Friday, July 24, 2009

God and the beginning

Today we'll just raise a few classic (related) questions. Maybe next time we'll look at some classic answers.

In the Bible it says that in the beginning God made the world but it doesn’t quite explain what that means. What was God doing for all those eons (for example) before He created the world? Why did He choose just that moment, and not some other, to create the world, or was that just an arbitrary decision? (Could God ever make purely "arbitrary" decisions?) And if there was a “before” – as there must have been, if God Himself existed before the world -- then didn’t something already exist independently of Him, namely time – in which case God has not actually created everything? Or could we say that God created time, too, when He created the world? But then wouldn’t we want to ask what He was doing before He created time – which already presupposes that time existed, for there to be a “before”? And how could He have created time, anyway? Doesn't something already have to exist in order to do anything, such as "create" -- in which case God must have existed "before" He created anything, in which case time already existed on its own?

These questions are discussed in The God Question ( by thinkers such as Augustine, Saadia, Avicenna, Ghazali, and Averroes.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Chances are the world is not by chance

The “design argument” for God’s existence has a long history. From the ancients through the medievals the order (or “design”) found in the natural world was thought to demand some supernatural explanation. This line of thinking culminated in William Paley’s famous 18th-century “watch analogy”: just as you would conclude that a watch you found on a deserted beach was designed by some intelligent being, so too you should conclude that the world as a whole was made by an intelligent designer.

But then came Darwin. The apparent order in the biological world could in fact arise by random mutations and natural selection. No designer was needed to produce an eye or wing or anything after all. The “design argument” for theism was dead.

Until recently that is, Paul Davies observes--for it has now been revived in a new form immune to the Darwinian challenge.

For focus now not on the biological realm but on the laws and properties of physics itself. Unlike living things, these have not been subject to random mutation and evolution. If order or design is found on this level of the world then it simply cannot be explained by Darwin.

And it is.

That the world is governed by stable laws at all is itself remarkable; it could just as well have been chaotic or disorderly. But more importantly, the laws seem precisely fine-tuned specifically to produce life as we know it--including beings such as ourselves, with consciousness, rationality, and morality. For that life depends very sensitively on the precise form of the laws and on the specific values that nature has assigned to fundamental entities such as the masses and charges of various particles, the strengths of different forces, the speed of light, and so on. Each of these things could have had any of an infinite number of values. Gravity could have been ever so slightly stronger or weaker; the electron’s charge could have had been ever so slightly greater or less. Had any one of these been even slightly different then our world or anything remotely like it could not have existed.

The odds against all these variables simultaneously having precisely the one value necessary for this world are quite literally astronomical.

If your friend drew even two consecutive royal flushes in poker you’d immediately suspect him of cheating. Why? Because when something incredibly unlikely occurs it’s very difficult to believe it occurs by chance. Yet even vastly more unlikely is that precise combination of physical values, the only such combination, that would produce the world we inhabit. By parity of reasoning we should conclude that this world has not arisen by chance.

Sometimes people object as follows: of course the world we inhabit has these specific physical features, for otherwise we wouldn’t be here to discover them! Given that we are here it’s impossible that physics be any different, so we shouldn’t be so surprised at what we find.

But that misses the point. Of course given that we are here it follows that the world must be ordered appropriately. But what is incredibly unlikely is that we are here--that the one combination of fundamental physical values which would produce a world of any value is the one that occurred.

And when something incredibly unlikely occurs it is difficult to believe it occurs by chance.

(1) Paul Davies, The Mind of God (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1992), Ch. 8: “Designer Universe.”
(2) Paul Davies, Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).