Sunday, June 17, 2007

Faith, Reason and Science, Part III: Francis Collins and the Anthropic Principle

In a previous post, I noted that Francis Collins, like C.S. Lewis before him, relied on the so-called "moral code" as a basis for belief in God. I concluded that I thought that this argument was dangerously close to the "God of the Gaps" fallacy because it depended on a lack of an evolutionary explanation for the apparent innateness of a moral language in humans. While I was not convinced by the current arguments on the evolutionary basis for such altruism, I also could not discount the possibility that one might ultimately be developed--particularly given that group selection might operate effectively in such a social animal as human beings.

Francis Collins also made another argument in his book, The Language of God that I will explore in this post. I think that the best summary of Collins' argument is actually from a fairly critical, but thoughtful review by David P. Barash, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington :

Collins is more persuasive, although certainly not original, when trotting out the anthropic principle, the argument that the universe is tuned to bring about life in general and human life in particular. There are a number of physical constants and laws such that if any had been even slightly different, life might well have been impossible. For example, for roughly every billion quarks and antiquarks, there is an excess of one quark — otherwise, no matter. If the rate of expansion immediately after the Big Bang had been a tiny fraction less than it was, the universe would have recollapsed long ago. If the strong nuclear forces holding atomic nuclei together had been a smidgen weaker, then only hydrogen would exist; if a hair stronger, all hydrogen would promptly have become helium, and the solar furnaces inside stars, which we can thank for the heavier elements, would never have existed.

So, what do we make of this argument? A few observations are in order. First, Collins is quite correct that there are a series of events in the formation of the universe, as well as a series of fundamental physical values, that if "set" at another value or direction, would make life impossible in the universe. there are about fifteen physical constants that are not set by any theory, but rather just are what they are.

Second, as many have observed before (including Collins!), in some sense this is a circular argument--if these constants had been different, we would not be here to ask questions about why this is so. We therefore need to look at a variety of explanations for why this is the case. Fortunately, a great deal of thought has been given to exploring this problem, which is known as the anthropic principle. As Collins notes (with some elaboration by me) , possible explanations include:

1. There may be an infinite number of universes, each with its own physical constants, and we happen to live by random chance in one that supports life. This is the "multiverse hypothesis". One variant on this option is Lee Smolin's model of cosmological
natural selection
, also known as fecund universes, which proposes that universes have "offspring" which are more plentiful if they happen to have features common to our universe.

2. There is only one universe, but there is an underlying unifying theory that will offer a full explanation for the nature of our universe--we just have not yet developed this theory.

3. There is only one universe that happens to support life with no Creator involved.

4. There is only one universe that was designed by a creator to support life.

So what do we make of this argument? With the exception of the second option--which posits that there there may someday be a scientific explanation for the state of the universe, the choice among these options cannot be determined by science (i.e., by factual evidence). Instead, one can only select from the remaining three options by making what is essentially a philosophical choice. And, many scientists believe that it is highly unlikely that the second option is viable. They predict that developments in physics will show that early phase transitions in the universe occur probabilistically rather than deterministically (so there will not be a physical reason for the values of fundamental constants) As such, it appears that we do not have a "God of the Gaps" problem.

So we are left (at least now) with a theological or philosophical choice. The agnostic option is to refuse to choose--the answer cannot be determined by scientific evidence, and therefore it a choice that should not be made. I think, however, that one can make a rational case that the "creator" option makes the most rational sense--given the extremely low probability of a universe that just happens to support intelligent life, one can conclude that the most rational option is a Creator. And while a multiverse universe is an option, it violates Occam's Razor--it requires a far more complicated solution than a creator.

Is this a proof of God? Of course not. But it does suggest that, at root, the decision to believe in a creator is not an irrational one.

Finally, one final point is in order. This argument may justify the reasonableness of a faith that there is a creator, but it cannot be used to justify faith in a god with particular characteristics--such as the God that Christians worship. And an exploration of the rationality of a belief in that God must therefore be the subject of future posts.


    Ryan said...

    Is the multiverse universe option really more complicated than a creator?

    The option of creator is incredibly complex. Where did this creator come from? Why assume only one creator and not ten? A "why" question can be asked at almost every step of the way.

    I am not trying to show that the multiverse option is best – I just find that your argument that the multiverse option is more complicated than a Creator is not supported or argued in your post. Instead the argument is just stated as a fact, which it is not.

    Anonymous said...

    Your rational in choosing to believe in a creator is flawed. Why is a creator more probable than a universe that just happens to support life? There have been estimates that there are about 100 billion galaxies in the universe, and between 1 and 30 billion planets per galaxy. That means there are between 100 billion billion and 3000 billion billion planets in the universe. If the chances of life were only 1 in a billion (very very long odds), there would still be 3000 billion planets with a chance to support some form of life.

    The best part is, we know absolutely for sure, without any doubt whatsoever, that at least one of those 3000 billion planets supports life; ours! It seems far more reasonable than some benevolent deity creating all those heavenly bodies. Then where did the Creator come from? Who created Him? (answering He has always been is not allowed, it is a cop-out).


    Chris G said...

    I also find the idea that a creator is a simpler solution that a multiverse. It might be *easier* to think that there is a creator, after all if that creator is omnipotent then that just takes care of everything. No need to explain how or why, it can just do everything.

    What's if we applied that logic elsewhere in our lives though? For example, why did a hurriance strike a particular place at that particular time? The chances of it happening must be astronomical. But it did happen, so how? Assuming we didn't understand the science behind it, it would be much simpler to say God did it. Easy. Much simpler than trying to understand water vapor, sea surface temperature, rainfall, and wind shear. But of course that's just a cop-out and we know that because we understand the weather well enough to explain why it happened.

    The same is true for the creation of the universe, although it might take longer for us to understand it, or maybe we will never understand it, but certainly there is no basis to assume that there is a creator.

    I do, however, accept that it's *a* possibility, however small that possibility is. Maybe, just maybe, there is a creator. Assuming that's the case, then maybe, just maybe, that creator resembles the god in one or more religions. Even if that tiny possibility was true, how likely is it that the details of the bible or koran are actually correct? One of them could be correct, by pure chance, but that possibility is so small it's not even worth thinking about.

    What I don't understand, given all that, is how people can devote themselves to any particular religion. At best I could understand people believing that there may be a creator, but taking it any further to the level of detail that most religions do is just *not* logical or rational at all.

    I believe that deep down, most religious people, apart from maybe the extremely fanatical, don't really believe what they say they believe. If, for example, people really believed they went to heaven to be with god when they died, why do people mourn the death of their loved ones? Surely it would be a happy time, would it not? Maybe some tears of joy, tinged with sadness, akin to someone leaving to live in a different country maybe, but not the out-and-out pain and sorrow that most people feel. I know if *I* truly believed in heaven, death would be a Good Thing(tm).

    Chris G said...

    Sorry, first line of my comment should read:

    "I also find the idea that a creator is a simpler solution that a multiverse to be incorrect."