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Are Humans the Center of the Universe?

May 24, 2015     Time: 25:53
Are Humans the Center of the Universe?


An exchange between two prominent philosophers in the New York Times brings up interesting issues on God, fine-tuning, and cosmology.

Transcript Are Humans the Center of the Universe?


KEVIN HARRIS: We have really enjoyed reading a series in the New York Times, Dr. Craig, from philosopher Gary Gutting of Notre Dame who has interviewed various philosophers on God and science. We are going to look at the final one here where he interviews philosopher Tim Maudlin.[1] I guess Maudlin’s expertise is in cosmology?

DR. CRAIG: Philosophy of science, but broadly speaking, not just cosmology.

KEVIN HARRIS: The interview begins with Gutting asking him, “Could you begin by noting aspects of recent scientific cosmology that are particularly relevant to theological questions?” Maudlin says,

That depends on the given theological account. The biblical account of the origin of the cosmos in Genesis, for example, posits that a god created the physical universe particularly with human beings in mind, and so unsurprisingly placed the Earth at the center of creation.


DR. CRAIG: Yeah, now here Maudlin is apparently under the impression that the early medieval view of the world is the one that is found in the Bible, in Genesis! Of course, Genesis says absolutely nothing about human beings being created at the center of the universe. God certainly had human beings in mind in creating the universe, but Genesis never says that this was all that he had in mind or that the Earth lies at the center of the universe. So Maudlin is clearly importing things into the biblical text here.

KEVIN HARRIS: The fact that Maudlin thinks that that is the biblical account and that you are held to that narrow view really affects his theology, it seems, here.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, he goes on then to do these sort of easy refutations that the Earth is not at the center of the universe according to contemporary cosmology. That is just extremely naïve, it seems to me.

KEVIN HARRIS: In other words, you have this really big universe and the Earth is not the center of it. Gutting goes on to ask him,

I don’t see why the extent of the universe and our nonprivileged spatio-temporal position within it says anything about whether we have some special role in the universe. The major monotheistic religions maintain that there is a special spiritual relationship between us and the creator. But that doesn’t imply that this is the only purpose of the universe or that we’re the only creatures with a special relationship to the creator.


Dr. Gutting kind of sets him straight on that, didn’t he?

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, he really does. Gutting correctly points out that this universe is simply an arena in which the spiritual drama of the Kingdom of God is played out, and that human beings have this special spiritual capacity to know or come to know God. You cannot estimate the importance or the worth of human beings on the basis of their size. A person’s moral worth isn’t measured by how big he is. Also, Gutting points out, I think, that this doesn’t suggest that we are the only creatures in the universe that God might have created with such a special relationship. In Genesis 1 the first verse says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth.” But then with the second verse, the focus dramatically narrows and it says, “And the Earth was without form and void.” The remainder of the chapter is describing God’s creation of a habitable environment on this planet for human beings. But it doesn’t say anything else about what God might have been doing throughout the rest of the universe.

KEVIN HARRIS: We can actually just be brief on this part because the next thing that Maudlin says is, Well, OK, there are different forms of theism; maybe other views. But we still kinda need to know what’s up with this Creator who has us in mind. What’s a personal relationship? Gutting immediately comes back and says, We need to distinguish between sorts of theism. Maudlin says, People who typically hold this hold that God wants a special relationship with us and that we are special people. Gutting says, Maybe you can’t get that conclusion from scientific analysis. We are getting into philosophy, theology here. Maudlin goes on to say about the question of the fine-tuning, We don’t know enough about the constants of nature to tell if they are really fine-tuned. What did you think about that, Bill?

DR. CRAIG: I thought that that was an unjustified skepticism. He is hoping that maybe we might be able to show that the constants of nature are not really constant. But certainly all the evidence we have suggests that there are constants of nature that do fall within an extraordinarily narrow life-permitting range and moreover there are boundary conditions on which the laws of nature operate that are also exquisitely finely tuned in the sense that these quantities have to lie within this tiny life-permitting range.[2] I think the effort to avoid the inference to a designer by just denying the fact of fine-tuning is really pretty unscientific. It is just a hope that maybe somehow this fine-tuning might be abolished. But there is no reason to think so.

KEVIN HARRIS: Yeah, and Maudlin goes on to say,

One thing is for sure: If there were some deity who desired that we know of its existence, there would be simple, clear ways to convey that information. I would say that any theistic argument that starts with the constants of nature cannot end with a deity who is interested in us knowing of its existence.


Gutting once again says, “Once again, that’s assuming we are good judges of how the deity would behave.”

DR. CRAIG: Exactly. It is tremendously presumptuous. Maudlin is saying, If there were a God then he wouldn’t do it this way. He is presuming as a philosopher to put himself in the place of God and say, This isn’t how God would act, which is incredibly presumptuous. I would want to make the point that the fine-tuning of the universe that exists so that life can exist and flourish in this universe isn’t the means by which God reveals himself to humanity. It wasn’t done so that people might come to know God through that. I think it is evidence of God’s existence but the fine-tuning is so that we can exist, not so that we can know God. God has revealed himself in manifold ways – in nature, in preaching of the Gospel, through his Holy Spirit – so that we can know him as a spiritual reality in our lives. It is not as though this fine-tuning which has lain all undiscovered until the late 20th century was somehow the principal means that God had provided for people to know of his existence. That seems to be what Maudlin is saying – that if God existed he would provide some other way of knowing of his existence than just fine-tuning. Well, granted! You can grant that point. So he has provided other ways. But that doesn’t do anything to deny the fact that this fine-tuning which is requisite for our existence is best explained as a result of intelligence rather than, say, chance or physical necessity.

KEVIN HARRIS: Well, Gutting starts to give him a little breathing room here. He says

Once again, that’s assuming we are good judges of how the deity would behave. But suppose that a surprisingly narrow range of the relevant constants turns out to be necessary for humans to exist.


If I stop there, Bill, it seems like he is really aware of these narrow ranges of the initial constants. He is aware of the fine-tuning argument it looks like. He says,

Some critics would say that even so, cosmological inflation would provide a satisfactory explanation with no reference to a creator. What’s your view on that?


DR. CRAIG: Maudlin doesn’t seem to bite at that. He says, “the existence of an inflationary period is still controversial.” He then appeals to the multiverse: there are “many ‘pocket universes’ or ‘bubble universes,’ in each of which the quantities we call “constants of nature” take different, randomly chosen, values.” He says, “Such an account predicts that intelligent creatures would arise in essentially random locations in a huge cosmological structure [or multiverse, or world ensemble].” But then he says, “But this idea is highly speculative, and there is no direct evidence in its favor.” So he doesn’t seem to be very enthusiastic about the multiverse either as an explanation for fine-tuning, and he doesn't at all talk about the problem that Roger Penrose has raised for the multiverse hypothesis as an explanation of fine-tuning, namely that it would be vastly more probable that observers would observe a very tiny patch of order rather than an entire fine-tuned universe if they were just random members of such a world ensemble and therefore our observations highly disconfirm the multiverse hypothesis. Maudlin doesn’t interact with that objection. But he doesn’t seem to have any enthusiasm for the hypothesis in any case.

KEVIN HARRIS: Gutting then asks him, “So is your view that we don’t currently know enough to decide whether or not fine-tuning for human life supports theism?”[3] Maudlin answers,

First, 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. The attempt to put homo sapiens at the center of this discussion is a reflection of our egocentrism, and has no basis at all in the actual structure of the universe.


DR. CRAIG: You know, this is so funny, Kevin, because we encountered exactly this same phrase in someone else’s attempt to detract from the fine-tuning argument by saying in order for cockroaches to exist.

KEVIN HARRIS: They’ve all been on the same website! I’m telling you, Bill!

DR. CRAIG: They must have. The error is the same. Of course, that is right! A cockroach is an incredibly, incomprehensibly complicated biological organism, and in order for it to exist and evolve in the universe the initial conditions of the universe have to be fine-tuned to an incomprehensible delicacy and complexity that could only be explained by intelligent design. But that doesn’t allow you to infer that therefore cockroaches are the purpose for which the universe was created, any more than the fine-tuning of the universe requisite for human life enables you to infer that human beings are the purpose for which the universe was created. Here again we see Maudlin’s slide from saying that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of something to his belief that the universe exists for the purpose of that. Our listeners, I hope, are getting the point the expression “fine-tuned” doesn’t mean “designed for.” Fine-tuning is a neutral term that simply means that the range of parameters required for something to exist is extraordinarily narrow such that if you were to alter those values in any way the object in question could not exist. The question is: what is the best explanation of this fine-tuning? If “fine-tuning” meant “designed” then the argument would be question-begging. What is the best explanation of the design of the universe? Well, design! That would be silly. The expression “fine-tuning” doesn’t mean “designed.” To say the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of human life or the existence of cockroaches is not to say that the purpose of the universe is human beings or cockroaches.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, continuing,

Consider a different hypothesis. Suppose that there is a deity who created the universe with particular attention to the fate of some creatures in a distant galaxy. The very existence of the Earth and the evolution of life on Earth was just an unintended byproduct of setting up the “constants of nature” for the sake of those creatures, not us. That would be a fascinating thing to find out, but not what most people with interests in theism were after. The actual values of the “constants of nature” certainly cannot provide more evidence for their (Genesis-like) hypothesis than for this hypothesis.


DR. CRAIG: See, he is still operating under this fixation that Genesis teaches that man is the purpose of the universe and that we exist at the center of the cosmos, when in fact the Genesis account is Earth-centric. It is not about the universe except verse 1. In verse 2 it describes how God makes the Earth into a habitable place for human beings. He might have been doing something different in Alpha Centauri on planets there. Those persons could also run a fine-tuning argument and they could discover the existence of God just as we could.

KEVIN HARRIS: I didn’t see how this would get around the fine-tuning because you have to account for them.

DR. CRAIG: No, no. It doesn’t do anything. He is fixated on the idea that the universe is supposedly created for the purpose of human beings. He doesn’t like that because we are so tiny and insignificant. That is based upon a false presupposition, but even beyond that there is the point that Gutting made and that is that one’s size doesn’t determine one’s moral worth or spiritual value. Even if we are an insignificant little bit physically of the universe (which we are) that has no impact upon our spiritual worth or moral value.

KEVIN HARRIS: So, are we often guilty of the egocentrism that Maudlin says we are?

DR. CRAIG: I think medievals were. Some were, at least, in thinking that the Earth was at the center of the universe. But they got that from Aristotle, not from the Bible.[4] The idea that the Earth is at the center of the universe is an Aristotelian idea. Even in Aristotle, it wasn’t meant to be an exalted place. Rather, that was the sort of sink of the universe where everything heavy kind of all went down and accumulated. In the Aristotelian cosmos, to be at the center of the universe wasn’t a place of exaltation for the Earth. It was sort of the sink. It was the low point, in a way.

KEVIN HARRIS: Everything would fall in.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, exactly. The medievals had this Aristotelian view of the cosmos with the Earth at the center and then surrounded by the spheres of the planets and the fixed stars. That pre-Copernican cosmology was obliterated with the discovery of the wider universe in which we live.

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, are you distinguishing our physical location in the universe from our spiritual relationship to God?

DR. CRAIG: That is one of the points, yes. That is one of the points that Gutting made. Our spiritual and moral value is independent of how big we are, which is just an obvious point.

KEVIN HARRIS: By the way, this whole thing – it just occurred to me – about suppose that we are here for the benefit of some other creatures in another galaxy or something like that and we are an unintended product – that would be a limited-knowledge God for one thing.

DR. CRAIG: Sure. Right. Nothing is unintended in one sense. What he means is, suppose God fine-tuned the universe in order that sentient life might evolve on a planet in Alpha Centauri. The unintended byproduct of that is that by having those conditions in place other forms of intelligent embodied life could also evolve elsewhere in the cosmos on various planets. And we are one of those. Here we are. We are sort of one of these byproducts of his fine-tuning the universe for the Alpha Centaurians.

KEVIN HARRIS: How are you going to know that? He says it would be pretty interesting to find out, but how in the world would you find that out?

DR. CRAIG: Well, I don’t think that you could find it out. He is just trying to detract from the idea that he thinks the Bible teaches that the entire universe was made with man in mind.

KEVIN HARRIS: See, you got me in science fiction mode thinking about all that.

DR. CRAIG: I want to, I think, emphasize the point that you made. If God has fine-tuned the universe with a view toward the flourishing, evolution, and existence of embodied intelligent life then he might have purposes throughout the cosmos for this sort of life, and none of it would be unintended. It would all be within the providential plan of God for this universe. So if anything, the understanding of modern cosmology ought to expand our concept of God and his greatness. He is not just ruling over the Earth. He is ruling over the entire universe.

KEVIN HARRIS: Gutting says,

Finally, let me ask about what I’ve called causal theism, which merely argues that a creator is needed to explain the very existence of the universe, regardless of its purpose. Some cosmologists, like Lawrence Krauss, have suggested that current physical theory shows how the universe could have emerged from nothing — for example, by a quantum fluctuation. What do you think of this suggestion?


What do you make of Tim’s answer here?

DR. CRAIG: He says,

The more general claim that a creator is needed to explain the very existence of the universe is a much, much weaker claim [I take it from the fine-tuning argument], and is consistent with humanity having had no particular significance at all to the creator.


Again, you see he has got this idea in mind that the universe is created for human beings. So he thinks that this is fine.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says something else that we’ve talked about. He says, OK, you theologians probably have this right. But that is not what most people are after. He says, “That’s why I say that just getting some creator or other is not what most people are after.”

DR. CRAIG: So his objection seems to be that this sort of God or Creator isn’t religiously available or significant. It is not what religious people want in order to have God as an explanation of the universe.


In any case, does there need to be a nonmaterial cause as an explanation for the entire material universe? Causal explanation either goes on forever backward in time or it comes to a stop somewhere. Even people who want to postulate a nonmaterial cause of the material universe often see no need to invoke yet another cause for that nonmaterial cause, and so are content to let the sequence of causal explanations come to an end. But the initial state of the universe (if there is one) could just as well be the uncaused cause.[5] Or if there is no initial state, and the universe goes back infinitely in time, then it can’t have a cause that precedes it in time.


DR. CRAIG: Certainly it is true that if the universe goes back infinitely in time it couldn’t have a temporally prior cause. So versions of the cosmological argument will try to show that the universe cannot go infinitely back in time. But then if you do arrive at the first state of the physical universe, there is a huge difference between saying the universe came into being at that first physical state and saying that there is an eternal immaterial being that is the cause of the universe that never came into being. There is an enormous difference between saying that there is an eternal uncaused immaterial creator of the physical universe and saying that the physical universe just popped into existence uncaused out of absolutely nothing. I think that the former alternative is vastly more plausible than the latter.

KEVIN HARRIS: He defends Krauss here, as well, it looks like. He says,

Krauss does not suggest that the universe came to exist “from nothing” in the sense of “did not come from anything at all,” but rather that it came from a quantum vacuum state.


Did you get that from Krauss, as well? That it all came from a quantum vacuum state which is not nothing.

DR. CRAIG: Or from quantum fields. It is clear that Krauss is really talking about something, but he misuses the language of “nothing” to describe these physical systems. It is very much a distortion of science.

KEVIN HARRIS: Gutting says,

You obviously don’t see scientific cosmology as supporting any case for theism. You also think that it refutes theistic religions’ claiming that the primary purpose of God’s creation is the existence of human beings. What, finally, is your view about the minimal theistic view that the universe was created by an intelligent being (regardless of its purpose). Does scientific cosmology support the atheistic position that there is no such creator or does it leave us with the agnostic judgment that there isn’t sufficient evidence to say?


Maudlin says, “Atheism is the default position in any scientific inquiry, just as a-quarkism or a-neutrinoism was.” Let’s stop there. Is atheism the default?

DR. CRAIG: No, I think that is clearly wrong. When you are doing metaphysics and you are asking, “Is there a creator of the universe?” if there isn’t sufficient evidence you would just say we don’t have any evidence that there is such a creator. I disagree with that because what Maudlin just continues to object to is the idea of a causal designer of the universe who created the universe with man at its center and with man in view as the purpose for the universe. Gutting’s question says, Doesn’t scientific cosmology simply support this minimal idea that the universe was created by an intelligent being regardless of its purpose? Although Maudlin says no, I think to the contrary that it does support that sort of position. If Maudlin thinks that there is no such being he owes us some sort of an argument for it.


As yet, there is no direct experimental evidence of a deity, and in order for the postulation of a deity to play an explanatory role there would have to be a lot of detail about how it would act. If, as you have suggested, we are not “good judges of how the deity would behave,” then such an unknown and unpredictable deity cannot provide good explanatory grounds for any phenomenon. The problem with the “minimal view” 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.


DR. CRAIG: It seems to me that the cosmological argument gives you good grounds for thinking that there has to be causally sufficient conditions for the universe to come into existence. You are going to be able to deduce a good deal about this deity on the basis of its role as a transcendent creator of the universe. Then the fine-tuning argument will show that this is an intelligent designer. Here Robin Collins’ work on fine-tuning could come into play where Collins talks about the discoverability of the universe as well. The universe is fine-tuned not only for our existence but for its discoverability. That would suggest that God would want rational creatures, whether man or other creatures throughout the universe, to be able to discover the universe and explore it scientifically and find out what it is like. So that would flesh out a bit some of the reasons for which the designer might have made this cosmos. Then, in addition to that, of course we have divine revelation. We are not basing our beliefs about God simply upon natural theology. We have divine revelation. What we can say is that the evidence of philosophy and cosmology provides good confirmation of this view that we hold on quite independent grounds.[6]