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The Miracle of Our Existence

John on December 2, 2005 at 6:09 pm

I decided to accept the challenge of writing about miracles for the upcoming “God or Not” Carnival. Since I knew the carnival was going to be hosted at the Evangelical Atheist’s blog I went over and had a look. I came across this post in which he makes a serious attempt to deal with the cosmological argument for God’s existence. This gave me an idea. I won’t attempt to defend miracles with scripture, since that is wasted breath. Nor will I attempt to defend miracles on philosophical grounds, since in my experience this becomes a semantic tug of war that rarely gets us anywhere. I will instead defend miracles with science. In particular, I want to discuss the biggest miracle of all: our existence. I want to suggest that what we currently know about cosmology suggests (proof is an impossible standard in this case) that our existence is indeed miraculous…

First, it’s instructive to note several things about the so-called “Big Bang,” starting with the fact that it’s a fairly recent development. The elements of the theory arose in the 1920s as Einstein and others wrestled with the implications of general relativity, which had been essentially confirmed in 1919 by Arthur Eddington. Almost simultaneously, the discovery by Hubble and Humason that “nebulae” were actually other galaxies and that they were receding from us, suggested an expanding universe. The publication of Hubble data in 1929 led to universal acceptance of Hubble’s constant which said that redshift is proportional to distance, i.e. the farther something is from us the faster it’s receding.

Almost immediately, scientists like Hubble, Eddington and others realized that an expanding universe implied that in the past the universe must have been smaller. Indeed it seemed to suggest the possibility that there was “a beginning”, an idea which seemed radical in 1930.

One has to remember that the static, eternal model of the universe had been widely accepted since Newton. Newton’s reasons for positing an eternal universe were largely theological, but his popularizers during the Enlightenment, (especially Voltaire) saw his theories as undoing 1500 years of church teaching on creation ex nihilo and bringing back the materialistic universe of the ancient Greek atomists (Democritus, Epicurus, etc.). It’s too big a topic to dive into here, but materialists have always favored an eternal universe.

In 1931 Arthur Eddington who, as mentioned, was one of the first promoters of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gave a speech to a group of mathmeticians in which he explored some of its implications, specifically the possibility of a beginning of time. He began this section of his speech saying “I have no ‘philosophical axe to grind’ in this discussion. Philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the present order of nature is repugnant to me.” What follows is both beautifully written and telling. It’s worth quoting at length. See if you can’t hear the tone of frustration and disappointment behind what Eddington says:

The dilemna is this: Surveying our surroundings, we find them to be far from a “fortuitous concourse of atoms.” The picture of the world, as drawn in existing physical theories, shows arrangement of the individual elements for which the odds are multimillions to 1 against an origin by chance. Some people would like to call this non-random feature of the world purpose or design; but I will call it non-committally anti-chance. We are unwilling to admit in physics that anti-chance plays any part in the reactions between the systemes of billions of atoms and quanta that we study; and indeed all our experimental evidence goes to show that these are governed by the laws of chance. Accordingly, we sweep anti-chance out of the laws of physics– out of the differential equations. Naturally therefore it reappears in the boundary conditions, for it must be got into the scheme somewhere. By sweeping it far enough away from the sphere of our current physical problems, we fancy we have got rid of it. It is only when some of us are so misguided as to try to get back billions of years into the past that we find the sweepings all piled up like a high wall and forming a boundary–a beginning of time– which we cannot climb over.

After some further discussion of the problem, Eddington ends “We are thus driven to admit anti-chance; and apparently the best thing we can do with it is to sweep it up into a heap at the beginning of time.”

These comments by Eddington caused astrophysicist and theologian George Lemaitre to write a brief reply which appeared in the journal Nature just seven weeks later. In this letter Lemaitre argued that truth was not subject to matters of taste. Lemaitre proposed that the best current knowledge (again, 1931) suggested that the universe may have begun as a kind of “primeval atom.” This was the first statement of the “Big Bang” theory, though without that term.

Eddington was far from the only scientist who found the idea of a beginning distateful. In 1948, Hoyle, Gold and Bondi proposed a solution to the “problem of a beginning” called the steady-state theory. The term “Big Bang” was actually first used in one of their papers mocking the idea. Their theory used quantum fluctuation in empty space to recreate an eternal universe. It was clever and very popular throughout the 50s and 60s because it removed the need for a beginning, but the discovery of the cosmic background radiation put an end to it.

Steady state was not the only attempt to “solve the problem” presented by the big bang theory. The tired light theory, the oscilating universe, Guth’s inflation theory, and Hawking’s “universe in a nutshell” which uses imaginary time to eliminate a beginning — all of these are attempts to deal either with the beginning or the associated problems that stem from it. To one extent or another, all of them have fallen out of favor over time. All of them fail to really solve the problem set forth by Eddington.

There is always the next theory, but in general we can agree that as we have learned more about cosmology our appreciation of how lucky we are to be here has gone up exponentially. The so called anthropic coincidences are not denied by materialists, but simply gotten around in other ways than be reference to design. For materialists, the fine-tuning suggests the need for greater “probabalistic resources.” In other words, if ours is the only universe, then we have indeed won the lottery a million times over, which is obviously suggestive of “anti-chance.” However, if there are an infinite number of other universes, the vast majority of which do not support life, then what appears to us as impossibility is really a selection effect. In essence, we are here to comment on the strangeness of winning the quantum lottery only because we won. I don’t deny that this is possible. It is a real option. But if one embraces it, one must also embrace its core weaknesses.

As I see it, there are two problems with multiple universes as a scientific explanation. As a theory it is almost certainly unverifiable and, if so, then it is also unfalsifiable. By unverifiable I don’t mean that we don’t have enough information at this point in time. I mean that the nature of our universe would appear to preclude the possibility of knowledge about these other universes, even if they really do exist. As Eddington said, the big bang is a wall. No information from whatever came before it passed into our universe. Therefore, at best, it is an inference without proof. Secondly, as a result of being unverifiable, the idea of multiple universes is also unfalsifiable. Nothing can count against it since nothing about it can be known. The irony of this position, i.e. atheists relying on creation ex nihilo times infinity to justify materialism, has not been lost on some atheists. If I may paraphrase a line I’ve seen on several atheist blogs “I can claim there are a multiplicity of invisible universes in the trunk of my car, but that doesn’t make it so.”

So starting from what we really do know and can prove about our universe and taking into consideration what we are likely to be able to know, we can either a) admit anti-chance as Eddington did and see where this leads us (it is still a long way from there to Christianity) or b) rely on the probabalistic resources of an infinite number of unseen and probably unseeable other universes. This is where the matter of our existence stands at the moment. There is genuine parity between theism and materialism in the sense that both rely on the existence of other worlds which can not be proven or disproven by appeals to science. One’s answer to the question has everything to do with one’s a priori assumptions about the nature of the universe. Life is either a miracle or it is an infinitely unlikely accident. Whatever decision we make, it must be made on grounds other than absolute knowledge.

Finally, I want to add my two cents to this topic. It seems to me that the existence of this kind of parity is, in and of itself, suggestive (though again not definitive). The Bible presents God as offering humanity a choice. Again, no scripture quoting in this post, so you’ll just have to trust me on this. From the beginning of the Bible to the end, God is offering people a choice. One might ask why God, if he exists, doesn’t simply write his name in the sky and get it over with. I believe it’s because this, in effect, eliminates freedom. In such a world we might be slaves or pets, but not truly free. In any case, Christianity is easily harmonized with the kind of epistemological parity outlined above.

By contrast, I don’t see any reason why the atheist should expect this situation. In fact, as mentioned briefly above, atheism never has expected it. Materialists, starting with the Greek atomists, have always preferred a static universe which required no further explanation. But again, returning to expectations, if atheism is true we would likely expect that fact to be ultimately and finally demonstrable. If everything really does come down to chance (which as I’ve said is a real possibility), then when we look back in time we should expect to see the coin of reality landing one way or the other, not standing on edge as if awaiting the tiny force of our presuppositions to decide the matter.

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