harpur offers no proof that a god was the mathematical mastermind behind our universe’s long, steady advance to its current state, but instead uses another old argument, the “god of the gaps,” to in effect say, how else could it have happened? Throughout the recorded history of man’s time on Earth we have used supernatural entities as answers to that question. Our ancient ancestors thought deities caused all natural events, from thunder and lightning to earthquakes to whether the crops grew or not. Over time, as we’ve answered the questions of how these things come about, not once has the answer ever been a supernatural one. As mankind’s knowledge of the natural world has advanced, the need for gods to explain things has diminished and believers look for any gaps in our knowledge to insert a deity or two. Saying that the universe operates the way that it does, with all the varying forces acting in the manner that they do, because it was determined beforehand by an intelligent being 13.7 billion years ago is an intellectual surrender.
Let me use a conversational example to point out how weak this argument really is:
Dude: “Hey JD, a god created the Universe.”
JD: “Really? That’s cool man, how do you know?”
Dude: “Well, it’s really finely tuned what with gravity and nuclear forces and so forth. How else could it have gotten that way?”
JD: “Oh, you mean you don’t know that a god did it, you’re just assuming so because you don’t know how it happened?”
Dude: “I suppose I am.”
JD: “Well, get back to me when you know for sure, okay?”
Mr. Harpur, in an attempt to claim all atheists are ignoring this incredible evidence of an invisible, undetectable entity, who in its laboratory designed the exact laws of nature before anything existed 13.7 billion years ago, and then, once satisfied that it had them just right, and I mean really precisely measured, it created the Big Bang, makes his most ridiculous assertion: That atheists are taking a leap of faith by not accepting that this god created not only this universe, but “untold, as-yet unknown, universes beyond…”
This is another of the believer’s common ploys; that of claiming that the non-believer is acting on faith, just like the believer. Since faith essentially means believing something without sufficient evidence, not believing something because of insufficient evidence can’t also be faith. The atheist doesn’t believe in Mr. Harpur’s god because the evidence isn’t there. Mr. Harpur may think that his apparent recent discovery that the laws of nature are pretty cool points to a god, but I don’t, nor do other atheists or they wouldn’t be atheists, they’d be deists.
Mr. Harpur, if you want to suggest that an intelligent being, a god, created our Universe then go ahead and do so. But to get anyone else to listen, you’ll have to start by forming an explanatory hypothesis, testing it through experimentation and collecting data in a reproducible way, analyzing and interpreting that data and drawing conclusions that either support your hypothesis, or cause you to rewrite it or start a new hypothesis. Once satisfied that your experiments support your hypothesis, publish your findings and get it peer reviewed. That means to allow others to retest what you did to ensure they get the same results, in case you didn’t know.
What I always notice:
a) To claim that is cannot be without someone fine-tuning, one would have first to check how the probabilities are. But we simply don’t know. Someone may guess that the chances for our universe are so low – but we don’t know. Perhaps our universe is that way because for some completely non-supernatural reason, it was the only way it could be. Perhaps there are gazillions of universes, almost all of them devoid of life, in which case ours would be “special” because of it’s unique configuration, but there was no need for a fine-tuner? etc.
b) Even if we assume that the chances are very, very low for our universe to exist that way… It does. Claiming that there must be something special about it is like winning the lottery and then throwing the money away, because it’s so unlikely to win the lottery, that it must be an illusion that you won. Unlikely things happen. And that does not mean that someone changed the odds. “We were lucky” is not the same as “A god gave us luck”.