The Atheist Emperor Has No Clothes?

Author Gil Dodgen, a lifelong atheist, asked some of the same basic questions I’ve been raising lately, and he ultimately drifted into theism:

I was raised an atheist, and was very devout as a kid. I studied astronomy, cosmology, and the origins of the universe. I remember saying to a scientist, “I don’t get it. I read a book that said there was an explosion known as the Big Bang, and that all the laws of physics were fine-tuned to make life possible. Wouldn’t this require design and purpose?” Unfortunately, the response I got was, “Only mindless, uneducated religious fanatics ask that question. It was all an accident. Stop asking stupid questions.” But I wasn’t mindless, uneducated, or a religious fanatic. I was an atheist! A light went off, and I said, “Materialism doesn’t make sense. Design and purpose in the cosmos makes much more sense to me.” And I just gravitated away from atheism.

Hmm.

Am I on the same slippery slope?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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18 Responses to The Atheist Emperor Has No Clothes?

  1. Matt says:

    The scientist in question sounds like a tool.
    Those are, in fact, excellent questions with very non-trivial answers:

    (1) The Big Bang wasn’t an ‘explosion’ in the usual sense of that word, and the term ‘Big Bang’ is unfortunate in that it gives that impression. It just refers to a rapid expansion of materials from a singularity. The accuracy of the ‘Big Bang’ model has been confirmed as we study the physical evidence it left behind in the form of cosmic background radiation, and the images revealed at the edges of the visible universe as our telescopes improve.

    (2) The universe appears fine-tuned because a small change in any given universal constant would make the structure of the universe as we know it impossible. However, that’s a case of looking at the problem backwards. The universe is as it is because the universal constants are as they are. If things were different, then things would be different.

    In the end, apparent design is not indicative of actual design. The late, great Douglas Adams gave the wonderful example of a puddle of water. The little puddle is convinced that the hole it occupies was designed just for it. It must have been. After all, it fits the puddle perfectly!

    The moral of the story is that the universe is what it is. We are just the puddle.

  2. morsec0de says:

    “A light went off, and I said, “Materialism doesn’t make sense”

    Sounds like your friend made an emotional opinion based on a scientist being mean.

  3. But it appears that Dodgen stops his inquiry at a rather arbitrary point.

    There are other choices besides atheism and judeo-christian theism. Thank the Gods.

  4. Heuristics says:

    Matt
    >In the end, apparent design is not indicative of actual design

    What is indicative of actual design?

    The analogy of the puddle of water would work if all possible universes were life supporting (as most holes are puddle-supporting), as it seams now extremely few possible universes are, this is the whole point of the argument.

    • Matt says:

      >What is indicative of actual design?
      Excellent question to which I don’t have an answer. This is precisely what we’re waiting for the proponents of intelligent design to tell us.

      On your second point I’m sorry, but I don’t think I follow you. Why do all possible universes need to be life-supporting?
      Suppose a universe has a 20% chance (I’m just making up a number there) of supporting life, and so about 20% of all possible universes do. Is this not possible?

      • Heuristics says:

        Why wait for the ID folks, is this not what the SETI people have been doing fully uncontroversially for a while now (searching for design)?

        The example has two main flaws, it leads you to first accept that there are multiple universes like there are alternative puddle holes and then it leads you to put a higher percentage to the possibility that the alternative universes are life supporting then the example actually argued for (since the chance of a hole being puddle supporting is near 100%).

        Why should one accept that there are alternative universes, and why would that make our universe less surprising? The universe cannot be time-past infinite (proved by Vilenkin), so if there are multiple universes we would need to have a B-Theory of time for their creation (ie they would all be needeed to be created at once, so theories regarding natural selection for universes do not work). The Boltzman brain scenario makes it clear that if we in fact where to find ourself in a life supporting B-Theory universe part of a multiverse, that universe should not look anything like ours, it should instead be a Boltzman brain universe.

        The chance for a universe being life supporting according to for example the amount of different configurations of string theory would be about 1/(10^500) (ie 0.000..1% with quite a few zeroes instead of the ‘…’, how many zeroes exactly I don’t know, my TI-83 calculator got a buffer overflow trying to calculate it).

  5. santitafarella says:

    Heuristics:

    Your last comment is fascinating. You said: “. . . if there are multiple universes we would need to have a B-Theory of time for their creation (ie they would all be needeed to be created at once, so theories regarding natural selection for universes do not work).”

    I read Lee Smolin’s great book, “The Life of the Cosmos”, back when if first came out (perhaps twelve years ago), and I didn’t know his natural selection idea (with regard to multiple universes) is out of favor. Hmm.

    It seems to me that if you don’t have a plausible multiverse hypothesis, you’ve got to posit some sort of mind before matter to account for the initial order.

    —Santi

    • Heuristics says:

      When I first heard of Smolins idea it blew my mind, to posit a ruleset like natural selection for universes is one of those grand ideas that you just cannot help but love… It has not seamed to work out though. It was found that according to the theory our universe was not optimal at forming new black holes and therefore should not be made more plausible by the theory (ie our universe would be badly-adapted and would be selected against). Also the theory would ultimately have to lead to a single origin (a big-big bang), so you basically just push the design problems of the big bang back a few steps.

      Click to access 0610051v2.pdf


      http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19325853.700-maybe-evolution-didnt-tune-our-universe-after-all.html

      >It seems to me that if you don’t have a plausible multiverse hypothesis, you’ve got to posit some sort of mind before matter to account for the initial order.

      This is an apt observation i think and it is probably why we see so many different multiverse hypothesizes created, there might be some psychological need to escape this conclusion. We will likely see many more of them in the future because of that but at the end of the day these theories all need to play by the rules of science so no need to worry.

  6. Matt says:

    Heuristics,
    No, I don’t think the SETI people are searching for evidence of design. They’re searching for evidence of intelligence. Looking for radio signals from aliens is a little different from finding patterns in nature and claiming they were placed there by a transcendent God.
    On your other point, even if life is insanely unlikely, it doesn’t follow that the multiple-universes theory is wrong. Maybe it’s a one-in-a-gazillion event, but unless you can show there’s an upper limit on the number of possible universes, and it’s less than a gazillion, then in a gazillion universes there’ll likely be one with life, and maybe this is it.
    Once again, you’re looking at the problem backwards. It’s like a lottery. The probability of a particular person winning is vanishingly small, but it’s almost certain that *someone* will win. From the point of view of the universe having life, as unlikely as it may have been, we’re in the one that won.

    • Heuristics says:

      Matt:
      The SETI people are searching for evidence of intelligence in signals. They do this by looking if the signals have been designed by something that can only be intelligent. How would the trademark signature of an intelligent design from an alien differ from an intelligent design by God?

      It does not follow from your revised point that it would be unsurprising that our universe was life supporting, which is what I was arguing against, I was not arguing for the point that the theory of the multiverse is knowably false (it is merely unscientific and not supported by the currently known data, also Valenkins proof puts some serious boundaries for it’s use in these discussions where one would have to be committed to the B-Theory regarding the philosophy of time to make use of the multiverse).

      I am not looking at it backwards, it is you that have the presupposition that the multiverse theory is correct, without having any actual arguments for it. You presuppose that there is a lottery with someone as the winner in the first place. The lottery neglects completely to mention that there is something surprising about there being life at all. Why should there be any universe with life, a universe with emotion? Why should there be any lottery with a winner? A lottery has the clear goal to produce a winner, why would the universe have the clear goal to produce life and emotion?
      If one is to be executed by being shot at by a gazillion men with rifles all loaded with live ammunition one tends to be rather surprised to find that none of the bullets hit their target. One does not simply brush it off with “well, it was bound to happen to someone”. It is quite well rather weird and in need of an explanation (most preferably one with actual arguments in it’s favor).

  7. santitafarella says:

    Heuristics:

    Your gunman example is in Pulp Fiction. At the beginning of the film, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) is missed by some bullets and he realizes it was God sending him a message. Vincent (Travolta) does not believe the evidence, even after Jules points to the bullet holes in the wall that should have hit him.

    Great links, by the way. Thanks for those.

    —Santi

  8. santitafarella says:

    Matt,

    To me, it’s highly significant that Smolin’s version of the multiverse hypothesis does not appear to be panning out (as Heuristics has alerted us to this fact). For me, Smolin’s version of the multiverse hypothesis struck me as most probable. At least I could understand it in conventional terms! I get the idea behind Darwinian selection and optimization. But with that idea on the chopping block, and if other versions of the multiverse hypothesis don’t pan out, would you regard theism as a more plausible option for you? Or would you say: “One universe. Weird coincidences. Lucky us”?

    —Santi

  9. Matt says:

    Santi,
    No, if the multiverse hypothesis turns out to be untenable (which I don’t think it will, ultimately), I still wouldn’t consider theism a plausible option.
    It might, however, be an argument towards a kind of non-interventionist deism.
    To me theism involves an interventionist God, and that requires a whole raft of supporting evidence which just doesn’t exist.

  10. Matt says:

    Heuristics,
    In looking for signals from aliens we’re looking for the kinds of signals we ourselves might send: for example, radio pulses in non-random sequences like the “prime numbers” signal in Sagan’s Contact.
    If we were to find such a thing, it would be evidence of an intelligent, but natural, lifeform, not a God.
    Again, you ask how the signature of an intelligent design from an alien might differ from an intelligent design by a God?
    And again I’ll say, I have no idea. But once again, I’m not the one claiming such a God even exists.
    On the multiverse thing, my argument is merely about the law of large numbers. We don’t know the probability of any particular universe forming life. It might be very likely for all we know!
    The point is that even if we assume the probability is tiny, all that’s necessary for it to happen somewhere is that we have sufficient universes in existence. Simple probability then says it’s almost bound to happen somewhere. No purpose is required to explain it.
    The lottery winner may think he’s been blessed by God too, but that doesn’t make it so.

    • Heuristics says:

      So, when looking for signs of intelligence in the genome, why not look for signs that we ourselves would add if we made life on another planet? The ID people are always very happy to claim that the signs could very well be from aliens. The first test for it that you propose, non-randomness gets passed extremly well. (since you seam to have this confused on the God issue i’ll clarify, I am not arguing for ID here, I am trying to get arguments out of you in the interest of having a discussion).

      >And again I’ll say, I have no idea. But once again, I’m not the one claiming such a God even exists.
      I am arguing against atheism, not for theism! I have made no arguments for theism.

      >We don’t know the probability of any particular universe forming life.
      It is quite possible to simulate the laws of physics with different constants of nature then the ones we have (we already have the formulas for it in physics), it is not at all impossible to check what constants lead to star formation or molecule assembly being possible. The whole point of the multiverse ideas is that the other multiverses vary with regards to the constants since the multiverse idea is a responce to the fine tuning argument and not an argument from actual science. It is an argument from atheistic
      naturalistic metaphysical necessity.

      >The point is that even if we assume the probability is tiny, all that’s necessary for it to happen somewhere is that we have sufficient universes in existence.
      This does not follow from necessity, if the chance is less then 100% then nomatter how large a number of universes you have the instantiation is not guaranteed. Guaranteed instantiation of a life-supporting universe requires an infinite number of universes when the chance is less then 100% of any one universe being life supporting. You would also need to account for how one can have a less then infinite (but more then one) amount of universes on a B-Theory of time.

      >Simple probability then says it’s almost bound to happen somewhere. No purpose is required to explain it.
      It most surely does not! You need to (re)study mathematical statistics. Also, again with the presuppositions, arguments please, not presuppositions.

      >The lottery winner may think he’s been blessed by God too, but that doesn’t make it so.
      None of my arguments are about being blessed.

      • Matt says:

        I don’t believe I’ve said (or implied) anywhere that life is guaranteed. But it doesn’t need to be guaranteed. It just needs to have a non-zero probability.

        And even then, the question is not about the simple probability that life will occur.
        After all, we know that life has definitely occurred.
        Therefore the question is: what is the conditional probability that life arose naturally … given that it arose somehow?

  11. santitafarella says:

    Matt:

    Think of how it would be to bring your reasoning into a courtroom. I suppose that there are forms of the multiverse hypothesis that could cast reasonable doubt upon any allegation directed at a defendant, and certainly an astute lawyer will one day use the “multiverse” defense to cast doubt upon the minds of a jury. You call a physicist to the stand who is willing to testify that there is at least one universe in which the 1 in a billion DNA match with the the defendant exists, and the one that we are in happens to be it. The defendant only appears guilty (just as the universe only appears to be designed).

    I really think that, if the multiverse hypothesis turns out false, that it is extraordinarily difficult for a reasonable person to be a strict one universe materialist.

    What’s most interesting (at least to me) is how far the anthropic principle has pushed the football down the field for theism. Strict materialism, to maintain its coherence, has to literally balloon Vishnu-like into the multiplier of worlds ad infinitum to account for this one world—the one we actually see. And it makes this move for one reason: to maintain it’s blind material-only hypothesis for accounting for all existence. It is a form of promissory materialism.

    —Santi

    • Matt says:

      My problem with this argument is that it assumes the chance of life arising, in some form, in any given universe is inherently unlikely. That’s not necessarily the case. We don’t know how likely or unlikely it is.
      And even if it is unlikely, I don’t see that weakness in the multiverse theory is evidence for theism. First, religion isn’t the default winner just because we don’t know something about the material world. Scientific questioning and advancement tends to grind to a halt when we start thinking like that.
      And second, the most you could get out of that line of reasoning would be a kind of non-interventionist deism, but even that would require rejection of all possible material hypotheses.

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