Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Dear Christianity: Cosmological Arguments Are Not Your Friends

        Damon Linker has an  interesting piece for The Week, titled "Intelligent Design 2.0 Does Not Prove the Existence of God," in response to Eric Metaxas' recent "Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God" (behind paywall) at the Wall Street Journal. Metaxas apparently argues that the rarity of life makes the case for intelligent design, a very old argument that can always be adapted to fit new scientific arguments if one tries hard enough. Linker offers what I think is a well-considered (if also shopworn) reply: even if we were to concede these teleological arguments, the religious apologist still has all of her work ahead of her. As Linker puts it:
The problem with this line of reasoning for Metaxas and, most likely, for many of the people who have "liked" the column, is that it's an example of natural theology — and natural theology doesn't demonstrate the existence of the God of the Bible.
Plato and Aristotle were the first natural theologians. The pre-Socratic philosophers that preceded them rejected fanciful stories about the gods that formed the basis of Athenian civil religion and substituted various forms of atheism. But Plato and Aristotle held more nuanced views. Both philosophers followed their predecessors in denying the gods of popular piety, but they also developed theological views of their own. These were not based on divine revelation. They were a product of rational reflection on what any divine being must be like.
        A few thoughts: first, this isn't really "ID 2.0," so much as taking a minor point that was already present in the ID literature and making it a major one. I didn't read the original Metaxas piece past the introduction (I'm certainly not paying for it), but if I'm a betting man, it doesn't actually cite any new scientific discovery, but rather offers the traditional "anthropic coincidence," as the confluence of physical circumstances that allow intelligent life to exist on Earth are sometimes called, and makes it the new argument following the failure of "irreducible complexity" (the supposed inability of evolution to erect elaborate biological structures) to hold the popular imagination.
        The oddness of the forces of physics--the seeming deep improbability that a coherent material universe, let alone complex organic life, can exist at all--is something explored by the British astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees in a pop-sci introduction to the problem called Just Six Numbers (guilty full disclosure: I have not read it). Rees is theologically agnostic, so he's apparently a reasonably impartial guide through this problem. My take is this: anthropic coincidence arguments tend to overlook things that are both staggeringly improbable and, given the local contingencies, completely necessary.
        To unpack that a little, let's talk about you: your DNA is absolutely and totally unique among the 15 billion-odd (depending on whom you ask or how you count) humans who have ever existed. Even an identical twin or clone of yours would have minor chromosomal variations that would preclude it from being a perfectly exact match. As importantly, in all the future history of humanity, the odds that the particular combination of genes that make you you ever repeating, on this or any other planet, are so remote as to be mathematically dismissible.
        So what were the odds--the mind-numbingly remote odds--of you existing in your present form? Well, 100%, given the combination of your parents' genes that your developing embryo had to work with. It couldn't have actually been any other way. So, say I and several cosmologists, the universe could be a lot like that--the only option that could have been, physically necessary and statistically remote all at the same time. This argument usually entails the existence of failed or alternate universes, generally referred to as "multiverse theory," or some such, and that gets complicated in a hurry (and substantially above my pay grade) so I won't go there.
        Now, the point that Linker is making is actually the much simpler one, and I think he nails it: even if we should concede the idea of a "prime mover" or "root cause" as many schools of philosophy from the Aristotelians to the 18th-century Deists (a group which included, by the by and somewhat ironically, most of the Founding Fathers), this affirms nothing at all about the existence and character of the god or gods of any particular religion. Folks as historically remote as the Greek Epicurus, the 17th-century Jewish theologian and philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein thought that if such a universal intelligence as this prime mover existed, it would have made a cosmos self-sufficient enough that it didn't require constant tinkering in the form of miraculous intervention: it made everything and then went to sleep, content that it fashioned a watch that would last forever and never needed repair or replacement.
        This last point is both subtle and critically important, and modern Christians nearly always miss it when they try to co-opt cosmological and teleological arguments (often quite similar in practice) into Christian apologetics: prime mover gods as understood by the traditions that best articulate them don't hear prayers, don't conduct miracles, don't visit Earth in human guise, don't assign stations in the afterlife, aren't concerned with human affairs in general, and certainly don't resemble the gods of any organized religion at all.
        Heck, the Deists used this argument, sometimes called the "Watchmaker God," to specifically refute what they saw as the fables of organized Christianity. You won't get this from Fox News much (and this isn't a random liberal swipe--they really do like to argue that the Founding Fathers were a bunch of modern American Evangelicals), but Thomas Jefferson wrote an edition of the New Testament in which he took out all the miracles. This isn't an urban legend: I have a copy of it in my hand. It ends like this: "There laid they Jesus, [a]nd rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed." Full stop. No resurrection. No promised return. No Rapture. Jefferson thought that Jesus was a righteous cat whose teachings has been peppered with all manner of yokel superstition, and wrote a version of the Christian New Testament trying to set the record straight.
        So, the short of this is that the religious should be a bit more careful in selecting their polemic bedfellows. This god-of-science stuff is only their ally on the most casual and uncritical glance. Since it typically isn't actually friendly to religion and generally implies or openly states that morally speaking, we're on our own, it functionally starts to resemble agnosticism or atheism real quick. And that's not something Christians should "like" on Facebook very much.