D’Souza and design

In a bold step I’m sure no elitist scientist before has contemplated, Dinesh D’Souza has recently invoked the strong anthropic argument. In fact, he goes further and argues that the reason atheists have been using “sound bites”, or should I say, “sign bites”, is that we are losing the scientific argument. In his words:

But of late atheism seems to be losing its scientific confidence. One sign of this is the public advertisements that are appearing in billboards from London to Washington DC. Dawkins helped pay for a London campaign to put signs on city buses saying, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Humanist groups in America have launched a similar campaign in the nation’s capital. “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake.” And in Colorado atheists are sporting billboards apparently inspired by John Lennon: “Imagine…no religion.”

What is striking about these slogans is the philosophy behind them. There is no claim here that God fails to satisfy some criterion of scientific validation. We hear nothing about how evolution has undermined the traditional “argument from design.” There’s not even a whisper about how science is based on reason while Christianity is based on faith.

In other words, we are losing the argument and so in a last gasp to convert everyone to our hedonistic lifestyle rebelling against God, we are resorting to catchy signs. I suppose it would have been better to put 150 years of scientific evidence for evolution on a billboard? Predictably, he attempts to invoke argument by design. Again, in his words:

If you want to know why atheists seem to have given up the scientific card, the current issue of Discover magazine provides part of the answer. The magazine has an interesting story by Tim Folger which is titled “Science’s Alternative to an Intelligent Creator.” The article begins by noting “an extraordinary fact about the universe: its basic properties are uncannily suited for life.” As physicist Andrei Linde puts it, “We have a lot of really, really strange coincidences, and all of these coincidences are such that they make life possible.”

Too many “coincidences,” however, imply a plot. Folger’s article shows that if the numerical values of the universe, from the speed of light to the strength of gravity, were even slightly different, there would be no universe and no life. Recently scientists have discovered that most of the matter and energy in the universe is made up of so-called “dark” matter and “dark” energy. It turns out that the quantity of dark energy seems precisely calibrated to make possible not only our universe but observers like us who can comprehend that universe.

So what is the big picture background here? Religious myths have long sought to explain things in nature. How the world started, how we started, how lightening works, what stars are for, and so on. One by one, these explanations fallen for more rigorous and more useful descriptions via the scientific method. Religion falls back to try to fill in another gap with each new advance. Specifically, if we look at the Bible, we see much there that is contradictory to what we have learned via the scientific method. Leviticus, Chapter 11 states that insects have 4 legs. Simple observation suffices to falsify this. Most famously, science contradicts the literal story of Genesis 1. In the New Testament, we have the story of Jesus in Mark 9 confusing devils with a classic case of epilepsy. We certainly don’t know everything about the cosmos, but the use of evidence, experimentation, and reason has brought us quite a long way and there seems to be no reason why application of the scientific method will not lead to resolving other mysteries. So, based on the inherent difficulty of detecting multiple universes and the difficulty of explaining why universal constants are the way they are, D’Souza has taken his last refuge here.

The most basic problem with that is, of course, that simply not being able to explain something yet, does not necessarily lead to the conclusion of a god. In fact, if one wants to define this god as a personal ultimately good being who cares about us, a little critical thinking makes this god vanish in a poof of logic. Consider the problem of theodicy, as discussed at EbonMusings. This type of a god is totally incompatible with the type of world we see in which there is and has always been unfairly distributed justice and far too much random evil, suffering, and misery. It is not clear how useful any other type of God would really be to us, but that alone does not rule out some Ultimate Designer behind the universal constants. I would bet that D’Souza thinks it is the Christian god however.

So, yes, if there is an Ultimate Universal Constants Tuner, we would hope to eventually uncover the fingerprints via the rigors of the scientific method. But, as Laplace told Napolean, we still have no need for that hypothesis. It doesn’t get us anywhere. It is simply a call to stop thinking. There could be any number of reasons the constants could be as they are. There is always the possibility that at a fundamental level they are not independent but had to be the way the are. Another point to be made is that we don’t really know for sure what a universe would look like with a different set of constants. A paper I saw a while back (can’t find the link at the moment, but I’ll keep looking) did tweak one of the constants and was able to obtain stellar evolution in the new model. We don’t really know what kind of life, if any, could evolve in one of those alternate universes. We do, as the weak anthropic principle states, happen to exist in a universe that is compatible with our existence. A universe so vast in scope, that if the whole thing was designed to bring us about, it is about the most inefficient design one could conceive. A true miracle would be our existence in a universe incompatible with our form of life.

Instead of surrendering our quest to more deeply understand the cosmos to an Ultimate Universal Constants Tuner, perhaps it would be more beneficial to continue, as we have before, to question, to probe, and to actually further our knowledge. I would also submit that to leap from ignorance of a solution to the assurance of faith, without corroborating evidence, is a display of arrogance.

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