Monday, July 23, 2018

Mysticism and the Fine-tuning of the Universe

I. Mysticism

Years ago, as a bright-eyed young physics major, I took what I thought was a hard-nosed skeptical attitude to the question of God. When the topic came up I would dismissively repeat the same mantra that I’d heard every other hard-nosed skeptic say: “There doesn’t seem to be any good evidence.” It’s a mantra that makes you feel strong. It makes you feel safe. It’s great protection against the threat of silly-sounding beliefs, like UFOs, angels, or the Loch Ness monster.

I called myself an Atheist. I saw it as a rational, honest, and manly way to be. A scientific way to be.

This changed entirely after my senior year of college. I had an experience that shook me to my core. During the course of this breakdown I had several mystical experiences. I felt the presence of God. It broke my arrogance and my ego. What I saw helped me rebuild my life. And since then I have always called myself a Theist.

Mystical experiences, by nature, are generally impossible to explain in detail. I admit that the mystical experiences of a single person do not constitute scientific evidence. Many try to explain mysticism as a kind of purely psychological phenomenon, something pathological or filling some “psychological need” that has no bearing on reality. In other words, you might say I went crazy and was simply delusional.

However, even the most atheistic scientists, after studying mysticism in depth, will admit that these states of mind serve an important function. The psychologist William James, for example, wrote:

Whether my treatment of mystical states will shed more light or darkness, I do not know, for my constitution shuts me out from their enjoyment almost entirely, and I can speak of them only at second hand. But ... I think I shall at least succeed in convincing you of the reality of the states in question, and of the paramount importance of their function. (Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture XVI)

It’s interesting that despite never reading William James (or much at all about mysticism) before my experiences happened, they had all the qualities that William James described as peculiarly mystical:

1. Ineffability.--The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. ...
2. Noetic [intellectual] quality.--Although similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed ...
3. Transiency.--Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. ...
4. Passivity.--...[W]hen the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. (Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture XVI)

The similarities between such experiences are so deep, that you could take the following description quoted by William James in Lecture III, replace “hilltop” with “beach,” and it would all apply, word for word, to my own experience near its height:

“I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hilltop, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was deep calling unto deep—the deep that my own struggle had opened up within being answered by the unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars. I stood alone with Him who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. I did not seek Him, but felt the perfect unison of my spirit with His. The ordinary sense of things around me faded. For the moment nothing but an ineffable joy and exultation remained. It is impossible to fully describe the experience. It was like the effect of some great orchestra when all the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony that leaves the listener conscious of nothing save that is soul is being wafted upwards, and almost bursting with its own emotion. The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not any more have doubted that He was there than that I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.”

All of this was true for me too, though it barely scratches the surface of either his experience or mine. Many, probably most of the details of our experiences were different. I could write an entire book about everything I realized in that moment, everything that came together about the nature of joy and suffering, civilization and humanity, truth and beauty, good and evil. Sometimes it seems to me that everything I have contemplated since then had its seed in the knowledge I gained in that moment, that in fact I could fill many books with what I realized, that this is what I have been trying to do ever since: to explain what I saw. But in reality no number of books could contain everything I saw, because it was the infinity of God.

Even his description of the effects of his experience are identical to mine:

“My highest faith in God and truest idea of him were then born in me. I have stood upon the Mount of Vision since, and felt the Eternal round about me. But never since has there come quite the same stirring of the heart. Then, if ever, I believe, I stood face to face with God, and was born anew of his spirit. There was, as I recall, no sudden change of thought or of belief, except that my early crude conception, had, as it were, burst into flower. There was no destruction of the old, but a rapid, wonderful unfolding. Since that time no discussion that I have heard of the proofs of God’s existence has been able to shake my faith. Having once felt the presence of God’s spirit, I have never lost it again for long. My most assuring evidence of his existence is rooted in that hour of vision, in the memory of that supreme experience, and in the conviction, gained from reading and reflection, that something the same has come to all who have found God. I am aware that it may justly be called mystical. I am not enough acquainted with philosophy to defend it from that or any other charge. I feel that in writing of it I have overlaid it with words rather than put it clearly to your thought. But, such as it is, I have described it as carefully as I now am able to do.”

This writer says he believed in God both before and after the experience. This might seem to be different from my case, since I claimed to be an atheist before. But in reality it is not different. I was not actually an atheist before. In fact, once you understand what a true believer means by the term “God,” it’s impossible to call yourself an atheist. What I claimed to disbelieve in is something no one can really believe in: an old man who lives in the clouds hurling lightning bolts and judging souls based on silly, technical rules.

In fact, in order to explain my experience to those who have this narrow idea of God in their minds, I will often say that I saw “Eternity” because this is equally true and helps some people understand better.

William James and other psychologists have often stressed the fact that mystical experiences will be shaped by the culture you were raised in. Hindus have experiences confirming Hinduism, Muslims will have experiences confirming the Qur’an, and Christians will have experiences confirming Christ.

I don’t deny this. My upbringing was partially Christian, though my parents left organized religion before I was a teenager. And what I believed about the universe by my senior year of college was heavily influenced by science. I did (and still do) believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution is largely correct. I did (and still do) believe that Big Bang cosmology is largely correct. More than this, I had read a great deal of Omega Point theory, the Anthropic Principle, and Platonic philosophy, and much of what I realized during my brush with Eternity had to do with how all these things (Christianity, evolution, cosmology, and philosophy) are deeply connected in surprising and powerful ways.

I have written about several of these topics over the last fourteen years, but not all. The core of my spiritual belief has been kept private now for over a decade. Why? Because it has always seemed too hard to express. Over the years I’ve started many blog posts and even books on the subject of fundamental metaphysics, but I have not yet finished any. The problem is ... well I don’t know what the problem is. Maybe it’s all too personal. Maybe as the discussion becomes technical I feel I am missing the point. Maybe too often I find my arrogance gets in the way, my overwhelming desire to turn over all objections and finally prove this metaphysics the one true metaphysics. Maybe too often I’ve tried to avoid theology because I feel that no one would listen but those who are already convinced. But theology is unavoidable in metaphysics. In fact the two are identical in essence. Aristotle’s Metaphysics claims to be about what is “most divine,” speaks of the universe’s “Final Cause” (what modern physicists call the Omega Point) and has been cited by theologians for centuries.

So how did I come to finally post on all this now? What happened? What did I realize? That I don’t know, not exactly. I recently got in a discussion online about cosmological fine-tuning with an atheist. I promised I would start a Reddit thread on fine-tuning because we both wanted to go more in depth. So I started doing research and I realized that to give the cosmological fine-tuning argument for God its fair due, I would need to defend the Christian view. I would need to start doing some more serious apologetics. Because the truth is, logical arguments for the existence of God are never enough. And the reason for this is the reason for mysticism, is what we’ve been discussing—His ineffability.

II. Fine-tuning

In most discussions of fine-tuning you’ll start by talking about Einstein’s General Relativity and how black holes would have swallowed everything if the universe had been just slightly more lumpy. Or you’ll start with quantum mechanics and explain why if certain laws were off by 1% all your protons will decay before atoms, molecules, stars, or any form of life would have a chance to evolve. All of this is very interesting, and we’ll get to it, but it’s all completely meaningless unless we can agree on a context of what exactly it’s all fine-tuned for. If you get your car a tune-up it’s because you want it to drive. (And shouldn’t a fine tune-up make it drive fine?) If you tune your instruments, you want them on key. (And wouldn’t a fine tune do more than this?)

Generally speaking, to tune something is to calibrate it for a purpose. For an end goal. It’s interesting that a number of physicists (e.g. Luke Barnes, Martin Rees) defend fine-tuning as true but won’t touch the question of God. But the two notions are connected. If something’s tuned you’ve got a tuner.

Ah, but here’s a tricky point. How can you know anything about this supposed tuner of the universe when he’s outside of space and time? How do you know what his purpose is? Well, you can’t. And so it would seem that (at least scientifically) this whole line of thought is a non-starter. This is exactly what philosophers tend to argue (cf. Stanford's Elliott Sober in "The Design Argument," which is Chapter 6 of the Blackwell Guide To The Philosophy Of Religion).

But it seems to me that people aren’t being quite fair. When Elon Musk tried to prove that we’re all in a giant computer program, sure, there was a quite a bit of scoffing, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as much scoffing as if he’d tried to prove the existence of God. This is a double standard. The characteristics that are deemed most problematic in God – omnipotence and omniscience – are the same characteristics that a programmer has relative to his programs. This is why we write programs in the first place, to have complete control and knowledge. We are even eternal with respect to our programs, since we can freeze them, rewind, rerun, and predict the future from previous iterations.

I find it amusing when philosophers and scientists take the line that we can’t know anything about the designer of the universe because we’ve never seen a universe designed before. Nonsense. We all design universes all the time, and we do it spontaneously from birth. We do it in our imaginations, we do it using toys and making up games, we do it telling stories and inventing myths, we do it when we do math or make a model or a device. Everything that we design is a universe of a sort, sometimes even explicitly so, as with cosmological models or Conway’s Game of Life. It is the very thing that humans do that sets them apart from other animals, to design and most especially, to design worlds.

Every piece of literature, every philosophy, every religion, every model in science is a universe we have designed.

No, I think we have a pretty good idea of the kinds of traits the designer of our particular universe would have. We are made in his image.

It’s why we use terms like fine-tuned in the first place. It’s not just that the universe is tuned. It’s very finely tuned. It’s well-crafted. The distinction brings to mind, as Luke Barnes discusses, Boltzmann’s notion that maybe our universe was created by a random departure from thermal equilibrium. But on more careful examination, physicists have found that this idea can’t work. If it were true the world be way more chaotic, a violent storm ready to wipe us back out any instant (as the Epicureans believed). As it is, we are granted a nice big region of space, not too cold nor too hot, and plenty of time for evolution. If we’re here by blind luck, why are we this lucky? It would be like having your car totaled and not only surviving the accident, but having your car come out of the wreck shinier, newer, and a more expensive model.

If you’re not a thermodynamicist like me, you’re probably confused. Without going into too many details here (since then we’d have to touch on the arrow of time, which I’d love to do but would take too much time) let me sketch out more fully Boltzmann’s idea and why it must be wrong.

Ludwig Boltzmann was the physicist who discovered that you could derive the Law of Entropy using statistics. The Law of Entropy is also called the Second Law of Thermodynamics. You may have heard of it. Entropy was originally a quantity measured by chemists and engineers, and it seemed similar to energy (hence the name). Eventually they realized that this quantity never increased within a closed system. You just kept losing it. To get more you’d have to put in some kind of concentrated energy like fuel or sunlight. It was Boltzmann who said, aha! we’re really talking about ordered vs. disordered energy. He went on to show that entropy could be precisely defined in terms of how uncertain we are about the motions of the atoms. The disordered motions of atoms are also known as “heat.” A system’s tendency to disorder is why much of the energy of the fuel in your car goes into making the engine hot. It’s why you get hot when you run around. All that energy is getting lost in random motions of atoms. All this was a huge revelation, because before Boltzmann people weren’t quite sure what heat or entropy really were, they just knew that to write down equations for how an engine works you had to account for them.

But now we know exactly what entropy is. It’s a kind of disorder. And after having this realization Boltzmann’s philosophizing started going a mile a minute. (He had many sleepless nights and even suffered from psychosis. His fate was tragic, if you ever care to read the story.) He started wondering how, if every closed system tends toward disorder, there is anything like humans or plants or machines at all. Shouldn’t everything tend toward total chaos? We get energy from the sun, but won’t the sun eventually run out? Where did it come from in the first place? In the long run, the universe should be at “thermal equilibrium” -- a state where all heat has escaped in to the vast regions of space, leaving everything cold and lifeless. This state has come to be known as “heat death.” And according to the inflationary models of the universe that are currently in style, it is our probable fate.

It was Boltzmann that first suggested that maybe our universe began in such a state. He pointed out that, given enough time, the random motions of atoms would eventually bring about as much order as you like. They would all eventually come together to form stars and planets and whatever you want. You just had to wait for it to happen. And so, after 1010^who-knows-how-many years, our universe finally happened. And it was bound to, assuming that time never ends.

Scratch that. It wasn’t Boltzmann that first made this suggestion. It was probably Leucippus (5th century BC) and if not it was certainly either his student Democritus, or another Greek atomist. But this is beside the point.

The point is that this line of reasoning doesn’t work. Early in the 20th century physicists such as Arthur Eddington realized that random motions are much much more likely to create small universes than large ones. It’s easy to see why. You are much less lucky to a have a few atoms come together to create a brain that thinks, “I exist!” and mistakenly, “And look how big and congenial the universe is!” and then die (what physicists now like to call a “Boltzmann brain”), and much much more lucky to have a billion trillion times more atoms coming together to create a universe actually as congenial to life as ours.

Recall what the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics says. It says systems tend toward disorder. Why? Because disordered states are more likely. You can shake up that puzzle box and hope it reassembles itself. And it could happen. It’s possible. But what’s way more likely is that it will only become more mixed up. Since things tend toward disorder in the future, that also means they tend toward order in the past. So the most ordered state the universe has ever been in was its first moment of existence. In fact it was so well-ordered that (statistically speaking) it’s extremely more likely that we all sprang into existence believing in the Big Bang than for the Big Bang to have happened with as low entropy as it did.

Enough. You either get the point of this or you don’t. No worries. All I’m trying to say is that our universe is not just tuned. It’s fiiiiine tuned. Whether we all sprang into existence luckily believing that we have a history even more fined tuned than we are, or whether our universe really has had a nice 10-billion year run of evolutionary tuning up, man that’s some tuning.

We’re talking luck of at least 1 in 1010^40, that is, one in ten-to-the-ten-thousand-trillion-trillion-trillion-th. That’s even assuming all quantum physics and gravitational forces have already been given full-service. All we’re talking about now is distributing ordered energy among particles after the Big Bang so they can serve as fuel for stars, so they can pass that energy to planets and make our plants grow. If that energy had been distributed in some random way, the universe would have been filled with black holes and heavier elements from the start. No stars, no life. (See Penrose, 1979, as cited in Barnes).

Just after the Big Bang, space was unusually smooth, but not too smooth. If entropy had been much lower, stars and galaxies wouldn’t have clumped together like they did. You’d just have a bunch of hydrogen gas. So not only was our universe lucky, it had just the right amount of luck. The amount of tuning was itself tuned.

It’s the sort that realization that can make people a little queasy, especially atheists.

However, there are plenty of useful notions for helping such people stave off theism. The most significant one in my case was the idea that you can’t measure probabilities for one-time events after the fact. If somebody asks, “What’s the probability that our universe came into being,” you can just smirk and say “100%.” Because the fact is, it did come into being. But if it were true that you could never decide probabilities after the fact, then the U.S. Court system would be completely useless, because all it does is decide probabilities after the fact. Unless you think that all verdicts made by juries are true 100% of the time, in which case you are wrong.

The design of universes is something, as I’ve said, that humans specialize in, so to say we can’t even contemplate the possibility is disingenuous. If we can contemplate the possibility of our universe randomly coming into being, we can contemplate the possibility of it non-randomly coming into being.

Anyway, we’ve only discussed the fine-tuning of entropy so far. Let’s talk about the fine-tuning of the laws of nature themselves. A good introduction to the fine-tuning of our universe’s physics is the astrophysicist Martin Rees’s Just Six Numbers. This book is a great introduction both to cosmology and fine-tuning, and it’s written from a religiously neutral point of view. So it would be a great place to start if you’re curious to know more. If you’re a scientist or really into physics, you might take a look at Barnes who discusses not only Rees’s six but dozens more constants that are fine-tuned for life. Here’s a sampling of fine-tuned parameters:

  • The ratio of the strengths of electricity and gravity is small enough to allow for planets and stars, and big enough so that multi-cellular organisms like ourselves aren’t crushed under our own weight.
  • ε measures the strength of certain nuclear forces, and if it were too far out of range we wouldn’t have enough life-friendly atoms like carbon and oxygen.
  • λ, the cosmological constant, governs a force of anti-gravity and can’t be too big or our universe would have flown apart before life could evolve.
  • We live in 3-dimensional space. If there were 4 dimensions, solar and atomic orbits would be unstable. If there were 2 dimensions, complex life would be much more difficult to support. In 1 dimension it would be impossible.
  • We have 1 dimension of time. Persistent information processing in three dimensions requires exactly this many.
  • If the scale of quantum phenomena were too small, electrons would spiral into the nucleus and there would be no stable atoms or molecules.
  • If the down quark were a bit too heavy, there would be no neutrons and you couldn’t form any atoms but hydrogen. If the down quark were a bit too light, protons would be unstable and you would have no hydrogen to fuel stars.
  • If the up quark were too heavy, hydrogen could never burn to form helium and our sun would have no fuel.
  • The ratios in masses of neutrons, protons, and electrons must be just right, or else hydrogen atoms will be unstable, nuclear reactions will be too common, complex molecules will fall apart, or stars won’t produce diverse enough elements for organic life.

As I said, this is just a sampling. If you want more and you absolutely love equations, read his whole paper.

So the universe is fine-tuned. Fine. So what.

Stay tuned.

III. Evolution and Fine-Tuning

If you think the theory of evolution has shown that God is unnecessary, you may be getting the unsettling feeling of going backwards. The whole reason we needed Darwin’s theory in the first place was to explain how animals, plants, and humans are so well-adapted to their environment. But if you could just invoke a “fine-tuning” argument like physicists do, and take it for granted that 1 to 1010^40 odds is pretty normal when setting up a universe, then there was no problem to begin with. Just pull a Boltzmann (or Leucippus if you wish) and say that if you waited long enough eventually somewhere life would randomly spring up just the way it is on earth.

But that’s not very satisfying. And it shouldn’t be. It surprises me that any thoughtful physicist could find the notion of a “multiverse” satisfying as an explanation for how our universe is so special.

Multiverse? Yeah it’s the idea that if you have enough universes to choose from, one of them will be just right. And this is the one where life will evolve, and then humans, and then scientists who say “Look how special this place is, what are the chances, there must be a multiverse!”

Barnes admits that this notion runs into just the same problem as Boltzmann’s. He calls it the “mediocrity test.” If you generate your universe randomly, will your average attempt be better or worse than ours? Unfortunately, it turns out that most proposals for a multiverse scenario fail the mediocrity test. You end up with a bunch of pitiful universes that are small, short-lived, and only superficially awesome.

There are so many variable parameters when creating a universe (is this surprising?) that chances are that several of these variables will end up near there extreme of their allowable range. So you’re going to be hemmed in on several sides by hostile forces ready to destroy everything. Granted, the world is not perfect, but its good enough that life has survived on this planet for several billion years, and will likely survive for several billion years more. That’s way better than your average random universe:

1. For example, consider the ratio of electrical and gravitational strength. It’s high enough that creatures as big as blue whales and the 100-ton land-bound Agentinosaurus could support their own weight, let alone humans. It’s also low enough that we’ve already had several generations of stars since the universe began, leaving us with billions of years still until our own star dies. 
2. Fine-tuning is often criticized because it focuses so much on carbon. But the point is not that carbon is the only life-giving atom. It’s one of 118 or so known elements in our universe, while life is theoretically possible with just 4 or 5. Why are we lucky enough to have metals like Iron and Copper and Aluminum, as well, so essential to civilization, but probably expendable when it comes to biological life?
3. The visible universe is much larger than what is needed for life. Arguably, life just requires one star and one planet, but there are about 100 million trillion stars in the known universe. That’s a lot of stellar fuel that had to be just smooth enough when the universe started. That’s a lot of unnecessary luck.

Even the fact that we live on a relatively spacious planet is a fantastic piece of luck. Smaller planets are going to be more common, and ton for ton provide more surface area for life. Perhaps evolution happens faster on large planets. But if this is the dominant effect that would should expect to be on a planet so large that complex, intelligent life can just barely evolve before it’s too big to support its own weight, especially since intelligence is harder to evolve than strength.

Which brings us back to evolution. Now the theory of evolution is very similar to the multiverse theory. Both of them invoke a kind of selection to explain what would otherwise be some piece of astronomical luck. On the one hand you have a bunch of random universes, and only those few with intelligent life know they exist, and on the other you’ve got a bunch of random mutations, and only those few that enhance survival pass themselves on to future generations.

But the problem with multiverse theories, as we’ve discussed, is that that they ask for too little. All that’s selected is some fleeting intelligence that knows that it exists. And that is why that’s all the theory produces, sudden bursts of life that are quickly overtaken by chaos. It’s like the unavoidable problem of teachers who teach to the exam. Students cram and then forget. Everything will tend to the lowest common denominator.

Biological evolution on our world asks for much more. It asks for survival, a kind of persistence. It asks for flourishing, for a pressing against the environment, for vivacity and strength. As I discuss in my book, it even asks for compassion, diversity, generosity, and spirituality.

I’m not saying that mutation and natural selection automatically produce these things. Darwin’s Law of Natural Selection is a universal, mathematical law. It simply states that, given finite resources, populations that grow faster will overtake populations that grow more slowly. This is logical, even tautological. It’s the survival of that which can survive. Without any other insight, you would expect organisms to be as fast and mean as possible, viruses that replicate out of control. In fact, in most early artificial life simulations, this is exactly the kinds of computer programs that evolved, as I describe in my previous post. I’ve spent some time playing around with artificial life myself and seeing if I could create interesting domesticated computer viruses. But it turns out to be incredibly hard. You have to set up just the right rules of the game so that (1) they don’t take over your hard drive and destroy your computer (yes, this happened to a professor I knew), (2) they don’t get smaller and smaller and simpler and simpler so they can reproduce extra fast, (3) they don’t become virulent parasites that exploit other organisms and destroy the ecosystem, and (4) they start out with the right sort of DNA to show interesting behavior without having it all preprogrammed. In short, it’s a challenge to make them show any interesting behavior at all aside from copying themselves.

Evolution on earth has solved all these sorts of issues. We take it for granted, but how well it has done so is a fantastic example of fine tuning:

1. If life were able to exploit the laws of nature down to the most fundamental level, rather than being constrained to mainly chemical reactions, it would harness nuclear energy and start breaking down the very elements that make up our earth. With so much energy at its disposal, life would explode exponentially and consume all its nuclear fuel before it could develop into anything interesting. 
2. If life didn’t have to compete for energy and so many different kinds of resources, or if this competition were based solely on efficiency (which is the case in most naive artificial life experiments, and would be the case in our world if space travel were easy or resources over-abundant), everything would tend towards simple self-replication and nothing complex could evolve. 
3. If ecosystems had not quickly evolved so much diversity, a single parasitic organism could have destroyed everything very early on (as they often do in artificial life experiments and modern mono-crop agriculture). 
4. Somehow self-replication on earth got started, of just the right sort that it could evolve into cells, organisms, and robust ecosystems, and diversify exponentially over the eons. How life with such adaptive potential got started in the first place is still an open question in biology. DNA seems to play a basic role in our adaptability, but it seems prohibitively unlikely for it to have randomly come together and replicate itself without all the other adaptive mechanisms of the cell.

That the process of evolution itself is fine-tuned is another subtle embarrassment for the atheistic scientist who thought Darwin had banished God entirely. They tend to come back to another variant of multiverse hypothesis. They point to the fact that if there are 100 million trillion solar systems out there, a few of them are bound to be just right for life to appear.

Most scientists are content to leave it at that, but it strikes me that this theory might fail the Mediocrity Test the way other multiverse theories do.

Let’s consider two options, then.

The first option is for some kind of life to appear in one of the 100 million trillion systems that has all the characteristics listed above, plus anything I failed to mention, and solves any other gotchas. There are bound to be a ton of gotchas—surprise problems—any time you’re designing anything. As a computer programmer I know that your initial design will almost never work, and things will end up being at least three times more complicated than you thought they were, as seen in early artificial life experiments. And your gotchas will have gotchas. Not only are we evolving life, but intelligent life capable of contemplating all this, and with all the future evolutionary potential of humanity. Because not only is it great luck that we exist, but that we seem to have a long future ahead of us. (Doomsday scenarios abound, but I have yet to encounter a good argument that humans are about to go extinct. Our civilization will almost certainly collapse though, a common fate that has happened to many civilizations before ours. It is not fatal and I argue it’s needed for renewal. For more discussion, please see Progress Debunked.)

The second option is for some fleeting intelligence to appear in some primordial soup that merely believes that everything from option 1 is true. Due to the existence of gotchas, and the fact that your gotchas will have gotchas, this is a much simpler requirement, because all it requires is the momentary appearance of wishful thinking, and not a several billion year run of just the right environment for the evolution of intelligence. Unfortunately, in a random space of possibilities, the simpler explanation is going to be the most likely.

So option 2 is far far more likely in a random world than option 1. If life arose by pure chance, we are really just some randomly interacting chemicals in a tidal pool on some hostile world, our beautiful green Earth is almost certainly a mirage, and we’re about to dissolve back into the chaotic soup from which we came.

All I’m saying is, you don’t get something for nothing. There is, once again, no free lunch. If evolution generated order for free, all computer programs would be evolutionary algorithms. Programmers would have realized this long ago because they love to automate things. If pure creativity could be automated by the evolutionary process, all problems would have been solved by the discovery of evolution. But this is far from the truth. In reality, evolution is just one algorithm among many that can help in the design of a system. It is not a designer, but simply a process that translates information from one form to another. In the case of life on earth, evolution translated order found in the sun, in the earth’s environment, and in the entire set up of the universe into the order found in organisms.

There is a quantity in computer science called “Kolmogorov complexity.” It is defined as the length of the shortest computer program that will generate a given pattern. It’s a useful concept because it lets you think about the “true” complexity of a pattern as opposed to its apparent complexity. Assuming that human intelligence is truly complex, the fact is that it could not have been generated by any process less complex than itself. This follows from the very definition of algorithmic complexity. This explains why, every time we demand that intelligence be explained by a simple process, we are forced to the conclusion that all the complex order of our world is a mirage.

So in fact every time we learn something new about the history of life and the universe, every time we explain something in terms of something else, every law we discover and every cosmic pattern we reveal, we are only making the ultimate explanation harder. People like to say that science is leaving fewer and fewer gaps for God. But the truth is the opposite. The more science learns, the more gotchas that are discovered in need of a God.

The entire process of evolution, with all of its millions of species coming into being and passing away, striving in unfathomably complex ecological webs over billions of generations, is far more complex than the human brain. Sure, evolution explains the human brain, but it opens up an even vaster region of knowledge to be explained. You can appeal to the 100 million trillion worlds in the visible universe, but now you’ve got an even bigger gotcha on your hands, a universe that had to start with an entropy so low it’s less likely than a brain randomly popping into and out of existence. Finally, that all the laws of the universe have been so congenial from the start, smoothing things out with anti-gravity while keeping them just lumpy enough by gravity, keeping stars and planets from collapsing with just the right electric force and binding atoms together with a nuclear force strong but not too strong ... we’re talking about mathematics so complex and tuned to our needs that to deny a creator is ultimately to demand that every logically possible universe exists ... which of course would include universes with a creator. So why not?

IV. Mediocrity and the Meaning of Life

The mediocrity test, used persistently, is fatal to all appeals to blind chance. Even in evolution. Yes, I agree that life on earth evolved by random mutation ... and natural selection! It did not arise by mutation alone. It could have very easily. Just assume a giant universe with lots of time, and pure mutation will give you whatever you want. But then, of course, you get everything you don’t want, and you get forms of life too stupid for words, and the overwhelming probability that we are one of them.

No, you need selection. Selection is a necessary ingredient for good design. Selection is design. It is the hand of God, as I explained in my previous post.

Selection goes all the way up. Your forces of selection must themselves be selected. You don’t solve anything by saying that given enough worlds in the universe eventually one of them will have the right forces of selection for the evolution of intelligence. Chances are you’ll mostly get the evolution of stupidity that thinks it’s intelligence, which is always easier. No, the best selection is carefully selected selection. And that selection is selected, all the way up to God.

I find it funny that atheists invented the mediocrity test, and use it without their illusions crumbling. Because if the more likely possibility is that your brain sprang into existence having all the thoughts it does and will soon be destroyed by impending chaos, then why don’t physicists simply accept this conclusion and give up all hope? How is this a reductio ad absurdum at all unless you demand that life have meaning? It is disingenuous of atheists to continually harp on the lack of meaning in the universe, but to reject the most probable hypothesis on this view—that the world is entirely mediocre and devoid of meaning, a blip in a vast sea of chaos. It’s an hypothesis that the Epicureans were at least honest enough to embrace more fully. Lucretius claimed that the plagues and earthquakes hitting Rome (this was during its long decline) were a sign that the world would soon come to end. Perhaps there are a few honest fatalists like this today, but it would seem they are in the minority among scientists, who still work on their theories day to day as if even our very civilization were immune to decay. It’s ironic.

The truth is that, as I’ve said, atheists do believe in meaning. You have to. Life presupposes it. If what you do is to matter, it must be grounded in the past and an influence on the future. It requires a history, a world, a vast arena for action. Meaningful action is not possible in the midst of pure chaos. It would dissolve like a gas.

There is meaning. There is order in life. It’s an ancient idea, going back to the Proto-Indo-European root *reg- which underlies words in many languages across Eurasia for direction, leadership, and rule. Modern words that come from this root include regal, rectitude, righteous, and regulate. In ancient religions and Greek philosophy there is a common principle that the universe is infused with and guided by order and reason. The Greeks also called this principle logos. The gospel of John, originally written in Greek, starts: “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and God was the logos.”

Order is design. It is fine-tuning. Our universe is fine-tuned. It is manifestly designed. Maybe it did involve randomness. Maybe our history was written by one of a hundred million trillion monkeys on typewriters typing for 1040 years. But even then it involved selection too, it involved the recognition that one of those histories was meaningful. That this is possible at all, that we are contemplating the meaning of life, is proof that there is meaning.

And if there is meaning, there is a highest meaning. And that highest meaning is called divine. It is called God.

And this God must necessarily be personal. A god that just hangs around in the background tweaking parameters, who treats the world as a plaything, does nothing to give that world meaning.

Any being complex enough to create our universe is practically infinite and beyond full comprehension, let alone scientific comprehension. But we can comprehend aspects of God, and we can understand much about His creativity because we are creators too.

Everything that humans create has a purpose. That is to say, everything we create has a meaning. The meaning of art is hard to explain, and that’s because it goes very deep. And when it does not go deep we know it lacks purpose. The same is true for philosophy and religion. And this is why the fact that the universe is designed is the same as the fact that it has meaning. To say that there is a creator is to say that there is more than what we see around us, a higher context providing it with value.

Many have argued that if our universe is a computer program, our Programmer may not be all powerful or benevolent, but just more complex that we are, in some higher-dimensional universe. But once again our explanation has expanded the realm of things that need explaining. Where did the Programmer come from? Is there another level of simulated reality above the next? Where does it all end?

But this is all that is meant when we say that God is infinite. There could be any number of levels. It all depends on the ultimate design, which will forever be beyond our (finite) comprehension. The point is not to finally know everything once and for all, but to allow ourselves to be awed by the mystery and to learn to trust the higher power. Full comprehension is impossible. It is faith that is ultimately called for.

Self-styled atheists say that our universe came into being without meaning, and that meaning is a human invention. This is why atheists tend to think of meaning in relativistic or subjective terms. “Make your own meaning,” they say. But in reality this is impossible. No arbitrarily-invented value is likely to survive the test of natural selection. And if it does, it is natural selection that deserves the credit and not you. Because without some pre-defined set of values there are no criteria by which to choose new values, and anything you create, lacking both context and meaning, will be random.

Atheists say God is unlikely to exist. But actually it is atheists that are unlikely to exist. In reality even those who call themselves atheists must believe in meaning. And in any system of value, there is automatically defined some highest value. You can say that our universe is only one among countless, and that it is only so friendly to life because otherwise we wouldn’t be around to ask “why.” But now this very picture becomes your portrait—certainly crude—of God. Asking “why” becomes the meaning and purpose of your universe. And it should not be surprising that scientists are the most likely to adore such a portrait, because their very purpose in life is asking “why.” So they worship the God of Why. For them, the whys do not end. Connecting facts to other facts is their personal quest. It was my personal quest for several years until I found that I needed more than this out of life.

The strong desire to explain is what makes many scientists blind to their own theism. Because as soon as God is introduced it makes the game too easy. The rest of us get impatient with all the endless facts and say, “But God must enter somewhere.” And this is misunderstood to mean that we believe in God despite the evidence. But the fact of the matter is, that all the evidence supports God and must, because He is everyone's presupposition, that is, we only care to discuss anything because we suppose that life has value. So we all in fact agree that the ultimate source of value must come in somewhere. It is the so-called atheist that is being unreasonable here because he puts off the question indefinitely.

You can assume what you want about how our universe came to be. Maybe there are infinite universes and some kind of natural selection among them. Or maybe our universe has a creator, and so does the next, and there is an infinite hierarchy of creators. Either way you will never be done explaining. You will never get to the why. So if we want to speak of God let's speak of Him—the Prime Mover.

Design theorists are somewhat to blame because they also misrepresent themselves. Their purpose is not to stop explanation, like a child who jealously wants to stop others from playing a game he is less good at, but actually to point out that explanation can go on forever because God is infinite. And every level of explanation—each law of nature, each parameter of the Big Bang, each aspect of evolution—is meaningful because it adds to the total complexity, luckiness, and meaningfulness of our universe.

V. Proof and Mysticism

The fine-tuning argument cannot prove God. It cannot even prove that our universe has a designer. But the fundamental reason for this is different from what many scientists and philosophers suppose. They say we can’t agree on a solution because we can’t agree on the “prior probabilities.” This is true, but it is not the fundamental reason.

Let me explain briefly what prior probabilities are. Say a new disease is spreading, A-itis. You go to the doctor and get tested, and the doctor says, “Look, I’ve got bad news. You’ve tested positive for this fatal disease, A-itis. It’s looking pretty bad. The test for A-itis is 99.99% accurate. But there is still hope. If you don’t have A-itis, there’s a 1/10,000 chance of a false positive.”

Slim comfort. Those odds sound horrible, right? If only 1/10,000 of people test positive who don’t have A-itis, it sort of sounds like you have a 9,999/10,000 chance of dying. But this is false. Because the chance of having A-itis could be much lower than the chance of testing positive. What you’re missing is the prior probability of having A-itis. Realizing this, you go back to the doctor and ask, “What’s the prior probability of having A-itis?” He tells you, “Well, about 1 in 10,000,000.” This is fantastic news. 1/10,000 is the same as 1,000/10,000,00. So given 10 million people, only 1 person will actually have A-itis, while 1,000 people will get a false positive. So the odds are still only one in a thousand that you actually have the disease.

Unless you have some idea what the prior probabilities are, any tests, any evidence for one conclusion or another will be inconclusive.

Earlier we discussed the problem of entropy. We pointed out that the luck of having such low entropy at the beginning of the universe, to have such a nice smooth distribution of fuel for stars, was something like 1 in 1010^40, if the particles were spread randomly through space. A theist will point out that the odds look much better for a universe designed for life, because now the chances are 100% that the entropy will be low enough for life to form.

But this does not by itself prove theism, because we’re missing the prior probability that there is a creator in the first place. If the odds against having a creator are much less than 1 in 1010^40, then our universe is still probably random.

It is here that people tend to throw up their hands. How do you determine the prior probability of a creator? Especially when not everyone agrees on his characteristics? It all seems to boil down to assumptions, things that can’t be proven. It seems like agnosticism is the only reasonable position. And in fact, reading the scientific literature on fine-tuning, it seems that agnosticism is the dominant mood.

I doubt that any amount of fine-tuning evidence, no matter how good, will break this agnostic mood.

But that’s all it is, a mood. It’s a willful avoidance of the question of ultimate meaning. Again, to believe in meaning at all is to believe in ultimate meaning. To believe in order or design at all is to believe in ultimate order and design. To say that meaning and order spring spontaneously from chaos is to deny that they are really meaning or order.

And even this line of argument, I suspect, will lead us in a circle. “Sure, let’s deny that meaning or order really exist,” you say. “So what? Science has revealed a meaningless universe.” And I’ll just say again that it’s undeniable that there is meaning in my life and in yours.

I’ve said that every explanation, every cause, is not evidence against God but evidence for God. As John writes, “All things came into being through him [the logos], and without him not one thing has come into being.” Explanation is connection. To uncover the history of the world or the universe is to connect the present to the past. To speak of the purpose of life is to connect the present to the future. Taken to its limit, the mood of explanation is a mood of connection. Taken to its limit, the search for the ultimate cause, for the theory of everything, is the search for how all things connect with all things. No, it’s not pure facts or pure logic, but rather when this mood of connection has coupled with facts and logic at the limits of your comprehension, and such full consciousness has reached its climax, when everything has been brought to touch this awareness—not just atoms and galaxies and laws of nature, but humanity and civilization and life and evolution and suffering and joy and death and birth and belief and love and hate and poetry and myth and nature and beauty and compassion and faith and courage and goodness and everything that matters in life—when all of this has been seen as logically whole as possible in its fine-tuned fullness of purpose (and who could really see it whole but God)—and when this fullness of the world has overcome your intellect, your ego so that your very conception of yourself has dissolved into divine immensity—then and only then does conversion occur.

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