(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, June 25, 2014)
I would like to briefly summarize and then comment on the June 15, 2014 New York Times interview of philosopher Tim Maudlin (M) by the philosopher Gary Gutting (G)entitled “Modern Cosmology Versus God’s Creation.” Here is an abridged version of that conversation.
G – “Could you begin by noting aspects of recent scientific cosmology that are particularly relevant to theological questions?”
M – It depends on the theological account. Modern cosmology refutes the Biblical account of an earth at the center of creation–the universe is vast and we are not at its center.
G – Just because the universe is big and we aren’t at the center doesn’t mean we can’t have a spiritual relationship with our god. Besides, there may be other purposes for the universe or other creatures with relationships with our god.
M – Humans may or may not have an important role in the universe, or perhaps the universe doesn’t care about any beings. But accounts that make us the main purpose of the creation seem contrary to have the evidence.
G – Biblical literalism is inconsistent with cosmology but other versions of theism–like the belief that an intelligent being created the cosmos–are not refuted by modern cosmology.
M – Traditional theism doesn’t just say some being created the universe, but that it was created with us in mind. The evidence of the huge structure of the cosmos, with most of it irrelevant to life, our location in that universe and the eons of time necessary for evolution belie the claim that it was created for us.
G- Perhaps, but we don’t know what a creator wants. Maybe the creator made a huge universe for us to study. Also what do you think about fine tuning–the idea that the constants, parameters and laws of nature are seemingly perfect for life?
M – We don’t know what these constants are, or if they are even constant, so we can’t say much about them from a scientific point of view. But if a deity wants us to know of its existence there would be easier ways to let us know.
G – That assumes we know how deities behave. But I’ll admit that we might explain the constants scientifically.
M- Yes. For example if there are an infinite number of universes then life would probably evolve somewhere.
G – So we don’t know if fine-tuning for human life supports theism?
M – ” … note how “humans” got put into that question! If there were any argument like this to be made, it would go through equally well for cockroaches. They, too, can only exist in certain physical conditions.” Imagine a deity who created the universe with us as an unintended byproduct of nature’s constants. This is as plausible a hypothesis for the constants of nature as the Biblical hypothesis that the cosmos was made for us.
G – What about the idea we need a creator to explain the existence of the universe? And what about the view of some cosmologists, like Lawrence Krauss, that a quantum fluctuation could have produced something from nothing?
M – People want more than a creator as an explanation, they want to be significant in the creation. Also a nonmaterial cause must either be explained by something else–in which case its not the ultimate cause–or it explains itself–in which case we might as well say the cosmos is its own cause as a god is. And if the universe is infinite then it didn’t have a cause at all. As for Krauss, he thinks the quantum vacuum state is where causation ends but I don’t think we can answer these questions definitively.
G – So scientific cosmology doesn’t support theism, and it refutes the claim that we are the primary purpose of god’s creation. Still would you grant the minimal claim “that the universe was created by an intelligent being” as at least reasonable, or does science support atheism or agnosticism?M – “Atheism is the default position in any scientific inquiry, just as a-quarkism or a-neutrinoism was. That is, any entity has to earn its admission into a scientific account either via direct evidence for its existence or because it plays some fundamental explanatory role.” The main problem with a minimalist account is “that in trying to be as vague as possible about the nature and motivation of the deity, the hypothesis loses any explanatory force, and so cannot be admitted on scientific grounds. Of course, as the example of quarks and neutrinos shows, scientific accounts change in response to new data and new theory. The default position can be overcome.”
Commentary – The more specifically we define the gods, the less likely they are to be real on mere probabilistic grounds. The more vague we are about them, the less we say when we talk about them. If good scientific evidence for the gods appears, then we should give belief in them our provisional assent. Until such time we should not believe in them. Let me conclude by quoting my previous post.
Still people will find their gods hiding in the gaps of quantum or cosmological theories, or in dark matter or energy. If you are determined to believe something it is hard to change your mind. But defenders of the gods fight a rearguard action–scientific knowledge is relentless–and these hidden gods are nothing like the traditional ones. Those gods are dead.
And as science closes the gaps in our knowledge the gods will recede further and further into the recesses of infinite space and time until they vanish altogether, slowly blown away, not by cosmic winds, but by ever encroaching thought.